I recently wrote about thinking I saw the Great Pan in the woods just beyond our garden here at the farm. But I didn’t explain. Now I will.
This kind of “seeing” occurs in a state of awareness that’s not exactly wide awake and definitely not sleeping, but in a space more accurately called “reverie.” The 20th century French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote much about the importance of reverie, particularly in his book The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, and distinguishes reverie from dream:
“In contrast to a dream reverie cannot be recounted. To be communicated, it must be written,written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down. Here, we are touching on the realm of written love. It is going out of fashion, but the benefits remain. There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries. 
Poets often retain the ability to enter into reverie—Percy Bysshe Shelley certainly attests to this in his Defence of Poetry; and Thomas Traherne as well as Eleanor Farjeon, both of whom I write about in Sophia in Exile, are two exemplars of poets who lived in reverie by which they could enter a childlike state of radical amazement. I am also a poet, and I think the reason their work resonates so much with me is that I can attest to their witness from experience as opposed to ideology or theory. But back to my story.
On the day of the sighting, I had been checking on the yurt I built in our woods and which we rent out to visitors as an escape from the world. If I do say so myself, it is a beautiful spot. We had some lodgers coming later that day and I wanted to make sure it was tidy (as per directions from my wife). On the way back to the house, I stopped for a minute to look into the woods—I don’t know why—and, as it was a warm October afternoon with sunlight touching the multicolored leaves rustling in the breeze, it wasn’t very hard to make myself pause. It must have been just for a second or two, but in my reverie I saw Pan—or thought I did—but dismissed the notion right away. I started to walk back to the house, made it about ten steps on the way and thought to myself, “Wait...did I just see Pan?” He was standing still, not looking at me, but appearing to gaze off to my left toward the goose yard and the garden. The same thing happened when I saw (but wasn’t sure I did) a few green men traversing the tops of some poplars and maples when I was twenty-two or so (I also write about this in Sophia in Exile). Reverie, it is my claim, doesn’t allow us to see things that “aren’t really there.” Rather, it allows us to see into a parallel reality, the invisible world that co-inhabits the spaces we occupy.
Of course, I don’t know that what I saw was “the Great Pan,” but I do think these inhabitants of the invisible world take on forms that respond to our own imaginative vocabularies. That is, they take a form that is amenable to our conceptual framework. I recently found confirmation of this in a piece of writing by R. Ogilvie Crombie (aka, “Roc,” about whom I first heard mention in this clip from the film My Dinner with Andre), a physicist who was part of the original Findhorn community. Roc claims that the true forms of these types of nature spirits is more akin to light, but that they take on humanoid shapes as a courtesy to human perception and understanding. (You can read all about it in his collection Encountering Nature Spirits). In fact, there’s a great scene in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (one of the most Catholic movies ever) that shows precisely how this might work, as Ophelia, the protagonist, shows a faerie, which first appears insect-like, how it is supposed to look from one of her books on faeries. You can get the idea from the trailer:
Now, I don’t think I have any special powers about this. I am not exactly unique, and I am sure many, many people possess this ability (though “ability” is not quite the right word, as if saying I have some unique ability to taste salt or something). I can’t just turn it on. It just happens upon occasion. It’s probably closer to having an innate ability for mathematics (which I don’t) or music (which I do), and it is not, I think, confined to occasional peeks into the invisible world.
A couple of examples:
When I was training as a Waldorf teacher, one afternoon I was helping the teacher I was shadowing prepare a physics demonstration using magnets to be shown to his class on the next day. It was a very simple demonstration using bar magnets, a sheet of paper, and iron filings that could show the energy pattern of the magnetism at the poles (it’s a very beautiful image). He was using some brand-spanking new magnets, still at full potency—and I suddenly got really woozy. I said to him, “Can you feel that?” “Feel what?” “The energy coming from the magnets.” “I don’t feel anything….you must be a sensitive, Michael.” I guess! I was, quite literally, “mesmerized.” (Anton Mesmer, in case you didn’t know, made himself famous in the 18th century through the use of magnets in therapeutic situations.)
A few years before the magnet experience, my then girlfriend asked me if I wanted to attend a meeting of her “spiritual development” class being held through her school district’s community education outreach program one evening at a local high school. The class session was on seeing auras. I was a pretty naive twenty-two year old, so, always open to new experiences—and the class was all young women—I went.
