Liminal Gifts: 3

This is the final post in this series.
Part One and the introduction are here.

The Gift-Giver

Each of the first two posts in this series revolves around a strong medicine dream. But where do dreams like “Down Under” (here) and “Harvesting the Moment Points” (here) come from? They’re certainly personal. I’ve already shared visceral associations with the imagery. It’s quite improbable, then, that anyone else could have dreamed either of these dreams, any more than they could have my face, my voice, or my fingerprints.

Yet strong dreams can also be more than personal. Other people’s thoughts, words, and images sometimes come alive within us. That’s why poets, painters, and storytellers ply their trade. That’s what makes conversation and communion possible. That’s why myths and scriptures resonate. They help us approach the threshold between the worlds from one side. But what awaits us on the other side?

Francis of Assisi had one answer to this question. Early in his spiritual career, he stayed awake through one long night raising a fervent prayer: “Who am I, oh God? And who are you?”

The way Francis worded his prayer aligned with the tenor of his times. For the church was strong then. Once the future saint wearied of the worldly pursuits of his youth, he could take refuge in God.

The tenor of these times is different. Many of us living in a modern and post-modern secular world find that the word god has become unintelligible shorthand. Too often we see Rorschach gods and anthropomorphic divinities propped up by confirmation bias.

Anaïs Nin said that “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” This can be easily reworded to say that we don’t see god as god is, but as we are. “We see and feel what we expect to see and feel,” said Jane Roberts. “The world as we know it is a picture of our expectations.”8 God, too, is “a picture of our expectations.”

Sometimes we attempt to conceptualize the mysterious Gift-giver on the other side of the liminal threshold by using phrases like the unknowable, the unnameable, the ineffable. At other times we use metaphors. That’s what poets and storytellers do. The words threshold and gift-giver are themselves metaphors.

T.S. Eliot once said that writing poetry is like making “a raid on the inarticulate.”9 Dreams likewise make raids on the inarticulate. “Down Under” and “Harvesting the Moment Points” wrestle with the question of where liminal gifts come from. The dream we turn to now, “Ancient Fawn,” feels like a premonition that what waits for us at the threshold between the worlds may fill us with dread.

W.B. Yeats (1903)

This unsettling dream was recorded on August 20th, 1990. I awoke from it with the closing lines of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” running through my mind.

“The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”10

Ancient Fawn

I’m on an early morning walk. The dawn is just beginning to brighten the sky. A few miles down the road from Light Morning I see a deer with a large rack of antlers drinking from a stream. I stop to watch, knowing how unusual it is to be this close to a large buck.

Sensing that something’s not quite right, the buck looks around, shakes his head from side to side, and paws the ground. Then he climbs up from the stream-bed and starts to walk away. I’m sad to see him go.

But he soon reverses direction and joins several other deer I hadn’t noticed before. Among them is a young fawn. Its tawny, white-spotted coat and wobbly legs tell me it’s still quite young. I marvel at the beauty and innocence of this little creature.

Looking more closely, however, I see that the fawn actually has a strange coloration: mottled black and white against a background of gray. Then, to my astonishment and dismay, I’m suddenly aware that the fawn has a huge, elk-like rack of antlers. My stomach tenses up and gets queasy as I desperately try to reconcile the presence of massive antlers on a young fawn.

Finally I notice the fawn’s face. It’s the oldest animal or human face I have ever seen. And this ancient fawn is gazing back at me impassively, as though trying to stretch toward some comprehension of the inconceivably young creature that stands dumbstruck before it.

My gut twists in a painful spasm of disbelief and my mind short-circuits. I awake, trembling, out of the dream.

* * *

Why did standing before an ancient fawn twist my innards into knots? Some fawns become stags; and all stags were once fawns. But to see the two life stages so completely overlaid that they became one creature was more than jarring; it felt like a primal violation.

Bedrock instincts polarize our perceptions — pleasure and pain, man and woman, day and night, infancy and old age. To lose these guiding distinctions would be like seeing lightning and heavy rain come out of a blue sky; or being unable to differentiate between birth and death.

Jacob wrestling with the angel

That’s why Tiresias, the male-female blind seer, was so threatening. That’s why when a biblical angel (a “messenger of God”) is sent to a human, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid.” In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for afraid is phobic, meaning fear or terror. Angels are well aware of the knee-jerk human tendency to be theophobic.

Perhaps that’s also why Hebrews 10:31 says that “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.” In the dream, having my gaze held by a hideous amalgamation of adorable fawn and majestic buck was intolerable. It was like having the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9) peering through the eyes of a little child (Matthew 18:3).

If the Giver of liminal gifts induces such feelings of dread and foreboding, how and why would one approach the threshold between the worlds?

The Triple Gem

I had an insight into this visceral question while riding in a Greyhound bus. I was on my way home from a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in western Massachusetts and was wondering what it means to Take Refuge in the Triple Gem. One of the opening formalities at each course is for the students to recite, in unison, “I take refuge in Buddha. I take refuge in dhamma. I take refuge in sangha.”

Our Vipassana tradition is non-sectarian, so new students are told that we are not taking refuge in the person of Buddha, but in the qualities of Buddha: enlightenment, compassion, wakefulness. Dhamma means both the law of nature and the practice of meditation. Sangha is the fellowship of like-minded practitioners.

But while cruising through Virginia in the Greyhound bus, assimilating the intensity of my just-completed meditation course, an alternate understanding of the Triple Gem arose. I reminded myself that we know little about either the historical Buddha or the historical Jesus. What we have instead are stories — stories that have been passed down for generations and millenia. What if taking refuge in Buddha means taking refuge in a story?

