Monday, June 29, 2009

On Chestnuts, Hemlocks, and Change

I am just a tiny bit of a control freak. I'm not just the kind of person who alphabetizes the books on my bookcase, but for years, while I was studying Wiccan history, I had the books in our Pagan bookshelf organized by date of first publication. (There were little white date stickers on all the spines, too.)

It bothered me a bit, deciding whether or not to list books like Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles by date of first publication or by date of first translation into English.

This probably tells you more than you wanted to know, but I'm going somewhere with this--hang on.

This past First Day was my day to "hold" meeting for worship at my Quaker meeting. All Quaker meetings do things slightly differently, but at most unprogrammed meetings like mine, the signal that the period of silent worship has ended is a handshake that passes around the room.

When I first began attending Mt. Toby, I thought that that handshake just happened at the right time; that the wise Quaker elders all got some sort of inward spiritual signal and initiated the handshake, spontaneously. Pagan readers who have done group trance workings will know that is not so far fetched: it really is the case that a group that has worked together for a while will develop a sense for when the deepening flow of a group working turns into the rising flow of return.

And there is a piece of that in the Quaker world, too. At Mt. Toby, the member of Ministry and Worship who has been assigned to hold meeting arrives early, centers, and enters worship. Others gather and enter worship as it is time, and the one holding meeting does try to stay especially aware of the flow of Spirit through the room and through the worship hour.

And when the allotted hour for worship is up, we will spend a few minutes trying to sense whether or not the worship needs to continue just a little longer--perhaps because someone is laboring under a message that is just taking shape, or because a message that was recently given needs to settle before we are done. It is not unusual to look up and catch the eye of another member of Ministry and Worship, to look for confirmation: this is a good moment to close worship? Yes. This is the moment.

So there is an element of intuition in the whole process. But, as a general rule, we also use a clock.

There are no clocks inside the room we use for worship. Instead, typically, whoever is holding meeting makes sure to wear a wrist-watch the week they are holding meeting.

I was halfway through worship yesterday when I realized: I had forgotten to bring a watch.

Now, normally, as the sort of very responsible control freak that I am, this sort of thing can work me into a real tizzy. Not only making a mistake, but a mistake in the course of an Important Duty! Normally, this kind of thing makes me crazy with self-judgement.

Instead, I found myself suppressing an urge to laugh out loud.

Isn't this just typical? It's the human condition, writ small; all the little things I'd done to make sure I was ready for holding meeting yesterday, and I forgot to bring a watch. Bloody typical.

I figured out that from where I sat, if I craned my head just so, I could make out the clock in the hallway through the door. There was no real crisis, except to my usual sense of control--a sense thankfully eased by being in worship.

The more I learn about life, the more I understand: chaos is not a bug; it's a feature. I think maybe God even likes it that way.

Just the day before I had learned something new about chestnut trees, and hemlocks, and change. Forgetting to bring a watch, and having it turn out to be no problem at all, brought the trees to mind.

I have a concern for chestnut trees. Few of us in the Northeast can imagine it, but the woods we know are nothing like the forests that were here once. For one thing, since the turn of the last century, there have almost no surviving chestnut trees. Since the chestnut blight arrived in 1904, we have lost almost all the members of a species that once made up one in four trees in the forest.

And not just any trees: chestnut trees were the keystone species to a range of other plants, animals, and microorganisms. They were beautiful, they were giants, they fed animals--and humans--in numbers we cannot even estimate now, and their wood built much of our country, quite literally. Even today, seasoned chestnut timbers are so valuable that people take pains to salvage them whenever they take down an old barn that has collapsed. American chestnut trees were the princes of the wood.

And they are all but gone now. They have no resistance to the blight. (Even European chestnuts have only limited resistance; only Asian trees, a very different species and the source of the blight, are resistant.)

The only reason they are not entirely gone is that chestnuts are one of those species of hardwood that put up stump sprouts. Most hardwoods will do so when a young tree is cut down or killed; chestnuts are unusual in that they will put up sprouts from stumps left by even very large and mature trees.

If you know what you are looking for, you can still find young sapling chestnuts growing in the New England woods.

They invariably die before they can mature enough to pollinate; to do that, they need to reach a certain size--something that depends on light reaching them from the canopy. The blight is still here, however, and certain to claim them in the end.

Not only that, but the density of chestnuts, once so great, is now so thin that no pollen can reach a flowering chestnut; there will be no other member of the species near enough to produce a fertile nut before the tree dies.

