The following is the text of a homily I delivered yesterday at my UU church.
The seeds of this talk were sown a few weeks ago when I got into a… discussion online with an evangelical humanist. He made a number of good points, but flatly dismissed all spiritual and mystical experience as – well, let’s call it poppycock. This left me feeling a little bemused, rather like I’d just been told by someone who’s color-blind that the color green must be imaginary. Rather than becoming irritated, though, the encounter led me to do some thinking about the experiences I’ve had and what they might mean; what the colors are that I see.
First, I think, is the appreciation of beauty as a spiritual practice. I know that for myself, the love of beauty is near the core of my personality; and, it turns out, it’s a part of my spiritual path as well. Certain pieces of music can move me to tears, joy and awe every time I hear them (some of these will be/were playing during the coffee hour); and with some works of art, their physical beauty tells me more clearly than words of the spiritual beauty that must have inspired the artist… and, of course, the most beautiful art and music of all is right outside these windows.
Now, I’m not saying that everything beautiful is automatically spiritual, or even good; but what I am saying is that, for me, the aesthetic and the spiritual are tied up together, and more than that, they support and enhance each other. A spiritual approach to the experience of beauty can elevate it above the mundane, and beautification of the spiritual can deepen your relationship to God, particularly if you do the beautification work yourself.
The idea of spirituality elevating beauty is best described, for me, in the modern Druidic teachings about the concept of “Awen”. Awen is a complex idea, but for the purposes of this talk you can think of it at one level as the action of Spirit that inspires creative work, and at a deeper level as the life force that flows through all things. Awen is said to flow through the bard or artist when they create or perform their works; but it also flows through the audience or the viewer – if we are prepared to receive it – inspiring and deepening our understanding and appreciation of the work, and allowing the work to take us past the gap at the edge of our normal perception and into awareness of the presence of the Holy.
As to the beautification of the spiritual, I discovered as I was doing research for this talk that I’m not the only one to believe this… Judaism has a concept called hiddur mitzvah, literally “beautification of the commandment”. As one source puts it,
“Beauty enhances the… commandments by appealing to the senses. Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”
This is a pretty radical idea, if you think about it – not only can spirituality elevate art, but art can elevate spirituality! That is the true power of art (and music, of course!), and the true power of beauty. You can see this right here in our sanctuary: we have made the decision to focus on making our meeting space more beautiful, and I think we all agree that it greatly enhances our worship experience. I know it does mine. This is also why I believe so strongly in good liturgy; the regular experience of beauty focused on holy things prepares the soul to be receptive to the promptings of Spirit, to hear the voice of God in the wind and the water and the song of the sparrow.
This brings us to another side of my spiritual work, one that I have been focused on pretty strongly in the last few years: trying to maintain and expand my awareness of the natural world around me, and finding there my links to the interdependent Web, and to the Divine.
There has been a spate of recent research pointing up the physical and psychological damage we are doing to ourselves with our modern lifestyle, going from one enclosed, climate-controlled environment to another, usually via our equally enclosed, equally climate-controlled vehicles, without paying a bit of attention to the spaces in between. There has even been a term coined for it, by the writer Richard Louv – Nature Deficit Disorder. In his books, The Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, Louv lays out his vision of how many of the issues being reported regularly in the news – rising rates of obesity and obesity-related illnesses, attention and hyperactivity problems, and anxiety and depression, among others – can be tied back to our increasing alienation from the world outside our electronic gadgets.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fight all this – by going outside! Data show that just being outside can increase focus, mental activity and overall health; but as part of spirit work, the other critical component is paying mindful attention, especially to the ordinary and the commonplace. I try to make a point now, whenever I go outside, to pause for even just a few seconds, and try to take stock of what’s around me – what is growing here? Are there birds singing? What other living things are sharing this space with me? What does the air feel like this morning?
This regular exercise in mindfulness has had a profound effect on how I relate to the world around me, and (I believe) to other people as well. When I think about it, just stepping out the front door takes me into a world of endless wonder, mystery and magic; and when I do start out the day this way, I find myself calmer and more at peace throughout the day, readier to see the good in other people – and even more inclined to talk to God. I have also had some very cool experiences that I would never have had otherwise. For instance:
A few weeks ago I took a couple of days off to go camping, just get out in the trees for a while. I was walking into the woods there, and chanced upon a butterfly resting by the side of the trail. I paused to greet it, as I try to do on such occasions; it regarded me for a few moments, then flew up around my head and fluttered down the trail before settling down a few feet away. As I caught up, the performance was repeated; my companion swooped and glided (and I do mean “glided”, like a hawk) before me and on ahead again, only to come to rest as before, waiting until I came up alongside.
