Worshipping Nature in the Digital Age
“You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag,
And skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.”
- Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Do we take the world seriously?
I do not, admittedly, have much experience engaging in community worship as a Pagan. I am blessed now to have a family and a community to celebrate with on holy days, and a partner as dedicated to and fascinated by the work of the spiritual life as I am. But this was not always the case. I am one of those whom Phaedra Bonewits might write about with a certain gentle ambivalence — my first Druid community was online, my initiation was self-performed based on a script posted to a webpage. For years, I practiced as a solitary, with my only Pagan community made up of those like-minded people I could connect to through my blog and Facebook. I am a life-long bibliophile, ravenous for reading material, a worshipper of the word as much as the woods and the sky.
So it might seem strange that I would object so strongly to Drew Jacob’s recent post about what he calls “expostmodernism” and its implications for the future of religion. In many ways, I have benefitted from exactly the kind of digital social media he celebrates as the future of spiritual community. I even met my partner, fellow Druid blogger Jeff Lilly, online and while he was still living five hundred miles away we relied on Skype and email to stay in touch and cultivate our relationship.
But nothing is as simple as it appears. While Jeff and I corresponded digitally, I spent long hours walking in the woods, falling in love not only with him but with my goddess, Brigid Star Fire, who stirred like dark waters turning and murmuring beneath the thinning ice of the creek. I wrote poetry, that practice of stillness and attending in the solitude of breath. Our love was borne not on the noise and chatter and ad-riddled news feeds of the internet, but in the tension and longing of our aloneness — and for all our digital correspondence, they consisted mostly of deeply inadequate attempts to express that yearning and sense of absence, and the thrill and hope of when we would see each other again.
Can I say digital media “enhanced” our relationship when it was just beginning? Only the way a crutch “enhances” a person’s agility while they are waiting for a broken leg to heal — it was something we both needed and resented, something we would gladly have done without.
My relationship with digital technology remains ambivalent when it comes to my religion. Those years of solitary practice when the only people I could talk to were online were also some of the loneliest years of my life, full of heart-wrenching grief and doubt and frustration and anger. There were times when the deep sorrow of absence and solitude cut me to the quick and left me raw and bare to a harsh world full of strangers. No amount of online communication could keep me from this aloneness, and no advice I received helped me.
So I did the only thing I could do: I made friends with my solitude. I turned to face the shadow of self-doubt and fear and loneliness that trailed in my wake, made only deeper and starker by the bright, glaring light of the glowing computer screen. I would stand in my one-bedroom apartment, palms pressed against the cold, uneven texture of cinderblock and brick painted over with the slick, off-white eggshell of generic apartment walls everywhere. I would kneel on the old, worn floor boards, listening to them creak under my weight, face bent to the dust. I would sit on my balcony listening to the rain fall, and watch the single bit of down from a pigeon’s wing drift all the way across the parking lot to land on the wooden railing only inches away. I would walk the streets of my city neighborhood, watching people and birds alike as strange creatures hunched against the last snow of the season, and pray to learn to choose this, to choose to be present in and to and with the world, just as it was.
I owed none of this to my digital connections. Some of it was just barely possible in spite of them. What I learned during those years was not that the digital world was absolutely vital to my spiritual life, nor that in-person community was inconvenient or boring or restrictive. What I learned was that we cannot escape our aloneness and our solitude, anymore than we can abandon our own selves.
Solitude and loneliness are essential aspects of our nature — as unique, deeply individual and sentient beings, we will always find ourselves rubbing up against the limits of relationship, those liminal spaces where connection and understanding may seem impossible. No social media will ever overcome this. No matter how instantly we are able to communicate our thoughts and feelings, broadcasting them to “like-minded” strangers half-way around the world, no matter how smoothly integrated our smart phones and iPads become… there will always be that schism between ourselves and others, that boundary between inner experience and outer expression. We cannot erase this boundary unless we are willing, on some level, to abandon ourselves, to cheapen our experiences and reduce them to catch-phrases and viral sound bytes.
Yet it is within this liminal space, within this solitude that envelopes us like a porous skin, where we might discover authenticity, integrity, gratitude, imagination. With digital media, we might try to leap over this boundary of disconnection — instant communication with the veneer of personal engagement. But even now, those of you reading this, know that I am not speaking to you. I am sitting in the study of my apartment, next to an open window. Outside birds sing above the noise of traffic, and sunlight streams in to warm my left shoulder. The scent in the air is… indescribable. And you are not here. I cannot bring you here by force, through an exertion of will alone, trapping and reducing the experience of sitting here in this room and sending it to you over wifi. I do not even try. All I can do is listen to the birds, listen to the traffic and the breeze, listen to the words that arise in my own mind as I contemplate ideas and experiences… and then tell the story of that presence back to itself. And you can listen to that story, and if you have the imagination and the memory, perhaps you will glimpse just a taste of longing to be here, too. Or perhaps, these words will stir you to an awareness of your own body, where you sit and the sounds around you, what local beings share the air and sun with you, what the walls look and feel like. Perhaps you will stop reading and take a moment to listen, to breathe deeply, to attend to the world…. That’s the best digital media can do.
