It happened at the ground breaking for the Opportunity Center. It was to be the only housing shelter in the county, with a wing for single people and a wing for families. When I went to the first briefing on the project I had been really touched by the architect’s vision of the space- it was so artistic and focused on a blending of indoor and outdoor space to be welcoming to un-housed people who were skeptical of the indoors. But on the day of the groundbreaking I don’t remember the scene too clearly; we were outside near the site of the building project, and local businesses had provided a table-ful of finger food. I was there with a few members of my congregation, some of whom were on the board of the capitol campaign, and we were representing a congregation that had surprised itself by raising $100,000. Different dignitaries got up to the microphone to speak, and when Jim Burklo, the founding minister of Urban Ministries got up to speak, a wave of the power of that moment swept over me. Jim explained that for decades landlords had refused to rent space for a shelter, but after decades of being denied a place to shelter those who needed to come in out of the cold and rain, here we were. All these people who had gathered to celebrate were there because they had believed in this common vision. I was overwhelmed by the holiness of the moment; he puncturing of ordinary by a flood of hope, the real concrete knowledge that people could come together to change this very particular and local, but in no way small part of the world.
That was a holy moment for me. It surprised me because it was different than what usually comes to mind when I think of a holy moment. I think for a lot of Unitarian Universalists our most commonly shared holy moment is one stumbled upon in nature. We share this also with that great poet and activist Wendell Berry, whose gift is to capture it in his poetry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I can almost see that place “where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.” And feel the peace that such a place would give.
So how can 2 such different moments- one in a crowded party and the other in the solitude of a wild place, how can they both be holy, what do they have in common?
The most common contemporary meaning of the word holy is “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness” but we usually think of holy as “pertaining to” the divine. So we need to wrestle with that for a moment. We Unitarian Universalists are very diverse theologically. We are atheists and theists and pantheists and agnostics. But because we are Universalists, we believe that whatever is most important, whatever is most worth of devotion, whatever is good and right is so for all people. We believe that not only prophets of old can experience something holy, but such experiences are available to everyone. It is the first source of our living tradition we find on the inside of the hymnal; “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves is to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” For those of us who use the word “divine” to describe those forces that create and uphold life, we Unitarian Universalists conceive a divine that must be accessible to all people.
As diverse as we are, as diverse as the many people sharing this world with us, naturally we can expect to see some diversity in the holy moments experienced by each of us; we should expect how we experience the holy to be as various as we are. People have told me over the years about holy moments that happen between themselves and another person, one woman told me that she has experienced several such moments playing softball. For me, I often find that the presence of live music increases the possibility of something holy happening- something about the creating of art before our very ears. I know folks who will mention privately that it is the conjugal act where they experience their holy moments.
A holy moment is not something that comes only to Moses on the mountaintop, but to all who are looking carefully and all who are open to awe and wonder and gratitude in the experience of this life. In a novel by Tamora Pierce called “The Trickster’s Choice” the heroine has a special gift- a “trick of sight” and with this gift she can refocus her vision so that she can see magic wherever it is present around her. I liked this image immediately, because it reminds me of how each of us experiences the holy in our own lives. We refocus our sight from the ordinary to seeing the extraordinary present in the very same places and people and events. Now this is a character from fantasy fiction, where magic defies our laws of nature. But I think we of this world miss out on a lot of holy moments, miss out on the miraculous because of the way our sight is focused. We think that because we did not witness the parting of the red seas that there are no holy moments in our ordinary lives. I believe the holy functions within the laws of physics, and that this makes it no less special. So Today I invite you to practice the trick of sight that allows us to see the holy in our own lives.
I also want to acknowledge, that sometimes these moments happen alongside tragedy or despair. Sometimes being with someone who is dying is imbued with a sense of holiness that shines through the pain and fear of the moment. There can be in such moments a connection between people, or a feeling of connection to something larger than oneself that is present even in a moment of great pain and loss. And so I propose that it is the sense of connection, of one-ness that is at the common core of our holy moments. Merriam-Webster tells us that the root of “holy” comes from Middle English, from Old English hālig; akin to Old English hāl whole “healthy, unhurt, entire” To me this is the essence of the experience. For me the archetype of a holy moment is as Alice Walker describes it in her book “The Color Purple”
“One day when I was sitting quite and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house.”
For Walker’s protagonist, there is no act, no parting of the red sea, not even the beauty of a wood drake that foretells the experience of something holy, just the spontaneous knowing of the one-ness of all living things.
The wholeness of such an experience is not necessarily that I myself feel whole- for me it is the realization that the whole is larger than myself. I can feel this in a moment of deep connection with another person, in a moment of wonder as the “wood drake rests on his beauty in the water” in which I feel myself part of the eco-system that surrounds me. I can feel this deep connection with my community when we make our hope manifest in real actions in the world. Whether it is music or a brilliant theorem that awakens this sense in us, the common thread is that our sense of what it is to be alive expands. It may be “good and righteous” as the definition of Holy suggests. Such a moment may be filled with power or beauty – filled with the Spirit of life as it were.
As for the character in the Color purple, such a moment of expanded awareness often comes as a surprise. I think it is in the nature of such experiences to come unbidden. I don’t know why- maybe it’s like what scientists are learning from quantum physics, that the gaze of the observer changes the path of the observed, or more colloquially, “The watched pot never boils.” But it is possible to cultivate such experiences, practicing that “trick of sight” that allows us to see the holy in the ordinary. Many religious traditions seek the powerful experience through preparing by fasting, or extended meditation, by right living, or by spiritual practices. They are cultivated by remembering, as Wendell Berry does, to search out the quiet of wild places. (The poem I read earlier was published by Berry in a collection of poems written over 20 years of his Sunday morning walks through the forests and fields near his Kentucky farm.) The most critical element, however, is openness. Because it is easy to stay on the surface of things and not sink down into their depths, to give only the minimum of attention needed to complete the task at hand. The great American spiritual teacher Ram Das tells the story of a friend of his who would approach each person he met as a Bodhisattva, and interact with each as if they were an enlightened being. As you might imagine it changed substantively the quality of their interactions. We “Increase the odds” of something holy happening through our willingness to say “this person before me, this wood drake, this moment is of deep significance. I open myself fully to it.”
We can have this openness not only when we are at our best, but even in our lowest moments. In a way our despair, our pain can crack us open so that we are ready to listen for that which is worthy of devotion. Then the “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder” crashes over us or whispers quietly in a calm and stillness at our center. It lets us know that even though we are broken in body, heart or spirit, we are not alone. We are not without power, or beauty or hope. These moments are like a precious gift. We cannot count on them coming right when we want or expect them, only be grateful when they do come. We can also return to those moments to remind us of the shining depths at the heart of life. They can become touchstones, reminding us to remain open for the holy in each moment.