Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Toward a Pagan Commons? A Conversation

 The other day, a Christian friend posted a link to two articles on the phenomenon of celebrity pastors, "The Evangelical Industrial Complex."  And it got me thinking about the similarities and differences that exist, between the evangelical community and within my Pagan community.

The issues in the Pagan community are different... but related, I think.  "The market"--whether we're talking about publishing or speakers at large gatherings--is really the only Commons we have for our community; because we have always been cash poor, we have very few non-profit institutions that can promote leadership and share ideas on anything but a market-values basis.  Until very recently, everything we have built had to pay for itself through market share in order to support itself at all.  And while projects like the fund drives for Cherry Hill Seminary  and The Wild Hunt are beginning to help with that, it's still largely true: what has a potential to bring in cash gets shared, while what does not... does not.  It's not wisdom that we are inadvertently selecting for, but marketability, and that is hindering our spiritual growth and integrity as a community.

I don't mean that those leaders who are financially valuable and therefore famous are not also, often, wise and good leaders.  I am indebted to many of them.  But I am aware that we are losing voices that we need to hear, and leaving unexplored whole regions of Pagan thought, because they're not likely to draw in a paying crowd.  And institutions that promote deepening and continuing growth among our leaders or teachers--famous and not--are not very marketable, because they are not of use to our enormous base of newcomers and seekers.  I see us willing to promote institutions that echo mainstream culture (as Cherry Hill Seminary does, with it's willingness to confer degrees and its focus on academic training analogous to mainstream seminaries).  These institutions are marketable, because they offer status and legitimacy to members of a religious movement starved for that.

But they do not necessarily build on our own unique strengths and insights as a spiritual community.  Perhaps they can't--after all,  Paganism is a movement that challenges the status quo, and to survive in the marketplace, our institutions must appeal not just to what challenges us (raised as we are in mainstream culture, with a good deal of enculturation in the status quo ourselves to overcome) but to what flatters us, and gives us standing in our own eyes... which will often be what supports that status quo, not what goes against the grain of our consumerist, hierarchical culture.

Again, I'm not attacking the institutions we have built.  Cherry Hill Seminary, for instance, is a good and useful tool, and academic training is one of the things Paganism can benefit from.

But we are also a community of wildness, of Mystery, of ecstasy and of mysticism.  And that can't be taught or supported by academic rigor.  The institutions and connections that can support that vein of our life cannot be driven by market values.

And that's where I get frustrated.  I wish I saw the way forward.  Sometimes, I think I am the only one who has noticed that we're stuck.

So I asked a group of friends and Pagan teachers what they think. Here's the conversation that followed:

Jason Pitzl-Waters launched the conversation, saying,
I think that our movement has to decide if we want to be part of institutionalized religious culture, or if we want to continue as a  subcultural force. Despite our diversity, institutionalization isn't impossible, look at the New Age movement. But we have to ask if the commerce and attention are worth what we will lose.

I want to add, that I'm not knocking infrastructure and institutions, I'm simply saying that you can't have those things and be the outsiders to the power we often critique. 

Elysia Gallo, a senior acquisitions editor for Llewellyn wrote,
Of course we're nothing like those Christian megachurches and their celebrity authors/pastors. Yes, when I am evaluating a manuscript of course it matters whether the author is a visible Pagan, whether they are connected to other people on the internet or in real life, whether they attend conferences and festivals. But I will never find an author where I say "okay, if just a third of the people in their congregation buy this book, it will be profitable." Never going to happen! 

It is key that I find books that are not just driven by the author's reputation--though in Pagan circles, reputation means a lot more than having a good-sized congregation, because we really are much closer with our BNPs; we see them in action and can decide whether they know what they're doing, walk their talk, and are genuinely good people or not.   But I need to find books with interesting themes that will be relevant to a wide audience. Otherwise they won't sell enough copies to break even. 

I do see a lot of interesting work done by small presses, publishing books that we simply couldn't because our overhead is greater and we wouldn't break even on a book that only can be expected to sell a couple hundred copies. Sometimes I'm jealous of those presses, but then I remind myself we all have our place in the ecosystem. I try to find books for a wide audience, and that more often than not means entry-level to intermediate. 

For all the wailing that there are "no advanced books" - there are, people just don't buy them in great quantities. Because the vast majority of people who've been in it for a while are more into following their own spirit, inner voice, coven, deities, etc. and mostly don't believe that anything that anyone else could write would possibly have any value to them. Even though clearly many people would benefit from, for example, Shauna Aura Knight's workshops, there is this cognitive dissonance in the community because people think they already know everything and very few people make it a priority to go further. 

Paganisms are also countercultural, and we have collectively eschewed the idea that marketing means anything or that money and infrastructure are important or even necessary to a spiritual movement. No one is getting rich off of this because no one made it a priority to do so.  (See the New Age movement for a contrast - some of those people are very wealthy indeed.)

That is why the people doing the advanced work will continue to eke out an existence, why people publishing small print runs of something really interesting will most likely continue to see it as a part-time job or even as a hobby rather than something that can truly sustain them financially.

Druid writer John Beckett focused on whether or not our current institutions can offer what we need as we advance in our practice.
Cat, I think your observations are accurate, and a good extrapolation from the original article.  For as young as the Pagan movement is, I think we have adequate resources for seekers and beginners.  They're not universally good, but I could say the same thing for many Christian churches, and not just because I disagree with their doctrine.  We do OK with beginners, and with time, effort, and mindful reflection, we'll do better.

Here's the harder problem:  as you said "institutions that promote deepening and
continuing growth among our leaders or teachers--famous and not--are not very marketable".  I'm experiencing that myself as I'm being led further and further into teaching.  The resources I need aren't readily available.  Cherry Hill doesn't teach what I need to learn, for the reasons you list.

At this point, it falls on each individual intermediate Pagan to figure out what he/she needs to learn and find a way to learn it.  I'm fortunate to be able to work one-on-one (remotely) with two very experienced teachers.  But I know they're frustrated too, because the advanced stuff doesn't sell, and they're dependent on book sales and speaking fees to pay the rent.

I don't have a solution, other than a couple hundred years of organic growth.  But this is a big part of why I have no plans to quit my day job before "normal" retirement age.

On the question of leadership training, author Shauna Aura Knight commented
I also wanted to bring up Cherry Hill and other Pagan seminaries/clergy training. That word clergy is problematic because many traditions use clergy to mean a high priest/ess, ie, someone who's been theologically trained in the tradition. To me, clergy implies actual leadership and facilitation training, and training in pastoral counseling, among other things.

I see the work that Cherry Hill is doing to be crucial. I'm not so much concerned with the issue of making Paganism more in line with the status quo by using seminaries/similar clergy educational process. What I am usually more concerned by are the hundreds or thousands of groups out there with poorly trained leaders. Leaders who have no concept of communication tools, group dynamics, facilitation, and pastoral counseling.

Now, not every group leader needs to be all things. Some of us are administrators and accountants, some of us are writers, some of us are ritualists. I'm terrible at pastoral counseling. But, it's a skillset we need to grow in our community. I do think that Paganism can add something to that skillset, and I can go into more depth on that some time later. I don't think it's dumbing Pagans down to teach some of the basic skills that other groups need.

In fact, I think that if more Pagan leaders had access to this type of training, we'd have less group blowups, less drama, and we'd have more sustainable communities. We'd have more of those "Commons" types of spaces.

It's part of why I teach leadership. But, the leadership/ritual facilitation training isn't as marketable, to be sure. There are far less people interested in learning to be leaders than there are people interested in the 101 stuff.

