Up Into Beauty

Last week I offered my reflections on the spiritual blessings of New England’s late autumn landscape; how its empty fields, its leafless, grey branches, its slowly freezing ponds and streams, its long, dark nights, its silences and stillnesses invite us into our own emptiness, darkness, silence, stillness, nothingness. In response to the natural mystery of the season, I spoke of letting the ego recede, letting the self disappear. I said, ‘do as Earth does.’ Let emptiness fill you for a time; let stillness move in you for a time; let silence speak in you for a time. I suggested we learn to ‘praise nothing.’ There is great spiritual value is letting ourselves lie dormant.

You may have noticed echoes from last Sunday in the lyrics of the opening song, Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer’s “The Mountain.” There’s a movement in the song away from distraction, away from sensation, away from the noise and allure outward manifestations of organized religion: prophecy, temples, fine altars, tall hats and robes spun fine—a movement of our spiritual focus back to the earth, in this instance to the immensity—perhaps the mystery—of the mountain. They sing “I see the mountain and that is all I see.” And in this seeing the self disappears: “Miller take me and miller grind me / Scatter my bones on the wild green tide / Maybe some rovin’ bird will find me / Over the water we’ll ride.”[1]

You may also have noticed echoes from last Sunday in the words of the meditation from Elizabeth Tarbox: “Grey, the color of the lake before sunrise; grey, the underside of the gull that flies overhead while the earth … searches for morning…. In the bright red and green, and blue and gold of the season, and the noise and the festivity , give me grey, for the quiet of my soul, the moment of heaviness before sleep, the peace of meditation.”[2]

The late autumn season continues through this week. The earth’s northern latitudes now face as far away from the sun as they can through the course of any year. The dark hours are as long as they can be, the stillness, silence and emptiness of the season are as deep and pronounced as they can be through the course of any year. The solstice comes next weekend. Christmas comes shortly after that. The northern hemisphere will then lean back toward the sun, though our bodies will not perceive the change immediately. Despite the return of the sun, and despite the occasional winter storms that are sure to come, the landscape will continue in its emptiness, stillness, and silence for a few more months. The opportunities for us to ‘do as Earth does’and bring these spiritual qualities into our own lives remain well into winter.

 Remember our ministry theme for December is mystery. I acknowledge I’ve been speaking as if this particular seasonal descent into mystery—into emptiness, silence, stillness, darkness, nothingness—is easy, common, something everybody does. “Just reduce your ego, let go of yourself. No big thing.” In truth, not everybody does this. In fact, I suspect most people don’t  do this, at least not well. It’s not easy at all. Yes, sometimes mystical experience comes upon us, the self disappears for a moment into the vastness, into oneness, but it returns quickly. The mystical experience is fleeting, hard to hold onto. The other way into it, of course, is through some disciplined spiritual practice: meditation, prayer, yoga, chanting, sacred dance, etc. Over time, such practices can lead one to mystical experience, to the ineffable, to communion with the Holy, to the disappearance of self, to deep, lasting silence and stillness. But this usually takes years of practice and learning, often under the guidance of a mentor or spiritual director. I’m not pointing out these challenges to discourage anyone. I’m simply acknowledging that the descent into mystery I’ve been naming—this descent into the quiet, still, dark, empty spaces within ourselves—doesn’t always happen. It is not easy. It may seem intuitive to some of us, but unless we practice, our intuition will only get us so far.

 It’s not easy for two reasons. First, it’s not easy because we inhabit these bodies filled with elegant arrangements of neurons that enable us to sense the world, to touch, taste,smell, hear, see. Obviously some of these senses wane as we age; and not everyone is born with a full complement of senses—some are deaf, some are blind. My point is that our bodies sense. Our bodies feel. Our bodies perceive.And as deep as we may enter into states of emptiness, darkness, silence or stillness,our senses will always pull us back into the world of light and color, sound and music, pleasure, and pain, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, and all the various fragrances and aromas. It may be possible to resist the pull of our senses. It may be possible to gain exquisite control over our sense-driven impulses. But, as the Buddha learned, we have to eat. We have to live in our bodies. We have to tend to our bodies. We have to care for our bodies.

The second reason it is challenging to stay in emptiness, darkness, stillness, silence, is because we humans have evolved as meaning-makers. We want to feel at home in the world, so we’ve learned to tell ourselves stories—cultural stories, religious stories, family stories, national stories—to help us feel at home in the world. We want to feel hopeful about the future, so we tell ourselves stories that engender hope. The descent into the mysteries of emptiness, darkness, silence, stillness, nothingness is a movement away from meaning, away from our practices and habits of meaning-making. It is a break with and from meaning. The spiritual value of doing as Earth does in this season, of resting the mind, the senses, the feelings, of easing the self back, is immeasureable; but it is also immeasureably difficult for us to stay there because our desire for meaning is so potent. This desire pulls us up out of the depths.

