Saturday, August 25, 2007

Quaker Pagan Book Proposal

As per Stasa: "About the book on Pagan Quakerism which Jen Chapin-Smith is editing: Friends who are interested can contact her directly at jench1977 at hotmail dot com."

This announcement will remain posted longterm at Quaker Pagan Reflections' Back Page area.

Stasa has also posted at her blog a report on her experiences, particularly with the Pagan Quakerism workshop she facilitated, at FGC's Gathering this year.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Meal of Leftovers Today

My in-laws are thrifty people, who waste very little. One of the ways this gets reflected is in their careful use of leftovers--the one baked potato that didn't get eaten gets saved, fried up with onions, and served all around, the quarter cup of pasta and seafood is set out on a plate next to the half a reuben sandwich left from the trip to the diner, and so on.

I hate leftovers. With the exception of Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing, and pie, I'd just as soon never see the food again once it's been cleared away at the end of the meal, and I'm personally affronted to discover some mouldering brick that used to be a last half-slice of lasagna, that nobody ever got around to eating, after all.

I will, in fact, go to any lengths to get the food eaten the first time it's set out... Be aware, if a guest in my home, you will be expected to finish up that last little spoonful of green beans left in the serving bowl! All because I hate leftovers so much.

And yet here it is, ladies and gentlemen: a hefty serving of Quaker Pagan leftovers--stuff that's been piling up in the editorial 'fridge around here, reconstituted for your reading pleasure. It's not elegant, but I will certify it 100% mold free. Mangia!

The Lost Blog Entry

Not sure how I did it, but it's gone, gone, gone. It had a brief half-life through Bloglines, and I managed to capture its ghost, but then my replacement Mac finally arrived (redeemed from the land of Microsoft once more! Can I hear an hallelujah?) and somehow managed to lose the rescued text during the move.

The post was not an earth-shaker, but for inquiring minds who may have missed it the first time around, it dealt with the fact that, having been interviewed by religion wire service reporter Daniel Burke, the resulting article Quakers Ask: What Do We Believe, and Why? came out about as well as could be expected. That is, Mr. Burke is a good writer and a careful reporter, but it's easier to make the point that Quakers are confusingly diverse in our understandings than it is to make the point that we are also puzzling able to find Unity amid our diversity, through Spirit.

I don't suppose mysticism ever fit neatly into even the best brief news article... I'm afraid I was a little irrationally disappointed at that. Still, it's not a bad article, and features quotes from a variety of Quakers more seasoned than Peter or I, including Catherine Whitmire, Thomas Hamm, Robin Mohr, and NEYM's own Jonathan Vogel-Borne.

Is Blogging Ministry?

I also spent a little time feeling panic-stricken as I realized I need to weigh seriously whether this blog is a form of ministry, and whether I should be asking my meeting to lend me some clearness and oversight around it. No answers yet, but I have, since the original post, had a long discussion with a weighty Friend on the subject. The thing that was most difficult about that was calling her up in the first place. Not only does it feel self-indulgent to ask for the time of a busy public Friend, but it feels much, much riskier to talk about such a thing with a member of my own meeting than it does to bare my soul online, in the faux-anonymity of the blogosphere.

I'm still quite interested in what other Quaker bloggers think of the possible need for clearness or oversight committees around blogs--but I'm deeply certain that what I needed very much to do was reach in to my own meeting on the question at this point. We'll see where the question takes me.

The truly grave part about losing that earlier post was losing the comment that seems to have been attached to it! At least, I cannot find it now, much to my sorrow!

A Quaker Pagan Book?

Jen--my memory does not furnish me a last name, and I'm not sure if she's a member of the Quaker Pagan listserve at Yahoo or not--contacted me with an announcement regarding a book proposal she's attempting to pull together for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, on Quaker Pagans. Hopefully she'll stop by and see this post, and add more information--if she does, I'll put up a longtime post at the Quaker Pagan Back Page, with a link from the main blog.

The gist of the matter is that she's trying to pull together a sample table of contents at present. So, any other Quaker Pagans (or Quagans, Quiccans, Pagan Quakers, or--as one visitor to this blog once put it--Quaking Penguins) out there who have essays or ideas for essays on how earth spirituality and waiting worship combine, be aware, there is a call for your work! Hopefully, more details soon. (And, Jen, many apologies for my carelessness.)

Religion Meme
Normally, I don't engage in memes, at least on the front page. (That's part of what I created The Back Page for.) But, in this case, I will as it gives me a chance to link to a blogger I have come to enjoy and admire,Mahud of Old and New Moons. I like Mahud's openness... and I'm also appreciative of the fact that, in a world where we are all expected to find clear labels for our spiritual journeys, he's willing to acknowledge complexity where his life sends it to him.

Mahud passes along these rules from Birch Grove:
Rules

You have to use your own belief system for the meme. No fair using someone else’s to make a joke or satire. Being humorous about your own religion is encouraged!

You have to have at least one joy and one trial. More are encouraged. And no, they don’t have to be equal in length, but please be honest.

You have to tag at least one other person. More are appreciated!
Please post these rules!

