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Syncretism and the River

Recent posts on Quaker blogs, discussions with Pagan friends, experiences in meeting for worship, and a new book I'm reading by Wiccan writer Christopher Penczak, are all causing me to reflect on what shape my spiritual life has right now.

Marshall Massey, challenging my comments on the relationship between programmed and unprogrammed Friends in NEYM, asked a question I think he meant as hypothetical: whether I was "ready to change my actual religion?" But this question is not hypothetical, is never hypothetical perhaps, for those of us who practice blended spiritual paths. Maybe it's never hypothetical for anyone with a listening spirituality. In Quaker terms, isn't that what ongoing revelation implies? As the UCC puts it, "God isn't done speaking yet." In Pagan terms, hey, if the Gods talk to you in circle, trance journey, what have you, what are you _supposed_ to do if They tell you to add or change or eliminate a practice?

The word "faith" is loaded for me, a non-Christian. Too often, it seems to mean, "believe what you are told to, or else." (Lest that statement stir another round of hurt feelings, let me hasten to say that there are many, many people who use the word in a very different way. I'm not describing what you mean when you use the word, just what I sometimes hear.)

The word "faithfulness," though... a word that is also rare in Pagan usage... that word means more and more to me as I try to walk my talk. And for me, being faithful to the lights I've been given, as a Pagan and as a Quaker, has often meant having to be willing to sacrifice what I _thought_ was my religion. Several times now, I've had such a fear of following where I was being led that I have been sorely tempted to sit down on the path to whatever-it-is and not go any farther, because I was leaving the security of the familiar behind.

As a new Witch, only a couple of years into my practice, I once attended a three day Pagan retreat. While I was there, my whole life was changed. (To Peter, who was there and just becoming close, I refer to it as _That_ Twilight Covening.) It's hard to talk about. (Isn't that often the case with the really important stuff!) But among a host of other things that happened, I spent that time viewing the world with a kind of spiritual double-vision. While I saw all the ordinary reality things around me--trees, sky, dishwashers, cups, paper napkins, and squirrels--I also seemed to see, or sense, a non-ordinary reality at the same time, sometimes speaking directly through the apparently ordinary world around me. A white stone was just a white stone... and it was the Goddess reaching out and placing her hand on my shoulder, comforting me and explaining to me the limits of her comfort for me at the same time. A solo guitarist practicing classical music was just another camper at the retreat... and he was the God of the Wild, inviting me into a relationship of intimacy, trust, and a very personal love.

At one point, I realized that I was seeing and feeling and doing things in this doubled reality that were not well described by the specific descriptions of Wicca that I'd been taught beforehand. I remember vividly the moment of fear I felt, realizing that, if I kept on, I might not be able to call myself a Witch anymore. It was a lonely thought, and a cold fear. But it also seemed clear to me that if the Gods were calling me outside the comfort of the Witches' circle, well, I had to go.

And, oh yeah. In spite of all the arguments against syncretism and cultural appropriation, I began working regularly with techniques of Harner-esque core shamanism. Because they worked; they helped me find again the Gods who had touched me so powerfully on retreat. (This is where Penczak's book comes in. Despite the almost ridiculously mixed metaphor of his title, what I'm reading of his _Temple of Shamanic Witchcraft_ feels like home. I'm fully aware of all the plausible arguments against adopting this sort of practice... but for me, well, it feels more as if the practice adopted me. Whaddaya gonna do?)

In a somewhat similar way, after September 11, I became a Quaker. I was drawn to Quaker meeting the way, after holding my breath, I am drawn to air. I was in a state of spiritual emergency, and I did not have time to spend debating with myself the fine points of whether or not someone like me _could_ belong to the Society of Friends. Something without a name called me so powerfully I could not do anything but follow. Call it the Spirit of Peace, call it the paraclete, the Inner Light, the Seed--there is something I need to spend time with. And I don't know what it is. It is not entirely unfamiliar. I've felt it before. But I find it most consistently, and deepen my connection to it most effectively, in Quaker Meeting for Worship.

I may not be able to define this spirit that I feel, but I do know what I experience, and I do know some things that evoke that experience.

In times of trouble and pain during my Pagan life, the Gods have always been there. I'm talking about that double-vision reality thing again... It doesn't always comfort me. In fact, I once spent so much time howling and shouting at the God that I lost my voice for three days. He was right, and I was wrong, by the way, and I would not have married my husband without His help, unappreciated though it was at the time. But, so far, any time my heart has been truly desolate, I've felt Them close. And when I stop storming and tantrumming, I _am_ comforted, and grateful.

The same has been true in my Quaker life. Recent years have held great joy for me... but also some terrible pain and fear. And during those times, especially during meeting, I feel held and enfolded by something vast and tender. It is strong enough and powerful enough to have broken through my New Englander self-sufficiency and reserve, and has made me ask for (and receive!) comfort from the members of my meeting. Sometimes it is so strong and powerful that it makes me tremble and ache, and sometimes...

When I was a new Pagan, I was living in a small town in Vermont on a branch of the White River. I lived near the town's only bridge, and, after the ice was out on the river, it would flood. I used to walk out onto the middle of the bridge, and stand there, my hands resting on the balustrade, watching the torrent pass beneath me. And that bridge shook. The river roared and thundered, but still more impressive was the way the bridge silently trembled all over with that force, as a guitar string vibrates with the musical note that has just finished.

Since that time, the image has come to me over and over again. There is something like a river in this world. If you put your hands out, lightly, especially in times of trouble, you can feel it, trembling through all the fine particles that make up the world.

