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Pagan Values Month: The Face Across the Table

As an old Pagan and a newer Quaker, I spend a lot of my time--maybe too much--playing compare and contrast between my two communities. Paganism's relative newness in the family of religions shows, and the longer I've been Pagan, the more clearly and obviously it shows, in fact. Consequently, there are myriad differences I've come to know and appreciate about the ways the Quaker world fits me that the Pagan world often didn't. For example: among Pagans, anyone with gray hair and a half-dozen years of experience in the religion is likely to demand (and receive) recognition as an elder. In the Pagan world, Peter and I most certainly are elders--and we try to live up to that in a responsible way, but the relative lack of peers and elders has held us back in our personal spiritual growth for years and years.

In the Quaker world, we are newbies. Hell, in the Quaker world, we're young Turks: at 49 and 50 years of age, we are among the younger, not older, Friends in most Quaker settings. I've heard many Quakers bemoan the absence of youthful energy in that setting... but, as someone who has lived for decades in a religious community that lacked elders who were, well, old, I deeply appreciate the years of lived Quaker life that our Quaker elders bring to us.

There are other examples: 350 years of practice in conflict resolution haven't made Quakers perfect at it yet, but they do have a head start on most of the Pagan communities I have lived in. Quakers have evolved some fairly sophisticated tools for communal discernment of individual spiritual leadings, while Pagans have only just learned to identify "unverified personal gnosis" as something to struggle with in community. And so on.

But there are strengths that deserve to be celebrated, too. For a young religious movement, Paganism has some wonderful depths and insights.

The trouble is, after almost 25 years, I have come to take so many of those positives for granted, as if we are an old married couple who rarely take the time to look across the table and really see the face before me. Often, it will be an encounter with the Quaker community that reminds me of what I am taking for granted among Pagans. Typically, I will be in conversation with a Quaker friend, or listening to a message at meeting, and I'll hear something like this:

"You know, I sometimes think that even trees have souls."

"I've been thinking. It seems to me that the human body is actually sacred. Even--even sex is sacred. I think. Probably. No, really!"

"I know it's a little out there... but I sometimes think of God as... Goddess."

Or, the perennial winter solstice favorite, "I realized today that this marks the darkest time of the year--but that the light begins returning now. And that makes me think about hope. Rebirth, and hope. Maybe... maybe our lives are like that sometimes..."

Every time I hear a sentiment like this expressed by a Quaker, I have to resist the urge to stare, or to blurt out something along the lines of, "You're just realizing that now?"

So many things I take utterly for granted about how I live my life--the immanence of Spirit; the rejection of any notion of maleness having a monopoly on the holy; the sacrality of the physical, of the body, and of love in the body; and of course of the powerful living testimony of love and hope and rebirth found in the cycles of the natural world--so many of these things speak to my Quaker community, too.

But they are not obvious, self-evident, or foundational truths in that community.

More than that, there is the Pagan expectation that experience, not dogma or creed or tradition, provides the heart of religious life. This is something Pagans rarely put into words--because we do not have to. The fact that our communities are primarily oriented toward ritual and practice, not the study of holy books or learned disputations, teaches most of us on a gut level that we can and should expect to meet our gods--to dance with them, embrace them and be embraced by them, to feast with them, sing with them, and (yes) argue with them.

That expectation is not absent from Quaker life--indeed, I take it to be the entire point of the Quaker practice of expectant, waiting worship: Quakers do not worship the silence of an unprogrammed meeting, we worship the Spirit that gathers us and informs us from out of that silence.

But a ritual is a more active demonstration of that basic insight, common to both my communities, that we need not live cut off from spiritual depths; we can directly experience the presence of God/the gods. And Pagans are if anything, overly concerned with orienting newcomers to our communities: classes, 101 books, meetings to screen and train and initiate prior to many of our most powerful explorations into the divine make it likely that those who are engaging in the Mysteries have a notion of how a community engaged in a ritual sees that ritual. (Large public rituals can be a disconcerting exception to this rule, of course, though that is likely to change as we become a more seasoned community.)

But the silence and relative lack of orientation, and the more open and public nature of unprogrammed meetings for worship among Friends allow plenty of misconceptions to flourish and take deep root in liberal Quaker meetings. It's not unusual to hear of even long-time attenders at Quaker meetings who mistake worship for individual Buddhist-style meditation, or simply a quiet time in which to think "good thoughts." And that can lead to shallow messages and a slowing of the prophetic stream among Friends to something of a trickle... or to "popcorn meetings": the "Meeting for Good Ideas" as I've heard it called, where too many messages begin, "As I heard on NPR the other day..."

Perhaps even worse, those who believe the silence is the goal and the purpose of Quaker worship, rather than the transforming encounter with Spirit, may come to resent whatever intrudes upon that silence: whether the physical restlessness of children attending intergenerational worship, the sounds of life outside the meetinghouse or within it, or even strong and spirit-filled messages from the depths of worship.

I know of Quakers I care about and respect who distrust the presence of Pagans (and non-theists, Buddhists, and assorted other "hyphenated Quakers") among us for fear that, without the universal acceptance of the word "Christ" for the Spirit that gathers and fills Quaker meeting, there will eventually come to be no spirit at the heart of worship at all: that Quaker meeting will become perpetually a Secular Society of Friends, and lose forever the experience of God that is the hallmark of it.

I would hate that, too. But it is because I am a Pagan, and because I am secure both in the ability of a community to retain an experiential heart in its worship, and because I have had the direct experience, over years and years, of its ability to do so despite wildly heterodox ideas about the nature of Spirit--ask two Pagans to describe their religion, and you'll get at least three conflicting explanations--that I am confident that that need not happen.

