I stayed home for meeting for worship today.
The two acres of woods immediately behind our house have not been woods for very long. They are still in that stage of growth where the trees are mostly of the same age, young trees that are stretching their heads up as high as they can, seeking some light and air, jockeying for position among their fellows in a very close race. Only at the edges of the old field are there old trees: oaks, a hundred years old perhaps, planted behind (and apparently in) the old boundary wall.
These woods do not belong to us. Of course, that is the nature of living things; properly speaking, all living things belong to themselves. However, the non-profit that is the paper owner of the woods maintains a loop path in the young woods behind our home, with a fire circle and benches in the middle of it. As far as I can tell, neither path nor fire circle get very much use. Only once have I ever seen another human being on the path, and the fire pit is almost entirely grown over with moss.
However, there is a ring of a half-dozen wooden benches around this fire pit, and a small clearing in the already very open wood. It is an airy place, far enough from the road that the traffic sounds are muted, and it is possible to hear the drops of water, still falling in the morning sun from last night's rain; and the scolding of squirrels, the cries of jays and chickadees.
That is where I went for my morning worship today.
There is a different kind of quiet in the woods. And it brought me to a different sense of God.
I'm not much of a monotheist. I'm not much of a polytheist either, or even an animist. I'm a nicely mushy blend of all three, but, because these are such distinct ways of experiencing and thinking about the world, there are days when I might feel or look as if I was entirely one or the other.
As a girl, the only way to relate to Spirit I'd ever heard about was monotheism. But monotheism was too big for me, too abstract, and too far away from the daily contact with what I knew of holiness, the woods behind my earlier home. I could never quite connect with that concept of God: He remained my invisible make-believe friend for a lot of those years, someone I tried to believe in but couldn't quite.
I related better to fairy tales and stories about water nixies (our well was scary enough to have had one) and tree nymphs. It still felt a bit like make-believe, but it was a make-believe of manyness and particularity, in which each individual tree, each individual stone, possessed the potential for story, for presence.
It was not until I was an adult, able to hold in my head things like the notion that light can "be" both a particle and a wave, that I began to grasp the ways that language limits our ability to understand Spirit. Whenever we define a thing simply with words, we've killed it, dead.
I became Pagan. I began to worship gods of manyness; gods that were the physical presence and life force and numen of the tree and the leaf and the body I lived in myself. For me, those gods, and the encounters I had with them in ritual and dream and imagination, finally managed to transcend that seeming gulf between the individual, particular landscape of each pine or maple or ash; and the infinitely abstract, almost notional monotheist god of everywhere and everywhen.
It helped that I finally understood that all language is metaphor, and we're not half so precise as we think we are.
Are the gods many? Are the gods one? Tell me first what you mean by god. (We're constantly oversimplifying what we mean by that one, and then we wonder why we so often disagree.)
The language I need is the language that can speak my experience. When I became a Quaker, and felt the stirrings in me of an overarching, all-encompassing Spirit of peace and love, I adopted a lot of monotheist language. This blog is full of places where I write "God," as if I knew what that word meant. Because that's the word I need, for the Source-of-All-Being, all pervasive, immanent and transcendent (but maybe not personified) Spirit I seek in Quaker meeting. After a while, it just got tiresome to call that anything but "God," so "God" it often is. It's not as though I've got a better word.
But out in the woods today, centering down into worship, I found myself surrounded by all that many-ness. Dozens of species of trees, countless birds and insects and small creeping animals of the woods. The sun was low, and the number of small spider webs, gleaming with dew-light, was beyond counting. How many lives were all around me? How many hearts, how many eyes, how many living beings out in the same morning as me?
And the woods, even as autumn begins to open them out, even in a wood as young and open as that one, draw your mind to the individual, the particular, the ingredients of many-ness. I know perfectly well where the stone walls that border the old field run, and I know where the loop path is. I know, for that matter, where the woods open out and become my lawn, and, beyond that, the busy road on which I live.
But the woods hold their own silence, separate even from the outside sounds that find their way inside. And you cannot see far, in any direction, try as you may. Your eye is met with so many trees, each unique: the white pine that's rotting as it stands, circled with broken off branches and with a swath of lost bark; the swamp maple with leaves only on the uppermost ten feet of fifty; the hornbeam, no taller than you yourself, lit to incandescence with a shaft of sunlight.
You really do not see the forest. You see the trees, one by one by one, until their individuality blurs into an impression of infinite forms, infinite variation, an infinite series of singularities. Infinity of diversity, within a mere two acres of woods.
And then the light shifts, and it shifts everywhere, over the whole forest at once, like an expression passing over a face. And there it is: unity. The whole forest has one heart, one mind, one being. She's everywhere, and all around you, and--never mind that this wood is small, is young, is near the road and hardly wilderness--She always has been.
There is a Great Wood, of which all the woods that ever were or ever will be are simply parts, chambers of one beating heart. (Don't believe me? Go ask your local woods.)
And my old Wiccan duotheism comes back to me. She is the forest; He is the stag that runs within it. He is the young tree; She is the loam that bears Him up and nourishes Him, and will receive Him (and us) when He falls.
(My gods are, and always must be, gods of the New England forest. That much was decided for me before I was three.)
The gods are many. The gods are one. I know you might not agree with me.
But when I was done worshipping this morning, I got down on my heels, and pressed my palms against the needles and loam of the forest floor.
The floor of the woods is firm, but with a softness to it, a resilience, like flesh. It is flesh. It's Her flesh.
And now I'm back home, back in my house in the human world. But the smell of my Mother is still on my hands.