“Why don’t we UUs talk more about our spiritual experiences?” I asked my theology class. There was a deep silence, and then the student across the table said “because they are private.”
It’s not easy for UUs to talk about our spiritual lives. It’s not just because we are so diverse in our theology, that sometimes we flounder to find a common language to express our experiences; it is also because there is something profoundly un-knowable about the divine. This is why some folks use the word “mystery” to refer to God. And those who seek to encounter the divine are called “mystics”
This morning we had a series of readings trying to describe what it feels like to encounter the divine. Individuals putting into words their experiences of wonder and awe. Rev. Hamilton-Holway, who gathered those readings together, was trying to express something of the great variety of such experiences. A common thread I see is that while these encounters are profound, they are also wildly ordinary. These experiences happen to people “bathing in a pond” or watching a moon rise, listening to a Beethoven Symphony or “messing about in boats.”
UUs call the first source of our Living Tradition: “ Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life”
We describe this source in a very universalist way- these experiences of transcending mystery and wonder are not the prevue of our special religious sect, but an experience universality available to all persons, and “affirmed in all cultures.” We tend to be of the opinion that the transcending experience that may be had “messing about in boats” is no less important, no less profound than that of a monk who has spent years in practice. And that a numinous experience while “watching a moon rise” may be just as awe-filled as one found kneeling in prayer.
Some folks have never had an experience they would describe that way- and I want to be very clear that it doesn’t mean you are not having a spiritual life- it just is taking a different path for you. Some people have stories of Moment of Wonder that came unbidden and without warning which they cherish and allow to bring meaning to their lives. Some folks encounter the great mystery, find it terrifying, and run fearfully in the opposite direction.. And some see their numinous moments as an invitation to seek the deeper mysteries of life. They want to understand the experiences they have had, and wonder if there is a path they can follow to lead them back to that transcendence.
Prof. Yielbanzie Charles Johnson used to say to his students “If you want spirit in your life, you have to invite spirit into your life”. This is a paradox- because if you believe in an immanent divine, that is to say, if you believe that the Spirit of Life pervades all living thing, then God is in and around us around us all the time. So when we sing “Spirit of Life, come unto me” What do we mean? Maybe this is a way of expressing an intention to know that spirit more deeply. It implies a relational nature of the divine. It implies that, as with any friend, or patch of earth, or field of study, we know something or someone better when we spend time consciously together. In the same way that your relationship with that neighbor you wave to each morning when you walk your dog changes when you say “want to come in for a cup of coffee?”
This idea “if you want spirit in your life you have to invite spirit into your life” implies a tremendous freedom on our part. It implies that the spirit is both waiting for our invitation and offering us an invitation all the time, which we are free to decline or accept. Some teachers say that whenever you have a thought like “I wish I had more time for my spiritual life” that this very thought is an invitation from the spirit to come closer. And the choice is profoundly yours to make.
If you do decide to invite spirit into your life, the next step is to make room for the spirit. We fill our lives so full of doing, that we rarely leave enough space to be truly present in the moment, to those around us, or to our self. That isn’t to say the divine isn’t present in all our busy days, only that when we talk about a spiritual life, when we talk about encountering the divine, we are talking about bringing that spirit of Life that is present in all things into our consciousness, and this takes time and space.
The traditional way to do this is with a daily spiritual practice. Whether this is meditation, or painting, or a walk in the woods doesn’t really matter. As the great Mystic Teresa of Avila wrote “the important thing is not to think much, but to love much. Do, then whatever most arouses you to love.” [Interior Castle p. 49] That’s why a particularly powerful spiritual practice is mindfully serving others- they experience God as Love in the face of a child they are helping tie her shoes, or a patient on their rounds at the hospital. We all have probably experienced a moment when helping someone, for example putting a shoe on a child who has already kicked them off 3 times and now we are late for work, is just one more piece of busy-ness. But time when we are fully present to another can also be a numinous experience, full of meaning and a felt presence of something larger than either of us.
Part of the spiritual journey is figuring out what this “making space” will look like for you- where are you being drawn? Where do you feel the pull of desire or yearning? Following that desire is not just a first exploratory step of the spiritual journey, but because our relationship with the divine changes over time, I encourage you to follow desire the whole journey through. we must be continuously alert to moments when we are feeling alive and passionate, and when we are feeling dry, when we are feeling resistance. We follow the spirit of Life wherever it leads.
