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.

How Do We Know? or Spiritual Discernment in the Information Age

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video Here]

“Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”[1] I offer these words as a way to begin exploring our January ministry theme, discernment. When we discern, we attempt to “see with clarity.”

I love this theme for kickin’ off the new year. It can take us beyond the standard new year’s resolutions which—not always, but often—emerge out of guilt, anxiety, self-nagging: I will lose weight. I will be more open-minded. I will exercise more regularly. I will drink less. I will finally write that novel I’ve been aching to write but keep putting off. I will make an effort to connect more with family and friends. I will unplug. These kinds of resolutions are important. They play a role in our efforts at self-improvement. They help us set personal goals. None of them is easy. But so often we make them in an attempt to fix something we imagine is wrong with us. So often they come from a negative-leaning self-appraisal. And so often that negativity comes from outside of us. That is, it reflects societal values—or what we assume are societal values—what can be quite shallow values—and it has very little to do with what we really want for ourselves. Again, there’s a place for such resolutions in our lives, but I think we can and ought to go further and deeper as the year begins. Exploring discernment as a central feature of our spiritual lives moves us away from making resolutions to fix something about ourselves that may or may not need fixing, and moves us towards discovering what is true for us, what really matters in our lives, and what kinds of living will bring meaning and fulfillment. I like how Kathleen McTigue put it in our opening words: “The new year can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.”[2]

So, what do I mean by discernment? To begin, I commend to you Jerry Lusa’s essay in our January newsletter (which is also at uuse.org[3]). Jerry writes, “Discernment is about finding the essence of things.” Discernment is about “going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about [it]. It is the ability to judge well.”  He includes a quote from Anne Hill, a California-based neo-pagan writer, publisher, teacher, musician and blogger. She says discernment is “the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again.”[4]

One could argue—and Jerry’s essay hints at this—that we practice discernment all day long in every context imaginable. Much of our discerning is about our daily routines and feels more or less inconsequential. We discern what we shall eat for breakfast. We discern whether we should take an alternate route in heavy traffic. We discern whether we shall read or watch television before we go to bed. Meaningful living and a life of the spirit aren’t necessarily tied to this level of “everyday” discernment, though certainly one could also argue from a Buddhist, or perhaps a Taoist, perspective that the more mindful we are about even the most mundane aspects of our day, the more meaningful our living will be.

So whether we’re seeking clarity about the mundane or the transcendent, the common or the extraordinary, the secular or the sacred, discernment becomes relevant to our spiritual lives—in fact, it becomes an essential and intimate feature of our spiritual lives—when we pursue it as an intentional process—a thought process, a contemplative process, a process of reasoning, reflecting or ruminating; a process of assessing or analyzing; a process of deliberating, of musing, of praying, of feeling, of intuiting—any process that we use intentionally to bring some sense of order and meaning to our lives; to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; to help us distinguish between what matters most and what matters least; to help us distinguish between what is coming from within and what is coming from without. It’s any process we use intentionally to guide us to our center—or to guide us back to our center if we’ve lost it; to guide us to our own voice—or to guide us back to our own voice if it has grown silent; to guide us to our most authentic self—or back to that self if we’ve somehow grown distant from it; or to guide us to some reality greater than ourselves that we experience as sacred, holy, life-affirming, life-giving, saving, salving, healing, sustaining. In short, spiritual discernment is an intentional process that leads us deeper into ourselves or out beyond ourselves. “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”

And once we arrive there, once we’ve gained clarity, once we have truth, once we have our authentic self or that reality greater than self, then we have the capacity, the grounding, the confidence, the nerve, the will to make good decisions, to judge well, to select wisely, to act with integrity, to move forward on our path, to plant the seeds of our dreams.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy. I think what I’m describing as discernment is very difficult. Even with great intentionality, great focus, great discipline, the line between truth and falsehood is not always clear. The line between what matters most and what matters least is not always clear. Our most authentic self is not always clear. And certainly the nature of some life-giving, sustaining reality greater than ourselves is not always clear. Light shines in but doesn’t always luminate.

