Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

The Nature of Fog

It’s a quiet, foggy morning here in Seattle, and I’m thinking about ontology — the philosophical study of the nature of existence.

woods_in_fogFor a few reasons. First, there are passages from Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World playing in my mind against passages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, both of which have been my nightly reading recently. Then there is this post by John Halstead from the Humanistic Paganism blog, exploring “tropical rainforest ontology” as an alternative to materialist reductionism. Unfortunately, the alternative that Halstead offers is all too familiar: an ontological hierarchy, with human beings at its apex. Although in naturalistic philosophy hierarchy no longer needs the divine sanction of a god to justify it, the supremacy of human culture and human consciousness remains unchallenged, the assumed pinnacle of evolution, with the masses of quarks, quasars, oak trees and elephants relegated to the same old mindlessness of mere objects, only so much stuff.

I admit to being disappointed. There is something deeply dissatisfying about our only choice being between reductionism and hierarchy, for both seem to me equally wrong. Here in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, there exists a messy, thriving tangle of lifeforms coalescing into communities of meaning and mindfulness on every ecological level. As I go stumbling along on my hikes through the forested mountains, clunky boots thumping heavily on the moist earth with every step, I can almost hear the chorus of beings laughing good-naturedly at the very idea of such neat, clean hierarchies and my species’ claim to supremacy.

But rather than go into any more detailed analysis of these dense and sometimes unwieldy philosophies, instead I want to talk a little bit about fog.

In early autumn, the rains have only just returned to Seattle after the annual summer drought. For a few months every year, the landscape here in the rainshadow of the great Olympic mountains becomes dry and brittle. Even the ubiquitous carpet of moss and lichens crunches slightly underfoot. When the rain returns again in the fall, the ground itself seems to drink gratefully of the refreshing waters. Small creeks swell that had only weeks before been reduced to mere muddy trickles, the moss plumps up again lush and soft, intricate spiderwebs suddenly seem to be everywhere shimmering with morning dew, and the banana slugs venture out from the damp, dark protection of the leaf litter to brave the exposure of wooded paths in the city parks. Most mornings this time of year begin in fog.

I sometimes think that, like the proverbial Eskimo words for snow, we should have far more words for fog. There are a few near-synonyms in English: mist, with its connotations of cool, damp breezes; haze and steam, clinging to the landscape with sticky heat; the unappetizing murk and the polluted hybrid smog; even the obscure, poetic brume, a dark, chilling thing that stalks through the coldest winter months. But when I look out my window this morning, what I see outside is not quite any of these. It is undeniably, simply: fog.

It is the kind of fog that arises from the earth itself, exhaled slowly into the still morning air, dense and quiet and lingering. It is the kind of fog that transforms the landscape into a soft, gray canvas on which distant trees are painted in watercolor greens, sketched in with a few thin strokes of graphite. This is a fog that you can only see by looking down the road aways. It doesn’t curl around your feet like an affectionate cat — it keeps its distance, withdrawing as you approach, always just out of reach.

As you walk down the road, houses, fences, gardens and stop signs emerge from the light-infused obscurity to arrest your attention. In such a fog, nearby objects seem to put themselves forward to be examined minutely in their singular beauty. The diffuse light reveals an interplay of texture, color and form that a harsher light of stark contrasts might obliterate.

If you keep walking west, eventually you will reach the shore of Puget Sound. Standing on the beach on a clear day, you would be able to see the craggy peaks of the Olympics on the horizon across the water, their heights a dappling of light and shadow, snow and stone.

But in this fog, from your place on the shore, the world seems to expand around you only a few hundred feet before disappearing altogether into anonymous silence. You stand at the heart of clarity and light, so that your own body is a landscape of creases, joints and goosebumped skin that appear infinitely more complex to you than your muted surroundings.

In such a fog, it’s all too easy to forget the mountains, to forget the trees and the houses — to imagine only the gently rocking waters of the sound extending forever in every direction in a smooth, unbroken simplicity.

You are completely alone in the universe.

Except that every now and then a solitary gull sweeps into view, its wedged form coalescing out of light, water and sky, with a cry that sounds like the sea.


