Last Sunday I came to River Road to hear Rabbi Art Blecher preach on spirituality. I came for two reasons. One was just to hear him because I know he is a good speaker. Second, I came because I was planning to speak on spirituality this week, and I didn't want to repeat things he had said only a week before. Well, I certainly enjoyed hearing about his typology of four spiritual styles, but I needn't have worried about overlap. Spirituality is one of those topics which invite infinite speculation. My purpose today is to speak about what spiritual growth consists of.
Some of you know that I was the associate parish minister at Cedar Lane UU Church, also in Bethesda, for twelve years. I decided in 1998 that twelve years of that high intensity ministry was enough for me. I was newly married and looking forward to an adoption. I planned to stay home and pursue other quieter ministerial interests. Our adoption has taken longer than expected, and now we plan to go to Guatemala around the first of the new year. So that exciting development is still on the horizon. I've had time to relax and develop my other interests, which has been a great blessing for me. However, when I am in a position to say what I "do" I don't have a quick answer. Besides officiating at weddings and memorial services and preaching at different churches, I am developing a private practice in "spiritual direction".
What's that? is the frequent reply. What does spiritual direction mean? It reminds me of the famous question "What do UU's believe?" I have to pause and struggle a bit for the right words.
Spiritual direction is an ancient practice of the Catholic tradition. So it is not surprising that liberals have not heard of it. In fact, many Catholics are unfamiliar with it, since in the past, it was mainly part of the monastic tradition. It involves meeting regularly with a mentor to reflect on questions about meaning and purpose in life. I am adapting the model for religious liberals, especially Unitarian Universalists.
Shalem Institute is located here in Bethesda and is one of the foremost training centers for spiritual direction in the country. We live in a time when people are craving meaning and connection. Shalem's director Tilden Edwards is a well known and respected teacher, mentor and author the contemporary spiritual direction movement. He is an Episcopalian, radically open hearted and open minded, who with his colleagues, has reclaimed and updated the tradition of spiritual direction.
Spiritual directors are trained to provide a safe and loving presence in which the seeker can explore and develop his or her own spiritual path without judgment. There is no right or wrong about it. Our deepest selves long for the truest and best life we are capable of. This spring, I heard Scott Alexander quote UU minister John Corrado saying, "the deepest you sings with the best that creation can muster". Spiritual growth is a process of discovering this deepest you. A spiritual director can provide guidance along the way.
"Inside this clay jug are canyons and pine mountains and the maker of canyons and pine mountains...all seven oceans are inside and hundreds of millions of stars..." (This poem was used as a reading earlier in the service. UU Hymnal #608) I heard this poem about the clay jug several times before realizing that the clay jug could be me. God inside myself. Interesting. Canyons, pine mountains, oceans, stars, inside my little self? It illustrates the infinity that dwells in every heart, another expression of the deepest you.
Does this imagery do anything for you? It tells me that divinity is a universal power and beauty of which I am a part. I find that thought both exhilarating and challenging. Now, I understand that there are differences in personality. People who are more intuitive may relate better to imagery and poetry. I believe that both reason and poetry are important in meeting our needs for meaning. In common parlance, both left and right brain need to be engaged for a holistic approach.
Poems and dreams come from the same deep place in us. I am fascinated by dreams. Again, not everyone remembers dreams or finds them useful. However, those who study dreams, including UU minister and dreamwork expert, Jeremy Taylor, say all dreams serve the purpose of growth, even though they may seem strange or ridiculous. Carl Jung said that myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths. If one records dreams over time, patterns and themes emerge. Recurring dreams are trying get our attention, to teach us something.
Here is an example of how dreams speak from the deep place inside each of us that wants to grow. Kathleen Sullivan in her book Recurring Dreams (The Crossing Press, 1998) tells of having a dream over many years in which she is searching and searching for a long lost friend. Then she had a startling dream of an eagle trapped in a spider's web, and began to realize how trapped she felt in her waking life. As she began to make changes in her waking life, such as addressing her drinking problem, her recurring dream gradually resolved. Now, in dreams, she met the person she was looking for, who came to represent her healthier self - a healthier self who was more aware and making good changes.
