Saturday, January 24, 2009

What Happens in a Quaker Meeting? Part 2: Ministry

Continued from Part 1: Worship

As I wait in the Light, sometimes images rise. Perhaps it is because of the years I spent doing Pagan trance journey--or perhaps it is because of some quirk of my mind, or something inherent in Spirit itself, for after all, most spiritual writings are rich with imagery, but when I am deep in worship, pictures form in my inner eye more reliably than words.

Some images repeat themselves. I often find myself filled with the memory of the sea of Light from C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
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... [T]he light grew no less-if anything, it increased--but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before.
Light and water, of course, both have strong spiritual connotations within Christianity. But they do in Pagan mythologies as well, and at times I find myself contemplating a different source of water; often, I feel as though I am sitting before a fountain (sometimes it is a well) that flows over the root of a great tree, the World Tree, where sometimes I have spoken with a Lady who spins on a great flax wheel.

Sometimes, images of that Tree, of of a forest of trees, or of a hillside covered with woods, fill my mind.

But more often, images of water fill my mind. Sometimes it is the White River, that flowed behind my house in Vermont, roaring under a bridge in flood stage. Sometimes it is a small, silver stream.

Sometimes it is just the overwhelming sense of water, living water, and the wonderment of being able to drink our fill--and the different kind of wonder from realizing that this is always so, and yet we allow ourselves to suffer so much thirst in this life for lack of seeking it, this living water.

So I will be centered in worship, as open to the Light as I can be, and as little technique-ing onto it as I can manage. And then, sometimes, Spirit will pull me in deeper. And sometimes a message will rise. It might be within me; it might be from another member of the meeting.

Sometimes someone in meeting has a message, and they stand up and speak into the silence. And generally, even if the message seems to be more about their own life and their own ideas than not, if they have been centered down into that Light too, then they speak enough truth that their words will pull me deeper. Even the reflected Light is strong.

J--, a member of our meeting, has sometimes said that spoken ministry is, to him, more often a distraction than not. That, normally, it's what is happening in the silence that brings him closer to God. And J--is one of those weighty Friends who you can see almost at a glance are the real deal. When he is in meeting, we are deeper; when he speaks, even if the message is not for me or makes no immediate sense to me, he speaks from such a deep and grounded place that, again, we all, as a meeting, go deeper.

That's what the best messages do, of course.

But sometimes those messages are pretty clearly from the "meeting for good ideas" (as opposed to the meeting for worship) and that can be a little distracting. And there's a kind of balancing act that I do with those messages, where I sort of wobble between trying to hold the message and the speaker gently and tenderly in my heart, and remember how precious this person is to the meeting even if they do sometimes wander into their heads in worship, and I just love them and listen to them. And that's a good thing. But at other times I fall into the trap of sort of trying to technique them into giving "better" ministry, by not so much holding them in the Light as trying to somewhat willfully yank them into it in "prayer." And that's not so good--a waste of time at best, and a form of spiritual self-puffery in general.

But when I manage to stay centered, I can hold a from-the-head message in love inside myself in the same way I can hold the sometimes clamorous noises our kids make outside or a family might make if they arrive late for worship. 'Cause, you know, kids are loud, people do bustle, and it's really all part of the sound of a meeting that's humming along, filled with life. The sounds of the sheep in the pasture outside--Mt. Toby really does have sheep in a pasture just outside--help me to center, and on a good day, so do even the less-spiritually led messages in meeting.

It helps that our meeting is rarely "popcorn"--that is, we almost never have a meeting where it's one message after another, with barely enough time for one speaker to sit before another rises... let alone time for my spirit to center down into the Light between messages. I appreciate the discipline we show as a community, and I'm very grateful that I've been learning how to be a Quaker amid what seems to be a good moment in the cycles of our spiritual life as a meeting.

Sometimes a message rises for the meeting in me. That is scarey and wonderful... The scarey... well, that's mostly because I know myself. As any reader of this blog can attest, my verbal cup runneth over, the the risk of outrunning my Guide or speaking from enthusiasm rather than a true leading is, in me, very, very great. I know myself and my failings well, and this is one of them.

So, when I get an urge to rise and speak, I do try hard to practice discernment with some seriousness. Not only do I work hard to try to discern whether or not what I am sensing is a message (as opposed to one of Cat's Patented Brilliant Ideas (tm)) but also whether I am taking something that is meant for me to ponder in my heart, maybe for a long, quiet, private time, and imagining it is a message for the meeting because I just want it to be.

I do sometimes want to give a message to the meeting for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways that are much more about me and my needs than the Spirit. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to be thought well of. I want to impress, and I'm feeling impressive, and, well, that's not a good reason to rise with a message. So I then go to work to set that aside.