Happily, there is a group called the American Chestnut Foundation that seeks to have man do what nature no longer can, and save the American chestnut by creating hybrids with blight-resistant Asian chestnuts. (To do this, they must have as much genetic diversity in American chestnut lines as possible; if you own woodlands in the Northeast, please learn to identify your trees, because it is possible that you have a specimen of American chestnut on your land that could provide genetic diversity to those lines!)

Here's what I did not know before this week: chestnuts, in their heyday, employed a growth strategy that relied on chaos.

My friend Michael, who works with the ACF, explained it to me this way: chestnuts, unlike oaks which produce a heavy crop of acorns only every six or seven years, produce a heavy crop every year. They are also capable of very rapid growth, given an opening in the forest canopy: it is not unusual for a hundred year old chestnut tree to have a diameter as great as four or five feet--something almost unimaginable to us now--and a very great height as well.

They are also both very strong and have very, very strong taproots. The result of this would not sound like something in the trees' favor (though it is): they are easily damaged by truly severe winds. Chestnut trees tend to snap off and fall dramatically to earth after hurricanes... and since there is no place in the region of the country where they once grew that does not experience a powerful hurricane on the order of every hundred or so years--a long time to us puny humans, but quite regularly in the life of a forest--this means that chestnuts will come to dominate forests where they are found.

To dominate? Yes. Remember that habit of producing stump sprouts from even fully mature trees? A mature chestnut will fall, take down other trees in its path, and create an opening in the canopy which its own stump sprouts, as well as any other chestnut saplings in the vicinity, will be poised to take advantage of through its habit of rapid growth.

And this is a keystone species, one of great significance to the entire ecosystem around it, including animals and humans. A keystone species, that supports a diverse and flourishing ecosystem... which thrived on destruction, on chaos.

There is a contrast in the story of the hemlock--another species for which I have a deep love and concern.

Hemlocks are also threatened at the moment, by the emergence of a strong and powerful pest, the wooly adelgid, another Asian import. There has been some good news lately, in terms of research to control the pest, but the wooly adelgid has the potential to wipe out hemlocks throughout the forests I love. Their range is limited by cold--but we all know that winters are getting shorter and warmer.

Like the chestnut, the hemlock is an important species which many species rely on for food. Deer, for instance, a sacred animal in my iconography, browse its fresh growth in the spring when no other forage is available.

I will admit, a dark, scrubby hemlock woods lacks the visual punch of a towering chestnut tree. The trees do not grow quickly, but their shade is so deep and dark that little can grow beneath it. The prickly, sharp twigs and slippery needles make the ground under a hemlock less than pleasant as a place to spend time. I am told that the fully mature trees take on a very different appearance in time; the bark changes texture, and they become dramatic specimens in their own right.

I can't speak to this. My beloved New England woods were pastures a century ago, and it takes a long time to grow a mature hemlock. I have never seen one, though I've fought my way through enough scraggly tangles of their young trees in my time.

Expressing my concerns to Michael about the wooly adelgid, he reminded me of the climatic limits of that pest--something I knew--and also told me something new: that the hemlock has, according to the pollen record, been through several waves of die-back in the past. We don't know why, but more than once, pests of some sort seem to have arisen and beaten back the dominance of the hemlock tree.

And this is perhaps a good thing, Michael seemed to be saying. Which is not to say that efforts to contol the wooly adelgid are not--we have lost quite enough species, thank you! But it is true that hemlocks grow to so densely shade the floor beneath them that they can come to entirely dominate a forest--and it will be a forest, despite the usefulness of the hemlock to a diverse ecosystem, which is a rather barren place. Not much can grow in the shade of a hemlock tree... except another hemlock tree.

Michael did not say so, but I am already aware of the ways that monoculture of any crop can expose that plant eventually to diseases that can threaten its continuance. The very success of the hemlock may make it susceptible to die-backs, to disaster.

Hemlocks tend to dominate through controlling their environment.

Chestnuts tended to dominate through anticipating chaos and change.

Both are good and useful trees. I would not like to see a world without either of them. But I would like to remake myself, if I can, into something like a chestnut tree: supporting a diversity of life around me, and able to make room for wild change and chaos in my future.

I'd rather not be like the hemlock: dominant to some degree at the expense of diversity, and reaching a point of dominance in my world where only disaster can limit my influence on the world around me.