I'll try to be very brief here (just for the shock effect, for those who have grown used to my wordiness).

My Joys:

I keep meeting (in person or in the blogosphere) people I find truly loveable. Some of them shine from inside with the Light that they carry. Some of them are rocks of integrity, or models of balancing justice and gentleness. They instruct me and they inspire me... and sometimes they think I'm pretty cool, too. What is better than being loved back by people you deeply admire and love? What is better than the friendship of kind, wise-hearted men and women?

Well, maybe--maybe its the friendship of Spirit, of "The Friend of Friends," as Benigno called it in the Bible half-hours at NEYM, or the times when I'm standing in a forest, surrounded by hemlocks and maples with colors like illuminated stained glass, and I suddenly know that the forest is alive, that I love it with all my heart, and--get this--it loves...me...back.

The times when a breeze touches my face, and it's a caress from a god. The times when, in meeting for worship, I begin to tremble because the whole world is filled with joy--that drinkable Light from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader I wrote about the other day.

How about the fact that my capacity for joy has grown so much over the past year? I can feel it--I'm bigger inside than I used to be. I feel more alive--and I think I'm kinder, too.

My Trials:
I keep falling off the mountain. There I am, feeling all cool and groovy and at one with Life and the Spirit...and then I get a headache, or I stay up too late surfing the Web, or I am mildly inconvenienced by some trivial household muck-up... and suddenly, there she is again: Bitchycat, same as ever.

I can go from 0 to 100 mph in lost temper. And while my brakes are getting better, I still frequently neglect to apply them in time. I hate how easily I let myself slide into self-righteousness, sloth, denial, and flat out cussedness. Hate it, hate it, hate it.

Oh, yeah. I also hate how every growth experience I've ever had has been wonderful, glorious, a cause for great rejoicing...in hindsight. At the time, I mostly feel tired, cranky, stupid beyond belief, mad at the gods and the whole world.

Growth is not graceful. I always remember it as if it were, once I've done some growing, but it's never fun at the time. Oh yeah! And the worst part? I'm never done--just when I think I've turned out pretty well, thank you very much, and you may bow down and worship my saintly wisdom now, ladies and gentlemen, I slip on another damned moral banana peel, and realize what an idiot I am all over again.

I really hate how it feels when I realize that I have not been faithful (to put it in Quakerese). And I really hate how hard it is to actually challenge myself, haul my butt off the couch, and try again to be faithful once I've figured that out.

Photo from Gluten Free Girl under Creative Commons License 2.5

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part VIII: Nora

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

Somewhere, buried in a file cabinet in this house, is a news clipping about my family, a human interest story about the Pagan extended family and group household that we became within a year or two of my marrying Peter... Call it 1993 or 1994. What I remember best about the piece is scene the photograph tried to capture, a regular one in our home:

Peter sits in one chair, the latest in a series of Terry Pratchett novels in his hand. He is reading aloud to us all. In a matching armchair, cup of tea beginning to dangle from her hand as she slides from listening toward sleep, is Nora, Peter's 90+ year old grandmother. Felicia Hardy and Two Bears are nearby, Felicia playing with her cat and a feather toy as she listens. I am in a rocking chair, my eyes still up to the task of the cross-stitched sampler I'm working on. My daughter is surrounded by a wrack of toys and art supplies, or perhaps she has joined Aunty Felicia in playing with the cats.

This is who we are, at that period in our lives. Sometimes we call the house "The Bug Zapper" ("We lure our friends in... and fry them," as Felicia's slogan goes) because life is so often hectic and pressured, yet intensely social. And if the name is a stressful-sounding one, it captures at least one aspect of life, because there is an awful lot of flat-out work involved. It's fulfilling and rich--mostly--but it is definitely work. Because sometimes we feel like intentional community, and sometimes we feel like extended family, but always, always, we are the nursing home for one.

Caring for Nora is becoming more and more difficult--blind, almost deaf, permanently on oxygen, and with advancing Altzheimer's, she takes a great deal of care. Her heart is warm and loving, which helps, as do the anti-depressants which, eventually, are suggested as a way of taking away the bitter nihilism she feels over her lost independence. But she is losing her independence, and to some degree, life revolves around that.

Felicia, whose room is on the ground floor and nearest Nora's, takes the night shift, answering any calls from her that come up in the dark of the night. (To Nora, of course, night and day look exactly alike. We keep the radio on at night to help her stay oriented; we used to use the television, but she began to conflate the news reports of train crashes and earthquakes with our lives together, often fearing we were missing in some terrible disaster.) This, together with secretarial work and temping, pays Felicia's bills.

Peter takes one day off each week from his job as a WIC Nutritionist, to do Nora's books--complex now that payroll for Felicia and himself, and the various Medicare, Medicaid, hospice and home-health agencies (public and private), are part of her finances. This is easier than the old arrangements--frantic rushes home to feed Nora lunch, and then bolt back to the office before the end of his own lunch hour. His evenings include an ever-lengthening ritual of helping Nora to bed each night, and by the end, Norah's bed-time routines will absorb about two hours every night and entail the use of a Hoyer lift.

