He said, “A person is like a wise fisher who cast a net into the sea, and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisher discovered a fine big fish. So the fisher threw all the little fish back into the sea, and with no hesitation kept the big fish. Whoever has ears to hear ought to listen.”–The Gospel of Thomas (trans. Marvin W. Meyer)
I’ve been working my way through the Gospel of Thomas for a few weeks now. Every couple days I do a three-page journaling exercise based on the next saying (there are 113 altogether). About a week ago I came across this one. In the appendix to this translation, Marvin Meyer points to the similarities between this passage and Matthew 13:47-50, another parable about a net cast into the sea. Yet the two stories ultimately have very different meanings. In Matthew, the fishermen draw their nets from the ocean, throw away the bad fish, and keep the good ones; thus will the angels divide the righteous from the unrighteous and cast the unrighteous into the fire. In Thomas we see something different: here there are not good fish and bad fish, but one large one and several small ones. No judgment is cast upon the small fish. Yet the wise fisherman tosses them back into the sea, keeping only the large one. Why?
Worldly wisdom would argue that, while the big fish will bring in a higher price at the market, all of the fish are worth something. The fisherman wise in the way of the world, then, would bring home all the fish he had caught, regardless of size. All would bring him profit in the market place. Remember, too, that fixed prices were not the norm in those days. People went to the market to haggle. Suppose the fisherman could not get the price he hoped for the big fish; the smaller fish would then act as a cushion, making up for the loss–his insurance policy, if you like.
Jesus’ teachings were not those of worldly wisdom, however. One of the few things that Paul seems to have gotten right (an argument for another day) is his eloquent contrast between what he calls “the foolishness of God” and worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1:25). We are called not to follow the example of the world, but to be patterns in it. The wise fisher embraces the foolishness of God.
Let’s unpack this metaphor a bit. What does it mean to keep the big fish and throw back all the small ones? First, it guarantees that there will be more fish tomorrow. Instead of focusing on the greatest gain in the shortest time, the wise fisher sets reasonable limits. There is always the chance that some of those small fish that he throws back will one day grow into big fish. Even if they do not, they will still be there on the days when there are no big fish in the net. The wise fisher recognizes the limits of moderation; the big fish is enough for today. If that is so, then what need has he of the small fish? The wise fisher places his trust in God, who clothes the grasses and feeds the birds (Matthew 6:26; 6:30). Where the wisdom of men insists on the insurance policy, the foolishness of God throws it back into the sea.
What does it mean to place our trust in the Divine, to eschew worldly wisdom and embrace the foolishness of God? Contemporary worldly wisdom dictates rugged individualism, keeping up appearances, and an updated version of retribution theology–those in unfortunate circumstances got where they are because they deserved it. Worldly wisdom insists on the insurance policies of wealth and material comforts. Worldly wisdom says we have to make concessions in our values to get along, that “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t apply to war (and anyway there are tremendous political and economic benefits in bombing the crap out of this or that country). Worldly wisdom links social and economic success to the pursuit and exploitation of the latest fad.
The wise fisher rejects all of this. If we truly trust in the Divine, we must recognize our interconnectedness. We must reject the pursuit of wealth and material comforts as an aim in itself. We must strive to be integral, authentically ourselves, and to love others for their authentic selves. Absolute trust in God renders all fads meaningless. If our emphasis shifts toward love of self and others, toward recognition of our intertwined humanity and divinity, then what care we for outward appearances? What then does it matter if we own the latest and flashiest toys?
The prospect of placing our full trust in God terrifies us. Worldly wisdom insists that we need that basket of small fish. How can we be expected to throw away our insurance policy? What if tomorrow our nets yield no fish at all? What if rejecting worldly wisdom ostracizes us socially or jeopardizes our jobs? What if the car breaks down and I have no money to fix it? Perhaps what frightens us most about putting our fate in the hands of Divinity is that in so doing, we give up control of our lives. Trusting in God, we learn to let go of the need to control the world and those around us. We learn to give up preconceived notions about the path we’re traveling. Later in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus calls upon his disciples to “Be wanderers.” Wanderers travel where they are led; they do not set out with an itinerary drawn from their own minds. If we trust in the Divine to provide for us, we will come to understand what our needs truly are. WE learn what is really enough.