Or maybe it is better to say that I would choose to be like a whole forest, living in a dynamic tension of control and change, stability and chaos, old and new growth. I am quite certain that it is that tension between change and stability that marks the truly healthy ecosystem: constant change and constant rebalancing. Chestnuts and hemlocks, interdependant and competitors.

Like us, perhaps. Planning ahead. But knowing that chaos is coming. And its not a bug--it's a feature.

NOTE: If, like me, you find the story of the American Chestnut a compelling one, please consider becoming involved with the American Chestnut Foundation.

I also strongly recommend the essay, "New Life from an Old Chestnut", by Dave Bonta, who explains far more eloquently and clearly than I have the tragedy of the chestnut... and the hope that we may one day see these trees rise again.

You may also be interested to read the moving essay, "A Whole World Gone: The Loss of the American Chestnut Tree," documenting the impact of the loss of the chestnut on the human world.

And, whatever their aesthetic limitations, hemlocks are also a crucial species in American forests. You may want to consider learning more about identifying the wooly adelgid, and learning how to stop it from destroying trees; Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere has some useful information, as does the Forestry Service.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Peter on Lectio Divina

Many Quakers seem to get a lot of sustenance from the Bible. A Friend/friend of mine shared with me a few pages from her prayer journal the other day, and I was really struck by her careful, prayerful, Spirit-filled reading of the Psalms.

I read the Bible, too, but not like that. I attack the Bible the way I would tackle an immense Rubix cube, or a crossword puzzle in a foreign language. It's an exhilarating intellectual challenge, and it's got me digging through history with the excitement of a puppy finding new smells in the woods...but it's not prayerful, and it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, bring me closer to anything I could call the living G*d.

My friend's prayer journal got me asking myself, what is there that I could be reading with the same kind of attentiveness that Christ-centered Friends bring to the Bible? (What Cat, in a post a few months ago, called Lectio Divina.)

What I came up with were mostly poets (even though I read very little poetry) and also a few essayists: Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anne Lamott... For the moment, the list stops there.

I'm 6'1", but even I had to stand on tiptoes to get to my poetry shelf, which shows how often I take it out and reread it. But I did today, and here is one of Wendell Berry's poems that speaks to me this afternoon:

A Homecoming

One faith is bondage. Two
are free. In the trust
of old love, cultivation shows
a dark graceful wilderness
at its heart. Wild
in that wilderness, we roam
the distances of our faith,
safe beyond the bounds
of what we know. O love,
open. Show me
my country. Take me home.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Quaker Confessional

Some things that feel odd at the time just get odder after the fact, in hindsight.

There's this thing that has happened to me a number of times since I became a Quaker. I haven't heard any other Quakers talk about it, but I bet I'm not alone in having experienced it. For want of a better name, I've come to think of it as the Quaker confessional.

Talk to any average person on the street, and if they know one thing about Quakers beyond the oats, they know that Quakers are opposed to war. Probably they think of bonnets, opposition to slavery, and serious Christianity too, but they will almost certainly know that Quakers are opposed to war.

Which certainly makes sense where I'm concerned, since it was "war and the rumors of war" that suddenly and dramatically convinced me to become a Quaker.

What I mean by the "Quaker confessional" is this: from the time that I became a Quaker in my heart--which was well ahead of my becoming formally a member of the Religious Society of Friends--I have found myself sought out on occasion to hear a type of confession, generally from members of the National Guard or another branch of the military.

Typically, what happens is that the soldier in question approaches me privately--some of these exchanges happened in the context of my psychotherapy practice, so we were already private--and expresses a deep respect and admiration for Quakers and their principles. They talk about how much they hate war and violence, and about their opposition to the current war. And they talk about the personal pain they feel at the knowledge that they are going to be sent there to serve.

If asked, I say that I became a Quaker on September 11, 2001, because that is the day that the peace testimony entered my body with the force of a freight train at high speed. But by the time the United States began bombing in Afghanistan, less than a month later, I had already begun to hear these impromptu confessions. The later invasion of Iraq picked up the pace, at least for a while.

My sense is that, at least for some members of the military, I've been sought out for a form of expiation, purification. These are experienced soldiers, mainly--my conversations with students thinking of entering the military have had a very different feeling to them.

I find myself thinking of the ritual purification required of, and available to those in antiquity who had taken human life. We have nothing to take that place in modern secular society, at least that I'm aware. Except, maybe, for private discussions with Quakers?

What is particularly odd about this, in hindsight, is that I began hearing these Quaker confessions when I had been attending Quaker meeting for less than a month. True, I had been a practicing psychotherapist for many years, and presumably I'm a good listener. And, true, I talked at length about my conversion to the peace testimony (and to Quakers) with the other members of my religious community. It would not have been a secret that I had a strong interest in peace, nor that I would be willing to listen to those who had something on their hearts.

But I wasn't exactly seasoned as a Friend. I wonder how much that mattered? And I wonder how much other Quakers have experienced this phenomenon.

And I wonder how well I served the Spirit of Peace in the ways I held and listened to the confidences I heard in the early days of war.

It is probably already clear that I care about and respect very much a number of men and women who have made the decision to become soldiers. I can't help it: I recognize that, though we see the world differently, many of them have entered their professions with the most idealistic of intentions. In the case of soldiers who have seen combat, it seems to me that I can almost hear their anguish at having taken life, running like a silent river beneath the surface of our conversations. (I find it easier to be a bystander to this pain when it is given words; harder by far when it is denied.)

I know that soldiers have faced pain that I have not; terror that I have not; grief that I have not. My empathy is fully engaged when I am listening to a veteran speaking of their experiences of war, and I think that this is more true since I became a Quaker than it was before, as a knee-jerk liberal (who was, in fact, sometimes a jerk about it).

But I fear, looking back on my early experiences, that I may have bent over a little too far backwards, seeking to accommodate views that I did not share--I may have over-expressed my respect, and under-expressed my concern.

Maybe not. Maybe the Spirit of Peace did a pretty good job guiding me, a novice in the waging of peace, in my conversations with veterans of the terrible art of war. Maybe it is good that, with so little seasoning or eldering as a Friend to guide me, I instinctively allowed love to be the first motion, and stayed close to that guiding spirit of love throughout those conversations.

Maybe it is always more powerful to be peace than to preach peace.

But maybe I should have done more, or I should do more now. Maybe I need to weigh out carefully what the role of a Friend--no longer a newbie Friend, but a Friend of some years--should be, when asked inside the Quaker confessional to listen to a soldier's heart.

Maybe a little more plain speech was called for from me, and maybe a little more plain speech is called for now. Not that the respect and the tenderness should be set aside: these are still men and women who know terrible things that I have never, myself, learned in the flesh.

But maybe that just makes it harder for them to allow in the quiet voice of Peace, and maybe that just makes it more important for me to share what I have heard that voice say clearly within me.

What is that? What is it that I fear I have not spoken clearly, when it may have been my job to do so?

Is it my job to say words like this?
My friend, I know you have tried to do what you believed was right. I know you are a person of great integrity. I have seen your compassion and I know your heart. I love you.

But I think I am hearing you say that there is a feeling rising up in you that what you are required to do as a soldier is wrong. I know you think that we live in a world where doing terrible and even wrong things is sometimes necessary.

But I think I'm hearing you say that your heart is arguing with your head right now, and, with or without reasons, that your spirit, your soul, is rebelling against the call to war.

And if I am right, and you are troubled in your soul about what you are going to be asked to do, then I think you have a terrible choice to make. It is a worse choice than any I have ever had to make, and I am not qualified to tell you that you must do it. But I think there is that within you that may require it of you.

If you come to believe that you are being used to take life, and that the taking of human life is (as I admit I do believe) simply and always wrong... you must stop. You must not do it. Even if you go to jail. Even if you lose the respect of those who love you. Even if you die, perhaps. Because your soul is more precious even than your life. And you have to do what is right, once you know what that is, regardless of the cost.

(I am not sure I live up to those words. Actually I know that I don't, though I'm trying to do better.)

I'm not sure of much beyond the truth that has been spoken so often, that there is no way to peace, but that peace is the way; that piling up the bodies in a terrible human sacrifice to peace or safety or justice buys us nothing worth the price, but leads instead to more of the same.

And I'm sure, too, that there is a Source out there that is peace. One great reason to lead each other away from the pits and screes of violence is that that's the way back to that Source that is calling to us all the time.

Perhaps the best and greatest reason to work for peace is that it brings us closer to God, and that closeness to God is more joy than can otherwise fit into a human heart.

