I had actually never attended any part of a MerryMeet before this week. The last time one was held in New England was back around 1989 or 1990, and I didn't know anyone in The Covenant of the Goddess back then. At this point, though, I know lots of people, though there were many I'd never met in person before. That, of course, added to the fun. Drake Spaeth and I both had the eerie sense that we had, in fact, met before, owing to our photos being familiar to one another through the Cherryhill Seminary faculty page, and through emails relating to Cherryhill. I finally got to shake hands with Michael York, who I've known online for ages, but never before met in person, and Laura is right--he has the most remarkable eyes I think I've ever seen...and is utterly, utterly charming.
Alas, I did not really have time for a proper sitting on the rug, let-down-your-hair, let your mind run free conversation with either of these fellows, nor with Andras Corban Arthen, whom I did at least get a chance to discuss the non-theistic Pagan theology of his family of covens. His explanation of the value of non-theism in Paganism I found facinating: he reminded me of the old Mary Daly quote, about how when God is male, the male is God (in our minds, that is). He argued that, further, when we give God or Spirit personified, human form, then Humans become God, at least in our own eyes--not just a bad thing for the environment, but a bad thing for us humans, who then suffer a split from nature. Andras argued that, because he takes a purely animistic approach to Paganism, when he walks into the forest, he is able to be aware of himself as just another creature in the woods, with no special rights or place or privilege; many things are stronger than he is, for instance, or more implacable: a mother bear can kill him for wandering near her cubs, or a cliff can kill him or break his leg without mercy if he steps over it. He seemed to be saying that, by viewing the spirits in all these things without filter, his spiritual experience is clearer and more immediate.
Since Andras told me he does sometimes read this blog--total fan-girl rush to hear that, BTW--perhaps he'll step in and correct any misconceptions I may have taken away from our conversation.
However, though there are pieces of what Andras said that I find satisfying and also work for me, there are other parts that work for me less well. I'm not sure even yet where he stands on the idea of a universal Spirit, in which all of us animistically-spirited parts partake. I know that, for me, the sense of something greater, that permeates all things, and yet is greater than the sum of its parts, is central to how I currently understand my spiritual experiences, both within and outside of Quaker meeting.
This idea--panentheism, as opposed to pantheism--was nearly ridiculed by Michael York in his talk Thursday morning; he sees it as a mere stalking horse for transcendent monotheistic religions, like Christianity--a way to "have their cake and eat it too" by embracing nature as sacred without letting go of God as transcendent and more than nature. I see his point, and perhaps that is exactly how I am using it, to create a fusion between my Paganism and my Quaker mysticism that would otherwise be hard to make sense of. But since I'm using it to make sense of spiritual experience, not simply as a convenient intellectual rationalization, I think I'm going to have to agree to disagree with the him on this one...
I also think I differ from Andras in his ability to walk into the woods and simply recognize the spirits of place immediately and without filters. I can, in fact, see the plusses to that. But I think I need my layers of evocative mythology, and my personifications of deity, in order to begin to connect with them. I think I need them less than I did, and it is quite clear to me that many of the more human attributes of the gods I worship are projections I put on the spiritual encounters I have with the spirits of the natural world. But I do still seem to need those names and faces and stories, at least some of the time.
It's probably obvious, just from the previous paragraphs, that the day was an intellectual feast. And to some extent, it was intended to be: the Leadership Intensive day of MerryMeet is really a mini-conference on a chosen topic of interest to Wiccan clergy. The topic this year--interfaith work--is not one that has a natural appeal to me. But the speakers were excellent, and I loved the chance to let my mind soar for a while.
But the day wasn't just an intellectual feast. On another level, it was a hug-fest. I think I gave and received more hugs than I normally do in a month. (At one point, I asked John and Mary Ellen, members of Mt. Toby who had agreed to be guest presenters at the interfaith lunch, if it felt like being at someone else's family reunion--though one of the joys of the day, for me and for Peter both, was a chance to become closer to them, members of our Quaker family.)
It was just so good to see long absent friends--not only people like Kirk and Macha, who I exchange emails and phone calls with all the time, but also people I knew only from listserves and emails before this week.
Perhaps the happiest reunion was seeing Canu again. I'm not even sure when I last saw him in the body--perhaps before his children were born. I think he said the eldest is eleven? Inconceivable! We keep in touch, though sporadically, through emails and phone calls. But to actually see him live and in person?
The strangest thing was how little the passage of time seemed to mean.
