Thursday, October 30, 2008

Plain Peace

If I were a Christian Quaker, I would be strongly drawn to the tradition of plain dress.

Perhaps it's good that I'm not, in that I don't have to do the difficult work of discernment that I probably would if I were. It does seem to me that plain dress, like all the Quaker testimonies, needs to have its seed in a spiritual leading, and I cannot be sure that my inclination toward it isn't merely personal. Pagans as a group are, after all, awfully taken with costume and theater, and even if I am extremely plain for a Pagan, I can't be entirely sure that part of my attraction to plain dress isn't simply to yet another cool set of threads.

The real issue is probably deeper than that, though. It is my desire to live absolutely, visibly, and identifiably as someone with a peace testimony.

Another of my favorite students is entering the military. He has done early enlistment and will be leaving us at midyear, and he brought me in a picture of himself in his fatigues.

I am thrilled, honestly, with this kid's pride and sense of accomplishment. He has overcome so many obstacles in his life, and his decision to enter the military represents, on a personal level, some wonderful, wonderful things he has cultivated within himself with great struggle: idealism, ambition, a desire to serve others. He is a good, good boy and he has decided he wants to become a good, good man.

I suppose that's startling to hear from a Quaker, but it is the truth as I see it. For this particular young man, the decision to enter the military reflects a level of growth and integrity that I can only honor.

And grieve. I want him to be traveling to foreign lands to feed hungry kids, and build bridges and schools, and serve humanity in the ways of peace. But that is not an option for my student; yes, I'm aware of counter-recruitment efforts and counseling, and they work wonders for lots of kids. But even if they existed at my school, even if I were not the lone voice for peace, none of the initiatives I know of are a good fit for this particular student at this particular time. All I can do is try to slip into one of our 30 second hallway conversations the fact that, should he determine, down the road, that he has a conscientious objection to war, there are people who will work with him to help him leave the military.

The various alternatives to military service will not work for this student.

And the heart of my message is, must be, that I am proud of the way this young man has turned his life around. He hasn't had nearly enough people being proud of him in his life. We, his teachers, are it. And nothing, nothing else is as faithful a service of the Spirit of Peace as I hear it speaking within me as communicating to this young man my deep and real respect for his decisions, deeply though they pain me.

I know what I must say to this young man when he hands me his picture.

And I know that I will place his picture on my altar at home, burn candles for his safety (spiritual and emotional as well as physical) and grieve and grieve and grieve that he will be going off to war.

I want for my opposition to war to be as obvious as my gender. I want it to be so clear and self-evident and beyond question that it is always there, as the subtext, when I am telling this student that I am proud of him. I want him to hear the message of caring from my mouth and to see that in my eyes, and just to know, without my having to distract from the core message of deep respect, that I wish he would find another way. That he would somehow serve peace, not war, with his newfound honor and dignity.

Wearing a peace symbol is a fashion statement. Half my students who wear it support the war. Peace slogans on bumper stickers and buttons and posters strike many as sentiments fit for a greeting card--the notion that anyone takes literally that "there is no way to peace--peace is the way" is something that never crosses most moderns' minds.

It seems to me that only by visibly and consistently placing myself outside modernism and liberalism and political sloganeering will I be able to be the kind of visible beacon for peace I long to be.

I cannot harangue my students into pacifism. I know that is wrong--spiritually wrong, never mind how it might affect my teaching career. I know that it would sabotage the real work of building up spirits that is the heart of public school teaching. Which is my calling, my leading, at least for now.

So I can't do that.

Plain dress: wearing a kerchief or something on my head and wearing a skirt of some kind, while avoiding ostentation in dress... that would do it. Slowly, over time, my school would come to know that my peace testimony, my deepest spiritual convictions, are why I "dress funny". And I would be speaking my testimony faithfully even while silent.


I'm not Christian.

And the other thing that plain dress says, culturally at least, is that here stands a conservative Christian.

So no plain dress. Just a photo on the altar, and a sense of pride.

And anguish.

May all the good gods bring this child home safe in his spirit as well as in his body.

So mote it be.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Memories and Not

I keep thinking I'm gonna give up memes, and then there will be one I just can't resist. Like this one... Which I flat out stole from Bright Crow (and he, in turn, stole from Igraine).