Home health aides arrive on weekdays to reverse the process, dressing Nora, helping her onto and off of the commode, getting her fed, and settling her (at first) into her armchair... then, eventually, when her needs dictate it, her armchair with the built-in electric lift... and, finally, the wheelchair, which initially gives us all the freedom to take Nora downtown on a clear autumn day, and eventually, gives Nora the ability to join us outside of her bedroom at all.

Two Bears works a series of temp jobs, not yet having found his career as "a pusher", as he put it when he eventually did discover his vocation: a pusher of swings full of small children, a rare male face in a sea of feminine day care workers. At home, he listens, brings us strange toys from his days working at Toys R Us, and teaches us all how to play Magic the Gathering. Sometimes he, or Felicia, will watch my daughter for an hour or two in the evening, so that Peter and I can snatch the time to walk downtown and listen to jazz or blues records while we drink strong coffee together, and browse the bookshelves of The Haymarket Cafe.

I am in and out of the house, doing paperwork for my private practice and per diem psychotherapy clients, bringing my daughter to and from day care, working through the lingering sibling rivalry issues she and Nora had when they first met. And always, always, the cups of tea for Nora, exiled Brit that she is. The house is always full of laundry in need of a wash, phone calls that need to be made, new aides in need of training, recycling that's overflowing, a yard that looks like a vacant lot filled with clutter...and then the phone rings again, and it's a new crisis: home health aides who quit, immunizations for my daughter or Nora to arrange, last minute changes to visitation schedules or summer camps or perhaps a client emergency, ringing through on my professional line.

More than a decade later, yesterday I found myself having difficulty remembering Nora's face. But I can never forget the feeling of her hand in mine--a body memory as intense as that of the soft spot at the crown of my daughter's head when she was an infant. Years from now, I may have forgotten my own name, I suppose, and yet I can't help but feel that that physical memory, of the long nails and soft, weathered skin of Nora's hand, will be with me still. For me, Nora's room is a refuge. Sometimes I just sit with her while she sleeps.

I never leave the house when she is sleeping without checking that she is still alive. I do not want my daughter to be the first to find her, when eventually the breathing stops.

My daughter plays. She plays anything, everything, fiercely and passionately enough that whatever she imagines, the other children at her day care or after school begin to play it, too. And my daughter and Peter spend long hours on the rug, with Barbies and GI Joes left over from his childhood, inventing multi-installment science fiction adventures--The War With Canada! And, when play begins to pall, and the adults are reading something less entertaining than Terry Pratchett, it is to Nora's room she goes. She practices her violin for Nora, who is the only one of us really able to pretend to warm admiration of that act. She draws pictures of things Nora describes from her childhood in Ireland, and then describes them to her as she holds the paper up to Nora's unseeing eyes.

And then it's time for bed--for my daughter's bedtime story, and Nora's bedtime routines. Eye drops, Coumadin, Paxil, oxygen tank, change of clothes, transfer to bed,put on the radio, and say goodnight... each stage in the evolotion documented on video to instruct the increasingly rare respite workers who give us an occasional weekend away.

It is a wearying life. At times, I remark to Peter that I think I know how it feels to be on chemotherapy. The days seem to last forever, and the weariness seems never to leave either of us. We are building a life, but at times, the labor is backbreaking, and the emotions involved are heavy enough to bend us double.

Sometimes, for an afternoon or an evening, everything stops, and we pull out Hero Quest, a Dungeons and Dragons knockoff designed for children, which we have gradually customized into baroque unrecognizability. We watch Star Trek together. We watch Red Dwarf. We make up ludicrous puns and in jokes, and we eat together every night, Two Bears, Felicia (and often her current boyfriend), Peter, Nora, my daughter, and I.

Peter and I rig up a television and VCR in our bedroom, and it is there that the two of us watch Driving Miss Daisy together. During the scene where Hoke feeds Daisy pumpkin pie, we are both in tears. This, this tenderness and broken-heartedness is true in ways that demand art, and we are grateful to the Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman for showing us our hearts.

Afterwards, I hold Peter to me for a long, long time.

These years ache almost unendurably... but we endure, and are enriched.

Nora, like Daisy, fades away from this surface of the world, traveling far away in spirit and in time. Once, when Peter has been reading to her from Rodney Castleden's The Knossos Labyrinth, she looks up from her cooling cup of tea to remark, "You know, when I'm dead, you can earn some money giving tours of this place," and we realize that she is not sitting in our cluttered Victorian duplex, but is instead halfway around the world, contemplating the mysteries of her palace in Crete... Another day, Peter comes home from work, and Nora explains that she and her mother and sisters (long gone on to whatever comes after this life) have been exploring a waterfall; the very waterfall they once visited together in Switzerland, decades and decades ago.

This does not seem unlikely to us. Nora is going somewhere when she is not present in the here and now. Spirit world? Well, why not? Who are we to say otherwise?

It is hard on Peter, for whom Nora was almost a third parent. Just as Nora is the one to hear my daughter's impromptu violin concerts, so it was Nora who showed Peter the "fairy lights" and made bubbles with him in the kitchen sink. And the Nora he knew was an adventurer who crossed an ocean with her four-year-old on the eve of the Second World War, who learned to ride a motorbike back in the Roaring Twenties, and who read Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl in its first release, in her own sixties. That Nora gradually becomes less and less easy to find, as Nora's memories began to blur and run like watercolors.