We cannot overcome our solitude with digital media. We overcome solitude by attending to the world. The word “attend” comes from the same root as words like “tension” and “tense” — it means a reaching, a stretching or bending towards. The convenience of digital media invades us, subjects us to the sensory overload of bright colors, flashing lights and loud noises, to a constant stream of the new and the popular and the buzz of opinions that surround them like clouds of flies. We sit back as passive consumers of such media, our bodies tamed into sedentariness. The best technologies are those that strive to be invisible, to disengage us from the sense of the here-and-now to immerse us instead in the artificial senses and projections of the digital world. My computer tries like hell to keep from reminding me that I am sitting in front of a computer, pushing little plastic buttons before a box of glass and metal. Only as my computer ages and slows down am I forced back to the reality of the situation, recalled to the physical world by the churning fan of an overheating machine or the glare of sunlight from the window obscuring a screen flecked with dust smeared with fingerprints.
And even while digital media encourages us to become passive consumers of the noise and blitz, it also obscures just how active we are in filling in the blanks with our own projections and assumptions about the world. The plain, sans serif text on the screen transforms into inflection and attitude and tone of voice without us even realizing it. What does my voice sound like? You have no idea. Yet you can hear me, can’t you, as you read, and the voice you hear is not mine, but your own guess, made automatically and unconsciously, at what I might sound like. The digital world is a world of overblown but impoverished experience — it offers only a tiny fraction of the range of possible experience, but turned up to eleven.
Of course, we do this even during our in-person interactions. We misunderstand others, misinterpret the world as it communicates and reveals itself to us through our senses. Yet when we are present to our bodies and the world of nature that surrounds us and includes us, we can never forget for long that veil of solitude that falls between ourselves and others. Within this liminal veil is not only solitude, but wildness and joyous surprise. This is not the carefully scripted “randomness” of the computer program. It is the gentle fullness of a world that invites us to listen, to attend, and to engage — that quietly asserts its untamed, unnamed presence in the face of our arrogance and ignorance.
No matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, we will never be able to replace, or even duplicate, the wild and holy presence of the natural world of which we are born. It is the difference between a “3D” CGI tree in Avatar, and the crystalline living presence of an ancient oak rooted in the earth, weathered by the rain and wind and sun, leafing delicate green every spring as though reborn and young again every time. It is the difference between surround sound and hi-def, and the experience of dizzying vertigo at gravity’s weakness while gazing into the star-studded abyss of night sky from a mountaintop… or the nuanced silences and subtle songs of the forest as the sun sets… or the icy waters of a stream in March reddening the skin of mud-caked toes.
These experiences are not only important because of the sensory stimulation they give us. They are important because they are the way in which the world communicates with us, the way we locate our physical bodies in this sacred, embodied world. These experiences invite us to deepen, for every macrocosm holds infinite microcosms of presence and mystery unveiling themselves to our persistent, gentle attention. Even if we could recreate the sensory stimulation through a sophisticated computer program, we will have stopped speaking to the trees and the land and the winds… and we’ll have replaced it with a means of letting us talk to ourselves (and, perhaps more importantly and more regrettably, telling ourselves only what we think we want to hear).
Ritual is not only about entertainment. It is not only a pleasant pastime or an opportunity to socialize. It is not even simply a psychological tool to shape ourselves and our communities through shared emotional or aesthetic experiences, though it can certainly be used this way.
At the heart of my spiritual life rests the deep knowing that ritual is a way of listening to the Song of the World as it moves through the earth and the land, and engaging with that Song as something holy, wholly challenging and transformative. Shared ritual is when we accept the burden and blessing of being embodied beings of this dense, physical world that gives us life, and when allow ourselves to respond in kind, to speak back to the natural world with its energies and currents and wild mysteries. Ritual is not for our sake alone, but for the sake of the whole world. It is for the sake of the solitude and silence that surrounds us, that frightening shadow of void and absence that makes us who we are, makes us whole.
We ignore it or seek to replace it at our own peril, for the world is what is real. Even in our deepest solitude, the world of experience and natural forces persists. Even as we chat and tweet and self-promote, the world is doing her work on us in subtle ways. After attending a Celtic spirituality retreat in Ireland last summer full of shared meditation and rituals rooted in praise and love of the earth… upon returning from that land of rolling green and mist and heather, for the first time I could feel the land of my own country flinching, wincing away from the grind of traffic and the abuse of telephone poles rigged and sparking wires like a net to hold her down.
We have been neglectful and arrogant for a long time in this country, intoxicated with our own power, lulled into disconnection by our own thirst for convenience and speed and ease. Those years of solitude I spent grieving and kneeling to the dust on the floor were not made up of my grief alone. The land, too, grieves. She misses us. She longs for us to once again touch her as a lover caresses the beloved, to whisper to her of our secret dreams and sit with her in the long silences of twilight. She aches to be with us in our ritual and our prayer. She loves to feel the pounding of our feet and our drums in dance and song and praise — not the scraping and gnawing of our machines and our indifference and our consumerism and our denial.
Our religious communities are not only human. The world, too, the earth and her creatures and her ecosystems and forests and rivers and storms — all these are part of our community of spirit, the community from which our lives crest and subside again like waves of the ocean. And we cannot embrace the world in its wholeness and holiness if we seek to escape it or deny it through digital media that robs it of its voice and deadens our ability to listen to its thrumming presence in even the deepest silences and loneliest moments. Digital and social media have their place, they can give us some direction and help us to share ideas and information across the globe. But they cannot ever replace the hard, necessary work of showing up to ourselves in all of our limited, bounded, frustratingly beautiful imperfections and engaging in the wildness and wilderness of a world so much bigger than we are.
If we are to take the world seriously, if we are to act and live as though there is a world beyond our computer screens, then someday we’re going to have to step outside and feel the sun on our skin and drink deeply of the waters of inspiration and wisdom that the earth offers, endlessly and with joy. We will not be able to stay home, sisters and brothers.