Only the Mystery Is

Rev. Josh Pawelek

The Outward Orientation

Our ministry theme for July is witness. As far as I can tell, the last time I preached directly on this theme was July, 2012. I had just returned from the “Justice General Assembly”—or Justice GA—in Phoenix, where Unitarian Universalist Association leaders had dedicated the entire five-day assembly to witnessing Arizona’s treatment of undocumented immigrants; and to specifically witnessing against the racial profiling and other anti-immigrant practices of Maricopa County’s now infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In that sermon I talked about a variety of ways to define understand witness. I pointed out that in more conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical churches, the term witness often refers to the act of naming how God is working positively in one’s life—how God is bringing healing, rebirth, a bright future, prosperity, etc., into one’s life. In mainline Protestant, liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations, the term witness more often refers to the public naming of social, economic and political injustices; and the prophetic call for reform, for social transformation, for justice-making, for building the beloved community.

I also spoke of a pastoral dimension to religious witness. I quoted the oncologist and spiritual writer, Rachel Naomi Remen who once said, “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] I said that, for me, Remen’s statement names “the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them.” Even if we have no words and don’t know what to say, even if we feel inadequate, even if the other’s suffering is beyond our comprehension, our silent presence still matters. “When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, ‘you do not have to endure this alone.’ When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.”[2]

I notice that each of these forms of religious witness orients us in an outward manner, focuses our attention outward. We reach out, call out, speak out, extend ourselves, lengthen ourselves, enlarge ourselves, give of ourselves, open our hearts beyond the boundaries of self. We suffer with. We peer out beyond ourselves to the sacred, to Nature, to God, to Goddess, to the animating spirit of life. We peer out beyond ourselves to human society, to its systems and institutions that perpetuate injustice, oppression, discrimination, and cruelty toward people, towards animals, toward the earth. We peer out beyond ourselves to family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are suffering, who are in pain, who are hurting; outward to those who are lonely, isolated, stuck, stranded, imprisoned.

To bear witness is to assume an outward orientation—to turn, to move, to reach, to peer out beyond ourselves.

The Inward Orientation

You have heard me say many times, in different ways, that one of the central purposes of the church is to ‘send its people forth,’ to cultivate in the people that outward orientation. The church sends you forth to bear witness to the way the sacred moves in the world and to celebrate that movement. The church sends you forth to bear witness to suffering and to be present to it for the sake of healing and connection. The church sends you forth to bear witness to injustice and oppression and to organize and advocate for a more just and loving community.

But the church would be spiritually negligent were it to send you forth without first preparing you. We prepare for the outward look by taking the inward look. We are more effective and impactful in our outward witness when we pause, first, for inward witness.

I remember learning this lesson during my unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1998. CPE is an intensive pastoral care training in a hospital setting. When my supervisors learned I am an adult child of an alcoholic, they guided me into deep reflection on how that alcoholism had shaped me emotionally, and how it might influence my response to hospital patients in treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. What features of my experience might prevent me from being fully present while providing pastoral care to an alcoholic? What assumptions was I carrying about alcoholism and alcoholics that might lead me to misunderstand an individual’s unique circumstances? What deeply-rooted behaviors forged in me through years of living with an alcoholic might subvert my best efforts to provide compassionate care? A lack of clear answers to such questions, an absence of self-knowledge—the failure to peer inward and understand the origins of my adult self—would limit my capacity to provide genuine and effective pastoral care. With no inward witness, the outward witness grows thin, brittle, ambivalent.

I’m mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the steps one must take to insure a successful campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Before placing one’s body in the street, or at the entrance to an official building or a legislator’s office, before offering one’s body to potential violence, to arrest, spiritual purification is essential. In King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] Again this probing, this searching, this preparing of the self is critical. Am I ready? What will prevent me from engaging? What inner fears and conflicts might weaken my resolve? Who am I really? Who am I becoming? Who do I long to be?

Before the outward witness can succeed, the inward witness is essential.

This is the reason I almost always open our worship services with an invitation to interiority. Find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace; that place where you know your truth, where your conviction resides, where your voice is strong; that place from which you reach out to others who are suffering; that place in which you commune with all that is holy in your life. But I’m also suggesting this morning that that place inside of us is not static, is not some unchanging center. It grows as we grow. Our knowledge of it is never complete. There is always more for us to discover about that place inside of us. It is always possible to peer more deeply within; always possible to extend and enlarge our self-knowledge; always possible to more fully grasp the roots of our anxieties, obsessions and fears—and the roots of the roots. It is always possible to more fully understand the forces that have shaped and formed us for better or for worse. It is always possible to rewrite the stories we and others tell about ourselves so that the words and images and metaphors more accurately speak to who we are, who we’re becoming and who we long to be.