Then there are the times that I am feeling so joyfully caught up in the worship that I just want to jump up, like a puppy onto the legs of the guests, and share my sense of the wonderfulness of it all. That's dandy, but there's some real ego in thinking that I have a special mission to tell other Friends how good the worship is today. I mean, if Spirit wants me to rant and rave to the other bathers about how clear and cool the water is, that's one thing... but to assume that no one can figure that out for myself, or that words (much as I love them) are the best way of responding to those feelings of joy and gratitude in myself... well, that's pretty much crap, and I know it. But the temptation to jump up and gush is sometimes incredibly powerful.

And maybe sometimes that upwelling of enthusiasm is the message. I do have a passion--I so want for every single person who attends meeting for worship to drink deeply from that fountain of drinkable Light. I so want for us never, never to settle for anything less, because the direct encounter with Spirit is so magnificent that to settle for a pale, intellectual shadow of it strikes me as a terrible tragedy.

And it does happen. Sometimes, people get lost, and wind up in a meeting for Thinking Good Thoughts, or for liberal meditation, or...

And sometime that puppy-like joy at being in worship has been shaped into a message. But sometimes, I know that holding the joy in silence is my real ministry to my meeting.

There are a handful of members of my meeting whose silence is a richer ministry than any words.

Sometimes it seems to me that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about vocal ministry, and about what is or is not appropriate vocal ministry. As if ministry were the point, when, really, the point is the worship--the communion with God.

And the faithfulness. But when you've really been there, held close in that Spirit, faithfulness becomes simple: "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

I say this, and yet, I expect I will always struggle against my nature in some ways. I am, by nature, voluble. I am, by nature, impulsive.

All the members of my meeting should be grateful that I blog. An awful lot of what I blessedly do not speak in meeting winds up here.

But what happens when an image takes on words and I begin to feel the need to share it with my meeting?

As I say, I have a hard time, at times, sorting out my joy and a message that is meant to be spoken. So I wrestle with that a good long time, testing first to see if writing it isn't really a better response. Or perhaps I can share this nudging feeling during our after-worship meeting. (That's a great gift to me when I am struggling to know whether or not I am supposed to speak!)

I try not to watch the clock. Often, at this point, it's pretty far along in worship, and I know that the kids will enter soon from First Day School, and I wonder if the message is for them--if it is a message--and I get nervous about not speaking and having the meeting end without having spoken (which feels just terrible when, indeed, it was a message that I was supposed to share).

I try not to rough out the forming message in my head. I do love to string one word after another in a sequence, and I fear that, if I let myself, the sheer momentum of words might propel me to my feet.

I try to set all the wondering aside, and stay in the calm, bright center where the Something that knows can guide me.

Then, sometimes, I feel a restlessness taking hold of me. Sometimes it has felt like a bubble in my chest, expanding and filling me up and making me lighter, and pulling me to my feet.

Other times, it's less clear, that urge to rise. I find myself certain--yes! I need to stand and speak!--and then the sense of certainty fades, and I settle again, only to find the same restlessness building again. Sometimes it takes a few false starts, and then--surprise!--I'm up.

Oh. Well!

When I find myself on my feet, I try to remember the advice I have been given about speaking "without preamble or apology" and also that it is not my job to shape the narrative or craft it any any way. My only job, I remind myself, is to try to stay close to that original root. Oh, yes--and to try to remember to speak loudly and clearly for the benefit of the hard of hearing. Happily, either instinct or Spirit tends to take care of that, as I often find myself with pretty watery knees at that point.

Often I reach out my hand to touch the back of the bench to steady myself a bit. Then, too, it reminds me of an experience of worship I have had at times, of how Spirit flows like a powerful river around us at all times, and all we need to do, if we only knew it, to know that experientially, is to reach out one gentle hand... and touch the railing of the bridge over those waters, on which each present moment rests.

All the universe is quaking, and in worship, I feel it rising up through me from the soles of my feet and the tips of my fingers, touching that wooden bench.

My eyes are closed. I try not to compose my words, but to get out of their way. It's not like drawing down and speaking as a priestess from trance, though--it is me speaking, but I try to speak only what is pressing against me to be said.

If the words stop, I try to sit down right away. I try, too, not to link whatever is flowing with any associated images or thoughts or nifty associations that may have been linked to the message as it formed in me, during reverie (as opposed to worship)
I've failed at this, once or twice. I really don't care for how it feels, to have warped a message, in trying to shape it!