She forgets, often, what our names are, or where we live. She sometimes calls Peter by her ex-husband's name, or calls my daughter by Peter's name or his mother's. But she never, absolutely never, really forgets who she loves--not any of us, and certainly not Peter.

One day, toward the end, I overheard as Peter asked Nora if she knew who he was.

In gentle indignation, she said that of course she knew who he was.

"Who am I, Nora?" he persisted.

"You're my...my special person," she said, with such trust and serenity. And she was utterly, utterly right.

Do we explain to her that we are Pagans? We do--as often as it comes up, and each time the conversation is the same, with Peter patiently explaining about the fact that we find the sacred within nature, Nora exclaiming, "You're heathens, then!?!" and our continuing to explain, describe, and discuss how our religion works for us. Gradually the confusion fades, and she smiles at us.

"Well, that's all right, then," she says, and the matter is forgotten again. Until the next time that our work within the Pagan community comes to interrupt our daily routines.

For while all of this is going on--the dinner dishes and cups of tea, the violin concertos and nights of reading aloud or shared videos, we are building something, a mad Tower of Babel we have the temerity to call community.

Of course, it's going to fall. The astounding thing is how much of it will rise again--and again. And how much life there is in the stones even now, and how much even the tumbled stones of community have to say, when I care to listen to them.

Friday, August 10, 2007

God Stuff and God Talk (Cat)

Not too long ago, I was visiting the home of a close Pagan friend of mine, and I made mention of "God" in a conversation which included Laura's very bright and inquiring son. Laura stopped me, saying, "In this house, when someone says 'God' we always ask, 'which one?'" And it's true--adopting monotheistic language can make polytheist, panenthest, animist, and nontheist points of view invisible. Laura, of course, was politely insisting I not marginalize her son's religion (and hers) in her own home. The irony, of course, is that we're co-religionists, she and I.

I don't mind at all Laura calling me on apparently privileging monotheism, particularly in the context of her family life. But if I describe my experiences among Friends at NEYM this year in any detail, I'm going to wind up using a lot of words and phrases that may give my Pagan friends reason to get a little nervous about me "going native" in my time among Christians.

Rather than issuing some boilerplate about where I see myself in relation to Paganism or Christianity these days, I'm going to try to describe the names I give to my experiences. Just this once, I want to lay the labels aside. You can pick them up and put them where you think they belong when I get done, OK?

I know that Quaker worship works for me--when I am in worship with centered, seasoned Friends, I am convinced that I am experiencing the same Spirit which they feel, though our names for the experience may differ. And I've been working--especially hard while I was at Sessions, since there were some wonderful resources there for it--to listen deeply into the language and experience of Christian Friends. I don't think my language and understandings match traditional Christian ones (even Quaker Christian ones) very much. But as my reading and my experiences have brought me to different places spiritually, I've been searching for language that reflects what I'm experiencing, and some of my understandings sound pretty monotheistic sometimes.

As I say, I'm convinced, based on the awareness that I am tendered when they are tendered and gathered when they are gathered, that the Spirit I experience in Quaker worship alongside my Christian friends is the same Spirit they are experiencing.

This Spirit seems to go by many names among Christ-centered Quakers. Never mind terms like "Inner Light" or Paraclete or Friend of Friends, this Spirit gets named Jesus, Christ, God, and Holy Spirit. Every aspect of the Trinity, from the historical Jesus right through the ineffable Ground of All Being gets identified with that Spirit.

My point here is that the Christian Friends themselves are not exactly, um... exact in describing the Source of this illumination. It's blurry when they talk about it, and it's blurry when I talk about it. I don't call it Jesus, and I don't call it Christ (though depending on what is meant by that term, I don't know that I'd argue with it, either).

But I do call it God--just as if I knew clearly what that word meant, and were a convinced monotheist. However, what I'm really getting at with the shorthand word "God" isn't exactly God, in the personified and monotheistic sense I think most Christians would use the word.

So what do I mean when I say God? What experience is it I am trying to name?

I use the word when I mean that Spirit I most often experience in images and an inward sense of power and intimacy. Usually, it's an image of water--either a great sea of brightness, or a thundering river that is trembling and shaking within and around all things. So "God" means the almost unbearable flood of liquid light that I feel all around me when I worship.

In C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, King Caspian and the crew of the Dawn Treader have been sailing east, hoping to come to the kingdom of God--Aslan--when they reach a place where the ocean water becomes sweet and not salt.
The King took the bucket in both hands, raised it to his lips, sipped, then drank deeply and raised his head. His face was changed. Not only his eyes but everything about him seemed brighter.

"Yes," he said," it is sweet. That's real water, that. I'm not sure that it isn't going to kill me... It--it's like light more than anything else," said Caspian.

"That is what it is," said Reepicheep. "Drinkable light..."