We take the inward look to prepare as best we can for the outward look. The quality of our inward witness determines the quality of our outward witness. The depth of our inward witness lends power and confidence to our outward witness.

Only the Mystery Is

The inward witness doesn’t end merely with self-knowledge. Something more profound rests just beyond the base of our self-knowing. Something more profound rests beneath, around, within – though these are words we use to describe something that is indescribable. Earlier we shared spiritual teacher Adyashanti’s poem, “Have You Noticed?” Here it is again:

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions. / All I want to know is: / Have you noticed? / Something is here / my friend. / Something is here / have you noticed? / Only the Mystery is. / The Mystery is noticing that / only the Mystery is. / Have you noticed?[4]

As we witness through layers and layers of self, layers and layers of experience, layers and layers of who I am, who I am becoming, who I long to be; as we slowly come to terms with the forces that have shaped and formed us, it is possible at times to arrive at a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of awareness—a knowledge and awareness that so many words, concepts, and theories humans use to describe reality actually don’t describe reality, actually serve, in the end, to limit reality, to box it in, to confine it. In actuality life and spirit and soul cannot be captured in words and concepts and theories. In actuality life and spirit and soul are always moving beyond the boundaries human beings establish; always flowing, transcending, subverting; always, like the wind, blowing where they may; always, like the wind, oblivious to the borders humans draw on maps and defend with soldiers, walls and drones.

I have no more ideas anymore about / God, consciousness, / the absolute or non-duality. / If you want to talk with me / let us meet where / there are no abstractions.

Adyashanti’s words remind me of those familiar lines from the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi:  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing 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.[5] They remind me also of the pronouncements of the ancient Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, who responds to a question about how to rule the world, “What kind of question is this? I am just about to set off with the Creator. And if I get bored with that, then I’ll ride on the Light-and-Lissome Bird out beyond the six directions, wandering in the village of Not-Even-Anything and living in the Broad-and-Borderless field…. Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are.”[6]

These sages sought, in playful ways, to guide their followers to that ‘something more profound,’ that essence that is full because it is empty, assertive because it is silent, mobile because it is still, something because it is nothing; that ground of being in which we rest yet which we can only approach through a quieting of the mind, through the abandonment of words and concepts and theories, through the letting go of any and all notions of the self.

I am confident that the closer we can come to this ‘something more profound,’ to this place wherein, as Adyashanti says elsewhere, no words can penetrate, [7] the more robust our preparation will be for our outward witness in the wider world. The more we can take notice of the mystery within, where human borders and boundaries and barricades make no sense, the better able we are to transcend the borders and boundaries and barricades that relentlessly separate people from each other and from the earth.

Suddenly the inward witness and the outward witness don’t seem so distinct, may even be the same witness, because ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ are human constructions, human words, that don’t quite capture the essence of reality.  

Suddenly we realize, only the Mystery is / …. Have you noticed?

Amen and blessed be. 

 

[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] Pawelek, Josh, “Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly,” a sermon preached for the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, July 15, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/let-us-not-turn-away-some-reflections-on-justice-general-assembly/#.WzOvL9JKhPY.

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

[5] Jalal al-Din Rumi, excerpt from “Out Beyond Ideas.” See: https://allpoetry.com/Out-Beyond-Ideas.

[6] Watson, Burton, tr., Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) pp. 90-91.

[7] Adyashanti, My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 115.

[8] Adyashanti, “Have You Noticed?” My Secret is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti (San Jose, CA: Open Gate Publishing, 2010) p. 108.

Toward Silence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I shared with you the opening paragraphs of Morris Berman’s 1989 book, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. He describes childhood memories of family gatherings—though it could be a dinner party, a date, a classroom, the lunch table at school or the office, a job interview, a work meeting—any gathering where people are interacting, talking, chatting, connecting, achieving good chemistry—where extended silences appear to be unwelcome. Most of us have had the experience of an unanticipated pause in the conversation, an awkward, uncomfortable silence.

Berman says, “it is as though silence could disclose some sort of terribly frightening Void. And what is being avoided are questions of who we are and what we are actually doing with each other. These questions live in our bodies, and silence forces them to the surface.”[1] This is probably an overstatement. Not all awkward silence holds existential significance. But when it happens to me, I definitely feel a sense of relief when the chatter starts up again, when the conversation carries on, when the chemistry recatalyzes. There’s something in that silence that I—and perhaps we—don’t typically want to explore. When it happens, we don’t say, “ah, this is nice, let’s continue not talking.”

