Saturday, October 28, 2006

Messages to be Shared

Messages in a lively Quaker meeting often have threads. Life has threads, the blogosphere has threads, and some of them have been flowing my way lately.

Richard M, at A Place to Stand wrote a recent post on the importance of eldering, in the sense of nurturing gifts when, like volunteer seedlings in a garden, they crop up unexpectedly. Though I'm not 100% sure I agree with everything he had to say (for instance, I question whether a lack of positive feedback from elders at meeting regarding spoken ministry can be taken as meaning that the messages we gave were not right to be shared. I think that there are a lot of indicators of good vocal ministry, and that feedback from elders is only one of them) I did really like the post. He writes that good spoken ministry will "resonate with what is going on within some of the Friends listening."

I think that's so. So I was heartened to read, in a recent comment from Plain Foolish, that my post on Grace had spoken to her (him?), and when I bopped on over to Plain's blog, I found the thread continuing on, the way a message sometimes will begin with one person and then be carried with another. Plain Foolish writes, "one day, as I sat in church, not praying, not doing anything in particular, just sitting there thinking whatever thoughts chose to show up, I felt as though a little light had lit up inside me. That light seemed to say that the way to see the face of God was to look, that I wouldn't see it if I weren't looking... ...My experience of that light hasn't been tied to one religion or anything that easy to pin down. All I can do, I think, is say what my experience of it has been. At times, it's been like an aching love for other people - both people I've known all my life, and people I met for an afternoon, or even just smiled at on the street."

There's more. I'll fight the temptation to reprint the whole entry--though I do urge you to read it for yourself.

I'm reminded of Gus DiZerega's really powerful account of his first direct experience with the Goddess, at his first-ever Wiccan circle:
"As the invocation came to an end I was suddenly enveloped in a presence of incredible power, beauty, and love. While nothing was visible to my eyes, the closeness of that presence was palpable. There was a sense of nature, of forests and streams and meadows. At the same time, there was a pervading sense of beauty beyond words, power beyond imagining, and love beyond conception... In those brief moments within Her presence, I realized that I had never really understood what love was, never deeply comprehended compassion, never truly grasped what acceptance meant... ... it was akin to seeing the light of the sun after having lived in darkness illuminated by candles." (_Pagans & Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience_ p. 55)

I'm not quoting Gus to say that all religions are the same. But I do think that there's something out there that an awful lot of different religions are trying to touch on, and that's far too large to fit neatly inside any particular set of definitions. I am increasingly content to admit I'm unsure what that reality is, or how it fits into the ideas I have about life, the universe, and everything.

However, I'm not content at all to relegate experiences like this to the status of nifty memories and stories. As Plain Foolish puts it, the way to see the face of God is to look, and we wont see it if we don't look. There's more to understand.

And, if the threaded messages I'm living this week are any clue, the "more" can be quite specific and concrete.

At the Ministry and Worship meeting this week, we were discussing one of a number of situations that are an ongoing area of work in our meeting. And, as always when our discussions touch on so many Quaker procedural matters that I have only ever read about once, in passing, in a handbook (if that) I have a wierd, out-of-joint feeling about the discussions. It's as if the conversation were time-lagged from outer space, and I had to listen across odd, out-of-synch gaps in meaning... or, as I remarked at the time, like trying to read in Spanish, a language I once understood slightly, but that is slipping away from me year by year. I understand most of the words--but I can't help but feel a sense of how much I am missing.

In the middle of my chronic confusion, sitting and attempting to listen spiritually as well as with my ears (If I can't contribute knowledge and experience, I feel that the least I should do is work at _really_ listening), I had a brief, sharp flash of light--almost like the pop of an old-fashioned flash bulb. And I had an idea that I _thought_ made sense, though, ignorant as I am of so much Quaker process, I couldn't be sure my idea wasn't either a) obvious and not useful, or b) incredibly foolish and impossible.

But I trusted us. I admitted I didn't know for sure I understood all I should, but I offered the idea anyway. And immediately, I could see in the eyes of the other members of the committee that it _was_a useful insight. I was excited. _They_ had been excited by the idea.

OK. Not huge. But that the group of elders I was sitting with (you know--I really _like_ that group of people!) picked up the thread.

When messages resonate--that _is_ one of the signs that you're listening is on track. And the listening--the _hearing_ what is next--that's one of the points of this whole thing.

I'm pretty sure.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Grace

So.

The thought/message that came to me in MFW this week (it didn't rise to vocal ministry, but it had that SMACK-into-the-baseball-glove feeling of a message at the time) came up something like this.

As I was centering into worship, one of our members, a mom whose warmth and integrity I really admire, came into the meeting room. As she crossed to her bench, I noticed how lovely she was--regal, almost. And I felt a sudden fierce tenderness toward her (if that makes sense) that made me so glad: glad she was there, glad I was, glad she is a kind and caring human... I don't know. Just... glad.

