Sunday, December 30, 2012

Growing Well in the Light

I've been laboring for a while to put into words just what makes community such a necessary part of spiritual life.  I don't mean by this that it is wrong or a failure for any of us attempt to stay faithful and connected to our gods alone; I don't mean to echo the words of Gerald Gardner, who said we could not "be a Witch alone."  Sometimes all magic, whether of a Pagan or a Quaker variety, has to happen in solitude.  Sometimes there is no community that is hearing the music we hear; sometimes we are called away, on our own; and sometimes, solitude is for a time precisely what we are called to experience.

But solitude in itself can never allow us to find our fullest spiritual growth.

Without a community around us that is also striving for direct experience of Spirit, our own efforts in that direction will be held back.  For one thing, when the men and women around us are good at going deep, they tend to pull us deeper along with them.  I think of that as a "slipstream effect"--like a bike or a small car that moves along effortlessly in the slipstream behind a large, fast-moving truck.  We can take an express elevator down into the deeps of spiritual communion when we are in company with others who are able to do the same thing, and that's wonderful.  Surely, spending time in communion with the sacred is the heart of religious life--of all religious life.  But there is more to it than that: it's not simply that we can get to the heart of worship faster in company with others, it is that that same heart is best nourished in company with others who have been in that same communion--whether or not we share any ready words for the experience.  

I keep coming back to, of all things, a scene from a Stephen King novel when I think about this part of spiritual life.  (You have no idea how I wish I could illustrate this point with a more important seeming text... but never mind!)

The scene is from his best-seller, The Stand, and it is the point in the story where his friends are trying to prepare Tom Cullen, a profoundly mentally retarded man, for a dangerous journey into hostile territory.  They decide to use hypnosis to plant suggestions Tom will need along the way, and in the course of speaking to the hypnotized Tom, they discover that he seems to be more intelligent, both smarter and wiser, while in trance.

They ask him why.

"This is God's Tom," he answers.

And that's the root of it... When we are deep in worship, we are in our fullest, best, completest selves: the selves we can only be in potential in our daily lives.  (Though, with work, we can bring more and more of that potential into life.)

This I know experientially.

When I have been in worship amid a community in worship, too, I have journeyed down into my deepest levels of self, to where God's Cat lives.  And the person next to me on the bench has become God's Frank, or God's Georgiana, or God's Margaret.  And in that deep self, not only am I able to be in closer communion with Spirit, but I experience my real kinship with those others who are in their deep selves, too. 

When I have been God's Cat, sitting next to God's George, I know George in a deeper and more loving way than I used to.  Not only that, but from that time forth, spending time with George will call to mind both the experience of communion with Spirit, and also will remind me of what it is like to be God's Cat--completer and more loving than I was before.

Spending time with George will become a way of deepening both my connection with Spirit and with the best, most promising parts of myself.

It is perfectly possible to cause a seed to sprout using only water; it is possible to feed a plant's early
needs using only light.  But for that seed to grow healthy roots, strong vines and leaves, and to bear abundant fruit, you need good, rich soil: organic matter, minerals, and the whole ecology of bacteria and fungi that are drawn to support the developing root.

lettuce seeds sprouting
Photo Credit: Rasbak
We're not so different from that.  Spiritual depth is best rooted in spiritual community.  We need each other, in order to grow well in the Light.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Roots and Seeds

If you are a reader, you probably know the feeling.  Having moved from one house or apartment to another, you find yourself wanting to take down a particular book, and you know exactly where it is... in your old home.

That kind of phantom access, to a world that is no longer there, is more and more familiar to me as I age.  So often I will catch myself in a reverie, thinking of a friend or vista from my past... and somehow, the past feels like that misplaced book: I know exactly where it was, and it is a struggle, sometimes, to remember that I will never again walk down the halls of my old high school (they've torn the building down) or jump off the swingset I had as a child, or crawl inside the hollow log that used to lie hidden in a wood that is itself, no longer there.

The past feels present to me, and I reach out my hand for it, only to discover with puzzlement over and over again that it is gone--at least, gone in the shape I knew.

Last spring, we lost a neighbor.  This Samhain, we got a neighbor again, though of course, not in the shape we knew.

Image, Wikimedia Commons
Joyce and Pat lived next door when we moved in to our house, and had lived there long enough to have tales and stories not just of the seller of our house, but of the owner before that, a man named Eddie who loved to garden as much as Joyce did.  I can point out specific plants of hosta around the neighborhood that passed from Eddie to Joyce to someone else again, and I have plants in my garden that were planted by Eddie that I gave again to Joyce, and plants that she gave to me.

It is strange to contemplate the things that live on when we have gone.  Gardens, neighbors, houses... everything constantly growing into new shapes, new forms.  I type these words at a desk in the office I share with my husband.  Before we lived here, it was the office of a small non-profit.  Before that?  The tie rack still hanging in the closet says that it was Eddie's room, the master bedroom he and his wife once shared.  What use they put our bedroom to I do not know... nor whether the Gail and Nancy whose names were written on the concrete under the rotted-away oak paneling in the 1960's basement rec room still live nearby, or even live at all.

What I do know is that the present rests always on a foundation of the lost past.  By joining a neighborhood, I join myself to years of past I never knew, and become part of them myself.

And it's not just me, of course.  The process of new life moving in where the old has ended is all around us, all the time.  Where Pat and Joyce lived last spring, another family lives today.  Like Pat and Joyce, they are an older couple; unlike our old neighbors, they have children who visit them often and already have rooms of their own, a swingset, and a full set of toys out in the yard where Joyce's last autumn flowers have just finished blooming.

It is strange to think that I have seen the full year's cycle of those blooms, and our new neighbors, whose home it is, have not.

It is stranger still to think that Joyce will never see those blooms again, nor hear the laughter of the children playing on that swing-set, or the barking of their dog. (Joyce would have liked the dog; I feel very sure of that.)

And it seems strange to have a knowledge--a kind of intimacy--with the family's home, but not yet with the family itself.  I almost feel I ought to look away, avert my eyes from what is familiar to me, and not yet to our neighbors.

But it does not seem strange to have watched these changes come at Samhain.  It is not in the spring that seeds are dropped to earth, after all, but in the fall.  The old plants die, but the new life is planted even before the winter's snows.

I miss Joyce; I'll probably always miss her when I watch her flowers blooming, and miss her more if ever those flowers are replaced by something else.  And still, I have the strangest illusion of time, as if I could reach out, lay my hand on just the right shelf, and there she would be... and Eddie, and Nancy, and Gail, and all my childhood friends and neighbors, too.  (My nursery school teacher, who always owned a great dane dog, and always named him Thor... Tina, whose wedding shower was the first I ever went to, and who died before either of us was twenty-five... My high school guidance counselor, a family friend who was gone before her death from Altzheimers.  Are they really gone?  Can it possibly be true?)