Renee L. replied to my concern that we may lose our way in our rush to sustainable institutions, and reassured me that I'm not alone with the concern.
No, you're definitely not the only one.  My other concern, which you touch on slightly, is that if we support institutions like Cherry Hill too strongly -- or give too much credence to their graduates -- we'll lose that Mystery.  That Paganism will become nothing more than an academic exercise for most, eventually losing its wildness and personal connection with deity.  As soon as you start relying on BNPs to explain and define your religious experience for you, the potential for deep  religious experience is lessened.

Another friend, active in leadership on the West Coast, took a different tack. She reflected on the struggles we still have both to keep growing, to keep the lights on, and to respect the ways we have to work in order to do that:
Part of the issue that never enters these conversations is there are now, all of a sudden, 7 billion people on the planet. Everyone is dealing with staggering growth and all the needs, including spiritual, that come with that.

Pagans have been rightfully suspicious of institutions, yet institutions can in many ways more easily deal with growth - simply because we have models of how to do that. I think smaller, autonomous groups that train one another and then break away - sound familiar? - can possibly deal with growth, but we need to be conscious of this process as more than just "tradition" and rather, as a way to seed ideas outward.

Social media, believe it or not, attempts to deal with some of the problems you are speaking of. A lot of information is shared freely. And many of us are criticized for this very fact. There is tension between "mystery religion" and "worldwide religion". We need both, I think - though not in equal measure - but feel really uncomfortable with that.

Regarding Pagans not wanting to support institutions, and things being sold at "market value", I'm not sure what suggestions you have. A pledge drive is still assigning market value to something.

I often think of the people who complain at the high prices synagogues charge for seats to high holy days. They complain that the synagogues are being greedy and gouging people who only attend a couple times a year. This pisses me off hugely. If those people attended year round and made regular contributions the synagogue wouldn't have to charge high prices for a seat on Yom Kippur. They don't support the synagogue year round, but they expect it to be there when they need it.

Pagans can fall into a similar trap. I've heard Pagan leaders who ran gatherings that were really reasonably priced - too low, in my estimation - get told they must be "raking it in" while they were on their knees scrubbing the stove out after the event was over.
Renee L added some thoughts on what it's like to try to bring Pagans together in some sort of common space:
Earlier I intentionally took my Free Spirit Gathering programming hat off, because I wanted to think about this without getting into that mindset. But now, having seen Cat use the concept of "a Commons" -- a concept that I love, by the way -- I'm feeling that hat floating atop my head.

I would love to be able to say that Pagan gatherings -- such as FSG, or Rites of Spring, or Pagan Spirit Gathering or whatever else -- act as a Commons for this sort of connection. Heck, it's why I became involved with FSG to begin with. But when you run an event, you need people to come to that event; and if you need people to come (especially in rough economic times), you need something to draw people in -- including new people; and when you're looking to draw people in, one of the best/easiest ways is to bring in famous people/BNPs, especially if they're big enough to have their own marketing team to help market your event for you.

I had mixed feelings years ago, when Geo Marvil started doing this for FSG -- he'd arrange (or have others arrange) for a BNP to come a year in advance. It was within his purview because he was in charge of marketing -- and having that top billing BNP was definitely a marketing-related move. Our attendance numbers rose when he started doing this, and they've fallen in recent years -- years when we've had no BNP. FSG is looking to increase its numbers by starting to bring BNPs in again and -- once again -- I have mixed feelings.

FSG, and gatherings like it, are a perfect place to have a regional Commons. That doesn't take the place of ongoing local discussions, but I think it's a good way for different localities to meet and exchange their ideas. But when you bring it Famous People the dynamic changes (at least it does to me). But without the BNPs, the event might die (over a number of years, as attendance drops and the event is able to offer less as a result). For about a decade I've been wondering how to balance these factors out -- and for about a decade I've had no answers. I know this is a subset of what Cat's talking about, but it feels related.

Susan Curewitz Arthen added:
Great post--and all of the responses well thought out. An improvement over the decades-long debates over whether it is okay to charge for your teaching, counseling, officiating.

The strongest strand for me, something ingrained in what Andras Corban Arthen taught me, is how divorced most of us are from the natural world. There lies the mystery, the wisdom, and yes, some of the practical life lessons. Opening to and deepening that connection can and does lend itself to balancing it with scholarship and activism. For me it has become the best way to live my life, and a calling that refuses to become buried by the busyness of daily life.
 I commented
I'm so glad that it came through that I am NOT talking about charging or not charging... nor about whether Pagan institutions are a good thing or not. It's our lack of a Commons, a space to connect and share ideas and support one another outside of market considerations that I'm unhappy about.
My West Coast friend concluded
I'm not sure what the answers are. These questions and concerns need a lot more time. What would help though, is to ask the questions in the way you are attempting to do. Too often these conversations are just about what people like or dislike, or what people fear. They don't feel well conceived or mature to me. And usually, they all boil down to money, which is only one part of the puzzle. And that money factor often includes a moralistic component, which only muddies the waters. Teachers who ask for money are still subject to mud slinging.
I'm not sure what the answers are, either.  Is my concern valid?  Do the rules of the marketplace distort the gifts we offer one another, especially beyond an introductory level? 

And more importantly, is there a better way to support our vein of mysticism and ecstasy, and perhaps even encourage our elders as well as new seekers to keep growing spiritually as well as in knowledge and experience?  How do we support the development and nurture of wisdom in a world where it's hard enough to break even?

Your questions, your comments, are very welcome below.  Please feel free to join the conversation.  Can we create a Pagan Commons?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Peter on Animal Bones

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones 

Sometimes there is a weird overlap between being a science teacher and a Pagan.

Walking with my Environmental Science class one day to a graveyard to examine the weathering on different kinds of stones, a former student pulled up next to us in his pickup truck, leaned his head out the window and called out, “Hey Mr. Bishop, you want a bear head?”

I said, “Sure!”  I mean, how many times do you get an offer like that?

Actually, it turns out, more often than you would have thought.  Many of my students hunt, and the display case in my classroom now holds a nice little collection, with the bear and two deer—a buck and a doe—displayed alongside a human skull in fairly lifelike plastic.  I had my anatomy students dissect each of the animal heads, and when we were done, I boiled them down to clean the skulls.  And each time, I lit a candle for the spirit of the animal.  I use a lot of scented candles in my classroom anyway because a biology lab can be a stinky place at times, so the students saw nothing strange in my leaving a votive candle burning throughout the day.

Over Thanksgiving, I went to a crafts fair in Maine where I met an artisan who had a coyote skull displayed on her table with a pentacle carved like scrimshaw into the bones of the cranium.  We got to talking, and she suggested much better ways than boiling to clean an animal skull.  The best, she said, was to leave it next to an anthill and let the ants pick it clean.  Second best was putrefaction in water, if you changed the water every day.  Simply leaving it out on the ground would work too, but other animals might carry it off, and mice like to chew on the bones for the calcium.

Back to school, where I had just boiled down a second bear skull and had yet another deer head and all the bear’s paws in the refrigerator.  I don’t have any anthills near my property, and I don’t fancy changing the water daily for a rotting head, but I decided to bury it now, before the heavy snowfall that’s predicted for this weekend, and then dig it up again in the spring.

So today, when I got home from work, I took a shovel and found a spot in the yard at the far corner of our property, right up against the woods.  I dug down about two feet, pulling out a few heavy stones along the way, and then retrieved from the trunk of my car the cardboard box from school.  Inside the box was a heavy trash bag, and inside that was the deer head and one of the bear paws.  I opened it up.  The contents were fresh enough that they still smelled of blood, not yet of decay.  My hands were bloody as I carefully, respectfully, laid the head at the bottom of the hole and then propped the paw next to it.   I laid plastic from the trash bag over them and ripped some cardboard to lay over that, figuring that would be enough to keep scavengers from digging them up.