I've also had the experience at least once of delivering all that was given me to say, and sitting down, and having a sudden feeling of tension, almost frustration, rise in me as I realize, Wait! That wasn't all there was! Something got left out! without really knowing what it was that was missing... only to hear, moments later, another member of the meeting rise and speak the part of the message that, somehow, wasn't there in my words, but was meant.

I love giving vocal ministry. I love it for its own sake, and I suspect that love I have for it is something that could throw me badly off balance. I can feel the tug of things like wanting to possess the Spirit I sense in meeting, or to make speaking in meeting be a reflection of my specialness instead of about Spirit. These things tug at me like currents in a river I'm trying to ford.

But there are other worries that tug at me, too--things like the possibility of thinking of vocal ministry as the point of worship, rather than the other way around. And I worry about getting it wrong, blowing the discernment (I'm certainly far from perfect!) and failing to be faithful.

I even have a sense--and this comes from my experience leading Pagan worship--of the price of success: allow Spirit to flow through you freely, and you can become, for a shorter or a longer time, a pretty charismatic and attractive figure. And Pagans, at least, dearly love to shove those who show signs of charisma onto pedestals. Pedestals are not only tippy places to stand, and good targets for the disaffected, they also tend to raise your feet dangerously above the ground that nourishes you.

I've seen Quaker ministry that might just have been powerful enough to light the city of Philadelphia for a year; I don't envy those ministers who delivered it the task of staying faithful to that much Light!

Nonetheless, I love giving vocal ministry.

I love the intimacy of it.

I love the sheer joyful sensuousness of letting the Spirit roll. Virtue, vice, or simple creaturely reality, I love the sense of the direct touch of God that comes in vocal ministry.

(Personally, I'm hoping to get better at finding that touch, and staying centered in it, in the silent ministry, too--that of worship, deeply and fully held. From where I sit, that's where the Big Quaker Boys and Girls go play.)

To be continued.

Photo by Sam Minter.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What Happens in a Quaker Meeting? Part 1: Worship

Continued in Part 2: Ministry

"What happens in a Quaker meeting?"

I was at a party a few weeks back, with most of my closest friends in the world. In the middle of the laughter and bad puns and off-key theme songs from 70's TV shows, Jonathan asked me that question.

"Nothing!" broke in my friend Laura, grinning at us across the room. And there was a wave of friendly laughter.

"Not nothing!" I countered. "Definitely not nothing." And I paused to collect myself, and then launched myself into an answer that was more serious than the setting really allowed, but less thorough than the question really demands.

So, for Jonathan and for the world, here's my real answer. This is not what I said amid the popcorn and the porter; it is what I would have said if we had all the time in the world, to anyone who really, really, wanted to know.

When I arrive at the meeting house, I stamp the snow off my feet, hang up my coat, and fetch my name tag from the rack where they are kept. Sometimes, Peter gets my name tag for me, at the same time he gets his own.

And all the while, my mood is getting happier, and I am feeling quieter and somehow shyer. At the same time, if I see a Friend I know well, we may hug quietly for a long time. I feel deeply glad to be with them again.

Or maybe there's nobody I'm on a "hugging" friendship with there when I walk in. That's OK, too... either way, there's a big bubble of both quiet and excitement growing in me every minute.

At last, I move toward the meeting room, through the lobby. At our meeting, the greeter is always someone from Care and Counsel. I think that's great, because, after all, these are the people you want the members to feel comfortable turning to with anything painful or difficult they need the help of meeting to deal with. And, once you have taken someone's hand enough times as you enter worship, you can feel a wonderful connection and openness to that person rising up in you at the sight of them standing by the door.

Of course, for a long time, I did not know these Friends by name. But I could always feel the love and tenderness flowing from the palm of their hands into mine when they would shake my hand at the door. Is it because of the years of practicing Witchcraft that I can feel in a way that is clearer than words the heart of a person through the touch of their hands? Or is it more to do with Quaker skinlessness? I don't know.

Sometimes the touch of palm to palm is as powerful a touch as I could bear, and sometimes it bubbles gracefully into more hugging. Either way, I am generally feeling an almost physical sensation of softening in my heart by this time, and the first deep wellings of joy.

As I enter the meeting room, if those who are already there are already centered down in worship, there is a feeling, as palpable as the softness of cotton wool that meets me at the threshold.

I try not to make an outward show of it, but I generally pause, at least for a heartbeat, and try to greet inwardly the Spirit that is there. There's a tangible Something that waits in the gathering meeting room; it's like the feeling of a hand resting on my shoulder or like the feeling at the end of a really good Pagan ritual--the warmth of candlelight and kinship and the nearness of the gods--but it's also different.

