There is a Spirit Which I Feel

There is a Spirit Which I Feel April 26, 2008

I was always a “rational use of force” gal. For most of my life I believed that the use of force–by which I meant human beings taking up arms and going off to war to try to kill one another–was a regrettable necessity. Sometimes I liked to imagine that Paganism held an alternative to that, particularly back in the day when I believed in that mythical past era of the peaceful, goddess-worshipping matriarchal societies. (I really liked that version of history, and was sorry when I stopped believing in it as factual.)

But that way of seeing reality changed for me, in the time between one footfall and the next, on a sunny fall morning: September 11, 2001.

I was already running late for work that day when the phone rang; my friend Abby was calling, to give me the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York.

So? I thought to myself, picturing a small private aircraft. Abby tried to convey some of what she was hearing–terrorists, fire–but the magnitude of the situation required visuals, or more time than I had to stay on the phone. I was brusque and I was hurried (and it took Abby a long time to forgive me for that) and I was simply puzzled when she told me she was going to pick her daughter up from school immediately.

Why on earth would she do that? I was thinking, as I raced out the door.

That was back in the days when I worked for myself as a psychotherapist, in a small private office downtown. I loved walking to work and back. I also loved, though it wore me out, the intensity of concentration that each clinical hour took on my part. During an hour of psychotherapy, my world would narrow to an almost single-pointed focus on my client’s feelings and thoughts. Aches, pains, my own preoccupations would dissolve. That day, as always, my own morning fell away from me, and I thought no more of Abby’s strange phone call.

After the intensity of an hour of focused listening to each trauma survivor, it was my practice to book in a half-hour of down time, not just for notes, but for finding my way back into my own skin. On that particular morning, I was free until after lunch, and decided to walk around the corner to my favorite small bookstore, whose owners were friends of mine. When I got there, however, I discovered them completely absorbed in watching images streaming over the web onto the shop’s computer. That was when I first saw the images that burned themselves into so many of our minds–the Towers burning, collapsing; the expanding shock wave of black dust and death spreading from them.

And I understood why Abby had called.

We stood together and watched the images repeat. Chris searched online for the likely daytime population of the Towers–a horrific 45,000 at peak use times was the initial figure he arrived at, a number greater than the number of people living in Burlington Vermont, or Amherst, Massachusetts. It gave the images a genocidal scale, and I realized that, in fact, the attacks were a kind of genocide, against Americans because they were Americans. This notion numbed and bewildered me: as an American, I am used to feeling insulated from the horror of world events, as if it were a kind of birthright.

Then I realized, good, knee-jerk liberal that I was that morning, that of course, this would make a magnificent excuse for a war; in fact, only a very strong president would dare defy the anger which (my experience as a trauma and bereavement counselor instructed me) surely would follow the nation’s shock and grief. And Bush? Bush was going to love it. He was going to get the boost in popularity of a wartime president in charge of a popular war.

And I began to rant, in predictable, knee-jerk fasion, about Bush as I stood beside my friend, leaning on the counter that held the cash register and computer screen.

Don’t you do that!” Chris exclaimed. “Don’t you say another word!” He turned red as he bit off the words. “I don’t care how you feel about George Bush–he is our president, and we need to stand behind him!”

And I stopped. I had never seen Chris angry before. And he was angry with me. And I felt a little bit ashamed–not of my thoughts about George Bush, but for putting my reflexive need for a liberal rant against noticing what my friend Chris needed. Which, come to think of it, was pretty obviously not going to be anger.

With the images of the falling Towers replaying in my mind, shaken both by the sense of the magnitude of death and by my own callousness, I left the shop.

Downtown Northampton is a beautiful, exciting place. But it is not a place that holds many green spaces. I, on the other hand, knew where they all were–every small patch of green was mapped in my mind and visited when, my spirits worn down by stories of grief and violence, I would seek them in order to lie on the grass and gaze up at the leaves.

I was walking across one such green oasis–the lawn outside of St. Michael’s House–when it happened.

Someone spoke to me.

Not with words at first, but with a tremendous physical sensation. I have described it, ever since, as being as if a great hand seized me by the spinal column. I stopped. And I knew something all the way down to the core of me.

The words that came to me reflect just a ghost of the power of the knowing. I’m still working on finding all the implications of that knowing, so no single set of words was going to capture it, but the words were these:

If half a dozen men, armed only with box-cutters, can kill thousands, then the day when force could “settle” conflicts–if it ever could–is over and done.