Photo Credit: “gull6,” by Mike Marcotte (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Theology

Back to Basics

Goddess of SpringWhat is it that I believe? This question has troubled me on and off ever since I left my childhood Catholicism and began wandering in the wildness and wilderness that is modern Paganism.

When I was a Catholic, the question of belief didn’t trouble me all that much. Not because I had been told what to think and believe unquestioningly, but because I had two thousand years of theologians, mystics, philosophers and saints who’d explored these questions before me and come up with myriad ways of answering them, more than imaginable. Choosing what to believe was like a hunt for buried treasure among a rich tradition nourished and nurtured by elders and wise men for generations. And it was a hunt I was encouraged to go on, an invitation to adventure and not a threat of “getting it right” or facing some awful punishment (at least this was true in the liberal, intellectually curious Catholicism that I was raised in, a kind of Catholicism that seems to be rapidly disappearing these days). After a long hunt, I discovered that the treasure I’d uncovered — that “pearl of great price” — did not belong exclusively to Christianity, and in fact had a great deal more in common with the ancient, pagan traditions that knelt close to the earth, sinking loving fingers into the soil and dancing down the rain. It was a treasure born of the natural world, the poetry of my Celtic ancestors, the music of the World Song singing in the roots of the trees and the stones of the burial mounds and the caressing waves of the ocean lapping against the shore.

So I left Catholicism behind and began wandering in the wilderness. Druidry was the path I took, one that resonated with me deeply for many reasons. But as with most young traditions, I quickly discovered that modern Druidry, and much of modern Paganism in general, had only shallow roots that ran up far too quickly against the bedrock of lost heritage, oppression, disruption, colonialism and the uncertainty of intervening millennia. What were the traditions of the ancients that I hoped to rediscover, and even if I did manage to find them or piece them together from the few clues left, how could I be sure that they would be relevant and meaningful to me as a woman in the (post-)postmodern world?

The search for answers to my theological questions took on a new anxiety. Where once I could sift through the opinions of philosophers and mystics for the truths that resonated with me on a personal level, now I found myself striving to become an Expert In All Things Pagan, trying to build a whole new tradition for myself on the uncertain foundation of the ashes and dust and old bones of the beloved dead and the competing interests and egos of contemporary Pagan leaders, some of whom were (let’s be honest) not always very kind to newbies and neophytes (or even people they’d only just met who, for lack of a reputation, they merely assumed were newbies). As the Joni Mitchell song goes, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Without a larger, well-established religious community to offer support and acceptance, without the tether of discernment and long-cultivated wisdom that allowed me to safely wander far into the depths of the unknown along my own spiritual path — I found myself incredibly anxious about straying too far from the herd. I tried for years to be a “good polytheist” with an anxiety and uneasy eagerness to prove myself that I’d never felt as a monotheist. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to profess a belief in my gods; I also had to prove that my knowledge of them was founded in solid, up-to-date research by only the best scholars. I had to pronounce names in unfamiliar languages with perfect accuracy during rituals, I had to demonstrate my knowledge of exactly how the Irish Manannan mac Lir differed from the Welsh Manawydan fab Llyr, I had to strive to believe in a “hard” polytheism that took for granted deity identity much less fluid than even the identities of my fellow human beings, I had to guard against eclecticism and syncretism as naughty words, or even the whiff of these that might waft off of sources and authors who weren’t considered approved reading. Personal experiences that fell beyond the carefully constructed box of modern polytheistic practice was tactfully labeled “UPG” and left to shiver out in the cold of solitary practice where it was easy to wonder if maybe I was just crazy after all.

Much of this was my own personality. I’ve always wanted to do well at whatever work I take on, in love with the challenge that learning, exploration and skillful mastery can provide. I hate doing things half-assed, and as a Gemini, you might say that I have two whole asses to worry about putting on the line. I fling myself into all kinds of work with a passion, and that includes spiritual work, the Great Work. But sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I don’t spend enough time paying attention to whose standards I’m striving to measure myself against. I do value scholarship and academic rigor, and I appreciate nuance and intellectual subtlety as much as poetry, art and damn good ritual — and so it took me a long time to realize that the anxiety I was feeling about my spiritual life as a Pagan was not the healthy passion to explore, but the sinking feeling of dread at being laughed off as crazy, wrong or — gods forbid — just perpetually silly and “noob”-ish.

