UU Mysticism Then and Now (text & audio)

Some months ago our lead minister, Mark Ward, and the worship associates started scheduling the summer services. I agreed to lead a service on the topic of mysticism. I came to this tradition and congregation just about four years ago; so I am not as knowledgeable about the history of Unitarian Universalism as many of you are. So when I talked to Mark again two months ago about this service, I expressed my desire to relate today’s sermon to how mysticism has been expressed over time in the UU tradition. He directed me to the book by Leigh Eric Schmidt titled Restless Souls, The Making of American Spirituality. It is a very well written book on the history of the liberal, religious tradition in America, of which we are an integral part. Although I have not finished reading it yet, I highly recommend the book.

I have walked the path of a mystic almost my entire adult life. In the summer of 2007, I read a book by Brother Wayne Teasdale, which brought into clear focus my understanding of mysticism. That book is The Mystic Heart, Discovering A Universal Spirituality In The World’s Religions. Teasdale coined a new term of Interspirituality as the concept that there is a common, mystical core across all the religious traditions. Also, Elizabeth Lesser in her book, The Seeker’s Guide, Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure, describes a highly individualist choosing of one’s beliefs from multiple traditions, a pluralistic framework, as a recent development. But after reading Schmidt’s book, I realize that Interspirituality is very close to the vision of the Transcendentalist movement that started in the early part of the nineteenth century. I have to guess that if such people as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Henry David Thoreau, and Sarah Farmer were alive today, they would probably be viewed as being SBNR (spiritual, but not religious).

There is something else that I need to mention; back in April when we had a service with the topic of Reimagining Jesus, I stated that from my perspective we are a congregation of shared values rather than shared beliefs. At the General Assembly in the exhibition hall, there were a variety of booths set up; some of which strongly enforced that opinion. There were tables for Humanists, Buddhists, Christians, Pagans, Jewish Awareness and Mystics in Community. I doubt if you would ever find such a varied collection of traditions at one location, unless it was at an interfaith event. I spent several hours helping out at the table for mystics. What I learned during that time is that there is a great deal of variance in our understanding of mysticism as well.

I call this sermon UU Mysticism Then and Now in my desire to explore how the mysticism of the nineteen and early twentieth century would relate to us who are at the beginning of the twenty-first century. These are my own personal opinions, so you should perhaps regard this talk as an extended version of a This I Believe.

I will tackle of one the big questions first. Does one need a belief in God, Source, Divine Mystery or whatever else you could call it, in order to be a mystic? My response would be ‘No’. I believe that a person who calls themselves an atheist or agnostic can be a mystic.

Now, I admit it is the conventional understanding of mysticism to be primarily about one’s relationship with the Divine, but I believe there other avenues, which are equally valid, that a person can follow as a path of a mystic in the post-modern world. I will briefly describe three alternatives later.

Now the Transcendentalists often wrote and spoke of God; although quite often it was not a traditional interpretation, especially for their time period. Whitman in his Song of Myself, the reading this morning, shows that he was very ecumenical in his approach to faith. Emerson described himself as the ‘transparent eye-ball’ looking upon God’s creation. But today, UUs do not often address their founding doctrines of the denial of the Christian Trinity and of universal salvation. It is a daunting task to create a spirituality that leaves up to each individual the answer on the issue of a deity. It is a challenge for both for us as individuals and as a community. As long as we approach each other with open minds and caring hearts, I am positive that we can continue to make this house of worship our collective home.

Chapter two from Restless Souls is titled “Solitude.” Emerson wrote of his solitary walks in the woods, Thoreau spent time in a hermitage beside Walden Pond, and Emily Dickenson was a recluse most of her life. I doubt if it is necessary to go live in a cabin in the wilderness for a couple of years or to restrict our social life to our family and a few close friends, in order for us to become mystics. But taking time for silence and to be alone as Emerson was on his walks in the woods is perhaps a key component of being a mystic in this day and age. It is good to turn off the television and the radio, to walk away from the computer screen, to put down the tablet and e-readers and simply be present to each moment without the distractions of the world. In comparison to the nineteenth century, we are now ever more addicted to doing, getting something accomplished, getting someplace other than where we are. Taking time for us to just be in the world is essential for our wholeness. I feel this is especially true for those of you who are an activist in the world.

