Itsy-bitsy Statues

When we give our lives to a larger purpose, whether we name it God, or kindness, or the earth, or Mystery, we can find meaning and transformation and spiritual growth. To worship something too small can distort and cheapen our lives. Even spiritual or religious things can be too small. Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk as well as a writer, said, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.”

Yard Statues DSC09950

When we get attached to our ideas, or images, or even our ways of praying, we can forget the largeness of what it’s all about. We can forget that spirituality is meant to awaken us to the larger whole of reality, of which we are a part. Rumi, the Sufi poet, put it this way: “Don’t be a cat toying with a mouse. Go after the love lion.”

Writer Annie Dillard, reflecting on Merton, said:

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is all so self conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down… I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

Reality is bigger and more mysterious than the things we do, or the ideas we think, or the stuff we buy. If we get too attached to any small thing—wearing the right clothes, or going to the right parties, or having the latest gadget, or even going to the right church—we are filling up our temple with junk. If we fill up our temple with junk, we will miss the “gaps,” the wild places where the “winds pour down.” We will miss the magic.

Thomas Merton was quoted by Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Rumi quote is from Coleman Barks, The Soul of Rumi

What is worthy of our worship?

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, what would you worship there?

The Buddhist teacher, the Dalai Lama, has said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is Kindness.” In the temple of his heart, he has chosen kindness to value, he has chosen kindness to which to commit his life. He has tried to live with kindness, even when the Chinese government took over his homeland of Tibet, and he went to live in exile. When he could no longer go to the beautiful temples of his childhood, he opened the temple of his heart, and chose kindness and compassion for all people.

People worship different things within the temple of their hearts. It is a very personal choice, to find what is worthy of your worship.

The pagan writer and teacher, Starhawk, calls herself a dirt-worshiper. She points to the soil beneath our feet, and reminds us that all of our food comes from that soil. The soil is the place of Life. So it becomes the most valuable thing in the temple of her heart. She gardens in the soil, and replenishes it with compost. She creates ritual to worship the earth, and celebrate all the seasons of the earth—fall, winter, spring and summer. She tries to stop the companies that are damaging the soil by using too much fertilizer or cutting down the forests. Sometimes she even goes to jail. She is really committed to the earth and to the soil. It is at the center of her heart and her life.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Take some time to ponder it.

What do you hold in the center of your heart?
What would you be willing to fight for, to die for?
Is your heart filled with junk?
Or something worthy of your commitment?
When you clean up everything, what stays in the room?
What is the thing you would never throw away?
What helps you keep your balance when trouble comes or storms rock your world?
What helps you connect with the larger reality of which we are a part?

What do you worship?

Window MJ IMG_0066If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?
Go there now.
                                        Tom Barrett

In ancient times, the temple was the center of the Jewish religion. It was the most beautiful building in all Judea. I wonder what it might be like to have one place in your country where people could journey to experience the mystery of God. It would have to be very beautiful and light, and full of music, or perhaps silence. The Jews had such a building. They believed that God was close to them in the temple. Only the priests could go deep inside to the very center room—they called it the holy of holies. But just being in the building gave people a sense of hope and wonder and mystery.

The poet Tom Barrett asks,

“If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?”

Twentieth century theologian James Luther Adams said that every person worships something. The word “worship” comes from worth—to worship means to honor the thing that is worth the most to us. To what will we give our devotion, our loyalty, our sacrifices? Whatever we give our deepest allegiance to—that is what we worship, that is our God. Even if we think we do not believe in any God, we will give our allegiance to something.

What we worship, what our God is, has implications for how we live our lives, and what we value in all parts of our lives. Should our attitude toward reality be one of caution, or thankfulness? Obedience, or exploration? Aggression, or compassion? Who or what is revered by us? Warriors dying in battle, or mothers giving birth? Those who are tough and tenacious, or those who are thoughtful and kind? It is not enough to ask, do you believe in God? Rather, we must ask, what kind of God is worthy of our belief? James Luther Adams said it is important to choose something worthy of our allegiance.

Tom Barrett, “What’s In The Temple?” is from Keeping in Touch, 1993.
For more from James Luther Adams, see “A Faith for the Free,” in The Essential James Luther Adams, edited by George Kimmich Beach (Boston: Skinner House, 1998).

The Seed of God

The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote,

The seed of God exists in us…
Pear seed grows up into pear tree.
Nut seed grows up into nut tree—
God seed into God.

What might we do together if we remembered that each of us has the seed of God inside? Antoine de St. Exupery, in The Little Prince, tells us “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Each one of us is like Jack and the Beanstalk. Each one of us has within us this spark of divinity, like a Mystery Seed, a seed of what we might become, fully alive. And we also have some husk that tries to keep it contained and hidden. We have to plant those seeds, let them break apart, tend them, and help them to grow. If we let those Mystery Seeds grow, like Jack with his beanstalk, we will become much more than we ever imagined.

I can’t help but think of one of the elders I knew in the congregation in which I served on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Her name was Ellie. Ellie died at the age of ninety-four. She had always suffered from a stutter. As a child, she was sent to all the specialists that her prominent father could afford, and nothing cured the stutter. But in the midst of this, Ellie was able to find her voice.

