Journey Into Darkness
Our reading this Sunday was titled, “Potbound” by the poet Diana Chapman Walsh.
It was the usual atmosphere you’d expect from a conference. A large room with too much air conditioning, bright fluorescent lights, and people easing in to their seats – a few people scurrying across the room to say hello to people they know, but most sitting and looking around, wondering what they got themselves into.
In this instance, it was a room of about 90 clergy, 8 religious educators, a radical Mormon mother, and a secular Dutch teacher that mistranslated the information about the workshop and was probably wondering what the heck she was doing in a room with mostly clergy.
The lights dimmed, soft music began to be played, some people started singing some sort of song, and once that was all done, the lead presenter jumped up to the front and center enthusiastically. With a massive grin and a very gentle but resonate voice, he welcomed us. He again welcomed us. He welcomed us again and again, looking at as many of us as possible.
A colleague of mine turned to me and said, “This is going to be one of those self-improvement things, isn’t it?” I nodded. She sighed. Indeed it was. One presenter after another that morning glowed about what awaited us, they enunciated their syllables with frightening clarity, and spoke in a gentle lulling tone with a pace that let each word stand out. Anyone that has ever attended a corporate team building seminar, a workshop on empowerment, or anything that even has a hint of being what some call “new age” knows what this looks like.
As a minister, I’ve been to too many of these workshops that start out this way. Most of the people in that room had as well. And so many of us have learned to just give in. To see what unfolds and hope for the best. What occurred over the four days the hundred of us that were there was transformative for some, but worthwhile to everyone.
We had gathered there with facilitators from the Center for Courage and Renewal, an organization founded by the Quaker writer Parker Palmer. Their mission is simple, to nurture personal and professional integrity. And every workshop they hold involves a great deal of one of the most common traits people associate with Quakers: silence. Deep wells of silence.
A silence that made those presenters and facilitators meditative and so thrilled to be there, a silence that Parker Palmer himself entered into with all of us, a silence that caused everyone in the room to be drawn to tears at one point or another several times that week.
We would divide into smaller groups and then even smaller groups, each time entering into silence. One person would share a professional or personal issue they were wrestling with and then, more silence. And from that silence, questions. Open and honest questions in those small groups aimed at the focus person each time.
And you could choose to answer. There was no correcting, no advice from the questioners, just silence, questions, and the gut instincts you discovered upon hearing the questions asked of you. It sounds all too simple. It sounds like anyone could easily enter into this practice. Why on earth would an organization market and sell this?
I do not often like to sound cynical, but one might say there is money to be made in this! And surely there is. But the reason for why is the heartbreaker. One of the sad recognitions the Center for Courage and Renewal makes is that the world we live in fears silence, fears questions, and fears wrestling with our own thoughts.
I can believe much of this. I feel as many sociologists and psychologists feel these days, such as Dr. John Montgomery with Psychology Today, we are an increasingly disconnected society. One thing this past election season that many of us should take away beyond the partisan disappointments is that we are strangers to our own neighbors.
Are we talking to one another – especially when we know we disagree – not for debate but for connection? But beyond that social disconnect, I wonder, how many of us are strangers to our own selves? How many of us avoid sitting in silence with just our own thoughts and fears? It can be a terrifying thing.
To focus on our disappointments, to let our thoughts come and go as they may, to contemplate our mortality, and to focus on the big decisions we’ve been avoiding. It is an amusing commentary on the world when we create workshops to foster the skills of listening to one another, sitting in silence, and allowing open, honest questions to guide our discernment.
That week with Parker Palmer and those other clergy highlighted, for me, how I let my own self be constantly engaged in noise – and by doing so avoid the things I should be discerning for my life and my family and my community.
What is the noise you need to cut out of your life these days? And how has that noise made you stuck? Or better yet, how has it rooted you? Or, as we heard in the poem by Diana Chapman Walsh, where is there no room for you to grow?
These are timely questions for us to be asking ourselves, with it being a New Year with many unknown things awaiting many of us as it unfolds. But with that there is the usual run of resolutions that many of us will write down, share with friends, or proudly proclaim.
I won’t ever ask any of you to raise your hands, but I’m curious who in this room has already neglected the gym membership they bought in the New Year. And I’m more curious how we may have already disappointed ourselves in the New Year with unfulfilled resolutions. They can crash and burn quickly.
I often don’t make any for this very reason, though this year I did, and it is off to a rocky start. No, I won’t tell you what it was. But we do indeed set ourselves up for disaster.
This is not to say all resolutions are terrible. Some of you will use those gym memberships. Some of you will indeed learn to play the ukulele. Or a foreign language. Or pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t talked to in years.
And these will be wonderful things – I do not want to downplay them. But as your minister, I need to ask all of you to do one thing in this New Year. This year where there are many unknowns, as there always are, but for religious progressives, we are finding more than we want this year. I would challenge all of you to find time to disengage.
To sit in silence with just yourself. To let your thoughts come and go as they may, and to focus on figuring out what questions you need to be asking yourself. Truly, what should you be discerning in your own life? It likely isn’t about choosing a gym or avoiding North Lime Donuts.
But what is the one question that will put your life in perspective? What will allow you to reengage, be honest with yourself and others? What do you need to let go of, and what do you need to give yourself to?