Red Fallen Leaves.  Pixie from He
It doesn't feel like the new life in my neighborhood supplants the old, however.  Instead, it feels like a reminder of one long, long continuation, like a river moving always past its banks, never returning, never still, but always there.  Leaves become the forest floor, become the loam, the root, the leaves again, and somehow,  if we only knew how and where, we could reach out and touch them still.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Black Month

The black month November says M de la Villemarque is the month of the dead. On All Saints Eve, (the Scotch Halloween) crowds flock to the grave yards to pray by the family graves, to fill with holy water the little hollows left for this pious purpose in the Breton grave stones, or in some places to offer libations of milk. All night masses for the dead are said and the bells toll; in some places after vespers, the parish priest goes round in procession by torch light to bless the tombs. In every house the cloth and the remains of the supper are left on the table that the souls of the dead may take their seats about the board; the fire too is left burning on the hearth, that the dead may warm their thin hands at the embers as they did in life. When the dead mass has been said, the death bell tolled, the supper eaten, and the household are abed, weird wailings are heard outside the door, blent with the sighing of the wind. They are the songs of the souls, who borrow the voice of the parish poor to ask the prayers of the living.  
 --Tom Taylor, Ballads and Songs of Brittany. McMillan and Co., 1865

Halloween is only the beginning.

From then until Yule, the days get shorter, the nights colder, longer, and wilder.  However, rarely is there snow to lighten the daylight that does remain.  And though the winter days will be even shorter in December, and colder by far by winter's end, never will they be blacker than in November.

Samhain, it seems to me, is not a single day.  Samhain is a tide, a season, an acknowledgment of the rising dark.  The custom of honoring the dead, the ancestors, not only on Halloween itself but throughout this season. Ever since I learned of the old Breton custom of naming the month of November "the Black Month," and reserving it for honoring the dead and for telling tales of ghosts and the supernatural, it has made sense to me.  November is a dark and fading time, and I feel it every year.

I live in the United States, where we practice Daylight Savings Time in most (though not all) of our time zones.  In the summer, to take advantage of the early morning sunrise, we set our clocks forward,  effectively schooling ourselves to rise earlier.  In the fall, in recognition of the later dawns, we set our clocks back, sleeping in later to match the sun.  And though the purpose is supposed to be energy savings, it has seemed both dire and appropriate that for the last few years, the change from Daylight Savings to Standard Time has come after Halloween, during the Black Month.

It has been harder and harder to rise in the morning of late.  Of course, I am a school teacher, and my day begins earlier than most people's; it is never precisely easy to be up and out of bed at 5:30 AM.  But these last few weeks, as the sun has begun to slip farther and farther south on the horizon, and to peek lazily over the horizon later and later in the day, it has become challenging indeed.  I'm out the door and on my way to work by 6:30 AM, and each morning now, I face the challenge of either trying to fit my house-key into the lock in complete darkness, or to leave the porch lights on throughout the day, like a sign advertising that no one is at home.

Photo: Google, 2012
Each day, on my morning's drive, I navigate winding roads beside rivers, streams, and farm fields, normally scenic and lovely, but in November, utterly dark but for my headlights and a few windows along the way, home to early risers like me.  I have driven this route for three years now, and it has become familiar enough to me that I know its moods and its seasons; in June, I know the stretch of cultivated red pines that will smell like heaven in the early summer heat; in October, I know the stretch of woods that will become incandescent with changing autumn leaves.  And at all seasons, I know that one of the loveliest spots on my commute is in the center of the village of Westhampton, dashing past a series of 18th Century frame houses, gardens, and a big white Congregational church.  No more quintessential New England view exists in my day and age, and it always takes my breath away...

When I can see it, that is.

Come Yule, I know, just at that spot I will see the horizon blushing faintly rose with dawn exactly when I break into the open in Westhampton.  Come Yule, I will begin to watch the creeping light returning to blaze out just a little more frankly, a little more fully, every morning on my ride.

It hardly seems right, but here it is November, and there is no light in Westhampton Center when I reach it--only the faintest, most timid smudge of pink in the ashes to the east.

It brings me down for the whole day, not seeing that light; it will be one thing, in December, when the waning light promises its near return, and when snow begins to pick up and echo back to the sky the first light of day.  But now, in the Black Month, still so far from Yule?  The darkness seems cruel and inexorable.

Partly this is the changing weather patterns of climate change.  When I was a girl, October was the clearest month, with clear skies every night and crisp fall days near guaranteed each day.  Now, however, with more and more severe tropical storms, and a hurricane season that seems infinitely extended, October has become wet... and dark.  Already, I have been without the sun for a very long time.

Changing the clocks this weekend will help--for a while.  But by the time Yule itself rolls around, I will have been living in the dark long enough that I will feel the effects in my body.  I will feel sluggish.  It will be hard to wake in the mornings, or to stay awake at night.  I may begin to feel sad, mournful.

I could call it by modern jargon, label it "Seasonal Affective Disorder," and choose to light-bomb it out of existence.  Full spectrum light panels are all the rage where I live.  But I choose not to do this.

Wild Jagd, FW Heine. 1882
Instead, I'll set up small lights, pretty twinkling lights on strings, and I'll put them in my house.  I'll burn more candles; I'll make my hearth light with strings of lights as well, since my fireplace has a flue that does not function.  And I'll welcome the gray, the black, the dark, leaving offerings for our ancestors both at our Samhain table and throughout the month.  I will remember my friends and my family who have died, burning candles and putting out water, meat, and wine to thank them and to thank the spirits of this land where I now live.

I'm going to go inward, and allow myself to belong to the dark of roots and waiting for a while.  I'll read sad stories, sing sad songs, and make myself ready to celebrate our American Thanksgiving--a tradition dearly loved by many of my personal ancestors--at the end of this dark month.  Only then will I bring in the evergreens, put up the stars and suns and leaping deer icons we decorate the house with for Yule. 

Samhain is not a day; Samhain is a tide.

I will swim in this tide for a month, until it releases me for the return of the sun.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


In Part 1 of my Open Letter, I feel that I made two important errors, and I need to own them here.

The first was a lack of clarity on when I was asking that Christian Friends should take pains to discern the will of Spirit in sharing based on the Bible or Christianity.  I was not as clear as I meant to be that I was not talking about when Christians speak among themselves, or when established friends within a spiritual community are speaking to one another.  My caution applies to cases where Christian Friends--within liberal meetings, where it is relevant, as it is not in the other branches of Friends--speak in meeting for worship, or on behalf of their meetings or one-on-one with non-Christians they don't know.  In those situations, the dangers from outrunning our Guide is great, and a good way to avoid hurting one another unnecessarily is to stay low to Spirit while speaking boldly and confidently what Spirit gives us to share.

Some took my words to mean that every mention of the Bible and Christianity needed to be subject to a discernment process, and that wasn't my intention at all.

The second error was more serious, because it wasn't just a place where my writing was unclear, but one where I lost my own ability to do exactly what it was I was asking others to do: I did not stay low myself, and I outran my Guide. 

My Bible scholarship is also questionable, but that's really almost beside the point; if it had been solid as steel, it was still not mine to say, and I regret posting it.

I've changed the copy of Part One to strike the two paragraphs where I feel that I did this, but because so many people saw the original, it feels wrong not to acknowledge my error, so I'm doing that with a hyperlink to this post.  You can see the bit that I cut, with its context around it, below.
As I am obligated to stay low and faithful in my listening to you, you are equally obligated to stay low and faithful listening to me.