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now (even if we don't speak often or have never met), please post a comment with a completely made up, fictional memory of you and me.

It can be anything you want - good or bad - but it has to be fake.

When you're finished, post this little paragraph in your blog and see what your friends come up with...
Well? How about it? Anybody remember the time our flea market booth specializing in Hollow Earth artifacts was raided by Atlantean Customs officials? How about the prank with Captain Scarlet and the Voice of the Mysterons? Or that embarassing incident with the yak?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Ecstasy

Came across this quote the other day:
Ecstasy doesn't last. But it cuts a groove for something that does last.
--E.M. Forster

Yet another reason to love that writer...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Teacher Grace

Teaching has been both easier and harder than ever for me this year. It has been a really tiring year; I don't remember having such long days since my first year in the classroom. Probably that's because I'm teaching a course I've never taught before, and I'm putting in enough extra time developing my own approach to it that I'm just putting in more time day by day.
It's been satisfying, though. In three out of my four classes, I basically never have a bad day—once the kids are there in front of me, I'm having fun. The fourth of my preps is more challenging, but not in any horrible, what's-wrong-with-our-civilization way. They're just kids who aren't always wild about being in English class by the end of the day. But not a one of them is mean, and not a one of them is without an endearing trait or two. There's always a class or two that's tougher to teach than the rest—that's the law of averages, I think. But though we have had our rocky days and moments, even that class is fairly satisfying to teach. And (as is often the case with the more difficult classes to manage) some of the relationships with kids in that class already look likely to be the kind that make teaching a satisfying profession; the connections that sometimes take the most work (on both sides) to forge can wind up being the most meaningful in the end.
That's the day to day situation. But every now and then, I'm feeling something new. I don't quite know how to describe it without sounding stuck on myself, and that's honestly not how I'm feeling about it. But what I'm feeling is a kind of shift or change in myself, owing in part to having been a teacher long enough now that I can approach my work with humor and calm instead of self-consciousness. I am able to be more present, and that is a big part of what is making this a good year to teach.
But I'm also, I think, enjoying some of the fruits of actively working to become more open to and more guided by Spirit in my life. The sweetness of meeting for worship has begun to flow outward into my 9 to 5. (Well... my 7 to 5. But who's counting?) I believe that I have begun to experience some moments of something I might call “teacher grace.”
I need to back-track a little to explain. Bear with me.
New England Yearly Meeting was a particularly deep and powerful spiritual journey for me this year. I'm not sure how it happened, but from our opening worship, I found myself open to, almost drenched in, the experience of God.
I have come to treasure this experience—those moments when I know: I don't have to be wise, I don't have to be good, I don't have to be smart. While I'm sitting in the Light, all I have to be is open and faithful, and it will all be OK.
Peter C-- remarked to me at NEYM this summer that Quaker worship is a deeply sensual experience, and I knew exactly what he meant. That sensation of being cherished and held up is as direct and physical a sensation as any I can imagine. It's not about thinking about God--it's about being with God. It's warm and strong and deep. And I had a lot of it at NEYM this year. Which was wonderful.
I had a lot of something else, too, that was a little staggering, though I have had glimmerings of it in Pagan contexts from time to time. I was not particularly led to vocal ministry... but I did have a sense, much of the time, that Spirit was right there, sort of sitting just over my shoulder, and from time to time giving me a nudge this way or that way... kind of gently tugging me into the places and company where I needed to be. Sometimes there would be a conversation, and I would find that I knew how to listen and what to say. Sometimes it would be a moment of connection in passing—maybe not more than eye contact—but I knew that it was what I was Supposed to be doing.
Sometimes it was for my sake. Sometimes for someone else's. A lot of the time, it would have been hard to break it down like that. I don't think you call that “ministry”, exactly. In my Pagan life, I might term it being “cloaked.” But I also think, perhaps, you could call it “grace.”

It makes me remember a science experiment I read about (but never did) as a kid: where you take a needle, magnetize it, and use it to pierce a bit of cork you float on the surface of a bowl of water. The idea is that the magnet will be drawn to point North, and the cork, floating so lightly on the surface of the water, will create little resistance to that needle, and the whole thing will act as a compass.

