Quakerism, Earth-Centered Spirituality, and the Goddess

My earliest memory is of standing at the kitchen sink in an old farmhouse in Iowa where my grandmother held life in her hand. I touched the rubbery, shell-less egg she had extracted from the chicken she was cleaning with that inherent sense of wonder that permeates the very cells of most three-year-olds.

Ten years later, after my family had moved and the harsh realities of life had shadowed much of my childlike wonder, I reclaimed some of that innocent awe on a backpacking and canoeing trip in the Shenandoah Mountains. It was the first of many wilderness expeditions, all of which cleansed my heart, sustained my spirit, and reconnected me firmly with that which I value most in my life. It became clear to me that I felt most at home surrounded by the beauty and simplicity of nature. The places where I hiked or paddled seemed more sacred to me than any building could ever be.

I was raised in the United Methodist Church and was an active participant in many church activities. In my early teens I began feeling disenchanted with a religious community where many people lived lives far removed from the loving kindness that Jesus Christ exemplified. I eagerly took a Sunday school class led by a progressive member of my church that studied other religions.

At age 16 I stopped going to church and started reading fantasy stories and playing Dungeons and Dragons on Sunday mornings at the local comic book store. A pivotal moment came a year later when I read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The idea that God could be female and called Goddess was, I think, too much for my tender teenage psyche to take in, but it was a significant seed planted in the midst of my adolescent angst.

As a college freshman I studied Asian religions and wrote a term paper on Lakota Sioux spirituality, which helped me realize that I, too, felt the Earth was sacred. I was disgusted, though, by the growing wave of white people who were co-opting native faiths, and it didn’t feel right to practice a tradition to which I had no hereditary link. Then the Persian Gulf War intruded upon my idyllic soul-searching and ignited my innate pacifism as I protested with thousands, blowing bubbles and wearing a sign on my back that read: "What about the Iraqi children?"

My inner quest continued, as did my disillusionment with the government and its policies. Reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker soothed my troubled spirit: "God ain’t a he or a she, but a It. . . . It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything . . . everything that is or ever was or ever will be."

Like Alice Walker’s main character, Celie, I had believed God was an old white man with a blue robe and sandals who lived up in the clouds with Jesus on one side and this amorphous Holy Spirit-thing on the other. Like Celie, I realized how hard it was to let go of this limiting image of God that did not fit at all with my beliefs about the sacred. During my sophomore year at Guilford College, I took a transformative Feminist Theology course that was blessed by a visit from the inspiring Quaker sociologist Elise Boulding,

who invited us to imagine a planet without rape and violence against women. My worldview was turned upside down. Most of the art I did in the drawing class I also had that semester was vagina-like and wildly feminine. I attended a Wiccan full moon ritual and read the classic primer on modern witchcraft, The Spiral Dance, by Starhawk.

Wicca is one of many Earth-centered traditions with contemporary followers that fall under the umbrella of "Pagan." Its primary focus is on pre-Christian Celtic and European holidays and deities, and since I am of European heritage, Wicca did not seem off-limits in the same way that Native American spirituality did. Male and female modern-day practitioners of Wicca often call themselves Witches in order to reclaim the word from the negative connotations of "a woman with supernatural power by compact with evil spirits," as defined in Webster’s New World Dictionary.

The Goddess in her many faces is central to Wicca, though most Wiccan traditions honor the God in all his faces as well. After a lifetime of purely male images of the Divine I was hungry for feminine ones. I was drawn to specific goddesses like Artemis/Diana, the Greco-Roman goddess of the moon and wild things, and Brigid, the fiery Celtic goddess of smithcraft, healing, and poetry. Most of all, I was enthralled with broader images of an eternal feminine spirit. The Goddess in her archetypal sense encompasses the Maiden, Mother, and Crone; it affirms me to see all ages of a woman’s life celebrated and honored. This passage from Judith Duerk’s Circle of Stones rocked me to my core—and I have witnessed other women moved to tears by it as well:

How might your life have been different if, deep within you, you carried an image of the Great Mother, and, when things seemed very, very bad you could imagine that you were sitting in the lap of the Goddess, held tightly, embraced at last. And that you could hear Her saying to you, ‘I love you, I love you and I need you to bring forth your self. . . . How might your life be different?

Discovering the Goddess through Wicca was a balm for my scarred woman’s soul, yet I knew intuitively that I did not merely want to switch from a male-dominated tradition to a female-dominated one. For the next decade or so I continued to study a variety of religions including Wicca, Buddhism, and indigenous spirituality.

I took classes in tai chi, energy balancing, women’s history, and even menstruation. I attended unprogrammed meetings around the country as well as Buddhist meditations and sweat lodges. I led a feminist theology class at a Unitarian Universalist congregation and attended several Jewish holiday services led by a shamanistic rabbi.

Now, 11 years later, I identify myself as a "Quitch." I could call myself an Earth-centered, Goddess-oriented, Universalist Quaker, but that’s a mouthful! (And no, it’s not something from Harry Potter—that’s Quidditch.) Quitch is a word I made up: a combination of Quaker and Witch. It’s a bold name because even in the most open-minded circles the word "witch" still has negative connotations.

