River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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The Most Important Word in the English Language

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, September 10, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander


Today it is my intention to identify (and then reflect upon) the most important word in the English language. I'd like to begin by immediately soliciting your help in naming this most important word -- partly because I think it's unfair to keep you (any longer than is necessary) in the tremendous suspense you must all be feeling!) I'll give you a hint about the most important word in the English language...it is the SPIRITUAL (OR RELIGIOUS) DIMENSIONS of this word that makes it so crucial in and for our lives. Does anyone have a guess as to what I think is the most important word in the English language?

[Scott takes guesses from the Congregation, and briefly responds to each guess.]

Alright...I guess I'll just have to tell you myself. I think the most important word in the English language is a simple 4 letter word...LOOK! It's critically important in life to look...just look...open your eyes and see what is around you! All I really want to say to you is, for God's sake and yours, SPIRITUALLY LOOK ABOUT YOU! As the bible says, "let the scales fall away from your eyes" so that you can see. Look at the beautifully, richly textured life you have. Look at the intricate and interesting world that surrounds you. Look at all of nature which embraces you so gently and faithfully on this tender, spinning planet. Look at the fascinating dance of persons around you...look at the generous miracle of your immediate family (your spouse or lovers, your children and grandchildren, your friends and the extended, supportive web of neighbors and acquaintances)...Look at the seemingly endless supply of intriguing human companions that have been scattered along your way. Look at the incredible beauty, rich texture and simple blessing that lies ALL AROUND YOU...LOOK!

Poet Walt Whitman knew how to look. Listen to him describe the magical world he knew:

...I know nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in bed at night with anyone I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the streetcar,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the exquisite, delicate curve of the new moon in Spring.
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles...
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with miracles...
Now when I say that to LOOK is the most important thing we can do in life...I don't necessarily mean just the mechanical/physical process of human sight (which occurs for most of us through [SCOTT POINTS TO HIS EYES] these two incredibly sophisticated and complicated little devices called eyes, which connect to our brains and neurological systems to transmit visual images of life and the world around us). The ability to physically see (the gift of having eyes that work) is, of course, in and of itself, a miracle and blessing almost beyond imagining. If you ever doubt it, just ponder for a minute what it must be like (how limiting and difficult it must be) to move through life without the simple mechanism of sight - as visually-impaired people - including several members of our congregation -- must do). Physical looking is important...but the kind of looking I want to focus on is the SPIRITUAL KIND OF LOOKING...the kind of human seeing and noticing which changes and enriches everything in our living. This kind of looking...this kind of paying attention to the world around you - from the soul out -- can be done with (or without) actual eyes. To persuade you of this, I want to share (as I did once before on a Sunday a couple of years back) something written by an incredible individual who, although physically blind almost from birth, was not spiritually blind...for she could see - passionately...fully...keenly -- most everything worth having in human life. I mean, of course, Helen Keller.

Listen to her describe an ordinary day when (after years of unnecessary darkness brought on by thoughtless caregivers who did not believe a deaf/blind/mute girl could live a full, engaged and joyous life) she was welcomed (by a loving and visionary teacher) into the full light of human possibility:

We read and studied out of doors, preferring the sunlit woods to the house. All my early sessions have in them the breath of the woods - the fine, resinous odor of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild grapes. Seated in the gracious shade of a wild tulip tree, I learned to think that everything had a lesson and a suggestion...Indeed everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or bloom had a part in my education - noisy-throated frogs, katydids and crickets held in my hand until, forgetting their embarrassment, they trilled their reedy note, little downy chickens and wild flowers, the dogwood blossoms, meadow-violets, and budding fruit trees. I felt the bursting cotton-bolls and fingered their soft fiber and fuzzy seeds; I felt the low sloughing of the wind through the cornstalks, the silky rustling of the long leaves and the indignant snort of my pony, as we caught him in the pasture and put the bit in his mouth - ah me! How well I remember the spicy clovery smell of his breath!

Sometimes I rose at dawn and stole into the garden, while the heavy dew lay on the grass and flowers. Few know what joy it is to feel the rose pressing softly into the hand, or the beautiful motion of the lilies as they sway in the morning breeze...Another favorite haunt of mine was the orchard, where the fruit ripened early in July. The large, downy preaches would reach themselves into my hand, and as the joyous breezes flew about the trees, the apples tumbled to my feet. Oh, the delight with which I gathered up the fruit in my pinafore, pressed my face against the smooth cheeks of the apples, still warm from the sun, and skipped back into the house.

