Renewal of the Spirit

by BC

The reading for this Sunday was the poem, “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” – and so begins of the great American stories.  The story of a naturalist, a freethinker, a rugged individualist, and a man that did what he thought best for his own life and experience –

The story of Henry David Thoreau moving to Walden pond to live off the land, away from society, and to draw upon his own experience and the lessons of the natural world.  To suck the marrow out of life.

Henry David Thoreau is a name we hear often in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  It’s a name we proudly speak of.  It’s a name that most Americans are familiar with, having been forced to read Walden in high school or having some passing knowledge of the Transcendentalists and, in the very least, their individualistic spirituality.

Thoreau has a rather grand mythos attached to him.  He is seen as an intentional hermit, someone that had to escape the rush of society, someone that did what he wanted when he wanted to, and a great spiritual thinker that transformed American society and, by extension, informed Unitarian Universalism.

Thoreau was a Unitarian for a good part of his life.  Though he angrily revoked his membership from the Parish and never looked back.  His story even goes so far as to be cited by Gandhi, Hemingway, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Willa Cather, and many others as a guiding light in their own formation.

To this day you can visit the town of his birth, life, and death – Concord, Massachusetts – and walk from the town square, through the woods, and to Walden pond.

Along the way you encounter old foundations of homes that belonged to freed slaves living in the woods, colonies of beavers along the creeks, acorns crunching underneath the entire walk, and even the remnants of the bean field Thoreau planted in the woods.

You can find the site of his former cabin, see the pond he lived so very close to, and simply join in the journey of this pioneering figure in the American mythos.  I’ve walked that journey several times.

The Walden Amble, as it is called in Concord, is a delightful walk in the Autumn as the world turns toward winter and the bright colors of decay in the leaves.  I lived right down the street from the beginning of that walk in the town where Thoreau lived and died and was known as the favorite son of the town.  It is humbling to live amongst history such as that of Henry David Thoreau’s.  I mean, what was not to like about the man?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life..”

These words speak of a human being that was not afraid to dive in to the mystery and wonder of life even in the humblest of things – such as building a cabin and living in the wilderness.  These words tell of a man that wanted to get on with living instead of waiting for death to come upon him.

They are admirable words.  It is an admirable story.  It is fascinating.  It has penetrated our culture in ways scholars still write commentaries on – about all of the transcendentalists and their peculiar ways.

However, whenever I hear these grand stories of the Transcendentalists – these American prophets – especially that of Thoreau, I cannot help but want to spoil it for everyone.  I want to crush the dreams and hopes of these stories and pull back the curtain.

Whenever I hear about Walden pond and Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, I am compelled to remind people that this rugged outdoorsman seen as a pious hermit – would regularly walk into town and drink at the local tavern.  And as he walked home from a night of drinking, he’d carry with him goodie baskets prepared by his mother.

Of course, for us today, in Unitarian Universalism, a tradition that is called by many what Transcendentalism looks like with a church – this story about Thoreau and his cabin is not just about him harvesting acorns, planting a bean field, and writing ambiguously about his hermitage.

For us, and I would contend the way it should be for any who approach the life of Thoreau, it is about one of the sources of our tradition that we celebrate day after day.

Our first source of faith in Unitarian Universalism is, “We affirm and promote 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 which create and uphold life.”

The story of Thoreau is a story that many of us can relate to – it’s a story where we find ourselves compelled to live in mystery and wonder and renew our innermost selves.  It can be inescapable and often at the most inconvenient of times.

What’s important to focus on here, though, in this source, is the wording.  Now I know Unitarian Universalists are accused of being wordy — often to a fault – we love to debate commas and words, but sometimes it comes in handy.  This source of our faith speaks first of affirming and promoting direct experience.

Direct experience.  That which we see through our own lens, our own eyes, our own thoughts and feelings.  The greatest gift that Transcendentalists such as Thoreau gave us today, as Unitarian Universalists, is this affirmation of direct experience.

All that we are, all that we experience, all of our struggles and hopes – they are not just emotions.  They are the most important authority in religion.  But that is also the greatest albatross we’ve been given.

That direct personal experience must not come at the expense of building the bonds of community.  But still, direct experience of the ineffable, of the mysterious, was and is a radical thing in any religious life.

And so we affirm and promote direct experience.  That personal authority and relationship with the world and all those around us.  But then comes the mystery and wonder.  For many of us this can seem like a difficult step.

Are we talking about lofty spiritual ideas?  Well, yeah.  And also no.  Are we talking about the mystical?  Yes.  And no.  Are we talking about God?  Yes.  And no.  As with most things Unitarian Universalist, this source of our faith is an invitation to say both/and instead of an invitation to exclude.

And for us in this room, in this moment, transcending mystery and wonder is truly about how we see the world around us.  How do we pause to take in the images before us, the experiences that present themselves often without our asking.

We embark into the blinding light of each new day, and we find ourselves alive, sometimes worse for wear, but still on a journey with each passing second.  We find ourselves on a blue marble that is travelling over 70,000 miles per hour through the darkness of space around a massive ball of fire, known as our Sun.

If that thought doesn’t cause you to wonder at the immensity of the Universe around us and our smallness at once with our ability to comprehend it – I’m not sure what will cause you to wonder.  And this is not a call to Existentialism.  You can come to that on your own.