The river is joy. It is laughter. It's compassion, too, and it reaches out, ready to flood through everything and everyone who needs it. It never stops, and it never sleeps, and it is more powerful than anything I know, and I swear to you, I feel it just beneath the surface in every smallest thing. Sometimes I forget to hear it. Sometimes I'm too busy or distracted to feel it. But week after week, in Quaker meeting, and especially when I imagine the faces of men and women I love, Quaker and Pagan alike, it rises in me until I shake, too.

I'm not being metaphorical here. This isn't poetry I'm writing. It's just what it is.

You may have a word for this, or several. Me, I don't know how to explain it. It doesn't seem to be pushing the Pagan Gods away from me--so far, if anything, I think it may be drawing them closer, though not in the old, traditional ways I was taught, either. I sometimes think in terms of a great World Tree, that everything that is is a manifestation or outgrowth of. Sometimes I think this river is the sap of the Tree, or the well at its feet. Maybe it's beyond the Gods, or maybe the Gods are part of it, or... I don't know. Nobody has ever explained to me how to use Google Earth to find out the Gods' exact street addresses or telephone numbers, so there's a lot that's unclear to me here.

What is clear to me is that I need listen to the River, as best as I can. What's clear to me is that, if you feel the same thing I am feeling, we are kin, no matter what words describe our beliefs or practices. It's clear to me, too, that none of our beliefs or practices are strong enough to contain that whole River. And if my kinship with Quakers means my Pagan community sees me as less Pagan, well, I'll hate it, but there it is. And if my not owning the same vocabulary as my Christian friends means they deny I am a Quaker, well, I'll hate that too, but there it is.

I am syncretistic, not because I'm picking and choosing from the smorgasboard of spirituality, but because I'm _not_. So maybe I will change my religion tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe I never will. But it won't be a rational, thought-out decision. At least, I think it won't be--not if I'm doing it right.


Anonymous said…
I need to admit that I did not and could not read the entire blog. All I kept thinking of was George Fox and his comment that in his journal is repeated time and time again "My job was to lead people to Christ and then leave them there to be taught by Him." Pagan Quaker, to me, is an oxymoron
Jim B said…
Hi, Time to dive in head first. I am relating quite closely to these questions of language and religion and your comments of a River reminded me of a quote of Meister Eckhart's that goes "Divinity is an underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up." And a book by Matthew Fox called "One River, Many Wells." He talks about different religions and spiritual traditions being wells to the River of the Divine. For me the book and its meaning is one of those "go beyond" experiences where the disagreements we have over language and practice came to look down right childish. Yet I didn't get over them and continue to wrestle with the challenge of communicating my experiences. I am a Pagan who has married into the Society of Friends. I found a great deal of compatibility between my core beliefs and Quaker beliefs. As well as I could grasp from a short time learning them (2 years). I am troubled by the divisions that appear to be arising over what looks like people simply being in different places in their spiritual development and getting bogged down in translating them. Or blogged down as the case may be. The language changes not merely between spiritual traditions but also significantly within them as we grow, develop and then transform within the Divine. If I clung to the meaning of God that I had yesterday how could I "know" God today? If I cling to the meaning of Love I have today how will I love you tomorrow?
Peace, Jim
Anonymous--I accept that you believe I am wrong, but I hope that would not prevent our being able to sit together in worship, or to listen deeply to one another.

Jim b--I really like your phrase, "blogged down!" I suspect that part of what fuels divisions among bloggers is not being able to listen to "where the words come from," to quote the old Quaker story. Online, we have only human words and human empathy to guide us. I will say that the tension I sometimes feel around my calling myself both Quaker and Pagan is _not_ something that I feel at all in my own meeting for worship. I realize that I'm lucky enough to be able to attend one of the most liberal monthly meetings of one of the most liberal yearly meetings, and I'm not sure my experience would have been the same in another part of the country.

But just this past week, at a discussion of our experiences at NEYM, one of the oldest and most seasoned of the Friends at Mt. Toby made such a point of letting me know, when I commented that I had sometimes felt like an indsider-outsider because of my Pagan-ness, that I was no outsider to her.

Again, what inadequate things are words--I write them down, and it doesn't capture the warmth and genuineness of her support. I wish I could convey, somehow, just how open and welcoming my face-to-face _experiences_ with Quakers have been, almost without exception.

Geography may be part of it. But a big piece of it, I'm sure, is that this kind of communal listening spirituality is just very, very hard to approximate at a distance... Quakers are best at being Quaker up close. At least that is my experience...

I'm guessing that, married to a Friend, you find a great deal of common ground to unite with, which must be good. I know I love the fact that Peter understands my spiritual yearnings so deeply.

Blessed be.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for another moving and resonating post. You have written much in the past month that speaks to me quite deeply.
Beautiful post, Cat! Thanks.

I'm often challenged to be the sole Pagan in my local (liberal and very diverse) interfaith council when it comes to explaining who we are. Not only because we're so diverse but also because we, and I, are constantly changing. This doesn't mean we're unstable or confused, but more, to me, that we're engaged in the flow of Life. We're dancing. To that end, I've just begun reading Carol Christ's She Who Changes, a spiritual feminist's expansion on the process philosophy originally formulated by Whitehead and Hartshorne. I think I'm gonna love it.

Have also been chewing on food for thought from Erik Davis' Techgnosis and images of Indra's bejeweled Web.

May this school year be easier on you so we can continue to read an occasional blog.

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