Do you see? Helen Keller...blind...deaf...unable to speak from birth...cut off radically from the world in so many ways which we (on a daily basis) take for granted, was nonetheless spiritually able (by her powers of spiritual cultivation) to notice (and recklessly celebrate) more of life's simple miracle around her than many non-disabled persons. The simplicity, passion, and fullness of Helen Keller describing the joy she experienced out of her deep spiritual kinship (and passionate connection) with the world proves (to me at least) that you need not have eyes that work (or ears that can hear...or a nose that can smell...or even hands or legs or a voice box that works) to LOOK upon your world...to BE AWAKE TO AND AWARE OF its holiness in soul-saving and satisfying ways.

Over the years, I have known many human beings who find themselves obliged to live without sight...or without hearing...or smell...or legs to carry them fast and far. I have frequently noticed that such variously disabled people develop keenly attuned ways of noticing their worlds. Like Helen Keller, denied one or more of the usual avenues of connection they attune those remaining to them to a stunning degree of sensitivity and awareness - have others of you seen this? What a shame that human beings must often first lose some of their sensory connection to the world before they cultivate awareness and gratitude.

My colleague, Forrester Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York tells this story about an encounter he had while serving as a guest lecturer on a cruise ship:

Of all the sins we can commit against God, the...most prevalent [and least original] is to take the creation and our part in it for granted...Three weeks ago, two days out of New York, sailing south on a beautiful ship, I awakened early and went out on deck. The salt air was brisk, the sky a canopy of clouds. One other passenger was standing by the rail. "Lousy day," he said. "Not great," I replied. And then a deck hand carrying a bucket and mop, an old man with a bright red face and a Cockney accent, came down the stairway singing at the top of his lungs. A rousing, slightly off-color ballad it was, and my fellow passenger took great offense. What offended him was not the song as much as the singer. "Hasn't [he] got eyes?" he muttered under his breath and then, confronting him directly said, "What do you sing on a good day, a dirge?" "A good day?" [replied the crusty old deckhand] "Why this is a good day." "You've got to be kidding. I paid a lot of money for this, and what do I get? [Clouds...gray...cold] I might as well have stayed home." "Guv'ner," the old man replied, a twinkle in his eye, "There's many a blind man who would give a great deal to look out on this day."
In a remarkable little piece on noticing and appreciating the ordinary in our lives, essayist Cynthia Ozick makes the same spiritual point I wish to affirm:
[Extraordinary events in our lives are easy...we always recognize them, they do not let us]...Shrug [our] shoulders and walk away. But the ordinary is a much harder case. In the first place, by making itself so noticeable - it is around us all the time - the Ordinary has got itself in a bad fix with us: we hardly ever notice it. The ordinary, simply by being so ordinary, tends to make us ignorant and neglectful; when something does not insist on being noticed - when we aren't grabbed by the collar or struck on the skull by a presence or event, we take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.

And this is the chief ...and deepest point concerning the ordinary; that it does deserve our gratitude... The Ordinary is, above all, what is expected. And what is expected is not often thought of as a gift.

In my experience, it is usually only adults who really get in trouble with seeing and sensing the miracle of the ordinary all about them. It is only adults who forget how to really SEE at the texture and richness of the world around them, and thus (by failing to notice the obvious) fall into a life-numbing slumber. Children (as all you parents and grandparents know) know instinctively how to really see the world around them...really see its beauty, its magic, its mystery and resplendent holiness. Environmentalist Rachel Carson (who wrote the ground-breaking book The Silent Spring about the destruction of our natural environment) noticed this rather sad spiritual difference between our children and ourselves:
A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our [true] strength...
Yes...there can be no doubt about the sad spiritual truth. Most adults - most of us as we grow older and grow somewhat weary under the daily press and irritation of life - forget (on a moment-to-moment basis) to really LOOK at the miracle world and miracle dance we have been given (and because we fail to look with the heart's eye, we fail to see). As spiritual teacher Esnath Easwaran puts it, every tree, every bird, every person "is a miracle. We forget what a miracle [all of life] is, simply because we lack the detachment to stand back a little from ourselves and see life whole. We skim the surface of life so lightly that we might as well be asleep." I wish I could deny it, but I think the truth is that most of us grown-ups (distracted by so much work and worry, activity and angst) tend to largely skim the surface of life, often ending up essentially sleepwalking through our days, missing most of life's insistently holy dance around us, blind (at the soul level) to the incredible, sacred show life so generously throws at us 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.