I understand that that Spirit is always present. I am not always open to it, but it is always there. Sometimes I wonder at myself, letting myself go so long thirsty when that Water is never gone; mostly I am just grateful that something about a gathered meeting for worship reminds me to rediscover it week after week after week.

Now I cross the meeting to my bench.

If it were up to me, I would sit where the full light of the sun could shine on me. I don't care if sometimes it is uncomfortably hot or that the glare is sometimes blinding--I like the light shining on my face! The Light is not only the sun, of course, and I know, intellectually, that it is as available to me on cloudy days or at midnight as it is on a brilliant winter morning. But I learned long ago, as a Wiccan, that our Younger Minds can be helped a good deal by symbols and associated images and physical experiences. And for me, well, the experience of the Light is in large part about light--brilliant, overwhelming, soul-flooding Light. To bask in the light of the sun is an outward experience that so suggests the inward reality that morning light alone can take me halfway into worship.

But Peter does not tolerate brilliant light very well, so we compromise. Whenever possible, we sit at the very back bench, facing the double doors into meeting.

This is another physical representation of the experience of worship for me. As a Wiccan, my worship took place in a circle, with the members of my coven seated all around me. And at my meeting, the benches are arranged in a big octagon--as close to a circle as a shape made by benches can efficiently create in a four-sided chamber. By sitting in back, I'm not declaring myself to be a "back-bencher" (Quakerese for a do-nothing Friend who contributes as little as possible) but rather, I am positioning myself where I can, in my imagination, stretch my hands wide and embrace the whole meeting within the circle of my arms. (This is particularly helpful when I am holding meeting--the term our meeting uses for the Friend whose turn it is, not just to signal the rise of meeting by shaking hands, but also to monitor and hold in prayer the meeting as a whole.)

Sometimes, as I sit down and begin to center down in worship, I will take Peter's hand.

Of all the many things I am grateful for in this lifetime, Peter's love is the most wonderful. So, when I take up Peter's hand, I am, in a sense, giving a physical thanksgiving for what I am most deeply grateful for in this world.

Gratitude is a very good gateway to worship.

But also, sometimes, I just crave the reassurance that there is someone with me I am close to, not just in a spiritual community way, but in a very everyday, mundane, take-out-the-trash and do-the-dishes kind of a way. Worship is a very intimate and skinless kind of experience for me. I like knowing that Peter, who saves me from crawling spiders in my tent when we go camping, and who brings me hot and sour soup when I am sick, is beside me and will care for me if I need care.

I like knowing, too, amid all this upwelling of intimacy and care, that there is one person who will never feel my taking his hand as an intrusion or a distraction. I will never be an unwelcome demand to this man, and that knowledge helps my armor to drop away just a bit more.

For, though I try to prevent it--with greater success as time passes--the armor of cynicism and feigned indifference and judgmentalism crusts onto me during the week. I need meeting for worship to strip it away--it gets harder and harder for God (or my fellow man) to reach me, if I go too long between meetings.

So. There I am, on the bench. I take a breath, perhaps square myself into a comfortable but centered position on the bench.

And I open.

Sometimes, no effort at all is required; I'm just there--in the Light. And it feels like being a little, little girl, holding up my arms and being swung into the air by my daddy, the tallest, best man in the world.

Sort of. That's not quite it.

Nor is it quite like it was to learn to float--again, with my father, who would hold his arms under me (warm and strong in the cold of the pool) and tell me to lean back... a little more... just lean back... trust... float... and his arms would slide away but I still knew they were right there to catch me if I needed them. And I could float.

But it's sort of like that.

Often there will be waves of that feeling before I start settling back into myself again.

When I do, I try to let my mind float, like a cork, in whatever direction it feels like all that Light is nudging me. Or, if I'm back to feeling the holes in my socks and being distracted by worries about the grading that is waiting for me back at my house after meeting, I just look around.

There are my Friends.

I let my attention be drawn to them, one by one. I am not usually systematic about this. It's a soft focus, attention-wandering sort of thing. But I find myself seeing each Friend in turn--really seeing them, sensing who they are, maybe remembering some story they told that caught my compassion or my attention, or some ministry they gave that moved me once. Sometimes I am just quietly grateful for the Light I can see so clearly shining from the faces of some of our older Friends. Sometimes I notice which benches are empty of their usual members, and my heart reaches out for them, like a hand.

There was an exercise we used to do, in Stepchild Coven and, before that, in COW up in Vermont, to strengthen our group wraith--our spiritual interconnectedness. We would all breathe deeply and rhythmically, and let ourselves deepen into a half-trance. Then we would speak the names of each member of the coven in turn, and as each name was spoken, each of us would try to touch the deep sense of that person within us. We'd try to hold the sense of them in our centers the way you'd hold a flower in your hand. And as each individual in the coven came to have a sense of the person who had been named that was as real as a touch on the arm, they too would speak that person's name. One by one, until all of us held each of us.

