I love a candle light service. I have so many Christmas Eve memories of sitting next to my mother as a child, expectantly holding my candle waiting for that lovely peaceful magic that came when the lights are turned off, and the candles flicker in each person’s hands, and the soprano sings “O Holy night” with the sweetness of milk, and as she finishes the silence is deep and shining. But I also remember the service not too long ago when I was surrounded on all sides by coughers and wigglers, and I couldn’t pay attention to what the minister was saying, and there must have been lights on in the parking lot because it never really got that dark, and the candles never really shone, and if that child in the back would have stopped making those annoying noises for a MINUTE I could have had my magical Christmas eve…
Have you had this experience? I was looking for something “special and amazing and wonderful” just like the children in today’s story, but I failed to find it, and left my search disappointed and disgruntled. The second noble truth in the Buddhist tradition says that suffering is caused by Tanha, often translated as desire. I bet most of us can remember a time when you were a little kid, and DESPERATELY wanted some certain to or gift, and when that is the case not getting the new toy you wanted can ruin your holiday. As an adult our desires and expectations are more subtle, as Anne Sexton illustrates in her poem “The Lost Ingredient”. She writes about stopping at the great salt lake in Utah “to wash away some slight need for Maine’s coast” but
“…Later the funny salt
itched in my pores and stung like bees or sleet.
I rinsed it off in Reno and hurried to steal
a better proof at tables where I always lost.”
So she stops to touch the lake to fill some longing, and when that proves itchy and unsatisfying, she heads instead to the gambling tables in Reno, even though she already knows she will not be filled by what she will find there.
She says that she is
“...waiting for the lost
ingredient, as if salt or money or even lust
would keep us calm and prove us whole at last.”
I think this is what I was doing that Christmas Eve, waiting for the lost ingredient that would keep me calm and prove me whole at last.
There is nothing wrong with our desire for wholeness. It is that desire, that drive that calls us to our spiritual journey. Some might call this a search for God, but I prefer the phrase "Ultimate Concern” used by Harvard Theologian Paul Tillich. He says in his Systematic Theology “Ultimate concern is the abstract translation of the great commandment: ‘The Lord, our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary. The ultimate concern is unconditional, independent of any conditions of character, desire or circumstance. The unconditional concern is total; no part of ourselves or of our world is excluded from it…”
My old theology professor, Bob Kimball, used to say that for some people their ultimate concern is synonymous with God, but for others it is Football which is their ultimate concern. If you live out the rest of the week waiting for game day, if your future happiness or sadness turns on how your team performs in a pivotal game, this is your ultimate concern. Tillich understood that for generations we have used the word “God” as a shorthand when what we really mean is “that which is of ultimate concern.”
I believe that what Maryann Moore had in mind when she wrote our children’s story was the search to experience something ultimate, which some people find in the wonder of nature, which others find in community. Not everyone in this room would say they are looking for an experience of God, but I believe we are all looking for an experience of something that is real, that is meaningful, whose value transcends time, which can be felt with one’s whole being. There is a sense that if we could connect with that ultimacy, it would sooth us, calm us, give us rest in a way that “salt or money” cannot. St. Augustine wrote that “the heart is restless until it rests in thee.” Perhaps that is what I was looking for that grumpy Christmas Eve, some rest for my heart.
My own search for meaning, for rest has led me to try meditation. I had never meditated before coming to seminary, but wise people, trustworthy people had suggested that a practice of meditation could lead to self awareness and might be source of the rest I was seeking. Each time I sat in meditation, however, my legs became numb, my skin itched, my mind was restless. The longer I sat the more annoyed, and then angry I became. “I’m not a good meditator” I thought. “I don’t feel the bliss of my true self, I must be doing it wrong. If I was really meditating, I would be feeling bliss, I would feel inspired and uplifted, My heart would be filled with perfect compassion and love for all beings.” Though I had been meditating off an on for several years, I kept signing up for beginning meditation classes, thinking perhaps there was some rudimentary technical information I had missed, or learned incorrectly. Finally I realized where I was going wrong; first was the idea that there was a “wrong” way to meditate, and second was the idea that if I was doing it “right” that it would feel good.
I’m guessing that we all have some preconceived notion of what it would feel like to “Find God” in the cosmic game of Hide and Seek. You notice that in our children’s story, the author describes finding something “special, amazing and wonderful.” But this or any preconception can be a real obstacle in our search. This is one way of interpreting the story in the Hebrew Scriptures when the Prophet Elijah goes to the top of the mountain, possibly the same mountaintop where Moses saw god “face to face.” The scripture says:
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here Elijah?"
