In Praise of Nothing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Late autumn in New England offers many blessings, though this morning I’m not referring to the blessings we typically associate with the holiday season. I’m not referring to the blessings of family, friends and festivity. I’m not referring to the blessings of the solstice, the return of the sun, inaugurating the long, slow lengthening of day-light hours. I’m not referring to the wonderful displays of light and color that emerge in windows and doorways and front yards as the season progresses. I’m not referring to the Christmas spirit, the message of peace on earth, good will to all—or to all the holiday miracles, the Hannukah story, the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem. Yes, all of these are blessings. But I’m referring to something different.

            I’m referring to the way the land blesses us in this season with its barren fields lying fallow—brown, windswept, muddy, freezing, empty. 

            I’m referring to the way the trees bless us with their leafless branches, exposed, web-like and grey against th epale December sky.

            I’m referring to the way the ponds and streams bless us as they slowly begin to freeze, as their surfaces turn cold, hard, dark, sheer. As the Cape Cod poet, Mary Oliver, puts it, every pond, / no matter what its name is, is / nameless now.[1]

            I’m referring to how the long mid-winter nights bless us; how the creeping afternoon shadows bless us; how the rapid dusk blesses us; how the cloaking darkness blesses us.

            I’m referring to how the late autumn quiet blesses us—the absence of bird-song as the singers leave the region for warmer climes; the absence of wild animals as they begin their winter slumbers; the absence of crickets and tree frogs—all the buzzers and croakers and peepers quiet now, no longer filling the night with constant, rhythmical sound.

I’m referring to how a pervasive seasonal stillness blesses us.

****

            Our ministry theme for December is mystery. I understand mystery in are a religious context as any experience, any phenomenon that feels spiritually significant yet has no apparent explanation; any experience, any phenomenon that feels meaningful, but makes no immediate sense; any experience, any phenomenon that feels other-worldly, in the sense that its connection to this world isn’t immediately obvious. Mystery subverts our capacity to reason, for a time. Mystery renders us quiet and still, for a time.

            That’s a very general definition. I remind us that some religions are structured around mysteries which the leaders understand and the followers don’t. Leaders ask—and sometimes demand—that followers accept the mysteries without question. Many of the early Christian Gnostic religions were structured in this way. Gnosis referred to the esoteric, hidden or secret knowledge necessary to achieve salvation. The Church of Scientology is structured in this way. There are many others.

The Christian doctrine of the trinity is often described as a mystery. “How can God be three entities, father, son, and holy spirit, at once?” That’s a question many of you asked as incredulous children in your traditional Christian Sunday school classes.  The answer you so often received back was some form of, “It’s a mystery. Accept it.” Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears are notable theologically for rejecting this kind of answer to this kind of question. They argued, essentially, that the doctrine of the trinity stretched the limits of reason too far and, frankly, had no supporting evidence in the Bible. In fact, that’s the origin of the name Unitarian–one God, as opposed to Trinitarianism’s three.

            Most of you already know this, but I want to say it for the benefit of visitors who are new to Unitarian Universalism, or people watching this sermon on Youtube or reading this text at a later date: There are no theological or doctrinal mysteries at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. (Just in case you were nervous!) There’s nothing we ask you to accept without question, or which we require you to learn in order to be initiated into the faith. In our congregations there are no inner circles of enlightenment surrounded by outer circles of ignorance. We gather around a set of principles which guide our interactions with each other and the world. But they are not secret or hidden truths. On the contrary, they are quite obvious. Furthermore, like our spiritual forebears, we tend to bristle when the concept of mystery becomes code for “don’t ask questions” or “don’t try to understand,” or “don’t think about it,” or, “just accept it.” We bristle even more when the concept of mystery is used as an excuse for lazy or bad theology. We expect to think about our religion. We expect to use our reason in our religious lives. We say, ‘show us the evidence.’

            Having said that, we also recognize that one of the most powerful dimensions of the human experience is our encounter with phenomena we don’t understand and can’t readily explain—our encounter with mystery. When we Unitarian Universalists identify the sources of our religious tradition, the very first is “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 that create and uphold life.”[2] We bear witness to the fact that most human beings, from time to time, have experiences we can’t explain yet which feel spiritually profound and impact our lives in positive ways, move us in positive directions. A reading from the Unitarian Universalist resource network, Soul Matters, says that “the roots of [the word] mystery point beyond the idea of a secret, hidden truth to an experience that renders us speechless.” The reading also refers to the Latin root word muo, which translated literally means“shut the mouth” or “to be rendered silent or dumbfounded.” “It is also the root for our English word ‘mute.’” While we don’t like people in authority telling us to be quiet and not ask questions, when some phenomenon, some experience, some feeling, some beauty silences us, takes our breath away—mutes us—then it behooves us to pay attention.