Sometimes we can go too far into meaninglessness. We can get stuck in meaninglessness—or we worry we’ll get stuck there. Our musical meditation this morning was the song, “Blue-Spotted Tail,” by the Fleet Foxes. I hear in it a very human longing for meaning in response to the apprehension many people have that maybe there is no purpose in the universe, no point to our existence, that maybe all there is, ultimately, is emptiness. They sing “Why in the night sky are the lights hung? / Why is the earth moving ’round the sun? / Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one…. / Why do I do all this waiting then? / Why this frightened part of me, it’s fated to pretend? / Why is life made only for to end?”[3] They don’t answer these questions. They leave them hanging, open, still searching, still longing, as the song ends. There’s an important insight here: meaning is often the only thing that stands between us and alienation or despair. If we have no story to help us feel at home in the world, then we feel alienation. If we have no story to help us feel hopeful, then we feel despair. The voice in the song is the voice of a person teetering on the edge, perceiving a vast emptiness, longing for meaning, and not finding it—yet. The lyrics don’t convey a full-blown existential crisis, but the person is struggling to find meaning. How can we have experiences of emptiness and nothingness in our lives without getting stuck in a kind of spiritual alienation and despair that overwhelms meaning entirely?

 Once again, I say, “do as Earth does.” Remember that nothing about this season is permanent. Remember that this season is but a portion of a larger cycle. Remember how Earth cycles through days, through seasons, through years, through millennia. These cycles contain their own mysteries which offer themselves for our contemplation and our meaning-making.In her meditation, “Shadows of Unknowing,” Elizabeth Tarbox first invites us to descend into the grey of the season, the silence and peace of the season. prophecy, This is last week’s sermon.

Then, she invites us back.

“The earth bows to find the dawn and feels its first slanting beams.”[4] She’s right at the point of transition in the cycle from night to day, from the greyness of pre-dawn to first light. Then she explores what it means for her. “Can I take this as a promise,”she wonders. “That after the questions, the doubts, and the hours of contemplation, there will be gold through the grey, promise fulfilled and truth revealed. I don’t know, but I believe in small epiphanies, a single beam of light in the darkness, some sought-for star, some one certainty emerging from the grey.”[5]

She not overstating a promise that isn’t there. She’s not assuring us of anything she can’t prove. She’s just moving along with the natural cycle. She’s letting her own body—in this case her eyes that perceive the arrival of dawn—pull her up from the grey, from the quiet, from nothingness, into the sensual world. And in that transition she finds a kind of confidence, faith, hope; enough to say, in the very least, “I believe in small epiphanies.”

Do as Earth does. With the season,descend down into nothingness, emptiness, stillness, quiet where there is no knowing, no perception, no self, and no meaning. Then, as Earth moves, let yourself move with it. Let your body, let your senses pull you back up—a sensual, perceiving,knowing, meaningful ascent.

 I call this sermon “Up Into Beauty” as a way of naming this sensual, bodily movement up from emptiness and nothingness. I notice that those moments when our senses perceive Earth or Nature moving through cycles, crossing thresholds, making transitions—those moments are often filled with beauty—breath-taking, language-defying, memory-evoking, mysterious beauty—the transitions from yesterday to today to tomorrow, from season to season, from generation to generation, from mountain spring to steam to river to ocean, the phases of the moon, the rhythm of the tides, the coming and going of storms: beauty arises in these precious moments.

The band played the Hothouse Flowers song, “Thing of Beauty,” which offers a cascade of images from such moments in Nature. “Lookout your window on a winter’s morning / Your breath is steam and there’s frost falling / And the sun casts a spell upon the road / A thing of beauty is not a thing to ignore.” There are images of evening and moonlight, water dancing upon stones, the secrets of dawn, the secrets of the night, the wonder of a bird in first flight, the mother who finally knows her child is grown, the wonders of the changes in the world, the mystery of sound, the glory of the sun. It’s a call to rise up and sense beauty, experience beauty. “Face up to morning / Face up to day / Face up to reality…. / There is so much to breathe, see, know, understand and do.”[6] It’s an invitation: “Can’t you feel it, can’t you see it?”

As a complement to the song, I offered Lynn Ungar’s meditation, “Salvation:” “Haven’t you seen / the way snow curls down / like a fresh sheet, how it / covers everything, makes everything /beautiful, without exception.”[7]

Perhaps earlier I spoke in a misleading way. I said it’s difficult to stay in that seasonal place of emptiness, silence, stillness, darkness, nothingness, first because our bodies are sensual, and as they sense they pull us back and up to the world; and second because our longing for meaning pulls us back up to the world. But in truth, it isn’t one or the other. It isn’t either/or. It’s a cycle back and forth between emptiness and fullness, between silence and sound, between stillness and motion, between darkness and light, between the mysteries of nothingness and the mysteries of the physical world. We encounter beauty as we descend from the world. We encounter beauty as we ascend to the world. Beauty arises as we move between dark and light. Beauty arises as we move between stillness and motion, between silence and sound, between unknowing to knowing.