All of us fall short of God’s foolishness and cling to some measure of worldly wisdom. What insurance policies are we holding? What small fish do we resist tossing back into the sea?
It’s been a long time. How can I encapsulate the changes in the internal landscape these past few months in only a few words? Suffice it to say that I am not quite the same person who last posted here. This is as it should be, for he not busy being born is busy dying.
One thing I’ve undertaken the last month or so is a daily (well, frequent anyhow) written response to the Sayings presented in Marvin Meyer’s translation of The Gospel of Thomas. Perhaps the most frustrating outgrowth of these semi-regular exercises has been the recognition that all theologies and cosmologies, all attempts to put a face and an identity on God, all attempts to even comprehend the nature of Divinity, are but metaphors. “God” is a metaphor. “The Spirit” is a metaphor. The laws of physics, in a sense, are metaphor. Even my own beloved conception, what I call “the Principle” is merely a metaphor. Each interpretation, each metaphor, is correct in that it offers us insight into a facet of the workings of that Unknown which animates the universe. Each metaphor is also incomplete (as are all metaphors).
I’m growing comfortable with that idea, although it makes it difficult to attend Meeting–if one has reached the conclusion that the Ineffable is just that, that all interpretations of Divinity (including, perhaps, the concept of “Divinity”), then what is there to reflect upon for an hour? More metaphors. What I am struggling with at present is how to understand evil.
I’ve never believed in “Evil with a capital E,” in Satan and his many correlates. My understanding that all is from what we call God, that the universe is comprised of a series of manifestations of whatever the Divine truly is, leaves no room for an opposing force. We are all but manifestations of the Principle. All is from and of God. Yet how to explain the fact that so many turn away from the revelation of God within us? How to make sense of the fact that all of us, even our saints, struggle at one time or another (probably continuously) to remember that we are not the sum total of the universe, that there are other people, other living things, other manifestations of the Divine? Why is it difficult to step outside ourselves and the material world, and see the reality behind them?
One metaphor in which I find some element of truth is the Gnostic figure of Yaldabaoth, described in The Secret Book of John. This ancient text presents an alternative cosmology to the orthodox Judeo-Christian story of Genesis. The tale begins with a description not dissimilar from the Sufi tradition that Allah created the Universe from himself that he might know himself–the pure Divine presence, the only thing which existed before time, fell in love with itself, and in seeing itself, split itself into two presences. There follows a long passage of celestial begattings, in which the Presence splits into a spirit, a Mother, and later a Divine Child, understood to be the celestial version of Christ. These figures proceed to make the rest of the divine Universe. One offshoot of the Mother, called Sophia (Wisdom) sets out to make a child on her own, without permission from the others; the resulting child is Yaldabaoth, a great serpent with the head of a lion, who carries inside him both a part of his Mother which he has stolen and Ignorance or Chaos. Yaldabaoth succumbs to the Ignorance, losing all knowledge of those powers above him. It is he the demons he creates who fashion the cosmos. The narrative goes on to present several key stories familiar from Genesis, with the interesting twist that Yaldabaoth fills Yahweh’s position, and thus serves as the enemy of righteousness, not its source (it is he who denies Adam and Eve the fruit in the Garden; it is Christ, in the shape of an eagle, who leads them to taste Knowledge).
I don’t believe a power-mad serpent with a lion’s head rules over the universe. Yet the Yaldabaoth myth presents an interesting explanation for our ignorance of our own Divinity. Fashioned from his Light and his Ignorance, we hold the capacity for divinity, yet are naturally oblivious to this power. It’s a useful metaphor. What frustrates me today is that this metaphor sheds light on the subject, but remains a fable. It offers an unbelievable explanation for something we cannot explain without myth. But what lies beyond the metaphor? What is the reality hiding behind the veil of language? What, in essence, is the real explanation hiding behind the mask of words?
