E is for… Experience

“And this I knew experimentally.”
George Fox

To me, experience is the most important thing in religion. The traditions I belong to treat it differently, but all value it: Quakerism focuses on ‘mystical’ experience, direct access to the Divine, while Druidry celebrates sensual experience as well as the experiences of ritual and emotion, and Buddhism – especially Zen Buddhism – is most interested in the experience of being here and now, fully present to the world and the beings within it. To someone with pantheist leanings, these tend to fold into one another. To be mindful and fully present enables you to enjoy rituals and the sensuality of life as a whole which in turn brings you closer to that of God in everyone (including yourself).

Rather than discuss this in an abstracted way, though, I’d like to share with you some of the experiences I have had, which might help you understand where I’m coming from as I talk about religious and spiritual matters.

At home after school, age eleven.
The Gideons have given us little Bibles – a New Testament with Psalms in a red plastic cover. They asked us to consider reading them every day. Most of my classmates threw theirs away, or kicked them around the playground, or didn’t accept them in the first place (and why would you, if you have a perfectly good Quran at home?)  I kept mine, and read it. Not everyday, and not for that long, but I read all the recommended readings for beginners. None of them were new to me, and none of them made sense. I concluded, with the clarity that only eleven year olds can achieve, that they were nice stories but they couldn’t be true.

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, age seventeen or so.
I am not a healthy teenager – by this time I’ve had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for perhaps two years. I’ve never been to Woodbrooke before. I am not with my parents, unusually for a Quaker event; this time, a couple of other members of the meeting have agreed to act as my guardians. Children and teenagers aren’t technically allowed, so I am being treated as an adult. It’s a pleasant change. I have a freedom I’ve never known before – to use the art room when I wake up early and can’t sleep, to walk around the garden, to use the library whenever I like, to choose when and how to join the community in worship. I remember two things clearly: the sense of freedom and excitement, and the way that discussions of Quaker history led into discussions of Quaker futures. This was to become the core of my concern for ‘outreach’ – an insatiable desire to discuss the spiritual life with anyone who shows an interest.

Charney Manor, another Quaker study centre, about the same time.
Another weekend away with Quakers. This time, I’m with my mother, and I already know most of the others. One morning, I don’t feel like going to sit in Meeting when it’s so beautiful outside – so I go and sit outside, among the silver birch trees in the garden. I wait, as I would do in Meeting, and listen. I pray for comfort, as I often do; my teenage loneliness is acute and increased by bullying and illness. I have a vision – an experience – a tactile, audible, sensual, visual moment – of the Goddess Bast. She is strong, comforting, womanly. I remember very few details, but I still have the silver birch leaf and twig I collected to remind me of that day.

Many library days during my teenage years.
I had always been fascinated with stone circles and dolmens, known to me from family holidays in Cornwall. As a young teenager, this blossomed into an interest in archaeology and all things prehistoric, especially Celtic prehistory. I think anyone who reads widely and without direction or assistant in the fields of prehistory and stone circles will find themselves reading some New Age and neo-pagan material; I certainly did. I found the Goddess Brigid in a dusty library book, which mentioned her triple aspect – smithcraft, healing, and poetry – and not much else. It took me a long time, but I worked my way around to paganism in the end.

The hall of the MacLeod Centre, Iona, when the guests are out on pilgrimage.
We’ve having a staff break while the guests are out. I’m stressed – the kitchen work is heavy, there’s no privacy, there’s no mobile phone signal, the community is close-knit but ever-changing, the church services are beautiful and although I feel included (I take communion, unable to feel that I can bake the bread but not eat it) there’s more and more I feel I can’t say, and a guest yelled at me that morning because I couldn’t help her. I burst into tears over my herbal tea and biscuit. Suddenly, rather than being reviled, I am hugged, sung to, held. I didn’t name it at the time, but I could call it community, communion, love, God.

A little local Meeting in my university town.
The first week at university, I decided to rebel. I needed to have a break from Quakers, I said to myself, I would try out the other options. The other option in hall on a Sunday morning was the Christian Union, so the first week I bit the bullet and went to church with them. I nearly stood on my chair and yelled at the preacher. The next week, I went down to breakfast. The CU people said they were going to church in a football stadium, and did I want to come? I said I was going to Quaker Meeting, and did they want to come? They said enjoy yourself. So I did. I went to Meeting, and gave ministry – a rare thing for me, and as it turned out, an even rarer thing in that Meeting. I used the word ‘God’, and was gently told off for that afterwards! (Whereupon I offered my list of footnotes on the subject. They were apparently acceptable as about a year later this Meeting supported and welcomed me into membership.)

A little urban park in Leeds, sometime last year.
I can’t remember whether I set out to do Zen Buddhist walking mediation, or an OBOD exercise, but either way, in a moment of madness I stood at the corner of the grass and took off my shoes. It was mad because it was cold and wet and muddy, and someone might see me, or want to play cricket. Nevertheless, I wanted to walk barefoot on the grass, so I did. (One year I walked barefoot along the Avebury Avenue with my father, when there was actually frost on the ground, and since then I am much less worried about cold – so long as I can dry and warm my feet afterwards!) With each step, I felt the cold fire of the earth entering my bones, energy flowing up into me. I closed my eyes, and breathed, and walked, and was at one with everything.

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