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.

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.