She became a writer, both in her career, and in her passion for politics and social justice. She was a speechwriter for several political campaigns and an active member of the League of Women Voters. She was also active in the nuclear freeze movement. Somehow, she didn’t need to get rid of her stutter to bring forth her voice. It was almost as if her stutter helped her to find her voice. It was like an old husk, long ago cracked open, lying almost unnoticed around the bright flower of a plant that had grown from her heart. She had brought forth her latent divinity.Violets in Tree MJ DSC05246

Quote from Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), from “The Nobleman” in Meister Eckhart, From Whom God Hid Nothing: Sermons, Writings and Sayings

Latent Divinity

During our ministry retreat, Rev. Ray Tetrault invited us to move beneath the turmoil of politics, beneath the struggle of winning or losing elections, to the place where all that we value finds its roots. He called it “latent divinity.” I knew that he meant what I have been calling the Mystery Seed. Sometimes we get caught up in words, but at our retreat we were not worrying about that. We were letting ourselves go to the deeper place that Ray was invoking. Latent divinity is like a spark of the sacred, hidden inside each of us, burning like a glimmer of light and beauty and possibility.

I had written in my email to my family, “I believe that the presence of God is in every being on earth, every shoreline, every tree, every rainfall, every turtle, every person.  Even the word God is incomplete. The doors of my heart have expanded open like that. We are all bright sparks of light.” 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

In the silence of the retreat, I could feel that spark in my heart, that Mystery Seed of life and love. I could imagine that seed of divinity in every person alive, pulsing to grow, laboring to be born, and I realized just a glimpse of how beautiful we are. In that place of Mystery, we are all connected, and anything is possible. In that place of Mystery, there is hope for the problems facing our world.

I could also feel how the seed of divinity in me was surrounded by an old husk of separation and division. I was attached to that old husk, that part of me that needs to feel separate from others. That old husk didn’t want to be connected with those who disagreed with me, or to see divinity in people who believed differently from me. I just wanted my side to win. But in order for divinity to grow in me, I would have to let go of the husk of separation.

What Is Really Going On?

Tree Reflection DSC03816One fall, I was on retreat with other ministers, and our retreat leader was a priest, Rev. Ray Tetrault. He was a friend of one of my colleagues and known to us as a passionate advocate for social justice. Our task together was to reflect on the politics of our time, in light of our role as spiritual leaders.

He started us off with an unlikely reference from the gospel of Luke, familiar from the Christmas story. Luke tells us that a census was called during the time when Herod was the king of Judea, Augustus was caesar of the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Ray reminded us that they were the politicians in charge of the regional and imperial governments some two thousand years ago.

But what was really going on?” he asked. Something mysterious. In a small town, a baby had just been born—we know him as John the Baptist—and something new was beginning that would literally transform the world. This new thing emerged, not from those at the top, but from underneath, from an unexpected and hidden place.

Since our retreat was happening just before the national elections, all of us were sitting there with many stirred up feelings about the issues facing our country. It would have been easy to talk together about our political leaders, our concerns and our analysis. But Ray invited us instead to be silent, to listen deep in the quiet of our hearts, underneath our thoughts and feelings. He invited us to reflect on the question: “What is really going on?” What else might be happening here in our own time and country, underneath, unseen, and yet full of potential significance? What is really going on?

We kept the silence for an hour, and then we shared from our hearts. The next day we went back into silence, and then shared again from that deeper place. When I went into the silence, I felt something like a seed in my heart that was swelling and expanding, and also something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

I remembered an email that I had sent a few days earlier to my family members. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and my parents are both still alive. I have family living in Michigan, Texas, Montana, and West Virginia. I remember that my family was excited when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, but mostly we had not been very involved in politics. Now we have vast disagreements among us. In fact, the deep religious and political divisions in our country are directly mirrored in my family.

I had been moved to send an email to my family members about my feelings and concerns about the elections, and about the spiritual beliefs underlying my hopes and fears. Then others started replying: several of my sisters, my father, a niece and a nephew sent emails to all the others. Many began by expressing fear that if they shared their beliefs, others might reject them, but still they wanted to take the risk. And even those with very strong views kept repeating that, in spite of these differences, they loved each member of the family and hoped that everyone still loved them.

Somehow, in the midst of the cultural divisions facing our nation, we had ventured across the walls of politics and religion, painfully but hopefully, to share our truths with love. Our differences were deep, and our emails did not make them go away. But we were touching each other at a deeper level than our differences. And that gave me hope for facing the divide in our nation. In the silence of the retreat, I was realizing the mysterious unfolding that had taken place in our email conversation. It felt something like a seed in my heart swelling and expanding, something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

Growing a Soul

Fiddlehead New DSC00242Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said “Life is just a chance to grow a soul.” He was known for standing up against injustice, and working on behalf of freedom, democracy and equality. For Davies, being fully alive meant living according to these values, and shaping the future toward a vision of connection and community. He spoke of the inner life at the heart of his actions:

“There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery… Fern Grow DSC03761_2In the mind’s dimness a light will shine; in the spirit’s stillness it will be as though a voice had spoken; the heart that was lonely will know who it was it yearned for, and the life of the soul will be one with the life that is God.”

For Davies, growing the soul means attuning ourselves to this inner light, becoming one with the life that is God.

The soul is not a passive object of salvation or protection, but a living capacity within all of us for a deepening awareness of connection and mystery. The Mystery Seed is another name for the soul. A seed is meant to be planted and to grow. To grow our souls means to foster our inner awareness of the connections between all beings, our inner awareness of the Mystery that is within us and within all.

Quotes from Davies from an article by Manish Mishra