I guess that I can only hope to stay quiet in myself, tender and neither stupidly arrogant (as I can sometimes be) nor overly conciliatory and mealy-mouthed from not wanting to hurt or offend the feelings of a friend. I guess that I can only pray to be helped to be tender and real and open to the leadings of the Light, whenever I next find myself within that Quaker confessional booth, hearing the heart of a friend.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It Will Be Well

I have a hard time writing about Herne. I think it's because I often try to explain him, or at least the history of my relationship with him. And that's just too big a job, and maybe not one even suited for the kind of stories I know how to tell.

So I'll just say this, with no explanation. And maybe, incomplete as it is, it will stand better than something more reasoned would do...

When the time comes for me to die, I hope that they will take me outdoors. I hope that it will be one of those unseasonably warm days in early October, when the sky is a clean, bald blue, and the maple trees are in flames and the oak trees have begun to smolder.

And I hope that someone will lay me down in a big field, with trees all around and the sun in the sky overhead, so I can feel the heat and the life of it in my body all day long. And then, at twilight, I would like to be moved to the edge of the woods. Let someone kindle up a big bonfire, and let me see the flames lighting up the undersides of the leaves, making them glow like stained glass out of the gloom of shadows. And then they should leave me, walk away and leave me there to wait in the fire and in the dark.

Photo credit: Petritap
And I will hear a sound, of hooves and creaking leather, and jingling tack. I will smell woodsmoke, but also sweat, and horses, and leather, and underneath it all, something cool and foreign, like the smell of rock dust or the earth beneath a stone.

And he'll have come for me, warm and alive and dark and strong. And he'll bend down, and pull me up before him, and we will go away together forever.

But in that moment before he takes me in his arms and wraps me in his cloak, I will be able to do what I never have been able to do in all my life till now: I will look into his face, fully into his face, and I will see his eyes.

Then let me die. It will be well.

So mote it be.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sea Glass

Photo by Akuppa JohnWigham
Have I mentioned lately that I love my monthly meeting? I do.

Often, when I speak of my sense of God/the gods (whether using Pagan or Quaker vocabulary) I speak of my connections to people, to community. I do find that my lived experience of God most often comes through to me in encounters with community. Frail as we are, foolish as we are, it is in the refractions of human beings that I most often glimpse God.

This is about one of those glimpses.

Two weeks ago, in meeting for worship, Alan T. stood with a message. When Alan rose, he spoke, as he generally does, in calm, unpretentious tones, just giving us the truth of his experience, turning it over in his mind.

Like many of us, Alan struggles with a family that is not always accepting of his spiritual journey. Like many of us, Alan still tries to speak about this part of his life with his family, his parents, whose version of Christianity is concrete, specific, and unyielding.

One part of Alan's message, as he spoke it, resonated for me with all the unexpected power of a perfectly tuned bell.

He said that though he knew better than to do it, he'd found himself confiding in his dad one day, telling him, "I talk to Jesus every day."

Far from being reassured, his dad answered him, "You're talking to the wrong Jesus."

* * *

There was more to Alan's message, but for me, that sentence was so strong and so painful that it stopped at that.

"Talking to the wrong Jesus." Here I am, a non-Christian, sometimes feeling like a poor, orphaned relative among the Christians of the world, apologizing, explaining, translating... And there's Alan, one of the most sincere and serious Christians I know, equally dismissed, equally marginalized.

For talking to the "wrong Jesus."

I could not decide, in that moment, whether those words were more funny or sad. But they're both, really, aren't they?

The wrong Jesus. The wrong Zeus, the wrong Demeter, the wrong Allah, the wrong theology, ontology, hermeneutics, philosophics, harmonics, recipe for sweet golden Hannukah latkes... Oh, dear sweet Ground of All Being, how we humans dearly love to draw our little lines around your limitlessness and fence you off and take You (and one another) hostage. There it was: the tragedy and the comedy of being human and trying to love God and one another, all sewed into one small sentence.

May we be forgiven.

* * *

A little while later, I felt a message beginning to form within me.

It rose first, as messages almost always do for me, with sensory images: the sight and sound and textures of the ocean, the sand of a beach, and a lump of sea glass--a particular lump, I think, found when I was perhaps thirteen years old, one summer in Maine.

It took a while for the message to take shape, and even then, I was inclined to let it sit. (Often that is where posts for this blog begin.) But then I began to feel that restlessness, the almost physical urge to rise. So I did, and I put my hands out to steady myself against the oak back of the bench in front of me, and the words that came out went something like this:

"I have been sitting here, with my mind full of those words: 'You've been talking to the wrong Jesus.'

