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.