[You can find Messing with Gods, Part I here.]
“Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience” — William Ralph Inge.
I’m feeling contrary: you could just as well aver that the reverse of Inge’s assertion is also true. Faith or awareness often begins with an experience and ends as an experiment — and more importantly, one that may never come to any sort of definitive conclusion. A personal example: without ever seeking her out, I encountered the Goddess — or a goddess* — on my father’s dairy farm in western New York state in 1983. (Those who know her ways might say that this time I was only and — finally — paying attention, because she’d been there all along.)
I was walking a low-lying and boggy field on the edge of our 170 acres that apparently nobody cultivated in the last several decades. The November afternoon was still but cold, and the ground underfoot was firm after a recent hard frost. I stopped in a half-grove of old tree stumps, fallen branches and new growth, and sat for a while to take in the scene. Late afternoon light leaked out of the sky. The sky loomed above me, overcast with a gray that anyone living in lake-effect country knows well. Look at it this way: the western New York climate where I grew up rivals Seattle’s for fewest sunny days a year.
I’d graduated from college that spring, and this fallow time was a gift, though not an easy one. The great luxury and curse of being the son of a family farmer is that there’s always work: hay each summer to bale and stack in the dark mow over the milking barn, manure to haul and spread daily, fence posts to replace and fencing to strengthen when the ground has thawed, the rhythm of milking morning and night, morning and night, every day of the year, and a hundred minor tasks of repair and maintenance in every season for a semi-skilled hand that easily fill the days. One result is that unlike my peers with degrees in hand I felt no pressing urgency about what to do next. It would clarify, and meantime there were cows to milk and soon, this being November and Wyoming County, New York, the first snowfall of a long winter to shovel and plow.
I sat on a dead log for a while, to take in the quiet. Maybe the sound of a distant car on our country roads, but that was all. Or a dog’s bark, perhaps, from the nearest house, over half a mile distant. Then vision came: a great, towering figure some fifty or sixty feet tall, feminine and indisputably present, though I could still see the grove, unchanged, through it all. Still November afternoon. Still my breath smoking in the chill. No words, just the upsweep of attention to more than the physical, though vision didn’t exclude anything. This was addition, not replacement. Then, after two or three minutes, the sense of her presence subsided and twilight resumed its place as single reality.
What can words do with such a thing? No communication beyond presence. She did not come to prove or disturb, to overwhelm or convert. No summons or command, no benediction even, beyond the ample gift of those minutes, though the experience wrapped itself like a robe around me for hours after. Though I carried it with me, I never spoke of it to anyone till almost two decades later, to a group of students in a campus alternative spirituality group at the school where I used to teach, who asked me a pointed personal question when we were talking about the Goddess in Wicca. And that was a decade ago now. So thirty years ago this fall. Sometimes such things happen seemingly out of time, out of reach of any response beyond memory, vital in itself as shelter or altar, and our lives have to catch up for those experiences and their aftermath to have a place to inhabit. For in forgetting we have just one more way we can censor the divine in its reaching out to us, as it constantly does, in its multitude of forms and means. It is important that awake people stay awake, says Stafford in the poem from a couple of posts ago. We all wake and sleep constantly, shuffling our days and moments to make a kind sense that will not swamp the little boat of the self, but which if we are not careful will also wash us up on a shoal and strand us while the river flows on and on around us.
There’s a place now in my worlds for a goddess. Not that I am yet or maybe ever called to do more, usually, than acknowledge her from time to time. My focuses remain in other places, but she is here in the same way the clouds are that roll overhead and change the face of the sky. But she has on occasion made her potency immediately alive in my awareness: this March ’12 post is one such result.
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*When the divine chooses a permanent form which all people encounter the same way, I’ll clarify my terminology. (Not happening!) Or when the particular goddess who reached out to me connects with me again, or I with her, I’ll ask her name. Sometimes I think the gods themselves haven’t got all it sorted out yet.
I have no photo, but this image from Pathfinder Ridge will do.