One morning on an early April day, I was given an opportunity to learn a lesson about being in the Presence. As is my wont on Sundays, I attended Pendle Hill’s daily worship with the intention of leaving the worship before its rise, necessary for timely arrival at the pre-silent-worship hymn sing at Swarthmore Meeting. In my walking meditation from one worship to another, I try to keep to wooded paths between these two Philadelphia suburbs, avoiding any but necessary travel on the neighborhood streets.
The Pendle Hill worship gathered for me nearly as soon as I sat down, even though I had arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled time and there were only a small number of us present. Awe washed over me and, from afar, I wondered if I was to remain through the whole worship: was there something I was to experience in it?
As the worship continued in the stillness, my heart opened to those present, to their embodiment as spiritual beings fully present and in awareness of presence. Embodied divinity.
Yet, something shifted in me and pulled my physical being away from the worship. I headed towards Swarthmore. The clock indicated the halfway point of the worship—the time at which I normally leave on Sundays. I stopped in Main House to check the mealtime chore schedule to see if I had lunch duty that day (I did), and continued out one of its rear doors toward our woods path.
My way led past a freshly budding, grand old larch tree, from which I purloined a tiny sheaf of soft, new needles. I ate it, noticing that the growth was now far enough along for some of the new-bud flavor to have dissipated. Yet it was still very sweet, and the delicious, pungent taste exploded in my mouth.
I felt no regret that the spring was no longer new. The day was fresh and cool—almost cold. I pulled my shawl more tightly around me, glad that I had brought it and had not been fooled into equating the clear brightness of the day with warmth.
I felt no regret, nor sorrow, nor desire that anything at that moment be other than as it was.
The colonial beech tree that some call "the Grandmother" and I call "Mama Beech" stood in my path. In some way her presence was more alive than the last time I had passed her, standing there brooding over the centuries of her life. My eyes traced her capacious trunk, her upraised branches, and the low branches in her back that still stretch straight out toward the rising sun. I became conscious that I remained in awe, and, in spite of that consciousness, the awe did not leave me.
I continued on slowly in the respite of the wood, the roar of the traffic from the Blue Route (the nearby freeway) blending companionably with the silence, persistent birdsong, and the soft plush of my footsteps on the wood-chipped path.
A male robin stood in front of me. My body felt that he would soon slowly flutter away to do the decoy dance that keeps potential predators away from his nesting mate, their eggs, or new-sprung chicks. However, he stood still on the path, his eye upon me. I slowed down but continued steadily until my next step would have tickled him under his beak. And only when I was in such close proximity did he fly away—not in the decoy dance, but in clear, swooping, joy-filled flight, immediately heavenward from where he had stood.
My body felt wonder; mind and spirit did not—neither mind nor spirit nor body were in my possession, and I was whole and wholly present. Heaven and Earth moved to my breathing.
I continued on the path, then through the garden of the Art Center (our neighbor) and down the path on its far side, which eventually reaches the road and the bridge that crosses the Blue Route to Swarthmore on the other side of it.
The awe remained for a space, until my mind drifted back to my journey to worship the previous Sunday. I thought, "I hope the dog isn’t there."
And Presence broke.
"The dog" I had met the previous week in Swarthmore Wood was a large, sleek creature, which had not been on a leash when I had encountered it. When it had sighted or scented me, it had begun a low, growly sound and rapidly started toward me, tail stiff. My hairs rose and I stood still in obedience to the thought, "Do not let him know you fear him." His owner saw me stop and called to the dog, saying, "He’s very friendly!"
Bodily memory of that encounter the week before had prompted the wish that the dog not be there this time. That this unfriendly dog, this unwelcoming neighbor of mine, not spoil the transcendent peace and oneness I was experiencing this glorious Sunday morning, as new as the first one on Mother Earth.
And the wish, the desire for continuing peace, the desire to have nothing to fear, ended the aura of Divine Love in which I had been sitting and walking since sinking to the Center in worship at Pendle Hill.
I felt grief and pondered my loss as I covered the remaining distance to Swarthmore Meeting. The day was still blindingly, even achingly, beautiful, yet I walked no longer in the Love and Life of the Presence.
During the worship at Swarthmore I was led to share my gift and my loss, as well as the lesson given to me and, I hope, received by me in humility.
How often have I anticipated the "difficult person" who might show up at a committee meeting, or the unattractive acquaintance with whom I would rather not share my dinner table, and hoped that they not be present? How often have I sunk myself into fear of "unpleasantness" that might come from some soul, whether reprobate, ostentatiously in affluence, or in dire need of a place to wash his feet—some person, equal to me in human worth, or even some other living thing, which, I fear, might spoil my ease and comfort?
The greatest commandment, perhaps the only one of those I have been taught in which I believe unconditionally, is that we love the Creator with all our heart, soul, and mind; and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Fear has no room for love, and is in complete opposition to it.
My belief is that any being in creation is my neighbor, as I am her, his, or its neighbor. At any point when I desire that some being not meet me now, I fall from grace.
After Swarthmore worship, several people thanked me for sharing my story, mentioning here the piece about loving your neighbor, or there my evoking of the heavenly beauty of the morning that became mundane when I fell into fear.
One person recognized my experience of awe and shared a poem of Wendell Berry called "The Timbered Choir," which speaks of mystic union between Earthly enemies when there is no room for fear: when both are entirely in awe-wariness of the Presence. I’m not sure that I had heard of Wendell Berry before a week ago, when someone else shared another of his poems with me upon hearing of one of my recent adventures with Spirit.
Now, a week later, my human neighbor recited this poem to me, by heart and from heart. I grieve that the dog of my story did not lose that which made me fear him and that I was scooped out of awe by the memory. Perhaps, some other day, my rapture will be so complete that fear is experienced as a distant tune that I have no need to sing.