Stories convey meaning, clarify purpose, and kindle passion. To take refuge in a Triple Gem, then, would mean to seek shelter from the downward pull of entropy, fear, and dissipation by holding a deeply believed story; by translating it into a strong practice; and by having that story and practice be shared by fellow believers and practitioners.

I also saw that the three components of a Triple Gem are interdependent. A single individual may have a compelling story and a dedicated practice, for example, but these would be difficult to sustain if no one else shared that story and practice. Nor would it be sustainable if a group of people had a common practice but didn’t have a living story to remind them why they’re practicing. Finally, two or more people may be drawn to a similar story, but if that story isn’t put into practice, then they will just be armchair philosophers or drinking buddies.

So it takes all three — story, practice, and fellowship — to sustainably acknowledge avoidance, overcome inertia, and confront the fear of encountering what some traditions call the Guardian on the Threshold. The dreamworld image of an ancient fawn, appearing at the threshold between waking life and deep sleep, is one rendering of that guardian.

Gary Snyder

Of the three facets of the Triple Gem, story comes first. Consistent practice and supportive fellowship grow out of a captivating story. As the west coast poet, essayist, and deep ecologist Gary Snyder once said,

“The world is made of stories. Good stories are hard to come by, and a good story you can honestly call your own is an incredible gift. These stories are part of a bigger story that connects us all.”11

Keeping the Faith

In 1973, a small group of us received the incredible gift of a good story we could honestly call our own. The story was about a nascent transformational community called Light Morning. For forty-five sometimes tumultuous years we took refuge in the Triple Gem of this shared story plus a shared practice of meditation, dream-work, prayer, and living close to the land.

Now, however, Light Morning has been decommissioned. It’s no longer a community and it no longer serves as a center. I feel like a story orphan, caught between seemingly incompatible needs – to let go and to hold on. This dilemma manifests both outwardly and inwardly.

The outward manifestation – a simplified version of it – is that an impressively large but now aging infrastructure of buildings, gardens, and orchards that was designed for a community cannot be maintained by two or three impressive but now aging crew members. Even if we were to work non-stop – chopping wood, hauling water, attending to housekeeping, and all the other entrancing chores of a homesteading lifestyle – we couldn’t do it. It would take a larger and younger crew.

So we can’t hold on to everything we’ve built and nurtured here. But we can’t just let it all go, either. Not if we want to keep living here, which we do.

Our Lady of Angels Convent &
Franciscan Spiritual Center

A parallel example of getting caught between letting go and holding on is the immanent ending of my 18-month relationship with School of the Spirit. In this case, the letting go is a given. As of mid-November [2019], there will be no more quarterly residencies at the Franciscan Spiritual Center with my classmates and teachers. No more stimulating books to read and discuss. No more reflection papers (like this one) to write.

Also coming to an end will be the rich sharings with my fellow students from Roanoke Friends Meeting during our long drives to and from the residencies outside of Philadelphia. And last but certainly not least, the three friends who volunteered to be my Spiritual Care Committee will no longer be meeting with me monthly to offer their prayerful support, encouragement, and accountability.

Needing to release my Triple Gem connection with School of the Spirit, and having this release coincide with the decommissioning of Light Morning, has been a forced surrender of much that gave my adult life meaning and purpose.

What remains? By now I’m well into the autumn of my life. The days are getting shorter, the nights longer. On my early morning walks with Joyce, the gravel road is covered with fallen leaves and the fields are often rimed with frost. In this season of letting go, what do I want to hold on to?

I want to hold on to a pared down version of homesteading. Living for so many decades in an isolated portion of the Blue Ridge mountains has made living anywhere else unattractive. I want to not only strengthen but also adapt and integrate the practices of meditation, dream-work, and prayer. And even though we can no longer welcome visitors, interns, and apprentices to the community, I want to keep on sharing what we’ve learned. It feels relevant to these times.

None of this depends on the continuation of Light Morning as it’s been, nor does it require an ongoing relationship with School of the Spirit. It does depend on revitalizing the stories that animate these aims, and finding others who share these aspirations.

One promising format I’ve recently become aware of is Marcelle Martin’s A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.12 Such groups used to be called peer groups or accountability groups. The author’s focus is instead on faithfulness; for Quakers are, after all, a religious society of friends.

In the context of this paper, faithfulness means being faithful to the liminal gifts we receive at the threshold between the worlds; being faithful to the Giver of those gifts; and being faithful to one another as we each discern how to best interpret and offer those gifts to others. For as a sign at the Franciscan Spiritual Center reminds us, “The gift you have received, give as gift.”

Yet the three strong medicine dreams shared in this paper also caution that the path to faithfulness isn’t easy or direct. To use the evocative shorthand of these dreams, how do we garner the courage to approach the Dweller on the Threshold without losing our mind and frying our circuits? For me, the Dweller appeared as the appalling image of a fawn with massive antlers and ancient eyes. For someone else it would take another form.

When Indra’s Net (or the kingdom of heaven) is spread out before us as a shimmering web of moment points, how do we abandon well-rutted paths, disregard internalized critics, and harvest those luminous dew drops?

Stepping onto a wafer-thin oval of ice where theme-weaving becomes possible, how do we let go of a heavy, frozen, over-acculturated sense of self while holding on to a self that is still individuated; a self that doesn’t simply dissolve into blue-black water, but has become lighter, more fluid, more translucent?

These dreams suggest that letting go and holding on aren’t necessarily incompatible. To faithfully follow a Triple Gem path of story, practice, and fellowship, a path where liminal gifts are courageously received and lovingly passed on, we must learn to let go and hold on. Sometimes simultaneously.

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