Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Standing on Holy Ground

I dreamed a few nights back that I was in a hurry.

I was rushing along through cleared fields and woods roads, up and down hills like the ones I remember from the town where I grew up. Though it looked nothing like the specific landscape behind the house that Peter and I are moving to this month, in the dream it was part of that landscape.

I was in a hurry because it was almost dark. There was a sense of urgency, but no panic--just a need to cover a lot of ground efficiently.

As I came up over a rise, along a power line I was following, I saw silhouetted against the brow of the hill a remarkable sight: a circle of standing stones, very stereotypically Stonehenge-ish, tucked under the wing of the soaring high-tension power lines. The sunset flared out behind the pairing in a breathtaking way, and I mourned that I did not have a camera with me.

I resolved to return with one for another sunset, yet wondered if it would ever be possible to capture the image again in quite the same way. I paused for a moment, drinking in the sight, and then rushed onward, into the darkening woods.

* * *

For whatever reason, I take change hard. And the older I get, the tougher it seems to be for me to commit to change anything. The main reason I don't dye my hair has nothing to do with Quaker simplicity, and everything to do with my fears of buyer's (dyer's?) remorse. What if I don't like it when I'm done?

I'm not old. But I'm old enough to think twice, three times, maybe thirty times, on even the smallest changes. My reaction time is already slowing, and not just when I drive my car.

The sunset is on the horizon. I am in a hurry. If I had not committed to making this move now, would I ever have had the courage to make it at all?

And what do I get for my move? High tension. Energy. High voltage energy, yet, crackling overhead, and a clear path to follow, at least for a while.

And what is under the wings of this change? What is it my sunset illumines for me?

Well, Stonehenge only has no connection to druids in a factual sense. I don't think it's especially hard to read, in the language of dreams. I might as well admit it to myself: my desire to live in sacred relationship to a forest is real, and powerful. I might as well pause, and take in just how important it is to me, in all the ways that matter. I might as well enjoy the view.

Even if I can never recapture it, I know what I am feeling about this vision, this moment.

* * *

And as for the fact that there are no such standing stones anywhere near the ordinary New England woods behind my home? Well, that's so much foolishness. Every plot of land is sacred land. Every stone was raised at Stonehenge. And every mountain is the sacred mountain.

Take off your shoes, Cat. You are standing on holy ground.

* * *

Of course, one implication of the fact that every mountain is the sacred mountain is that every desecration of a mountain is a desecration of my sacred mountain. Yours, too, if you love the land.

Maybe it is because I grew up on one of the eroded mountain stubs that is the distant sister to the mountains of Tennessee. Or maybe it is because the woods I am falling in love with and hope to stand steward to are so similar to the woods of Eagan. But this video breaks my heart.

Every mountain is a holy mountain. Every forest is a holy forest. If you feel the way I feel, speak out against the mountaintop removal mining that is destroying the mountains, the forests, the headwaters and ecology and community life of Eagan and hundreds of places like it.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed eliminating a streamlined permitting process -- known as Nationwide Permit 21, or NWP 21-- which allows coal companies to seek quick approval for their mountaintop removal coal mining projects.

Roughly one-third of mountaintop removal coal mining projects are permitted under nationwide permits, which means that eliminating the streamlined rule will help slow the pace of destruction in Appalachia.

The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments for the next 30 days on its proposal, and they need to hear from you.

Please take a moment to tell the Corps that you support ending the streamlined permitting process for mountaintop removal coal projects.
(Quote from

Monday, July 20, 2009

Peter on When Words Fail Us

I have been really struggling with how to respond to the controversy that keeps rearing its head (most recently at Quaker Quaker) about Liberal Quakers’ supposed “hostility towards Christianity.” I’ve been disappointed in and saddened by some of the Quaker bloggers whom I have respected as intelligent and thoughtful Friends with integrity but who are just NOT LISTENING to anyone who might, for instance, be hurt by the Pope’s encyclical against the Neopagans.

I was ruminating on various ways to respond—angry tirades, insightful analyses, heartfelt pleas for understanding and tolerance…none of which would have amounted to more than spitting into the wind—when I came across a quote from Wendell Berry’s essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation.” He said it all much better than I ever could. And Cat, in her comments over at Quaker Quaker, has been doing a good job of making the point that not all non-Christians are wounded refugees from Christianity; some of us just happened to grow up elsewhere. So I’ve stayed out of the discussion on QQ, and having stepped back a little—closed my eyes and counted to ten, as it were—I can see that it’s not my job to fix this problem.