I knew I wanted to offer a prayer to the spirits of the animals.  I expected I would do something like invoke them as totem spirits of our little patch of land—invite them to dwell here, inhabiting the border between our yard and the woods.  But when the moment came, that didn’t feel right.  We don’t actually want living bears in our yard, after all.  We sprinkle cayenne pepper and garlic powder on the garden in summertime to keep them away from the lettuce.  In the woods, they’re fine, but they should stay in the woods.  Bears and humans coexist best by keeping a respectful distance from one another.
Instead, I said:

Spirit of the deer, 
     Spirit of the bear,
     You are at home in these woods as much as I.
     I thank you for your bodies.  
     I thank you for your bones.
     May your spirits be released.

     Spirit of the Earth, 
     Welcome their spirits,
Welcome their flesh.
I will return in a few months for their bones.

I shoveled the dirt back into the hole, tamped it down by walking over it, and turned to pick up the box.  I was surprised to find it heavy.  I had packed two bear paws in the trash bag, not one, and then forgotten about the second one.

Too late to dig up the hole again.  I took the box with its paw into the woods.  I thought of burying it by the little circle where we sometimes leave offerings to the nature spirits.  On one of the trees, I have hung a small and inconspicuous Green Man icon, cast from plaster.  But burying the paw there didn’t feel right this evening.  Too many roots for digging, but also not deep enough into the woods.

I walked on, past the stone wall that marks the edge of what used to be the pasture that went with our house, and which encloses what we now think of as the temenos of the woods—the consecrated land surrounding the temple itself.  I hiked out into the woods proper, to the snowmobile trail.  Walked beyond that.  Found a place where a few tree stumps made it look inviting, and laid the paw gently on the ground.

Yes, this felt right.

Spirit of the bear, be released.
Walk these woods in peace,
And walk them with caution.


Photo: display case in my classroom

Sunday, November 24, 2013

With Open Eyes

About two months ago, I began to wrestle with feelings of anxiety, depression, and a sense of alienation from my Quaker meeting.  Very distressingly to me, I began to have these feelings in worship, both while in attendance at my meeting and in my Quaker practice at home during the week.

I began to feel unable to sense the Presence whose warmth has marked most, if not all, of my time in worship.  And I began to feel a terrible heaviness and grief that seemed familiar to me from my last years as a psychotherapist when, despite no feelings of burn-out or any obvious external stressors from that work, I began to feel that I was going to have to let it go.

This feeling I have since come to call, in Quaker parlance, a stop.  The stop in my work as a therapist proved quite final.  Though it took me a while to be clear about it, it did eventually become evident to me that I was going to have to lay down that work.  Initially, I did not know what would follow it, and I experienced both grief and fear as I reached the decision that I needed to find another way to earn a living.

I can list for you a number of sane, practical sounding reasons why I stopped being a psychotherapist: I didn't entirely enjoy framing my relationships with clients around mental health diagnoses, for instance, and the combination of managed care and dwindling public resources for mental health meant that I saw no way I was ever going to be able to pay for a home in the woods (something that has been very important to me) or any kind of comfortable retirement.  All of those reasons are true enough, but they were not the root of my decision to leave my career as a counselor.

My feeling that I was no longer supposed to be a counselor, whether or not I could find any other practical alternatives... that was the reason I had to stop being a psychotherapist.  

Ultimately, I discovered a leading to work with teenagers, and I figured out that teaching was how I wanted to act on that leading.  Eventually, I found a certification program that was affordable, and I've since figured out how to teach in ways that fulfill my need for meaning and purpose--and that pay my bills, something that is becoming more important to me as I get older.

Everything worked out fine... but at the point where I began to understand I had to jump off of the familiar shore of my profession, I had no way of knowing that would be so.  And it was hard.

It was not pleasant, this fall, to find similar feelings crowding in when I was in Quaker meeting, or when I attempted to pray, in a Quaker manner, outside of meeting.

There will always be people who insist on clear, unambiguous labels for other people's religious identifications, I suppose.  I know that I have frustrated many of my friends with my both/and Quaker Paganism.  Some have expressed their irritation pretty explicitly.  And those who are not friends, but random Internet trolls, have felt very free to express something well beyond irritation.  I've heard more than one contemptuous prediction that the day would dawn when I would renounce Paganism and become (oh, the horror of it!) a Christian.

I think I was on guard against that possibility.  Braced for it, because, honestly, if That Presence were one day to inform me that, oh, yeah, by the way, Its name was Jesus, and I needed to self-identify as a Christian... well, see, I've already pretty well acknowledged that That Spirit is to be followed.  I would kick and scream and tantrum, but I would feel that it was a betrayal, ironically enough, of the very Pagan, experiential approach to religion that made me both a Witch and a Quaker to begin with if I demurred too long.

I would, I know, in the end recognize that I needed to put up or shut up.

If That Spirit asked it of me.

Given the hostility expressed by a vocal minority around Teo Bishop's faith journey, is there any doubt that this would be a costly thing for me?  It's not pleasant to contemplate.  So, as I say, on some level, I've been braced for it for some time now.

It never occurred to me that I might get a different leading--or, more accurately, experience a different stop.  And when I began to experience the familiar grief and anxiety, but this time around my Quaker life and not my profession, I was dismayed.

If Spirit asked me to renounce, not my Pagan ties, but my Quaker ones, would I be able to respond?

I can't easily describe the grief that thought brought me.  And each time I tried to center in Quaker worship, and failed, each time I reached out to that Light that has so often come to me effortlessly, and did not find It... I felt more hollow, more pained.  I have a life, a community, and a way of being with the Spirit of Love and Truth I could not bear to lose.  And I'd never for one moment contemplated the possibility that I might.

Then, one afternoon, on my way home from work, watching a sunset suffuse the woods and fields around me with molten gold, I stopped reaching out fruitlessly for That Spirit.  The darkness and depth of the woods drew my inward as well as my outward sight, and quite spontaneously, I began to pray to the Pagan gods who were my first loves.

I prayed thanksgiving to the earth for Her sweetness, providing this extraordinary diversity and beauty of life.

I prayed in joyful recognition of the fire and lust of the god of the wood, Herne who is at once the Hunter and the Stag who is hunted.

I prayed in thanks to the Bear in Her secret, hidden ways, invisible, insistent, unchallenged Queen of the animals in my part of the woods.

I prayed in grateful appreciation to the scent of damp earth and fallen apples, dying leaves and frost.

And as I prayed... I felt Them answer me.  Like threads of gold running through a rich, dark tapestry, I sensed the myriad forms of Holiness all around me.  I have not lost the sense of Their nearness since.

More curiously: from that moment forward, the feelings of grief and fear began to lift.  That Spirit is with me in Quaker meeting and in Quaker worship outside of meeting.  I feel fully reconnected to the life of my Quaker community, and to my wild Pagan woods and hills.

For a time, I worried that I needed to find the time to create some grand, sweeping change to my practice, rededicating myself to the kind of trance work and ritual that used to mark my Pagan life, but which has felt labored and without much life in recent years.  I experimented a bit... but, no.  I do seem to be genuinely past the need for much outward ritual, including the forms of trance journey as well as candles and incense.

It seems that all that I needed was simply to remember to look out at the world with both sets of eyes: the Pagan as well as the Quaker.  Once again, I feel the warmth of being rooted in a practice that, I can tell, is feeding me spiritually, helping to move me forward in all the parts of my daily life.  I touch the world, and I can feel that it is Holy; I listen to humans, and I feel my heart opening in compassion.  Somehow, that moment of opening to the gods and spirits of the natural world was all that I needed... for now.

