A spiritual memoir,
a poem of beginnings.
Back some years ago, while the last glow of the great flowering of the 1960’s was finally fading in the dust of the latter 1970’s, I and several thousand others started the Pagan movement in America. I do remember it clearly.
Basically, we asked a single question of the universe and of ourselves. Our question was this:
Given all the truths that anthropology, history, psychology, mythology, and all sorts of other traveler’s tales now in this age of myriad books, and photographs and documentary film as well, can teach a serious student of the human race;
.. And given all the teachers of the whole world’s ancient ways then still alive; and given our own astonishing encounters with the infinite mysterious divine;
.. And given our own weary thirst for understanding; and given all the particular and general evils we saw gathering – given all of this;
– What sort of good religion could be built up from whatever solid ground there is to find, up into that world in which we lived?
It turns out now that the answer is not surprising. Paganism in America has become a faith and practice similar in many ways to what most thoughtful people in most times and places choose.
I do recall a cool and breezy summer day in Boston. The Public Garden, a lovely sturdy well kept park in the city center. This was most likely 1975. This day was, for me, a threshold of a beginning of a start.
I, a poor man of the city, working hard to find a living and full of worries, and with a suffering woman in ill health who would widow me, and yet a thinker,
.. Coming out alone to stroll amid a country recently released from war,
.. Had found here in this park the dappled sunlight and the shade and great green trees and brightly colored radiant erotic graceful flowers and strolling crowds.
At the Garden’s center is a good sized pond where, of a summer, flocks of ducks quack very seriously.
Wooden boats creak to and fro and lovers laugh with children.
There where the center of the pond is built to narrow, where all paths of that very tame wood converge and simultaneously curve away;
.. There a tall arched bridge of carved gray stone is built above the darkly gleaming rippling water, above among the surrounding skyscrapers’ gleaming window lights glittering with Sun in countless multitude,
.. This bridge across from grassy bank to bank.
Lured by the open light, I climbed the gray granite span. There high on the zenith of the bridge I stood, seeming to be nearly among the rustling foliage of the trees and yet nearly among celestial glitterings, between a Sky and Earth suspended
My stroll had found its goal and halted. I stood there leaning on the smooth stone balustrade and .. breathed.
In those bright dark days the most intriguing most ingenious thought I’d had was this: We only need to look to see that all of this is one.
This fundamental fact: .. That all is one and all is knowing living flesh; .. And that there is no need for proof of this because we only need to look to see this great reality which changes human attitude and therefore actions;
.. This thought had lured me safe and sane through other troubles then already.
But now, gone as far as one might go into that level of life’s maze, I wondered this: What else could be known? What further true vision might lead farther on and find an exit from that place into some other.
And then of course there came a dancing fool in jangle bells and flowing ribbons.
Yes, it was astounding and yet instinctively it was no surprise at all, for here he came, he himself, the holy fool in manifested living person.
Garbed in crazy printed billowing gauzy robe and flowing snaky sashes, tall forked walking stick in hand, it waving as he strode, the forked staff hung with colored ropes of bells and flashing mirrors;
.. He quite seriously was dancing with his striding steps, dancing shamanic chanting prayer and prayer and prayer to unseen spirits;
.. And he was a young man about my age. And his words echoed in a surrounding silence.
He was a Hari Krishna devotee. An American Hindu of a certain discipline. A fresh adherent to an ancient way but evidently trusted by his elders in that faith for he was a young man who firmly held that staff of office.
He was about my size and race, and coming up the very same curving path where I had come. And he had set out alone, unusual in the extreme for those devotees.
So here he was immersed in shady sunlit breeze and whirling to a cunning rhythm, jangling flashing twirling chanting through the strolling crowd that Saturday in 1975; .. Amid a silence where all else listened;
Perhaps to demonstrate his movement’s faith and practice to the city, or perhaps indeed exactly for an audience of one who stood up there so visibly on the apex of the bridge; .. Or else for purely simple joy and easing of his pain.
Thus came he, the one, to me, the one, there at a center of a center of a center.
What new thing can we say of life? Surely here was something new but ancient in our oldest ancient times and ancient in our furthest future. What meaning was there in this meeting?
He did come to me as though we had been brothers. A rendezvous as though we had been somehow psychic lovers. But more, it felt to me, as though two sparrows flew across the seas in opposite directions, east and west, and then at length had found themselves together here.
My ear was caught at first, of course, by the rhythm of all those small brass bells and breathless little chanting words.
Then looking down the way that I had come, there was the crazy apparition whirling through the strolling folk who smiled and watched and gave him silent space. His manner was intent and yet aware of them and glad.
For a moment as he mounted to the climbing span, his head alone was visible to me above the paving stones, a bobbing shining jack-o-lantern head, a singing severed head, the royal poet hero oracle, a token from my own Celtic lore of mysteries irrupting.
Then he rose to me directly up the bridge, dancing then unmistakably especially for me, until he finally simply stepped out of the whirl before me there, and became to my surprise simply a young man flushed with action and achievement, garbed as a sort of Gypsy dancing woman.
He was leaning lightly on his staff of office, as though a sparrow had alighted on a branch. As though we were well known to one another.