            The term for that ‘paying attention’is mysticism. For me, mysticism is any practice of noticing, being present to,entering into, or communing with mystery. Mystery is the raw experience. Mysticism is our engagement with it. Though scholars often describe mysticism as the search for an immediate experience of God—sometimes a quiet, contemplative experience, sometimes an ecstatic, even erotic experience—for me, it has never required belief in a deity or active searching for communion with one. In fact, for me, belief may inadvertently destroy the mystical experience. That is, if you have an experience of mystery, and immediately fill it with belief—“Ahh, God is present, God is speaking tome!”—you have actually demystified the experience. You have offered an explanation for that which is unexplainable. You have reasoned theologically in response to an experience that defies reason. You have found a comforting balm to heal the discomfort of unknowing. Many mystics over the centuries have understood this dynamic and have counseled their followers not to leap to theological conclusions in the presence of mystery. The Medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart once said, “I ask God to rid me of God.”[3] That is, if he imposes any prior conception of God onto his experience of mystery, he is distancing himself from the mystery, and ultimately distancing himself from God.

The encounter with mystery is most powerful when approach it with no theological assumptions, no spiritual agendas or, as Meister Eckhart was fond of saying, “without a why or wherefore.”[4] Allow mystery to render you speechless, to take your breath away, to fill you with awe. Before thinking, before reasoning, before speaking, practice being silent, still,empty, barren, dark.

            Notice what such a state accomplishes: the reduction or diminishment of the ego; the softening and waning of the self, even the disappearing of the self. Some mystics speak in more extreme terms of the annihilation, the destruction, or the extinction of the self. In his Divan or Collected Works, the 13th-century Persian mystic, Jal?lad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, wrote, “I do not recognize myself. I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Parsi, nor Muslim. I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; I am not of Nature’s workshop, nor of the circling heavens. I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire.I am not of the Heavenly City, nor of the dust, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell; I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden or Eden’s angels. My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless.”[5]

            The 16th-century Spanishmystic, St. John of the Cross once wrote, “If you desire to season everything, / Seek your delight in nothing; / If you desire to know everything, / Seek to know something in nothing; / If you desire to possess everything, / Seek to possess something in nothing; / If you desire to be everything, / Seek to be something in nothing.”[6]

            The message I want you to encounter this morning, whether or not you identify with the terms mystery or mysticism; whether or not you believe in god in some form or you are an atheist or agnostic; whether or not you perceive yourself as spiritually adept or clumsy; all of us need periods in our lives wherein our egos fade; wherein our selves disappear or merge into the vastness; wherein the world around us grows dim, grows dark. We all need periods of emptiness, stillness, silence.  In a culture as fast and bright, as stressful and anxiety-producing, as materialistic and money-centered, as competitive and mean-spirited as ours can be, having such periods of emptiness, stillness and silence—periods of nothing—are essential for our spiritual health as well as our mental and physical health. Mystery invites us into such periods.

            Emptiness, stillness, silence, . Here in New England’s late autumn, these spiritual qualities surround us. The fields are neither bursting forth with new life, nor yielding up a bountiful harvest. They are barren and unmoving. The trees are neither dotting their branches with buds, nor coloring the landscape with lush summer or resplendent autumn. They are empty. The ponds and streams are not moving, not teeming with fish, not overflowing their banks. They are slowly freezing. The sun does not traverse the entire dome of the sky through endless, bright summer days. No. It hangs low in the southern sky, giving way to long, dark nights.

            This season points more to what is not than to what is, more to emptiness than to fullness, more to nothing than to something. The Rev. Mary Wellemeyer calls it “a special time / of seeing into the depths of woods…. / The underlying shape of Earth, / the hints of stories from the past— / these offer themselves to eye and mind, / now, between the falling leaves/ and the coming of snow.”[7] Indeed, this is a season of absences, of once-concealed spaces now open, of once-hidden shapes now revealed, and of new shadows and subtle shades of grey. Of course, there is still some activity. The cold breeze sweeps a few stray leaves across suburban lawns and forest floors. A critter darts along the edge of the woods searching for some stray morsel. But through the course of any year, there is no season as still, quiet, and empty as the one we New Englanders are in now.