And it came to me that, when I look at _you_ and I see God, that is grace.

When I look at you and see God.
That is grace.

(Pagans distressed by my terminology, see the comment below.)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Faithfulness

I keep thinking the word, "faithfulness," and thinking about it. It's a running theme in my head, in meeting for worship, but also at other times. For instance, in the second of the Lord of the Rings movies, there is a scene in which Gondor has just come under attack. Hundreds of years have passed since Gondor and their old allies, the Rohirrim, have had any meaningful contact, and Theoden, the King of Rohan has just barely survived a catastrophic invasion, with no help from Gondor.

The scene begins with a fire kindled in a watchtower in Gondor, signalling for aid... and the camera pans over mountain after mountain, rushing over snow and rocky summits, so we see fire after fire lit, on distant peaks, as one after another, men set to keep watch see the signal, and respond.

Finally the signal reaches Theoden's citadel, and Aragorn, who has been trying to persuade Theoden to answer Gondor's appeal when it comes, rushes into his hall, taking two immense stone steps at a time in his haste. He throws open the doors, and cries out,"Gondor calls for aid!" and there is a long, pregnant pause. Theoden is a King. He has been ignored in his own hour of need. Will he stay true to the old alliance, or no? And then, visibly making up his mind, he calls back--"And Rohan will answer!" And since Viggo Mortensen and Bernard Hill are breathtaking actors, the scene is incredibly potent.

But.

The part that makes me cry, _always_ chokes me up, is the visual of the distant watchfires being lit, one by one, on peak after lonely peak.

I think of what that implies. Hundreds of years of men and women making sure that there is always dry wood, dry kindling. Keeping watch at all hours and in all weathers, for a signal that never comes, a need that never rises.

Until, one day, it does. And they are there.

I love Viggo Mortensen and Bernard Hill, and I love their characters. But in that scene, the heroes are never on camera. Which is why I love it. Because _that_ is faithfulness. In daily life, too.

Faithfulness is this idea, this _ideal_ that is more and more alive for me these last few months. It is the faithfulness of Friends I saw deliver important messages at Yearly meeting that moves me, even more than the messages do. The purity of intent... the openness... the determination in the waiting. I feel such love for those I see practicing this. I think that maybe, more than anything else, it is this faithfulness that creates that Light I see in the eyes of our "facing bench". Where does that ability come from?

Today, in meeting, I found myself thinking about my dog, Jeffrey. Jeffrey is a pound dog. And the hard thing about bringing a dog home from the pound is that you can bring only one, and must leave so many behind. So you think carefully about what it is you're looking for in a dog. Jeffrey was responsive--more than any of the other dogs, he was sensitive to my movements and my vocal tones. He watched me to see what I wanted of him, where I was going next. He's still that way--his eyes meet mine when I look at him, follow me when I move... This dog lives for the chance to respond to us.

He is faithful.

Dogs don't have such a good rep. Doggish faithfulness is seen as fawning, and we humans look down on submissiveness. And, well, OK--I will admit that doggy breath and doggy hygiene are not things to boast about. But still...

I would be God's dog. I would go for that. That's a good way to be, I think. I'm gonna leave the whole question of what I mean by "God" (or "Gods") for another day--those questions are too big for me. But I'm going to try to remember my dog's wisdom, as a way of staying "low down to the Truth" of faithfulness. I'm going to try to remember the importance of little acts of faithfulness--the kindling and dry wood, without which there is nothing--stuff like keeping promises to my students even though I am sick of grading essays, or cleaning out the bathtub because Peter is feeling down about how out of control the day-to-day of life is. All that minor stuff, that isn't really minor at all, because it's how life gets done.

Hm. I was gonna write more. Had some stuff come to me in meeting on the topic of Grace, too, that I think is worth writing down. But not now. Peter spent a chunk of the morning writing the latest chapter in our fantasy epic, and I promised to listen to him read. So, in the spirit of faithfulness, that's what I'm going to do now.

Blessed be, everybody. And good night.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Really Excellent Pagan Blog!

It has been a complaint of mine for quite some time how few really wonderful, spiritually reflective Pagan blogs I have found. There are good Pagan travelogues, news and political commentaries, podcasts and so forth... but very, very few blogs that discuss personal spiritual experiences in real depth.

So I'm so happy to have found Diane Sylvan's Dancing Down the Moon. What a terrific blog! Some of her entries, like her most recent, where she explains "Why the Rest of the World Thinks We're Wierd" are funny, but others, like her discussion of why her altar is arranged as it is, or the poetry she features, are really resonant for me.

