Sunday, September 20, 2009

You Who Are My Bible

I have a vivid memory, from a Quaker retreat I attended not so long ago. I remember coming across a friend, sitting quietly in a patch of sunlight, paging through his Bible.

The sense of depth and worship that surrounded him was as rich as the silence in a forest, and I envied him his ability to sink so deeply into communion with his God, and to stay there so comfortably and restfully. (I often find that, after any extended period of worship, I need an even more extended period of silliness and ordinariness. I love the depths, but often find myself unable to bear them for long.)

Today was one of those days in meeting for worship that the sense of living silence rolled out to meet me as I passed through the door. That feeling--the patient, watchful stillness--is sometimes as palpable as a fur cloak laid over my shoulders, and at times, I find myself savoring it a moment or two before I go to my seat. I love to stand and feel the warm light of morning on my face, and the even warmer quiet of worship washing around my whole body. I love the sense of a communal indrawn breath that I can sometimes feel, once I am a few feet into the room.

When I did take my seat, I found myself making eye contact with others who were already there, smiling at one friend and another. That's not unusual--though I know it is somewhat at odds with the unwritten Quaker rules, that would have us worship with closed eyes to avoid intruding on one another's spiritual space. Perhaps this is really an expectation of Quakers over time: no smiling! No looking into one another's eyes! And I do try to gaze gently, aware that even a glance can be distracting, at certain moments. But I also feel that, if not in worship, then when can we look one another in the eye, in the light-hearted, simple fellowship of simply being together, caught up so intimately in this Spirit? So it's a rule I often break, or at least bend, as I settle into worship.

This week, though, I seemed not to settle into worship, but to break open into it, without centering myself down into my own separate self and thoughts at all beforehand. My attention remained quite firmly in the room, my heart jumping up like a puppy when guests arrive for a party as one friend and then another came into the meeting. And at the same time, I felt very full with that sense of present Spirit that comes in worship.

In some ways, it was not a settled worship for anyone at the meeting. There were lots of comings and goings, maybe because it is fall, and the families are still establishing their routines and habits around arriving and getting the kids into their First Day classes. Doors opened and closed in the parking lot. Children's voices called out--and so did adults'--and the stream of latecomers, shifting positions and bundles, coughs and movement all seemed to continue longer than usual.

It was not a problem for me at all. As I heard each voice, saw each face or movement, part of me reached out and held the person close. And as I saw each newcomer enter the room, I felt the knowledge of their stories rising within me.

And I thought of my friend whose peace lay in paging through his Bible; who found an open door to his God there. And I realized, looking across the meeting room floor at his face, You are my Bible.

Every person there, filled with story. Every person there, whether I could find it or sense it or not, holding within him or within her a great Story: the story of the Holy Spirit moving within his life, or hers.

Sometimes, I'm privileged to sense that Story, just looking into another person's eyes. Sometimes, I've been lucky enough to get some of the keys to understand at least a fragment of their tale.

This is one great reward of having attended the same meeting for so long. I begin to know stories: I know this couple's courtship story from decades gone by; I fill with joy to know it, again, as I see them take hands beside each other on their usual bench. I know the stories of how this member, and that one, and this member in front of me, were each widowed, in such different ways and at such different times in their lives. I grieve with them again, and rejoice to see their courage and strength as they sit quietly upright now beside us.

I know that this member is in constant pain from her arthritis; I know that those members struggle with loss of hearing. That one has shared the story of a terrible childhood with me; this one of lost years as a teen. I know who mourns for brothers, mothers, friends... children.

Somehow, I have become woven into the stories of my meeting.

I want more of them. I want all of them. I want--and I can never have--to take each member of my meeting by the hand, meet their eyes, and hear them tell me who they are, down to the last syllable of the story of their True Names.

Don't get me wrong. I've been at my meeting long enough to know one or two whose stories are personally challenging to me. Not everyone in my meeting is easy for me to love or care about. Some members annoy me; more make me quietly unhappy by their lack of concern or charity or empathy for one another.

I do love the members of my meeting... but some remind me painfully of things about myself I'd rather deny or forget, and others...

Quakers, like anyone, can be irascible, judgemental, self-righteous. Some are models of compassion in meeting, but go home and kick the dog. Some seem to go out of their way to find places where they will, themselves, be kicked like dogs. Some are beacons of love and forgiveness. But some, at least from my very limited perspective on a bench at the back of the room, are not.

So these stories I find myself longing to know--and, truly, I am longing to know them--have among them stories I will have a hard time sitting with. Some of the Friends in my meeting are hard for me to like. Some of them, I have reason to know, do not much like me.

We wrestle with the holy scripture written on one another's hearts. Just as in the Bible itself, there are stories in which I cannot feel the movement of a loving Spirit in the world; so too there are lives of tragedy or of what looks (from the outside) like meanness or hypocrisy, in which I cannot sense the movement of that Spirit, either.

I often fail to understand. Sometimes, I don't even remember to try. And I fall into parochialism and disdain far too often for my own good.

But it came to me, in meeting today, that whether I can see it or not, the Holy Spirit is constantly, constantly at work in the hearts and the lives of the people all around me. Like the wind that stirred the branches of the trees outside the meetinghouse windows, Spirit is working in all of our hearts all of the time.

Read with an open heart, read with patience and love, the people I share my life with--most definitely including those who challenge me--may be the best of all possible gospels to me.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Meeting for Worship for Woods

I stayed home for meeting for worship today.

