Tag Archives: W

W is for… Writing

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I write quite a lot. Besides this blog, I also write academic work, poetry, fiction, and a host of more minor things like notes and tweets and emails. For a group generally in favour of silence, Quakers have not extended this to the written word, and we publish plenty (British Quakers have published enough in the last fifty odd years for it to form one of the cornerstones of my PhD, so I should know). Gil has posted often about the authors of older Quaker literature, too – there’s a grand tradition of spiritual autobiography among Friends which has formed the foundation of plenty of other research projects.

What is the significance of writing? It can be a spiritual practice, as in journalling, and to write regularly requires a self-discipline which is also demanded by other Quaker practices. It takes something which is basically public – our shared stock of words – and allows someone to record them privately, edit them, shape them, and then make them available for others to consider at leisure. It permits a long, slow conversation to develop down the ages; we see some of this in Quaker Faith and Practice, much of which is an anthology of Quaker writing. (Of course, from a historian’s point of view the things which get left out of anthologies are of equal interest, and no one anthology can represent the whole conversation… just the bits which interest us now.)

Writing can be outreach, inreach, informative, entertaining, vulnerable, abstract, inspired, or prosaic. (Sometimes all at once.) I acknowledge that writing is not for everyone, but for me it’s often the best way of sharing. Writing is also an important part of some Quaker processes, and in particular minute-writing is a skill unto itself.

Someone asked me once what the secret is to writing good minutes, and how I did it so well. I didn’t really have an answer, and I still don’t – I’ve been a Quaker a long term and heard a lot of minutes; I’ve served on committees and seen a lot of minutes, good and bad; I’ve tried to explain minutes to non-Quakers and seen their bafflement and frustration. One part of it, though, is probably that I spend so much time writing and practising writing. I’ve been writing poetry of my own since I was nine or ten; in my teens I spent a long time writing fanfic, stories set in other people’s worlds, and – this part is vital – having friends beta read it, and comment on it, and making my own edits as a result. There’s nothing quite a like an internet friend who knows you only through the written word going through your story and critiquing it in love. I’ve got more to learn and I still need readers and editors and commenters, but I learnt a lot from that process. Learning when to be detailed and when to cut to the chase is an important part of a good minute and of a good story. Being confident with the basics of writing helps. (That, and don’t worry about spelling in the handwritten draft, that’s for the typing up/dots and commas bit!) Also, a fanfic story is as much as community product as it is yours – the canon and the conversations and the commenters all feed into it, and in a similar way the Spirit and the gathered meeting own the minute, so it’s important to be open to that and accept help from all sides.

Practice makes perfect, they say. I don’t know if you can be a perfect writer – it’s conventional to say that essays are only marked up to 75 or 80 out of 100 because they could always be better – but I do know that writing a lot, in lots of different styles and contexts, makes me a better writer.

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W is for… Waiting

When people ask me what we do in Quaker Meeting for Worship, I often talk about waiting. It is an odd thing to want to do specially for an hour or so; mostly we chafe at being made to wait in a queue or at a bus stop. It’s not a pastime which is highly respected or celebrated in art (Waiting for Godot aside, of course, and even that is not quite a celebration as such). Nevertheless, I think it’s an important way of describing what we do in worship.

You can try and describe what’s happening in outward terms – we sit in a room in silence unless someone speaks. But who would speak? What would they say, and why, and how would they know? Just calling it ‘silent worship’ is misleading on this point. I don’t think that calling it meditation is necessarily helpful, either – some people will respond to that word very positively, but not all, and some will assume that it’s individualistic or atheistic, which might again be misleading. Sometimes I talk about unprogrammed worship, and this seems to be helpful especially to people who are familiar with some form of programmed worship, like an ordinary church service – they can imagine that in some way we are doing the same thing. This, I think, is close to the understanding which early Friends would have had. Of course, the word ‘worship’ is a laden one, and some people find it implies an external Deity; others have to deconstruct it every time and talk about ‘worth-ship’. I keep using it because I need a religiousy-sounding word; among Friends, I’m happy to talk about ‘going to Meeting’ and ‘the practice of Meeting’ but in the rest of the world that just sounds like lots of committees.

‘Waiting worship’ seems to me to capture something about the practice which is not described by these other phrases (although maybe there are better phrases which I haven’t thought of). In worship, we wait for the Spirit, however and whether we understand what that is. You don’t wait for something unless you think it might arrive, and – unlike Godot – the Spirit does arrive. Not for everyone, not every time, but fairly reliably – like a bus. If you want to wait for a bus, you need to wait at a bus stop, and if you want to wait for the Spirit, you need to be in the right place – not physically, but inwardly. If you want to catch a bus, you need some help from the bus company and driver, and similarly you can’t make the Spirit arrive by wishing it so. The Spirit comes of Her own accord.

W is for… Water

One of the four classical elements – perhaps the one with which I have the most love-hate relationship. I respect Fire, but feel almost unreservedly positive about it; I like Earth, and don’t usually have trouble connecting with Earth-energies like determination and steadiness; I enjoy Air, which is probably my ruling element; and sometimes I can enjoy Water, but it has to be in a very controlled way. I am often frightened by Water, both physically – I have to focus hard to swim over the deep end of a pool – and symbolically, in as much as Water is related to the emotions, and mine are often neither easy nor welcome.

Water is necessary for life, but also hugely powerful. You can drown in only inches of water if you happen to be face-down, and on the symbolic level, I am often not sure how to turn over and escape.

When I think of Water as an element, I think of the West, of sunset, and also of feeling. I think of Water as the sea, the great wide ocean, which can produce delicate lapping waves or a tsunami. I remember capsizing a dinghy and panicking in the river – even though I knew it was going to happen. I remember being carried over the deep end by a swimming teacher who was determined that I could do it, and being determined myself that I would not. (There’s that stubborn Earth energy again, firm as rock once I’ve put my mind to it.) I remember kneeling naked before an altar in my bedroom, towel on the floor beneath me, and trying to connect fully with cold water as it run down onto me. It was a powerful ritual, but it didn’t make me less afraid of that connection.

W is for… Wicca

Wicca is so much the mainstream of neo-paganism that one could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Wicca is Paganism today. I don’t mean the traditional, coven-based kind, although Gardnarian Wiccans are still going strong; I mean the solitary or semi-covened kind, who self-initiate and mostly learn their witchcraft from books. Whether we like it or not (I personally don’t mind too much; teaching yourself is a fine tradition), this is the face of neo-paganism today.

It can have unfortunately side-effects for followers of other traditions, though. There’s no real reason to think that Norse people, for example, cast circles before prayer – but if you have been well-grounded in Wicca in the early years of your Pagan exploration, it can be hard to feel that you’re doing things ‘properly’ without a circle, without the elements in the four quarters, without the yearly round of eight festivals.

Of course, there are grey areas. Are Druids Wiccan? Not all of them, certainly, and even OBOD Druids are not Wiccan in the usual sense. And yet Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder, were good friends, and undoubtedly influenced one another – and so, having first been trained in generic Wicca via the usual collection of slightly fluffy books, there is much that I find familiar in OBOD’s Druid rituals.

I am not a Wiccan, but my spiritual path and education owes much to Wicca, and for that I am grateful.