And having seen that, I can move on to the real question, which is: If I listen to the Light, to the Spirit of Peace, and to my own Patron Deities, how would they have me respond?

What is God’s answer to all this controversy about God?

Words fail here, because it’s so easy—so obvious—for so many people to answer immediately, Jihad against the infidels! Crusade against the heathen!

Words fail…so what stands in their place? The Divine steps in, and, whoo boy, the second you say it the words betray you again. God acts in this world. Like, all that happens is God’s will, from the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (to glorify My Name) to the holocaust (insert lame rationalization here) to September 11th (to restore America’s pride and military resolve). It’s enough to turn anyone into an atheist, clinging to cynical rationalism as the one stable island in a raging sea of delusion and horror.

But God does step in. The overwhelming majority of the world’s religious people seem to deny it, fear it, run from the room covering their ears and shouting La-la-la-la-la! I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting! I’m not listening! Amen!

But God does step in. Look at the history of Wicca. The Neopagan movement has matured—not just grown explosively, but matured—over the past half century. Each generation has become more grounded, more spiritual, more in touch with the Divine and more aware of their place in the web of life and in the human community. And the clearest explanation for that is that the Gods have acted within the corporate body of Paganism much the same way they’ve touched my own individual life, and Cat’s and my life together. That which is divine in the Old Gods of the Craft calls to our highest inner nature—deep calling unto deep—and we have grown. Too many self-identified Christians simply can’t or won’t see it. But they don’t need to see it for it to still be true, and perhaps I don’t need them to see it before I can have meaningful and productive spiritual dialogue with them. Perhaps not…but that’s not the important question. The important question is, what does the Divine within my Gods—within the Light—what does that Divine Reality lead me towards in my own spiritual life?

I say What is God’s will for me? and I hear crazy street preachers spit the words of St. Paul at me as if they were curses (and in their mouths, the words of salvation are curses) and now it’s me that has to cover my ears and go La-la-la-la-la I’m not listening. I have to constantly tune out the batshit crazy Christians in order to be able to hear—not God—but words about God that sound anything like their lurid threats of apocalypse and Hellfire.

Where do we turn when words fail us? I’ll close with two quotes from people who’ve tried to answer that. And I’m going to try to remember to take my own advice.

James Nayler:

Thou asks further whether the name of Christ may be known to all the world by the Light within them, without Scripture or tradition? I say, yea, and by nothing else without it, for the name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c., which name none can know but by the Light of the World, though many of you read your Bibles who are the greatest enemies to his name, such is your knowledge as appears by your practice.

Wendell Berry:

Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

“It is golden,” while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men’s silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thought for the Day: Save What You Can

Pagans and Quakers spend a fair amount of time thinking about what is going wrong: wars, global warming, species extinction.

And if we're not careful, we can get caught up in feelings of helplessness, cynicism, or despair.

Today, reading about another effort to save yet another endangered species, I found my heart aching with something, something like this:

Photo Credit: KetaDesign
It doesn't matter if we're going to succeed or not. Not to you and me, and not to what we have to do. Yes, I am hopeful; but really, hope or despair is not my job. My job is to do what I can, small or large. Your job is the same.

Save what you can. Whether or not we're all headed for destruction is beside the point.

Save what you can. No pausing for cynicism or despair. No excuses. Get it done.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Walk in the Woods

I went for a walk in the woods yesterday.

Though it's not the regular occurrence in my life I wish it was, it wasn't just the fact of being in the woods that made the walk important to me. It was the fact that, after thirty years as an orphan from the woods of my childhood, I was once again walking in woods of my own. Peter and I are buying a house, and the house has woods behind it.

The woods will not literally belong to us, but to a non-profit located next door. That's all right. The woods I walked in nearly every day of my girlhood were not my own, either, beyond the two acres my family held the title to.

I couldn't even guess how many acres I rambled over as a child. From my backyard to the two oaks; from the path across the street to the ledges and the maple grove; from the end of the street to the Peak and the oak scrub and trails beyond it. I hiked over streams, across farms and orchards, in snowstorms, fog, blazing sun and, on at least one memorable occasion, through a small wildfire. But very little of the woods I hiked through was mine or my family's, in any legal sense.