Your Jesus didn't choose his company based on their theological purity.  Do you really think that the non-Jews he cared for were mere charity cases and hangers-on?  Did he never listen to their words, consider their perspectives on the world?

Try not to be more arrogant than your god, when non-Christians speak.  You never know--we might be how That Spirit is talking to you today.

Some of you--most of you--understand this very deeply.  For that especially, I am grateful.  You did not only let me through the door--you sat at the table with me, and we have shared that particular spiritual communion.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Peter asks, what thou speakest, is it inwardly from the Gods?

Last month, I went to the annual gathering of Friends General Conference, one of the large umbrella organizations that many of the Yearly Meetings belong to.  While there, I met several other Friends who also identify as Pagan.  One of them wrote to me afterwards, asking himself questions about the compatibility of Quaker and Pagan religious paths.  What follows is based on my response to him: 

What Quakerism and Paganism share most profoundly is that both are experiential religions.  Neither one demands that you believe a doctrine or recite a creed, but both lead you through experiences by which you come to experience the Divine directly.

Those experiences often happen on a level that is wordless.  The Gods transcend language, but human beings live by words.  The Gods break us open, changing us at our deepest levels; words knit us together again in our new forms.  All of the Quaker testimonies, and all of the Pagan myths, are afterthoughts, and subject to change.

Not random change.  Not change at our whim.  It is a common misconception about Quakers and Pagans that both religions allow you to believe whatever you want.  The truth is that both religions ask you to undertake discernment.  As a Pagan, you do not choose your patron deity; your Deity chooses you.  As a Quaker, you do not (or should not—though many do)  argue you point in a business meeting with logic and powerful rhetoric; you listen for the movement of Spirit within the meeting, and when the gathered body comes to unity, it is not consensus with each other, it is Unity with the Discerned Will of God.

There is a saying among Quakers, something along the lines of “Be faithful to the Light thou hast been given, and more will be given unto thee.”  I don’t remember who said it, or even whether it was something from the eighteenth century or the twenty-first, but it expresses the idea of faithfulness as the grounding for continuing revelation.  I haven’t heard Pagans express the same idea, but the same thing clearly happens if you look at Pagan practice over time, both of individuals and of communities.  Each generation of Wiccan leaders since Gerald Gardner has become more grounded and more spiritually centered, and it feels like it is the Gods who have been leading us in that direction.

Paganism has had much less time to evolve than has Quakerism (70-some-odd years vs. 350 or so) and I think there are tools in the Quaker toolkit that could benefit Pagans greatly, especially our practice of corporate discernment.  There also seem to be a lot of Quakers who hunger for some Pagan insights, like our explicit recognition of the sacredness of the Earth, and our flexibility in how we conceptualize and talk about the Divine.  The two traditions don’t match up perfectly, but they complement one another in some powerful ways.

In framing his questions, the “Quagan” I met at FGC was defining Paganism by quoting from a variety of Pagan writings, and he looked to Faith and Practice to try to find equivalent Testimonies to what several writers had identified as defining characteristics of Paganism.  In the end, I paraphrased George Fox:  

You say Diana Paxton said this, and Margaret Fell said that: but what canst thou say?  Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from the Gods?

Monday, August 06, 2012

Stewards of Joy

I am blessed by some remarkable friendships.

One friendship that has grown over time into something extraordinary is the one I share with my Quaker friend Kathleen.  Kathleen loves to tell the story of how she and I met at a Woolman Hill retreat a few years back: she had found herself, a deeply committed Christian, feeling at loose ends among the liberal Quakers she knew then, as few of them spoke much or often about the Christian aspects of their Quaker practice--and, indeed, many did not consider themselves to be Christian at all.

So, being Kathleen, she prayed about it.  She asked to find someone she could connect with deeply about her spiritual journey, someone with as deep and important a reliance on Jesus as she had.

What she got was me.

This makes us both laugh--and laugh with joy.  Because we can both see that Spirit gave her (and me) exactly what we needed, even if it was not exactly what either of us had been looking for.  For, while she has gone on to make many committed Christian friends among Quakers, for some weird reason she and I have just always, from the first conversation we had, gotten one another.  I understand her humor, her angst, her passionate commitment to her faith... and, though it is freaky enough to be the punch line of a joke, she gets me right back, in all my Witchy glory.

We'll be in the middle of an anecdote, Kathleen talking about an experience she had recently in worship, and I'll jump in with an exclamation that might equally well be about my experience among Friends at Mt. Toby, or about my coven life in years past.

She will laugh richly.  "I can't believe we are talking about trance journeys!" she'll say.  And she'll grin, and I'll grin, and we'll go on.She doesn't know why my weird Witchy perspective on Quaker matters make sense to her, and I certainly can't explain why her Christian language and understandings make sense to me. (Well, I admit: I have a theory, having to do with Spirit being a helluva translator). But work they do. In a world of people talking at one another, she and I are lucky enough to hear one another. Which is very cool.

What Kathleen and I mainly do, when we get together, is talk. We talk about her daughter, my woods, good diner food, movies we like... but most of all, what we talk about is our lives in Spirit. Because what we both share most, what connects us on a scary-wonderful level, is how stone in love with the Spirit we encounter in worship both of us are. And how strange, and strangely wonderful is it that we two, who see and understand that Spirit so differently can nevertheless see and understand that we are talking about experiences of the same Spirit?

I remember the first time I wept in meeting; I remember the first time I trembled in meeting--the literal quaking that Quakers got their name from; I remember how it felt the first time Spirit pushed me to my feet with a message: a big WHOOSH of Life and Power.  And these experiences are deep and profound and mind-blowing and exhausting and intimate in a way that is very hard to explain to someone you don't trust to hear you right.  It takes a measure of courage to tell people that you not only talk to God, but that He (She/It/They/We) talks back.

I have stood in a place where my whole life has seemed to tremble with the intensity of nearness to Spirit; Kathleen (especially lately, poor/lucky thing) stands there a lot.  When a person stands in the bright Light of Spirit often, it gets overwhelming, sometimes. And you want to talk about it, but you don't want people to think you're crazy, or grand-standing, or self-important, or simply carried away.  You actually sort of need someone who has looked into the Eyes of the Universe and fallen in to sit with you, hear you out, and say, "Oh, yeah!  That is some kind of crazy shit, isn't it?  And wonderful, too."

You need to be listened to matter-of-factly, but also with appreciation for how strange, how very strange and outside consumer-consensus reality this stuff is.

At least, I need that.  And Kathleen needs it, too.  And we're really lucky that we can give this thing to one another.

There are a lot of labels you could give to what we do.  "Spiritual Friendship," is a good one.  And there is an element of deliberate cultivation of our friendship for each of us.  We recognize that we are helps to one another's spiritual development, and we arrange times to meet and to talk to take advantage of that.  And we'll talk about daily life--we are both teachers, and parents--and take a walk or go out for french fries or ice cream.  But we'll also unpack our spiritual challenges and journeys together, and even set aside time for what the old-timey Quakers called "Opportunities," when we will worship together in silence, or pray.

We do that a lot, actually. Before the end of most of our visits together, we'll sit still, me in my rocking chair and she on the couch next to it, and it will get very, very quiet. It's rare for us to have words for each other from the Silence--though not unheard of. It isn't rare at all to feel something in the intimacy of that silence that is deeper and truer than all the words, and that holds them together.