Here in New England the dark season blesses us with its invitation to let self recede into nothingness for a time. But just for a time. The cycle now approaches a point of transition, a turning, an alteration. Do as Earth does. As the solstice arrives, let your body respond, softly, gently, slowly. Let the lights pull you up into the world. Let the tastes and the smells of this holiday time pull you up into the world. Let the sounds of carols and Christmas songs pull you up into the world. Let the touch of family and friends pull you up into the world. Let the stories pull you up into the world.

Search for meaning. Stay close to Earth as you do. Stay close to Nature as you do. Beautiful, brilliant stars may not lead magi to a savior, but they may offer guidance to those who are lost. Virgins may not give birth to Gods, but there’s something of divinity in every newborn. Angels may not appear on cold winter nights singing to shepherds and proclaiming ‘peace on earth, good will to all,’ but we can respond to such messages nevertheless. We can build beloved community here and in the world. There is reason to be hopeful.

Do as Earth does.From the emptiness, darkness, silence and stillness of the season rise up into beauty.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Carter, Dave and Grammer, Tracey, “The Mountain” from their 2000 album, Tanglewood Tree. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0ZhdcvUta0.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” Evening Tide: Meditations by Elizabeth Tarbox (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 50.

[3] Fleet Foxes, “Blue-Spotted Tail,” from their 2011 album Helplessness Blues. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teElNB0WuDI.

[4] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” p. 50.

[5] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” p. 50.

[6] Hothouse Flowers, “Thing of Beauty,” from their 1993 album, Songs From the Rain. see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woa0GFwhciQ.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Salvation,” in Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House, 1996) p. 21.

Ministers Column December 2018

Star of wonder, star of light, star, with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us through this prefect night.

Our theme for December is mystery. My thoughts go immediately to the barren December landscape—the leafless trees, the empty fields, the brownish lawns, the slowly-freezing lakes and ponds, and, perhaps most significant, the long, dark nights. There’s something utterly mysterious about a dark, pre-winter sky, dotted with star light and perhaps a silver sliver of moon. It’s not surprising to me that the birth story of Jesus features a night sky and a shining star (though I’m mindful that we should not equate winter in ancient Israel with winter in 21st-century New England).

I love the long, dark nights at this time of year. To behold the late autumn night sky makes me feel infinitely small and impossibly large at the same time. It makes me feel completely insignificant and also informs me that my life matters. It makes me feel alone, apart, isolated and entirely related to the whole of life. These sets of dual feelings—these both/ands—are part of the mystery of this season. In response, all I can do is pause and wonder.

I choose that word ‘wonder’ very intentionally. Wonder is, I believe, the appropriate response to mystery. Wonder is the appropriate response to phenomena and experiences we cannot explain rationally. Wonder is the appropriate response to profound—and at times profoundly mixed—feelings in the presence of the inexplicable. Wonder is the appropriate response to beauty that takes our breath away. Wonder is the appropriate response to mythical stories that cannot possibly be true, yet which nevertheless contain truth.

In the response to mystery, we have choices. We can choose to downplay or deny the depth of our feelings. I could say, “It’s just night-time. There’s nothing else going on. If I’m feeling something profound, it’s just some chemical reaction in my body making me feel that way.” Or, we can offer supernatural explanations: “God wants me to feel this way.” However, both of these responses, by providing explanations, undercut the power that comes with just letting the mystery be mysterious!

I prefer to wonder. What does it mean that I feel this way—big and small, significant and insignificant, alone and connected? How is it that I can contain all these feelings at once? What does the immense darkness mean to me? What do the stars mean to me? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it awesome? What if there were a God (goddess, spirit, energy, source) that created all this? What kind of being would that be? What might they expect of me? Of us?

Moreover, when it comes to miraculous Christmas stories of virgin births, angels singing to shepherds and magi following stars, of course, we can explain it all away as mythology. But what if explaining it away wasn’t our first response? What if we simply let our hearts and minds wonder about the meaning of the stories?

When we respond to mystery with hard and fast explanations, we lose something. However, when we respond with wonder, we gain. Wonder creates space for questioning. Wonder allows the mind to traverse paths it may not otherwise traverse. Wonder allows for creative thinking. Wonder allows for an assessment of one’s feelings.

As we enter into the holiday season, mysteries abound. Let us not explain them away too quickly. Let us meet them with wonder.

 

With best wishes for a wonderful holiday season,

—Rev. JoshRev. Joshua Pawelek

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.