This week I’ve been imagining our capacity for discernment as a continuum. On one end of the continuum discernment begins, and there are reasons it is difficult to begin. On the other end … it ends. Discernment meets its limit—we can only gain so much clarity. I want to say a few words about each end of the continuum.

At the beginning we have a situation about which we need clarity. We have raw data, information, thoughts, sensations, joys and sorrows, problems to solve, dilemmas to manage, decisions to make, conflicts to resolve. Discernment begins as we pause, as we lean back, as we enter into that intentional process of thinking, contemplating, reflecting, musing or praying in order to gain clarity about the situation. And, keep in mind, we’re not simply thinking about the situation. We’re thinking beneath the situation; we’re looking for our truth in relation to it, our sense of what matters, our voice, our center, and at times we’re looking for our relationship to a life-giving, life-affirming reality beyond ourselves. But note: the act of pausing to think about a situation, let alone beneath a situation, is difficult in its own right. I’m pretty sure it’s not a natural human tendency. It’s a skill we develop. It takes practice. How often do we admonish our children and grandchildren to “think before you act?” How many times as children did we hear that advice? And ignore it? Pausing, leaning back, taking a breath—for the sake of discernment—is not a natural human tendency.

But there’s more to the difficulty in this information age. The world has changed remarkably in the last decade. When we lean back from a situation today, we are more and more likely to find ourselves leaning into a mighty river of information. When we lean back from a situation today, we are less and less able to pause and  reflect on a situation because the space—mental or otherwise—in which we had hoped to do our reflecting is filling up with more and more information. We are firmly ensconced in the information age. Things move and change so quickly that whenever we pause to discern, we risk falling behind—at least that’s how it feels, and the feeling is potent.

And then one of our devices beeps. Our pop-tune ring-tones interrupt. Even with our phones on ‘vibrate,’ it’s still an interruption. We have to see who’s calling, or texting; who’s pushing what new message.

And of course, sometimes we mean to pause for discernment, but instead we check out our Facebook page. Ohh, my friend (who is not an actual friend) posted an article with an interesting headline at Huffington Post. I’ll check it out. Hmm. Not so interesting, but there’s another author I know. They link to her blog. I’ll check it out. Hmm. This is funny. And wise. Might work for a sermon. Think I’ll tweet it. Oh, a colleague just tweeted the link to a sermon video. I’ll check it out. Uh, this is great, but I don’t have time to watch the whole thing. Wait, Colbert said what? I have to check it out. Hilarious. Ooh, a new video from one of my favorite bands. Gotta check it out. Very cool. I have to share this. Quick, back to Facebook. And so it goes.

Within the span of a decade the number of ways for people to communicate, connect, network, conduct business, report, offer opinion, advertise, sell, barter, share ideas, books, music, movies and inventions has exploded—perhaps not beyond measure but certainly beyond our wildest Y2K imaginings. Information now comes at us constantly. Constantly. We live in a message-saturated society with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands of voices to enter our consciousness every day from all corners. I suspect we’ve all developed unconscious filters to help us ignore most of it; but even still, the flow of information is staggering.

Don’t misconstrue my intent. I am not complaining. I’m not lamenting. I’m not pining away for some lost pre-internet golden age where there were three corporate TV networks, rotary phones, and newspapers printed on actual paper. (Remember Newsweek?) I’m not interested in going back. I’m not one of those clergy who talks about how much we’ve lost in this information age—how terrible it is that we interact as much online as we do in person, how we’ve lost some bit of our soul because of it. We have lost something. No question. But I feel strongly that as long as we can manage ourselves rather than the information managing us, then we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost. I like all the new tools. I’m not an early adopter, but I adopt. I feel very much at home working with email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, I-tunes, and I’m moving towards e-books. I like figuring out how to use the tools to best express and promote our liberal religious message. But I’m also aware that in an information-soaked, data-infused, message-saturated, device-permeated culture, spiritual discernment becomes all the more difficult: discerning the line between truth and fiction, discerning what matters most, discerning one’s voice, discerning one’s authentic self becomes all the more difficult because there is so much information. How do we know which information is accurate? How do we know which information is relevant? How do we know which information will guide us in a healthy, productive, life-giving direction? Where on earth is clarity?