We both have a knack for irreverent reverence that works very well... despite, or maybe even partly because of, the ways we are alien to one another.  Our conversations are a deep well of gladness for me, whether we are talking about her spiritual journey or mine, her Work or mine. I'm pretty grateful for that friendship, and I can hear God* laughing a deep, rolling, belly laugh over setting it up for us.  It is a good thing, and it works.

And a few weeks ago, Kathleen came over for a visit.

Summer is a busy time for Quakers.  All these "Yearly Meetings," plus gatherings, conferences, workshops... not to mention it being a good time for teachers to travel in general, and visiting individual Friends and meetings when traveling is a time-honored custom among Quakers.  Kathleen in particular is drawn to this part of Quaker life, and a good deal of our conversation revolves around what that is like for her--not so much what different meetings or individuals are like, for she is not a gossip, but what it is like to be her, in her skin, encountering Spirit in so many different places.  She is often led to visit a meeting or to seek out an individual person, and we have spent a lot of time this past year discussing what her sense of a leading is like.  (Short answer: Strong.  Urgent. A little bit breathtaking.)

We talk about eldering and ministry and how we test what we think we know from the world of Spirit.  And we have a helluva good time, which is what we were doing that day. (Plus, she let me finish the onion rings!)

And in the course of discussing her travels, she talked about how another of her friends had inquired whether she might be overdoing her Quaker work just now. (She has been very active this summer.)

She felt clear that she was not. Her gauge? Joy.

And I agree. Deeply, passionately, clearly I feel sure of it: while following a leading may not always be easy, may involve struggle and hardship at times, it also always involves joy. No matter how difficult the Work, when it is faithful, there will be underneath it a powerful current of joy--like an underground river at one time, or like a river in flood at another.

As somebody once put it in Some Book Or Other, when our talents are harnessed correctly, "The yoke is easy and the burden is light."

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Lincoln's Dog Test

I tend to agree with Abraham Lincoln, who once observed that he didn't care much for a man's religion whose dog and cat were not the better for it.  And it's not just dogs and cats, either, but all the beings of the Earth--including the somewhat annoying ones we happen to share a species with.  I take it that that's what religion is for, and that we honor our religious tradition best by illustrating that.

Compassionate engagement with the world ought to be the main fruit of anyone's religious life.

I would think that was obvious, if we did not live in the age of the Internet.  But living in the age of the Internet, I am exposed to an awful lot of ideas that go under the name "religion," and some of them bear the same religious label I do.  This bothers me, possibly more than it should, because I dislike having the religious tradition that I love so poorly represented.  This is especially true for me of Pagan ideas, because Paganism is a religion that is still forming and taking shape, and so a good many people get to present themselves as experts in our religion, and to take a part in shaping it.  And not all of those people live out their Paganism in a way that benefits their dogs and cats, let alone anyone else on the planet.  I am thinking most of recent discussions on health care over at The Wild Hunt, where a vocal minority of Pagans seem to have missed kindergarten on the day we were all taught sharing with the other boys and girls, and to be determined to use Paganism as the excuse note for that fact.  But that discussion, though a vivid illustration, is hardly rare enough to bear remark.

My guess is that my Christian readers are as offended by some of the discussion that passes for "Christian" in the world at large in something of the same way, though there the cause is more the wide popularity of the religion than any other cause.  If enough people identify with a movement, you can be sure they will begin to carry the name and symbols of that movement as a flag, and to use it to rally troops for "our side," rather than to use as a tool for self-transformation or growth.

Flag waving seems to be part of the human character.

And understanding and working with the human character, in a way that improves our ability to relate to and to live in harmony with one another and with the world, strikes me as the only valid measure of anyone's religion, whatever labels they may give it.

Relating to gods, spirits, ancestors, and religious communities?  Well, yes--because those are either ways to enter into relationship with one another and with the world, or ways to deepen our ability to do so harmoniously and well.  The key is relationship; the key is kindness.

It's probably obvious that I envision God/gods/Spirit as immanent within the world.  If you don't, this summation of the purpose of religion is probably missing something--about relating to that God/gods/Spirit beyond the world.  But it is interesting how much of any of the world's religions turns out to be a compilation of advice on how best to approach that central task of being in harmonious relationship with one another and with the world.  How do we best recognize and channel human character to accomplish that end?  Often there are lists of recommendations: The Nine Noble Virtues.  The Five Wonderful Precepts.  The Ten Commandments.  They all break down to advice from other human beings, more or less inspired by Spirit, on how to harness our unruly selves to the plow, and till the field of our relationships with others until we bear fruit: Compassion. Integrity. Courage. Humility, and Respect for what is beyond our understanding.

I put it to you that any religion that does not include as its primary goal the cultivation of these fruits or their close relatives is what used to be called "false religion."  And while religions may include many other goals and goods, important or otherwise, I am inclined to dismiss the moral relativism of our era and call them that.

  • If it doesn't make you kinder...If it doesn't make you more compassionate...
  • If it doesn't make you more awake, aware, and committed to the well being of others...
  • If it doesn't show you the limits of your individual self, and lead you to reach beyond that...
  • If it doesn't help you to find the places where your self-interest misleads you, or causes you to betray yourself or others...
  • If it doesn't help you to discipline yourself to a level of humility that allows you to hear new things from others and from your gods...
Fido, Lincoln's dog
Then your religion is probably false, and you may be guilty of idolatry.  It would be a good idea to reexamine the ways  you are relating to the teachings you have been given.

Thursday, July 05, 2012


When we die, where do we go?  Does more of us remain in the grave, or where we have lived?

My husband Peter and I have lived in this down-at-heels farmhouse for three summers now.  It is an odd house, in an odd sort of a neighborhood; I have hundreds of acres of woods, much of it owned by various public groups, in my backyard, a suburban neighborhood of close-built ranch houses across the street, and a neighbor in such another house not a stone's throw from my kitchen window.

Despite the fact that deer and bears and hawks and owls are all regular visitors to my yard, despite my flourishing garden and apple trees, I do not live in anything like isolation.  And there is no place on my property that is truly private from my neighbors or from the street.

I'll admit, my dream of a house in the woods was of a house off by itself in the woods--maybe not one where I could never glimpse the smoke from my neighbors' chimneys, but definitely one where I would never have to see my neighbor unless I sought them out.  I wanted privacy and solitude in a natural setting, and I did not get that when we found this house.

Instead, I got Pat and Joyce, a couple in their early 60's, whose chemically-enhanced lawn was the pride of their existence, and whose lawn ornaments, ride-on mower, and drifts of cigarette smoke were far from the pastoral fantasy I'd wished for.

From the first time we visited our house, they were there: Pat nearly always with a beer in his hand, and Joyce with a cigarette most often firmly clenched between her lips, as she dug up a weed or transplanted an annual.  Pat was quiet and reserved, but Joyce's whiskey-rough voice was raised again and again with greetings, advice, questions, advice, advice, and more advice.  She had advice on how we fenced the part of the yard for our dogs, on the overgrown state of the perennial beds we inherited from the owner a decade ago--a particular friend of hers--on how we cared for our dogs, took out our trash, hung out our laundry.  (It was Pat who once advised Joyce, in Peter's hearing, to wait to be asked for that advice, and to let us do what we wanted in our own yard.)

