Spiritual Deepening

“Spiritual Deepening’ a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton

May 15, 2016

Reading- Rebecca Wheeler

I have an old friend, Rebecca Wheeler by name.  She is an American UU and was at the University of Chicago at the same time as I was in seminary there.  Rebecca is a Professor of Linguistics and is presently in a Fulbright Scholarship teaching in Tajikistan this year.

I have been following her travels and we have kept up an occasional conversation whenever her classroom work has strayed into the realm of religion in that Muslim Country.

This week she related this story from her class of adult students:

Rebecca Wheeler
This is what emerged in class. Someone asked a student if they were religious. She answered. Then someone asked me. And my co-Teacher said, “She is Unitarian, she believes in nature, not God”. Well that is a pretty fair description. And as I have a trust relationship with these students, we want there!

So, with the teacher saying, “She believes in nature, she doesn’t believe in God.” I was pretty shocked.  I do NOT say that kind of thing out loud in a public setting, let alone a professional one.. But what was I going to say, “I do believe in god?” Nope. I will not say that, so I said, “Well, yes, that is a good characterization.” Also that SOME Unitarians believed in god. I wrote on the board: Nature, cosmos, infinity, connection and RESPECT…”

At this point, the teacher interrupts me, “Unitarians believe in respecting all living beings and respecting the Earth.”  Wow! She has been reading up on us. YES, YES! Exactly, we believe in RESPECT. and the inherent worth and dignity of all people. “So Unitarians are peaceful,” she observes. Yes.
One student asks me what our sacred book is.
I reply, “The sacred books of the whole world. We will read from the Koran, the Bible, the Tao te ching, from Native American religions. We will read poetry, Hafiz, Rumi, modern western poets. We read literature of the world, and we read science in our churches. We honor and seek the wisdom of humankind.”

A key moment there was their presumption that a religion has one sacred book. My reply was that we draw on the sacred and secular works of the whole world. Not just one.

I had also written Physics, and reason on the board (along with infinity and nature)… And someone observes, “Unitarianism is a very realistic religion.”  And the teacher says, “Maybe the whole earth will become Unitarian. This seems very healthy. We just need to unite the major 3 religions — Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.”  At that point the bell rang….

It was a dang remarkable and candid discussion. These students are respectful and are not frightened or standoffish. I think it blew them away to hear a religion that brings in all of human wisdom…

This whole discussion was wow…  Very cool, very cool.

Instead of using a more obviously ‘spiritual’ reading this morning, I chose to relate my friend Rebecca’s story from Tajikistan.  I did this partly because I rather agree with her…it’s a pretty cool story about cross-cultural interaction.

But also because it points out one of the many avenues of spirituality.  Rebecca might cringe if I called her religious.  Though a longtime UU she considers herself…well she is careful not to say exactly in public,  for she works in a university in the American south…but her theological outlook begins with an A.

She is an avid birder, cyclist and kayaker.  Though I don’t want to impose my opinion on her spirituality, I think that she would agree that the beauty of nature renews and refreshes her.  But she is also a passionate intellectual who thrives in the world of ideas.  The excitement that came through in her messages show that this kind of respectful, educational connection also renews and refreshes her spirit.  And why not?  Why can’t that kind of interaction be deeply spiritual?  Why can’t any activity that lifts our hearts, helps us feel tied to the world or the people or the creatures in it, why can’t any activity like this be considered spiritual?  There is no reason, for spirituality is as subjective as any other belief or emotion.

In Unitarianism no one has the right to tell you what you must believe.  In the same way, no one can tell you what kind of spiritual practice you should follow – if any.  No one has the right to tell you what must move you.  At best, all anyone else can do is tell you what moves them.  Connecting with people half a word away obviously moves Rebecca.

There are many avenues to deepen the spirit,  so many that Spirituality pretty much defies definition.  Here are some examples:

Wikipedia has the simplest throwing hands up in the air version: “There is no single, widely agreed definition of spirituality.”

A journal from the University of Minnesota gets a wee bit more specific, “Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life.”

Psychology Today is perhaps the most comprehensive:

Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to church, synagogue, a mosque, and so on. For others, it’s more personal—some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks. 

Research shows that even skeptics can’t stifle the sense that there is something greater than the concrete world we see. As the brain processes sensory experiences, we naturally look for patterns, and then seek out meaning in those patterns.

Humans can’t help but ask big questions—the instinct seems wired in our minds.

Spirituality is very slippery.

First, it’s not a thing.  You can’t walk into Canadian Tire and buy an extra large plastic wrapped package of spirituality.

Second, it’s larger than any theology or philosophy.  Like many things in religion and ideas, words literally fail to describe the spiritual experience.

Third, as we saw, there is no single, prescribed path to spiritual experience.  Okay, check that.  There are lots of single prescribed paths, but the reality is that no one path fits all.  Each spiritual moment is unique to the person having it.

Fourth, there are no guarantees.  You can practice any discipline faithfully and rigorously and still not have that transformative peak “A-ha!” experience where one suddenly slips the bonds of time and space.  And, that experience can just arrive in any given moment as a delightful and unexpected surprise.

Let’s take a deeper look.  Spirituality is not a thing.  The definitions I shared were all kind of vague and well ill-defined.

My elder daughter just discovered personality tests like Meyers-Briggs.  She now proudly claims the title ‘introvert’.  These tests show that there are several ways to process information and experience, to demonstrate leadership, to learn, to see the world.

