More than anything, as a writer, I seem to be driven to find words for things for which I have no words. (To "eff" the ineffable, as I sometimes think of it to myself.) And words for the experience of Spirit are the hardest to find of any.
Pagans have a real poverty of writings on the subject of experienced religion, in spite of our immersion in it. Quakers have more, but it is all very hard for me to access, since most of it is couched in Christian terminology, and draws on the Bible to an extent that I find very tough sledding. Still, from time to time a nugget of gold shows up--a few words that convey something of what it is to live a spiritual experience--and that keeps me hungry and seeking both words of my own, and words from others.
It helps to be present when the words are spoken. If I had not been present for the Lloyd Lee Wilson address, "Holy Surrender," I probably would have found the title alone alienating enough that I would not have read further in it. But since I was in the room as he delivered the address, I had a enough of a sense of spiritual rootedness and integrity that I was able to trust him, and listen deeply. Much of what he has to say means a good deal to me, though I do have to wade through an awful lot of (for me) difficult terminology to hear it.
The reward is that I can move past the concerns--deep concerns--Pagans tend to have around Christian language of sacrifice and humility (which we perceive are often stalking horses for a kind of false humility that abases itself before "God," only to openly or covertly sit in judgement upon others). So I can read again Wilson's words, and have a fresh experience, not one tainted by my previous experiences with "Kristians with a K," as my daughter calls them.
Wilson writes, "What does bring me peace is surrender: a relationship rather than a set of behaviors. One can be obedient at arm's length, as it were--but surrender places us in an intimate relationship with our Creator. When I give up to God, when that relationship in all its grace and mercy shapes my life, there is a peace that passes beyond all understanding or describing."
The whole motif of surrender and obedience is not one calculated to appeal to most Pagans. As a group, we object to notions that imply parking our brains at the door of the temple, like "surrender," and are not apt to give any deity unquestioning "obedience."
Which is a good thing--most Pagan deities are _not_ considered by us to be all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-wise. A personal aphorism of my own is that "we are responsible for the gods we choose to worship," which could also be expressed as a parallel to the sensible shaman's adage that, "just because they're dead, doesn't mean they're smart;" just because something is a god doesn't mean it's always "good" from a human point of view. Not only do Pagans worship powers of nature, but thinking Pagans do so with our wits about us. Surely there is a god of earthquakes, of volcanos, of typhoons. This doesn't mean that invoking such a being is always a Good Plan, however much a part of the natural balance He or She may be. So Pagans typically approach our religious experiences with eyes, as well as minds, open and alert. We're not comfortable with anything that smacks of submission.
But there's more to Wilson's words than the tripwires for Pagan discomfort, and, though they do not speak to my condition entirely, they do touch on something I've touched.
Wilson talks about surrender and obedience. In other places, he talks about the relationship of a worshipper to God and to a gathered spiritual community as that of a servant to a master--again, these are analogies a Pagan will have trouble with. But when he speaks about "giving up to God", and experiencing an uncanny sort of peace... well, I've felt something like that, particularly, but not exclusively in Quaker worship.
One of my favorite Pagan holidays is Imbolc, the feast of Brighid, Lady of the living flame, Lady of the holy well. One Imbolc, Peter and I celebrated the sabbat at East Heaven Hot Tubs. Before going in, Peter invoked the goddess. We blessed the water, and entered it as her sacred well. The tub was deep, wooden, and the room was very still and quiet.
Peter and I took turns cradling one each other in our arms, held, as adults can almost never be held, as if we were infants once again. It was not my husband holding me alone, but the sacred water holding me up and enfolding me, like the arms of the goddess. The sense of surrender and trust was sweet at a time when we both needed sweetness very much.
That's a time I've felt that kind of surrender--bhakti--in a Pagan context. (To the Pagans in our studio audience today--there: isn't it easier to hear in Hindu terminology? Turns out there are polytheist approaches to this experience after all.)
I've also felt it--often felt it--in Quaker meeting for worship.
Wilson talks about surrender as being something different from "obedient at arm's length," and as a relationship rather than a set of behaviors. And this does "speak to my condition." There is an intimacy to those moments of worship, and the experience that sometimes floods me in worship is of an intimate kind of relationship; the image that comes to me, again and again, is of myself, a young child, sitting cross-legged on the floor and leaning back trustingly against the body of my parent.
It's that feeling of utter trust and gladness--that's what comes to me when worship is working for me best.
What results, as Wilson says, is not a set of resolutions for "arm's length" obedience to a God. Instead, week by week, I feel a kind of quiet staying with me after worship, like a cool, deep pool with quiet ripples, or a shaft of portable sunlight inside me. I feel larger inside, and I am, bit by bit, less cynical, less pissed-off, and better able to feel that glad and quiet sense of presence throughout the week.
Please don't misunderstand. I am making no claims to sainthood here--I'm well aware my clay feet go all the way up to the hip. But it's just easier to live up to my better self through this trustfulness than through resolution, effort, and duty. And unlike those ways to try to drag myself into line, the trustfulness feels good. Better than good.
I don't have a name for this Presence that lets me lean up against its knees on First Days. In spite of the intimacy of the experience, I don't have a sense of any specific personality from it. To myself, I think of it as Ain Soph Aur--the Sea of Limitless Light, in Kabbalistic jargon. But that's just words. I don't really know what it is--only that I love it and want lean up against it as often as I get the chance.
I also love the Pagan gods, which seem to me much more personified and knowable. I was very glad, last summer at NEYM, when the sense that I was growing closer to that Light came with a sense that deepening connection was bringing me closer to, not farther from, the Pagan gods. In fact, the relationship I feel with Herne in particular seems clearer and less filled with my own self-doubts than it once did, for which I am also very grateful.
Having devoted a very long post to my experience of Quaker Godhead, perhaps I should do the same for Herne one day soon. After all, I knew him first, loved him first. (He is, to the perception of my inner eye, both different from and brimming with that Light I'm describing here. Superficially, he is totally different: Lord of the Wild Hunt, rooted in mortality, the body, sex, sweat, and being. Only his eyes, which I can never meet, reveal his measure of Light--greater than mine, and perhaps darker.)
For now, I'll close here with the flash of insight that came to me in meeting for worship last week: a sudden awareness that, if it ever were necessary to choose between the Lord of the Hunt and the Light I find in Quaker meeting, I can trust Herne not to guide me away from the path I'm meant for. He is the God of integrity--the willingness to act, and the willingness to abide by the consequences of action.