At present, several hundred American citizens are encamped in New York City, participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests. Lacking official leaders or a detailed list of demands, the protesters nevertheless share a common point of view: they are tired. Tired of the role of money in politics, tired of our government’s apparent disregard for all but the top wage-earners and corporations in this country. Tired of politicians like Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain, who went on record as saying “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”
The Occupy Wall Street protests represent those values which form the bedrock of our country’s ideals: that all people are created equal, that neither money nor might makes right. Ultimately, this is a movement which recognizes the inherent value and dignity of each individual, regardless of that individual’s advantages in life. Minimal reflection should lead us to conclude that these are not only the values of our country, but the values which Friends have long cherished through our Testimonies of Integrity and Equality. This is not only their movement; in a very real sense, this is our movement, an outward expression of and demand for recognition of those principles which have guided Friends for centuries. We cannot simply stand on the sidelines, watching the events in New York unfold, scanning the news for mention of the protests as they unfold. This is our fight.
What, then, can we do? At present, several groups are forming in major cities across the country, emulating the New York protests. If you’re in or near Seattle, Portland OR, Boston, Portland ME, or Miami, perhaps you might feel moved to participate directly. If not, or if you live further away (like myself), there are other ways to show solidarity with these folks. Letters, phone calls, blog posts–these help get the word out, and can add your voice to the outcry. Within our Meetings, perhaps we can draft minutes in support of our fellow citizens who are protesting. Perhaps our meetings can carry the message further, to local and state governments, and our Quarters and Yearly Meetings can carry the work onward and upward…
As Friends, we can choose to be Woolmans or Whitalls, Foxes or Flexners. We can be the change we want to see in the world, or we can wait for someone else to do it. Let us remember, as William Penn cautioned, “No Cross, No Crown.” Let us not forget that we are all of one another, that there is Divinity in each of us, and that until all of us are free, all of us are in chains.
Readers interested in first-hand information about the protests, or perspectives on the world from a Quaker out there being the change he wants to see could do worse than to read this blog, authored by my friend Josh the Rooster.
Lately my mind returns to an old fable.
The mice on a farm gathered together to discuss their long-standing feud with the farmer’s cat. Again and again the creature would burst into their midst, wreaking havoc and slaughtering those who could not flee quick enough. Something had to be done. But what? At long last, one mouse struck upon an idea. “One of us must creep up to the cat while she is sleeping, and place a bell around her neck! Then we will be alerted to her approach, and shall be afforded time to scurry away!” The others greeted this suggestion with unanimous enthusiasm. “Brilliant!” “Of course!” “Just the ticket!” At length, the chairmouse, noting no dissension, declared the motion passed. “Now,” he called. “Who will volunteer for this mission? Who will bell the cat?” Silence fell over the assembly; mice looked uncomfortably at their fellows or inspected the ground. They might have remained that way indefinitely, but at that exact moment, the cat leapt from out of the tall grass and fell upon them.
Over the summer, I’ve been reading an anthology of Quaker writings from all periods of Friends’ history. At the same time, I’ve watched our national situation go from abysmal to shitty, and noted the rising unrest across the country (angry Tea Partiers, the more recent Occupy Wall Street protests) as people are pushed to the limit by a government indifferent to the needs of all but a sliver of the US population. I recall the number of times I’ve heard Friends–usually well-educated, upper-middle class Friends–struggling with their own levels of privilege and comfort and asking themselves, “What am I doing about the injustices around me?” And how often, months later, I’ve heard those same Friends wrestle with the same questions, having recognized their dissatisfaction with their role in the world without taking steps to change that role.
At the meeting I’ve attended for most of the summer, I often ended up in debates with the other attenders over recent renewable energy projects here in Vermont. Seemingly without exception, members of this particular meeting are opposed to large-scale wind and solar projects. Arguments against “the wind towers” have ranged from ecological (usually complaints that wind farms alter the migration routes of wildlife, never mind that migration routes are always shifting as the environment changes) to the aesthetic (a lot of people think wind turbines are ugly). Returning from Quarterly Meeting a month ago, I noted a cluster of solar voltaic arrays in a field. The lady with whom I was riding sniffed the air. “It’s too bad they have to have them out where people will see them,” she said. The message I’ve been receiving from these Friends is clear: we’re all for renewable energy arrangements, as long as they don’t alter our landscape in the slightest, and don’t ask us to make sacrifices. What we need is a significant change that will not change things significantly. Thanks very much.