I’m beginning to think that this is a pretty common experience for Pagans. Some of my favorite fellow Pagans have a deep ambivalence about the community and the label itself, sometimes feeling boxed in or trapped by it, unable to relate to others who use that term or the communities they represent. I have been lucky in finding some strong, supportive Druid communities who help to keep me firmly tether to a process of discernment and honest exploration — but among the greater Pagan community, the anxiety persists. In recent months, I’ve realized that the anxiety has grown so great that there are times when I’m not even sure what it is that I do believe anymore, so long have I been paying more attention to the delicate dance of group opinions than to my own personal convictions.

So what exactly do I believe? To answer that question, I have to go back to basics. And in going back to basics, I have to face my fear of being forever shrugged off as a newbie fluff bunny who can’t be taken seriously. It’s easy to say, “So what? What do you care if people take you seriously?” But as a member of a scattered, small community, a minority religion in a predominantly Christian culture, it can feel pretty devastating to be shrugged off or shuffled aside even by those you thought would welcome you with open arms. But that’s the risk you have to face if you want to cultivate an open and free relationship with spirit and the sacred world. The world is far stranger and wilder than the books and experts would have you believe.

So what, at the most basic and deepest level, do I believe?

  • I believe in the Song of the World, a harmony of interweaving melodies woven from the chorus of atoms and earthquakes, of wind and fire, of sun and starlight, of misty woods at dusk, of the butterfly’s dance and the call of the heron, of rainstorms and rivers, of ocean tides and cresting floods, of blood and gore spilled red upon the white purity of snow and the black of the raven’s wing, of rosebuds and the smell of summer grass, of the gods in their myriad forms, of the beloved dead, of the spirits of the land. I believe this World Song is what the Taoists call “The Way of Things” — both the deep, resonating essential nature of all that is, and the guide of natural harmony that shapes the world and the land around us and within us.
  • I believe in fire and water, the sacred duality that dances at the creative heart of existence, born of that numinous unity which moves through the melody of the Song of the World. Fire and water move. They are the complimentary opposites that give rise each to the other, fire licking upwards, water trickling down, one bright and one dark, one hot and one cool, one active and one receptive, yet both liminal still, embodied best in movement not in form, consuming and all-permeating, the first spinning of unity into expression but still not yet manifest. I find that my guides to understanding this sacred duality are my primary gods: Brighid, goddess of fire, sun and stars; and Manannan, god of mist, storm and sea.
  • I believe in the Three Realms of land, sea and sky, and the three Druidic elements of nwyfre, gwyar and calas (wind, water, stone; breath, blood, bone; force, flow and form). These triplicities are the dynamic manifestations of the marriage of fire and water, day and night, above and below, and all such sacred dualities. But they are not static, nor forced into a stable, permanent form — they move and turn, each arising from the others. Above, below and center. Transcendent, immanent and manifest. The in-breath, the exhalation, and the moment of stillness between. Like a three-legged stool, the stablest of all, these triplicities embody a dynamic, ever-changing stability of the natural world. And as three points define a plane, the Three Realms define the sacred space in which we live and move and have our being, while the three Druidic elements describe the processes of that life, that movement, that being-becoming dance of existence.
  • I believe that the gods (however we conceive of them), the ancestors (however we remember them) and the spirits of the land (however we experience them) all play active, meaningful roles in shaping our lives and our selves. I believe that we in turn can cultivate meaningful, mutual relationships of love and respect with them through ritual, prayer, meditation and contemplative attention, and that these relationships offer us connection and opportunities to seek to live in harmony with the World Song through intention and free will even in the face of forces that are so much bigger than we can even imagine.
  • I believe that all things are manifestations of Spirit, the Song of the World, and that all things also have spirit, unique selves which embody the myriad ways in which the world experiences and is conscious of itself. Rocks and whirlwinds possess a consciousness just as humans and house cats do, not to mention oak trees and gods and computer circuitry. This belief is generally called animism, or sometimes pantheism (though usually pantheism is a kind of non-theism that does not include a belief in individual deities). Either way, it celebrates the raven-ness of ravens and the mollusk-ness of mollusks, the utter tree-ness of a tree and the stone-ness of a stone as sacred expressions of the numinous, each with its own gift of awareness and experience to give back to the World Song.
  • I believe that living rightly and mindfully in the world requires us to cultivate an integrity of balance and harmony with all these other beings that share the world with us, and that this naturally leads us to desire lives of sustainability and ecological awareness, as well as a reverence for nature. This reverence for nature is not only a love of the wildness and wilderness of landscapes and sacred places untamed and untrammeled by the controlling machinations of humans, but also a sacred acceptance and gratitude for the essential nature of reality itself, the Way of Things, the Song of the World. This reverence for nature leads us to see that nature is, indeed, everywhere, and cannot be otherwise but everywhere, for it is the essential, inalienable quality of the world itself. And realizing this, we no longer seek to exert control over nature, but to understand it and live according to nature in all its manifestations, including our own deepest, truest natures as human animals, members of this planet Earth.
  • I believe that ritual, like poetry and art, can open us to more authentic relationship with the nature of things, the Song of the World, and all of the beings who share the world with us by engaging us in the sacred play of creativity, imagination and creation. Through ritual, we experience space and time in new ways, and discover the diversity of experience embodied in the myriad beings of the world. Through ritual, prayer, worshipful devotion and meditation, we cultivate our ability to attend to new perspectives and to connect to the beauty inherent in all things, including the beauty and meaning within ourselves.