-1 Kings 19:11-13
By using the images of fire, wind and earthquakes the author evokes the kind of archetypal symbols that are often associated with the divine. From the religious stories of many traditions and ages we are reminded of other times and places where God has appeared in the transformative power of fire, in the quixotic wind, in the destabilizing force of an earthquake. But in this story God is not where we might expect God to be. The great prophet of Israel goes looking for God and what he finds is “a sound of sheer silence.” Sometimes when we go looking for Ultimacy, for a restful heart, we find silence. We find a big gaping void where our ultimate concern should be. We sit in meditation looking for peace, and find emptiness instead.
There is a name for the moment when our faith is shaken, when we go to the mountain seeking God, and find only silence. When we seek peace in meditation, and feel betrayed when there is no peace to be found. Martin Luther and other Theologians have called this the “dark night of the Soul.” This is the time when you have been searching for heart’s rest, and begin to despair of ever finding it. These theologians say that we have to give up our search as we are used to conducting it, and search in a new way, searching the silence, searching the anger. All life is woven of one cloth, the blissful, the tragic, the mundane, the absurd are bound up together; we will find all of these things on our search for our ultimate concern.
We don’t get to pick and choose which strands we will encounter in our life, and so any structures of meaning we make for ourselves that hold only bliss and peace cannot serve us when we need them most. At times life has shaken all of us like an earthquake shifting, unsettling the foundations upon which we rest, upon which we have built our lives. It is often when your foundations are shaken, the search for something ultimate that can withstand such a quake begins. Religious Educator Jerome Berry man calls this a rupture of our theological circle. This happens when the meaning making you have done in your life no longer fits with your lived experience. For many people the death of a loved one, a betrayal of trust, or an act of violence leads us to question the circle of meaning in which our lives are inscribed. This circle grows and changes throughout our lives, sometimes because we make a conscious choice to go seeking, and sometimes because life happens.
And once that circle is disrupted, when we need a place for the soul to rest and cannot find it, we just want to shout “Ollly Olly Oxen Free” And sometimes that rest will come, in a night sky, in a helping hand, in a warm heart. But the relief will probably not come in the way we want it in the time and place we expect it. This is a hard lesson. I used to talk to my spiritual director about this, when my life seemed empty of the spirit. And she would remind me that there is no place that is separate from God, or as we UUs say, that we are all part of an interconnected web, we could not be separate if we tried. Whatever has ultimate meaning binds us all.
Universalists have always said that salvation is accessible to everyone. I think that for contemporary Universalists it means that no one is ineligible to uncover that which is ultimate, that which gives rest. There is no elect handful of people for who the search is fruitful. I would extend universalism to assert that no part of experience is out of bounds for ultimacy. If something is truly ultimate, it must transcend the bounds of the “good” of the “appropriate” of perfection even. If something can exist only under perfect circumstances, then how can it be of ultimate significance? As Tillich writes “The unconditional concern is total; no part of ourselves or of our world is excluded from it…”
When I am able to exchange my search for a “lost ingredient” with an image of playing Hide and Seek, I remember to be present with whatever I experience in the moment, and let go of my expectations. I have heard several advanced students of Buddhism tell a story like this: after experiencing the bliss of their true nature for the first time, they eagerly tell their teacher expecting praise. Instead the teacher looks disapproving, because the student has become attached to the experience of bliss, and has lost her equanimity. And attachment, even to the bliss of religious experience, leads to suffering.
That Christmas Eve when I could not find what I was seeking, I was so attached to my expectations about Christmas that I never did let in the experience of what it was. At the time it seemed to me a failed worship service, but since then I have come to understand that there are no such thing as a “failures" of spiritual practice or worship, only moments that were not what I expected, not what I hoped for. If our search is really a search, we are looking for something new, looking to be surprised by our world and by ourselves. When we search beyond our expectations, beyond our preconceptions, we increase the odds of experiencing mystery, awe and wonder like children playing a game of hide and seek.
1. For more on this see Huston Smith The World’s Religions p. 99-103.
2. Anne Sexton “The Lost Ingredient” from Selected Poems of Anne Sexton p. 25.
3. Paul Tillich. Systematic Thelogy. v.1 pp. 11-12.
4. Mary Ann Moore “Hide and Seek with God” from Hide and Seek with God p. 4-7.
5. Paul Tillich. Systematic Theology. v.1 pp. 11-12.