We proceeded in this way for a good three minutes or more, until the path opened up into a clearing; here the butterfly settled on a branch at the edge of the trail, obviously intending to go no farther. I thanked it for keeping me company through the darkest part of the woods, and it sat with me for a minute before fluttering away between the branches.
Would this incident have happened if I wasn’t looking for it? Maybe; but I certainly would not have had the *experience* of it if I wasn’t looking for it, and choosing to be in a place and situation where the possibility could exist. It’s for certain that nothing would have happened if I’d kept eating lunch at my desk and surfing the Web, like I used to.
And surfing… brings us back around to the beginning, as promised.
Every year in the fall we take a family vacation to the beach; and for the past few years, my daughter and I have spent a lot of that time bodysurfing. Every time I get out in the ocean I seem to start thinking about big stuff; maybe it’s because that’s where I do a lot of my theologizing, but I’ve begun to think of Spirit – much of the time – in ocean terms. I’d like to end today by talking about how I try to embody this nature-and-beauty practice, as well as some of the possible insights I’ve gained along the way, all wrapped up in a somewhat extended analogy.
Just as the ocean is the original home of all physical life, so the Divine is our spiritual point of origin. We are not identical with the ocean, but there is a lot of it in us – and so it is with Spirit. And like fish in the ocean, we exist entirely within the Holy but can’t really perceive its true nature; all we experience is the effects of Sprit moving in the world, the waves and currents of Divine activity.
Like the ocean, God is not completely other, or transcendent; vastly larger than us, and clearly different in many ways, but still a part of the whole system. Like the ocean, the Divine can be encountered in many different places and different ways; the experience may be very different from place to place, and even from time to time, but in essence it is still the same water, still the same ocean. And finally: like the ocean, encountering God is not necessarily safe. Just as the ocean has undertows and riptides that can pull you out too far and too deep, there are risks to meeting the Divine face to face; you may just find your entire life turned upside down and the ground sucked out from under your feet.
So – now that we have our analogy firmly in place, what do we do with it? The first of the UU Sources speaks of “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.” But our tradition doesn’t give us a specific set of practices designed to lead us to such experiences, as many religions do; so how do we get there? How do we go about, if you will, “bodysurfing with God”?
First, you have to show up. To surf, you have to go to the ocean; to meet the Divine, you must be awake, conscious and present to your life… and you have to keep showing up, over and over again. As with any skill, spirituality has to be *practiced*. It’s not enough just to have some thoughts about it; if you don’t actually do anything you will get precisely nothing in return.
You also have to decide where and how you think you want to get to the ocean. Established religions, like public beaches, can provide a well-defined way to get to the water, and eliminate some of the hazards you find on wilder coastlines… but they also can limit your encounter to such an extent that you never get to experience the ocean’s full power and beauty.
Before you get in the water, it is vital to remember that the ocean is much bigger than you, and you’re not in charge. You can control your course to an extent, but there’s always a chance that a big wave or a strong current will make the decision for you. Likewise, you may find that the Divine has plans for you that have nothing to do with what you thought you were going to do with your life.
If you want to catch a good wave, there are certain things you have to do to before, during and after the ride. You have to maintain awareness, to see the opportunities when they present themselves (and also to keep yourself safe) – keep watching the surface of the water, looking for the larger, faster moving swells that promise a good wave. If you’re seeking a spiritual encounter, watch for signs of God’s movement in the world (and always try to stay open, so that when it comes you won’t miss it). Over time you will start to feel when an opportune moment is at hand, but there’s never a guarantee that things will “work” as expected – so if nothing happens, or too much happens and you get slammed down into the sand, as it were, don’t let it convince you that the whole thing is impossible.
Most of the time, when a promising wave does come you have to launch yourself into it; if you just float there it will pass right over you. When you meet the Holy, you have to be willing to say, as Abraham did, “I am here”… to decide, at that exact moment, whether you will surrender to it or let it go by. (But be sure you’re pointed in the right direction before you jump!)
In the end, if you truly want to ride you do have to give yourself over to the wave when it comes, give up some control, or you will never get anywhere. If you want to meet God face to face, you can’t make all the rules; you have to open yourself completely to the experience and take the leap of faith, trusting in the Spirit of Life. Remember, once you’ve started the ride, the ocean is in control – you have to trust that it’s flowing in the right direction.
And, finally, one last thought… The waves *will* take you back to the shore, but where you end up may well not be where you started from – or where you thought you were headed.