I find it interesting that I needed to reconnect with my Pagan wisdom in order to reconnect with my Quaker life.  It is as if I am being shown how one part feeds the other.

Through my Quaker practice, I have learned to see with the Eyes of the Heart.

Through my Pagan practice... what?  Something, I think, about seeing with Othersight, into the Mysteries of Earth.  The take-away, I think, is that I need them both, the Eyes of the Heart, and the Eyes of the Heart of the Earth.

I am very grateful that they both seem to be open once again.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Cup of Coffee and a Bagel with Christopher Penczak

Image by Tom Morris
Christopher Penczak is coming in November to Awen Tree, our local magickal shop.  Reading the announcement tonight, I felt a brief burst of excitement.

Christopher Penczak, for those who do not know of his work, is a Wiccan author and teacher whose New Hampshire based Temple of Witchcraft offers classes, rituals, and ministerial training.  He does a lot of speaking at Pagan events, and has written many, many books, only one of which I have read.  I think it was The Temple of Shamanic Witchcraft; I'm not sure.  It's been a few years.  I liked it, though.  I remember thinking, when I read it, that here was a fellow who knew which end of an athame to hold onto.  It had been a few years since I'd read anything new in the Pagan publishing world, and I was happy to find something so sensible and well-informed on the shelves.  "What a promising new voice, " I thought, and proceeded to talk about the book to another Pagan friend who's a bit better-traveled than I am, and who was able to fill me in on the fact that Christopher Penczak is a Very Big Deal.

Oops. 

This may sound like I'm making light of Penzcak; I'm not.  I think he's pretty awesome, actually. My initial response was a little frisson of excitement, precisely because I think he and his life-partners have accomplished some really cool things.  And I really like Awen Tree, the shop where he will be teaching.

But I read the part describing the admission fee--$30 per person--and I thought, No.  This is just not right.

I've been trying to put my finger on why that is.  It feels important to me to find words for this.

It's not disrespect for Penczak.  It's not that I think it's an unreasonable fee--there are travel costs, and the guy deserves to earn money for his time.

It's not an objection to teachers being paid--heaven knows, as a public school teacher, I'm in favor paychecks going to those who skillfully communicate knowledge.

I think it's that what I would be looking for, in meeting Penczak, would not be knowledge, but rather, that deeper thing: an exchange of wisdom.  It is my experience that there are kinds of spiritual wisdom that cannot be had in any way other than an exchange, and an exchange between equals,  between peers.  And not only is it potentially charged for me to assert that I am the peer of someone whose work is widely known, I think it's also true that the relationship of one peer to another, outside of the closed and narrow world of individual covens or traditions, is one that nothing in the Pagan world is set up to foster.

Here's where it gets tricky.  I can't help but anticipate that some significant fraction of my Pagan readership are jumping out of their seats about now, muttering things about my chutzpah to presume to be the peer of a man who has founded a religious institution that is a going concern, who has written dozens of books, and whose work has attracted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans.

And having read the preceding paragraph, another significant fraction of my Pagan readership are jumping out of their seats in turn, exclaiming things about how many wonderful and impressive accomplishments I have to my credit.

Which is completely irrelevant to what I'm trying to say.  My point is something about the Pagan movement as a whole: we don't do peer relationships well.

There are a finite number of niches in the Pagan ecosystem at the moment.  There's room for neophytes and students, and they receive leadership from variously empowered or disempowered leaders, teachers, gurus and sages.  There's room for the aforementioned leaders, teachers, gurus, and sages, who relate primarily to their students and--to a lesser extent--to their own teachers and lineages (though there, the relationship is often one of competitors rather than colleagues per se).  And finally, there are the keystone species of the ecosystem: the leaders and organizers of large hierarchical organizations, and the authors and speakers of real and established fame and importance.  And just as in a biological ecosystem, every individual is competing for their place in the system with every other individual.

There are exceptions to this rule.  Newcomers can often band together as peers and equals, and learn and grow together, cooperatively.  I've seen friendships that rise from such associations last for decades--in fact, many of my own oldest friendships began in just that way.

And then there are those middle-level leaders and teachers who encounter one another in the context of large gatherings or organizations--like the Covenant of the Goddess or Pantheacon--and, in the process of serving a community together, become friends and colleagues.  I've got a number of good friendships that arose in that way, too, and I've seen similar relationships last, again, for decades, often in the midst of the ups and downs of fame that does or doesn't follow community service.

I have it on good authority that there's an informal bullpen of Pagan speakers, too--a loose network of authors and presenters who are in demand on the festival circuit to some degree, and who sometimes offer one another support (along with competition at other times).

But mostly, there are students who are taught and leaders who do the teaching... and not a hell of a lot of opportunities to escape from that dyad of roles.

I don't want to be Christopher Penczak's student.  I don't want to be his teacher, either: I want to be his colleague, his peer, or at least, I want the possibility of such a relationship to be more available to mature and experienced Pagans like myself, with other solid and experienced Pagans like Penczak--with or without a side order of fame.

In fact, fame is absolutely irrelevant to what I'm reaching for, here.  Worrying about who is important enough to be visible to whom is like worrying about who wins the swimsuit competition in order to get a college scholarship.  Just as a beauty contest is a ridiculous way to finance an education (sorry, Miss America Pageant, but it's true) classes, seminars, and the speaking circuit are not the way for spiritually mature Pagans to connect with one another, encourage one another, and continue to grow.

I'm not a newcomer.  I'm not (currently) an author, teacher, or a leader of a Pagan organization.  But not only am I the poorer for not having a way to connect with the Christopher Penczaks of Pagandom, they are the poorer for not having a way to connect with me.

That only sounds egotistical.  Here's what I'm thinking about:

I am one of four members of my Quaker meeting for worship who meet monthly to practice something we call Mutual Spiritual Accountability.  Two of the members of our group have been following clearly identifiable spiritual leadings: one in AVP (The Alternatives to Violence Project, doing conflict management training in prisons) and the other helping to run the G.I. Hotline.

Two of us do not have such clearly identifiable leadings--we teach teenagers, and we try to do it in a manner consistent with the leadings of Spirit.

In our monthly meetings, our spiritual accountability group works to listen to one another from a place of deep connectedness to Spirit.  We share with one another places our work is challenging us spiritually, and we look together for anything that might be getting in the way of our faithfulness to what Spirit is leading us to do in the world at this time.  Together, we work to stay anchored in Spirit and in community in the course of our spiritual work in the world... whether that work is outwardly identifiable as spiritual work or not, is famous or not... or even, as leadings grow and change form, is active or not. (Sometimes, Spirit calls for a rest or a change of venue.  Listening for and being faithful to those promptings is an underrated and crucial part of spiritual work.)

What I want is the possibility of such spiritual engagement with other Pagans--Pagans who are not students, not spiritual seekers in the sense of just figuring out what their path is, but who should always, always remain seekers in the sense of figuring out what their path is becoming now that they have found it.

Failing that?  I'd settle for coffee and a bagel, and a long, relaxing conversation over a kitchen table.

A class?  No.

I don't belong in a class.  I belong in a relationship, perhaps--and perhaps not with Penczak (who really deserves to be collecting royalties for how often I've invoked his name, poor fellow, but did I mention I've never met him, and don't really know him?).  But with more Pagans than I can share bagels and coffee--let alone a collegial relationship with--at the moment.

And here's the pisser: it's not just me I'm talking about.  It's you, too... when you get far enough down the path, if you've just started, or right this second, if you've been working it long enough that you've actually picked up some wisdom from this alleged Craft of the Wise.

Pagans need one another: as peers, as equals... as something other than customers, however reasonable the price of registration might otherwise be.

And we just haven't figured out how to do that part yet.