Maybe the right way to say it is not that I grew up in woods that belonged to me, I grew up belonging to those woods. Not just any woods, and not the idea of woods, but those particular woods.

Properly considered, woods belong to themselves, and the thought of people owning woods is as obscene as that of people owning other people.

Will we ever see it that way? My despair says, no, but my memory of history says, maybe. It was not self-evident to my ancestors that slavery was wrong. Perhaps to my descendants, it will be self-evident that land cannot be owned, but rather, as a particular living, breathing, soulful thing, it should be cherished and respected for itself.

For now, however, the woods of my childhood are lost to me. There are big expensive houses built between me and them, where the woods have not simply been cut down to make room for manicured lawns. Of course, before the woods were woods, they were pastures and farms. Woods in New England have a habit of coming back: a hundred years ago, the land was almost naked. Now, it is the clearings that are vanishing, and not the trees.

I know that, but I have missed having woods that are my own--or whose human I am, to say it properly. And so it was quite an experience, yesterday, to walk past raspberries and mountain laurel, oak and hemlock and stones and swamps, knowing that, as in a marriage, I will have time to get to know this land.

"How would you like to spend the next thirty years getting to know these woods?" I asked Peter, at one point.

He said he'd like that just fine.

Loving land of your own, that you live with and on, is as different from admiring land that you travel to as is marriage to a one-night-stand. There are more beautiful patches of ground in many places: this plot of woods is not Niagara Falls or Mt. Lafayette or the Cape Cod National Sea Shore. It's not the Knife Edge or Cathedral Trail on Mt. Katahdin (one of the most beautiful places I have ever personally visited) or even a lake shore on a calm morning. It's "just" woods... just as Peter is "just" a guy. But he's my guy. I get to love him. I get to know what he looks like with crumbs in his beard, and when he's too sleepy to keep his eyes open another minute, or when he's covered with sawdust--even in his eyebrows.

Photo credit: Richard Bonnett
Land wants us to love it that way. It wants us to remember where we once saw a ladyslipper growing, or when the big windstorm took out that specific oak--that one, right over there--or where the last of the chestnuts still has a stump-sprout growing. Land wants us to know which old stretch of tumbledown stone wall holds a colony of chipmunks, and which is home to a snake.

Land, like a person, wants to be--deserves to be--loved in its particulars.

I have been away so long, lonely so long. It is going to be hard, in a lot of ways, making this move work. Money and time and energy are going to be hard to come by.

But I'm so, so glad at the possibility of falling in love again, at last.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Quaker Pagan Reflections Featured in Writing Cheerfully on the Web

Writing Cheerfully on the Web, an anthology of Quaker writing, is now available for order.

And Quaker Pagan Reflections is in it!

Edited by one of my favorite Quaker bloggers of all time, Liz Oppenheimer, it also features the work of many of my other favorite Quaker bloggers, including Chris Mohr, Robin Mohr, C. Wess Daniels, Aj Schwanz, Peggy Senger Parsons, Micah Bales, Will Taber, and Peterson Toscano. Sections include Ministry & Worship, That Of God, Convergent Friends, and Love As A Testimony.

Why should you buy a copy of this book? Well, besides the fact that I'm in it (and, did I mention, I am in it?) there's the fact that all of the featured writers do a terrific job at voicing some part of the complicated choir of the modern Religious Society of Friends. Absolutely there will be points of view that will surprise you, maybe even provoke you a bit. But, if you are interested in Quakers, the book will offer a juicy, quirky, lively, and sometimes even wise and insightful look at how a range of us walk our talk.

Plus--did I mention--I'm in it!!!

Writing Cheerfully on the Web can be ordered from Quaker Books--though, at the moment, you will need to email your order, as the direct link to the book is not yet up at their website. Alternatively, you can order the book through, the POD publishers.

(If you are email ordering from Quaker Books, be sure to include the quantity desired, your name, shipping and billing address, and a telephone number. For orders to private individuals they will call you later for a credit card. Or phone them, between 9:00 to 5:00 pm EST, Monday-Friday, at 1-800-966-4556.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Touching the Spirit

Ask me where I feel Pagan, and I will hold out my hands. Ask me where I feel Quaker, and I will touch my heart.