I didn't think I was going to like her at all.

I was wrong.

While I continued to find the drifts of cigarette smoke annoying--and in fact could not breathe the few times I was inside their house, where the lingering smoke triggered my allergies and made me wheeze--and never lost my sense that my gardening was never going to live up to Joyce's standards, her company especially grew on me over time.  She was upfront--OK, meddlesome.  But also generous.  It was typical that she not only offered advice on setting up our dog fence, but actually came over on a hot summer's day and insisted on helping us to set it up, offering us supplies left over from projects of her own and her energy and enthusiasm on a day when we were mostly wilted from the heat and effort of moving.

When we set up the clothesline in the back yard, she was dismissive.  "If you really want to save money, tell Peter to take your trash to the dump yourself and cancel that pickup!" she told me.  (An impossibility in a teacher's busy life, in our experience.  But no criticism stings a Yankee like a criticism of our thrift--either implying we have too much of it, or not enough!)  I swallowed a retort and continued to hang out the clothes... which meant being outside, in the sun and air, watching the birds hang in the sky overhead, but which also meant being outside as Joyce puttered in her garden.

We got to calling out news to each other over the hedge.  She came into the yard to admire the dogs (and to advise us on proper walks schedules, especially for our lab mix, who she adored).  I asked her to help me identify weeds from unknown perennials in the border between our yards... she brought me a clump of celery the size of my thigh, carrots from her garden...  Somehow, we passed from a strained politeness (my mother's voice in my inner ear: "Be nice!") to something like warmth.  I don't remember any boundary markers between wariness and friendship.  Suddenly, there we were.

When Peter built my raised beds for me, there she was, with advice we were actually asking for.  And when we didn't take all of it, she shrugged her shoulders, and gave us more that we could use.

She warned us that the arborist was not going to be able to save our hemlock from the wooly adelgids that are plaguing it.  (She was right, though it is not dead yet.)  She gave us fresh tomatoes; I gave her elderberry jelly.  She let me harvest black raspberries from her back yard and dill from her garden; I gave her pickles.  She told us stories about her friend Eddie, the master gardener who created our garden beds, and we told her stories about our daughter, soon to be married, and her soon-to-be-husband, Nate.

This past fall, when a freak October blizzard left us without power for almost a week, Peter took a snow rake to her roof, and she let us use her gas grill for making our coffee.

We were neighbors.  And we were friends.

She delighted in our successes with our raised beds, showed me how to dig and divide perennials, and let us come over and cuddle and coo over their new dog, Sydney, when they brought home a rescued Bichon to keep Pat company.

For Pat was increasingly ill.  On disability for years for a blood disorder, he began to have repeated hospitalizations for hemorrhaging, sometimes in his brain.  He'd lost fingers to his disease before, but now he was losing mental acuity as well.

And Joyce was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When she went in for surgery, she gave Peter (who could breathe the air in their house) detailed instructions on Pat's medication schedule, and asked him to check in on her husband each day.  She was afraid for him, and she was afraid for herself.

I don't know how religion entered our conversations.  I think I may have simply needed to let Joyce know that she was not alone; I told her, during one of our conversations in the back yard that I was "holding her in prayer."

Well.  Holding her in the Light.  "Prayer" is such a loaded expression, meaning so many things to so many people.  And it implies, in most minds, a Christianity I don't possess.

The phrase I chose was cowardly, perhaps.  But to have said, "I'm doing spells for your health and for Pat's," while also true, would have been more about me and my needs than about her needs and Pat's.  I couldn't do it; why lay more questions, potential conflicts and misunderstandings, long-winded explanations, on a woman who had more than enough on her mind?  So I said "prayer," and let her assume what she felt comfortable assuming.

I fear she thought me to be something I am not.  Peter, too.  But I couldn't really make myself care about that.

Joyce lost her hair.  We praised her wig.  Pat came home.  We asked after his health.  Joyce's hair returned, she began landscaping the very back edge of her property, we saw one another more and less and more as the seasons passed.

And then Pat died, and on a rainy day this spring, we attended his memorial at a funeral home downtown.

There was an open casket, and many formally dressed strangers... and Joyce.  And I hugged her--for, though Joyce was not a huggy person, she and I had passed that point in friendship some years ago.  And I felt how small she was in my arms, and how fragile.  Though she was not a thin or a slight woman, she felt birdlike when I held her.

"It's so lonely without him," she said to me as we faced the coffin where Pat lay, a Red Sox cap beside him.  He  lay so still on the pale satin lining, and there was no life left in or near him anywhere--no sense that this had ever been a person, other than that outward husk.  "How am I ever going to go on?"

We made plans to dine together.

She broke them; Joyce was not ready to be with anyone yet.

Weekends and five workdays passed--the five days of compassionate leave that our society affords for the death of a life partner--and she returned to work.  And died there, that very first day back.  Went into her office, shut the door, and had a heart attack.  She was gone by the time a coworker found her there, lying on the floor.

My neighbors, Pat and Joyce, died within two weeks of one another.  Relatives came, cleaned out the house, ran a tag sale, and put the house up on the market.  The sun still shines, her grass still grows--and is mown, on a ride-on mower, by a friend in the neighborhood who does it for the memory of her--but there is no plot of dill, or tomatoes, or celery or carrots growing in her yard this year.  It is empty and barren, even as all those flowers she planted all the many years of her life in that house continue to bloom and bloom and bloom.

Somehow, I cannot wrap my head around the strangeness of it all: of death and what happens to us when we die.  And so I pause at my kitchen window, dumbfounded by the lawn ornaments, dumbfounded by the flowers, the greenery, the grass next door, just beyond the hedge.

When I hang my laundry, I pause, waiting for Joyce's voice to greet me.  When I return home, I stand in the driveway, looking for her.  And every glimpse across my yard reminds me that she is gone, and she is never coming back.

I remember that I didn't think I was going to like her.  I remember that I used to brace myself, with my mother's lessons in politeness, whenever I heard her voice.

And I think of how many people in each of our lives are like that to us.  How many times do we turn away from a neighbor, because their lawn ornaments are too bright and slightly tacky, or because they clench a cigarette between their lips in concentration as they work in the garden, because they give us too much advice, or don't hold exactly the same values that we do?

It is one thing, that we turn away from those among us who do real harm in the world.  But if we are honest, how much more often do we refuse to see the humanness in ordinary men and women who might, like my neighbor Joyce, become friends if we would only allow ourselves to see them properly--unique, whole, and beautiful, and here for so short a time?

We forget; I forget.  One neighbor is not enough to break me of a lifetime's habit of cynicism.  But I am intending, at least, to remember, which is something.  And I have Joyce's flowers to remind me--Joyce's flowers, and the care she gave to mine.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pagan Values: Hospitality (And the Affordable Care Act)

Yesterday, Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt wrote an email wondering what Pagans feel regarding this week's Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, and about the ACA generally.  My first reaction was that I really had nothing to say on the subject... as a Pagan, that is.  I do have my own opinions, to be sure, but at first blush, I didn't see them as grounded in my religion.

Upon further reflection, I have to say that, yes, I do.

