It isn’t unusual, as most of you might know or at least remember, to feel quite small when you are a child. You are almost always looking up at larger people. Sometimes the world is what you see at everyone else’s knee level. The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, as someone else wrote. The trees are gigantic.
And, on the other hand, when you get a swing going hard and fast, you can touch the sky. Feel powerful, in rhythm with the world, and part of something vast and awesome and unexplainable. You are you and you are also a piece of on-and-on and forever.
Even if no one else believes you.
This perfection. This sense of everything, that everything is well and will be well, up and down your body, in your mind, in your heart, and all around you.
I experienced this quite distinctly in the beautiful open spaces of the American West when I traveled summers with my family of origin. Four children and a dog in the backseat of a station wagon. Shredded comic books. Oreo crumbs. Stuck in a rut in a rural Wisconsin road, keeping company with dairy cows.
And then the rewards: dawn in the wildflower meadows at the entry of the John Muir trail in Yosemite, ice cold but filled with nature’s perfume. One sunset overlooking Bryce Canyon in Utah, a fairyland of red and pink sculpted limestone.
Agelessly special places, with a vastness, yet serenity, that both humbled me and filled me up. Made me want to me stay planted there for always. Connected to everything. Made me want to lift up and soar away. Absolutely carefree, care-free, filled with possibilities.
Roots that held me close, as the song goes, wings that, for that moment, set me free.
For those of us everyday mystics, who find our truest selves, our deepest devotion and attachments, in our experience of the natural universe, I have despaired at the loss of these spaces and special, private places. Even as some of us will see when we travel to Boston at the end of the month for this year’s General Assembly, Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond on the grounds of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord home is within minutes of the same cookie-cutter, fast-food, box-store sprawl as any other part of most of this country.
Just when I was beginning to get curmudgeonly enough to assume that anyone under, say, 50 wouldn’t even understand what I have been talking about, those purple mountains majesty, those amber waves of grain, that feeling of awe and wonder and soul’s content, I happened to read a short story by an award-winning young Southern author. There in the midst of flippant conversation and bottomless irony was talk about the need to find one’s true self, and a sense of integration and balance in the whole context of our living.
Here is an excerpt:
“Yo, Eric, you think anyone can see us?” Jacob asked.
I replied, “No — I don’t know.”
“If I spit and hit someone, would it make their brains explode?”
“Why would their freakin’ brains explode, eh?”
He looked at me like I was an idiot, and said, “When you spit off real high things, the saliva hardens in air, then hits with a freakin’… a freakin’ huge impact. Like a freakin’ meteor, or somethin’.”
“First off, we’re not that high — we’re on the freakin’ water tower —”
He cut me off, “It’s still high —”
I cut him off, “Also, saliva doesn’t freakin’ harden in air, it disintegrates, dumbass.”
He sounded like Ashton Kutcher, “Look, you’re wrong, but that’s okay.”
“Yeah, I don’t hate ya.”
“Hate me for what?”
“Being wrong,” he laughed. I turned away.
I looked out onto the city. The lights were decently bright. A place like Bounty Springs doesn’t have that many lights. I guess you could still call it a city, even though it’s not that active. It’s definitely not rural… or suburban. I guess it is suburban, but not like the traditional suburban… things look… authentic. We have restaurants, and plays, and a movie theater… just, we’re not that busy.
I never liked busy places, though. I think that places that are too busy take away from one’s inner-monologue. I hate all the noise of big cities. Bounty Springs isn’t noisy in any way. It’s good because you get plenty of opportunities to reflect and stuff.
Life moves a little slower here, but that’s okay. We get to think about stuff that fancy urbanites never do. I like to go up to the water tower to think. Jacob doesn’t really appreciate the water tower like I do. I don’t like to bring him up there because he always says or does stupid stuff. He doesn’t appreciate the beauty of mildly bright lights under a sky full of stars. I love the fact that light pollution doesn’t really get in the way of our sky, and that we can still see the stars.
Jacob says that he likes to go up to the water tower, but I know that he just gets bored. I try not to listen to him when we go up there, but he’s like a damn gnat that buzzes and doesn’t stop. I don’t really like to go at night alone, so when I’m tired of Jacob, I run over there in the morning. I’m only, like, a block and half from the place. It’s nice that it’s in the woods, and that the woods aren’t far from civilization.
I like to think of Bounty Springs as my own little piece of nature preserved. Every other city in every other state develops like hell. I’m glad that we still have nature, and real shops, and real restaurants.