...And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were all silent. They felt almost too well and strong to bear it; and presently they began to notice another result. As I have said before, there had been too much light ever since they left the island of Ramandu--the sun too large (though not too hot), the sea too bright, the air too shining. Now, the light grew no less--if anything, it increased--but they could bear it... They could see more light than they had ever seen before.


That--that overwhelming drinkable light--that's what I understand by "Spirit"--especially "Holy Spirit"--and "God."

My sense is that all things rise from that sea of light.

Not that Light is its only aspect--sometimes my experience of God is of the deep, fertile richness of a forest (like Lewis's description of The Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician's Nephew, though I'll spare you another extended quote.) Sometimes I understand it as a great tree, the Tree of Life, and that everything that lives, including the myriad spirits we call gods are manifestations of life springing from that Tree. Some beings are very close to Its roots--like gods--and other things--like individual rocks and worms and humans--are relatively farther away. But nothing is really separate from It.

"It" I said. I really don't think of this Spirit as very personified. (Intimate, yes--personified, no.) I'm sure this isn't a very satisfying point of view for a devout Christian, who feels a deep, intimate, and very personal connection with Jesus. But then, I don't need it to be. Like Christians, I know a face of the unknowable God which is far closer to me, more personal, and that's Herne.

I can't help but see Jesus and Herne as similar, in at least one way--they are not God, but they are closer to that root of God (or able to bear more Light) than I am.

Not for a moment do I believe that Herne is Jesus. But neither do I believe that he is separate from that great Sea of illumination, because I think that Great Sea is within everything, and surrounding everything.

What of the famous scripture, "None may come to the Father save through me?" Well, first of all, I do not subscribe to the belief that the Bible is some sort of universal rule book. I don't have to play by those rules, and I don't have to make sense of those pages.

However, I have spent time thinking about it, over the years, and my sense has long been this: if Jesus really said that, and if it is really true, then I have to believe that either "the Father" is yet another face of that ineffable Source of everything, or that Jesus was speaking in a kind of metaphor, of his own ability to stand, flooded with Light and Spirit, so closely allied with it as to become lost in it. So it wouldn't be the historical Jesus who was the Way--it would be that illuminating energy. (I suspect that some Christians would term that Christ, and distinguish it somewhat from the historical Jesus. But maybe not.)

If "God" is the Tree, then the trunk is nearer to the root than are the tips of the branches. I can buy Jesus as one of the branches. I can even accept "Christ" as one of the terms for that trunk (or even the root). But there's a part of me that cannot, will not, does not know how to accept the notion that once and only once in history, a door opened to the Spirit. All my experience of God and Spirit is that the big things, the things that matter, happen over and over.

I think in the wheel of the year. Life is cycles; Spirit returns and renews itself endlessly. For all of history and prehistory, here and to the ends of the universe, to be prelude and epilogue to one tiny event in the Middle East strikes me as absurd. My heart rejects it. My spirit rejects it. God is too big to fit into that one tiny narrative.

I do feel that some of what we call "gods" (and here I'm using the lower case to refer to a class of spirit beings, relatively more personified than that sea of Spirit I'm calling "God")are closer to or farther from the Root of that great Tree than others are. For me, Herne is in a sort of foreground of "God Stuff"--closer to me than that Root or Sea, certainly. Perhaps too close to pray to.

Where's Jesus on that family tree? I'll leave that question to those who know him. I don't think I've got a clue.

I do pray, though. (There's another word that Pagans may have trouble with.) Sometimes I do so spontaneously, and sometimes when someone asks me to. And on those occasions, I find myself calling out to Spirit as the Lady--the Great Goddess I learned to worship among Pagans, "known by many names among men." If I pray, She is the face of the divine I automatically pray to. (Capitalization here is an attempt to reflect that I experience her as closer to that Source, and thus less personified.) If "none may come to the Father save through me," and if the Father is that Root, then I think I find my way to it through Her. (Does that make the Lady Christ? The Holy Spirit? Or shall we simply set the Scripture aside--as I'm sure my Pagan readers are more than ready to do, having been beaten over the head with it for years and years...)

So prayer, for me, is the Lady's turf. But when I am reaching out for the Beloved, it is generally Herne's presence I hope to feel--the life of the forest, the animals, the give and take of life in a body with sweat and tears and lust and love of Earth which he holds for me.

And when two Christian Friends at Sessions this year spoke with tears in their eyes of having become not merely Friends, but Christians, followers of a beloved Jesus, through their contacts with Kenyan Friends whose faith in Christ was profound...well, the answering tears of tenderness in my own eyes were from the reminders of how precious my relationship to my own Beloved Friend has been. The tenderness and intimacy they felt was met with an answering tenderness and intimacy I could understand, because I love my god, too.

What a muddle, I'm sure someone out there is thinking. Maybe so. Certainly, I'm aware of a host of influences (some even outside of the works of C.S. Lewis, believe it or not) that may have affected my thinking. But part of the reason that I'm presenting this as a muddle is that I'm trying to be as far from notional as I can. These are not, really, my ideas. These are the understandings of my experience that undergird my use of language.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Headbutting the Hornets' Nest (Peter)

Cat and I spent a good chunk of this gathering participating in a three-day workshop on what it means to be a Quaker missionary. The woman running it, Eden Grace, is a field staff worker (a.k.a. “missionary”) in Kenya. She’s an FUM Quaker and an evangelical Christian. We signed up for this workshop specifically because it would be challenging, would push us to deepen our understanding of the current controversy over the FUM personnel policy that has been threatening to schism NEYM, and (at least in my case) broaden my perspective on what it means to be Quaker.