The two acres of woods immediately behind our house have not been woods for very long. They are still in that stage of growth where the trees are mostly of the same age, young trees that are stretching their heads up as high as they can, seeking some light and air, jockeying for position among their fellows in a very close race. Only at the edges of the old field are there old trees: oaks, a hundred years old perhaps, planted behind (and apparently in) the old boundary wall.

These woods do not belong to us. Of course, that is the nature of living things; properly speaking, all living things belong to themselves. However, the non-profit that is the paper owner of the woods maintains a loop path in the young woods behind our home, with a fire circle and benches in the middle of it. As far as I can tell, neither path nor fire circle get very much use. Only once have I ever seen another human being on the path, and the fire pit is almost entirely grown over with moss.

However, there is a ring of a half-dozen wooden benches around this fire pit, and a small clearing in the already very open wood. It is an airy place, far enough from the road that the traffic sounds are muted, and it is possible to hear the drops of water, still falling in the morning sun from last night's rain; and the scolding of squirrels, the cries of jays and chickadees.

That is where I went for my morning worship today.

There is a different kind of quiet in the woods. And it brought me to a different sense of God.

I'm not much of a monotheist. I'm not much of a polytheist either, or even an animist. I'm a nicely mushy blend of all three, but, because these are such distinct ways of experiencing and thinking about the world, there are days when I might feel or look as if I was entirely one or the other.

As a girl, the only way to relate to Spirit I'd ever heard about was monotheism. But monotheism was too big for me, too abstract, and too far away from the daily contact with what I knew of holiness, the woods behind my earlier home. I could never quite connect with that concept of God: He remained my invisible make-believe friend for a lot of those years, someone I tried to believe in but couldn't quite.

I related better to fairy tales and stories about water nixies (our well was scary enough to have had one) and tree nymphs. It still felt a bit like make-believe, but it was a make-believe of manyness and particularity, in which each individual tree, each individual stone, possessed the potential for story, for presence.

It was not until I was an adult, able to hold in my head things like the notion that light can "be" both a particle and a wave, that I began to grasp the ways that language limits our ability to understand Spirit. Whenever we define a thing simply with words, we've killed it, dead.

I became Pagan. I began to worship gods of manyness; gods that were the physical presence and life force and numen of the tree and the leaf and the body I lived in myself. For me, those gods, and the encounters I had with them in ritual and dream and imagination, finally managed to transcend that seeming gulf between the individual, particular landscape of each pine or maple or ash; and the infinitely abstract, almost notional monotheist god of everywhere and everywhen.

It helped that I finally understood that all language is metaphor, and we're not half so precise as we think we are.

Are the gods many? Are the gods one? Tell me first what you mean by god. (We're constantly oversimplifying what we mean by that one, and then we wonder why we so often disagree.)

The language I need is the language that can speak my experience. When I became a Quaker, and felt the stirrings in me of an overarching, all-encompassing Spirit of peace and love, I adopted a lot of monotheist language. This blog is full of places where I write "God," as if I knew what that word meant. Because that's the word I need, for the Source-of-All-Being, all pervasive, immanent and transcendent (but maybe not personified) Spirit I seek in Quaker meeting. After a while, it just got tiresome to call that anything but "God," so "God" it often is. It's not as though I've got a better word.

But out in the woods today, centering down into worship, I found myself surrounded by all that many-ness. Dozens of species of trees, countless birds and insects and small creeping animals of the woods. The sun was low, and the number of small spider webs, gleaming with dew-light, was beyond counting. How many lives were all around me? How many hearts, how many eyes, how many living beings out in the same morning as me?

And the woods, even as autumn begins to open them out, even in a wood as young and open as that one, draw your mind to the individual, the particular, the ingredients of many-ness. I know perfectly well where the stone walls that border the old field run, and I know where the loop path is. I know, for that matter, where the woods open out and become my lawn, and, beyond that, the busy road on which I live.

But the woods hold their own silence, separate even from the outside sounds that find their way inside. And you cannot see far, in any direction, try as you may. Your eye is met with so many trees, each unique: the white pine that's rotting as it stands, circled with broken off branches and with a swath of lost bark; the swamp maple with leaves only on the uppermost ten feet of fifty; the hornbeam, no taller than you yourself, lit to incandescence with a shaft of sunlight.

You really do not see the forest. You see the trees, one by one by one, until their individuality blurs into an impression of infinite forms, infinite variation, an infinite series of singularities. Infinity of diversity, within a mere two acres of woods.

And then the light shifts, and it shifts everywhere, over the whole forest at once, like an expression passing over a face. And there it is: unity. The whole forest has one heart, one mind, one being. She's everywhere, and all around you, and--never mind that this wood is small, is young, is near the road and hardly wilderness--She always has been.

There is a Great Wood, of which all the woods that ever were or ever will be are simply parts, chambers of one beating heart. (Don't believe me? Go ask your local woods.)

And my old Wiccan duotheism comes back to me. She is the forest; He is the stag that runs within it. He is the young tree; She is the loam that bears Him up and nourishes Him, and will receive Him (and us) when He falls.

(My gods are, and always must be, gods of the New England forest. That much was decided for me before I was three.)

The gods are many. The gods are one. I know you might not agree with me.

But when I was done worshipping this morning, I got down on my heels, and pressed my palms against the needles and loam of the forest floor.

The floor of the woods is firm, but with a softness to it, a resilience, like flesh. It is flesh. It's Her flesh.

And now I'm back home, back in my house in the human world. But the smell of my Mother is still on my hands.

Blessed Be.
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