For those of you who are new here this morning and those of you who have made this your spiritual home for some time, I can testify that change has been the norm here in the past few years, from change in the color of the cushions in this sanctuary to change in our ministerial leadership.
And changes in our ritual or what some call our liturgical life as well; take our water ingathering, a traditional Unitarian Universalist observance. What began as a one-time ceremony by a group of women at a national gathering to express their unity had become an annual opportunity for each person (or family) to pour a little water from summer’s travels/adventures into a common bowl and say something about them which had become both cumbersome and to some observers classist.
Imagine several hundred congregants lining up on a Sunday morning, during an hour-long service, each one of them with a tale to tell about where they went and which body of water had provided their sample, collected in empty plastic bottles, or canteens, or film canisters. It began to look like an autograph line for the Dalai Lama.
Being a mostly economically comfortable, mostly mobile, mostly middle-aged or beyond group, they also tended to have visited more than one place, and more likely than not a far-flung one: perhaps the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia, or the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, the Thames river in London, the Seine in Paris. Or at the very least a beach in Maine or Cape Cod.
For those who chose to or needed to stay home (or closer to home) or could not possibly manage or afford to go to such romantic and exotic (and cooler) places, the water was more likely to come from a nearby creek, a swimming pool at the community center, or even straight from the tap. Was this difference embarrassing, shaming for them? And quite difficult for those with mobility problems? And of course with the increasing security hurdles for any sorts of liquids, had it become a futile exercise in this regard as well?
Perhaps it was time to do the water communion in silence, passing large pitchers along the rows, and then pouring them into the bowl, for use during the year in child dedications.
Whatever meaning those containers of precious liquid had, whatever stories were attached to them, then would remain in the minds and hearts of each person. And/or shared during coffee hour.
With the changes to this ritual has come the inevitable mix of relief and regret, relief that things have been moved along and the possibility of envy and discomfort has been mitigated, and regret that we have lost the opportunity, at least once a year, to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s stories, and be impressed and gladdened by the adventurousness, the openness, of this liberal faith community to being stretched and deepened by fanning out beyond our own safe harbors.
In a respectful and heart-felt email, one longtime member wrote how much she has missed hearing the names of all the places we had visited, and how these summer travels had enriched her life in so many ways, not the least spiritually.
The link between spiritual deepening or self-actualization and travel has a long human history. I was impressed by this notion when I stood beside a floor mosaic in the Carlos Museum at Emory University recently, part of a wonderful exhibit called the Cradle of Christianity .
The over-sized mosaic depicted the travels of early Christians to holy sites for them in Rome and Turkey and Egypt and Palestine, hard and costly pilgrimages with great rewards as they prayed at walls, dropped to their knees in old churches, dipped their toes in sacred rivers. Buying small “souvenir” tokens of remembrance of the places they had been.
Our Unitarian Transcendentalist forebears, at least some of them, escaped periodically from their insular Northeastern home base: the neighborhoods of Concord, Massachusetts, the parishes and bookstores of Boston, the pond at Walden. Margaret Fuller was the first female foreign correspondent in America, traveling to Europe, notably Italy, to revel in its antiquities, to cover its revolution, and find herself a count to love and marry. Two of the three famous Peabody sisters, one of them eventually the wife of Nathanial Hawthorne, another of Horace Mann, went to Cuba, lived on a plantation, witnessed slavery firsthand.
My personal favorite, Louisa May Alcott, who spent much of her life as an invalid, mourned her inability to go abroad after a while, saying that her heart lay in Europe, not in New England.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was so mopey, we are told, following the death of his first wife from tuberculosis, that his friends pooled money to send him to Europe. One account describes him attending Palm Sunday services in Rome’s Sistine Chapel, visiting the Romantics Coleridge and Wordsworth in England, and discovering social and political unrest on a different continent.
Learning or re-learning those essential values of self-culture and self-exultation that were so central to this spiritual movement, the trust in the possibility of true and lasting personal change through individual expansion, through varied and direct experiences.
Because they believed it was through diverse, shifting experiences that we humans both navigate our earthly course and make contact with what they might have called the Oversoul, or the transcendent aspect of life.