Eden began the workshop by doing something I can only describe as headbutting the hornets’ nest. She passed out index cards and had each of us write down to things that came to mind when we heard the word “missionary,” then she collected them, shuffled them, passed them out again and had each of us read out loud the two we got. (We were, remember, a room full of liberal New England Quakers teetering on the edge of severing all ties with FUM.) I felt a little mean at first for writing on my index cards, “The vanguard of colonial empires in the 19th century” and “The destruction of indigenous religions, languages, and cultures,” but about half of the cards around the room carried the theme of cultural imperialism and it was clear that Eden wanted to draw out these responses up front. The other half of the cards spoke of things like helping the poor, living in partnership with the people, sharing the Good News, and such. Eden and her husband Jim were clear about how the historical baggage of missionary work as cultural imperialism is something that any missionary today has to own and live with. She confronted us with some of our own missionary-ish impulses: “What about the good news that God loves everyone, regardless of sexual orientation? What about female circumcision? Is that a part of indigenous culture that we should respect and value?” Even the most well-meaning mission work, work that is purely humanitarian, can have a manipulative quality to it as wealthy westerners come parading into very poor communities dispensing largess. All of these are issues that missionaries today must face and come to terms with. Mission work, when it is rightly done, has the missionary becoming part of the community (“You wear the clothes and eat the food.”) and when you “share the Good News,” you do it through knowing and being known by the people you are serving, and it is reciprocal. Eden spoke of her own spiritual life and religious identity being profoundly changed by the Kenyans she works with—at least as much as they have been affected by her. On the last day of the workshop, the blackboard was covered with words that described what missionary work should be, what it really is when it’s done responsibly and in a spirit of love. Among the words and phrases on the board were John Woolman’s quote, “Let your life speak,” and the word “risky.” Missionaries take risks. Their work is not always safe.

I went from there to the library, where I went on line, found the first of the comments on my previous post (from Zach Alexander) and wrote the first draft of my response. I didn’t publish it, and I’ve been wrestling with that decision for the last 48 hours. I’ve censored myself, and in so doing, I have failed to live up to Eden Grace’s example.

As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, NEYM is going through some very painful discernment over the place of queer folk (the GLBTQetc’s) on the one hand and Christ-centered evangelicals on the other. Can we worship together? Work together? Can we remain part of the same religious body? One of the things that came out of our laboring with this issue is the realization that those of us opposed to FUM’s personnel policy need to “get our own house in order.” We are outraged by what we feel is a narrow minded and hateful stance FUM has taken on sexual ethics, but we have never come to any unity ourselves—have never even considered—making a statement of our own about sexual ethics. NEYM did not withdraw from FUM this year, and did not withhold our annual contribution (though both were suggested at times during the week). What we did do is draft a Minute expressing our continuing support and affirmation of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters and also a Minute of Commitment in which we promise, among other things, to

  • Engage in conversation about the deepest meanings of family, marriage and committed relationships and explore what it means to have all of these under the care of meeting.
  • Support the work of our Ministry & Counsel Working Party on Sexual Ethics and Spirituality. We need to articulate our sexual ethics and the spirituality of sex.

I have wrestled a great deal over the last two days about how much I can safely participate in that conversation here in this blog. After I wrote the first draft of my response to Zach Alexander’s comment, friends at my lunch table became an impromptu clearness committee. Their advice: Don’t post it. People are just nuts when they’re talking about sex. You’ll get hate mail. What if your students read it? Or their parents? Or your principal? The draft was damn good writing, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, faithful to spirit, could be incredibly valuable if read by a queer student feeling all alone in the universe, and could get me fired.

That afternoon, I emailed it to Zach privately (He was two carrels away in the library. I suppose I could have just dragged him over to read it off my screen) and the next day I posted a truncated, bowdlerized version.

I cannot in good faith stop there. But I have not yet discerned what to do next.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Coming home to NEYM (Peter)

I arrived at my second New England Yearly Meeting (a Quaker gathering of about 600 people) right on the heels of my first MerryMeet. MerryMeet kind of sucked for me, though not through anyone’s fault. I was exhausted, and low blood sugar left me feeling cranky and cynical about Pagan politics. Very glad we took a day off before hopping in the car and driving down to Rhode Island.

Very different Yearly Meeting from last year. Very different experience, at least. Just came from a Bible Half-Hour lead by Benigno Sanchez-Eppler. I can’t begin to paraphrase or even summarize it. I wish I had a transcript, so I could post it. I hear Cat tap-tap-tapping in the next carrel. Maybe she can capture some of what was said.