(And,  Christopher?  If you are in the mood for a bagel, do let me know; I'd love to meet you, because you seem like a really nice guy.  If not?  That's fine, too, and thanks for being the case study in my thought experiment tonight.  Blessed be.)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Season of the Owl

I awoke very early this morning, from a combination of aches, pains, and troubled dreams.  Wandering through my house, I could hear very faintly the call of an owl, and despite the cold and the fact that I was wearing only pajamas,  I wandered out onto the back stoop to listen for them.

It was 4:30 A.M. The stars were bright overhead, wearing their winter constellations, with Orion high to the south.  A quarter moon burned to the east, like fire and ice all at once.  My feet were wet with dew, and the hard, roughcast concrete chilled me where I sat, gazing up at the sky.  For a few minutes, the last of the autumn crickets were all I could hear: no cars, no wind, no human noises at all.

Then, off in the blackened woods to my north and east came the territorial call of a Barred Owl, far clearer and louder than it had been indoors.

Silence.  More silence, and then the call again.

Barred Owl, Wing-Chi Poon
And after another few moments, the call came once more... and was answered, with a much nearer owl, so clear and close and loud that it was hard to believe the sound came from the tiny body of an owl, and not a much larger animal.

I lingered for quite a while, listening hard, but, though I heard the calls of the more distant of the owls, the nearer, freakishly alien-sounding voice of the closer owl did not call again.  So I went back into my house, went to sleep, and dreamed.

I dreamed I was a widow, the most terrible of all dreams to me.  Though the aches and pains that had awakened me were with me still, the crushing pain of grief was much, much greater.

Why do owls call out in the autumn?  Their season of mating is over, the owlets have grown up and flown away... and in the small hours of the night, there are no daytime birds to mob them.  Are they responding to the coming winter, the season of death, and calling out for it?  Or are they calling out to one another still, pair of owls protecting their territory, making their presence known to ward off invaders who would threaten that pair and their life together?

Autumn and winter are the season of the owl, at least at night, and when I cannot sleep.  And I am middle-aged, with the aches and pains of my oncoming menopause to keep me awake at night.  I cannot hide from my mortality, and I cannot hide from my fears, because the Season of the Owl is coming, and my voice may not be enough, when I call out in the night, to protect what I love most, and keep it with me, warm and safe in the time of cold.

The stars are lovely overhead.  And if the owls are harbingers of death, they are also measures of the overwhelming nature of love.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What's Twenty Minutes?

So I get to thinking, "I should go to a nice retreat at Woolman Hill," and I notice one coming up on deepening worship.

"Great!" I think to myself.  "I should try that!"

And so I read the brochure.  And it reads in part, "What do you do to nurture your spirit? How regular are you in this practice?  If you are attending the retreat, please practice a spiritually nurturing activity for 20 minutes or more each day. If you do not find the time to do so, without judging yourself, notice what was a greater priority."

And so now I'm grumpy.  Because that so-reasonable sounding commitment, of building in a 20 minute daily spiritual practice, is just laughably out of reach for me at the moment.  I would LOVE to have a whole uninterrrupted 20 minutes a day for spiritual practice. But I am coming to understand that there are times I am not going to get it.

There are two kinds of professions in the world, as far as I can make out: those where you can pee anytime you feel like it, and those where you can't.  Teaching is one of the ones where you can't--you have to wait until your prep block rolls around, however long that takes. 

Peeing is pretty basic.  When you have to plan ahead for your next potty break, and it is enough hours that you don't get to drink a full cup of morning coffee, you have a time-management fiasco of a working life.

Which is to say that I can get a little sensitive to issues of scheduling.

Now, I get that this says "without judging yourself," to notice what gets in the way of setting aside twenty minutes a day for spiritual practice.  But it sure feels like there's a judgy thing going on with the whole "notice what was a greater priority" instruction.  I mean, I obviously do have more than twenty minutes a day when I'm not teaching (or peeing).

What is a "higher priority" in my life than a daily spiritual practice?  What are the daily activities that take up more of my time than I have free for practice?  Well, aside from things like working, sleeping, showering, and cooking--necessities--there's just a few: Facebook, television, and reading pulp novels.

When I list them that way, it really does sound like I ought to simply limit those activities, and then I'd be free to build in a more robust personal spiritual practice, right?  And isn't the implication that whatever activities crowd out that twenty minute time slot need to be weighed against the importance of a spiritual life, and if they are not equally profound, I should cut them?

But I don't buy it.  Setting aside the fact that some of that time is already pretty limited (like TV watching, which is limited to a single episode of a DVD, watched over dinner) it is also true that my time wasters are, on some level, actually vitally important to me.

The more I think about it, the more I'm clear that any attempt to cut out the "junk food" in order to build in more time for a nourishing spiritual practice would backfire utterly.  Because before I can soar, I need to stand still.  Before I open myself to Spirit, I have to have time being me, ordinary, in my own body and in my own life.

You see, I can't do that while I'm teaching. Teaching--at least for me--requires being fully and wholly present, other-focused and other-centered, for about as long at a stretch as is even possible.  Not only does peeing have to wait when I'm managing a classroom of two or ten or twenty teenagers, so does ordinary reflectiveness on my life outside the classroom. 

Now, that's not a complaint (well, except for the part about not getting to pee when I need to) but it is the truth.  Teaching uses me up, takes me from myself until I am too empty of energy and too full of detail (lesson planning, student needs, changing schedules and demands and reactions) to be able to hear anything from Spirit but my own wishful thinking projected out into the void.  When I'm done with a day of teaching... I'm done.

I cannot go straight from the classroom to the cathedral and to a different kind of self-forgetfulness.  I need to go first to being... self-centered, at least a little.  An ordinary, slightly self-absorbed, pop-culture-consuming, You-Tube-viewing, blogroll-skimming, middle-aged woman with a weight problem and a headache.

I used to tell my Wiccan students, "To transcend the self, first you have to have a self."  It turns out that this is as true in terms of daily life as in terms of developmental stages.  Each day, after being other-centered long enough, I need to rest for a time in the "merely creaturely," as early Quakers might have said.

They'd have disapproved of setting aside time to be merely creaturely, though. 

Be that as it may, I've come to understand I need it.  I get kind of nuts without it.  So I eat pizza, go on Facebook, read sci fi and fantasy novels... and, when I have a little bit of myself back again, I slip in tiny little scraps of spiritual practice around the edges.

Tiny scraps...  There are very few twenty minute blocks of time in my life for spiritual practice.  But, if I set aside my frantic feeling that there ought to be more time than there is, I can begin to see I do have some regular patterns.  For instance:

On my morning commute, I often listen to the news.  I listen to the news in the morning to wake me up, and in the afternoon to entertain me.  But on either drive, there is a stretch of road--roughly half the length of the commute--that I consider too beautiful to allow to roll past me while I am distracted by the radio.  When I get to that stretch of road, the radio goes off.

Sometimes I think about people I'm worried about... sometimes about things I'd like to write about. Sometimes I pray.  But I always try to be awake for it, even if it is only ten minutes at a time.

Then too, on Facebook (that ultimate time-waster) when people share news of trouble or sadness in their lives, I frequently stop right then and there and hold them in silent prayer.  That practice might last for no more than a minute at a time... but it happens a lot, when I think about it.

When I am able to sit down quietly over a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning, or when I see a deer, or a flock of wild turkeys, or a heron along my commute, I reach out in my mind and heart for the sense, the texture, of the sacred in a busy world--like reaching out for my husband's hand in the dark, before we slip into sleep on a day that has been too busy to spend time gazing into one another's eyes.