Pagans as a group are a pretty political bunch, and of course my Pagan friends have had a lot to say over the past few months leading up to the Supreme Court's decision.  I've heard from friends on the far Right, who would like us to abolish the Federal Income Tax (never mind the ACA) and friends on the far Left, who would like to see us abolish private insurance altogether, and nationalize health care entirely.

What I haven't heard is very much discussion of the ACA grounded in our spiritual beliefs rather than our political convictions.

While I've heard very few Pagans make arguments grounded in our values, those I have heard have mainly come down against "Obamacare," as they generally put it.  One way or another, these opponents of the law tend to rest their argument on what has sometimes been called the "high choice" ethic of most Pagan religious groups today.  Whether Hellenic, Asatru, or Wiccan, most modern Pagans have a basic understanding that as long as what we choose to do "harms none," we have the right to do it without interference.

And the government reaching their fingers into my wallet, should I choose not to buy health insurance, would count as interference.  Interference with individual freedom is seen as an obvious Bad Thing, a violation of Pagan respect for the free will of the individual.

I'm not buying it.

There's a vein of thought in the contemporary Pagan movement that seems to see the point of Paganism as primarily that, as a Pagan others "don't get to tell me what to do."  It often seems that the basic belief is that, for Pagans, nobody,  whether god or man, has the right ever to require service from us.

But if we take the core ethic of Paganism as individual freedom alone, we need to understand that we're breaking pretty dramatically from what ancient Pagan cultures believed.  Remember all that unpleasantness over Christians refusing to offer a pinch of incense to the Emperor?  That wasn't actually a trivial offense, but a serious one: a refusal to honor the god of the state, the deified personification of the authority of the government and the cohesiveness of Rome as a people. 

Likewise, throughout the ancient world, it was understood that a man or a woman had duty to their rulers, who had duty to them, and that everyone had duty to the gods.  Life was a dense and complicated web of obligations and services, and the worst fate imaginable in most ancient cultures was to be free of those obligations, an exile, a landless man living outside the bonds of obligation and community he had been born into.

And while I don't advocate a return to a state religion, and I'm not particularly interested in honoring my government as a god or paying fealty to a lord, I think the history pretty well puts to rest the idea that ancient Pagans didn't think their society or their gods had a right to impose obligations onto individuals.

High-choice we may be, and I think that being a religion of few "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" is a good thing overall.  But Paganism has never been an individualistic free-for-all, and it's a mistake for us to treat it as one now.  If a legal requirement is in accord with the will of the gods, Pagan history suggests that our ancestors would have been just fine with imposing it on the individual.  Individual freedom, in the face of the values inspired by our gods and the needs of society as a whole, was not unlimited.

So what do our gods, what does our history, have to say on the subject of universal health care?

While there is nothing in the lore that comes down to us from ancient Pagan cultures to say directly whether mandated health insurance is or is not a good thing (any more than there is anything in the Bible that specifically forbids or permits abortion, a technology that didn't exist at the time it was written) there are, it seems to me, Pagan values that do apply.

I am thinking of the sacred duty of hospitality.

Baucis and Philemon visited by Zeus and Hermes

The ancient world is replete with stories of gods in disguise, visiting among men to test our hospitality, whether it is Odin appearing, disguised, on the doorstep, or Zeus and Hermes blotting out an inhospitable village--and rewarding those nearby who upheld the value of hospitality

So what is hospitality?

To a modern, secular mind, hospitality stands for very little beyond a willingness to put out towels for the use of overnight guests, or having a few good recipes for when company comes. Invited guests; invited company.   People we know and already love, or at least want to impress.

In the ancient world, it meant something more.

In the world in which our ancestors lived and formed their values, there were no Sheratons or Motel 6's dotting the landscape.  More, there were no well-organized authorities to turn to for basic safety in traveling.  In the ancient world, there were only two ways to move from place to place and live to tell the tale: with an army at your back, or relying upon the hospitality of strangers.

Hospitality was a serious thing, a duty.  And it was a duty owed, not primarily to one's friends, but to strangers, people one owed nothing and who might never be capable of doing you any good in return for what was given them: a meal, a bed, safety and kindness and an assurance of one day's needs having been met along the road.  True, guest gifts might be offered, and they might well be extraordinary and rich ones; but the point of the gifts was primarily to extend an offer of friendship, and a host was expected to extend their own friendship, at least for one night, without condition based on the ability of the guest to bring offerings of value into your home.

Think of this: throughout the ancient world, a place rife with violence and insecurity, with hunger and need on every side, those who were home and safe were expected to open their doors to the stranger and care for them.

Most of us, today, can scarcely be bothered to drop a coin into a homeless person's paper cup, or to write a check on behalf of the local food pantry.  And yet, there are those in the world still who honor these traditions, sometimes at great risk to themselves--and, like Baucis and Philemon of the old story, they are more likely to be among the world's poor than among us, the world's wealthy.

For instance, I remember clearly the tale I heard from one woman who grew up in poverty in the Townships of South Africa under Apartheid, of how her mother would always stretch the meal, no matter how scanty it was, so that there would be at least one portion left for any unexpected guest who might come to their home during the meal.  In spite of real want, real hardship,  let alone inconvenience, the ancient custom was honored: there would always be a place for the visitor, the stranger, the guest.

Because without such an acknowledgment of the need we have for one another, the bonds that tie us together in human societies large enough for the niceties (art, medicine, music, joy) would fall apart.  Hospitality, the willingness to serve the stranger, is the glue that holds us together--not, as we sometimes mistakenly believe today, money--and the gods themselves require it of us.

How does hospitality apply to ideas of universal access to health care?

Well, obviously, it applies first and more essentially to providing members of our society with the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, safety, and respect.  And it is worth observing that "our society" means our greater, global society, not just the society of our friends and our familiar communities, any more than hospitality in the ancient world was restricted to one's countrymen or members of one's own class or clan.  Hospitality is meant for the stranger... though even in the matter of our own countrymen, it seems pretty clear to me that a good many of us are willing to let the hungry person in our own neighborhood be turned from our door unfed and disrespected.

But in a world where few of us go to bed at night hungry, and where basic shelter is, in fact, available to most, it seems to me that other basic needs, including health care, become part of the obligation we owe to one another, and to the strangers at our gate.

Now I, for one, do not have any more inclination than most to invite people I do not know into my home overnight.  Nor would many hungry or homeless people be able to find their way to my farmhouse at the edge of the woods.  So I do the next best thing: I participate voluntarily with charities that provide necessities to others, and I encourage my government to distribute these basics as well, using my tax money and that of others to do what I as an individual do not want or am not able to do for those who need my hospitality.

And in the matter of health care, I do the same.  I am not, myself, capable of delivering a baby, providing chemotherapy, or insulin injections to those who need these things.  But it seems to me completely in accord with my Pagan ethics that I should be expected, with others, to band together to provide these things as they are needed.

As they are needed.  Many will object, saying that there are those who seek benefits to which they are not entitled, who, in effect, abuse the hospitality of our society by taking goods they do not need, or could easily provide for themselves.