I don’t believe the majority of Friends are of this mindset. If they were, I don’t think I’d waste my time in their Meetings. Yet undeniably many Quakers do resist giving up comforts in the name of principle. This is not a new tension within the Society, either. Friends in the first Quaker century emphasized living out the teachings of Christ, putting everything on the line for Truth as perceived through that of God in each–think of the many souls tortured, imprisoned, executed for persisting in their “dangerous” worship; think of John Woolman selling his businesses when they became too time-consuming for him to follow the Voice of the Lord.
But their descendents, grown successful in business and worldly in their concerns, left behind memoirs and writings that are all but interchangeable with the autobiographies of their non-Quaker contemporaries. The Society in 1860 was far different than it had been in 1680. In America, many Monthly and Yearly Meetings could reach no unity on the moral wrong of slave ownership. Indeed, as the 19th century wore on, Quakers withdrew more and more from the world’s sufferings and injustices. Being Quaker had become a badge of sorts, a means of self-congratulation, not an inspiration to bring about the Kingdom.
We recall with pleasure the tradition of early Friends toward social action. Yet often we ignore the other side of our Quaker legacy, those Friends who would not relinquish their comforts for the glorification of principle. These two threads often intertwine in the modern Friend. The result: a Quaker who believes passionately in change, in the Testimonies, but fears to make waves or stick his neck out. Let someone else bell the damn cat.
And yet…in 1659, Mary Dyer and five other Friends from Rhode Island were arrested in Massachusetts on grounds that they had been spreading their dangerous gospel. They were banished from the colony and warned that if they returned they would be executed. Undaunted, Mary returned later that year with a number of companions. They were arrested, and all but Mary were executed–the magistrates spared her life at the last instant. Again she was banished, and again she returned. This time, the magistrates showed no mercy. On June 1, 1660, the record relates that “Mary Dyer did hang as a flag for others to take example by.”
Mary Dyer, like so many other early Friends, lived and died for her convictions. This is our history, that proud heritage of action and sacrifice which we like to remind ourselves of when we gather together. Yet we ought not to rest on the laurels of our ancestors. George Fox himself spoke to his followers, exhorting them not to simply rely upon the words of Christ and the Apostles–“What canst thou say?” he asked. Likewise, let us see these stories of brave Friends not as badges to adorn ourselves. Let us pull inspiration from them, draw upon them for the strength to act upon our convictions, to combat the injustices of this world. Let us remember that to venture nothing is to gain nothing. Let us remember that to risk our worldly comforts is the only real way to uphold our principles.
It started with an argument on Google Reader. Someone shared a blog post about the President’s hunt for a politically astute position on same-sex marriage. At the end of the post, the author claims that our political leaders “respond to only one thing—power.” This should not, however be misconstrued as a flaw in our governing system, the blogger assures us; this is the central kernel around which American democracy is built. It’s supposed to work this way. I consider this a spurious argument, and said so in a comment posted to my friend’s share. Building a system around an idea does not sanctify that idea. I would argue that if our political system really encourages our leaders to only respond to power, then the entire system has been spoiled by the rottenness at its root. Another reader disagreed. The system might be flawed, he said, but it works because those very flaws are part of human nature. We argued back and forth about this awhile, neither of us getting anywhere. But it planted a seed in my mind.
What do we mean by “human nature”? And how does it relate to that other force which drives us, namely, what we call civilization? Few will say so explicitly these days, but conventional wisdom seems to hold that civilization’s main purpose is to hold human nature in check: unrestrained, our natural tendencies would destroy us completely. In this view, human nature encompasses our darkest impulses: dishonesty, greed, violence. Under our cultured exteriors, we are the Beast incarnate, kept at bay through the heroic efforts of modern society.
Could we commission a less flattering portrait? I found myself wondering who might have wielded those brushes, stretched the canvas, mixed the paints that make up this picture of human nature we seem to have internalized. I can’t claim to have found the answers; I can only suggest some possibilities. Still, I think I make a fairly strong case…
Let me begin by confessing my own prejudices on the subject. Politically, I consider myself an anarcho-communist (Peter Kropotkin rocks), and like most a-cs, I don’t really accept the idea of an innate human nature. I believe each of us is born equally capable of good and evil acts, but that the particulars—whether we are kind or snobbish or giving or greedy or honest or deceitful—are largely culturally determined, both by society at large and by the family into which we’re born. Yet I think most people today do believe in an innate human nature, and their conception of it likely fits the description I’ve outlined above. But whence came the idea?
The West’s strong Judeo-Christian tradition no doubt played a role. When Adam and Eve fell, the closeness they had known with God was torn away. They became creatures of the flesh. Later, God gave Moses the laws so that His chosen people could lift themselves above their earthly natures. Christianity holds that the teachings of Jesus and his crucifixion served the same function: to bring us once more toward God. Grace would be restored if we forsook our earthly desires.
This idea became deeply embedded in Western thought over the next several centuries. It formed the basis of all Christian denominations (including the Quakers; George Fox, confronted by ministers who would not cede to him on theological points, declared his opponents were following their own natures, not that of God). These same attitudes persisted even as Western society edged toward a more secular worldview.
With the coming of industrialization, the dark view of human nature took on a more terrible significance. It proved advantageous to the capitalist to promote an image of human nature which legitimized the competitive, profit-driven mentality of the marketplace. Capitalism itself sprouted from seeds planted by the Puritans, who taught that one’s outward successes indicated inner purity. To be rich and propertied was to enjoy God’s favor in this world and the next; less fortunate persons were likely damned. No wonder Western society came to be defined by an almost mad drive toward social and economic success. Further, attributes which encouraged the capitalist mindset were lauded as natural.
Thus armed, industrialized man pursued colonialism with a renewed sense of purpose, confident that their own culture was natural and sanctified. Cultures that lacked the cutthroat instincts of modern civilization were branded primitive and either exploited or quickly converted into proper human beings. Individualism and the capitalist mindset spread, and as it became ubiquitous, it became difficult to argue that it was not natural—it was, after all, everywhere.
It was against this backdrop that Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species. A man of his time, Darwin cast the evolutionary process in competitive terms: species adapted to conditions in ways that allowed them to better compete for resources, and those who could not compete died. Darwin presented a grim, dog-eat-dog world, and the capitalists lost on time in appropriating his concepts, combining them with the familiar Puritan idea into what became known as “social darwinism.” They touted individualism as the natural order of things. Those who could not compete should perish, in business as in the jungle. Meanwhile, racial and cultural chauvinists now had scientific ammunition for their own arguments of superiority. European civilization had evolved to a higher plane than their primitive contemporaries; doubtless they were also more biologically evolved.
Thus by the 20th century, Western society had painted its portrait of human nature. Greedy, self-centered, ready to lash out violently at a moment’s notice—this concept simultaneously elevated modern civilization (which kept these instincts in check) and excused the worse crimes of man against himself (except in times of war, killing was frowned upon, therefore, destroy him in the market). With few alterations, this picture appears unchanged as we pass into the 21st century.
But is it accurate? Are we really to believe that the human capacity for hatred, our tendency to kill each other for resources (food, raw materials, religious truth) or to play endless games of screw-thy-neighbor are innate within us, while every act of love, every moment when two human beings face one another and recognize each other’s humanity, is an artificial product of society? I call bullshit. I give no credence to Rousseau’s Noble Savage, but I also cannot believe that we are all really Edward Hyde, capering madly beneath a scrim of comforting fictions and manufactured custom. We are indeed imperfect beings. But let us not chain ourselves to our imperfections. Let us instead work with and around them, nurturing our light as we nurture those shadows. Let us go forth in the world with the belief that we can be more than the worst that is in us. And let us, as William Penn once counseled, see what love will do.