Some wise person once advised us to "Pray without ceasing."  I do not think it reflects a deficiency in how I order my life--a life which is actually filled with Spirit, brimming with it and guided by it, to the best of my ability to accept guidance at least.  But in my case, if I did not in some sense pray without ceasing--weaving Spirit into a thousand tiny crevices in my life--I would never find the time to pray at all.

Twenty minute practice?  I really don't have time for that.  Maybe I'll just have to settle for every-minute practice.

Maybe that isn't such a hardship after all.

Monday, July 22, 2013

An Open Letter to my Quaker Christian Friends: Part 2 of 2


Well, so, as I said in my previous post, what I would ask of Quaker Christians is
to stay low to the Truth, not to hide it or apologize for it.  ...Do not share one syllable more of your Scriptures than the "Spirit that gave them forth" is speaking in you--but equally, do not share one syllable less.
And for all Quakers, Christian or non-Christian, I'm suggesting that
When speaking from Spirit,  we use whatever language That Spirit lends us--and that we remember that the standard is not to be "nice" to anyone: be bold!  But do not speak beyond what is given you to say: be low. 
It's not enough to speak your truth, as you experienced it once, years ago.  You must speak from love, in the present moment, and from Spirit, also in the present moment.
Is there more? What else do I need from Christian Quakers, specifically?

I want you to understand that, as a Christian, even as a Quaker Christian, you possess a significant amount of privilege in our society.

No movie or television character will share my religion, unless it is the defining characteristic--generally negative--of who they are. There are almost no elected officials who share my religion, and a number of elected officials would like to strip me of my right to exercise my religion freely. If a member of my religion commits a crime, that crime is attributed in part to our shared religion. All these things are commonplace to religious minorities in our culture--but outside the daily experience of Christians.

I hope it is not necessary to remind anyone here of the long and painful history of mission and empire that Christianity has been part of.  Do I need to explain that it is still the case that those of us who are not Christian are often treated like second-class citizens? As a Pagan, I am susceptible to being fired for my religious identification, despite a clear Constitutional ban on such a thing in my country. I've seen friends' child custody and adoption rights endangered or challenged based on their religion. Pagan children are sometimes harassed in schools by teachers as well as students, and Pagans, like Muslims and Jews, are subject to religiously-motivated threats and vandalism by their theoretically Christian neighbors.
From "Why the Cross and the US Flag are Under Attack"

And in some parts of the world clumsy and unethical missionary practices, old and new, have combined with pre-existing magical beliefs and spawned literal witch hunts, in which children are persecuted and even killed for the suspected "crime" of witchcraft.

I don't want to sound a note of victimhood, here. Many people around the world struggle with far worse disempowerment than I have ever experienced, and I know it.

But I also do know what it is like to be viewed with suspicion simply for how I experience my spiritual life, and I have had to be aware of risks and injustices that, had I been a Christian, I might not have understood.

Because I wouldn't have needed to understand them.

And that's what I mean by Christian privilege. It's there, like racial, economic, and educational privilege--all of which I possess, incidentally, so I'm not trying to shame anybody.

But when it comes to the privileging of some religions over others, I need you, my spiritual family, to know that this is real, and part of the world that we are sharing with one another.  To be in kinship with me, I need you to try to see, at least a little, how the world might look through my eyes.

And then it gets hard.

Because as you see it, I need you to let your hair down. I need you to stay real with me.  I don't need a rescuer.  I need a friend, an equal.  And unless you are yourself actively contributing to religiously-motivated hate (in which case, cut that shit out right now!) I need you to relax.

When you see an injustice around religious privilege, yes, of course I want you to confront it.   Just the way I hope you do any other injustices you encounter. And I want you to keep your eyes open; don't fall asleep, because this stuff creeps in all the time.

But don't get bent out of shape about it. Please.

I know I can't speak for everyone in the world who has ever experienced bias. But I can speak for myself, and I do not need or want your guilt.  (Can I play a drum with it?  Buy a pizza with it?  What earthly good is your guilt to me?)

If you are behaving with prejudice, cut it out.

If you are contributing to injustice, stop.

But for injustices you, personally, have not committed, you, personally, have only the obligation to see, to understand, and to act to correct what injustices you can As Way Opens. Best done, if Quaker teaching is any use here, by staying low, open to the leadings of the Inward Guide, and then acting boldly and faithfully.

But that's it. Don't ask me for forgiveness, because (unless you've been acting with prejudice, in which case, see above) there's nothing to forgive.

For one thing, your ancestors didn't do bad things to my ancestors--our ancestors are in common. As a modern Pagan, I am, like most of you, descended from a long line of good Western Christians.

Furthermore, even if your ancestors had done my ancestors wrong, and mine somehow not done wrong to others, I can't see any way any of that relates to you and to me, standing next to each other today. We can neither of us change the past, and you have no standing to apologize for crimes you didn't commit.

In fact, I am depressed by such apologies: by offering to be my whipping boy for injustices and crimes committed by others or in other times, you diminish me.

In what way is it more your place to expiate those others' guilt than it is my place to see you clearly, for yourself and yourself alone, and to release you from debts you never incurred to begin with?

If this fits is some kind of original sin thing, take it up with Jesus. I have no use for such a doctrine--it's one of the things we don't share, and aren't likely to.

What then? What's left to ask?

There's this: If I have no business turning you into a scapegoat for all the generations past who have ever harmed anyone in the name of Jesus, I also think you have no business turning me into a mascot for your tolerance and good intentions. I don't want to be a symbol of your goodness; I don't want to be anything more or less than what you probably want to be: a human being among other human beings.

Along those lines, I ask you not to abuse your newfound (or longstanding) empathy for me and mine by rushing to speak for me. Specifically, I would ask that, as an advocate, you not speak to my concerns before you allow me a chance to speak them for myself.

This is harder than it sounds, I know. Quakers love to set injustices right. We work hard to empathize with oppressed peoples. We want to be advocates. We want to be the good guys, and we want to speak out for people who have been marginalized, because it feels so good to be the voice of righteousness.

However, it is tiresome to the person whose cause you're espousing, to be spoken for when we'd rather speak for ourselves.  Certainly, we'd rather not be shut out of discussions of our needs by the voices of eager advocates.

Does this happen? Yeah, this happens. I've seen it happen.  And I don't know for sure how it feels to be a member of any other minority group among Friends, but for me, it felt both sad and silly.

I have vivid memories of being present at one particular meeting for business where a minute addressing Quaker theology was under discussion. Discussion was heated, and spiritual discipline around Quaker process was thin. This is a sensitive point among Liberal Friends, and naturally, there were many speakers who were deeply grounded in a Christian perspective.

Others spoke to a non-Christian perspective.  The difficulty was, many of the speakers had no lived experience of that perspective.  They were speaking for me and mine...  I watched, silenced, as Friend after Friend rose and spoke.

On the one hand, it was gratifying to matter.

On the other, I was sitting right there, unable to get the clerk to even see me, lost in a sea of non-Pagan Quakers who were eagerly representing what they thought was my point of view.

What is there to say to that?  Thanks for trying, guys?

Why were so many Friends in a hurry to speak for me, and for others like me, that day? Was it partly a failure to imagine that I might be able to speak for myself? Does my lack of privilege, make me somehow less than, and in need of rescue?
It seems to me I've seen this around more kinds of differences among Quakers than our theology. I am beginning to suspect that we Quakers have a disturbing tendency to objectify, through our pity or our zeal, those we want to feel ourselves to be "helping." I think I've seen us do it to our youth; I think I've seen us do it around race; I think I've seen us do it around social class, educational background, and mental health.

Somehow, deep down, many of us with privilege begin to think of ourselves as saviors, and to see those with less privilege as Others, as objects, as charity cases.