Of course Berman isn’t only talking about awkward dinner party silences. He’s offering a metaphor for all the silences and empty spaces that hover around the edges of our awareness. Whatever resides in that silence, he’s convinced it matters. He challenges us to explore it, rather than start up the chatter again. I find a striking resonance with various passages from the ancient Taoist masters; Chuang Tzu’s “fasting of the mind”[2]; and Lao Tzu’s admonition to “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[3]

****

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a nod to spring’s rebirth transcending winter’s death-like slumber; Easter’s resurrection transcending death on the cross; Passover’s story of the Israelites transcending slavery in ancient Egypt. I’ve been reviewing my previous sermons on this theme, and I discover, not surprisingly, that I come to it with mixed feelings. Transcending adversity or oppression, yes; transcending something in ourselves that holds us back, yes; but transcendence as a quality of God, no. In his Handbook of Theological Terms, which I’ve quoted in sermons before, Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[4]

This transcendent God doesn’t speak to me—neither literally, nor metaphorically. I’ve always dismissed this God in favor of a radically immanent one. Quoting a previous sermon, “I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos.”[5]

****

I originally titled this sermon “I Sing the Body Transcendent.” I thought I was being clever. I thought I could expose God as utterly immanent. I reasoned that human beings cannot have a spiritual experience without our bodies being involved in some way. Whatever counts for you as spiritual experience—whether it is based in emotions, perceptions, thoughts, physical activity, ritual, prayer, meditation—something happens in the body. I wrote in the newsletter that, though God is often described as transcendent, “people across the planet purport to commune with God through spiritual practices that use the body. Do our bodies transcend?” I imagined the answer would be no: our bodies stay here—at this pulpit, in these chairs, weighty, grounded, bounded by age and time, caught in gravity’s pull. If God is real, then God must come to us. God cannot be wholly other. God must be immanent.

We have a monthly meeting called God-Talk. Every fourth Tuesday at 4:30, a small group meets for exploration of what God means in our lives. I asked participants what they thought about my clever idea. They didn’t think much of it. They felt I was simplifying something that doesn’t need simplification. They felt I was reducing concepts like soul, spirit, and mind to purely mechanical, bodily functions, when they are more than that. Not only did they not find my answer all that compelling, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find the question compelling.

But something about the question wouldn’t let me go. I turned to Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. His work on human consciousness and its grounding in bodily experience has been extremely influential on my spiritual growth. Nevertheless, I find reading him frustrating because he compiles vast mountains of evidence, theory and analysis from a wide range of disciplines to point in certain directions, to hint at certain possibilities, but without ever confirming anything. What he says feels right to me, but I’m never quite sure it’s true. As a Berman disciple once suggested, his work comes with a wink; as if to say, ‘yeah, I know, maybe not; but it could be right.”

From here on, I’m winking.

****

One experience common to all humanity is the womb. In the womb, and to some extent through the earliest periods of infancy, we live in complete oneness with our environment. There is no ‘I’ or ‘you,’ no ‘us’ or ‘them.’ There is oneness, what Lao Tzu might call profound union.[6]  Berman argues this is a completely embodied experience. Though we are unconscious, our bodies feel it, and it feels good.  

Then, inevitably …  rupture. We are launched out of oneness. Some contend the rupture happens at birth, others locate it whenever consciousness begins. Berman says, “up to this point, all of us feel ourselves more or less continuous with the external environment. Coming to consciousness means a rupture in that continuity, the emergence of a divide between Self and Other. With the thought, ‘I am I,’ a new level of existence opens up for us. There is a tear in the fabric.”[7]  

This tear, though it has psychological, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions, is fundamentally physical. Our bodies experienced oneness in the womb; thus they experience rupture more keenly than our other faculties do. There’s a barreness, a void, something missing, perhaps a broken feeling. The Hungarian psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, called it the “basic fault.”[8] The British novelist, John Fowles, called it the “nemo.”[9] Berman argues this basic fault nags at us, haunts us, drives us, motivates us. He says, “the enormous power of this feeling … derives from the fact that the basic fault has a biological foundation. It is laid down in the tissue of the body at a primary level, and as a result can never quite be eradicated.”[10]

Berman’s primary question in Coming to Our Senses, is what do we do with this basic fault? What do we do with this rupture that lives deep in our cells, and comes to the surface, often unbidden, not only in awkward dinner party silences, but also in our anxiety, fear, yearning, addiction, attachment, lust for power, desire for control, need for order and stability? His answer? We fill it up.