Watching members walk into meeting for worship is often like that to me. And when a person I have missed and reached out for walks into meeting, my heart leaps up in me, with such happiness to know that they are there.

There are Friends I don't suppose I have spoken more than a dozen words to over the years that I feel this way about. I am as happy and excited to see them as I was when I was a child and I woke up on Christmas morning to know the presents were downstairs waiting.

At times, tears start in my eyes about then. Again, I try not to have too much of an outward show... Peter scolds me if I forget to bring a handkerchief to meeting. My eyes leak easily. (That's just a side effect of being middle-aged, I think. But the tenderness behind them is real enough. I just wish it didn't drip!)

By the time the room is full, I may be continuing to feel the simple joy of the Light filling me up--in which case, I'm probably leaking into my hanky, and trying not to snuffle--or I'm on my way down again, into a more prosaic, thinking-thoughts kind of a space.

There are a lot of techniques Pagans use to alter consciousness. And I have very little doubt that having worked with those techniques over the course of years is what allowed me, when I became a Quaker, to "hear" the silence and to commune with the Light of Friends. Different techniques I learned and later taught are similar to Quaker waiting worship. But Quaker worship isn't the same (I think) as any Pagan technique--in fact, I try hard not to treat worship as a "technique" at all, though I use plenty of different tricks to get my mind to pause, center, and let go of its willful and hurried pursuit of my own goals and ends for at least a little while.

Scrying is like what I do when I worship, in the long holding of an openness (and sometimes of a specific question) in my mind. It's also similar in that, having learned to experience the divine in imagery as a Pagan, I often receive messages from God in Quaker meeting in the form of imagery--and sometimes physical sensation.

But scrying is a technique, and, after the first few weeks of worship, I began to try quite deliberately not to technique myself into worship. In magick, as a Pagan, I learned to sense the living substance of the Holy that permeates the universe, in the course of reaching out to shape it myself.

As a Quaker, I attempt to sense that substance without imposing my own forms or plans on it, and to wait and see what it holds for me on any given day.

And I wait--on the Light and in the Light. And sometimes images rise, and sometimes memories. And sometimes I am just thinking-thinking-thinking and I have to stop and push that aside and begin again. And again. And again.

And then, sometimes, Spirit will pull me in deeper. And sometimes a message will rise.

To be continued.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Trouble With the Inauguration

The trouble with the inauguration is that I'm going to be watching it.

In my high school. With my students.

And I'm really afraid I'm going to cry.

There's an unspoken law about successful teaching--never cry in front of a teenager. Younger kids sometimes find it appealing when middle-aged people get teary... I remember, when the kids in my sixth grade class threw me a surprise party at the end of my student teaching there, how happy they were at a visible sign that They'd Done Good. ("Those are happy tears, right Ms. Bishop?" one student chirped.)

But teenagers are not like that. They are emotion-phobic, despite their personal penchant for drama (or because of it) and it's not a good idea to be seen as too "emo"--at least, not if you're, like, their parents' age, you know?

Which may be too bad; I may not be able to refrain from getting verklempt while I watch Mr. Obama become the next president of the United States. And, though I did vote for the man, and am at least cautiously optimistic about his presidency overall, that is so not the reason why.

It's the symbol, dammit. And I don't think that my kids, however sensitive and compassionate they may be, will quite be able to grasp the importance of this particular symbol to members of my generation... any more than I can grasp the implications of it to a black American.

I grew up in a United States where blacks and whites hated one another--flat out hated one another--on a frighteningly everyday basis. And I don't care what the color of your skin is, when you're a kid, the sights and sounds of that level of antipathy hurts your stomach when you think about it. Even in liberal New England, I was exposed to plenty of pictures of screaming anti-bussers in Southie, the photographs of burned-out storefronts in downtown Springfield after Martin Luther King's assassination, and unselfconsciously racist comments by members of my grandparents' generation.

I used to have nightmares about race riots coming to my green rural neighborhood. When you're a child, the world is very small. (Ask the children of the 9/11 generation how many of them feared a terrorist attack in their peaceful small towns; most I've asked did.) And when you're a child, all you know is bewildered feelings of inadequacy around unbridgeable, unspeakable divisions like racism.

If anyone has a notion how a priviledged white girl in an all-white suburban town in the 1970s could have fought the beast Racism, I'd love to hear it.

