I have struggled with becoming a part of the Quaker community, while also being a Pagan-Animist-Witch at heart. Deep down, I believe these two spiritual traditions have important core values in common, which is why I am drawn to both of them. On the surface, however, there are multiple points of tension that I encounter in Reclaiming (the magical activist tradition of which I partake) and the Religious Society of Friends.
When I “come out of the broom closet” in Quaker circles, there are usually plenty of Friends ready to reassure me that I am welcome; they tell me that there are plenty of Pagans within Quakerdom and that Spirit moves as It will, paying no heed to the borders and boundaries of religious sects. It is not these Friends that I am concerned about when I hesitate to share this important part of my identity and spirituality. I am concerned about those who are not familiar with Pagans or who have more orthodox Christian leanings.
I think about how, as a member of the local youth committee, I help teach “First-day” school, because the founders of Friends of Truth did not approve of naming the days of the week after celestial deities. Sometimes when I hear “First Day,” or especially if I say it, I cringe a little. It feels like part of me is being condemned—the part that does worship the Sun, giving thanks for the nourishment and warmth it (he? she?) provides. On the other hand, I am not comfortable with “Sunday school” either—partly because it sounds too much like programmed church services for kids, and more importantly because I want to honor and respect this spiritual tradition and the choice to use different words intentionally. A neutral phrase I sometimes resort to is “children’s program.” I doubt those around me realize how much thought I’m putting into this, nor do I know if or when they might want me to share about it.
When I am at witch camp, the week-long summer retreats where I spend most of my time in Reclaiming community, I am less hesitant to share about my Quaker experience, but I still have concerns. We say that we are each our own spiritual authority, but does that extend to partaking in a Christian tradition, the Christianity that persecuted our spiritual ancestors and persecutes us to this day? Will I be judged or understood if I mention the words “worship” or “God”? This brings me back to the matter of deep truths being obscured by language. At a meeting for worship at the Pendle Hill conference center outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a Friend gave ministry about using language to point to the meaning behind the words. This ministry, in fact, changed the way that I am approaching this very piece of writing, and it is also what I often find myself doing in any sacred context, including translating across dialects about Spirit—or Goddess, Gaia, or Great Mystery.
After last summer’s Pacific Yearly Meeting and then a week at Free Cascadia Witch Camp, I visited Humboldt (Calif.) Meeting for the second time. After worship, I brought up this difficulty I face with being Pagan and, perhaps, Quaker. The conversation turned to the more common questions: Do you need to be Christian to be a Quaker? If so, how Christian do you need to be? One attender said that she found that you do not need to have any certain Christian beliefs to be a Friend, but you are expected to be conversant in biblical language about spiritual experience. For example, one is expected to know what the word “ministry” means and to relate the Bible to personal experience, even if in unorthodox ways. I don’t mind this so much, although many people in the world have an aversion to biblical language because it is used to justify atrocities. I can differentiate between the language itself and how it is used, and identify the contexts for meaning.
I am a part of both the Reclaiming Pagan community, as well as the Quaker one, because they both offer fellowship around truths or values that speak to my soul, and experiences that embody those values.
In the Reclaiming community, we sometimes say, “You are your own spiritual authority.” This statement gives me a sense of trust that I am being honored for my autonomous relationship with Mystery/Spirit/Gaia/Whathaveyou, without any other human being trying to mediate or otherwise interfere. The idea of being one’s own spiritual authority is different from some traditional Quaker language about “being obedient to the leadings of Spirit.” I think these two approaches are actually quite similar though, in that Pagans aren’t necessarily referring to being independent from the source of spiritual inspiration and guidance—whatever that is—but to other humans in a way that doesn’t introduce hierarchy into religious affiliation. (I have heard some talk from Reclaiming Witches about “negotiating” with deities. For example, if Kali comes to you in a meditative vision and tells you to burn down a Walmart, you may want to consider asking a few questions before taking this advice. We are always responsible for our actions, even when they are Spirit-led.) Again, the language use diverges from the traditional so that there may be cultural misunderstanding when there is not a deeper experience of what these words mean. Ultimately, what we are both saying is that we have direct access to the Divine.