But this is a call to stand in the presence of all that we simply do not know about this life and be awestruck with what we do know and the mysteries waiting to unfold for our species generations from now – should we survive.

This is a call to take the one inch picture frame and look at what is around us.  Look at it closely.  Look at it slowly.  Look at it piece by piece.  But no disrespect to Anne Lammot, we need to be able to take the frame away from our faces and let the immensity of all that is and all that could be wash over us.

Perhaps above being a Humanist or a Christian or a Unitarian Universalist – I am simply a mystic.  Someone that revels in mystery.  This first source of our faith begins with what we see – through the frame or simply when we bask in the glow of possibility.

Above all the other sources that we draw upon – this transcending mystery and wonder is what informs me – though inform is too formal a word.  It is what moves me to embrace the ambiguity of life and living and encourages me to lean in and experience it more and more.

It tells me that there is something good and right in how human beings make sense of the world.  It tells me about Moses before the burning bush, about the Apostle Paul being struck blind on the road to Damascus, about Mohammed climbing the ladder to heaven,

Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, and all those men and women throughout the ages who were inspired by the ineffable, the wondrous, the mysterious, and could only make sense of it with the stories we tell today about their lives.

The contention of our Transcendentalist forebears is that such transcendence is not left only to Elijah in his chariot of fire or Joan of Arc communing with the divine, but that we are capable of such moments as well.  We are capable of these moments and we should also not expect them to be so grand as to leave an imprint upon the world each and every time.

But they can be simple. They can be the moments where we find a way forward in the luxury of silence or in the unexpected and mundane.  I hope I am not alone, but I often feel and find a rushing forth of clarity and hope in the most ordinary of moments.  At the grocery store, driving the car, listening to the rain, or simply pausing and breathing and having no expectations for the moment beyond silence.

How about you? When have you felt that direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder?  When have you felt bigger than your small human self?  When have you seen your place in this infinitely unfolding puzzle called existence?  How did that feel and where did it take you?

Do you regret it?  Are you seeking those moments again and again?  Or did they leave you trembling?  It’s important to remember that mystery and wonder can be frightening experiences as well.  We often like to talk about how light and airy these moments can be – especially in Unitarian Universalism.

But fear is a valid experience when in the presence of that which is wondrous – that which informs us directly in our innermost selves.  How can we not be fearful when what we encounter and discover pushes us into places we would rather not be?

Perhaps you thought you were content with that career you pursued or choices you made in your adult life.  Perhaps you thought your life should have been one thing and now you are finding that you must go on to something unexpected.  That is the problem with this source of our faith – direct experience.

It means that we are not just spectators, but we are changed by that which we encounter.  We are changed in ways that welcome and rejoice in and, yes, in those that we dread and run away from.

Both – the welcome and the dread – lead to joy, to pain, to the full spectrum of human experience.  This is our first source.  The fullness of the mystery and wonder of being human and being transformed by living.

William James, the well-known pragmatist philosopher, wrote in his foundational work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, that THE characteristic of the mystical is that which resists being put into words.

We can squabble about the particularities of the word mystical – which is probably not a good use of our short lives – but there is no denying that there are experiences that defy words.  One week ago we talked about the contributions of humanism, naturalism, reason, and science to Unitarian Universalism.

We affirm and promote those contributions not because we are ONLY atheists with churches – we are so much more than that, but because reason and science have given many of us experiences that defy words, that transcend, that give us wonder and a sense of mystery to life.

The week before that we talked of Christian teachings that we draw upon.  And we draw upon them not because we are some weird Diet Jesus church, but because the teachings of Jesus have given many of us, again, experiences that defy words.

They invite us to wonder.  To transcend.  To look at the world differently and anew.  And so it is with all of the sources we affirm and promote – affirm and promote – in Unitarian Universalism.  Now, I am biased.

I feel that this first source is the most important one.  This invitation to wonder and be in the presence of that which defies words is, for me, what makes life rich and worthy.

Should that ever not be a fundamental part of the Unitarian Universalist experience, I don’t know about you, but should we lose our sense of wonder and mystery, then I am no longer a UU.  And we would be no more than a social club.

Now for our more humanist minded folks, or even those of you that came to us as you fled a more fundamentalist tradition – this source of our tradition is not asking you to become a whirling dervish or to be slain by the spirit.  It is, however, asking for you to look at the world anew with each moment.

It is asking you and all of us to narrow our focus, to take the one inch picture frame and look at the world slowly.  To commune with this one and good life and all that is around us.  And when the time is right and the moment calls for it, to take the frame away and be awash in mystery.

We know such a small fraction of what there is to know in the Universe, and part of me suspects that will always be so.  To tremble and to rejoice in the wonder of it all is a worthy response.

It is what fueled the sages and prophets of ages past, the great thinkers, inventors, and scientific pioneers who’ve contributed to the world we now have, and it has fueled all people that have found themselves gathering in community…in wonder, in hope, in expectation.

Glory to god for dappled things, says the poem.  All things counter, original, spare, strange, whatever is fickle, freckled, who knows how? With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; he fathers forth whose beauty is past change.  Praise him.

And so may it be for us.  Praising dappled things, simple and sweet moments of transcendence.  The ordinary, the plain, the wondrous – all that calls us to lean in and be taken away.  What beauty is before you?  Praise it all.