Next week: In Defense of Stephen King: A Flickering Light In the Darkness
“Jenny, I don’t know if Mama was right, or if it’s Lieutenant Dan…I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze… but I think…maybe it’s both. Maybe both are happening at the same time…”–Eric Roth, Forrest Gump (1994)
We all have our spiritual texts, those artistic creations that speak to us, that rise unbidden to our minds at the appropriate times, giving advice or solace in our need. For some, it’s the Bible, the Quran, the Hindu Vedas. For some it might be Timothy Leary’s reworking of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. For me, it’s a lot of sources: Bible passages, movies I’ve found particularly uplifting (see above), books like Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (which is illustrated nicely on YouTube here.), songs. I take my flashes of Spirit where I find them. Lately I’ve been ruminating on this one. The words I’ve quoted are from the screenplay; I have no idea if the line or its approximation appears in Winston Groom’s original novel. Regardless of the source, the words resonate with me at the core right now. Here I stand, perplexed at the universe, pondering this same question.
For me, the question of Fate versus chance starts with a cosmology that rejects sentient divinity. I believe in a divine force; I’ve felt its work in the world. But I don’t believe it works consciously, directed by some conscious, omnipotent being. My conception of the Divine is sort of Star Wars-y, an underlying force out of which all manifestations flow, and into which all must eventually return. No other conceptions of the Divine resonate true within me. I don’t judge those who can believe and take comfort in a Great Planner; all I know is that is not in my nature to do so. Rejecting a Divine Planner, one must by extension reject a Divine Plan. And yet…
And yet, I am addicted to narrative. From an early age, I scribbled stories on the leftover spreadsheet paper my father brought home from the machine shop where he worked. Now, as one point along my journey reaches its conclusion and another begins dimly to be seen, I find myself looking backward, constructing a through-line of cause and effect. And, at times, the sense of having been precisely where I was supposed to be is palpable.
After nearly a solid week of cross-country travel courtesy of Greyhound (a perfect lesson in letting go of the need to control), I found myself in Boston on Sunday. I had heard about Beacon Hill Friends Meeting through a friend, and resolved to spend my hour of silent worship there.
Meeting itself was not particularly noteworthy for me. I center more easily when I can feel connected to those around me, and here were only strangers; I struggled to find a comfortable position on the wooden benches. The messages that morning were worthwhile but not ground-shaking. Had I recently moved to town and been in the process of seeking a new spiritual home, I would probably have resolved to try somewhere else next week, searching for that indefinable pull that leads us home.
The magic came after the Rise of Meeting. During social hour, I was introduced to two Friends in the early planning stages of a possible Quaker intentional community/farm in New Hampshire. My heart has been feeling tugs in that directly already, so these connections were exciting and affirming even if nothing tangible develops from them. Over coffee and cookies, I also learned there would be a lecture that afternoon, touching on issues within the convergent Friends movement. Since the subject appealed to my interest in what Friend Tony terms “multifaith polylogue,” I decided to stick around. I don’t know if another choice was possible for me then, but I can’t shake the sense that the choice I made was the right one.
The speaker was Peggy Senger Parsons, pastor of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon (!!!), a dynamic individual with what seemed to me to be a clear sense of the Spirit (in spite of being one of those scary evangelical Christian Quakers! ^_~). Her words provoked new thinking, but also fall into line with a lot of my recent thinking about faith, about our culture, and about how to use the former to transform the latter. I left Beacon Hill with a gait somewhere between a skip and a stagger, partly elated, partly awe-struck by the possibilities I was beginning to sense. I made my way through the streets of Boston further convinced in the rightness of striking out in new directions and in the potential for bridging theological gaps even of immense distance. It can be done, if we keep in mind John Woolman’s description of that “principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names….confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any.”
On my way back to the T, my mind raced over the past two years, and even earlier, when the seeds that led me to Quakers were first planted. I can tick off event after event that seem to lead in direct progression to Sunday’s experiences. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult not to see this chain of events as pre-ordained, rungs on the ladder of my destiny. Fate.
