Opening Words: On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate (Psalm 145)
Every morning I want to kneel down on the golden
cloth of the sand and say
some kind of musical thanks for
the world that is happening again—another day—
from the shawl of wind coming out of the
west to the firm green
flesh of the melon lately sliced open and
eaten, its chill and ample body
flavored with mercy. I want
to be worthy of—what? Glory? Yes, unimaginable glory.
O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am
not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.
Robert Frost has a little poem that invites us to go from the usual, normal day-to-day things on our schedule – to take a kind of Sabbath break. His poem is called, The Pasture,
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
We invite children to listen to stories by saying, “Once upon a time.” It’s not really an invitation to look into the past, but to get out of this time, this here and now time – not to be time-bound. It’s an invitation to go into the realm of imagination. “You come too.”
The pasture spring represents to source of spiritual nourishment that we all need; sometimes it gets clogged up with leaves – the leaves symbolize all the things that get in the way of that inner peace or inspiration we need; the worries, disappointments, fears and anxieties clog up the spring and need to be cleaned away.
I begin our Sunday morning meditation with an invitation, saying, “I invite you to join with me in the spirit of meditation, prayer and reflection.” That gives you a choice: some choose to call it meditation, some are comfortable calling it prayer, and some would choose neither meditation nor prayer, but we all spend time in reflection; quiet thinking. I could say, “I won’t be gone long, you come, too.”
I try to include things that have been shared in the candle lighting – which are also invitations to connect as companions on this life journey. (The word companion literally means ‘those who break bread together, from the Latin panis, bread.)
Today I want to talk about spirituality, but I also hope to create some moments that feel spiritual, that is, out beyond the confines of the rational, intellectual. Rumi said it: “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
Spirituality is not about being irrational or anti-intellectual, but it is about freeing oneself from being tied down to the purely rational, intellectual. It’s a delicate balance. (Last week we talked about the assault on reason by those who would hold us down by using fear—and when we’re led by fear we don’t use our powers of reason.)
I put these sermons back to back so we find a balance; the skeptic in us, and the skeptics among us – tend to put all the eggs in one basket. We’re a gathering of skeptics. A skeptic is ‘one who doubts…one who observes.’ We all have some healthy skepticism, but, of course, it can go too far and turn into cynicism. We cherish our ability to question, to doubt, and I would not suggest otherwise.
Where’s the balance?
“The Great Religions are the Ships/Poets the life Boats.
Every sane person I know has jumped/Overboard.” Rumi
Perhaps the religions can be compared to a ferry that takes you across a stream and once you are on the other side you leave the boat, it has served its purpose. But the journey continues – and the journey is simply life.
Many couples who come to plan a wedding say, “We’re not religious, but we’re spiritual.”
I know what they want – they want a ceremony that has a religious feeling without traditional religious language. I find the balance between religion and spirituality in poetry, music and all the arts.
Religion, in its generic sense, is the life long process or reconnecting – which is what the word religion means literally.
Donald Babcock’s poem about the duck “…riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf” ends with the lines: “…he has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into it just where it touches him. I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.”
He’s got religion because of his connection with the ocean, with his immediate environment – he’s connected.
It’s just a poem; just a metaphor – to be connected is to have religion; but I wouldn’t say that the duck has spirituality.
Then again, who knows? Maybe he has ‘a thoughtful love of life.’
While we can nurture a spiritual side of life, it’s not cumulative; it’s not like learning algebra and going on to geometry and trig. Spirituality comes in waves; it comes in little moments, like the firefly’s glow – see it? It’s gone.
I’m reminded of the Buddhist monk’s mandala carefully crafted with colored sand, then, when completed, it is swept away. (Like a sermon; once preached, then gone!)
Spirituality is an out-of-the ordinary moment of feeling connected: to another person, to Nature (or God, if you prefer) and essence behind the word ‘self,’ the changeless part of the ever-changing self, or what the Hindu calls ‘Self that dwells within the heart of every mortal creature.’ Not the small, ego self; not the succeeding and failing self, not the self-centered ego or self-conscious embarrassed self that feels exposed or laughed at or criticized.
Robert Solomon wrote a book he called Spirituality for the Skeptic, which provided food for thought as well as a title for this sermon. He subtitled his book ‘the thoughtful love of life.’
That’s really his definition of spirituality: ‘the thoughtful love of life.’ It reminded me of the wonderful Mary Oliver poem you’ll recall hearing from this pulpit.
Messenger, Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
About spirituality Robert Solomon says: “(There are three presumptions I knew I would not give up; they were) 1. The idea that spirituality has a lot to do with thoughtfulness, 2. that spirituality is not at odds with, but rather in cahoots with science, 3. that spirituality is by not means limited to religion much less sectarian, authoritarian religion.”
He opens his book by saying, “Let me begin with a confession of sorts. I have never understood spirituality. Or rather, I never paid much attention to it. When the subject was introduced, I made a convenient excuse to leave…expecting what followed to be platitudinous if not nonsense.”