"And I've been remembering being a child, remembering the experience of being down at the ocean, looking for shells.

"Do you remember the beach? Did you ever go to the beach, and walk along the wet sand, looking for shells? The water so cold it aches, because that's the way it is with the Atlantic ocean... so cold that even the sand between your toes is cold.

"I remember the smell of the ocean, the taste of the salt.

"And I remember not finding shells. But one day, I found this amazing stuff--sea glass. I don't know--is there still sea glass out there to find? I hope there is. Hard like a stone, but full of light. Smooth and rounded in your hand, and cool, and when you hold it up to the sun, full of amazing colors: green, deep blue, pale, pale aqua... amber brown.

"Did you ever find sea glass? Do you remember the way it felt, so smooth in your hand?

"And if you were lucky, you took that piece of sea glass, and you ran with it down the beach to where someone big was waiting for you. And you sat down next to them, digging your feet into the sand, and you took turns holding it up to the light, and feeling its coolness in your hands, wondering at it: a small miracle. Sea glass.

"But maybe you were not so lucky. Maybe, the big person you ran to looked down at it, and dismissed it. 'Yeah,' they said, dismissively. 'It's sea glass. So what?'

"Yes," I said. "It's sea glass. Now look. Look!"

And I sat down.

* * *

And Margaret stood.

I don't know for sure how Margaret seems to other people. But to me, Margaret is like a spring of cool, dark water on a hot, thirsty day. She doesn't give much vocal ministry, but when she does, I drink it in as deep as I can.

Margaret refreshes my spirit.

And Margaret spoke, and she spoke this prayer:
in the silence, i know you:
i know your coughs, the sound of your flip-flops,
the nods of your head as you doze

you are in the pocket of my backpack when i go hiking
you are in the moment of grace before the meals i eat in solitude

you are my teachers, you are my trespassers
you are my rabbis, you are my deceivers
you are my jesus, my buddha, my whirling dervishes

source of truth, source of love –
help me to fall in love with those with whom i’m in tension
help me to speak honestly and with humility
help me to embrace those who are struggling
help me to fall at the feet of those who are strong enough to hold me.

After meeting, Margaret shared with me one last line, which had not been spoken in meeting:

"you are my sea glass."

* * *

And to you, the Beloved Community, I say: You are my sea glass.

Blessed be.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pagan Values Month: The Face Across the Table

As an old Pagan and a newer Quaker, I spend a lot of my time--maybe too much--playing compare and contrast between my two communities. Paganism's relative newness in the family of religions shows, and the longer I've been Pagan, the more clearly and obviously it shows, in fact. Consequently, there are myriad differences I've come to know and appreciate about the ways the Quaker world fits me that the Pagan world often didn't. For example: among Pagans, anyone with gray hair and a half-dozen years of experience in the religion is likely to demand (and receive) recognition as an elder. In the Pagan world, Peter and I most certainly are elders--and we try to live up to that in a responsible way, but the relative lack of peers and elders has held us back in our personal spiritual growth for years and years.

In the Quaker world, we are newbies. Hell, in the Quaker world, we're young Turks: at 49 and 50 years of age, we are among the younger, not older, Friends in most Quaker settings. I've heard many Quakers bemoan the absence of youthful energy in that setting... but, as someone who has lived for decades in a religious community that lacked elders who were, well, old, I deeply appreciate the years of lived Quaker life that our Quaker elders bring to us.

There are other examples: 350 years of practice in conflict resolution haven't made Quakers perfect at it yet, but they do have a head start on most of the Pagan communities I have lived in. Quakers have evolved some fairly sophisticated tools for communal discernment of individual spiritual leadings, while Pagans have only just learned to identify "unverified personal gnosis" as something to struggle with in community. And so on.

But there are strengths that deserve to be celebrated, too. For a young religious movement, Paganism has some wonderful depths and insights.

The trouble is, after almost 25 years, I have come to take so many of those positives for granted, as if we are an old married couple who rarely take the time to look across the table and really see the face before me. Often, it will be an encounter with the Quaker community that reminds me of what I am taking for granted among Pagans. Typically, I will be in conversation with a Quaker friend, or listening to a message at meeting, and I'll hear something like this:

"You know, I sometimes think that even trees have souls."