This is a description by a young philosopher, a young seeker, like children and teenagers can be, splendidly, of what Ralph Waldo Emerson (another nod in honor of his 200th birthday this spring) called living an authentic life. Seeking a sacred life.
In his essay On Self-Reliance, possibly his most famous writing, Emerson said that, in his understanding, nothing at last is sacred, but the integrity of our own minds, with which we perceive everything. As writer Richard Gelhard points out in his book on The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he might have said nothing at last is true, or nothing at last is real, but he chose the word “sacred.” What is sacred is divine, sanctified, and hallowed.
The word usually relates to a place, word, or object.
In Exodus, Gelhard notes, the voice of God speaks to Moses after he comes across the burning bush. Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place you stand is holy ground. In traditional biblical teachings, then, the sacred is the connection in space and time between heaven — that place where there is infinite time and unbounded comfort and peace — and Earth, where we encounter the divine.
For Emerson, and for many fellow Transcendentalists and mystics, this crucial connection, this sense of wholeness and infiniteness, is placed in the mind. Each and every mind. What he saw as the sacredness of private integrity, what he called the infinitude of the private man (or woman).
The word integrity, we are told, means wholeness, entireness, completeness, and a kind of purity, of shalom.
When Emerson said “Man is God in ruins,” he meant that we once had, but in the distractions and lassitude — laziness and spiritual exhaustion — we have lost, our innate wholeness. We become fragmented, divided against ourselves and unable to stand erect, to feel the connections all around us.
Forget what it is like to swing, to be ourselves and part of something else at the same time.
Our aim as adults, then, is a journey of re-birth, not born-again in the narrow sense of Christian fundamentalists, but the soul born again even minute by minute, until it finally comes to rest again at its source.
For Emerson and many other spiritual comrades, integrity of the mind did not and does not mean, we are told, a kind of self-centered personal conscience of what seems right to me, but rather an affirmation of the capacity of each and every individual to integrate his or her mind with what Emerson called the Over-Soul, with what he termed the final thought, with that wholeness and the peace that goes with it.
Which can only happen through a commitment, a conscious fully-awake commitment, to transformation, the radical change that takes place within. No matter how much motivation and inspiration comes from sources outside our own immediate knowing.
He and other spiritual teachers have always believed we can literally change our minds, moving away from our own small miseries, our own sense of deprivation, into a state of holiness — whole-i-ness.
Through the deliberate use of our own minds and the mindful processing of our own experiences.
What Emerson saw as living in the spirit. Seeking and understanding the subtle forces and principles of action and meaning that lie behind and beyond the surfaces of the manifest world. That which is more intuitively known.
Beyond any empirical scientific experiment, beyond any one spiritual text or scripture.
Truth be told, Emerson chafed at the definitions and limitations of what was defined as religion in his time. A set of core beliefs or creed. A systematic definition of Creation, Salvation, and how and who or what to worship and in what way.
The complete otherness of God and His Kingdom.
Even Unitarianism had more than a touch of this dualism.
So young Emerson, as a Unitarian minister in training, chafed at this religiosity, this hemmed-in spirituality, in ways that might be familiar to others of you who have escaped other faiths and denominations and institutions. His, like many of us, was a restless spirituality, hard to confine.
He didn’t take class notes based on the lectures he was attending. Instead, he spent his time and his paper recording reflections and observations from within, stressing his enthusiasms about life beyond the academy.
Recording notes from the unassigned readings he selected himself, taken from local libraries and absorbed, as it is described, by a ready and willing mind.
An independent and disciplined path, the path not taken by many in his time, not even very many in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition that now so whole-heartedly embraces him as our own. A guru. A spiritual teacher.
Emerson’s vision, mostly unrecognized, even within his own mid-19th-century Boston congregation, was to find a true Unitarianism, a vision of the universe and human life and culture as a whole.
This is the Unitarianism I came into in the mid-twentieth century. That holds as one of its purposes the commitment to spiritual growth for individuals and for congregations as a whole. That looks to a variety of sources for our individual and collective spirituality: the wisdom and teachings of multiple holy scriptures, our own reason and experiences, the arts, the emerging knowledge and understanding found in scientific exploration, and the natural world.
And I would add, from listening to the young theologians and philosophers around me, the marvels and self-awareness that can and do come from popular culture: movies, music videos, and, I really mean it, some of the more honest and reflective rap.
Some people would say, in fact, the genesis of this message was a part of the conversation we held earlier in the spring about the state of this UU congregation moving forward, that we need to be a more religious or spiritual community.