I don’t think I’ve done nearly as much writing as I had by this point in the week last year. Partly that’s not having a working laptop this summer. More, though, it’s that I don’t want to miss anything. (Thoreau’s quote, something along the lines of “My life has been the book I would have written if I weren’t so busy living it.”)

It’s been more of a challenge this year just meeting basic bodily needs for food and sleep. Last year I think we heeded the advice pretty well not to try to do everything on the schedule that looked interesting. The meetings for worship for business went as deep as any worship we’d ever experienced, and after two or four or six hours of non-stop deep spiritual mojo, we’d have to retreat to our room to read Batman comics. I brought some Batman this year, but I haven’t unpacked them. The schedule begins at 6:30 AM with Kenyan-style programmed worship, and the ad-hoc threshing session on relations with FUM started at 9:30 last night and overran its allotted hour by at least half, and ALL of it looks vitally important and potentially life-changing.

My body (bless it!) calls me up short and says to me, eat, sleep, do it NOW, and my psyche says WRITE. Thank the Gods there is a library full of computers here, and a two-gig thumb drive on my keychain.

Last year I came to NEYM feeling like an outsider. I kept expecting someone to say to me “You go to eternal Hell now, you hear?” Completely the opposite this year. I feel like I've plunked down exactly where I belong, totally accepted, and I look around and see other groups within the community wondering how welcome they are and if they really belong. The gay and lesbian community is specifically excluded by the personnel policy of Friends United Meeting, and some of the evangelical Christians in FUM are really feeling the heat and wondering if they'll get drummed out of NEYM all together. NEYM could, this year, withhold its customary funding for FUM out of ethical concerns with funding overt, institutionalized homophobia. If we do, we cut off funding for schools, hospitals, and orphanages in Kenya. I remember Noam Chomsky once using the phrase “liberal humanitarian imperialism” and thinking that was an outrageous oxymoron. It’s not.

I scribbled a few notes on the back of my printed schedule yesterday. One was a quote from the Advices that the Young Adult Friends (or maybe it was the Young Friends) gave us at the end of last year’s Sessions:

Do your own work; trust others to do their work.

I’ve been going to the GLTB concerns worship sharing group this week, as well as learning as much as I can about the whole FUM personnel policy controversy, and, well, here are a few things I said in worship sharing:
  • “Unity” is a really loaded word for me, at least in the context of different religious bodies putting aside their differences and uniting, because so often it seems that what it means is that everybody gets together to decide they all really agree and what they all agree on is to kick me out.
  • There is a huge range of sexual behavior and sexual ethics among “straight people” that goes unnoticed and unquestioned. Nobody asks my wife and me what we do behind closed doors, because we look so normal that we can effortlessly go invisible. The gay and lesbian community are the ones who, when the rest of us all go invisible, are left still standing out in the open to get shot at. I’m very grateful to the gay and lesbian community for forcing us to remember to see and honor our diversity.
  • “My work” in all of the controversies this week—and always and everywhere—is to stay rooted in the stirrings of my own heart and my own body, and to honor and celebrate that root within myself, and from that place of rootedness to take the passion to defend the rights of others to honor and celebrate their own hearts and their own bodies. Although I’m a “straight guy,” the issue of GLBTQ rights is not at all distant from me. Anything that threatens their right to think and act and feel from their own deep center threatens me as well.

I kind of feel like there’s no need for us to consider severing ties with FUM, that all we need to do is sit here and be who we are, and if they really have that much trouble with gays and lesbians (and Pagans and Witches and Buddhists and Jews and atheists and…) then they’ll be the ones to make the schism. And it will be a very sad thing if they do.

Yes, it is outrageous that FUM has a personnel policy that institutionalizes homophobia, and it is galling to think of our contributions supporting a policy of hate and discrimination.

But economic boycott (which some among us are calling for) is a tool developed by the civil rights movement for the many and the small to use against the economically and politically powerful.

Africa was overrun and colonized by European imperialists in the 19th century, and as a direct result of that, we who sit in comfortable, air conditioned meetinghouses in North America have the luxury of providing charity to those-less-fortunate-than-us. We get to feel especially good about it because those poor folks over in Africa are so socially backward on issues like gay rights about which we Americans have been enlightened for, oh, months now. Years, in some states.

Sorry. That was sarcastic and cynical and sarcasm does not further communication.

This year’s keynote speaker was a South African woman, and I’m in a three-day workshop on Quaker missionary work in Kenya, and I’m feeling (I’m talking about me now, Peter Bishop, not us Quakers or us liberals or us Americans—just me) I’m feeling a little ashamed that I’m this involved with such an intense conflict and I’ve had so little knowledge of who it is we’re dealing with. Like we (and now I do mean us liberal American Quakers) have been pulling on one end of a rope that stretches through a door into a darkened room, while piously reminding ourselves that the people pulling on the other end of it are our brothers and sisters but having no clue why they’re tugging so hard.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Meanwhile, Back at the Quaker Ranch

There's an immense line for lunch just now, so I'm going to grab a quick blog before trying to get myself fed--again. (Didn't I just eat? Gotta learn not to take one of each as a strategy for dealing with this much food.)