I can't vouch for it as a science experiment, but I've felt it as a spiritual experience. Sometimes, if I can become light enough, bouyant enough in my trust in Spirit, I can be pierced, for a moment or a day, by something that knows how to find True North. Sometimes, when I am pierced this way, my hands are not entirely or only my own hands, my heart is not only my own heart, and the kindness and concern I feel for others runs just a little bit cleaner and purer than it normally does. And I find myself drawn to wherever it is I am supposed to be.

I won't lie. I enjoy the feeling of giving vocal ministry. I like feeling like a string of a great piano or guitar, continuing to quiver or vibrate when the Spirit is done and I sit down again. I love that the depth and brilliance I sometimes feel in worship can spread outward due to something I spoke, when the words were real and spirit-filled ministry. (I'm also insecure enough and needy enough that I am beyond grateful when seasoned Friends confirm to me after such experiences that I have been faithful. I am still very new in ministry, however seasoned I may have been in priest-craft, and I need my eldering!)

I admit it--I enjoy giving vocal ministry.

But beyond that, I am grateful for those moments of grace. Perhaps they are invisible to others. They are certainly quiet. And I don't know which sounds less humble, to pretend that I really am able to be as present and what-was-needed on my own, or to impute that extra measure of synchronicity and compassion to, not just any old spirit, but the Holy Spirit.

But I know it's not me. Presumptuous or not, I think I have been favored.

That's hard to admit out loud (or in print). I get a little nervous claiming this gift.

But what is blindingly, breathtakingly, and very, very quietly glorious is that it is starting to happen--a little--outside of worship.

Teacher grace.

Simple stuff, like knowing when to laugh, when to walk up to a kid and start a conversation at break, when to be silly and when to be quiet.

It doesn't last, and it doesn't happen a whole lot. There have maybe been two or three days all year this year that I've felt it. But it makes the openings that somebody--maybe me, maybe a kid who wasn't even part of the original interaction, or some other teacher entirely--will get to move through to create hope and change.

Vocal ministry is cool.

This is cooler.

Even if it never happens to me again, it has happened this year. There are no words for how grateful I am for that.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Simony and NRMs, old and new

I'm up to Acts in my blitzkrieg tour of the Bible. (Clearly, there's a whole lot of prophets I've missed and will need to go back for--this Biblical literacy notion is not for sissies. )

I don't believe I've ever read Acts before. Though I was not raised Christian, still, I've dipped into the Bible once or twice over the years. I've done my time in Deuteronomy, having had it quoted at me by the soapbox preachers at my colleges; I've waded before through the Sea of Reeds (or the Red Sea--both are fine by me) with the Israelites heading out of Egypt--first in a children's Bible I read as a girl, and later in the King James I borrowed from the public library. (And with Charleton Heston, of course. How many of us owe our limited Bible literacy to the Omega Man?) I've skimmed the occasional psalm, and made it most of the way through the gospels thanks to an adorable little palm-sized book another campus Christian group was handing out for free.

But Acts is new to me, and has a freshness to it I hadn't expected.

It's the story, after all, of a long-ago NRM--New Religious Movement--and I have a personal sense of what it's like to take part in one of those. I recognize the excitement in the rapid pace--event after event after event--and the sense of being part of something that is growing too fast for the human eye to follow. Certainly, that's the Pagan history I know, from my own twenty years of it. So I read the breathless pace of Acts, and I nod my head. This, I can understand.

But Acts speaks to me in more ways than that. For instance, I read that, in the initial, heady days when the movement was starting to catch on in Jerusalem, not only did the sick and the troubled throng to the apostles for cures, but that the visitors to the city would actually lay the sick out along the streets, "so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by."

His shadow??? The dude was so revered, they thought his shadow falling on someone could cure what ails them?

I'm reminded of the John Lennon quote about the Beatles being "bigger than Jesus." After all, Jesus was only thought to be able to heal with the hem of his robe (and a little bit of faith). I don't think anyone credited him with shadow healing!

I find myself reflecting on what it is like to come under the intense adulation of a crowd caught up in that level of religious ecstasy.

I think I almost understand that position. I think I've seen it in action. I have not been the priestess at the center of a crowd of a five hundred ecstatic Pagans, but I've known a few of those in my time.