The other day, at my Quaker meeting, I had just come in the door before meeting for worship and was quietly greeting friends. I was, however, inwardly, already making the transition to worship in my mind, and as I was happily smiling at a friend who had just walked into the room, my hand found its way over my heart.

My friend, thinking I was giving him a kind of New Age salute, returned the gesture. My hand dropped a moment, sheepishly; I am far more New Englander than New Ager, and hate like anything to seem grandiose or self-dramatizing. The gesture, as a gesture, seems terribly precious to me.

Nonetheless, a moment later, I noticed my hand had returned to its position over my heart.

See, there's this thing about my hands. There's this thing about my heart. There's this thing about the sensuality of Spirit, and the physicality of prayer.

The thing about my hands is maybe easiest to explain if I tell you about Reiki. Reiki is part of it... but it's not the whole of it. In a way, Reiki is just the envelope, and the real message is inside.

I was given a Renegade Reiki attunement* at the Freespirit Pagan festival, in about 1996. I remember sitting out under the trees at the edge of the campground where the festival was held, smelling sweet green grass and listening to the wind moving over it, as perhaps a dozen of us received first level attunements.

After the attunments, we were directed to lay hands on someone, or at any rate some thing living, to establish the flow... and to take it easy and drink plenty of water for the remainder of the day. Spiritual work is physical work (something I'm too inclined to forget after meeting for worship, when a wave of fatigue will sometimes surprise me) and deserves at least as much respect as would a long bike ride in the sun.

I know people for whom receiving Reiki attunements has been a life-changing event, who go on to build entire identities around their use of this hands-on healing practice. (The most ludicrous example I have seen is the Reiki master I once saw wearing a mauve sweatsuit prominently emblazoned with the symbol for Usui Reiki. I put it to you that when you need to advertize your spiritual attainments on your sweatsuit, you may have work to do that does not depend on logos.)

I think this is because, for many people, Reiki is their first encounter with magic that actually works--that does something palpable in the world. And Reiki does. Oh, I wouldn't tout it as a cure for cancer--though I would recommend using it as part of a conventional treatment for cancer, if it's available. It will almost certainly make the recipient more comfortable, if not healthier. It can be hard to measure the physical benefits of Reiki, in fact, though I tend to think they exist, if only because Reiki has been useful to me, personally, for pain management when I needed it.

But what I mean by Reiki being palpable magic is simple and easy to observe: when using Reiki, your hands get hot.

I have no idea why this is, and the effect has dimmed for me a bit with time, as I do not use it as often as I once did. But, unlike many another alternative healing modality, from Therapeutic Touch to a range of magical healing techniques friends and covenmates experimented with over the years, I was able to feel Reiki at work from the first time I received it as a patient, and I was equally able to feel it in my own hands, touching other humans or even the green, green grass, that summer's day in Maryland when I was attuned myself.

For many of us, who want to believe in God or in gods, in miracles or in magic, there is a constant struggle to accept these things as true, or at least as possible. And some of us, lacking any clarity, succumb to the temptation to pretend that we believe, hoping that in that way, we'll put ourselves in a way actually to discover our hoped for relationship with the universe is true after all.

We pretend we have magic; we pretend we have faith; we pretend we have experiences of spirit, hoping we will have them one day.

Surprisingly enough, while that sometimes creates an impassable bar to actual encounters with Spirit, sometimes it does not. Sometimes, in the midst of our hopeful pretending, miracles intrude on our awareness anyway. I suppose it is a little like the way a young girl, daydreaming of falling in love and of romance, may find herself surprised by the genuine article, and fall in love for real.

For a lot of people who hoped for magic in the world, Reiki has been that first breaking in of the truth and actuality of miracles. For some, that has been as far into the realm of wonder as they have cared to go: having found one method for touching the Spirit, they latch on and look no farther.

But Reiki is far from the only miracle, and it was not my first. Having already experienced the presence of gods and magic in the world, I knew this, even as I was delighted with the sensuousness of Reiki itself.

My friend Maureeen, with a background in shamanism and shamanic healing, has likened Reiki to an Amway cult--not without cause--where those who are true believers become suppliers to the next batch of entry-level providers. Despite this, she agreed to receive an attunement from me, at the point where I had had enough training to give them. And on another hot summer's day, alone in a tent at the edge of a field, I gave her one.

Afterwards, she asked about the symbols I had used. (They are Kanji, for the most part.) She sketched one for me on the ground. Had I used this?