“I was conflating spirituality and religion, and the very worst of religion at that.”
Later he says, “Spirituality, I have come to see, is nothing less than the thoughtful love of life.”
“Spirituality embraces love, trust, reverence, and wisdom, as well as the most terrifying aspects of life, tragedy, and death.”
I asked Margie her idea of spirituality and she said, “Your spirituality lies in your ability to identify and multiply experiences that move you deeply, calling you back to that which is most worthy of your attention and love.” Sort of like Solomon’s summary as ‘the thoughtful love of life.”
Both of those responses made me think of Gibran’s poem, A Tear and a Smile, which says, in part:
“I would not exchange the sorrows of my heart for the joys of the multitude. And I would not have the tears that sadness makes to flow from my every part turn into laughter. I would that my life remain a tear and a smile
“A tear to purify my heart and give me understanding of life’s secrets and hidden things. A smile to draw me nigh to the sons of my kind and to be a symbol of my glorification of the gods.
“A tear to unite me with those of broken heart; a smile to be a sign of my joy in existence.”
For me, spirituality is especially about liberation – allowing myself the freedom to express myself openly, authentically – which frees me up to be me and invites others to do the same.
The reading from Black Elk (see addendum) is the essence of what we often refer to as Native American spirituality, but Black Elk was not speaking for all Native Americans – he was, in a sense, speaking for all human beings, and suggesting that spirituality is the ability to see beyond the narrow confines of race, gender, religion…to see (or, better, to feel) that we are like a single organism, a single circle – the circle of life or the tree of life, which are metaphors, of course, but they speak to us, blending a scientific fact about the ecological system of which we’re all a part, and on which we’re all dependent for life, with a spiritual insight.
Another way to put it is that the great religions are nouns, while spirituality is a verb. It’s about active awareness, or the activity we call awareness, which the Buddha called being awake.
Spirituality is not spooky – it’s sometimes confused with spiritualism, the idea that one can communicate with the dead through a medium.
Margie said, “Spirituality is not mushy.”
For me, spirituality comes in moments of feeling connected, and ‘in love with life’ itself…or just glad to be alive…it’s about an active sense of gratitude.
Spirituality is related to morality and mortality; it’s about goodness itself, random acts of kindness, which Wordsworth called ‘that best portion of a good man’s life, a thousand little unremembered acts of kindness and of love.’
Why are we moved, emotionally, by random acts of kindness and love? ‘Random’ because they just happen; there’s no ulterior motive – it’s the story of Wesley Autrey a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran, who was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street 12:45 p.m. with his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6. A young man who had been standing nearby collapsed and went into a convulsion. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help. The man managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks.
The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said. He did, indeed, make a most extraordinary decision – he jumped down, pushed the man into the space between the tracks, put his head down and waited.
We’re moved by that random, heroic act of kindness.
What does that mean, “to be ‘moved by it?’ It’s about this thing we’re calling spirituality, which is about mortality – the usually-unconscious realization or reminder that this life will end someday, in some moment.
Sandburg summarized it neatly: “Nothing more certain than death, nothing more uncertain than the hour.”
Spirituality is not about belief; it’s not about God – it’s not about theology, or an afterlife…it’s not other-worldly…though ideas about God, belief, an afterlife might help stimulate or support this thing we call spirituality.
The kind of spirituality I mean is experienced by that skeptic, the agnostic, the atheist, as well as the believer.
Spirituality is not dogmatic – it doesn’t try to tell anyone else what they should think, feel or believe. It’s highly personal; as personal as the love of beauty; the love of music; the love a parent feels for a child – not always, of course, but in those moments of amazement when you realize the miracle that’s going on…
Spirituality is closely related to the emotional aspect of life, but it’s not limited to the emotions – it’s not emotional, but it may provoke or ‘stir up’ the emotions.
Philosophy, the love of wisdom, literally, has a spiritual aspect.
Spirituality is about Nature – the wonder of it all – but it’s not supernatural. Spirituality has to do with being fully in the here and now, so it’s not constant, it comes in waves.
It’s an aspect of family and friendship, when family and friendship are liberated from the competitiveness or the struggle for control that are often present in family and in friendships.
Spirituality is about that sense of awe that’s closely related to religion, expressed so perfectly in John Ciardi’s White Heron with which we’ll end:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
Addendum: Responsive Reading, The Sacred Hoop, from Black Elk:
“Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw.
“For I was seeing in the sacred manner the shape of all things of the spirit and the shapes as they must live together like one being.
“And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.
“And I saw that it was holy.”
This is the essence of what we often refer to as Native American spirituality, but Black Elk was not speaking for all Native Americans – he was, in a sense, speaking for all human beings, and suggesting that spirituality is the ability to see beyond the narrow confines of race, gender, religion…to see that we are like a single organism, a single circle – the circle of life or the tree of life, which are metaphors, of course, but they speak to us, blending a scientific fact about the ecological system of which we’re all a part, and on which we’re all dependent for life, with a spiritual insight.