I urge you in this season to do as Earth does.

Do as Earth does.

Settle down into nothingness.

Find the reservoirs of emptiness in you.

Find the great and ominous silences in you.

Find the utter stillnesses in you.

Resist the urge to think, to reason, to explain. Resist the urge to theologize, to speak. Let go of ego. Let go of self. Receive the blessings of mystery. Notice what comes. Notice what the depths within you teach you about you.

****

My prayer for each of you in this late autumn season is that you will let emptiness fill you for a time; that you will let stillness move in you for a time; and that you will let your own silence speak for a time. Rest assured there will be time for lighting lights to signal the return of the sun. There will be time for family, friends, and festivity. There will be time for stories of the birth of a savior, of shepherds gathered in the fields encountering angel song. But before any of this takes over, may you experience the mystery of this season.

Welcome emptiness.

Welcome stillness.

Welcome silence.

Welcome darkness.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Praise nothing.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Oliver, Mary, “In Blackwater Woods,” in Sewell, Marilyn, Cries of the Spirit (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 128

[2] The sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition are listed at https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources.

[3] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p. 68.

[4] For a discussion of Meister Eckhart’s concept of Sunder Warumbe (without a why or wherefore), see Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 59-62.

[5] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 65-66.

[6] Quoted in Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) pp. 216-217.

[7] Wellemeyer, Mary, “Late November” in Admire the Moon: Meditations(Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005) p. 2.

Joyful is the Dark

Rev. Josh Pawelek

We are in the dark season. The sun hangs low in New England’s southern sky, arching quickly along the horizon through the course of each short December day. A few brown leaves still cling to branches on otherwise barren trees. Snow flurries. Storms loom. Lakes and ponds, rivers and streams begin freezing. Wind rattles old windows in dry, dusty homes; heaters rattle and bump as hot air or water flow through old pipes, making eerie yet comforting sounds through long dark nights. 

We are in the dark season. It is our custom to revere light. We sing: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Light to dwell.”[1] We sing: “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view.”[2] We light lights to welcome the returning sun, to welcome Christmas. Just as the ancients celebrated the returning light, we too will celebrate within the great mixing of midwinter festivals: Saturnalia, Yule, Hanukah, Christmas, Las Posadas, Kwanzaa, Epiphany, Three Kings Day—as Barbara Kingsolver describes it, “that excess of holidays that collect in a festive logjam at the outflow end of our calendar.”[3]

But on this late autumn morning the solstice is yet to arrive. Yule logs are yet to burn. The menorah and kinara are yet to be lit. The child-savior is yet to be born. The angels are yet to sing. Presents are yet to be opened. Good tidings are yet to be spoken. The magi are yet to embark on their journey. We are in the dark season. Let us not pass through this season without availing ourselves of the blessings of darkness. As we also sang, “Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surround me. Let my thoughts go where they will; ease my mind profoundly.”[4]

There is joy and comfort and solace and peace to be discovered in the dark.

I offer these words with great care. So many people either prefer to find their joy in the light, or simply find no joy in this season whatsoever. There are many reasons for this. I want to name three I know are present here this morning.

First, Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD—is real. As the sun grows more distant, as daylight hours grow shorter, many people experience mood changes, anxiety, depression, melancholy, sleep problems and more. There may be a correlation between reduced sunlight and decreased serotonin levels in the body which can impact mood. There may be a correlation between reduced sunlight and increases in melatonin levels which can impact mood and sleep patterns. Six percent of the population experiences acute SAD; another twenty to thirty percent experiences a milder version.[5] Many of you experience it to some degree. So, when I say “joyful is the dark,” you may very well say “no; physically, emotionally, mentally, this dark season hurts.

Second, “Blue Christmas.” Not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the season. For some the bright lights, festive music, Christmas trees, messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, with recent painful experiences, recent deaths of loved ones, health challenges, difficult childhood memories. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. There’s nothing merry or happy about it. So when I say, ‘joyful is the dark,” to some it sounds tone-deaf. 