To be clear, by ‘we,’ he means people living in modern, western societies. He conceives of the basic fault as a western, more than an eastern phenomenon. We fill it up with anything that might recreate the experience of original unity, anything that can bring a moment of relief, comfort, solace, ecstasy, anything that might approximate our body’s womb experience. We fill it with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, video games and other screen-based entertainments. We fill it, perhaps more ominously, with ideologies and isms. Note how nationalism makes some people feel powerful and whole; how being American, makes some feel powerful and whole; how racism, sexism or homophobia make some feel powerful and whole; how fighting against those things, having a cause, makes some feel powerful and whole; or even how having a favorite sports team makes some feel powerful and whole. We fill it up with stories we tell about our people, how we’re moving through history toward some better era in which there will be justice and peace. We fill it up with religion, with visions of Heaven, Paradise, the Promised Land. Note how belief in an all-powerful God, or a resurrected God, a prosperity God, a liberation God, a judging God—some transcendent God to whom we must ascend—makes some feel powerful and whole.

So often we believe we’re transcending, but all we’re really doing is filling the basic fault, attempting a return to the womb, to that bodily feeling of oneness. But none of it works.  None of it fulfills, satisfies, quenches indefinitely. None of it ultimately transcends anything. This is Berman’s central insight. The basic fault—no matter how it manifests in us—cannot be sufficiently filled by anything—no food, no substance, no ideology, no ism, no religion, no heaven, no God—because it is physical, because it is an unavoidable feature of the human condition that can never be fully eradicated.

****

I don’t know if the basic fault is real. There’s a lot it doesn’t explain. But let’s say it’s real and we can’t eradicate it. Or let’s say it isn’t real, but there are other sources of rupture in our lives, and the physical effects are enormously difficult to eradicate, so we live with something like the basic fault. Either way, we can treat our bodies differently. We can tend to our bodies where the basic fault resides. But such tending to the body is counter-cultural. This is Berman’s enduring cultural criticism. We so quickly seek to fill the basic fault; we so readily seek to transcend our condition, because we live in a modern, western culture that, in myriad ways, discounts, devalues, ignores, abuses, embarrasses, starves, stuffs, and shames the body. It’s difficult for us to be truly comfortable in and close to our bodies. And, Berman says, “When you’ve lost your body, you need an ism.”[11]

Tending to our bodies begins with accepting the physical root of the rupture. Instead of seeking transcendence, Berman says “learn to live with the Abyss; recognizing the [basic fault] for what it is. Far more important than finding a [new ism, ideology, paradigm, God, Heaven, etc.] is coming face to face with the immense yearning that underlies the need for [it] in the first place. This means exploring what we fear most … the empty space or silence that exists between concepts and paradigms, but never in them.”[12] He’s essentially saying, ‘let your yearning be. Resist the temptation to fill it up.’

“Do our bodies transcend?” It’s the wrong question. We seek transcendence to fill a void in our lives that doesn’t actually need filling. Instead of transcendence, try silence. As Lao Tzu said, “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[13] As Chuang Tzu said, “the Way gathers in emptiness alone.”[14]

Entering into silence, becoming comfortable with it, learning to just be, begins to relieve us of the need to fill the basic fault. When we’re not dedicating energy to filling it up, we can live more fully in our bodies; we can tend to our bodies physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually where they hurt, where pain, fear and anxiety persist.

So often, transcendence is a denial of who we really are, where we really hurt, and what we’re actually doing. “The true enlightenment,” says Berman, “is to really know, really feel, your … somatic nature,”[15]—your body, your body’s integrity, your body’s magnificence. He advises us not to go up, but to go across, or even down.

****

“The real goal of a spiritual tradition should not be ascent, but openness, vulnerability, and this does not require great experiences but, on the contrary, very ordinary ones. Charisma is easy; presence, self-remembering, is terribly difficult, and where the real work lies.”[16]

****

We have bodies. We are incarnate beings. “Incarnation means living in life, not transcending it.”[17]

****

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Berman, Morris, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (Brattleboro: Echo Point Books and Media, 1989) p. 20.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 54.

[3] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence,” a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT, April 13th, 2015. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/from-radical-transcendence-to-radical-immanence/.

[6] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

[7] Berman, Senses, p. 25.

[8] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[9] Berman, Senses, p. 20.

[10] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[11] Berman, Senses, p. 343.

[12] Berman, Senses, p. 307.

[13] Lao Tzu, The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 199.

[14] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, p. 54.

[15] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[16] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[17] Berman, Senses, p. 315.

On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.