The answer, at least for me this morning, strangely, lies at the other end of the continuum where our capacity for discernment ends. Earlier I read Tracey Smith’s poem “It and Co.” For me this poem as a provocative yet oddly comforting statement about the limits of our capacity to discern. I take “It” to be a reality larger than ourselves—reality in an ultimate sense—God, Goddess, Gaia, the earth, the universe, the cosmos. The “Co.”—the company—is us, humans. We are curious.  We are curious about It. We are trying—we’ve been trying for millennia—to discern the essence of It, but the light we shine never reaches far enough. We never gain clarity. “Is It us,” Smith asks, “or what contains us?” And then: “It is elegant / But coy. It avoids the blunt ends / Of our fingers as we point. We / Have gone looking for It everywhere: / In Bibles and bandwidth, / …. Still It resists the matter of false vs. real …. / It is like some novels: / Vast and unreadable.”[5]

She’s got us out at the far reaches of the universe, the limits of our perception, the end of the continuum. She’s got us at the door to the Holy of Holies, but we can’t peer in. She’s got us at the entrance to the mountaintop cave, but we can’t peer out. In traditional religious language, we can’t gaze upon the face of God. There’s no more clarity to gain no matter how much light we shine in. This ultimate reality is “vast and unreadable.” It “avoids the blunt end of our fingers as we point.” It rests behind an unpiercable veil. It is, in the end, utterly mysterious. And knowing this is important. Because here is a space that will never fill up with information.

Here we can pause, lean back, breathe. And while we can’t name what we’re leaning on, here we also aren’t caught in a river of constant data. Here we aren’t drowning in a sea of new facts and opinions. Here we can discern. We can’t discern It with a capital I. But we can move beyond the beginning of the continuum where information is flowing relentlessly. We can look closely at the situations of our lives. We can gain clarity. We can’t discern ultimate reality, but in the space it provides we can certainly discern our truth, our own voice, our most authentic self, and the things that matter beyond ourselves.

And we don’t have to go to the far reaches of the universe to enter this space.  There are hints of this everywhere: in the dark of winter; in the cry of a newborn baby; at the mountain peak; in the lover’s embrace; in the watery depths; in the nonviolent resistor’s courage; in crashing waves and tidal pools; in the wild abandon of children in summer (acting before they think); in those old stone fences running through New England woods; in the farmer rising before dawn; in crocuses breaking through the still frozen March ground; in elders sharing their stories and their wisdom by the light of a blazing fire. In all of it some mystery abides just below the surface constantly calling to us, constantly beckoning—some vast and unreadable essence, some beautiful and compelling but obscure essence, some take-your-breath-away, put-goose-bumps-on-your-fore-arms, send-chills-up-and-down-your-spine essence, some holy hallelujah cry just below the surface. And yes, the second we try to name it, the second we point our blunt fingers at it, the second we shine too bright a light, it slips away. But it keeps calling.

Some will find this confounding. I don’t. I find it comforting. There is something deeply comforting for me in the constant presence of a mystery constantly calling out to us, constantly presenting itself to us, constantly inviting us to seek, to search, to discern, even if it remains elusive. Its presence makes us curious. Mystery makes us curious. One of the most central and endearing human qualities is curiosity. If the presence of a vast and unreadable mystery inspires curiosity in us, then it invites us to be human. It invites us to discern. It invites us to plant the seeds of our dreams. Consider this: the absence of mystery doesn’t offer such invitations. Curiosity is a lot more challenging in the absence of mystery. I prefer the mystery. I know it may never be revealed, but there’s a lot we can clarify along the way. Thus, may we continue to seek. May we continue to discern.

Amen and blessed be. And Happy New Year!



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

[2] McTigue, Kathleen, “New Year’s Day,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #544.

[3] Navigate to http://uuse.org/topics/monthly-ministry-theme/ and scroll down to “January Ministry Theme: Discernment” (posted 12/31/2012).

[4] Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater (Bodega Bay, CA: Serpentine Music, 2012).

[5] Smith, Tracy K., “It  & Co.”  Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011) p. 17.