Here's an excerpt from a recent poem:

"In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,

"I will honor all life--
wherever and in whatever
form it may dwell--
on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars."

Definately one to add not just to my own personal blogroll, but to the permanent links on this blog. I've seen her book somewhere or other--_The Circle Within_, I mean; she has written others--but not yet read it. I'm going to have to go looking for it now...

Hooray! Another Pagan writer with some depth!

A Comment From Chef Michael

The following is the text of a comment left by Michael H---, beloved chef at the retreat center where our Nameless Group has met for many years. It's posted here rather than as a comment so that I could edit out personal identifying information, and with the permission of Michael himself. I think it's important to share this, both because Michael is so loved by the members of the community (Stop blushing, Michael! It's just the truth...) and because, on the day that all people of faith have hearts as open to one another as Michael manages to have, whatever Spirit or Spirits there are that love the world and the men and women in it will be glad, and the human race will be very close to learning how to live in peace with one another...

This was the first year Michael stayed (after a _long_ hard day of work, too) to attend our main ritual, a harvest blessing. We were so moved that he was there... Michael is a deacon in his Lutheran Church, and a man who takes his spiritual life very, very seriously, clearly working to walk his talk. There's a reason he means the world to us...


Anyway, this is what he wrote:

Chef Michael has left a new comment on your post "From the Greenwood":

Dear Cat and Peter,
As I do not have an e-mail address for you, please see this as communication of sorts rather than a comment on your recent blog entry.

Thanks for your web site card I have read the entire site.

Thanks for being true friends over the years that you have been coming here. I really apprieciate the fact that you both were really interested in hearing my story about the past year. My wish for next year is that I have time for you to share your year with me. if it is possible I would like to e-mail with you both as I feel that what I experienced at the circle/ritual needs to be explored and from what I read on the web site you may the people that I could share with.

I can be reached at m---@----
I wished that I had thought to look up the site before We had our weekly management meeting on Thursday. Word got out around that I had attended the ritual and that I had worn a kilt most of the weekend. Tim took pictures so there was no denying it. It was not a problem, but my boss was inquisitive about what went on. I did not share much, other than it was very low keyed and very humbling to be there. He was very interested in what went on during the day. I tried to explain that cooking for 130 people left little time for me to get to any presentations. sometime I think he thinks that I just say a prayer (spell?) and the food miraculously appears. I did share that your group is really tied to this place and many were happy that the relationship would be able to continue. I did talk to the soon-to-be new owners and they assured me that they do not want to lose any business that exists now. There is no reason to be concerned about my boss as I think he was just inquisitive.

Some one from your group asked what I thought of the ritual. Can't remember names to save my life. Anyway I responded by saying I found it very interesting and that the passing of the corn bread and mead and the blessing of"may you never hunger or thirst' Struck a cord so deep that it surprised me. He wondered if it upset my sensibilities. He then said that everyone knew I was tolerant but was really wondering if it made me uncomfortable. I tried to respond by asking how he felt about what had gone on and if he were comfortable with it. He said yea and I said that I was glad that I was there.

I seem to be rambling and beg forgiveness. Your blog gave me insight into the other world that surrounds the kitchen. The goings on that are the real reason you gather. It also gave me insight to your group and why I feel increasingly drawn to it. There were two comments on the evaluations that I would like to share and then I will say good bye for now. First there was one that said I was very important to the Nameless Gathering and that I should be kept happy. It then went on to say 'that when Michael dies he should be stuffed and propped up in a corner of the dining room.:) The second said that a spiritual connection with me had been made by some over the years. This touched me very deeply.

I enjoyed your blog very much.
I hope that you are both well.

Blessings
Michael H---

Sunday, October 08, 2006

From the Greenwood

We live in a strange and lovely world...

I am typing these words from my laptop, sitting outside the tent we're sleeping in in the middle of a hemlock wood in the Catskill Mountains. Let me describe the scene for you. I hear the soft, sweet soughing of the wind in the leaves over my head, a late-summer cicada very slowly marking time, distant shrilling of frogs, and a thread of flute music drifting in from across the stream very much like the leaves that are drifting down from the canopy over my head. I look around me and I see two... no, three other tents, a high, savagely grey ledge of stone, carpeted over with fallen leaves, and the stained-glass contrasts of yellow maples and hornbeams punctuated by green-black hemlock trees. Beside me is a rotted stump that is as textured and intricately carved as a Georgia O'Keefe skull...

The last of the afternoon sun is slanting through the forest giants atop the ridge, and I can see that same sun warming the sides and roofs of the cabins across the pond. Sounds of a bodhran that come and go, of a pickup basketball game, morris dancing, and laughter...

This is the setting from which I write today.