I had not.

She told me that what she had felt seemed to her essentially like the shamanic healing energy she was used to working with. She was initially a bit startled to recognize some of the symbols she saw in her mind as I worked, as they were also shamanic, and she would have been surprised to find one of her symbols being used in Reiki attunements.

They weren't. Though they were present for her. And that, I think, surprised neither of us.

Maureen has not gone on to practice Reiki--not name brand Reiki, even of the renegade variety, at least. But I think she and I both agree that it would be odd beyond measure to think that there was anything innately and uniquely sacred in the combination of gestures and Japanese calligraphy used in a Reiki attunement that can bestow healing magic. It is not that Reiki healing is unique that it startling--it would be far more startling if it were the only such modality that worked.

The uniqueness of Reiki, if it has such, is that it has a technology for transmitting the non-verbal awareness of how to allow it to flow within you. Reiki practitioners have nothing that Maureen hasn't got. But while the spirits of her shamanic workings guided Maureen in developing her hands-on healing abilities, they did not teach her how to share that ability to others who might want to do the same thing. Perhaps they would, if she needed them to, but they did not.

Reiki comes with a set of more-or-less reliable techniques for passing the ability along. Which is very convenient and helpful.

But the real delight of Reiki is not that, and it is not even the ability to help manage pain that has been resistant to medication, to ease athsma (my own most common use for it), or to speed healing times. I have seen it do all of those things--and I have seen it fail to do all of those things. I like Reiki. But I do keep my health insurance premiums paid up.

No, for me, the best thing about Reiki is the thing that it shares with Maureen's shamanic healing practices, with Wiccan spellcraft, and probably also with prayer and yoga and a thousand other spiritual practices, named and unnamed: it lets us touch the living body of God. (Yes, yes. I know that some of you don't believe in God. You may say mana if you prefer, or Gaia, or magickal aether. For this purpose, I am not at all fussy, especially since whatever I'm talking about is well beyond my comprehension anyway.)

That is what it feels like to me, at any rate. (I wonder what it felt like to the apostles?)

It is the sense of presence, of deep, deep interconnectedness, that matters to me most.

There are times, particularly when I am around those who are suffering, when my hands will suddenly become very, very hot. This happens more for me around emotional suffering than physical pain--perhaps because, with the years I spent as a psychotherapist, that is the kind I am most attuned to.

I don't, as some do, "tell" my Reiki to turn on. I just find my hands becoming warm and tingling, and wanting to touch. Nor do I lay on hands, uninvited, to those who are grieving or in shock, or intrude on what may be very private moments in their lives. Instead, I generally find myself placing my hands over my own heart, and...

I suppose the nearest translation would be "praying for them."

I hold them in love. I feel the truth of them, and I cherish them, and I remember that the healing power that is in my hands is in them, too. In their bodies. In their hearts. And in all the space between us.

I can lay my hands on my own heart--or my knee, or my shoulder, or my elbow, I suppose--because all these things are connected, and are in fact connected by that very thing that is flowing through my hands and making them hot.

I place my hands over my heart, specifically, because it feels right to do so. Because, somehow, I know that my heart must be stronger and more open in order to be helpful in this way.

Am I praying for the person in pain? Am I praying for myself to be open? To them? To God? I don't entirely know. There are no words in this. There is only the sensuality of doing--of touching them through this Other Thing, that touches them and me all the time, and runs like a river through my heart.

It happens to me more and more often, now. Not because my brain suggests it, but because my heart hungers for it, and my hands tingle with it, when I am in worship, I will find myself, often and often, hand to heart. (Sometimes I am hand to heart and hand to belly, to hara, perhaps to remind myself that I am rooted in this world and in this body, and this too is good?)

This kind of holding aches. I think it stretches me. I don't choose it--I respond to it. I rejoice in it.

But, mostly, I feel it. In my hands. And in my heart. For me, at least, right here and right now, there is a sensuality of Spirit, and a physicality of prayer.

*There are several schools of Reiki in the world. And in the United States, the world's largest economy, most of them are for sale. Renegade Reiki is not--its practitioners are mainly Pagans who defy the requirement to charge money for attunements and teaching. Depending on your point of view, that may be a good or a bad thing, but it is the form of Reiki in which I have been attuned. Open Source Reiki, if you will.
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