Intricately tied to the idea of direct access to the Divine is the value of egalitarianism. Friends and most of the Pagans I know use some form of consensus to make group decisions. In Reclaiming, we usually use a more formal, activist-style consensus, while Quakers prefer to say that we are seeking unity. Quaker business meetings are often called meetings for worship on the occasion of business. When a difficult subject arises—or at the beginning of the meeting or consideration of an agenda item—we take a moment of silence to drop down and listen for what Spirit is calling us to do on this matter. I think any type of meeting can benefit from this practice, which embodies the testimony of equality, and everyone’s insight into a matter and his or her connection with Spirit’s leading is equally important.
Both Reclaiming and Friends communities practice spiritual traditions in which, at least officially, no one is any more or less a priestess (used gender-neutrally) or minister than anyone else (the respective terms used in each community). Some may take the role of leader more than others, but everyone has the opportunity to do so. In Quaker meetings, anyone sensing a message from Spirit can stand and speak, giving ministry; in Reclaiming rituals, everyone is usually invited to take part in designing and carrying out the ritual. Ritual planners go out of their way to find volunteers for different parts of the ritual (grounding, invoking elements, teaching a song) so that it isn’t a show put on by the élite but rather a participatory community event.
Both of these traditions share another element of “walking the mystical path with practical feet” by encouraging spiritually alive and inspired work for change and justice in the world, both social and environmental. Reclaiming is explicitly called a “magical activist” tradition. Many of the causes backed by Quakers and Pagans are the same. In my experience, however, these communities tend to employ different strategies for change. Quakers are more likely to do community presentations, lobbying, and vigils. Pagans seem more apt to get out in the streets and do civil disobedience: blockading banks or the Democratic and Republican conventions. Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT, pronounced equate) is an example of Friends doing what I would love to see more of in Quaker world. At a recent Quaker Earthcare Witness conference, I was so inspired by the stories of EQAT members holding ministry in the lobbies of banks that finance the devastation of mountaintop removal.
This brings me to the question of how these traditions and communities differ and why I enjoy having both in my life. As I mentioned, Pagans are more likely to employ civil disobedience as a political tactic. This is in keeping with Pagans embodying wildness: letting our bodies run free during witch camps, dancing naked in the fields while laughing and screaming and singing. At my first yearly meeting session last summer, I entertained the notion of such activities taking place there, and it was an amusing thought. I thrive on this acceptance and honoring of my animal essence. And although there is a strong focus on social justice within Reclaiming, ecojustice is always integrated. We would never need a separate earthcare committee, because the whole tradition is an earthcare committee.
On the other side of the scale from wild abandon, I find peace, solace, and wisdom in the stillness that Friends bring to worship. While we have some of this in quiet visualizations or trances at witch camps, Paganism doesn’t cultivate listening. We may listen through nature signs (seeing a rabbit or a lizard cross our path), tarot, or rune readings, and these are invaluable ways to receive important messages. I cannot speak for all witches, because many meditate more than I do, but I have not experienced nearly as much silence in Pagan settings. When I think about Quaker silence and some of Quaker activism as well, the phrase “slow and steady wins the race” comes to mind. If I could combine the best of both worlds, I would gather my beloved community together for outdoor worship and listen to the scrub-jay ministry, the squirrel ministry, and maybe even flowing-creek ministry, as well as the human ministry, including that which is given for guidance on business and political strategy.
So now that you have met each other, Friends and Witches, maybe we can all spend time together. Maybe we can be allies for social and ecological justice. Maybe we can see past the different words we each use and learn to understand one another’s experiences, both in the ways we are different and the ways we are the same. And maybe it will be a little easier for me to embody more fully in each community the ways these paths live in me. May we hold each other in the Light, and blessed be.
Friends Journal author chat: