What does it mean to listen to a god? What does it mean to say gods or spirits talk to us?
Well, for the most part, it’s subtle even when it’s life-changing, and it’s nothing someone with a good, hard case of skepticism couldn’t explain away without even trying. Which would be a shame, because listening to and speaking with the world of Spirit is a source of so much meaning and wisdom and strength. I know some people need to go without it; I need not to.
I remember, for instance, the first time I “heard” a tree speaking to me, specifically.
My daughter and I were living in a tiny little apartment only a few streets from the downtown of the small village where we lived. I had a car, but we rarely needed to use it: in good weather, we could walk almost anywhere we needed to go, from my daughter’s day care center to my office and work. I knew all the short cuts and back streets, and I enjoyed walking everywhere.
Which is what I was doing, ambling along a cracked stretch of sidewalk on a back street in town, when the maple tree “spoke” to me.
I say “spoke” because there isn’t really a word for what I sensed. It came out of the blue, at a moment when I wasn’t looking to have any kind of unusual or paranormal experience. I was just walking down a public street in broad daylight, with little kids and barking dogs and the occasional whoosh of a passing car, when all of a sudden a large, ample-limbed maple tree, sort of went, “Mmmmm.”
No, it wasn’t a sound. Not really. What it was like most, perhaps, was the way a cat who likes you will brush up against your legs as it walks by. Only I was the one walking past the tree, and it wasn’t a touch in a physical sense. More like a sense of the tree’s life, the tree’s being, brushing up against mine. And you know? The tree had one–a life, a being, maybe even a self–and if it wasn’t exactly an “awareness” in there, it was something. And that something was friendly, and it had just done something a lot like a friendly greeting. Toward me. Personally.
Which was startling. And cool.
So I stopped, turned back toward the tree, and (glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching) stood with my arms and my shoulders and my aura open, relaxed my mind and my heart as best I could, and thought something like “Hello,” back at the tree.
And then walked home.
Almost all of my encounters with Spirit are a lot like the encounter with that tree. As in, they happen in broad daylight, during the course of ordinary life; they are usually non-verbal; and often they are as simple as a sense of another being who also seems to be sensing me. Sometimes that being or spirit seems very large–as large as an entire hillside or forest–and sometimes, it seems very small.
This feeling is a lot like the feeling I sometimes get in Quaker meeting, at the touch of a hand against mine, or on my shoulder. Sometimes there can be such tenderness and connection even through the most fleeting of glances after worship that it can stand in quite effectively for a long, warm bear hug from a friend of many years.
I have come to trust that the love and tenderness we feel for each other in the silence is real and solid and true. That doesn’t mean other human messiness in incapable of coming along and messing it up, or that Quaker meetings are utopias.
What I think it means is that, sometimes, for a few moments, we are privileged to be able to see into one another’s deepest selves, into the part that connects with God.
What about God, then?
For a moment, I will set aside the various forms of communication I’ve had over the years with Pagan deities, and focus on She Who Gathers Us in Quaker meeting.
I’ve written before about what the touch of Spirit is like for me in a Quaker meeting. Sometimes, She is a flood of Light, and a rush of such simple, physical joy that I feel the way I used to feel at four years old, playing outside in my sandbox on a sunny morning. Other times, what I feel is simply a trembling that seems to well up from the heart of everything–a deep, resonant vibration that reminds me of what it felt like to stand on a bridge over a Vermont river in flood, feeling the pavement and the railings quiver. That impression is of a great power, waiting within all things and discoverable by the lightest finger-touch on the surface of everyday reality.
Sometimes there is just a sweetness and an ache in my heart. (Despite the fact that I feel self-conscious about how affected it may look to do so, I often worship with my hands over my heart, focusing on and feeding that sensation, that God-feeling, within me.)
So much of my experience of Spirit is physical, is in images and metaphors for non-verbal experiences. At times I remember what it was like as a girl, to sail alone on a lake in Maine on my parent’s Sailfish–a sailing surf-board guided by a wooden daggerboard thrust down through the center of the boat to act as a keel. When I feel Spirit moving and stirring in my heart, I remember how that daggerboard used to vibrate and thrum, almost moaning with the force that moved the boat, carving it forward through the waves. I feel as though that daggerboard is vibrating again, only this time, it passes through my heart, laboring to keep me on course as Spirit moves me.
And at other times, I think of myself as a cork, bobbing so lightly on the surface of the water of Spirit that I am almost more a creature of air than water. A needle, magnetized and passed through me, can spin me and guide me easily toward North, effortlessly and freely, as long as I can stay light and open to Spirit, to God.
Some leadings are light, drawing me quickly and easily, like that cork-and-needle compass. I might, after worship, feel a nudge to speak to this person, or to that. I might understand what someone has to say to me in a way I would not have otherwise done; I am more open to what That of God within that person may have to say to me. The sensation of this is light and free and gentle, and I am usually left feeling glad and good.
Other leadings are strong, hard, and heavy, like the action of the daggerboard of a sail boat reaching in a powerful wind. The work at New England Yearly Meeting sessions, laboring with other Friends around our relationship with Friends United Meeting and our concern for GLBTQ Friends has been like that: powerful and hard and strong, laboring to stay low in the water of Spirit, and feeling the ache of God’s love and pain over our injustices and intolerance of one another, even in the name of justice. This feeling is hard–but I would not trade it for anything. It is full of sadness, but deep and rich with love. Though it exhausts me to carry it for very long, I crave it beyond anything else in the world of Spirit.
Now, none of these feelings, these sensations, come to me with much verbal content. I don’t hear a voice saying, “Go talk to Joe Smith,” or “Anna Jones needs you to tell her about X,” or whatever. It’s more either an easy mobility to be lightly moved to where Spirit (I think, I guess) wants me to be, or it’s a deep groundedness that lets me stay there, even in the face of pain or conflict. It is more like a balanced stance and a readiness than the spiritual equivalent of kata; my movements are not directed, I’m just open to responding quickly and intuitively from a spiritually centered place.
Most leadings are like that. They are not so much guidance to, say, go to Africa and teach English classes there (though wouldn’t that be fun!) as they are a way of keeping myself open so that, when the God-in-the-world brushes lightly up against me, like the spirit of a tree, I will be ready; and when people with need pass me during the course of the day, I will see their need, and, if it is my turn to meet it, I will do so.
Doesn’t that sound pleasant? Doesn’t that sound good? And it is–almost entirely, even when it is hard, or tiring.
But a lot of the time, it’s not enough; or I get too bollixed up and distracted with the business of daily life and my so-important SELF that I lose the center of it, and no longer notice the gentle nudges and tugs of those leadings.
For those occasions, there is the divine 2×4. There are stops, as the Quakers term them. And those are important, too.
(To be continued.)
Wooden sailing boat Kleine Freiheit, courtesy Wikimedia Commons