But I did what all children do: I grew up, tucked away the knowledge of those parts of the world I could not understand which frightened me, and I went on with the business of creating an adulthood. I ceased to think of this unbearable, incomprehesible stain on my country and my self--unless I had one of those rare openings (an openly racist joke or comment from one of my almost-entirely white acquaintance) that let me do something to act against racism, in whatever small way. But, probably like most of us, I have dealt with this wound in American life mainly through silence and averting my eyes from that part of me which bleeds.

I've gotten on with life. What else is there?

And now comes this. Here comes a black man that apparently enough white men and women could feel safe with that--and how is it I am still stunned with surprise, friends?--he became president. And he is cutting like a buzz saw through all the layers of insulation wrapping that old, old wound in me.

I am feeling within me, resounding like a gong, the question I couldn't articulate as a child, that no one ever asked.

What would I give to have it just go away, this awful, ghastly racist hatred thing? What would I do, if I could somehow magically wave a wand and undo all that injustice, and set us all free of it?

The question has entered my heart, you see. I can hear it now--it never had more than pain to communicate to me when I was a kid--and it makes me weep.

I would give anything, wouldn't you? Wouldn't anyone?

Hey--I know the plausible answer to that, looking at history, is, well, no. Otherwise there would have been no slavery; there would have been no organized and systemic opression of "freed" slaves in this country, no Klan and no my grandparents' condescending and oblivious racist comments. There'd be no edging away from the black man walking down a dark street, no racial imbalance between the inmates on death row, and no scarcity of black men and women in all professions and all levels of government. History says, people won't give up a damn thing they don't have to in order to live in peace.

Screw history. History is wrong. My inner six year old knows that. There is a part of each of us that wants justice the way it wants fresh air and green grasses, and it is only the armor of cynicism we put on as we grow into adulthood that lets us pretend otherwise, and lets us act as if profit mattered more to us, or convenience, or our own small self-interest.

The election of the first black president has cracked my armor like the shell of a lobster, and the painful truth of just how much I want peace, how much I want justice, is flowing like the sting of salt water into all my secret places.

No--there is no magic wand, and no, the work is not done because a single mortal man will take the oath of office to become the first black president of my country.

But I'm cracked open by the strength of my childhood wish for a world of mercy and love. And all I can do is stand here, helpless as that child, and weep.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Taste of the Green Egg Omlette: A Review

Green Egg Omelette. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (ed.) 2009. 286 p. New Page Books, softcover, $15.99. (978-1-60163-04609).

Once upon a time, you could tell what "generation" a Pagan was by their first encounter with the Pagan magazine Green Egg. (I'm from the early Darling years, myself, though my teachers shared with me stacks of their original, mimeographed and hand-stapled Zell years, along with stories of legendary feuds in the Forum--the letter column of the zine--and of rivalries lost and found between one tradition and another.)

Green Egg held an importance to the forming Pagan community that nothing in recent years, with the possible exception of The Witches' Voice website, could hope to rival. We found ourselves and came to understand ourselves through the community we found in those pages.

Oh, there were exceptions. Some of us encountered Circle Network News first, or The Crone Papers, or Harvest. But, before the tidal wave that is the Internet swept most of them away, the first contact most Pagans had with the wider Pagan world was with zines, like Green Egg (often in the form of tattered stacks stored under their HP/s' bed). And if this is news to you, well, then, you must be a member of one of the new and rootless post-Web Pagan generation.

But even if there are no dog-ears or coffee spills to mark the pages, the new Green Egg Omelette anthology should help close the communication gap between generations.

Though it would be untrue to say that it's all here--the sometimes combative forum letters are not represented, for instance, which is perhaps just as well--there is a wide selection of articles that show how American Paganism came to define itself over the four decades of the Green Egg's publication. Some of the ideas in these essays became so important in themselves, like Tony Kelly's "Pagan Musings" or Morning Glory Zell's "A Bouquet of Lovers," that it is almost startling to find them here, in their original forms.

Other articles reflect a zeitgeist that peaked and ebbed over the years. It gave me a nostalgic thrill to find "witchcraft" [sic] referred to as "low-magic" by Brother Khedmel in a 1972 article on ceremonial magick; the rivalry and one-upmanship between "high" and "low" magick seems to me (mercifully) to be mainly a thing of the past at this point. So, too, I found myself chuckling at satires of the Robert Bly men's spirituality movement, and at half-forgotten icons like Pagan Cowboy Joe.

Christopher Penczak and Chas Clifton have contributed a forward and an introduction, and Clifton's chapter introductions provide some structure to what could easily have seemed like a jumble of articles.His chapter headers do a great job summarizing the main trends in areas such as Ecospirituality, Worship, Pagan Culture, and Gender and Sexuality--exactly as you would expect from the author of Her Hidden Children (the definitive history of the evolution of modern Paganism in the United States). Oberon Zell and the other primary editors also contributed to an introductory section which traced the evolution of the magazine over forty years of Pagan history, in terms that will probably be of interest to those who remember the different stages in Green Egg's development.