I believe in a great many more things, but these beliefs are at the very foundation of my Druidic practice and my spiritual life.

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project 2012.
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Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild

Nature and Earth

I look up from my work at the computer and notice for the first time the gray curtain of rain outside my window. That sacred presence that crept upon the land so slowly, opening itself up into a downpour over this city of steep hills and huge rivers with such unrelenting patience that it’s easy to believe the rain could go on forever, pounding over the black slate rooftops and gathering into the gutters.

And it does. I turn off the air conditioner and open the windows to let the breeze and noise-song of the storm in. The smell of summer is delicious and sweet and warm in my lungs. The red brick of our neighbor’s house darkens to a deeper, mottled red across the narrow span of the alley. Our tiny garden nods and nods to the rhythm. Down the street, thunder and lightning play over the woods, wetlands and ravines of the sprawling city park. I’ve been caught in the rain during walks there more than once, drenched and squilching through muddy dips in the trails, slipping on wet rocks, hair matted down into my eyes. Maybe there is nothing so holy as the mingling of sweat and rain on the skin during a hot, suddenly dark summer afternoon.

The rain seems like it could go on forever, but even as I write the storm spends itself back into sunlight, and what is left is the bright illuminated green of the trees limp and dripping against a backdrop of threatening gray clouds that are already moving on, tumbling over themselves and tripping like heady, clumsy giants against the foothills of the mountains to the east. The resident couple of cardinals come out to preen themselves on the power-lines, bright male and dull female, each a shadowed silhouette against the brightening, churning sky. Illumination and obscurity in their unending dance.

That is all there is to it. The rains come and then, they are gone again. The earth is so ancient our history is only a small, flimsy garment we try to drape inadequately over her great shoulders — yet she is so much younger than we are, utterly open and changeable and responsive. Across the alley, the bricks already begin to dry again in the sun. Who says that nature is not beautiful and wild has given up the task of attending. Aren’t we meant to take joy in this? What else is joy for?

This post is part of the 30 Days of Druidry creative writing project.

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild

Why Druidry?

There is, I think, an old, white-bearded man who has taken up a place in my soul, like a seed of light or a hermit’s lantern held up in the surrounding dark. His staff is heavy, planted in the ground. His brow is bright. In his dark eyes, that have seen such sorrow, there is still a star, a gleam like wisdom or stubborn joy. And he is a leader of a people, and he would lead them into the wilderness, that they might make of themselves whole constellations with the patterns of their dancing.

That darkness is my body. That wilderness is my spirit. That constellation is the soul-song rising, woven from the sound of my breathing and the blood turning through my gnarled, twining veins.

I am not alone in the forests and the mountains. They have their families, too, shining ones who rock the winds and rise at dawn with the birds’ shuffling chorus. My body is like the woods, and we are kin to each other. I am not alone in the poet’s cave. The small, white stone lays heavy on my chest, damp like dew and glimmering ghostly in the dark like the weight of inspiration on a trembling heart. I am not alone in the halls of power, under the gaze of kings or mightier men. Even there, the earth upholds me, the vaults of the skies overarch and protect me, and the deep currents of the seas nourish me and call me home again to patient, far more ancient truths.