Without disputing that there are some who do that--though, having worked among the poor for decades now, I am willing to witness that it is far fewer than some of us believe--I will only point out that the danger for us, that our tax dollars will be less well spent than we wish, is far, far less than the danger that dogged those who gave hospitality in the ancient world.  They could honestly fear being murdered in their beds by those they sought to help; we fear being "ripped off."

I think it worth reflecting on that most famous story of hospitality abused, that of Odysseus and Penelope's suitors, who abused her hospitality for years in Odysseus's absence, despoiling his flocks, drinking his wine, and laying a kind of siege to his wife in an attempt to take his kingdom from him in his absence.

Penelope received them as guests.  They betrayed her hospitality.  And the gods were offended, and when Odysseus returned, they aided him, and he left none of them alive.

And while I'm not suggesting we bring back the death penalty for those who abuse hospitality, I think it worth remembering that those same suitors, when Odysseus returned, disguised as a beggar, mocked him and would have denied him hospitality if they could.  And it did not end as well for them as it did for Odysseus, or for Penelope, who did the hard work of honoring the duty of hospitality even when it had been dangerous and difficult for her.

I look at our lives of relative comfort and ease--and in global terms, all of America is the 1%--and I wonder: do we consider how much of the hospitality of our culture we have already been shown, we who drive on public roads, make use of publicly supported hospitals and schools,  fire-fighters, police officers, sanitation and safety engineers, and public utilities?  Do we consider, as we ready ourselves to mock those who have less, or to turn them away in suspicion or self-interestedness, how great a debt we ourselves owe?

I would not want to be in the suitors' position, abusing the generosity of my society, growing fat on the forms of privilege and public service that have given me an education, protected my safety, allowed me to find meaningful and gainful work in the world... only to turn around and refuse to honor the needs of those who stand in need of care, on the grounds that some of them might not "really" need it.

The gods favor the generous.  And a just society, in Pagan terms, absolutely does have the right to require us to be generous.

To an observant Pagan, hospitality is mandatory, not optional.

I have no quarrel with the ACA.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Peter's Sonnet

It is dangerous to express ethical or philosophical positions in poetry. People will react to the outward forms rather than to what is said. Great evil may be excused if it has artistic merit, and great good discounted if it seems trite or derivative.

I think this is part of why the early Quakers were so stodgy, rejecting music and theater and always dressing in grey. I think it's also why modern Friends still place such a high value on plain speech. A rhetorical flourish might help me to win an argument with you, but in so doing, cost me the benefit of your wisdom. The corporate process of listening for the leadings of Spirit means listening deeply to one another, and that works best when each of us speaks our portion of the Truth with neither preamble nor apology, trusting that if the message is Spirit-led, it will be heard on its own merits.

This is all true. And in spite of it all, I have written a sonnet.

Light and Darkness One

My mind cannot deny my body’s truth.
The passions rising of their own accord
In mellow age, as in the fire of youth,
Will speak their meanings plain, though not with words.

So let me know you, and by you be known,
Stripped naked past the skin to stand revealed,
My longing and my lust, my blood and bone,
Disclosing spirit fear would have concealed.

We shed our righteousness and all pretense,
Convicted of our love, and unafraid.
We come together, knowing what we sense,
And in our fire, find holiness remade.

And only then, with light and darkness one,
Is God’s creation properly begun.

This began percolating in my mind after a weekend retreat I went to recently where a group of us were working on a statement about Quakers and sexual ethics. (This was not the same retreat I wrote about in “Silence and Intimacy”, though it was also a deep and spiritually intimate experience.) The group has been meeting for several years, and the poem embodies something I’ve been trying to put into words there for quite a while.

I look at what I have written, and I see in it the ways in which I’m still very much a Pagan: celebrating darkness as the complement of light rather than its adversary, and sexual lust as a force for good, and beyond that, as a source of holiness.

The Quakers I’ve shared it with so far don’t see it as un-Quakerly. In spite of the intense “outward forms” imposed by the sonnet structure, it celebrates directness and unadorned truth. The overturning of righteousness is no more radical than anything George Fox advocated or practiced, and the call to stand unafraid and declare what we know experientially is very Quaker.

So I guess it’s a good synthesis of the Pagan and the Quaker that I am. A “Quaker Pagan Reflection” indeed.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Peter on Silence and Intimacy

This past weekend, Mt. Toby Friends Meeting held a weekend-long retreat. About sixty Friends gathered at Woolman Hill, a Quaker retreat center that’s about half an hour to the north. Many of us stayed there Friday and Saturday nights; others commuted. The Friends attending included slightly more than half the regular attenders at our meeting.

One of the queries that was asked early on in the gathering was, “What do you most long for in your faith family?” Some of us felt more comfortable with the phrase “spiritual community,” but the question was valid for all of us. What I said I most craved—what I have been longing for my whole life, really—are spiritual intimacy and a sense of shared meaningful work.

I have had this at a couple of points in my life. At Oberlin I felt like organic gardening and left-wing Christianity could save the world, and in the Oberlin Farm Co-op I felt like we were beginning to do it. In my 30’s, in the Church of the Sacred Earth, I felt like we were inventing a new religion and finding new ways to connect with the Divine. Cat and I were newly in love, and as a couple we provided a “seed crystal” for a group house, and around that a coven, and around that a whole rich and vibrant Pagan community. It was exhausting and volatile and often painful, but at the same time full of meaning and hope and love.

The loss of Christianity in my 20’s was a wrenching experience that left me feeling shattered. Entering my 40’s as a Pagan, I did not lose my faith so much as I simply came to feel I had followed that path to its end. I had come out on a plateau, and from there I would need to find another path if I wanted to keep growing. Quakerism provided that further path, with new ways to touch and be touched by the Divine, and with people who were wiser than me and had much to teach me. But that heady, almost narcotic sense of community that I’d felt in the Farm Co-op and in Paganism was still lacking. It seemed like it would always be lacking—like seeking that level of community among Quakers was like looking for the sensuality of Bouguereau in the works of Grant Wood.

In another exercise this weekend, someone read a passage from First Corinthians, in which Paul compares the members of a church to the parts of a body.
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
1 Corinthians 12:14-20 NIV
We were then given sticky notes and asked to put our names on a big outline of a body to show which “body part” we felt like we are at Mt. Toby, and also which we wished we were. I surprised myself a little when I went straight for the solar plexus, placing myself at the gravitational center of the meeting. I haven’t always felt like I was that central there. Next, we broke up into groups of six or seven for worship sharing and worshipful discussion. And it was there, in those 45 minutes or so, that I—and I think a critical mass of Mt. Toby Friends—tapped into a level of spiritual intimacy that I hadn’t been sure Quakers were capable of. We talked of our visions for community, and the ways we have searched for community in our lives. We talked of what happens in worship, and how difficult it is to express in words what worshiping in silence means to us. And in so doing, we peeled back layers of ourselves to expose deeper and deeper truths.

Quakers worship in silence. In that silence, we often feel a deep sense of connection and intimacy with one another, but it’s difficult to carry that out into the fellowship room afterwards. One Friend last weekend spoke of how shocking it was, after being part of the meeting for ten years, to realize that no one knew she had been dealing with a serious illness that whole time. “I guess I assumed everyone could read my mind during worship,” she said. The experience of gathered worship is so profound that it’s not such a crazy assumption.