Patricia Schultz, in her wonderful 1,00 Places to See Before You Die, asks in her introduction whether it is nature or nurture that sends a person out onto the Road — that whispers in one’s ear that it is time to take off and make for the horizon, to see what’s out there.
She believes that the urge to travel, to open our mind and move beyond the familiar, is as old as humankind. She notes that it is what sent Marco Polo off on his momentous journey east and moved St. Augustine of Hippo to write “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
She quotes Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, who wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Travel changes us, she says, sometimes superficially, sometimes profoundly.
With travel, she believes, our minds become more curious, our hearts more powerful, and our spirit more joyous. And once the mind is stretched, she tells us, it can never return to its original state.
It may just be coincidental — or not — that this thick, traveler’s life list of the world’s wonders, from a balloon safari over Masai Mara to the Saturday market in Oaxaca — and companion guide to places to see in North America — remains popular at the same time that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love now tops the non-fiction paperback list.
While the first is truly a straightforward adventurer’s guide, the second, subtitled One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, has been variously labeled the summer beach read of 2006 (and again in 07), a coming of age story for thirty-somethings, and a far flung travelogue of spiritual seeking and religious discovery for all ages. I must add, a privileged excursion indeed.
Her real life odyssey is undoubtedly not one that could be undertaken, especially afforded, by most of us faced with similar circumstances. But it is still a fascinating and instructive one.
Elizabeth, in her early thirties, and unhappily married for reasons she overtly refuses to discuss, one night finds herself weeping at three a.m. on the bathroom floor of her suburban New York home.
She discloses that she and her husband, who had been married six years, had built their entire life around the common expectation, as she understood it, that after passing the doddering old age of 30 she would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew, as she writes, bubbling on the stovetop.
With her bio clock ticking madly, she confesses that she could not stop thinking about what her sister had said to her once — that having a baby was like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit. She thought: Until I can feel as ecstatic about having a baby as I felt about going to New Zealand to search for a giant squid, I cannot have a baby.
In this darkest hour before dawn — curled up sobbing on the cold tiles — she realized she did not want to be married anymore, did not want to live in that big house, and did not, emphatically did not, want to be pregnant. What she felt the need to do for the very first time was pray, as she writes… like, to God.
What I found unusual, refreshing, and, I must admit, disconcerting in this account is that Elizabeth was willing in both a frank and fumbling way to disclose her suddenly very personal, in her circle and time, against the grain understanding of the holy. That not only was this a first for her — this inclination to pray — but that the God that cropped up was quite specific. Not an essence or a verb, but an actual being. And a him.
A God for her that does not live in dogmatic scripture or on a throne in the sky, but abides very close to us indeed — and is manifested in those times when what she calls God breathes through our own hearts, as an experience of supreme love.
What Elizabeth says to God in the very first prayer she can remember is: I am sorry to bother you so late at night, but I am in serious trouble. Adding, parenthetically, I am sorry I haven’t spoken directly to you before, but I do hope I have always expressed ample gratitude for all the blessings you have given me in my life.
Please tell me what to do… please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do.
And then she hears a voice. Do not be alarmed, she tells her dear readers, it was not a Charlton Heston voice, nor a voice telling her to go build a baseball field. It was, as she writes, merely her own voice as she had never heard it before — perfectly wise, calm, and compassionate.
In her first conversation with the voice within her that was God, God simply instructed her to go back to bed.
Go Back to bed, Liz, because I love you. A tempest is coming and you will need your strength. Go back to bed so when this tempest comes you will be strong enough to deal with it.
This amazingly clarifying experience for her of talking with God may have begun with the simplest of commandments, but it also propels her on an international quest for a way to learn, as she describes it, to live in this world and enjoy its delights, and also live devotionally — to stay tuned to that voice of God, that sense of transformation.
Her already successful vocation as a writer allows her to travel to meet with a toothless medicine man in Bali, who urges her to find the balance she seeks between earthly enjoyment and divine transcendence by looking at the world, not through her head, but through her heart.
What is it she truly wanted?
What came up from her, out of the chaos and disturbance of her suddenly single and cast-adrift life, was not one thing, even two things, but three things. Three seemingly contradictory things.
She needed to, wanted to, go to Italy to learn to speak its language, just for the impractical joy of that, and to eat good food — mounds of freshly made pasta, peaches, figs, good bread. To live in a culture where sensual pleasure and beauty are revered.
She needed to, wanted to, go to India and visit her Guru’s ashram, practice her chanting and silent meditation, and learn disciplined simplicity.
She needed to, wanted to, go back to Bali, to sit with the medicine man and glean from him and his highly ordered society how to be in balance. To keep her feet grounded, as he had told her, so firmly on the earth that she had four legs instead of two. To understand and experience daily both material and spiritual delight.
All of these desires, she thought, were in conflict with each other, especially the Italy/India conflict. Which was more compelling ? The part of her that wanted to eat veal in Venice or the part that wanted to wake up at dawn to pray in a cave?
And here is the part of the whole book that has resonated most with me. Not so much her personal romantic or religious struggle — her effort to name her own theology — but the both basic and profound notion of life choices. Do we have to choose, and how do we do that? And how uncomfortable are we willing to be in order to confront our perhaps clashing desires and lean into this search for clarity and direction?
The great Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi (whose 800th birthday we celebrate this year) once advised his students to write down the three things they most wanted in life. If any item on the list clashed with any other item, Rumi warned, you were destined to unhappiness. Better to live a life of single-pointed focus, he taught.
But what, Elizabeth asks, if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could, as she writes, synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing? To experience the dual, probably multiple, glories of human life, balancing the urge for the beautiful against the longing for the good?
Could she, in other words, eat and pray, and love all at the same time?
Could she visit Italy, India, and Indonesia and find what she has described as God in her bloodstream, God in her life the way sunlight amuses itself on the water?
This quest and her rich and beautifully written retelling of it has struck an amazing chord.
Her spiritual memoir has spent 34 weeks on the best seller list, has sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 30 languages. The book has been optioned for a Hollywood movie as a vehicle for Julia Roberts.
Elizabeth has appeared on Oprah and a few weeks back here in Decatur, where many of us sat, so to speak, at her feet, trying to catch some of her new found radiance and wisdom. Only to have her tell us that she was not selling transformation. It is hard, sometimes lonely, work, she said, this effort to discern those three things that we most want in this one precious life we are given. And in doing so, finding profound self-awareness, a sense of balance, and inner peace.
Deep, expensive, exhausting, naked-with-self-doubt work, trying to find what Dante called the love that moves the sun and the other stars, finding it in strange and in familiar places. Trying to be constantly open and constantly aware.
But worth the price, she said, worth the journey. And she resting, and for a while her seeking has stopped.
I asked some of my longtime spiritual companions to tell me their three things:
To appreciate the beauty and preciousness of life, one told me.
To know the Self, to experience the divinity that dwells within us.
The love of my wife, daughter, and granddaughter, wrote another.
Experiences throughout my life that continue to change me for the better.
The courage to soar alone.
Another wrote me her list, which included “peace.” I urged her, as Elizabeth Gilbert and Rumi would urge us, to go for active verbs on this life-list of deep needs, those needs that, if filled, will, she tells us, bring redemption. How will she get to peace — the inner peace that will still her restlessness and help to heal her?
As for me, my list has been changing and morphing by the hour. The surer I am that I know what my three desires are, the more likely it is that I change my mind, or perhaps my heart. But for now, I would say:
To have alone time has become increasingly necessary — to be quiet, to listen to the stirrings and lessons of my own soul.
To live in intentional relationship, as well, to connect authentically and compassionately . To put myself in the way of even the briefest of meetings, where this kind of connection can happen. And then record these, bear witness to how remarkable human encounters can be.
And to travel — for so many reasons — to eat or not eat guinea pig in Ecuador, to see the Dead Sea and Graceland. Even just to go across the highway to the Buford corridor with all its international flavor. To learn from all the spiritual teachers I will find, from guru to tour guide. To practice patience and curiosity. To challenge my assumptions, to be deliberately confounded, intentionally lost.
We take ourselves wherever we go, and we are also transformed, varied.
May it be so.
May you come to know with clarity what those three things are that you most want.
And out of that, find both yourself and that which we may call the holy.