I passed most of my adult life as an atheist, and one of the most difficult things for me to understand about religion was how people could "connect" with a deity I knew to be unreal. My bewilderment was especially accute with respect to fundamentalist Christians who speak of God in practically every sentence, seem to know his opinions on every subject, and have very specific expectations of his behavior. Was it wishful thinking? hallucination perhaps? or just talk, intended to persuade themselves and others of their piety?
Christians will often explain that they know God through the scripture. That, at least, was an approach I could understand, although it wasn't clear how one moves from a story of God in an ancient book into present-time experiences, such as prayer.
As a Unitarian Universalist, I encountered the rarefied outer reaches of theism. Many UUs are simply atheistic or agnostic, but those who do have some room for the divine in their worldview tend to describe it in the vaguest terms available, as some kind of infinite mystery, ground of being, or cosmic life force. They tend not to use the word "God" at all, and wouldn't dream of giving it a personality, a face, or a gender. This way of approaching the divine seems to arise from those special experiences we sometimes have, perhaps of losing one's self in the beauty of nature, a sense of sacred place, or feeling your ego slip away at the touch of a loved one. I had had such experiences myself, and so I could relate to others who thought of the divine in this way.
Now I would describe these experiences as a step into the land of spirit, or perhaps a glimpse of it from some lofty vantage point. At one time, I thought these glimpses and trespasses into the land of spirit, stolen out of the stream of ordinary life, then quickly dissolving, were as far as one could go, or as far as I could go. Now that has changed. I'm known in that country, I can come and go more or less at will, and furthermore I've discovered that the land of spirit is inhabited.
I want to try to describe what it is like to have a personal relationship with a deity, how it actually feels and works. I suppose this is something like a letter sent back in time, addressed to my old self, the atheist who couldn't imagine what in the world people were up to when they talked about God. Ironically, though, I still don't know the answer to that question, because I'm a Pagan, not a Christian, and my Goddess is different from their God in many ways besides gender.
First, I have to say that learning to commune with the Goddess required years of training. It should not have; it didn't for our ancestors, and it still doesn't in many parts of the world. But for most of us modern Westerners, it is no easy thing at all. Our culture pushes us in the opposite direction. I worked long to develop meditation skills, to develop my intuition and response to symbols through divination practice, and I did lots of visualization work. I didn't do this because I was looking for the divine, but just because it seemed like these things would be psychologically and spiritually rewarding in themselves. In clinical terms, you might say I was embracing the right side of my brain, or connecting with the subconsious or the younger self. There's a special state of mind that this kind of work brings out, in which you are totally conscious and aware, but also receptive to things that well up into your awareness of their own accord. This can be very tricky place to get to if you've internalized our culture's expectation that conscious control of one's thoughts is an urgent necessity every waking moment of life.
The things that came to me in that receptive state of mind at first seemed random, although frequently helpful. I might get an insight about a personal problem, for example, or an artistic inspiration. I had no problem viewing these things in psychological terms, as something popping up out of a neglected corner of my mind, when the constraints of conscious control were relaxed enough to let them emerge.
Eventually, though, this receptive way of experiencing started to spread outside the confines of meditation time and began to run simultaneously with my normal consciousness. So I became very aware of synchronicities: "exterior" events that reflected my "interior" state in some symbolic way. In fact, my receptive mode of consciousness doesn't seem to care at all where it gets its stimulus. Watching the Moon come up over the mountains as I drive home is now much the same kind of experience as doing a deliberate visualization exercise with a trarot card, for example. Once I reached this point, it was like opening the floodgates. Now, my spiritual faculty was no longer kept locked up, to be released and played with briefly a few times a week. It was there all the time, with full access to my daily life. And before long, it was seeing patterns my controlling conscious mind would never have acknowledged: personalities behind events, symbolism everywhere. The happenings of life were no longer some kind of random noise, over which I must shout to be heard. They were a melody--a melody of intense beauty, unbelievably flawless in execution. Life is a song sung by the Goddess.
Ordinary consciousness, with its sharp focus and intent to control, is too narrow to find the patterns, too talkative to listen. But when I open to the whole of life, there is not any question that there are divine personalities in it; it's like listening to music and knowing there is a violinist, a cellist, and a pianist, each doing what they do. My goddesses seem to harmonize so perfectly that I expect there are no real boundaries between them; the gods are rather more competitive and discordant, but these are details of my own perception. The important thing is that they are there, and they are recognizable. Awareness of them is a multi-media affair: visual imagery, voice, sound, emotion, and the quirky turns of mundane events all convey the personalities of the divine to me.
Communion with the Goddess is now a very natural and enormously beneficial practice for me. I can bring to mind the symbols that connect me with her, share my thoughts and feelings, and she answers--perhaps with a mental image, a word or two in my mind, a sudden profound and clear feeling, or, often as not, through synchronicities, those "chance" happenings that unambiguously bear her signature. For me, this communion with her is thoroughly bound up with the theological concept of the divine as immanent. If I thought some God in a distant heaven were gazing down and deciding to answer my prayers (has he nothing better to do?), I wouldn't even bother to try to connect with him; it seems a very far-fetched hope. But the Goddess is not like that: she lives in this place, in this life of mine, in this body. When I breathe, she tastes the air, when my heart beats, it is her blood that flows. And when I reach for her, it is she who reaches--that we touch each other is no miracle of divine intervention, it is as inevitable as the full moon rising at sunset.
What I find hardest to convey, though, is the particularity and precision of so many of her messages for me, and the clarity of her several personalities. To do justice to these things, I must use very human language in describing her. And yet, for those who read these words from a posture of skepticism, it gives a totally wrong impression; it makes her seem like an "imaginary friend" or a mental fiction mistaken for a real being. And it is nothing like that; it is just a matter of embracing the feelings of interplay and relationship that arise from seeing the world through the eyes of joy and delight. Knowing the Goddess through spiritual communion is no bizarre flight of imaginative excess or melodrama of the supernatural; it is as comfortable, organic, and anchored as knowing oneself through introspection. The difference is in the cognitive tools employed.
But now, after all these words, I suspect I've failed. My self of 10 years past would take this piece and read, get halfway there, object, critique, dissect, and ultimately disregard, uncomprehending. So, no doubt, will most of my fellow Unitarian Universalists today. I would have held my audience longer, I think, using psychological language exclusively, describing how I'm tapping facets of my subconscious, exploring right-brain perception, or whatnot. The result would be something akin to a textbook account of the physiology and biochemistry of human love, edifying to be sure, but purged of the very thing it seeks to explain.
So instead here is this strange essay: part objective explanation, part personal confession, part act of devotion.
To thou who thinkest to seek Me, know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not unless thou knowest the Mystery. If that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without.
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Copyright © 2002 Tom Tadfor Little