I am at an annual Pagan retreat which will remain nameless here, because it is a closed retreat. Unless you know someone who invites you, you will never hear of this one, not because we are such special people that we don't want to know you, but because we are a committed community of "dirt-worshipping tree huggers" (as the bumper-sticker says) and we know that there really are no shortcuts to creating community. We know each other. We watch each other's kids grow up (lots of people have been eager for news of mine, who is not in attendance here this year) and we look out for one another, stay in touch with one another, mourn with one another at need, and celebrate each other's triumphs when we can. We're not open to the public for the same reason a family is not: because that's just now how this kind of human connection works (though we'll be delighted should you meet one of us, fall in love, and "marry in", metaphorically speaking.)

There are about 150 of us here this year. The weather is amazing, and the mood is friendly and warm.

Wandering around the grounds today, skirting the edges of at least one Maidening ritual, a dance tutorial, a workshop on Hindu deities, and any number of intimate conversations, I found myself thinking that this is how I like to think of us in the Pagan movement.

Peter and I have been doing Quaker-Pagan MFW each morning--sparsely attended this year, in comparison to some, but having met Quakers who show up and keep meetings running week after week with only three or four attendees at times, I find I don't at all mind it. I like to think that keeping the space available for those who need it, when they need it--that just knowing it's there, never mind someone starting the day holding the retreat in worship--that that's enough. Usually, since it's such a small group, it tends to be pretty quiet. Today, though, Joan was with us up the hill at the pavilion, and first I, then Peter, and then Joan had a message. Hers comes back to me now. She said she thinks about world events since 9/11, including recently the school shootings, and it seems to her that evil, human evil, is out and about in the world, and needs to be challenged. This is a somewhat remarkable thing for a Pagan to say--officially, we don't have much use for the concept of evil as it's own force. But what she said next, about hoping that both she as an individual, and we as a religious community, needing to be present and active, to stave off a sense of the human world being "rotten at the root" felt important to me. As it did after meeting, when Joan said she hopes that we Pagans are accomplishing more than entertaining ourselves, dressing up and playing together. And I knew just what she meant. There it is again: that need to balance the inward, spiritual experiences and the outward, active, acting in the world part of life.

I think that here, at this particular Pagan gathering, we're cultivating human connection first. There is a sacrality to community. It's slow, and it's not marketable or easy to package and distribute, and, by itself, it isn't clear how it will change the world. But I think that changing how humans relate to one another is going to be the key to how we find our way out of the messes we've made on the planet... Learning to live in community, including all the ugly bits: finding a way to reach out to (or at least tolerate) people who have (inevitably) hurt us in the past... finding a way to deepen spiritually even when the person next to us is getting, well, frankly, silly and self-promoting, as certainly does happen.

Pagans generally shape their beliefs around a central testimony (to use the Quakerese) of earth-stewardship... though I think we are, as a movement, rather less good at actually _living_ according to those lights than Quakers are at living out our peace testimony.

But for myself, despite my love for woods and the non-human world, and despite the near-physical force with which the peace testimony propelled me into Quaker meeting, it's human connection on the most personal level that seems to be my own core testimony.

My most powerful worship experiences over the last few years, in the Quaker world and the Pagan one, have been mostly about connecting with--through?--other humans. The worship sharing Peter and I set up today, on the subject of connecting with Spirit, brought me to that deep, bright-lit place for the first time this weekend. I had been fighting off a certain sadness, a feeling that I was no longer able to connect fully to Pagan people and Pagan ritual. And it's true that ritual doesn't generally do much for me any more. But when others spoke from the heart about their deep truths, well, just as happens in Quaker meeting, suddenly I wasn't striving to get to a place of connection with Spirit. I was just there.

My path has been a strange one. It has wound through lots of varied landscapes: Wicca, Paganism, the Quakers, and just plain folks. I have a sense that I'm standing where I need to be at the moment. It's a bit frustrating that I can't really express how to get here, to another person. I could teach you how to be a Witch. I'm beginning to be able to teach (a little) how to be Quaker, or at least what that means. But I have no recipe for becoming whatever it is that I am. I'm a little bit different than anyone else, including even Peter, who at least shares my ritual vocabulary.

But perhaps, when we get where we're supposed to be, each of us, we find ourselves on the Path With No Name, learning what can't be taught, because it's just for us.

Hmph. I may be maundering. It's so hard to rely on words to try to communicate the Big Stuff.

But I will say that it is a priviledge and a joy, to be sitting here in the gathering chill, in a hemlock forest in October, surrounded by people who, silly or wise, grumpy or serene, are a People to each other and to me. I am quietly, happily grateful.

This has been a good retreat, even if I do have wait till next year to try the morris dancing myself...


Afterward:
Chef Michael, known and loved to all of us at the nameless gathering, added his comments; I've given them their own post, which you can read here.

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