Oh, it's almost always couched in positive terms.  I don't think the condescension is apparent to the speaker.

We mean well, we Friends.

Do I do this sometimes? I don't want to think I do, but I might. I've mentioned that I am, relatively speaking, a distinctly privileged person in this culture myself, in most ways. I hope that my own experiences of being Othered have helped me to recognize the problem. 

The only wisdom I've got, as an Insider/Outsider, among Friends and in the wider culture, is this: while it is indeed good to speak out against injustice, we need to do so with some humility.  Listen before you speak on the concerns of others.  Is it Spirit's yearning for justice that's driving you to your feet, or your ego's yearning for importance? 

If it's the first, rise up!  If the second... hang back.  Wait and see if there's a better leading about to break in. 

Be bold but low; it turns out to be a theme.  

Be open to learning from Spirit and from your family.  Know that, in your hunger for justice, you are not, you have never been, alone.

          *          *          *

This discussion is also being carried at Quaker Universalist Conversations.

Monday, July 15, 2013

An Open Letter to My Christian Quaker Friends: Part 1 of 2

First, I want to say thank you for making me welcome among you.  You might not have, so I'm grateful--because I need to be here.  I didn't become a Quaker to prove a point, and I didn't become a Pagan because I love controversy.  Our shared culture often treats anyone who is not a Christian as a threat or a flake, and it has been a joy and a delight to be heard first, judged second (or even not at all).
The back story, for those of you who don't already know it: I became a Quaker, not because my clever monkey brain thought it was a fun idea, but because the Peace Testimony reached out one day and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and tossed me into Quaker meeting.  Once there, I discovered that Quaker process, and, most of all That Spirit That Gathers Us had become central to my life.  I fell in love with That Spirit.

La Conversion de Saint Paul (Odescalchi)
I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends the way an alcoholic becomes a member of AA.  It wasn't exactly a choice.  I was called, I was led, I had a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment, and from that time to this, I've needed to live a big piece of my life among Quakers, because Quakers are listening to Something I need to hear.  It's not that I was a bad person before becoming a Friend... But being a good one has become much easier, and I find myself continuing to grow in ways that are hard to explain if you haven't experienced them.  There is new real estate opening up in my heart: new sources of compassion and patience and hope, and I keep finding new ways to put that to use out in the world.

Plus, as I believe I have mentioned, I'm madly in love with That Spirit.

I'm grateful for the transformations happening within me in very much the same way I'm grateful for having been a mother: a whole part of my being would have been denied me if I hadn't had my child.  I can't even imagine who I would be without either of those experiences, and that I have been given a chance to have this spiritual birth is remarkable... because of who else I am besides a Quaker.

It hasn't always been easy for my Christian Friends, because the same spiritual integrity that made me show up and keep showing up for Quaker meetings--because I was called, and I knew it--has also kept me loyal to and part of the Pagan community that formed for me a soul capable of hearing a spiritual call in the first place.  That Spirit has been with me for a long, long time; I didn't first encounter It among Friends.  Furthermore, other spirits, of a different but still strong and good, have been with me for many years before I began attending Quaker meeting.  I love them, too.

My Saul on the Road moment not only did not include Jesus--at least, That Spirit never used that name with me--but it did not come with any sense of separation from what I had been before.  I was then and I am still a modern Pagan, a Wiccan, a worshiper of the Old Gods of forest and field.  And if being a Quaker seems as central to my being as having raised a child, respecting and embracing the gods of my Paganism seems as much a part of me as loving my husband or the family that raised me.

The thing about love is, it tends to last.  I love both my spiritual families, and I have no plans to leave anyone behind.  And that is a challenging thing, from a traditional, Christian, Quaker point of view.

I know that there are those, Pagan as well as Quaker, who see my insistence on straddling the divide between those two labels as a reflection of a "cafeteria religion," in which I pick and choose only my favorite bits of religion to practice.  I understand the fear, in a world in which the values of Friends and the values of Pagans (let's call them Peace and Balance, as shorthand) are under constant attack by a consumer society.  Who wants to see their religion turned into yet another consumer product?  Who wouldn't be wary of the possibility of that happening?  I get it.

And then there's Jesus himself.  Regardless of my sincerity or my integrity, my understanding of myself as a Friend-but-not-a-Christian is problematic to a lot of Quakers.  For though many liberal Quakers turn out to be ambivalent about the figure of Jesus, plenty of Quakers feel certain that it is Jesus that gives the entire Religious Society of Friends in all its branches its strength.

The church is called the Body of Christ for a reason, the logic goes, and if Jesus isn't the head of that Body, what is the point?  "Christ has come to teach his people himself," George Fox proclaimed.  Surely, then, Quakers who question the significance of Jesus are removing the Society of Friends from what it means to be a Quaker. Take Jesus out of the experience of the Religious Society of Friends, and what is left?  Do we become the Secular Society of Friends?  What, the question becomes, are liberal Friends listening to in all that silence?

Christian Friends can feel hard beset, given the diversity of our meetings.  Lots of us are not clear to name what we are listening for "Jesus," and, what's more, some of us actually don't seem to be listening to much outside of our own busy monkey thoughts.  I can say we are listening to Something, and that I'm pretty sure the Something is what you're calling Jesus (though I don't) but even I have to admit--some of us in the Religions Society of Friends seem to be mostly listening to our own egos.

Did that never happen, though, in the days before there were non-Christian Friends?

There's more, however.  Some non-Christian Friends reject Quaker mysticism altogether, denying that the direct spiritual encounter is with anything but the individual conscience.  Other non-Christian Friends reject any and all ministry couched in Christian or Biblical language.

I've heard Christian Friends speak of being silenced or scolded in their meetings for using language that others found "too Christian."  This can happen around vocal ministry, or around any personal statement that uses explicitly Christian language; those of us who feel alienated from the figure of Jesus or the language of the Bible can behave as though these communications are acts of aggression against us, instead of the faithfulness to Truth those words most often represent to the Friends who are speaking.

Taken altogether, it can be hard to be a Christian within the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends.

It seems worth telling you, yes, I see that.  It's not your imagination.  Uneasiness around Christianity is epidemic among Friends, and it often gets focused as criticism of Christ-centered Friends in our midst.

Though I came into this religious body expecting there to be tension around my presence from Christians, I have come to see that I'm not alone in being viewed with unease.  Ironically or not, that is one of the things I have in common with Christ-centered Friends.

And yes, some among us  non-Christians have experienced intolerance and abuse in the name of Jesus, or bear scars from Christianist, dominionist persecution out in the world.  There's a whole lot of intolerance out there, masquerading in what my Christ-centered Quaker friends experience as a religion of compassion and love.

The victims of that intolerance do deserve tenderness and care.  There are many immigrants in the Religious Society of Friends, and some of those immigrants are refugees from religious war zones.  Accepting that with tenderness and love is one of the challenges that faces all the branches of the Religious Society of Friends; it's just particularly obvious within many liberal meetings.

I see that this can be constraining and difficult at times.  I hate to add another burden to what is already a challenge to our meetings' hospitality.

However, I agree with those who say that Christian Friends must be particularly careful when they speak of Jesus, or when they speak from the Bible.

This might seem harsh.  Weren't Christians here as Quakers first?  Hasn't the Religious Society of Friends long been understood to be "primitive Christianity revived?"  Why, then, should Christian Quakers take special pains around non-Christian Friends and religious refugees in what is, essentially, their spiritual home territory?

The answer is this: the territory of Spirit does not belong to any of us humans, regardless of what labels we use to describe our relationship with it, and the care to be taken is not--most emphatically not--a care to be inoffensive, to non-Christians or anybody else.  Bland niceness is not the goal.