The poet Rainer Marie Rilke once wrote of such questions in Letters to a Young Poet,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer.”
Even today, such a statement and such a practice can sound very unusual to us. We are supposed to love the questions? We are supposed to live them? And yes. Live them we must. But not just any questions. We are talking about open and honest questions here.
If we want life-giving answers then we need to be asking life-giving questions. Questions that can be lived into with freedom and with those around us. I turn to Parker Palmer again for such examples.
You will live a very different life, he says, if you ask “How can I get even with those who’ve wronged me?” instead of, “How can I more fully appreciate beauty in my life?” If we take seriously the things we ask of ourselves, of course our lives would be different.
But truly imagine that if you asked yourself instead of, “Which gym should I join?” but “How shall I care for myself this year?”, the answers from the latter allow for an honesty to well up from within and guide us to what we really should be doing. It allows us to engage the spiritual practice of discernment with intention.
Discernment is one of those buzz words that pops up in most religious communities. We do not often hear it amongst Unitarian Universalists unless they are seminarians and I’m not sure why. But we should be using it.
We should be discerning every step we take as a people or else we risk coasting along into irrelevance one day. Discernment is a way by which we come to ask questions of ourselves, our communities, and listen purposefully to the answers.
The Jesuits are known for their discernment practices. St. Ingatius, the founder of the Jesuits, recommended what he called a daily examen, or examination, in which one reviewed the moments of the day, in silence, to see if God was calling that person somewhere by what they had experienced.
He would begin that examination with these words, “Oh God, I give thanks to you for the love you have shown me today.” And then he would list off the love of God he experienced in his life.
Though Unitarian Universalists are of many minds on God and the divine, what if we said to ourselves at the end of each day, laying in bed, “I give thanks for the love I have experienced today” and then went to list off every instance of that love we found. From the mundane to the contentious to the wondrous.
What would we learn about our lives? What questions would come up? Where would we be surprised? Countless motivational posters tell us to pursue what we love – and so where are we finding the love in our lives – what are we remembering in the dark of night as we examine our lives?
Some of you might already be thinking, what if I find I hate everything at the end of the day? Or I can’t think of where love is in my life? Or what if there are no questions popping up to guide me? I have one of those unsatisfying preacher answers: It’ll happen. And it won’t feel good.
Sometimes the well runs dry. To the early Christian mystics, they called it the dark night of the soul. A classic work by St. John of the Cross by the same name, spoke, at length, about his own experience of what he saw as the absence of God in his life. For us, in this room, I’m sure many of us have experienced the absence of our own voice and wisdom.
Perhaps it has felt like inspiration would never come again. And, yes, we find ourselves with no room to grow and it can last and last. There are no satisfying answers to experiencing a dark night of the soul. For the Christian mystics, they saw it as a gift from God – the anguish of it all was somehow joyful for them.
I do not know if that explanation quite works for us in this day and age. But what I do know is that I have experienced that absence of my own wisdom. But when I’ve silenced the distractions around me and let the quiet creep in – and with it, my inner voice with all of its doubts, fears, and shouting into the darkness – a peace has always emerged. A peace that comes carrying questions I’ve needed to ask that are powerful and transformative.
We are going to need these questions in the days ahead. We are going to need to stop and sit in the quiet, listening to our innermost selves. No matter what unfolds, religious progressives have had a shock to their system. A shock that has called into question our certainty, our entire belief system, and, perhaps, an exceptionalism we believed in.
What are the questions we need to be asking in this moment in order to be our fullest and most complete selves in the days ahead? And how will we do this in community with one another? Discernment is not an idle act.
Some of you know, I plan my sermon topics a year in advance. So I wasn’t thinking of this being a post-election somewhat New Year’s sermon in the wake of a divisive presidential election. But that practice of discernment, the practice of sitting in silence and finding those questions inside of you, feels especially important now.
It feels like it can help us foster acts of resistance. When truth and fact are under assault by our soon-to-be leaders, we need to get right with ourselves, hold on to what we love, and discern the truths of our lives. We need facts, too, don’t get me wrong, that’s a whole other sermon. And on top of it all, we need our communities more than ever.
And I do not just mean this place. Or your work place. Or other likeminded places you are a part of. I’m talking about the wider community. Our goals as a progressive people need to include knowing those who are not like us with the hope of encountering love and kindness in the strangest of places. Of course, that sounds quite nice, doesn’t it?
This New Year holds for everyone several unknowns. But our work here is not that we will tackle those unknowns and fix the world. If we can reconnect with ourselves and our neighbors, just a little bit, that will serve us well in being authentic and decisive.
And so, no one likes homework, and if you were anything like me in high school, you tended to just ignore it, but I challenge you to find time for personal discernment.
Sit with your thoughts, silence the distractions, and find out what questions are coming forth as you look ahead in your life. Where are you finding the love in your daily interactions? Do the questions or the sightings of love surprise you? What truths are you learning about yourself?
In closing I share with you the words of Jeanne Lohmann:
Day ends, and before sleep
when the sky dies down, consider
your altered state: has this day
changed you? Are the corners
sharper or rounded off? Did you
live with death? Make decisions
that quieted? Find one clear word
that fit? At the sun’s midpoint
did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites
the possible? What did you learn
from things you dropped and picked up
and dropped again? Did you set a straw
parallel to the river, let the flow
carry you downstream?