Defining myself as a Quitch began when I ventured to Montana to a women’s backpacking and meditation retreat. At that point in my life, even though I had been involved with the Religious Society of Friends for five years, I did not call myself Quaker. I still resisted defining my spirituality or officially joining one faith. Then a Buddhist woman on this retreat said to me, "Heather, if you keep seeking Truth from many different traditions it’s like digging five wells at one time: you can only go so deep. If you pick one tradition and commit to it, you can go so much deeper."

Her words rang true for me. That fall, when I moved to western Montana permanently, I quickly became involved with Missoula Meeting and became a member six months later. It was a spiritual homecoming. I felt more centered then ever, and within the safety and support of my meeting, I could go deeper on my own inner journey. While the three jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the dharma (teachings of the Buddha), and the sangha (community), my three jewels are silence, the Earth, and community. I connect with the peace and insight only silence can give me through meeting for worship and through silent times in the woods, by a river, or on a mountaintop. In this silence I feel the sacred within me: the Inner Light that unites me with All That Is and dissolves the limiting separations my mind and our society often impose.

For me my sangha is composed of two major communities: my Quaker meeting (and the larger Friends fellowship) and the Wiccan coven I helped form two and a half years after my membership clearness. While I have met several Goddess-oriented Quaker women who do not identify as Pagan or Wiccan, I have chosen to identify as Quaker and Wiccan because these two traditions are most in tune with my inner sense of what is sacred to me.

While I have gained much from the holy texts of many faiths, my primary outer guide is the Earth herself and the seasons, elements, and cycles that encompass life on this planet. Honoring the four directions is a common element of Earth-centered spirituality. The east represents air, birth, spring, dawn, thoughts, and the mind. South stands for fire, young adulthood, summer, noon, actions, and one’s will. The west represents water, adulthood, autumn, sunset, feelings, and the heart. Lastly, the north stands for earth, elder years, winter, midnight, and the body. The four directions and elements give me a practical framework to understand the world I live in, and a balanced foundation on which to build my inner and outer life.

When I am attending to my mind, will, feelings, and body equally, I am most in touch with the Divine, most open to be led by Spirit. Those are the times when I physically quake and am moved to speak in meeting for worship, the times when I am most present with myself and those I love. Yet if I am out of balance and living in my head, I ignore my feelings, neglect my health, and often am unable to take positive action in my life.

There are parallels of balance vs. being out of balance in our towns and nations. I see the current war in Iraq as my country acting in a fiery, willful way that ignores the heartfelt sentiments of many of the world’s people as well as the basic human needs of the Iraqis. On a smaller scale, a school board that cuts creative arts programs from a local school system is working from an unbalanced, heavily intellectual place that denies the value of emotional expression through art and music.

Within my "four elements" worldview I see the mind and the will as masculine, the body and heart as feminine, and the Spirit that flows through someone who is balanced in these aspects as beyond gender. When I pray I usually begin with "Dear God, Goddess, and All That Is"—my sacred trinity. Since we all have a mind, will, body, and heart we all contain masculine and feminine energies; this duality is mirrored within the Divine, and in the names "God" and "Goddess." "All That Is" is my term for what some Native American traditions call the Great Mystery; to me it acknowledges that ultimately the sacred is beyond gender and beyond words.

Grounded in my identity as a Friend, I have accepted that I need the simplicity and silence of Quaker meeting and the Earth- and Goddess-centered ritual of the Craft. This union gives my presence in each faith community a distinctive color. For example, I do not use or own an athame, a ritual knife, because I feel a knife of any kind goes against the nonviolent, pacifist beliefs of Friends. (Just for the record, Wiccans have an ethical commitment to "harm none," and athames are not used on living beings.) Likewise, when I invoke one of the four directions, a standard part of every ritual, I speak out of the silence, just as I would in meeting, letting the sacred move me. At my monthly meeting I have invited Friends to my celebrations of the eight Earth holidays (see sidebar), led an adult education discussion on the Divine Feminine one year on Mother’s Day, and led a worship sharing on spiritual connections to the seasons.

While the four directions/elements are the cornerstones of my life’s foundation, the Quaker testimonies fill in the gaps to make this base solid and whole. Simple living leads me to make daily choices in what I buy and do that support our planet’s survival. By honoring the Christian roots of our Peace Testimony, I preserve my ties to the loving Christ whose life and words touched me as a child. My commitment to equality infuses my actions and is most evident in my dedication to letting my strong, feminine voice be heard in my personal life, workplace, and community.

George Fox himself was accused of being a witch or wizard because his contemporaries were so frightened by the intensity of his vision and conviction. What would George Fox think of a Friend who prays to the Goddess? Are there Friends who would be offended by my identity as a Quitch? These are real questions but ones I have chosen not to lose sleep over. What I know is this: Quakerism is the fertile soil where my spiritual life has blossomed, where I have retained my Christian roots while digging deeper and reaching higher as I become increasingly clear about the spiritual truths that guide my life and expand my soul. For this, I am most thankful.
©2003 Heather Sowers

Heather Sowers

Heather Sowers is a member of Missoula (Mont.) Meeting and belongs to a small Wiccan coven, Artemisia Circle. She works with youth, writes, and loves gardening and hiking.