Indeed, I have some hopes that the experiential orientation of Pagans entering the Religious Society of Friends may help bolster Quakers against losing that vitality. One thing we know how to do, we Pagans, is be with our gods. One thing we know how to do, we Pagans, is live in our bodies the fact of worship, of relationship with God.

At the end of the day, the Pagan values that matter most to me are the ones that, even five years into a Pagan life, are the obvious ones. Love nature and trust it. Love your body, and trust that, too. It's all sacred, no thing is essentially profane or cut off from being whole or being good, and expect to encounter God here, now, and often, in the flesh and not merely in your thought.

Even after a quarter of a century, that face across the table looks pretty good.


Rick Loftus, M.D. said…
Cat, bless you for such a profound and powerful posting. As a new Pagan and long-time Tibetan Buddhist who values active participation in both ways, I feel a kinship with you. (And having been raised and still part of a Catholic family, I also understand and appreciate the Christian perspective on faith.)

I have often contrasted my participation in the Reclaiming movement of earth-based Witchcraft and meditation-based Tibetan Buddhism as the relationship between a younger sister and an older sister. They do share many resemblances--such as the unquestioning acceptance of reincarnation (an idea that was very alien to my Catholic teachers). The Pagan tradition is indeed very young, joyful, garrulous, playful, and often freeform in a way that can be undisciplined. The Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, is like the mature older sister, the young woman who has greater experience, self-possession, poise, maturity--and still good humor and grace. They are both excellent relations, both People whose influence magnify my love and promulgation of the Divine.

I do find that my Pagan community shows its newness in certain areas. Addressing issues around death and dying is one very good example--a reality that informed Siddartha's Noble Truths, and about which nearly 3,000 years of contemplation have granted Buddhist teachers a richness of insights that have proven invaluable to me. Pagan insights into death and coping with that reality can be no less profound but are less structured and individual (as so much of Neo-Paganism is). When you're tossed by the waves of grief, having a more structured set of practices can be a comfort. That's important.

Reclaiming is a tradition that considers activism--usually on behalf of feminist or environmental causes--a fundamendal aspect of spritual practice, and it's what brought me to this Pagan movement. Buddhism, by contrast, is only recently turning on to this idea, as exemplified by the buzzword "engaged Buddhism." As you point out, we Pagans are already *in* the world. It's our church. When I spend time teaching my nieces and nephews about what's happening to our bee populations, and how we can help combat the loss of this critical member of our natural world--that IS my worship of the Divine. That's practice. When I teach them the Reclaiming chant "We are alive/As the Earth is alive/... If we have courage/We can be Healers (CLAP)/Like the sun we will rise...": THAT is my liturgy.

As a growing number of Americans acknowledge a lack of ANY spiritual tradition or religious affiliation, I for one sometimes feel more kinship these days with any person who has some kind of formal religious/spritual practice (I know it's popular to distinguish those 2, but I do think a religion gives a vehicle to make personal spritual insight something that carries over into our participation with our community and the greater world.) I resonate more with my mother, a dyed-in-the-wool deep Catholic, than I do with, for instance, a person with no religious practice.

Thank you, again, Cat, for such beautiful thoughts.
Magaly Guerrero said…
"The fact that our communities are primarily oriented toward ritual and practice, not the study of holy books or learned disputations, teaches most of us on a gut level that we can and should expect to meet our gods--to dance with them, embrace them and be embraced by them, to feast with them, sing with them, and (yes) argue with them."

I enjoyed your entire post and when I read the part quoted above, I went Awwwwww... I just love the closeness you describe. I don't do well with a god so far remove that I need someone else to intervene in my behalf all the time.

I'm an Eclectic Pagan and I don't know much about the Quaker path, so I hope to learn a lot following your blog.

Thanks so much for sharing!
Thank you, thank you - for reminding me again of the holiness inherent in the Pagan path.

Terri in Joburg
Hystery said…
Hm. My study tells me that the emergence of Neo-Paganism in the United States has a great deal to do with Friends and with other liberal people and liberalizing tendencies that have always played a minor chord in American religious history. Seems to me like there have always been individuals who have just been wrung out by orthodoxy. In the past, such individuals bled out their truth in relative isolation. Neo-Paganism isn't so much new as it is a more efficient collection of those drippings.

When Friends resist my Paganism I wonder how closely they've read some of their most radical history. I also wonder if they've come to terms with the influence of nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism on their own sense of tradition (but that's a whole 'nother post!)

I also get bummed about Pagan attitudes about scholarship and history and with the notion that what they are doing is new. If I were teaching a course on the development of Paganism in the United States, I would begin in the colonial period and work my way through. Our elders have always existed in American history. They just called themselves Quakers, Unitarians, Universalists, Spiritualists, Theosophists and free thinkers. How many Pagans have read Matilda Joslyn Gage, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or Margaret Fuller?

I realize now how negative this response might seem but I'll leave it even at the risk of sounding like a jerk. Gerda Lerner wrote about the tragedy of women's history in which each new generation of women wrote as if no woman had written before. Neo-Pagans do the same thing. Our ignorance of our forebears and their work retards our development and keeps us in a prolonged state of spiritual adolescence.
sta┼Ťa said…
Hystery, are you coming to FGC Gathering any time soon?? :)
Anonymous said…
I have a serious brain-crush on you.
T. Thorn Coyle said…
And may we all become "anointed ones"

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