I've watched what happens to the leaders who get cloaked with spiritual numen and lit up by the enthusiasm of the crowd until they almost glow in the dark. I've seen how hard it is to keep your balance on that tightrope, and I've certainly felt myself wobbling with the few baby steps of that kind I've taken myself from time to time.

I've watched what happens to my friends when the crowds turn hostile, and I've watched the exhaustion that steps in when the borrowed glory goes home. The crowds are never done--they keep on pressing closer for that small brush of the hem of the robe, or the chance of a shadow blessing them as you walk by. But, avatars of the gods aside, human beings cannot sustain that voltage very long. Those who do not find a way to disconnect from the crowds and the heat and the momentum sometimes go mad, sometimes go bad, and sometimes (if they are lucky) fall down exhausted until a friend takes them someplace cool and dark to ground and find their center again.

So I'm not without sympathy for Peter (or John Lennon or James Naylor or George Fox, for that matter) because not only can all that intensity push you past the limits of human capacity, but it can really mess with your God-sense.

By which I mean, the excitement and the rush of the adulation is like a powerful current, ready to pull you off your feet. In the Pagan community, we call it "High Priestess disease" when it does so in obvious, ego-inflating ways, as it did for John Lennon. But it can mess with your center in less obvious, more subtle ways, too: when you spend enough time up on the mountain with God/the gods, the thin air of spiritual communion can make you a little giddy. Too much time graced by grace, and your humanness can start to show up in all kinds of disorienting little ways: getting cranky, getting clumsy, losing your common sense... losing not only your groundedness in reality, but your ability to recognize that you are losing your groundedness.

This, of course, is why Peter and I typically bring comic books to New England Yearly Meeting. Too much time in prayer, centering down as deeply as we can into the Light, we notice we get a little strange. Not a good, Quakerly-peculiar strange, either: more a, hey, let's step off the edge of a building and see if we can fly now strange. Yes, I'm exaggerating. But I really have no impulse to see by how much, so I try to bring along some very Mere Mortal things to do on such a spiritual occasion: hence, the comic books.

We need to find ways to recognize and honor our very limitedness, in the face of all that limitlessness, or we might begin to imagine very stupid things indeed, and think them wise.

I'm not saying that the apostles either had or needed comic books in the early days of the Christian church. But I do think that the rush of spiritual power and energy was overpowering for at least some of the new converts.

This is where Simon comes in.

My ears pricked right up when I encountered the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8:9. To begin with, it's a terrific name. (The old-style rendering, Simon Magus, is pretty awesome, too. I mean, talk about a great Dungeons and Dragons character name, right?) But also, I know Simon, at least by reputation; I've taught him--sort of--in the context of teaching Chaucer to 12th graders. One of the characters in Canterbury Tales is guilty of the sin of simony--so, of course, I had to learn what simony was and be able to offer that context when we discussed his tale.

The dictionary definition of simony is "the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges," and of course, it was a major concern for the medieval church.

But of more interest to me now that I've read the original story, is a more personal moral of Simon's tale. Let me sum the story up, for those of you who, like me until this week, haven't read it before.

Out in Samaria, in the time of the apostles, there was a magician who had built up quite a rep for himself as a miracle worker. That was Simon, and (like many another I know in the Pagan community) "he boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention... They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic."

However, the news about the new religious movement comes to town, and preachers show up talking about this Christ fellow. Phillip rolls in and starts working miracles, and eventually, there is so much enthusiasm in Samaria that the apostles send Peter and John out to help these crowds of enthusiastic new converts receive not just baptism but the Holy Spirit. Simon is there, and he watches as the apostles lay on hands, and he is just impressed as hell.

You might think that Simon would be annoyed not to have cornered the market on miracles and religious awe, having been the talk of the town (and pretty self-important, too) for years. But no: he doesn't want to compete with the newcomers. He can see that they have brought something new and wonderful to town, and he wants to join them, and to get whatever it was they had hold of.

Unfortunately, he sees new things through old eyes. When he saw what the apostles could do by laying on hands, he wanted the ability to do what they did--but he did not understand it. We know that, because he approached them and "he offered them money and said, 'Give me also this ability...'"

But the ability to pass along the real Spirit of any god is not a thing to be bought and sold. Peter rejected him. "...You thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God."