I had been feeling a bit flat, yesterday. Some of that may have been simple fatigue--it turned out that MerryMeet, whatever else it may have been, was ruddy exhausting, at least for me. I can't even imagine what Laura and Jennifer are feeling like today; in comparison, I hardly worked at all.

That flat feeling may also have been due to arriving late. Due to aforesaid exhaustion, Peter and I yielded to reality, and did not pile our weary selves into the car until yesterday morning, almost a day later than we'd planned to leave.

We arrived just in time to hear the Keynote Address, by South African Friend Duduzile Joyce Mtshazo. That was great--I had very much wanted to hear her--but not being at an event from the start may have left me feeling a bit ragged around the edges. I think that things like opening and closing worship together (or ritual, as the case may be)are really important. Walking in in the middle of worship was awkward, as was missing the opening worship and the first meeting for worship for business. It may be that I didn't feel as present, as much a part of the event to start with. (Odd to say, since the other thing I'm noticing as a big change from last year is how many people I do recognize from the yearly meeting, even though I've been connected to it directly for such a short time.)

I did appreciate the keynote, however, and what Duduzile Mtshazo had to say. I especially liked hearing her experiences, as a black South African, as apartheid was beginning to crumble. She shared one story, of the time when the signs labeling which buildings were or were not off-limits to black South Africans were just starting to come down. She said that she had been raised to be a "good, law-abiding citizen" at a time when that meant looking for the signs that let her know whether or not she was welcome... and how she found herself going around and around a building once, because she could not find a sign. That, from her story, seems to have been an "aha" moment for her, when she realized how brainwashed she had been, and resolved not to pass that on to her own children. She spoke of realizing that she had been complicit with the apartheid regime in that--that Nelson Mandela was in jail at a time when she was circling buildings, looking for signs.

This story spoke to me very strongly, because I think that it's altogether too easy for Quakers to become complacent that we are not part of the problem. And think how easy, as a black South African, it would be to shrug your shoulders and say, well, it wasn't me... it wasn't my system, after all. But owning complicity, even when surrounded by people who would not probably even think of such a thing--this strikes me as the kind of integrity we need. There's a kind of humility in examining our own lives for where we have lost track of what we're called to do in the world, rather than shaking a fist at the world for being lost, too. Not that the inner work is a substitute for the outer, but without the inner, self-examination and humility, the chance of blowing it bigtime in whatever activism we undertake probably goes way up...

Duduzile also laid a few stereotypes to rest for me (and probably a few others) in talking about how her meeting had had to struggle, initially, when they were approached to perform an interracial marriage. Not only were there legal hurdles, but, despite the clarity Friends in her meeting had from early on about ending apartheid, there were apparently Friends whose first take on interracial marriage was that it might not be something that should be done--too hard on the children, etc--the same kinds of arguments against racially mixed marriages I remember hearing from my childhood. That Friends who opposed apartheid, as late as the 1980's, would think in this way was a bit of a jolt to me.

Hearing that the meeting not only reached clearness to perform interracial weddings, but also to support same-sex marriages, was a jolt of a different kind.

I had assumed that to struggle with the one issue would mean a refusal to consider the second. But, quite possibly, struggle that is about opening the heart, as opposed to overcoming an opponent, opens many doors together.

I find myself writing and re-writing what I'm trying to say on how that kind of integrity might relate to NEYM as we try to sort out our relationship to FUM and to its personnel policy. If I'm writing and re-writing something this much, it's probably something I'm not ready to write about, so I won't. I will say, though, that I'm trying to learn more, both with my mind and my heart. And I think the folks around me at Sessions this year are mostly also trying. I think we are trying to move past easy assumptions and overcoming opponents, into something that may open a few more doors.

Last night, for instance, we had a "Threshing Session" regarding the personnel policy. The threshing session was very good--as was its beginning, a very, very funny "Simple PowerPoint" by Lisa G and our Young Friends on the history of Friends in New England. The "Simple" aspect of the PowerPoint was that there wasn't one--instead, Young Friends took up postitions on the stage to illustrate every "slide" that went with the 25 minute tour of 350 years of history--yes, including the Richmond Declaration and the infamous personnel policy, but also covering the history of schism and reunion that has punctuated our history. The point was made that, time and again, NEYM has chosen to embrace our diversity (not just difference) and that, somehow, it seems to work.

The point was made this morning in the Bible half-hour that it's wherever two or three are gathered that God can be found in their midst means... more than one! And whenever there's two or more humans together, there's going to be difference and... diversity.

Can it be that it is where there is diversity that creates there is the greatest welcome for the Holy Spirit?

I don't know how to come to unity with Friends around the world; I don't know what the way forward is. But when I reflect on that Light that I experience so often in Meeting, and when I see so many Friends around me trying to trust in it and be open to it and to one another, I get very hopeful.

Maybe we'll manage something far better than reforming a policy. Maybe we'll build some actual bridges, and follow some leadings that would never have come to us if we hadn't struggled to remain in love with each other. Just learning to see one another more clearly will be a good start.

Gradually, that "flat" feeling, whether its from fatigue or deeper causes, seems to be lifting.

More later.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

MerryMeet

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.

*Blink. Blink.*

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.

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