Finally, there’s the current, wider-world political, social and economic context. Given the outcome of the United States presidential election, many of us hold deep, justifiable fears. In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Barbara Kingsolver spoke to these fears. She said “losses are coming at us in these areas: freedom of speech and the press; women’s reproductive rights; affordable healthcare; security for immigrants and Muslims; racial and LGBTQ civil rights; environmental protection; scientific research and education; international cooperation on limiting climate change; international cooperation on anything; any restraints on who may possess firearms; restraint on the upper-class wealth accumulation that’s gutting our middle class; limits on corporate influence over our laws. That’s the opening volley.”[6] Though we don’t know the extent to which these losses will materialize in the coming years, we can reasonably expect efforts to bring them about will be powerful, well-organized, and vicious. If we use the word ‘dark’ in its traditional religious sense meaning dangerous, demonic, evil, then we might say “we live in dark times.” But “joyful is the dark” does not roll off our tongues.

Yes, for some the holidays bring complicated emotions, painful memories. We don’t hide them here. We name them in some way every dark season because they are real and we know to ignore them is to ignore part of ourselves. In naming them we honor the fullness of our humanity. Yet that is also the reason I name the joy to be discovered in the dark. That joy, though subtle, is real too, part of our humanity too. Especially in these difficult, bitter days, I believe we diminish a potent spiritual resource, and we diminish ourselves, if we don’t pay attention to the blessings of darkness and the joy residing there.

To experience this joy, we must first abandon that traditional western religious equation of darkness and evil. We must abandon rigid, binary thinking where light equals good and dark equals bad. Let us strive, instead, to discern the value in both dark and light, to discern how they complement each other. Let us remember that only those who sit in darkness can witness the light of stars.[7]

I find it helpful to recall the ancient Chinese concept of the Tao, the way. Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching says, essentially, “the Tao gave birth to the one.”  Reality begins with oneness. Then, “The one gave birth to the two,” yin and yang—complementary forces that compose reality. Yin and yang dance in and out of each other; they balance each other. Yang is light, spirit, sky, activity, fire, summer, sun, creativity, heat, the sacred masculine, rationality, reason and intellect. Yin is dark, matter, earth, passive, water, winter, receptive, moon, cold, the sacred feminine, instinct, intuition and feeling. Each of us has all of these qualities within us. In fact, everything has all of these qualities within. Chapter 42 continues: “All things carry yin and embrace yang.”[8] Our spiritual task is not to embrace one aspect of ourselves and shun the other. Our spiritual task is to embrace all aspects of ourselves, allowing them to cycle through our lives in the proper time. In the dark season our task is not to chase away darkness with light, but rather to explore what the darkness has to offer, how it might speak to us, hold us, nurture us and, ultimately, how it complements the returning light. Only those who sit in darkness can witness the light of stars.

The early 20th-century German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote of “the flame / that limits the world / to the circle it illumines / and excludes all the rest.”[9] Light only reveals so much. Beyond that hazy circle of light around the candle flame, beyond the last campfire spark, beyond the cozy corner lamp, beyond the corona around each star, there is a vast background of darkness. Rilke says “the dark embraces everything: / shapes and shadows, creatures and me, / people, nations – just as they are.”[10] Instead of sheltering in the light as protection against darkness, Rilke imagines darkness sheltering, holding, nurturing the light. The dark womb shelters the unborn child. Dark space holds the stars. The dark earth nurtures the seed. What might it mean that the dark embraces us?

As Unitarian Universalists we have long celebrated the exercise of reason in religion. Reason helps us think logically; weigh arguments; reach evidence-based conclusions. Reason assures us that our religion is grounded in reality, that we’re not just making it up. Without reason at the heart of our faith we would not be us. But reason has limits. Reason constructs religion based on what we know, but has much less capacity to engage with what we don’t know. Reason gives us religion by the light of day, religion in response to what the flame illumines. We might say it is yang without yin. And yet so many of us intuit truths that lie beyond our senses, beyond our capacity to measure, beyond reason. Such truths play a role in our religious lives too. How do we approach them? We need spiritual paths that don’t require the light, the flame, the brightness of day. We need paths that lead into darkness; for darkness—because it shrouds and obscures, because its vastness resists measurement—requires us to use faculties other than reason. It opens us up to intuition and feeling, invites imagination, invites dreaming, invites the contemplation of things we can’t physically sense or measure. Darkness takes us beyond “the flame / that limits the world.”