At the end of the weekend, going around in a closing circle for each of us to say what we had gotten out of it, I talked about getting to know and be known by the Friends in meeting, and I called for two things: “Let us never forget how precious this is. And let us never forget that we can do it.”

I think we can do this in the wider Quaker world as well. And I think it is vitally important that we do so.

I see Friends in the more Christ-centered branches of Quakerism using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice. It works for them—works so well, in fact, that if they were asked to give up the particularity of Christian myth, they would feel robbed of their voice, unable to speak about their religious experience at all.

That same Christian language is deeply alienating to many Friends, who often come to Quakerism as refugees from Christian churches of the kind Jesus was talking about when he said,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Matthew 23:13 NIV
Talking to one another across this kind of theological divide is hard. It is hard enough that many liberal Friends shy away from talking at all about what happens in worship, afraid of giving offense or of being offended, afraid of being shut down or told to shut up. We worship together in the deep intimacy of silence, but like the Friend with the serious illness, often we rely on mind-reading when really we need to be talking.

I know, from a lot of interaction with Christ-centered Friends over the ten years that I’ve been Quaker, that we liberal Quakers sometimes look like we have no spiritual center at all. Writers like Pink Dandelion talk about the silence in worship as a defense against admitting how little we have in common any more. Martin Kelly is even more articulate and impassioned:
Every week our Meetings for Worship bring together people of radically different beliefs and non-beliefs. Instead of worship, we have individual meditation in a group setting, where everyone is free to believe what they want to believe. This isn’t Friends’ style and it’s not satisfying to many of us. I know this statement may seem like sacrilege to many Friends who value tolerance above all. But I don’t think I’m the only one who would rather worship God than Silence, who longs for a deeper religious fellowship than that found in most contemporary Meetings.
He’s wrong. At least, if he’s talking about Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting, he’s wrong. But I’ve long since given up debating this issue in on-line forums or in writing, because ultimately all I can say is, Come worship with me. Feel the Spirit gather us and cover us in meeting, you and me both, and then maybe, if we both hold ourselves radically open and listen prayerfully to one another, we can begin to talk about our theological diversity.

At the same time, I’m not sure that he isn’t right about some liberal Friends. The fact that we lack a vocabulary to express what it is we experience when a theologically diverse body is worshiping together in a gathered meeting makes it really hard to know how much we really share of our experiences of worship.

We are blessed, at New England Yearly Meeting, with the opportunity to labor together over this very question. As part of both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, NEYM includes a wide spectrum from the very liberal to the evangelical. In past years, I used to describe us as “teetering on the brink of schism,” but this past year we seemed to push through to a place of greater unity. The phrase that came out of the 2011 Sessions was “listening in tongues,” and it describes the way liberals and evangelicals can try to hear into one another’s language, metaphors, and mythology, getting down to the root experience of worship that we all share.

The best way to help each other hear is to say more. At the Mt. Toby retreat, we explored new ways of sharing, just within our little monthly meeting community, the ways that we experience and conceptualize our worship. We begin with the people we know best, the community we worship with every week. We peel back layers amongst ourselves, finding the words to keep us low to the truth and share what we know experientially of God. And we will hold that truth as we interact with the wider Quaker world.
We are a circle
Within a circle
With no beginning
And never ending.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter Light

I find myself almost incredulous at how deep a vein of contentment I can find in a single afternoon at home.

I love my home: my house, my garden, my woods.  I've understood for many years that buying stuff, things, doesn't actually build much contentment once I'm not in need.  I'll think, when I contemplate buying a new whatzit, that once I have that whatzit I'll be happy; I envision all the good and satisfying things I will be able to accomplish once I have my whatzit.  And, of course, once I have purchased it, brought it home, and unpacked it, it's only a matter of days or weeks before I'm no happier in my daily round than before I got hold of it.

This house has not been like that for me.  It's actually pretty rare that I come home without thinking, as I walk up to my door, open it, and slip inside, "I really love this house."

I think that is because a house, like land, is not really a thing at all.  Properly considered, we don't own either one: we enter relationships with them.  In the case of land, of course, there is the web of interdependent living things that is already there, from grass and the microorganisms and worms and grubs that live in soil to the trees, voles, mice, birds, and larger mammals that live in or move across that particular place.

Houses have some of that--more than a fastidious housekeeper would like, perhaps!--but there is something else that gives rise to the numen, the spirit of place that enlivens a house.  It may be the lives that have passed through the house over the years, or that have shaped its parts--trees for wood, glacier-rounded rocks for the foundations, and so forth.  Some houses seem to have more of that particularity of self than others; I'm sure it was one of the things that made us fall in love with the house before we bought it.

Another thing, however, was the light.

We had been living in a very nice, if shabby, Victorian duplex.  Lots of dark woodwork, nooks and crannies and a porch that was up in the treetops on the second floor.  But few of the windows faced south, and no room had more than two medium-sized windows.  Not only was the view of a densely settled urban street, but it was a dark view, from dark rooms.   Nothing we did could ever change that.

This year, I have been more aware than ever of the changes of light that come with winter.  It is hard to describe, but the shortened days of December left me without energy, worn out and weary by four, and exhausted and listless each morning when I rose in the dark to bolt my breakfast and head out to school.  I was leaving for work in the dark, and returning from work in the dark.  It was too dark to walk in the woods after work, and, with no snow to speak of this year, it was hard to avoid noticing how weak as well as brief the light of each day was, even when we were home.  I was not depressed--that is, I knew perfectly well that there was no especially discouraging thing in my life last month--and yet, my body was depressed: lethargic, irritable, sleepy.

We put up lights.  This year, for the first time, we were able to carve out a little time in our solstice preparations to consider decorations particular to this new house of ours, and we got strings of white icicle lights to go into the big, south facing front windows.  I began turning them on in the morning before sitting down for five minutes' breakfast, and my husband made a point of turning them on again as soon as he got home from work, so I would find them shining softly in the dark when I came home.

Those lights helped.  They really did.  It's not for nothing we decorate our homes with lights at Solstice.

But now the days are ever so slightly longer, the sun every so slightly higher in the sky at noon than it was three weeks ago.

And it has snowed--snowed, gotten warm, and then given us a hard, sub-zero freeze that has set up an enormous white reflecting mirror on the ground all around us.  Now there is light: light worth basking in, in our big, shabby living room with the wide southern windows.  Light I can steep in, when I'm home for lunch, in our cozy cube of a dining room, with enormous southern windows of its own.

I can look out my windows, from the comfort of my rocking chair or my couch, and see the woods with the tree bark painted orange in the light.  I can look up, and see the sky burnished an almost metallic blue--the blue of the winter sky.

On weekdays, I still have very little light while I am at home.  But moonlight or starlight, whatever light there is is picked up by the whiteness of snow and amplified.  I can walk in my woods at night, in a way I cannot do at any other time of year.  Indeed, the leafless trees open out the woods in such a way that I can see much, much deeper into those woods than at any other time of year.  Come summer, the seemingly infinite succession of tree trunk and tree trunk, receding off into the distances of perspective will vanish for me, cut off by a wall of green.  But in winter, my views are wide and deep.

And full of yellow light.

And so I find myself contented again, bodily depression lifting, opening myself like a flower to the glory of the return of winter light.

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