Waiting on the Lord

There’s a joke my grandfather used to tell about a guy who gets stranded in a storm. Or I guess more accurately, he strands himself in a storm. The hurricane is coming, and everybody’s been told to evacuate, and this guy clicks off his radio and his TV and says, “Nope, I’m staying here until I get a sign from the Lord.”

So the rain starts coming down and the winds start coming up, and water begins to lap at the doorstep. The last truck heading out of town stops in the road and the driver yells, “Come on, grab your bags and get in!” And our hero says, “No thanks, y’all go ahead, I’m waiting on the Lord.”

You can see where this is headed: he ends up trapped on the second story, then out on the roof. A motorboat of rescuers comes by, and finally, in the eye of the storm, a Red Cross helicopter. But the guy waves them off and says he’s waiting on the Lord. Then the waters wash over his house and he drowns.

At last he gets to the gates of Heaven and Saint Peter is standing there waiting, looking a bit miffed. The man drops to his knees and says, “I was so faithful, I waited and waited for the Lord to give me a sign, why didn’t He come to me?” And Saint Peter rolls his eyes and says, “Look, we sent you a truck, and a boat, and a helicopter with a cross on it, what the hell kind of sign were you expecting?”

I’ve taken a couple liberties with this joke; my grandfather was a strict Southern Baptist and wouldn’t have said “hell” even as part of a punchline. But the gist is the same. If you’re going to ask for signs, you’d better not be too particular about what you think those messages are going to look like, or you’ll end up missing your helicopter out of the hurricane.

I have to admit that I spend a lot of my spiritual energy and time asking for signs. I’m not actually daring divinity to prove its existence, since that’s not how I think divinity works. But I am always waiting for the nebulous, numinous thing that will make it all feel valid and real and worthwhile – all the time spent reading religious philosophy and depth psychology and esoterica, all the shuffles of my tarot deck, all the attempts at pathwork and craft and ritual. I’m waiting for the life-changing event that will make me think and believe and be differently.

By this definition, no signs have come to me. I don’t have ecstatic visions or lucid dreams or spirit sickness. I don’t see dead people. I’m not a mystic or a medium. At times it feels like the only answer to the question I’m asking is silence.

But beneath that conviction is another one, less provable but no less persistent. Beneath the disbelief is the sense that I’m up on the roof of my house stubbornly watching helicopters fly by. Or that I’m straining to hear a phone ring through the storm while the person I want to talk to is standing yelling in my ear and waving their arms: I’m right here, you fucking idiot, just look, what the hell kind of sign are you expecting?

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To be silent

If you’ve read any sort of Pagan 101 book, you probably know about the Witches’ Pyramid. The phrase is usually in there somewhere after the elemental directions, sometimes with a helpful diagram of an actual pyramid, one face for each of the principles: to know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. Silence is supposed to come last. It’s supposed to stand for keeping your own secrets, for maintaining the power of mystery, for knowing who and what you can’t trust.

I first read about the Pyramid as a teenager and then more or less forgot it. But a scrap of the formula has been threading through my mind more and more lately. To be silent. Silence, I’m realizing, doesn’t come at the end. Silence is the beginning of everything. Silence isn’t about keeping secrets. It creates the conditions for secrets to emerge.

Each week, I’ve been going back to the creek, to practice being silent. I find a spot to sit or stand and hold still until the place gets used to me. I don’t ever know who exactly will be around, but somebody always is. Maybe a bird (green heron, blue heron, jay, eagle), or someone furred and four-legged (muskrat, deer), or the ever-present fish (sunfish, common carp, bigmouth buffalo). Once, I met a serpent (northern water snake), who was even more silent than me, so silent I almost missed them coiled a few feet away.

Another Pagan principle I’ve often read is that the spirits of things will teach you who they are. I’ve seen this written by hard animists and polytheists, by mediums, by traditional cunning folk. It’s a common thread in many cultures beyond the Western worldview, the cultures we white Pagans so often treat like crib sheets for the numinous. As with most spiritual concepts, I’m both drawn to the idea and daunted by it, or even repelled – what does it mean, for spirits to speak? For spirits to be there at all, within the world of things?

To practice being silent is also to practice being in and of itself, to sink fully into the place where you are. When I am silent, I’m in a place before and beyond knowing, willing, daring. In that place, the doubts and desires and discomforts become irrelevant, subsumed. Around me is the world, stripped of mute things and full instead of living voices – of the two herons facing off across the creek, raising their wings and turning their pale chins to the sun, speaking to each other and to me of who they are. Their sharp beaks speak of the stabbing-quick, impartial plunge where life meets death. Their circling, weaving steps speak of autonomy negotiated within a shifting, collective web.

When I am silent, other spirits speak to me: the muskrat, with their swift-swimming tail and their nimble, plucking fingers and their indiscriminate teeth. At home in the backyard are the bees and butterflies (European honey bee, native solitary bee, monarch, skipper), their single-minded alertness harmonizing with the deceptively quiet spirits of the wild onions blooming against the fence. The onions speak to me of themselves, with their subtle scents of sweet and sharp, their fresh yellow pollen merging and moving with the bees, their green pods swelling as the petals fade and diminish, soon to burst with seeds.

When I am silent, I am open to information available to me simply by being a living thing. I become open to the information that all things are living. All things are made of life. Silence teaches me that all things speak, in ways I don’t have to read about, ways I can see and hear and smell and taste. And within the conversing silence, I can hear another spirit voice: my own, one of the many, a secret emerging.

Refraction

The bridge across the creek isn’t picturesque. It’s built from chalk-grey metal, with traffic barriers for handrails and fencing angling down to the bank on each side. Water rushes under industrial grating. Downstream to the north, the flow widens slightly between the bottleneck of the bridge and a natural dam of fallen trees.

It’s a bright day and I’m leaning against the hot metal. Once, two or three years ago, I came here and saw a blue heron hunting in the pool. Today the place feels abandoned except for flies. The wetland has flooded recently, and tire marks rut the trail where debris has been shoveled and compacted by maintenance trucks. It’s all baked to beige now in the heat, but the smell lingers, saturation edging toward rot.

I’ve come to this wildlife refuge hoping to feel moved, or enchanted, or revitalized. All summer I’ve been dogged by a sense of numbness, jangling but dead like a sleeping limb. Now that I’m out here, I’m disillusioned by the emptiness and by the closeness of the city, airbrushed out in my memory. A high-rise condo peers over the western tree line. But the swollen creek is louder than the occasional roar of planes descending toward the airport two miles away, so I stand on the bridge, staring down at blankly dark ripples of water.

The first fish appears like the key to a code. I catch a glimpse of movement, something large holding position against the current. Nearby, I see the flash of a belly – and then, suddenly, dozens and hundreds of fish, their mud-brown silhouettes revealed between one breath and the next with the snap of a magic trick.

Some are small and narrow as my hand, darting in the rolling, glossy camouflage of refracted sunlight. Others are long as my forearm, slipping slow and heavy through deeper water. Below my feet is a full array of life and presence, where for long minutes I could only see murk. If I hadn’t stayed still long enough to break the concealing glamour of my expectations, I wouldn’t have noticed anything at all.

After a while, I move to the edge of the trail and crouch on a swath of dried muck. Flies feather across my legs and crawl over the flaking tire tracks. An airplane passes overhead, followed by the shadow of a vulture. I sit in the emptiness, counting fish, and practice seeing what’s beneath the surface.