Buddhist teacher and activist Tich Nhat Hanh in his new book “How to Sit” writes “You do not need to sit to meditate. Anytime you are looking deeply- whether you are walking, chopping vegetables, brushing your teeth, or going to the bathroom- you can be meditating. In order to look deeply, you need to make the time to stop everything and see what is there.” [p. 18]
Tich Naht Hanh uses language big enough to include atheists in this discussion. Hanh writes “with mindfulness and concentration you can direct your attention to what is there and have a deep look. You can begin to see the true nature of what is in front of you. What is there may be a cloud, a pebble, or a human being. It may be our anger. Or it may be our own body and its nature of impermanence. Every time we truly stop and look deeply, the result is a better understanding of the true nature of what is there inside us and around us.” [p. 19] So when those who are comfortable with God language are talking about “encountering the divine” the very same practices can be used by atheists to “understand the true nature of what is inside us around us.” This same language is makes space for Agnostics, because the they are free to be fully present to a state of un-knowing, with encouragement to look deeply into their own experience, without having to arrive at any particular conclusion about what it means. Ours is a non-creedal faith. Ours is a faith built on experience, on knowing life deeply. Remember, our first source is “direct experience” – I believe that comes before all the other sources because we give it priority. Because what you experience in prayer or meditation, or just living in the world will naturally be different than my experiences. Whether you are theist, atheist or agnostic, the basis for your spiritual life is your intention to know deeply, and a careful listening to whatever you find in the depth of your experience.
As the great Unitarian Religious Educator and author Sofia Fahs writes: “The religious way is the deep way, the way that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon. The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships; that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of kinship.” [i]
Within this space we have created, all we have left to do is listen. To have a deep look. What does that mean, to “have a deep look?” What does it mean to listen for the spirit? How do we hold ourselves open to seeing or hearing something we are not expecting? It requires a very open mind and a very open heart. It requires a quality of surrender to the present moment.
I must be honest with you that sometimes what happens is that when we first make room for this deeper experience of life, some old unhealed pain might come back to us. Or perhaps a sense, that we have been trying to ignore, that some part of our life is not quite right for us will emerge. It may turn out that we have made ourselves so busy for a reason- to drown out some difficult message from our deepest self. Again, we have freedom in our spiritual lives. We don’t have to leave the job or the relationship or the bad habit that causes us pain, but neither can we listen selectively when we are hungry for the spirit in our lives, when we are hungry to know ourselves deeply. While the time that we dedicate to our spiritual lives may be peaceful, may be restorative, may even be numinous, this is just part of the soul’s journey. I’m worry that there has been some false advertising about the spiritual journey. Meditation, or prayer, or service are not necessarily a quick fix for a wounded soul. Our spiritual practice will not always brign us comfort in the short term. Someitmes it may bring us up against the deep pain of our lives. Our spiritual lives are not an anesthetic to take away this pain, but a support, a container, a companioning for all that is our lives, both the joyful and the painful.
In my experience, sometimes seeing or listening deeply takes patience. Yes, Sometimes the spirit moves quickly like a darting breeze. Other times it seems our deepest self is speaking as slowly as the shifting of tectonic plates. Deep things often unfold slowly, maybe over months or years or a whole lifetime. This is why a daily spiritual practice can be so helpful; it helps us keep faithful to our journey when it is slow, and serves as a touchstone revealing the slow changes as they unfold.
And sometimes the deep way takes us through rough territory- that doesn’t mean we are “doing it wrong” it is only a reminder that because the sacred pervades all of life, we are listening for the spirit in calm seas and troubled. We patiently listen and discern where the Spirit of Life is leading us. Sometimes things are confusing or mysterious as they unfold. That’s why it helps to have company. Most spiritual traditions encourage us to find companions for the spiritual journey. This is why we come together as a congregation. This is why people seek out a spiritual director. We need these companions not to tell us what to do, but to listen , to ask good questions, help us discern.
The great mystics suggest that if you feel a desire to encounter the spirit of life directly, if you feel even a tentative curiosity, is an invitation. We then, choose whether to accept the invitation, or to take a rain check. Because all of us are on a spiritual journey. We are on it whether or not we explicitly choose to give it our attention. And if we do feel a longing to deepen our relationship to God, or simply a desire to experience life deeply then we have only to open our hearts and minds to wonder, to love and to the truth of whatever we find there. Really, the path of the mystic is as simple as that: to invite the spirit into your life, to make space, and to listen.