In more practical terms, there are times when I feel constrained. We all have such times. I sense something in my life needs to change, but I can’t quite figure out what or how to change. Perhaps I want to conduct my ministry differently, relate to my family differently, parent my children differently, structure my days differently. I want to transform patterns and habits that no longer serve me well. But the frenzied pace of life, the relentless rhythm of my days, the fullness of ministry, the fullness of the kids’ schedules—all of it can feel unrelenting, inflexible, constraining. Often when I need it most there is no room for imagining a different way, let alone doing things differently. I feel constrained.

Until the dark season comes. This is my experience. When darkness becomes prevalent; when I bring the garbage and recycling to the curb on a late autumn evening for the first time after daylight savings time has ended and the dark surrounds me; when I look up from my work for a moment and lose myself in the dark outside my window; when I leave a meeting to go to my car and the sun has set; I am reliably reminded that this experience of feeling constrained—the experience of not knowing how to make the changes I want to make—happens within the circle the flame illumines. It happens within the light of day. It is the life I know. But it is not the life I don’t know. It is not all there is. The vast darkness reminds me there is vastness in me, and a vastness in you. So much is possible within that vastness. Indeed, in darkness lie all the possibilities my light-of-day mind hasn’t yet imagined. In darkness lie all the different ways of being I cannot fathom when feeling constrained by the life I know. When I sit quietly with the vast dark beyond the circle the flame illumines; when I let the quiet calm surround me; when I let my thoughts go where they will, [11] (which takes discipline); then I can let my rational mind go, connect back to my instincts, follow my intuition, encounter the divine. This opening up in the darkness is as reliable for me as the feeling of constraint in the light. In darkness, I regain my balance. The ideas begin to flow. My resolve strengthens.

We are in the dark season. The sun hangs low in New England’s southern sky, arching quickly along the horizon through the course of each short December day. This may be a season of sadness and melancholy for you, a season in which your body, heart and soul hurt. There may be no relief until the sun returns. But I wonder, might there nevertheless be some blessing—some answer to a long-asked question, some resolution to a long-fought battle, some release of a long-carried burden waiting to reveal itself to you in the darkness?

This might be a Blue Christmas for you; there may be no way around hard feelings and memories. But I wonder, might there also be some recollection of a smiling face, good times, caring and companionship waiting for you in the darkness? Might the next step toward healing and acceptance be waiting to occur to you in the darkness? Might there be some balm, some salve to soothe you in the long dark night?

You might feel fearful, angry, lost, powerless in response to world events. But I wonder, might there be some path forward, some source of courage and strength, some reminder to be gentle with yourself and others, some call you haven’t yet heard, waiting in the darkness to send you forth into the hurting, grieving world?

If you feel isolated from your best self, your true self, might the darkness of this season offer some previously hidden pathway home? If you feel isolated from that place inside of you where you commune with the Holy, might the darkness enable you to imagine, in the poet’s words, “a great presence stirring beside [you]?”[12]

We are in the dark season. I wonder, might these opportunities darkness offers to peer beyond the circle the flame illumines, to let your thoughts go where they will, to ease your frantic mind, to imagine, remember, find strength and courage, come home—might it all be the source of great joy?

I pray that it is.

Have faith in the night friends. It is half of who you are.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Helmore, Thomas, ad., Neale, John Mason, tr., “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #225.

[2] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #83.

[3] Kingsolver, Barbara, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2007) p. 285.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Dark of Winter” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #55.

[5] “Seasonal Depression,” Mental Health America. Visit: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/sad.

[6] Kingsolver, Barbara, “Trump Changed Everything. Now Everything Counts,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016. Visit: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/23/trump-changed-everything-now-everything-counts?platform=hootsuite.

[7][7] Apologies: this line is my best recollection of a line from a poem for which I cannot remember the title, author or location. If anyone knows the original line, where it’s from and who wrote it, please let me know!!!

[8] There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. The translation I am quoting here seems to take some poetic liberties when compared to other translations with which I am familiar. But the meaning feels essentially consistent with other translations. I like the words this particular translator uses, especially ‘birth.’ Visit: http://www.taoistic.com/taoteching-laotzu/taoteching-42.htm.

[9] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “You, Darkness, Of Whom I am Born,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 57.

[10] Rilke, “You, Darkness, Of Whom I am Born.”

[11] Jackson, “Dark of Winter.”

[12] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “You, Darkness, Of Whom I am Born,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 57.