My glimpses into the future are imperfect at best. Those times in the past when I was dead sure that I was headed in a particular direction, that A would lead to B would lead eventually to Z, have been the times when the Universe has thrown me a wicked curveball, throwing me in some unexpected new direction. Part of me is galvanized by the idea that this might somehow really be meant to be. There’s an undeniable urge to cling to that. Part of me aches to think that this plotline, too, will prove illusory. Yet part of me looks toward the approaching horizon in anticipation, eager to explore the ways that these new experiences will influence the next leg of my journey.
I have no idea how long I’ll keep this up. I suppose I’m starting on this venture because I’ve really enjoyed reading blogs by other Friends lately, and want to add my own perspective to the mix. In part, this is me fumbling with the challenge of letting my life speak my convictions. I’ve been feeling an electric urge to do something meaningful with my faith since reading Robert Lawrence Smith’s Book of Quaker Wisdom. But what? There’s the rub.
Two years ago, I boarded a plane in Burlington, Vermont, bound for Portland, Oregon. With me were two suitcases and a worn-out backpack, their contents the only possessions I was bringing on my journey. My ticket was one-way. I had no job waiting for me, and only two contacts in the Rose City: a friend from college who would let me crash on her couch for two days, and a cousin I could contact if I didn’t find a place to live in those two days. I hadn’t seen this cousin since I was ten or so…
Looking back now, it’s hard to remember exactly who I was at the start of that journey, what my expectations were. I know I never expected to grow into the person that I am daily becoming. I never expected to find a spiritual home, or to fall in love with so many people, myself included. The first Sunday that I ventured into the meetinghouse that would become my meetinghouse, I had no idea that I would come to call myself a Quaker. I only knew that my previous experiences with Friends worship suited my spiritual sensibilities far better than the fundamentalist Christian church my cousin’s family attended. Over the past two years, that meeting has become my Meeting, that community has become my community.
I’m leaving Monday, headed back to Vermont. The reasons are in part familial: both sisters are getting married this summer; my oldest niece graduates from high school Father’s Day weekend. My youngest niece turned a year old in April—I have yet to see her outside of pictures. There are other reasons, too, ones less easily ticked off in a list. I’m happier in a climate with four distinct seasons; as Robbie Robertson said, I got winter in my blood. But more than that, there’s the undeniable pull that one’s home can have—these are my towns, my roads, my people, the stone out of which my foundation was formed. Part of going back is that magnetic attraction, the acknowledgment that when I close my eyes, it’s most often the rural landscape of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I see flickering in the dark. Part of it is also a test, not of myself so much as of my memories and their relationship to reality: immersed again in the world of my adolescence, will I still feel at home? Or have I evolved in two years into someone for whom the pull is no longer there? I’m standing at a point in my journey where the road curves sharply around a corner a hundred feet ahead. There’s no way to tell what lies on the other side except to keep walking, and to have faith that I’m walking neither off a cliff-face nor into the path of a starving, rabid bear. Understandably, I’m approaching the corner with a mix of trepidation and curiosity.
I can’t deny, either, that part of me isn’t ready to leave. Two years is a long time to spend with a community, witnessing triumphs and griefs, pettiness and unbelievable tenderness…I have come to love these people dearly, and to know without question that I, too, am loved. In worship last Sunday I found myself remembering the passage in Matthew, when a disciple informs Jesus that his mother and brothers are waiting for him outside:
But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers!” (Matthew 12:48-9, New American Standard Bible)
There are two kinds of families: the one you’re born with, and the one you build for yourself. Over two years, I have built a family within my meeting, one that matters as much to me as the one to which I’m returning. I’m not the person I was when I arrived at PDX that night in ’09. My Quaker family understands this; they’ve been along for the ride (members of our YAF group especially). My biological family, however, has only seen hints of the transformation. The person coming to them is not the person who left, not the person they’re expecting. The family that knows me is here.
A friend recently suggested that the proper Quaker goodbye ought to be “Be quiet.” This idea appeals to me not only because of the obvious ties to Quaker worship, but also because it calls to mind Rumi’s plea:
I can think of no sweeter wish between Friends as they part: be still and calm in the chaos of life; feel the connection to the divine within your center even in the midst of hardship and confusion.