The teacher, a small woman of about sixty, asked one of the students to come to the front of the class and stand before a blank white wall (so as better to be able to see her aura). She asked the class what they saw. Most of them, I recall, didn’t see much. But I saw all kinds of things. One thing I saw was a kind of dark orange, almost brown shape like a broken feather or crumpled ribbon coming from one of her shoulders. In front of the class, I asked if she had some kind of sharp pain or something like that near her collarbone. She did. I saw other things in other people, including that one woman was pregnant (the rest I don’t recall). The teacher came to me at the break and said, “You might not know this, but you have a real gift for this kind of thing.” Even though I knew the basics of aura theory, I had never tried to see them, nor was I working at “developing myself” in such a way. Some people just see this stuff, and some don’t. And it’s not like I see auras all the time or anything; I have to want to try to. I usually don’t. In fact, the only times I’ve tried over the last twenty-five years or so have been when I’m at performances or liturgies in which I am more of a spectator than a participant.
I could tell other stories—psychometry experiments in my late twenties, for example—or sensing the presence of the dead (which happens pretty frequently, even today), but I’ll set those aside for the moment—though my wife is pretty sure those MK Ultra guys would have snagged me as a kid had they known about my constitution. The point I’m trying to make is that some people just have a kind of natural sensitivity to the invisible worlds more so than others; but I also think, like carrying a tune or drawing, most people can do this at least a little. I also think our culture and education breed this ability out of us. But let’s go back to faeries.
I often talk about the possibility that faeries exist with my college students. Some are all in on the prospect, but most are pretty skeptical. To be honest, most are also pretty skeptical about the existence of God or angels. I use David Bentley Hart’s review essay, “The Secret Commonwealth,” first published in First Things exactly thirteen years ago, to open that discussion (as well as show them how to write a solid review essay). David, as many already know, is a true believer when it comes to faeries, as is John Milbank, not to mention my friend David Russell Mosley. There are more of us with terminal degrees who believe in the Secret Commonwealth than you might think.
In fact, in the recent Regeneration Podcast interview with David Bentley Hart about his novel Kenogaia and the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl upon which it is based, we discussed faeries a little. That night, my phone mysteriously disappeared from my dresser and ended up in the back of my English shepherd Sparrow’s cage a few feet away—though the cage is draped by a blanket, a deerskin, and boxes of seeds! I’m not saying faerie mischief contributed to its strange teleportation, but…
Some people—you might be one of them—may suggest that Pan and the faerie realm really belong to the dominion of evil, but I strongly disagree. In one of Crombie’s accounts, Pan asserts just the opposite: “I am a servant of Almighty God, and I and my subjects are willing to come to the aid of mankind, in spite of the way it has treated us and abused nature, if it affirms belief in us and asks our aid. ”  That doesn’t sound like a deal with the devil to me.
For Eleanor Farjeon (I love her so much it hurts), Pan (whose name means “All”) is symbolic of Christ Himself, the absolute Lord of the Dance. As she writes, “For since the divine Pagan dares to exist in harmony with the eternal spirit, trees, which are the temples of Pan, are also prophets of God. He laid his secret within all his creations as they passed through his hands.”  And, in a dispute she imagines between Pan and the stodgy and sclerotic god Chronos, Farjeon explains why:
“Have you then found a bigger star than mine?” cried the Old One in alarm. “With many moons and brighter hoops of fire? What were you doing while we were raking the firmament?”
“Dancing, Old Bones, dancing.”
“On earth, with man my brother.”
I could go on.
Over the decades, I have amassed a decent library of faerie lore and research, some fictional, some academic, some somewhere in-between. The works of the poet and visionary Æ (George William Russell) are a good place to begin, and perhaps the definitive work on the subject is still W.Y Evans-Wentz’s doctoral dissertation The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911), not to mention the venerable The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1691) by the Rev. Robert Kirk. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (2014) is exhaustive, but is a bit compromised by the jargon and assumptions of The Theosophical Society. Still, it is fascinating. And then there are The Little Grey Men (1942) and Down the Bright Stream (1948) by ‘BB’ (Denys Watkins-Pitchford)—ostensibly “children’s literature,” I think the author knew more about the Invisible Country than just about anyone.
So, next time you think you saw something in the woods…maybe you saw something in the woods.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_
1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Beacon Press, 1969), 7.
2. R. Oglivie Crombie, Encounters with Nature Spirits (Findhorn Press, 20).
3. Eleanor Farjeon, Trees (London, 1914), 20.