Even in my loneliness, he is there — the old man who has seen suffering and death. His white beard like the path of moonlight over the waters, beyond the ninth wave to the land of summer. His white robes now the color of bone, now shifting again to seem like a cloak of feathers, the swan who opens her wings against the night sky, scattering stars, a swift traveler between the worlds who moves on sleepy melodies, sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping.

I take up the light within me. I carry it into the darkness. The dark, wild lands that embrace me are my home; the light itself, my path.

This post is part of the 30 Days of Druidry creative writing project.

Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

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.

Holy Wild, Muse in Brief

Quote of the Week

“The room where I live is plain as a skull, a firm setting for windows. A nun lives in the fires of the spirit, a thinker lives in the bright wick of the mind, an artist lives jammed in the pool of materials. (Or, a nun lives, thoughtful and tough, in the mind, a nun lives, with that special poignancy peculiar to religious, in the exile of materials; and a thinker, who would think of something, lives in the clash of materials, and in the world of spirit where all long thoughts must lead; and an artist lives in the mind, that warehouse of forms, and an artist lives, of course, in the spirit. So.) But this room is a skull, a fire tower, wooden, and empty. Of itself it is nothing, but the view, as they say, is good.”

– Annie Dillard, from Holy the Firm

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild

Silence in the Trees

Tonight, reading David Abram’s musings on the language of our embodied selves and this thickly expressive world in which we live, I wonder about the internet.

As my friend Cat has taught me, the Quakers have a saying: “This Friend speaks to my condition.”

The Quaker Meeting is one of silence and unfolding into Spirit. When a Friend speaks in Meeting, it is with Spirit moving through them. The breath is Spirit in the flesh, and when it stirs, the Friend opens and allows the music of Spirit (the Song of the World, as we Druids call it) to rise up and overflow. When David Abram writes about his friend who listens to the dialects of trees, the pine and spruce and hemlock, each rustling in the breeze — I think of the Quakers. How lucky we are to choose when to speak, when to be silent, to have that control. And how lucky the trees are, to speak only when the breeze moves them, only when the winds exhale in a community of breath and weather to make a song out of the forest — and to otherwise be silent, and still. To not fill up their world with frivolous noise.

I have been thinking a lot lately about rituals of silence, how they connect us to the voiceless, how they open us to the possibility of justice through attending.

And I have been thinking about the internet, and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, where so much of the noise is the noise of passing on, forwarding, “liking” and “sharing” — but not with our own voices.

Some essays make us think. Some poetry gives us pause. Some writing slows us down and makes us wonder, contemplate, and we are stilled for a moment from our need to speak and fill that silence.

Other articles make us jump up and say, “Yes! This!” We pass on those articles that articulate our beliefs, that do our speaking and our arguing, that make our points and push our objective. We do not have time. We are busy people. And there is so much injustice in the world, so much that needs to be corrected, that needs to be said. When we find an article that seems sharp and smart, scathing or insightful or deeply necessary, we pass it on. We beg the world to stop for just a moment to read it, to consider its ideas. We do not have time to be forever saying everything. So we say instead, over and over, as much as we can, “This Friend speaks to my condition!”

I sometimes feel frustrated that my articles are rarely those that go viral. I try to write from a place of quiet and complexity, I try to hold the ambivalence that I feel and allow it to move and turn so that I can see its many sides. I’m not always trying to make some point — I’m just trying to let the wind rise up and make its noise in me.

But maybe, in my own self-conscious frustration, I can’t always see the forest for the trees. We are all so busy, we all have so much to say. Maybe we are much like the trees these days, at the mercy of whatever the wind will bring us — whatever drifts to us through the Facebook feed, filtered through our outstretched fingers, trying to catch and shape and turn this stream of chatter into something that means something. We rustle and shake, just a few brief seconds to say what we can before the current’s moved on and we lapse again into silence.

So maybe what I can give with my writing is silence, a few moments of pause, and for once, the relief that there is nothing more to say… only the mystery and the quiet and the dark between.