Yes, Christian Friends need to be tender and faithful when they speak what is on their hearts--but the care is to be faithful to The Spirit That Gathers Us.  It is most certainly not a duty to speak to a lowest common denominator with non-Christian Friends, spiritual refugees or no.

What is required is is to stay low to the Truth, not to hide it or apologize for it.  Here's what I would ask: Do not share one syllable more of your Scriptures than the "Spirit that gave them forth" is speaking in you--but equally, do not share one syllable less.

When speaking from Spirit, use whatever language That Spirit lends you--and if that involves quoting from the Bible, speaking of your experiences of Christ, or sharing any other words that may be uncomfortable, for me or for you, do it! Do not be "nice" to anyone: be bold!  But do not speak beyond what is given you to say: be low.  Only be faithful in your speaking.

It's not enough to speak your truth, as you experienced it once, years ago.  You must speak from love, in the present moment, and from Spirit, also in the present moment.

Well, but what about me?  What about me, and other non-Christians among Friends?  What are we required to do, to give to this relationship?

It is our duty to be faithful, too: bold and low, just like you.

Luckily, it turns out that Spirit is a magnificent translator.  To those of us who are also staying low and open, also being courageous and present, She will grant the ability to listen in tongues.  (This I know experimentally.  I have lived this one many times... and "I love to listen where the words come from."  Trust the Spirit That Sent You.)

And we are equally called upon, we non-Christian Friends, to be faithful.  Even if we share no names for the Spirit that draws us all into fellowship in this body, many of us do share the experience of being gathered by it.  It is our job to be faithful to it, with or without matching vocabulary, and to speak out without apology when we are given words to speak.

You may hear words on my lips that you are uncomfortable with.
You may hear words on my lips that contradict your beliefs.
You may hear words on my lips that make no sense to you at all.

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.

--->snip!<--- a="">

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.

Is there more?  What else do I need from you?

I will tell you in the second half of this letter.

          *           *           *

NOTE: Since I penned these words, Ashley W., at A Passionate and Determined Quest for Adequacy has written her own post, on the surprising kinship between Quakers of very different apparent theologies.  Ashley cited this post as a partial inspiration for her thoughts, and I was quite excited by that, as I think she understood my point of view very well.

 Another, very different response has been posted to my open letter at Quaker Quaker, by blogger Jim Wilson.  I wouldn't want it thought that I was ignoring his words, when he put such care into crafting a response.  However, I am not a member of that community, as it is a quite explicitly Christ-centered Quaker community.  As a non-member, I cannot respond to his blog post. 

Luckily, Joanna Hoyt was able to post.  As Quakers are fond of saying, "That Friend speaks my mind."  Thank you, Joanna, for putting it into words for me.

A further response to Jim Wilson's post at Quaker Quaker has been posted by Susanne at Susanne's Quaker Musings. 


Finally, this discussion is also being carried at Quaker Universalist Conversations.


Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Gospel of The Princess Bride

I'm not sure if The Princess Bride was one of my daughter's favorite movies when she was growing up or not, but I know that it has always been one of mine.  And today, in meeting for worship, a scene from The Princess Bride rose up in me as an answer to a spiritual question.

All spiritual communities have their struggles.  Sometimes they are rooted in personal conflicts that divide a group; sometimes in the differing needs of a group's members.  For example, it can be frustrating to a newcomer to discover that a group is so well-adapted to meeting the needs of longtime members that their needs seem to be invisible, and it can be equally frustrating to longtime members to see a group seemingly caught forever in an introduction to work they are ready to take much farther and deeper than a newcomer can.  No matter how many beginners you welcome and show the ropes, there will always be another one right behind them... unless there isn't, at which point you discover a whole new set of limitations!  And no matter how wisely and sensitively you approach the experienced members of a group, there will always be someone who is uneasy either with your newness or your new ideas... unless there aren't any experienced members of the group, at which point, you bump up against that set of limitations.

There are the needs of the old and of the young; of the time-poor and of the lonely; there are needs around social class, race, medical needs, mental health needs...  So many needs, and sometimes, seeing how to meet them or even acknowledge them all is not so simple.

Sometimes, we just don't know how to agree on the best way forward in our life together.  It's a muddle, being human...

I remember the point among Pagans that I first realized that, no matter how much time and energy
Winchester Mystery House. Cullen328 via Wikimedia Commons
any of us put into building a community, building any spiritual community was akin to construction on the Winchester Mystery House: if you were lucky, it was a job that could never be completed.  And living in spiritual community is always a matter of living amid sawdust, wet paint, and tarps as well as beauty and grace.  That's just the way it is, trying to inhabit the Beloved Community with other human beings.

My meeting is like other spiritual communities in this; we have not achieved perfection, and sometimes we hurt one another, and sometimes we confuse one another.  No surprises there.

A message today in meeting spoke to that truth.  It was painful to see someone I love grieving over our struggles.  I wanted to make it better.  I wanted to make everyone in my meeting happy, fulfilled, and whole--but, of course, that's a job that's way bigger than I am.  I couldn't accomplish that if I knew what everyone needed, and of course, I do not.  I'm in the fog, along with everyone else.

So I sat with that for a bit today, and with my sadness at not being able to make everything right.

If it's not my place to do that--or even if it were my place, but I have no idea how to begin--what, then?

Ah.  Right.  The Princess Bride.
I felt the wisdom of Inigo Montoya rise up within me.

Inigo, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie (In which case, for shame!  Go out and find a copy, or download it from Netflix, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days to further their movie educations) is not normally a figure one would take to be an inspiration "To All Friends Everywhere," as Quakers like to address their epistles.

Inigo Montoya is a chronically unemployed drunk, who has lived only for the sake of avenging his father's death from the age of twelve, and whose most recent paying job was attempting to provoke a war between two rival nations.  (He is also compassionate, good-humored, and kind, oddly enough.  See the movie; it will all make sense to you when you have.)

The latest job ended in disaster, as Inigo, his partner, and his employer Vizzini were all outwitted by the mysterious Man in Black, who thwarted their attempts to start a war, rescued the princess, and defeated them all in battle, one by one.

When next we see Inigo, he is refusing to be strong-armed out of his chosen hovel by the Royal Brute Squad.  Such is Inigo's mastery of swordsmanship that even drunk, defeated and exhausted, the combined efforts of the entire Brute Squad are not enough to remove him.  Scarcely deigning to look up, he parries all their attacks, mumbling and shouting
I am waiting for you Vizzini!  You told me to go back to the beginning!  I have.  This is where I am; this is where I will stay...  When a job went wrong, you went back to the beginning.  Well, this is where we got the job, so this is the beginning, and I am staying till Vizzini come.
Life in a spiritual community involves a lot of confusion, and a certain amount of jobs that go wrong.  We get stuck.  We lose hope.  We get angry, or afraid, or our words fall on deaf ears, and we don't know what to do next.

Vizzini was right, however.  Inigo Montoya was right--at least in this.  When a job goes wrong, we go back to the beginning.  And we don't let anyone, no matter how determined, move us from that place.

What is the place?

Always the same.  Anyone who has ever been in spiritual community knows it, even if we forget about it in our confusion and our pain: it's the place where we love one another.  In spite of fear, in spite of anger, in spite of hopelessness, in spite of being at utter cross-purposes.

We go back to the beginning.

We remember how it feels to extend a hand in love, and to have it taken by love in turn.

We turn away from the part within us that wants to demonize the Other, fears to embrace the person we think will cause us pain, or who has raised so much anger in us in the past.

We go back to the beginning.

And wait.

(Look: if even a drunken vengeance-seeker can do it, so can I.  Maybe.  At least some of the time, if I try.)
There was an error in this gadget