I am reminded of a quote by Thomas Merton:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and over-work.

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his/her work for peace.

It destroys the fruitfulness of his/her own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”

I found it interesting that Schmidt repeatedly mentions the significance of the World’s Parliament of Religions which happened in Chicago in September of 1893. This event was significant because it brought together most of the religious traditions to dialogue with each other.

Brother Teasdale was one of the main conveners of the second Parliament of World Religions, one hundred years later, 1993, again in Chicago. In his book, The Mystic Heart, which was published in 1998, he identifies nine elements that he understood as being found in the mystics across all traditions. It is unfortunate, that Wayne died of cancer in 2004.

But he left a rich legacy that is now carried forward by an organization created in January of 2009 from his vision. It is called the Community of the Mystic Heart. I am one of its charter members. We took those nine elements and rewrote them as vows. I do not feel that there is anything particularly religious about them; I think that many UUs could easily live by most of them. They are:

I vow to actualize and live according to my full moral and ethical capacity.
I vow to live in solidarity with the cosmos and all living beings.
I vow to live in nonviolence.
I vow to live in humility.
I vow to embrace a daily spiritual practice.
I vow to cultivate mature self-knowledge.
I vow to live a life of simplicity.
I vow to live a life of selfless service and compassionate action.
I vow to express the deepest realization of my inner practice through the prophetic call to work for justice, compassion and world transformation.

The three alternative paths to being a mystic in the post-modern world, that I mentioned earlier, are through nature and the cosmos, through service to humanity and the world, and by our exploration of human consciousness through meditation and shadow work.

I feel that the Transcendentalists were quite correct that our connection with our natural world and studies of such sciences as biology and cosmology are a completely valid path of mysticism. It was the case for me that my knowledge of cosmology that first brought me a mystical framework. I also believe that it does not require a belief in a creator; for the universe is mysterious, wondrous, and sacred in and of itself alone. There are many modern authors that write on our profound interconnection with the natural world. Some writers like Father Thomas Berry, do include a creator, and while other authors, such as Bill Plotkin, leave it mostly unanswered.

Being of service to humanity and the world is a noble path. I strongly hold that mysticism is not about sitting on a cushion so that one experiences states of ecstasy and falling deaf to the world’s cries of pain and suffering. I see that it is vital for anyone who would call themselves a mystic to be engaged in the everyday world. For me, the isolation and separation of a monastic life behind a wall belongs to a form of mysticism that is best left in the past. I love the fact that Unitarian Universalism is a champion of social and ecological justice issues. But I also know from my own experiences that one can get more done with the help of a community than one can by oneself and each person needs a set of practices to renew their spirit and give them courage to face their daily challenges.

That brings me to the third alternative path for a twenty-first century mystic. Closely tied to solitude is the need for reflection, contemplation and self-knowledge. I use several different contemplative practices from a variety of traditions in order to fulfill several of the vows that I took as a member of the Community of the Mystic Heart. For the last seven years, I have a counselor who helps me delve into those aspects of myself that otherwise might stay hidden.

As part of the call to form Small Group Ministries, a few of us are now meeting on Monday evenings from 4:30 to 6:30 downstairs in the Religious Education area. We are the UU Contemplatives. We have a silent meditation for forty-five minutes, some personal sharing and time for a reflection on a reading. We each take turns to be responsible for our activities. If anyone here feels an interest in this form of spirituality, you are welcome to join us

I hope that UU Contemplatives will be the first of several Small Group Ministries that will be created here at UUCA so members can find connection with other people within the congregation with whom they share a common set of beliefs. I hold that this will be a powerful way to experience our diversity within our overall knowledge of our community.

Photo credit: ViaMoi / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND