[Pagan since the late ’80s, Cat Chapin-Bishop has also been Quaker since 2001. Cat is the primary author at the Quaker Pagan Reflections blog, as well as the former Chair of Cherry Hill Seminary’s Pastoral Counseling Department, and her writing has appeared in Laura Wildman’s Celebrating the Pagan Soul, The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies, the Covenant of the Goddess newsletter, and at No Unsacred Place. ]
Pagans are the best of spiritual communities; Pagans are the worst of spiritual communities.
Flashback to a room lit by candles and gently wrapped in incense and the braided sound of chanting. The light gleams on the warm colors of skin and the wood, steel, silver, and terracotta of the altar and its tools. My Wiccan coven holds me close on the night when I first draw down the moon, and their trust in me and in our gods buoys me up as I move through waves of anxiety (“What if this doesn’t work?”) until finally, She is there, and when I open my eyes, I am not the only one looking out. Together, the Goddess and I see my coven-mates through my eyes, and we see them as beautiful beyond reckoning, as if they are each limned in gold. They are perfect. We look out at them, and We know who they are, and We love them with a depth and joy I can never describe to you, unless you have felt it for yourself.
Flash forward to another night, only a few years later. Tension is in the room, fear-stink and adrenaline. The small Pagan church to which we belong is meeting for business, and we are tearing one another to pieces. Some are spurring conflict on, some are cringing away. There are a dozen different versions of self-proclaimed Holy Truth in the room, doing their best to rip one another’s eyes out. And no one is listening to the gods at all—only to the frantic drumbeats of anger, or fear, or disgust being pounded out by our own hearts. No one seems to remember: We are beautiful. We are perfect. We are part of the Holy.
How can we be so good at knowing and loving one another when we are in ritual space, and so bad at preserving that knowledge and that love when we leave it? Is there a way we can be spiritual community to one another outside as well as inside of the sacred circle or grove?
Yes, it can be done. We can do business together, while still remembering what it is like to be beloved and loving children of our gods.
This past fall, I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend in one of my Pagan communities to assist the group in moving forward after a period of destructive conflict. Individually, most of these men and women were kind, generous, and gifted members of their Pagan communities, but together, they had been creating some very unpleasant politics. Battle lines had become entrenched, some members had left in anger or in disgust, and what had been an annual experience of powerful ritual and fellowship was becoming a cause of dread and resentment. My friend, who was in charge of this year’s retreat, was starting to feel a lot like a mom trapped in a van full of angry, squabbling children on a cross-country trip.
You’ve been there; I know you have. We’ve all seen promising spiritual groups get bogged down in self-righteousness and rage, pettiness and fear.
At the retreat, I was given a chance to share a few tools from the Quaker toolkit. I got a chance to offer a workshop on something I call spiritual accompaniment. (Quakers call it something else―eldering―but that word has a completely different connotation than it does in Pagan circles.)
One of the mistakes I see Pagans making, as a group, is that we confuse talking a lot with getting a lot done. There is a kind of centering into the spiritual heart of a community that can be completely silent and yet is so deep that it helps to center everyone in the room. I don’t have a Pagan vocabulary for this yet, but I have certainly seen Pagans who have a gift for it. But where Quakers celebrate this kind of gift, among Pagans it is almost always invisible.
Quakers who travel as speakers or event leaders almost always have a traveling companion with them, on the stage or in the front row, silently holding them in the Light. The companion focuses on keeping that speaker rooted in Spirit even while the presenter herself is focused outward on the crowd. At large gatherings, you will see a row of the most seasoned Friends sitting unobtrusively behind the clerk’s table, holding the entire group, clerks and all, in silent prayer. These people contribute little outwardly, except perhaps for a visible model of stillness and calm. They may not even be following the flow of discussion, but afterward they remember clearly the effort and exertion that went into trying to hold every person present in connection with the common roots of the community. I have heard Quaker elders describe gripping the edges of their chair with both hands to pull the group into a more grounded state. Their language sounds very much like that of Pagan energy workers.
This kind of listening-in (or “holding space” as one Pagan called it this year) is not voiceless passivity, nor is it the “active listening” of apprentice psychotherapists. It’s not manipulative or goal-directed energy working. Rather, its purpose is to listen into the community’s relationship with its gods, to help us find those connections that brought us together to begin with. (Religion: religare: to bind together.)
In our workshop, we began with memories of times we had felt that connection. What was it like to be with our community and our gods, in a way that deepens our relationship with both? We paired off, one person attempting to stay rooted and spiritually open enough to help draw out their partner, then trading places. The depth of memory was matched by the depth of listening, and people found themselves re-experiencing something powerful and precious. From there, we worked at holding that sense of depth, of openness and respect, in something that was like grounding and also like prayer.
I explained the idea of spiritual accompaniment and offered openings to those who were interested in helping to hold the community’s meetings in that way.
We set up benches for our volunteer cadre of “elders,” where they could be seen and where others could join if so moved. We sat just outside the confidential meeting of the board, unable to hear a syllable of the meeting, but holding the group steadily, for over an hour. The next day, we sat in shifts through the set-up for the larger open meeting for community concerns, and continued through the final meeting for business. There were perhaps a dozen of us doing this at various times. Our work was to hold our people in the Light: The Light of stars seen through the branches of trees, of candle flames, of firelight reflecting off glasses of mead passed between friends.
The intimacy of the work was remarkable. Quakers can be very reserved, and it can take a long time to get to know most of them. Pagans seem more extroverted even in our silences. One man whom I’d never met before had such a deep gift for this kind of work that sitting beside him was like leaning back on a soft pillow; I felt the strength of his compassion like the warmth of a banked fire, hour after hour.
Did it help?
Well, the conflicts that had riven the gathering did not spontaneously resolve in a single weekend. None of us (that I’m aware of) achieved satori. But the meeting for business this year was not a blood sport. We talked as if we cared about one another. And most people present seemed to feel there had been something useful going on in all that quiet.
If Pagans do develop some tools of our own for keeping the spiritual in our spiritual communities, even in the heart of conflict and everyday concerns, I think we will be one step closer to being what I’ve heard some Pagans call “a full-service religion.” More importantly, I think we will retain more of our Pagan elders, people who might otherwise succumb to spiritual staleness or cynicism. We can hold onto the experience of joyful communion, with each other and with the gods.
For myself, I believe that Pagan spirituality can deepen for us over a lifetime, through conflict as well as celebration in our communities. But we can only do it by reminding ourselves that we are, in fact, spiritual communities, always, every minute. Whether we are in ritual or resting, feasting or thrashing out a tough business agenda, we need to remember our gods. And we need to remember ourselves: Perfect. Beautiful. Limned with gold.