Mostly, though, what came to me was a sense that the idea of force as a means to peace was just done for me. I had come to believe that, as the chestnut goes, there is no way to peace; that peace is the way.

It was in response to this that I began attending Mt. Toby meeting.

I remember sitting in that first meeting I attended, almost weeping with gratitude, watching Friend after Friend arrive. I’m just a single leaf, I thought. I’m just a single leaf, on a single tree, in a great Forest of those who are seeking peace. And as each Friend settled into their seat, I felt gladness. I felt that I was, at last, surrounded by teachers. I felt that everything was going to be All Right.

My only fear was that I would not be seen as belonging there. It was so transparently clear to me that I did that it made me a little afraid.

Now, I’m sure that those who have been through the mills of politics, either of the Quaker or the Pagan variety, have taken a moment to snort with cynicism over how inflated my idealism was, at that point in time. And of course Quakers are as capable as anyone else of letting you down, if you go pinning your idealistic illusions on them. I’m sure that is so.

But here’s the cool part–there are some Friends who don’t. There are some Friends who have been listening hard enough, long enough, to the Spirit of Peace that its Light shines from their eyes, if only in reflection. And that, dear reader, is what makes the game worth the candle. That is the reason I keep trying to grow and change and deepen. There is something here, in what the Quakers practice, that is real, and true, and can change your life if you let it.

My own faith–and read that in the traditional, Christian sense, please, as in hopeful dependence upon a thing unknowable–is that it can change the world.

Of all the testimonies and ministries of Friends, past and present, the one that has always touched me most is that of James Nayler, the charismatic early Quaker whose ministry rivaled that of George Fox in importance. When he was jailed and tortured for blasphemy, the actions that led to his arrest were seen as signs of dangerous enthusiasm by other Quakers as well as by the courts.

I imagine Nayler, alone and feeling outcast and abandoned by other Friends. If the Quaker accusations of extremism and enthusiasm were sound, then he probably had shame to wrestle with as well; if they were not, how difficult he would have found his isolation from Friends. Any way you look at it, it would hardly have been surprising if he had emerged from his two years in prison as bitter in his spirit as he was broken in his body.

But he did not. It is from the period after his “fall” and imprisonment, indeed, from the day after he was robbed and beaten after returning to freedom, and as he lay dying, that he gave his most famous testimony:

There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life…

I think of this, and I think of my small angers and humiliations day to day. I am not James Nayler’s equal… but I want to live up to his legacy. I want to feel that same Spirit, and I want to do it justice, not just when my enemies treat me unkindly, but when my friends do. (Which is harder, do you think?)

This sounds much easier to do as a theory than it is in practice, at least for me. I don’t find forgiveness especially easy; I don’t know that I entirely understand what it means. I do know that I used to say, before that day in September, that forgiveness was not a Pagan doctrine, and that Pagans have no ideal of forgiveness. I may have been wrong about that, but certainly, though I tried not to be a hothead, I had no testimony of forgiveness.

It is the conversion to the Spirit of Peace (by whatever name you choose to call it) that has created in me this hunger to learn the skills of forgiveness.

I was talking to my friend Spellweaver today, and she gave me such a gift. We were speaking of a controversy in the Pagan community that has weighed heavily on both of us. And I spoke to her of my peace testimony, and how I know I’m probably clumsy about it sometimes. I’m sure there are times there’s an odor of sanctimony or falseness to how I go about so earnestly trying to live by these lights.

I talked to her about how I’m working to figure out and to practice living like a Quaker–and how I realize that this means I have to forgive the Felicias and Lady Q’s of my life, even if I don’t quite know how. I told her that I felt like I had to try, even if I make a fool of myself or stumble at it, because, well–

–somewhere in Rwanda, a Hutu or a Tutsi is having to forgive and reconcile with a member of the other ethnic group, after having seen their parent murdered.

How can I ask them to make peace, if I can’t even attempt peace in my own community? This is what I’ve got–I don’t know how to bring reconciliation or justice to Iraq or Israel or Bosnia. I’m just trying to start with what I’ve got.

Here’s the gift. She got it. She really got it, and her eyes got soft, and filled up with tears just as mine did. Right in that moment, it was such a relief to me, to have someone else hear what I was feeling. She knew just what I was driving at; not that I was trying to change her point of view, or sell her Jesus, or anything else. Just the truth of my heart today:

There is a Spirit Which I Feel.

I want to be faithful to that Spirit. And that’s my peace testimony. Never mind Quaker, never mind Pagan, that’s where I’m trying to go.

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