In the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, there is a common image of a gem hidden deep inside each of us which is the gem of enlightenment. It is another way to understand the deepest you. But it often takes a lifetime to discover this gem. Eknath Easwaren (who died last year) was a respected teacher of eastern meditation. In one of his books is an essay called "The jewel in the heart". He tells how he has read in the paper about a huge diamond being found in someone's back yard, and figures that many people seeing the article wish they could find such a diamond. He writes "yet we already possess the greatest jewel in the history of the world - past, present and future too. ..All of us have a supreme jewel in the depths of our hearts, and we have come into life (in order) to discover this jewel here on earth while we are alive. But we must be prepared to search for it...this search is meditation and its allied disciplines, which can truly be called an adventure in mining the unfathomable depths of human consciousness." (From The Supreme Ambition, Nilgiri Press)
To mine these unfathomable depths, we become ever more aware of our interconnectedness. In discovering the precious jewel within, we learn that it corresponds to the preciousness of life itself.
Poet Adrienne Rich writes, "no one ever told us we had to study our lives, make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history or music...practicing till strength and accuracy become one with the daring to leap into transcendence". (UU Hymnal #665) We aren't taught as people are in Eastern traditions, that spiritual growth is an on-going process; a process that requires discipline and effort, a process that takes us through different stages.
Rev. Scott McLennan is the chaplain at Tufts University . He has written a helpful new book called Finding Your Religion (Harper, 1999) which illustrates with many personal stories how the spiritual search over a lifetime can take one through many different beliefs and communities. By "religion" McLennan is referring to being part of a religious community. We grow through stages from dependence through independence to interdependence. Evolution in belief and practice is common. I am sure there is evidence of that here today if we took a survey. You have come from many places, and some of you may move on as your journey unfolds.
Deepening awareness is fundamental to spiritual growth. This means feeling our feelings, and many people are afraid to do this because it is painful. It is very common for us to find ways to protect and distract ourselves from difficult issues we would rather not deal with: the things that are not working in our lives, the old hurts and angers, the frustrations with work and loved ones.
A member of Cedar Lane gave me a gift when I left of a series of novels. Perhaps you know of Susan Howatch, a British novelist who lived in this country for ten years. In the eighties, she moved back to England to study church history. The result was a series of novels spanning the 20th century, recounting the intertwining lives of several clergymen in the Church of England. Each book focuses on one of them and their personal struggles. All are ambitious, driven, embroiled in passionate relationships, and often tempted to succumb to very human urges. Some of the titles are, Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Mystical Paths (Fawcett Crest). The recurring theme in each story is that the man is repressing his real feelings, such as his broken heart from childhood or the mistakes he cannot face, and finally breaking down, only to be healed by meeting with a spiritual director.
The plots are lust driven and the prose rather purple, which unfortunately keeps the books from being real literature. But Howatch is brilliant at grasping and interpreting traditional theology for a contemporary audience. She always gives a metaphorical translation of theological terms. The stories illustrate beautifully the way we feel compelled to hide from our deep and painful feelings, when we ultimately know that the only way to peace and joy is facing the inner demons and moving through the necessary changes. What a hard lesson this is for us all! There is always a certain amount of surrender involved in spiritual growth.
Crisis and suffering often open the doors to new experiences of spiritual wholeness. As we look back on our lives, is it not often the big changes, difficult at the time, which led us in new directions, which taught us compassion and brought new insight? For me, health issues have brought understanding and compassion that have allowed me some of the richest experiences of my life, sitting with the ill and dying. I have had the privilege of sharing times when pain trembles into prayer and peace.
Life itself invites us to spiritual growth, maybe gently, maybe roughly. Once we awake to this yearning for meaning, peace and joy, how do we proceed? How do we discover that precious jewel within?
Awareness of the quest comes first: recognizing there is a deeper you to discover, your truest and best self. Now, I'll address the content of the quest. I have come up with six "themes" of spiritual growth. You may determine others. This is the way I cut the pie today. The themes are trust, connection, awe, humility, healing and creativity. They all involve participation in three ways: with the self, with others and with life as a whole. I even have a chart of these themes for individual reflection. You may work with the themes on your own, in a group or with a mentor. It is always recommended to develop a regular practice of reflection or meditation to stay with the process.