"I've been thinking. It seems to me that the human body is actually sacred. Even--even sex is sacred. I think. Probably. No, really!"

"I know it's a little out there... but I sometimes think of God as... Goddess."

Or, the perennial winter solstice favorite, "I realized today that this marks the darkest time of the year--but that the light begins returning now. And that makes me think about hope. Rebirth, and hope. Maybe... maybe our lives are like that sometimes..."

Every time I hear a sentiment like this expressed by a Quaker, I have to resist the urge to stare, or to blurt out something along the lines of, "You're just realizing that now?"

So many things I take utterly for granted about how I live my life--the immanence of Spirit; the rejection of any notion of maleness having a monopoly on the holy; the sacrality of the physical, of the body, and of love in the body; and of course of the powerful living testimony of love and hope and rebirth found in the cycles of the natural world--so many of these things speak to my Quaker community, too.

But they are not obvious, self-evident, or foundational truths in that community.

More than that, there is the Pagan expectation that experience, not dogma or creed or tradition, provides the heart of religious life. This is something Pagans rarely put into words--because we do not have to. The fact that our communities are primarily oriented toward ritual and practice, not the study of holy books or learned disputations, teaches most of us on a gut level that we can and should expect to meet our gods--to dance with them, embrace them and be embraced by them, to feast with them, sing with them, and (yes) argue with them.

That expectation is not absent from Quaker life--indeed, I take it to be the entire point of the Quaker practice of expectant, waiting worship: Quakers do not worship the silence of an unprogrammed meeting, we worship the Spirit that gathers us and informs us from out of that silence.

But a ritual is a more active demonstration of that basic insight, common to both my communities, that we need not live cut off from spiritual depths; we can directly experience the presence of God/the gods. And Pagans are if anything, overly concerned with orienting newcomers to our communities: classes, 101 books, meetings to screen and train and initiate prior to many of our most powerful explorations into the divine make it likely that those who are engaging in the Mysteries have a notion of how a community engaged in a ritual sees that ritual. (Large public rituals can be a disconcerting exception to this rule, of course, though that is likely to change as we become a more seasoned community.)

But the silence and relative lack of orientation, and the more open and public nature of unprogrammed meetings for worship among Friends allow plenty of misconceptions to flourish and take deep root in liberal Quaker meetings. It's not unusual to hear of even long-time attenders at Quaker meetings who mistake worship for individual Buddhist-style meditation, or simply a quiet time in which to think "good thoughts." And that can lead to shallow messages and a slowing of the prophetic stream among Friends to something of a trickle... or to "popcorn meetings": the "Meeting for Good Ideas" as I've heard it called, where too many messages begin, "As I heard on NPR the other day..."

Perhaps even worse, those who believe the silence is the goal and the purpose of Quaker worship, rather than the transforming encounter with Spirit, may come to resent whatever intrudes upon that silence: whether the physical restlessness of children attending intergenerational worship, the sounds of life outside the meetinghouse or within it, or even strong and spirit-filled messages from the depths of worship.

I know of Quakers I care about and respect who distrust the presence of Pagans (and non-theists, Buddhists, and assorted other "hyphenated Quakers") among us for fear that, without the universal acceptance of the word "Christ" for the Spirit that gathers and fills Quaker meeting, there will eventually come to be no spirit at the heart of worship at all: that Quaker meeting will become perpetually a Secular Society of Friends, and lose forever the experience of God that is the hallmark of it.

I would hate that, too. But it is because I am a Pagan, and because I am secure both in the ability of a community to retain an experiential heart in its worship, and because I have had the direct experience, over years and years, of its ability to do so despite wildly heterodox ideas about the nature of Spirit--ask two Pagans to describe their religion, and you'll get at least three conflicting explanations--that I am confident that that need not happen.

Indeed, I have some hopes that the experiential orientation of Pagans entering the Religious Society of Friends may help bolster Quakers against losing that vitality. One thing we know how to do, we Pagans, is be with our gods. One thing we know how to do, we Pagans, is live in our bodies the fact of worship, of relationship with God.

At the end of the day, the Pagan values that matter most to me are the ones that, even five years into a Pagan life, are the obvious ones. Love nature and trust it. Love your body, and trust that, too. It's all sacred, no thing is essentially profane or cut off from being whole or being good, and expect to encounter God here, now, and often, in the flesh and not merely in your thought.

Even after a quarter of a century, that face across the table looks pretty good.
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