Recently, I came across a wonderful post from Rhiannon’s blog Brigid, Fox, and Buddha which spurred me on to indulge in, what felt like confessional writing. It all began with the following section quoted below. In an effort to capture her understanding of God, Rhiannon writes:
Goddess for me is within us, alongside us, dancing in the depths of all things. God for me is reaching out, helping hands, laughing, growing, sharing. Goddess for me is positively feminine and masculine and nongendered. God for me is found by imaginative contact with the inner world: lights, trees, seeds, ways. Goddess for me is a nonexistent undeniable impossible reality
This bundle of compelling images got me thinking about the language I use for God– where it comes from and the stories attached to it. This seems an important and very Quakerly exercise, since, as Rhiannon’s post implies, so much of religious life is about the power of language. Afterall, when the twenty-something George Fox was brought to the depths of despair by the state of his soul, he sought for the words which could give him both consolation and peace. He went from priest to priest and sect to sect seeking a language of comfort but found nothing except vain ‘hot-air’. Like the equally troubled character of Holden in J.D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye, this young puritan felt surrounded by ‘phonies’- people who pretended to know what life was all about, but had barely scratched the surface. Those who pronounced ‘easy answers’, George found duplicitous and hypocritical, unable to ‘speak to his ‘condition’. Finally, he found words to salve him, not in human institutions or systems, but through a tranquil secret voice which offered him a redemptive language to live by. This was ‘the inward light’, which, while showing Fox the seemingly bottomless pit of human darkness and depravity, also opened to him the inexhaustible wellsprings of divine love and grace.
Today, Quakers both cherish and wrestle with Fox’s legacy of ‘experiential’ faith, as well as the vivid, and at times arcane, religious vocabulary he gifted to subsequent generations of Friends. Many contemporary Quakers, guided by the spirit of Fox’s original search, have themselves sought a living ‘spiritual language’ through which they might experience the same treasures early Friends themselves found. For some this has taken the form of a renewed study of early Friends and a keen attentiveness to the imagery of scripture, while for others, a living Quaker faith has come from a wider appreciation of other sources. For my own part, I am the happy beneficiary of two ‘spiritual languages’ exemplifying these twin paths of Quaker renewal. I learnt my former Christian language early on, through the intermittent visits to my local parish church at Easter and Christmastide, the hymns of my little Church of England primary school and kindly instruction of a Salvation Army preacher. As the years went by I began to realise that these old stories of kings and seers, angels and saints, represented a living reservoir of inspiration and instruction. Despite the seeming sexism, homophobia and misogyny of many Biblical texts I could not let go of the beauty of the Psalms, the social justice of the Hebrew prophets or the gentle sayings of Jesus. They schooled me, not only in some of the best ideas humans have ever committed to paper (or papyri) but also made me realise that religious life was more than a cerebral exercise, but involved the application of practical compassion.
Exposure to my second ‘spiritual language’ occurred in my mid-teens through a teaching assistant at my secondary school called Jackie. She was a pagan priestess and witch, and while never forcing her beliefs on me, was joyously open about her life and faith. She was glad to answer my questions and even allowed me to participate in pagan ceremonies. One August afternoon I went to her house to perform a seasonal ritual in her back-garden. Midst a sacred circle drawn by water, incense and earth, Jackie called to our respective gods; my mine the Anglican god of church-spires and echoing bells, hers the gods of the green earth and the blue sky. In Jackie’s faith, a circle, consecrated with silent intent or words of power is described as ‘between the worlds’, a space where one may see the divine clearly, at work in the world and in our selves. In the sanctuary of the sacred circle I felt the presence of those mysterious spirits whom Jackie called ‘the Old Ones’, yet I also inexplicably felt the Christ god (my God) rejoicing with us as the ritual unfolded. On this holy ground I knew a weighty truth which I have tried to intellectualise ever since; that both our religions were in some sense true. Jackie’s language and mine both pointed towards the same spiritual reality, of that I felt sure. From Jackie, I discovered to my delight that there was not only ‘God’ but ‘Goddess’ as well, keeping the world in perfect balance. If I needed anything I could turn to the Lady as well as the Lord.
As a young gay man I found it suddenly liberating to worship the divine feminine in counterbalance to the distant asexual sky-god who seemed to dominate Sunday sermons. It appeared to me that the Goddess affirmed human sexuality, intimacy and fun, not pointless restraint and guilt so interwoven into my childhood conception of God. With these rich rewards came great personal difficulty. I struggled to reconcile what Jackie had shown me with my religious upbringing, first intentionally suppressing what happened during the ritual (because it simply didn’t fit into any traditional world-view I knew of) and then for a time, leaving religious practice. altogether. Yet as the years went on, I found myself unable to deny either the rich language of earth-spirituality Jackie had gifted to me or the potent vocabulary of Scripture which I was brought up with. I wanted something of Jackie’s Goddess to follow me from the woods and dales into Church (later the Meeting House). I wanted Her to join me and Jesus in the depth of worship.
Where do I stand now? I now feel able to tentatively walk my Quaker path with greater integrity, using a rich form of theological dual speech. I no-longer feeling pulled continually in two opposing directions. If as a Quaker I am committed to speaking and seeking the truth, then I can do no other than test these experiences and hold them in the soil of a shared Quaker language. I know I must be true to my spiritual stirring, even if it brings me to unfamiliar terrains. When Jackie spoke, it was always through the prism of the wise woman (she who, in Terry Pratchett’s beautiful phrase, ‘wears midnight’). As it turned out, I had a different calling, one involving many more dusty 18th century tomes and much more mistletoe! At the heart of my spiritual landscape is the image of the Living Christ, yet beside him (perhaps incongiously) is the figure of the Druid sage. When most people think of Druids, they normally envisage René Goscinny’s charming Gallic sage Getafix from the Asterix comics, or perhaps Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle from the 1970s horror film, Wicker Man. In the popular imagination at any rate the druid represents a peculiar mixture of ancient solemnity and naked brutality. Modern Druidry as I discovered it as a teenager seemed a far cry from these conceptions, neither dominated by elderly men with the obligatory magic potions and sickles, nor particularly interested in the macabre.
At the heart of Druid perception is the idea that materiality and spirit are one. To walk the world as a Druid means to extend our field of listening to include the very earth under our feet and the sky overhead. It means to ever extend our capacity for reverence and compassion in a world that constantly wants to draw boundaries around people and things. To be a Druid means to treat the seasons as a map of the soul, a compass of vision and deep perception. Being a Druid means honouring the past yet peering into the future. In this guise as guide and seer, the Druid has as much resonance for me as the language ‘Spirit’, ‘redemption’ or ‘Light’. How does this language help me be a more faithfully Quaker? Druidry helps me sustain a Quaker attitude of ‘giftedness’- the notion that life is something offered by a joyful ‘giver’. Such a way of seeing leads me to affirm a ‘God(dess) of love’ who is the matrix of all life. In this divine web, every being is cherished, every creature is valued. While the world eventually tears itself apart under the strain of its own laws, in eternity, no-one and nothing will be left behind. Jesus of Nazareth is a flesh and blood representative of this promise of perpetual cherishing. I can now say, with Columba of Iona that, ‘my druid is Christ’. My way of thinking and speaking is not divided into parts, but represents a seamless whole. In trying to articulate all this, I don’t think I can ever come to a simple answer through some pre-packaged badge of allegiance, yet it would be totally un-Quaker to deny my experience. Indeed, it would go against the very inquiring spirit which George Fox himself cultivated. As the Goddess Feminist and Quaker Alison Leonard has pointed out; ‘Riding more than one horse across a stream is a tricky business, but sometimes it’s the only way that’s true to the subtlety and complexity of life. The truth is not a single mount but a herd, a stream, a constant flow of colour and movement and energy’. If so, we cannot stand still but must rather follow our leadings as best we can, even if that means using new words to express what the Light of Christ is telling us.