I knew Canu when I was living up in Vermont, and though he never became a member of our coven, he was a regular attender for quite some time.
Some of my fondest memories from that period of my life involve moving from a candle-lit circle by the wood stove in Canu's living room, out onto the snow-covered deck outside it, to howl up at the full moon floating above us in the deep blue dark. Cold snow, cold sky, cold moon... warm fire, candle-light, and friendship.
Something about the way Canu does Spirit has always had the power to speak to me clearly and deeply. Even over the telephone, Canu can tell me a story about his current spiritual work--a tool he's crafted, or a role he's taken on--and the story will make my hands get warm with the life in it--just as they do when I pick up a hunk of lanolin-soaked sheep's wool for the first time, and start spinning a new skein of yarn.
Magic: at its best, it's that moment of connection to the here and now, to the power of the moment.
Laura had asked me to help out with singing at the opening ritual--held at the stone circle on the UMASS campus. And I got there early, as men and women were just assembling, and the tiki torches and citronella candles were just being lit against the setting of the sun. We were comfortably gathering in clumps, chatting and laughing, waiting for the full ritual crew to assemble. The atmosphere was much more like that of a picnic than any solemn or reverent occasion--which was terrific, but the time came when I felt that I needed to go and prepare inwardly for my small bit, and I excused myself to go and stand some distance away from my friends, ankle deep in cool grass, letting the sense of magic and place steep into me for a while.
To my surprise, Canu followed me.
He explained that he wanted to sing something to me, and that he thought perhaps it would help me to enter that focused state I was looking for. Shyly, he explained that he'd been doing more singing, lately, and he hoped it wouldn't sound "too awful."
I was glad to ask him to sing. I shut my eyes while he did, fearing that his shyness might pain him if I watched his face... and in a very soft voice, he sang me a song about Taliesin the bard, and the Old Gods returning. It was very beautiful, and if I can get the words later, I may post them here. But the most wonderful part was the way that, sung just then, in that place and time, it reminded me so powerfully of another song, long years before, when at the Twilight Covening that changed everything for me, I had felt the God Herne singing for me--just me--in the notes of a stranger's guitar.
It was like a caress on the cheek. It was like an affirmation of my path. Quaker I may be, but I'm still His daughter, too. The thought was very calming. It gave me a moment of balance, not just in preparing for the ritual, but about the whole journey of this year, moving deeper and deeper into what a Witch might term the "Quaker mysteries." It was very good, that quiet moment.
When he was done, I thanked him, hugged him, and returned to the gathering crowd with him, arm in arm. I told him I would tell him something later; I wanted to share with him what that moment had meant to me, but it felt as if it were just too personal to share with words just then--almost as if it would have been an intrusion of Canu's quiet.
The opening ritual itself was marvelous--good songs, firelight, not too many mosquitoes. And it was surprisingly moving, to have my beloved Connecticut River Valley honored and loved by a hundred or so Witches and Pagans from all across the country. I was also so moved when the UMASS Pagan/Student group, SPIRALS, was specifically honored as the Keepers of the land on which we stood.
It was not until today that I had the chance to speak privately with Canu again, and to share with him what his song had meant to me. By then, I was feeling shy, myself, and I said only that, as I deepened in my Quaker self, I sometimes felt doubt about my place with the Old Gods, and that I'd felt his song as an affirmation of something that had wanted affirmation.
True enough. But I'd left out the part about sensing Herne, touching me through the song. I couldn't quite trust that to words... I ended by saying that I thought he was a very good singer.
And Canu grinned, and said, yeah, well... I'm told I draw down Herne pretty well, too.
Well. So much for being subtle. I guess it hadn't been just me sensing Him nearby, then?
There's certainly more that could be told. Peter and I did a workshop on what we mean by Quaker Paganism--shared some testimonies and queries, and led a worship-sharing for a bit (one tool in the tool kit that makes the jump to Paganism with no need for translation, I find). I sat in on Grand Council, and have at least something to compare with the upcoming NEYM Sessions... chased my friend Laura around, trying to encourage her to relax, and let things just be excellent for a few minutes here and there--as oppposed to perfect--so she could remember to breathe and ground. And I got autographs from both Margot Adler and Michael York.
But I think I'll stop here, rather than turning this post into a mere catalog of moments.
I'm tired--tired enough that we're going to leave a bit late for NEYM Sessions after all, and not get there till midmorning tomorrow. Peter, at least, promises to blog some more from the gathering there.