I'll begin with trust. Trust is a fundamental stance toward life that says "yes". As we begin the journey of self-discovery, our trust may be weak. If we have suffered many losses, if we have low self-esteem, we may not trust that we belong. We may have learned to protect ourselves from unreliable authority figures. We may have trouble opening our hearts to love if we have been hurt. Most people have trust issues. Spiritual growth can help us trust again, but in the way expressed in the phrase, "trust in God, but tie your camel to a tree". As we proceed along the path, we may learn to be "street smart" ("path smart?") That is, we know more about whom we can safely trust, while becoming more trustful of ourselves and life itself.
Connection is another theme. Often people define spirituality as feeling connected, feeling like they belong in their own skin, in their life, in the universe. As we become more conscious and aware of our connections, we learn more about relationships. Relationships are always a big challenge. What relationship skills to we need to develop? How can love flow more freely in our lives. What is in the way? What is within our power and what is not? Can we feel fundamentally part of life, even with a few imperfect relationships? Can we feel joy and gratitude about the connections we do have? The quality of our personal connections will have a ripple effect in the world around us and make us feel more connected to the whole of life. So spiritual growth involves nurturing conscious relationships.
Next is awe. Lily Tomlin once referred to a practice she called "awe-robics" It is the practice of simply noticing the amazing life all around us. Nature is a miracle and we are part of it. In the dazzling spring, it usually gets our attention, but there is so much amazing beauty around us all the time. The deepest you appreciates the beauty and power of life profoundly. And learns to feel a part of it. Noticing nature, fills us, nurtures us. Have you been present at a birth or a death? I am riveted by nature shows on public T.V. Sometimes when I stop to notice I just cannot believe what a miracle life is. How did we get here anyway? For many, awe stirs questions about a greater power in which we live and more and have our being. Awe teaches reverence for life.
Humility is a tough one for many of us. Humility is not shame. Shame is from wounds unfairly inflicted, something we need to heal from. Humility is not guilt. Guilt should only refer to something we actually did wrong, which we can let go of when there is forgiveness. Humility, is simply accepting our human limits. It really can be a relief. Admitting we do not know. Admitting we cannot completely control ourselves or our lives. The word humility comes from the word humus, referring to earth. We have limits. We miss the mark, we make mistakes. Admitting mistakes is a good way to grow. Changing behavior which hurts ourselves and others is an important part of spiritual growth. Surrendering to that which is beyond our control can be the beginning of a new life and a sense of peace.
Healing is a spiritual theme that carries us through the pain of awareness to new possibilities. We may need to go through periods of retreat as we heal from deep wounds. We've all been hurt by life one way or another. Comforting ourselves exclusively may be a stage we have to go through to really heal and be ready to engage in healthy relationships. We may need to learn how to affirm and nurture ourselves. Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul and The Enchantment of Everyday Life (Harper Collins) writes about the small ways in which we can care for our deepest selves...in creating a comforting environment, honoring our family, making sacred the small rituals of our lives. Self-care in the interest of healing and growth is essential. Letting go and forgiveness are important aspects of healing. As we heal on a personal level, all arenas in which we move will be affected. We reach out to heal the world in our acts of service and advocacy. We can be wounded healers, as in the words of Henri Nouwen "I am your brother; I am your sister; I am human, fragile and mortal, just like you. I am not scandalized by your tears nor afraid of your pain. I too have wept. I too have felt pain." (quoted in McLennan, p 174) Our own suffering can teach us to be a healing presence for others.
Creativity is finding your true vocation. This is the idea of following your bliss, as Joseph Campbell put it. This can be misunderstood as narcissism. All this self-involvement can be misunderstood as narcissism if we do not keep higher values of love and service before us. In discovering our deepest selves, we determine what gifts we have to offer the world. Vocation is found where the world's hunger and our gifts meet. Creativity is living out our gifts in the world, whether is be through art, raising children, justice making, home making, useful work, gardening. It is finding our own way of contributing to the whole and deriving meaning from it. We are all co-creators in this vast enterprise of life.
Trust, connection, awe, humility, healing and creativity are themes of spiritual growth. "No one ever told us we had to study our lives" writes Adrienne Rich, but we do if we are to grow in vitality and joy and live out our gifts in the world.
I'll close with another short poem by Kabir. (The Kabir Book, Beacon Press)
The small ruby everyone wants has fallen out on the road.
Some think it is east of us, some west of us.
Some say, "among primitive earth rocks"
Others "in deep waters"
Kabir's instinct told him it was inside and what it was worth.
And he wrapped it up carefully in his heart cloth.