When I was about ten years old, my father, a biological research scientist, took our family on a trip up to the top of the mountain directly across from Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States, in California’s Sierra Nevada range.
Unlike the majestic, snow-covered landscape of the Sierras and the Rockies, the place he drove us around perilous curves was dry and desolate — like the desert heights of biblical lore, like the ones overlooking the Promised Land.
He brought us there to see what, at the time, was thought of as the oldest tree in the world, a gnarled bristle cone pine, if my recollection serves me, nothing much to look at, scrubby and ordinary. Yet and still, my experience of being up that high in that ancient a place was as close as I have ever been to what some call God, connected to a timelessness and a unity that is barely translatable in common language. The stuff of stuttering, like Moses did, when in that legend in the Hebrew Bible, he came down from the mountain top and described his own strange encounter with a burning bush.
What I have told you this morning out of a decades-old memory is what is commonly called a mystic experience; a sense of awe and wonder and that over-used and abused word, mystery. Quaker theologian Rufus Jones, an immensely popular spiritual thinker in the middle of the 20th century and an influence on spiritual activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., while believing in the healing and vitality of mystical encounter, divided mystics into two classes. He called them negation mystics and affirmation mystics. The first class sought what depth psychologist Abraham Maslow would later describe as peak experiences, the ecstatic rapture of the union with the divine, which Jones regarded as spiritual escapism.
Rather, we are told, he looked to those he described as affirmative mystics for guidance. Such mystics, whatever experiences or visions they had, in his words “do not make these the end of life (that which we aspire to) but the beginning of life.” He valued not the vision but the way in which the mystical experience empowers the participant to service in the world. For Jones, the mystical is to be sought, he said, not for its feeling state, but for what he called its motor effects, its social utility, its usefulness in transforming us and in doing so, transforming our society as a whole.
Rufus Jones and his sense of affirmative mysticism — that which does not humble us or deprive us of our will and power, but rather inspires and empowers us — was the mentor and model for African-American preacher and teacher Howard Thurman, who in turn was the most influential spiritual figure in the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. For King, as with his religious mentors, it was mysticism that fueled social change and in particular the civil rights movement. And not just the individual mountaintop variety, but most especially the mystical experience that, as Rufus Jones put it, flourishes best in groups. For him, this happened in the Quaker-style worship, with its rhythm of silence and spontaneous word.
What does a group experience of mysticism look like? How do we develop and enhance what might be called a congregation of mystics? For me, it has meant looking outside the Unitarian Universalist framework for memories and models.
While I usually call myself a lifelong Unitarian, which implies an unbroken line of UU membership and worship, truth is, there was a three-year period in my mid-thirties when I left the congregation which had been home to me and my children. The leaving was painful; the result of what I still believe was the mishandling of a case of sexual misconduct on the part of the senior minister. My friend Bonnie and I learned about a very religiously-liberal congregational church across the San Francisco Bay from where we lived, a place where the creation spirituality work of former Catholic priest Matthew Fox was being discussed, where Rabbis Joseph and Nathan came to sing, and where on any given Sunday morning the congregation would be led in what seemed to me to be unprompted, heartfelt, a capella song. In music from the emerging Taize style, some of the music you have heard and sung this morning.
The minister was a very short man with a very large voice. The opening words were always sung, softly at first, and then rising: Ubi Caritas et amor. Ubi Caritas, Deus ibi Est. Where there is charity and love, there is God.
Where there is charity and love, there is God.
For this religious Humanist to be as moved as I was week after week by this simple chant never failed to astonish me, and astonishment is a good and motivating thing. There were other songs we learned and sang as the spirit seemed to move that minister, others from the Taize community in France, permanent home to around 100 Catholics from different Christian traditions, from over twenty-five countries and every continent. They have made a life commitment to live together in joy, simplicity, and mercy, as what they call a “parable of community,” a sign of what they see as the call to reconciliation at the heart of the world. Life at Taize, following the monastic tradition, has always turned around three axes: prayer, work, and hospitality. Their prayer tradition, their worship tradition, in which singing and silence and spoken sharing are central, has attracted thousands of people, especially refugees from political oppression and young pilgrims, and influenced congregations all over the world.
In the time I was part of that Tiburon Community Congregational Church — in part because of the power and simplicity of its very ecumenical worship life — it grew in reputation and influence, with bus loads of spiritual progressives making the trip up the hill to its unassuming sanctuary, knowing that they would be rewarded and sustained by a sense of connection and wonder. And energized, like the Taize brothers and sisters, to make a difference outside the walls of their religious community.
Might that be part of the model for a renewed Unitarian Universalist worship and movement?
Another example of mystical community for me has always been the home church of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the heart of the old Sweet Auburn district in Atlanta. Even in its new, grand sanctuary, there is a sense of deep intimacy and a call to keep the tradition of spiritual activism alive. I was there just the other night, on the opening day of the annual King week celebration, to hear the gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama. From their soulful rendition of Amazing Grace to the regular calls to us to let each other know that “things are going to be all right,” to the singing and swaying and calling and responding, all the elements led to a sense of rich and unbreakable human bonds, and of a tie to a larger interconnection.
Might this deliberate and artful creation of a spirit of mutual caring also be a model of a renewed Unitarian Universalist worship and movement?
My friend and colleague Rev. Dr. Paula Gable handed me an article a little while back that she had copied from Congregations magazine, a publication of the Alban Institute, a kind of liberal religious think tank and clearinghouse. See what you think, she told me, and ignore the Trinitarian language. It was a piece by a Christian minister and theologian, Graham Standish, on the ways we might create congregations of mystics, and in doing so, reignite our passion for encountering and experiencing God or the common good, however we define it. Is there a more spiritual way, he asks, of doing church? So I did, and what I found, even when doing a lot of internal translation of its God language, was both challenging and compelling.
Standish describes how his seminary experience seemed dry and lifeless, caught up in ethical, moral, and theological equations. He described the central message of his training as “Live According to the Bible and the Golden Rule, study the text, say that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, and win a Free Trip to Heaven.” It was only when he began to learn about, study about, and emulate the lives of mystics like Francis of Assisi and Julia of Norwich, who he saw as seeking to love God with everything they have and love others as themselves, that he had any sense of being spiritually fed. Their pursuit of these loving relationships defines them. Point to any renewal movement in any church, indeed in any religious tradition, any movement that truly leads people to directly experience and encounter God or the Spirit of Life, or human unity, and you will, he tells us, discover mystics at the core.
Despite this evidence, there is now and always has been resistance to the mystics among us and the mystical impetus within religious communities. Standish maintains that most congregations have become functional rather than spiritual. They function like organizations whose main task, he observes, is offering religious programming rather than a body incarnating and opening people to the Holy.
The people of today, he says, yearn for much more than just a routine set of rituals and practices. A 2003 survey of mainline, not fundamentalist parishioners, found that spiritual foundation was an integral part to a very great extent of the motivation of why they joined a religious community for more than 40 percent of the respondents, yet only 6 percent reported that spiritual formation was an integral part of their immediate congregational or the greater denominational life.
Part of the reason for the disconnect, the author of this article suggests, is that the leaders that are called forth at both the lay and ordained professional level, are chosen for their functional abilities. Does he have experience in management? Is she organized? Do they have the ability to get things done?
We rarely ask them where these leaders are spiritually. We rarely ask if they have well-developed spiritual practice, whether that means in our UU tradition, a belief in a conventional God or a sense of deeply-rooted interconnection and individual wholeness.
We do not seek for spiritual openness. We do not trust that there are leaders who are, as Standish calls them, mystics operating in the “real” world.
How do we fan the mystical embers of religious community? Standish proposes that there are specific practices and techniques that congregations can adopt, such as offering spiritual retreats, classes on all kinds of prayer and meditation, and programs on spiritual practices. But, he says, congregational transformation requires more than a shift in programming. It requires, in his words, a new way, a more spiritual and mystic way, of doing church.
Much of what he describes is problematic for me, quite frankly, as a religious Humanist for whom, as I have indicated, anthropomorphic God language is simply not helpful. He says, for instance, that the business of our congregations would be spiritually enhanced by tossing out Robert’s Rules of Order for more reliance on asking leaders to call upon the will of God. But there is a kernel of deep truth for me in remembering that there is power in discerning what is in the best interest of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, and what we Unitarian Universalists often call, our beloved community.
He calls for congregations to be less reactive and less pro-active and what he calls more spirit-active, moving more organically, less according to corporate planning, in tune with the natural rhythms and energies of a particular people in a particular place and time.
He asks us to create congregations where people can freely share their mystical experiences, their mountaintop encounters, their deepest connections, whether in sermons, newsletters, websites, groups, and conversations, without fear of ridicule and with opportunities for support and guidance.
Unitarian Universalist minister Tom-Owen Towle reminds us that our liberal religious tradition aspires to be an intentionally diverse and inclusive religious enterprise. Consequently, he notes, our history has contained a Joseph Priestly, whose wisdom came through the empirical avenue of science; a Margaret Fuller, whose transcendentalism honored internal communion with the divine, a William Ellery Channing, who claimed reason was the doorway to spiritual enlightenment, and a Clara Barton, who found transformation through service.
We seek, as he writes, to live reasonably, intuitively, and compassionately.
Our mysticism may not be the mysticism of more orthodox faiths, but in the words of our own Jacob Trapp, a preeminent UU mystic:
I like to think of mysticism as the art of meeting reality, the art of richer and deeper awareness. It is an experience that comes unbidden… the ineffable experience of that Oneness, flooding in to overwhelm our illusions or aloneness and separateness. There are moments when life seems vivid and resplendent, when a more than mortal splendor breaks in, when there is a touch of grandeur and of glory in just being alive.
If that be mysticism, I call myself a mystic, having gone to the mountaintop and felt that sense of wonder and connection, or held my babies for the first time, or touched the hand of a stranger and known we are part of something larger and deeper and more unified.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “mystic” and how comfortable are you with mystical experiences and the possibility of creating a culture in this community that makes this a norm?
In this congregation, what nurtures the mystical life among your members, and what acts as an obstacle? In other words, what keeps this church at a functional level and what opens this church spiritually?
To what extent is this community reactive, pro-active, or spirit-active?
In the words of Rev. David Bumbaugh:
May this congregation be dedicated to the proposition that beneath all differences and behind all diversity there is a unity that makes us one and binds us together in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.
Let us pause in silent witness to that unity.