This is the part of the that story speaks to me. From where Simon is standing, what he's asking for isn't anything so terrible. He wants to be the guy laying on the hands. It's new, it's beautiful; he values it. He's willing to pay for it, after all. What's wrong with that?

What's wrong with that?

It is not so much about the money, per se. It's about commodification.

Spirit comes as it will. We love it, we seek it, we cherish it. But when we treat it as an object that we own, a commodity that we can possess or buy or sell, we forfeit it.

Just like love. Just as anyone who believes that they can buy (or sell) the love of another has no sense of that human relationship, so anyone who thinks that they can obtain, own, stockpile Spirit has lost the sense of relationship that is the core of that reality, too.

The sin of Simony, as I see it--as I see my own human temptations reflected in it, at least--is this: it is possible to become so drunk with admiration of spiritual fruits and goods that we seek them out as if they, the fruits, were the point of the exercise. We relate to the gifts of Spirit in that same old way we have always related to the world of objects and of things, rather than in the deeper way, the truer way. We cease to join in wonder with Spirit in relationship when we begin to grasp at the gifts of Spirit as though we could possess them, own them, show them off.

I hope I do not reduce God to an object. I don't think I often do, at least.

But I know how easily I can be tempted, particularly when I am already off-balance from an aura of spiritual exhilaration all around. With the best of intentions in the world, it is very hard not to go a little crazy when the voltage gets turned up, either in terms of the intensity of the contact with God or the intensity of attention from a crowd.

Perhaps this is one reason I am drawn to Friends, to a quieter way and a slower way, though a way, still of hopefully continuing to encounter Spirit directly, face to face, day to day.

I do not denigrate the work done by the talented and reverent Pagan priests and priestesses I know. But I also know that I am deeply relieved to belong to a community that worships corporately, collectively, so that the burden of discernment and of remaining centered and open to the Light--of not stumbling and getting lost in the mazes of my own self-importance--is one I share. For me, the Quaker way of worship is a better way.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

No, Listen--!

No, listen--!

Marriage is wonderful. It really, truly is.

Of all the many wonderful and miraculous things that I've experienced in my life, from the smell of clover in my six-year-old nose to the sound that a good dog makes settling at my feet by a fire, the best, the absolute most wonderful and beautiful best thing of all is being married to Peter.

I know--not exactly interesting to those of you who are not married to Peter. I'm sorry. But to those of you who are also married well, caught up also in a deep spring of love with your spouse, isn't it the truth? What is more worth the price of admission than this?

To those of you who do not know if there is a God or any gods, or who believe that the universe is flat and without life or meaning, let me say this: I can't prove to you that God exists or that Spirit exists, any more than I can prove to you that there is a difference between what is so cloyingly (but correctly) known as True Love and its simulacrum: convenient companionship and habit.

But, oh, there is a difference, and once you have tasted it, you understand forever that miracles are real, miracles are important, and if we could bring the world into proper focus and see it truly, we would be shouting aloud with joy every moment.

Admittedly, that would be loud and distracting, so maybe it's better that we can't keep our miracles in that kind of focus, and that the trivia of everyday life breaks through the gnosis of love with laundry, trash, alarm clocks, and bills.

But, oh, friends--do not settle for almost-love, and do not settle for almost-God. Let life sweep you off your feet. Wait. Be patient. Hold out your arms, open them wide in trust and love, and don't close them on anything but the miracle, anything except the Real Thing.

What brings this up for me tonight? Just the angle of the evening light, I suppose; the taste of a cup of coffee my beloved brewed me just because I am tired.

And I've been reading about marriage and love in a wonderful book, Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, and recognizing love in its pages; and reading there, too, an excerpt from another wonderful book about love, A.S. Byatt's Possession:
"What is it? My dear?"
"Ah, how can we bear it?"
"Bear what?"
"This. For so short a time. How can we sleep this time away?"
"We can be quiet together, and pretend--since it is only the beginning--that we have all the time in the world."
"And every day we shall have less. And then none."
"Would you rather, therefore, have had nothing at all?"
"No. This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere."
It breaks my heart, to know this music will one day end. All that lets me bear it is the knowledge others can hear the music, too--and that I know that the Light that shaped us both in love will continue on, long ages after we are gone.

My heart was made to love. My heart was made, as all human hearts must be, to break. And it is well.
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