Each of us has a preferred way of taking in information.  Some absorb best when they read, some by hearing, others prefer visual or the experiential learning.  The difference applies nicely to spirituality.

Each of us is more comfortable with a definition that speaks to our personality strengths and preferences.  Fortunately the idea of the spirit is large enough to accommodate all that variety.  There is a spiritual experience available to every person.  The bad news is that you kind of have to go find it for yourself.  You can’t buy it off the shelf at Canadian Tire.

Because it is so personal, it cannot be fully captured by words or images.  Religious and spiritual leaders, gurus and the like have tried to share and teach their experience over the centuries.  Some of those teachings have become codified into practices like prayer forms and rituals.  Elsewhere disciplines have evolved like yoga, T’ai C’hi, Zen meditation, sweat lodge ceremonies and the spiritual exercises of Ignatius.

Each of those forms serves SOME people.but not all. But even it fitting you doesn’t guarantee a spiritual connection.  Many people follow those practices, and gain some benefit and calmness just from doing them, but never find that transcendent ‘a-ha’ moment in those practices.  Why?  Because the practice is not the experience, it is only preparation.  The experience is ultimately outside the discipline.

Now, please, this is not a criticism.  These are wonderful activities, good for body and/or mind, and beneficial simply because they encourage us to focus in lives otherwise governed by distraction.  Still, none of these practices promise a peak moment.  The transcendent experience is beyond all practice, religion and philosophy.  It is a thing unto itself.

However, these preparations tend to lead us to a place where we can welcome the spiritual moment when the time is right. It is – you know – practice…preparation for the real thing.  But we have to allow it in when the ‘aha’ comes calling.  We have to let go of the blocks.

Because some of us block those experiences, turn away from those opportunities.  Perhaps we are afraid of them for they are dizzying, disorienting and leave us out of control for a time.

There is someone close to me, living in a far away city, who is so afraid of losing control for a single second that she routinely turns away from anything that could lead to an ecstatic moment.  She lives in a splendid isolation defined by the mundane and the controllable.  I suppose it works for her, but I have my doubts.  I try to not be judgmental, yet I find it a bit sad.

Still, culture is on her side in her choice. I believe that we live in a society that discourages the spiritual.  Ours is a practical world with jobs and schedules and bills and expectations.  The disciplines most of us learn are task focused, designed to help us be productive and responsible citizens, and, of course, active consumers.

That’s not bad, per se.  I believe in responsibility and I embrace the joy of accomplishment.  But I don’t think this makes a full or complete life.  How many books and films and plays are built on the theme of some person coming to the end of dutiful lives and realizing that they have not yet lived?  The message is that we need other experiences to round us out, to complete us.

Spirituality rounds us out exactly because it is outside the practical or the functional.  It is highly individualized, even when the ‘a-ha’ moment comes in a crowd.  I remember standing with a friend one day in nature.  The details are irrelevant, but suffice it to say that the few moments we spent left me with tears streaming down my cheeks.  My friend’s response was a non-committal, “That was nice.”  In fact, that friend is quite a spiritual person, but the things in his life did not all converge to make that moment transformative as they did in mine.

The last little bit I wish to do before I sum up is to note the cycle of spirituality.  I have touched on this before.

In most cultures, the spiritual journey has four stages…though some do it in three.  The four-stage cycle is circular in nature like the seasons.  I begin with the Autumn.  The summer has been good and even and peaceful, but in the autumn of the spirit we sense winter’s chill in the air.  The journey begins with emptying. Like falling leaves there may be feelings of sadness and concern for the future… Maybe there is a loss or an illness that triggers it …something not so good pushes us onto the path.

The second stage is the fallow or wintry time.  It is the time of ashes, the via negativa.  It is the time we too often try to rush through, for we are taught that the darkness is bad and that we should always be seeking the light and warmth.  But there are lessons in the cold and darkness.  It is a time of rest and preparation.  Major religious stories contain accounts of the time of death and journeys to the underworld before rebirth can occur.  The learning happens here.

When the time is right we begin to cycle upwards towards the third stage of spring and rebirth- the Via Creativa.  This is the moment of enlightenment and spiritual renewal and refreshment.  We burst back into the time of light with new energy, new ideas, transformed by our learning.

Finally the fourth stage is the summer- the Via Positiva, our time in so-called normal time when we go about our daily tasks buoyed by the lessons we have learned from the rest of the journey.

Some traditions describe a threefold path.  The Labyrinth walk is an example of the three stage approach.  The first stage, walking into the labyrinth is ‘purgation’ the letting go of all that burdens and distractions.  The winding path takes us unerringly to the centre where ‘illumination’  can occur.  That is where we find the answer to the question we carried in with us.  The centre of the labyrinth is the place of the gift, the teacher.  Finally there is ‘union’ as we leave the centre and begin the return journey using the time to integrate whatever we have found into the life we lead. Three stage or four, you can see the similarities of emptying, discovery and returning.

But here is my final point:  none of these paths are answers or promises.  Rather they are only tools designed to train and shape.

The life of the spirit is about possibility.  All of those practices, theories and ideas simply serve to remind us to keep an eye open for that door that looks out of the daily world and into the sacred universe.  All of this asks us to find ways to pause at that doorway and to remember to step through now and then and welcome the refreshing, nourishing and transforming gifts that are waiting for us to claim as our own.  It can happen walking the dog, washing the dishes, teaching students in a Tajic land, listening to music, being in love, sitting in silence reflecting on our life…it doesn’t really matter.

The spiritual experience comes to us when we are open enough to let it in and mindful enough to recognize if for what it is.