But I have some really, really, really good news for each and every one of us...we don't have to sleepwalk (deaf and dumb...distanced and distracted) through our lives. We are not doomed (as battle-hardened adults) to miss most of what this creation is so eagerly trying to show us. We can through regular, simple, everyday spiritual practice sharpen our spiritual eye (open our looking devices), and once again begin to see (and be quietly blessed by!) the miraculous shape, texture and color of our world. It's not as difficult as it might at first seem. All you really have to do (to begin seeing your world as it was intended, by God, to be seen is STOP. STOP yourself amidst the din and distraction of your daily life and remind yourself to LOOK. STOP AND LOOK (Dick and Jane) STOP AND LOOK (Charles and Linda, Roger and Pamela)...LOOK. Is it really that difficult (on a regular basis in your daily life) to discipline yourself to PAUSE...and put aside (if only for a few moments) the next thing you're worried about doing or solving or tackling...take a deep breath...stop your busy little mind and LOOK...SIMPLY LOOK.

Let us practice this spiritual practice RIGHT NOW...RIGHT HERE...OK? Just for a moment, here in this quite ordinary place and moment of time, let us practice stilling our minds. Forget everything I have been saying in this sermon (all the logical, sequential points I have made, all the examples I have given, the poetry and quotations I have read) and just (for a minute or two) look around (and also listen within)...LOOK...LISTEN.

[Congregation shares two minutes of meditation]

I hope you enjoyed this moment of physical and spiritual LOOKING. Did you SEE or FEEL anything you had been missing? Does this essentially effortless practice of stopping for a few moments to look at your life and world seem too simple, too ordinary, too routine to be trustworthy as a great, nurturing pathway to spiritual wholeness and calm? Could it actually be that our hectic adult lives can be substantially enriched and enlivened (even saved from spiritual death itself) simply by PAUSING (every now and again, with an intentional rhythm of regularity) to look? Maybe I'm a hopeless simpleton, but I believe it is actually that simple. We sharpen our spiritual eye simply by using it! We begin to truly see the miracle that lies all about us when we pause amidst our daily routines to focus our attention (our amazing senses) on the ordinary miracle that surges and sings all about us, every day, every moment.

I am told that in Las Vegas (which is as far as I am concerned one of the most God-forsaken places in America) there is a sign posted above many of the gambling tables which reminds patrons, "YOU MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN". You must be present to win...so it is (spiritually) in life. In the book I put together a few years back on Everyday Spiritual Practice for Unitarian Universalists, James Austin affirms that, through simple, everyday mindfulness practice (which is really little more than intentional noticing) we adults can deepen our relationship with life and the world around us in life-saving, soul-satisfying, winning ways... listen:

Mindfulness...is a kind of remembering, remembering to be here, to be present, to pay attention to this moment of life. When we bring awareness to this moment, we know what we are doing and we know we are alive...So the first aspect of mindfulness practice in daily life is just to find [everyday, simple] ways to remind ourselves to SHOW UP in the present moment...by "being" in a deeper and richer way, we connect directly with that inherent self worth that is our birthright.
Of course it takes a lot of practice (and no small amount of discipline and intentionality) for any one of us to fully develop a mindfulness practice of true and deep looking and seeing...true and deep mindful noticing. There are no shortcuts to a fully attuned and enlightened life. But the spiritual path back from our many, easy adult distractions to life-saving wholeness, awareness, presence and calm begins with simple moments of noticing like the ones we just quietly shared.

Yes, there are lots of important and useful words in the English language, but the one I would have you value and remember this day is L-O-O-K...look. Look so that you can see. See so that you can know. Know that the life of joyful richness you were intended to live lies just beyond your own two eyes. LOOK. It really is that simple.