Overall, the book has a particularly professional layout, reflecting the original magazine while smoothly integrating old and new material in a way that is clearly not simply a cut and paste of old files. Lots of old illustrations and photographs are included, and they are generally of a high quality.

Unfortunately, there are some glitches, too. As is not unusual from small press publications, there are more typographic errors than there should be, and some of the biographies seem curiously out of date. (Chas Clifton's, for instance, seems to date to the time before the publication of his 1994 volume on Witchcraft and shamanism from his series Witchcraft Today. This oversight is especially odd given the important role Clifton played in helping to weave together the chapters of this anthology.) And, most seriously, an index would have been a wonderful addition to the book.

These are minor concerns, of course. Truth to tell, I enjoyed my tour of the Green Egg Omelette, and I enjoyed sharing it with my friends over the holiday. I urge everyone with a streak of either nostalgia or curiosity about the past four decades of the modern Pagan movement to order a copy. I suspect you will enjoy it--maybe even as much as we used to enjoy those tattered old copies from under the bed.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Peter on Reading Exodus

Part I: A Very Differen Book From Genesis
Part II: God Becoming God
Part III: Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live
Part IV: A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words

Reading through the Hebrew scriptures is a project that might well take me the rest of my life. Almost a year after starting, I'm now only about fifteen chapters into Exodus. I'm reading simultaneously the Anchor Bible and the JPS edition of the Tanakh. It's a personal quirk of mine that I find I prefer starting with a very technical translation and then later moving to one that's more fluid and readable. When the Anchor Bible comes to a word where the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear, it stops and tells you so, and gives you a dozen pages of notes explaining all the possible meanings along with the specific context clues or instances of the word in other texts. I just love that stuff. The JPS on the other hand, like most translations that are designed for the general reader, will simply chose the likeliest meaning, with maybe a brief footnote at the bottom of the page. You get good English prose, but often with the sense that something's missing somewhere.

Exodus is a very different book from Genesis--less mythic and more historic is its storytelling style. More coherent as a narrative. Fewer places where I find it shockingly bizarre in its implications.

Genesis was kind of amoral. Humanity was punished for "wickedness," but its not at all clear from the text what that wickedness was. Shtupping with angels? More often, punishments were allotted for anything that made God nervous or insecure. Humanity ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so now we've got to expel them from the garden lest they also eat of the tree of life and thus become gods just like us, because that would never do. But I'll show them how to sew animal skins first, in case it gets cold out there. And the tests of Abraham were all about loyalty, not conscience. Abraham wasn't supposed to ask whether it was right to murder his own son. God says THOU SHALT KILL and Abraham asks "How high do you want me to build the altar?" and this is a good thing. Hoo boy.

In Exodus, I suppose you start to get the first glimmerings of abstract right and wrong: oppression is wrong, and the liberation of slaves is right. Except that God, if we can take him at his word, isn't so much interested in the welfare of his people as in performing a lot of showy wonders to glorify his name, and its important to him that Pharaoh not agree to his demands so that he can make a name for himself by luring his army out into the desert and then drowning it under the sea. Mind you, I don't actually take God at his word here, at least not at his word as it was recorded by the human authors of the Torah. I think what we have here is a god or a vision of god (whether it's God's vision of himself or the people's vision of their god is open to interpretation) but it's a god with big ideas, a local deity who wants to identify himself with the unknowable, with God-beyond-God, with the Ground Of All Being. So he cannot admit to being in any kind of real struggle. If Pharaoh says no, then it's got to be because God hardened his heart against the Israelites, and why would God do that? The only logical explanation is so that God could then make an example of him. Plain as the nose on your face if you can simply read the text for what it says and not impose a lot of medieval Christian philosophy on it.

One way to phrase it: Yahweh, a local Mesopotamian storm deity, was making a bid to become the acknowledged name and face for the one all-powerful unknowable Creator Of All Things and Ground Of All Being. He pins his ambitions on Abraham, an unpromising and childless Sumerian merchant, and sends him to travel and make his fortune as a nomadic shepherd. He promises Abraham that his descendents will grow to be a great nation and that the whole world will someday be blessed through them. In return, he makes repeated demands that Abraham swear absolute and unwavering loyalty to him, even pushing him to the point of agreeing to kill a son that he loves, because once you've said yes to that, it's really impossible to question any later demands. Yahweh owns him after that, body and soul. Later on, when Abraham's descendents have been enslaved in Egypt, Yahweh sees his opportunity to make an even bigger name for himself through a very ostentatious display of power culminating in the classic storm god feat of wrestling with the sea. But Yahweh himself is changed through this process, becoming deeper and wiser as he identifies more and more with that rather abstract vision of the One (and only) God. Over the centuries, his priorities shift. He becomes less insecure, less jealous, and more concerned with abstract values and with humanity as a whole. Also, as the known world becomes ever larger and the Holy Land becomes a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire, Yahweh sees that he cannot continue to represent the One God without expanding likewise. He extends his pervue, first to include gentile Christians, but becoming ever more universalist over time until it is possible to claim, today, that anyone who makes a genuine connection with the divine is encountering the one true God who is Yahweh (though other gods, and the followers of other gods, may still rankle at this).

The same story can be related from a monotheist perspective as well. No, monotheist is not the word I'm looking for. "Monotheist" has too many connotations of Thou-Shalt-Have-No-Other-Gods-Before-Me. I want a word that describes the way Cat feels about Spirit as she experiences it in Quaker Meeting. I tend to relate to that Spirit as a patron deity, perhaps because I regard all theology as ad hoc and post hoc. We experience the divine, but the experience is the only thing we can say for sure is real, so I don't waste much time any more trying to categorize the Gods. But Cat's experience of Spirit in meeting is that it is something beyond, something on a higher level of the Kabalistic Tree, perhaps, than the Pagan gods. And that it is somehow unitary.

So take that perspective, and retell the story of Abraham and Israel.

Yahweh still begins as a local Mesopotamian storm deity, part of an archetype that was common among the tribes of that area. But somehow--whether it comes from the god or from his chosen people, we're not sure--there is a vision of and a longing for that One Spirit, nameless but omnipresent, that covers and unites us all. The centuries-long, back-and-forth struggle between God and his people now becomes a struggle to transcend that paradigm of loyalty to a patron deity and to create a new language and a whole new set of concepts for talking and thinking about the divine. It's not easy, because it's brand new. There are no precedents. There are no established habits of thought. Or rather, there are plenty of habits, but they're the old habits that keep making us backslide. Abram says, "Tell me where to go," and God says, "No. Just wander. My Spirit may settle here or there at different times. Follow the leadings of Spirit." Abraham says, "I'll make a human sacrifice, because that's what you do for your God, right?" and God says, "No. You can show me your willingness, if that's what you feel you need to do, but do not kill for me this son that you and I both love. Take this ram instead, and let that be a sign that from this day forward there will be no more human sacrifice in my name." Moses says, "Free us from Egypt," and God says, "No. You can free the people yourself if you open yourself to Spirit. Just as Aaron takes your vision and speaks it to the people, so you can take inspiration from Spirit and speak it to Aaron. But know that if Pharaoh is steadfast in opposing you, it is because he also draws strength from Spirit." Moses says, "I see! You're hardening his heart so that everyone will be able to see how mighty you are, and your name will be magnified!" and God says, "Oy veh. That'll have to do for now, I suppose. I'll send you some prophets later to clarify things, but for now here's ten fairly straightforward rules we can use as a starting place."

That's a very Quaker reading of the OT, and a very liberal Quaker reading at that. I am doing exactly what I said not to a couple of paragraphs ago: imposing a lot of preconceptions on what I'm reading. But, along with my instinct to simply let the writer say what he wanted to say, I also have to ask, What did God mean by that? God is real, all the gods are real, Spirit is real, Yahweh is real...or at least our experiences of them are real, and those experiences have enough of a tendency to recur--the experiments can be replicated--in a way that lends a certain object permanence to the things experienced.

The writers of Genesis and Exodus lived in a world very different from our own and operated with a completely different set of assumptions and paradigms about the gods. On the one hand, it is crucial to let in that reality, and to strive to listen openly to Spirit as it spoke to them. And at the same time, Spirit persists, and my experience of Spirit today will--must and should--inform my understanding of their experiences of Spirit. It's a kind of double vision, experiencing the Light as both particle and wave. Hold the contradiction. Walk from Truth to Truth as you would from room to room.

My personal issues with Christianity have to do with the emphasis on fidelity and the blindness of so many Christians to the reality of God's love outside the doors of the church. The need to insist that This is good must imply That is bad. But if even Pharaoh was acting from the promptings of Spirit, then maybe I can acknowledge that narrow-minded Christians are, too.

The God that sits there behind the stories in the Bible is kind of inscrutable. I once had a vision of the veiled, star-eyed Goddess holding out Her chalice to me, and I asked Her who She was. She answered that I should know better than to ask such a question.

Enough for now.

Share it