My personal admiration was surely clear in my manner. Smiling with a nod for greeting, I think I told him quite sincerely, “Very nice.” Just the thing I sometimes say to other worthy artists.
But whatever thing exactly that we said for greeting, the conversation did go very easily and well. Though we never yet have met again, he is my brother.
I think he opened, as an opening move in chess or whist, with some statement quoting from his scripture. I can imagine that it spoke of holy joy and beauty manifesting in this world, for that is and was a central tenet of the Hari Krishna faith and quite appropriate to the efflorescent beauty there around us.
I seem to have some memory that’s what it was: holy joy and beauty manifesting in this world.
Whatever quote it was, I found myself at once directly leading on quite naturally from there with a brief but apt synopsis of my favorite thought;
.. Agreeing that all here and elsewhere is one living blooming substance and that we only need to look to see and that this joyful sturdy lovely reassurance will then mold our thoughts and deeds. Offering this treasure of my own to him.
And yes, in turn, he quite agreed with that and found a perfectly fit quotation from his scripture fully apt and proper to the purpose;
.. Somewhat to my surprise and pleasure giving irrefutable proof that my thought was recognized and valued in the wider world. And then he very likely rounded out his turn by politely asking how my current life was manifesting holy oneness.
I’m sure his motivations were complex, such as perhaps a possibility of gaining a recruit. But still, his foremost motive, or so it seemed there in that moment, was an honest one I should respect.
As was the frequent custom too of ancient Druids, whom I sometimes emulate, he was testing his own metal in a thinking match.
Was the reasoning of his path in life sufficient to a skeptic’s scrutiny?
So I could not fault him for the purpose of a probing question which he must have asked himself. How was he manifesting holy oneness?
For his sake, and for my own, and for the sake of honesty, I ought to answer. How was I manifesting holy oneness?
My problem, my slowness, my coy reluctance for the holy dance, the one and only reason why I did not take his hand and whirl a waltz upon that parapet, for honestly I would, of course was this:
The nature of my discipline compared to his.
However apt a scriptural quotation, and however well encyclopedically absorbed, I sought reality in actual experience. I wanted data raw.
I wanted data shaped by a place and time which also might be analyzed by I who lived there. Not shaped by some purported genius in some other place and time who chanced to have on hand a pen and paper.
I wanted wisdom that was mine and fairly won, hammered out of my own struggle with the world. I wanted wisdom that would not show flaws and gaps and cracks when molded to the uses of the world in which I lived.
So I would follow life into its lair. Leaving my self aside abandoned, I would walk with those who walked with me along the winter shore.
Well, so, how was I manifesting holy oneness?
Now of course I see the day more clearly. Now I have the pictures:
There I stood, an Emperor in thought, but hung suspended like the Hanged Man among bright Stars, beneath a Sun reflecting in a darkly gleaming Moon-like pool.
There the World in all its love and laughter and its trembling fear was gathered around infinity’s calming Temperate shore.
So there with whirling feet on the up-turning Wheel danced he the Fool himself to me in breezy robe and bells and ribbons, there with steady hands to hold to me the overflowing Cup by asking me the sacred Lovers’ question.
Now of course I see it was a very brilliant spread of Tarot cards.
And even then, by the effulgent shining brilliance of the scene, I seemed to read it rightly.
How was I manifesting holy oneness? Of course, with thanks, I closed the deck; of course I answered that the journey is the goal.
A clear eyed glance which seeks the truth is truth itself. A forward step that enters through a veil of real mystery is in fact a step to solid ground.
We are the World, what some name God, as we become ourselves.
Our participation in this world, whatever world this is, if done in consciousness and willingness and joy – which is to say in reverence and charity and honest yearning – which is to say in beauty – is our participation in the Universe.
We are here now. And all of this was spoken quite politely in some summer day and in some modest form of words.
A look of satisfaction lit his face. His question had been answered.
His clearest thoughts were known and honored in a wider world. And he had taught his teacher. And he was manifesting holy oneness satisfactorily today.
My brother bowed. Our game was drawn.
So, like a sparrow on a neighboring twig of that broad tree where wisdom shimmers in the leaves, the instinctive ceremony of all living things, I smiled and bowed to him as well.
Given all such travelers’ tales and all that they can say, what solid ground is there to find? Here. Now. Where we stand.
Given our own thirst for understanding, and our astonishing encounters with the infinite divine, and the evils that are gathering, what good religion might we root here now to grow into this world?
A faith and practice of ourselves. A faith and practice of reverence and charity and honest yearning discovered in our nature which is Nature.
And what meaning is there in such meetings? What new thing can we say, but ancient old?
That all we humans are all human. That when we truly seek to know of life, life does contrive to show itself.
And so my brother took to wing again, whirling off along the way ahead, dancing chanting down to where the paths diverge and on the way which he would go.
And so I turned back to the way that I had come, down into that world again, and yet a different world that opened now to give my vision space, and trudged with lighter step toward whatever lay awaiting;
.. Toward whatever tiny part there was to play in the deep long history of these times.
A little later on, the Pagan movement in America was born.
(- Here is the end of this poem.-)