And the difference is hard to pin down these days, though, certainly, we still perceive the differences. We associate religion, as I said earlier, with systematic beliefs, certain rituals, and a sense of strict boundaries.
According to Religion for Dummies, one of my main texts lately, religion is really just organized and ancient spirituality. They differentiate religion from spirituality by saying that spirituality does not require membership within any organized religion, nor does it have the authority that most religions do.
Spirituality is the willingness to follow rituals, ethic, and beliefs of different religions that are personally appealing and not just the rituals, ethics, and beliefs of one single belief.
Spirituality is deeply personal and not systematic, while religion has all its ideas clearly set out and organized.
The authors point out that, beyond this, the distinctions are primarily one of perception rather than reality. For many, if not most, contemporary liberal religious thinkers, religion and spirituality, they believe, aren’t two opposing ideas at all. They are just two ways of understanding humankind’s deepest yearning for the profound gift of hope and healing in the world.
Unitarian Universalist minister Fredric John March, in his wonderful exploration of our Heretic’s Faith, defines spirituality in terms very similar to those of Emerson’s more than a century earlier. He says that spirituality refers to the inner dimension, the depth dimension of every person.
He tells about his conversations with newcomers to his UU church in Annapolis, Maryland. Quite often, he recalls, when visitors describe their decision to come back to church — not necessarily his church but any faith community — they say it was because there was something missing in their lives that drove them to it. After a few more sentences, he tells us, some will call this “something” spirituality that was missing. Or other words like a sense or feeling of emptiness, meaninglessness, a desire for greater depth, connectedness, grounding, or rooted-ness.
Rev. Muir confesses (as only Unitarians can) that he is uncomfortable with using just the term spirituality to describe this search or his community. He is just as comfortable, as I am, with using the word religion and religious community. If we go back to the root word for religion, which means binding together to find greater meaning and purpose and responses to the mysteries and wonders of life. And religious community as a place for people to then come together to share and benefit from our individual experiences and learnings.
That gives us roots, he believes, a place to be with others who are purposeful in locating the core of our being, the inner light that makes us who we are, our essence and identity.
Like roots, the soul makes each of our lives unique, while at the same time connecting us to all that was, is, and will ever be.
And the spirit? Muir maintains that without the soul, there can be no spirit. Just how far and high and long we are willing to fly on our life’s inner and outer journey can all depend on our comfort level and endurance, in which we may be, should be, sustained in a loving, safe, and healthy community of conscious seekers.
The spiritual life of our congregations, this congregation, has been complicated and, I believe, deepened by the varieties of ways in which we individually find our souls and exercise our spirits. There was a time when we could assume that most Unitarians were on what we call the Journey of Unity, a seeking of intellectual clarity, the underlying organizing principles, the big picture.
Their quest, like Emerson’s, was and is primarily for that which binds human life and the rest of nature into one. Found through consciousness of ourselves. What we might call God is another name for human intelligence raised above all error and imperfection and extended to all possible truth.
For our intuitive thinkers, they are likely to require the least adorned setting for spiritual practice — a Zen garden, a quiet grove, a white room with clear paned windows, a simple chapel. The focal point is at the center, an arrangement of flowers, a bell. There are chants and meditations. There is a discussion of a reading or of a profound truth or principle.
They come away with a feeling of balance and integrity. Their spirituality has been enhanced and deepened.
But nowadays, in our richness and diversity, our inclusivity and welcome, there are those among us who need more ritual, more decoration, more music, more dance. There are others who want to just get on with the work of life that makes them whole. And those who may not be satisfied in our lack of clarity about a God or Goddess for whom they can express their full and faithful devotion.
It is not that spirituality is absent from Unitarian Universalism. It is that we need to find a way, as Emerson could not ultimately find a way, to expand enough to contain our varied spiritualities. And to expand our own.
I still believe that we do find this, at least sometimes, in the context of our time together on Sunday mornings. In words. In silence. In song. In flower arrangements and dozens of candles.
We are finding this in our small groups, where people share where they are and what helps them on their ways. From our youth group to our Covenant groups, from our adult education and children’s religious education.
At peace vigils and on marches. At district meetings and at our General Assembly.
Alone and together, and alone together.
Roots and wings.
May this summer be a time of rebirth and rediscovery. Of finding our souls and testing our wings.
Of hiking in meadows. Of standing on the edges of canyons. Of reading and listening.
There is always swinging.
May it be so.