Blessed Spirit of My Life.
Have you sensed that presence? Did you feel it in that beautiful hymn?
A presence? Moving?
An energy that is yours…but not yours alone?
Spirit of Great Mystery.
Have you felt that quality of presence before? Do you come here in search of it?
Do you fell it now?
We’ve been so happy to put the last year behind us…so happy to inaugurate new political leadership and even to believe that this time of anxiety and distancing might eventually come to an end.
But what quality of presence are we called to embody as our spirits enter this time of opening?
What quality of Presence?
In progressive circles we talk about presence all the time:
“being present” to another person, or an event in the world, or even being present to ourselves. About bringing OUR presence and attention, about a more intense focus WE CAN BRING.
There is a different meaning for “presence” in theology. There the word points not to the attention WE can bring, but to a presence that is “other” or at least partially “other.”
“Spirit of Life, come unto me.” Be present to us.
Some of us think of a heightened human awareness. Some speak of the presence of God.
There is in all of those meanings the moving beyond the ordinary self, …the self that gets us through the day…
There is a connection to values and virtues that are held within us but also beyond us. There is a tethering, a connection to something larger. Something to which we are present. Or something that is present to us.
William Wordsworth described it this way:
And I have felt a presence that
Disturbs me with the joy of
A sense sublime of something far
More deeply interfused…
A motion and a spirit, that…
rolls through all things.
…something far more deeply interfused…
Whether we experience that presence in the measured meter of Wordsworth’s poetry, in the listening and laughter and tears of pastoral presence, in the cloud of witnesses we invoke in our public work for justice, or in song and the energy of gospel rhythms, there is an “otherness,” an almost mystical quality when we speak of presence in the religious sense.
It is not comfortable for all of us to acknowledge…I am certain that some of us may be squirming even now. I know.
But the acknowledgement that there is something beyond the individual consciousness…that human possibility is not confined to a linear world of algebra in which we can always solve for X, can always explain the mystery…
Even if the most we can say is that there is a power of human possibility that is yet to be realized…
Well, wrestling with that presence and that possibility is profoundly spiritual work.
Author Brain Doyle recounts his own experience:
“…I sat at the end of my bed at three in the morning, in tears, furious, frightened,… as drained and hopeless as I have ever been in this bruised and blessed world, at the very end of the end of my rope, and She spoke to me. I know it was Her…the Mother. …
Let it go, She said. …The words were clear, unambiguous, … unadorned. …
Let it go. … She knew how close I was to…utter despair…and She reached for me and cupped me in Her hand and spoke into the me of me and I will never forget her voice until the day I die.”
She spoke into “the me of me,” …a presence so “other” but so intimate.
We don’t talk easily about such experience. Doyle told no one for over a year, until two friends independently told him that they had been spoken to in hours of great need.
I’ve shared my own experience before…of sitting by son’s hospital bed when he had overdosed…of praying that he would live…
My own experience of being held and assured, somehow, that things would be alright in the morning, though the night might be long…
It was not a promise of an outcome. It was assurance that both he and I were known and…somehow…held.
That was years ago and he is fine and a father now soon to be teenagers himself.
When I first shared that experience from the pulpit…I was surprised at the number of people who told me of their feeling such a presence…of being “visited.” And that language is not right…or not completely right…because the stories that were shared with me were varied…
Perhaps “the presence,” whatever it may be, is shaped out of our own mind …to fit narratives we have been taught or told…for Doyle it was the Catholic Mother…for me simply hands holding me…
Doris Grumbach, in her book, The Presence of Absence, describes her experience:”
“I was filled with a unique feeling of peace, an impression so intense that it seemed to expand into ineffable joy. … It seemed to fill my entire body.” She knew it as the presence of God, though she describes herself as a Marxist with an opiate-of-the-people opinion about religion.
And something changed for her…as it did for Doyle:
Though the details of his life did not change, [I’m quoting again]“…it changed everything. Something broke and something healed, something so deep and joyous that I cannot find words for it, hard as I try.”
A Presence. “…something so deep and joyous.”
I did not give up rationalism. I still study history and psychology and economics.
But I have come to know that similar experiences …are real for many of us…part of what William James called the Varieties of Religious Experience… that the community of the church is called to hold.
And if our goal in the church is to welcome real lived experience…to create and sustain a spiritual community where we don’t have to check any part of ourselves at the door…a community whose hallmark is a quest for wholeness…accountable wholeness…
Then we need to make a place for these experiences…just as much as we make space for intellectual engagement… and just as much as we feel the spirit when we sing or pray together and just as much as we celebrate with every movement toward equity and inclusion.
In fact, I want to try to describe to you how I am increasingly seeing all of those “varieties of religious experience” as part of a whole…related…interconnected…deeply interfused…bound together and binding us together in this business of trying to live a faithful and an honest… and a joyful life.
Some of this is not in focus yet…some of it I can only glimpse…
But bear with me as I try. This year begins with some light at the end of the tunnel…with the vaccines…with the new administration in Washington…
But that for me just heightens the need to get clear on how we want to live we begin to return…not to normal…but to a new, post-Covid reality.
So bear with me…
We have seen one approach to living taken to its tragic conclusion. Seen it in the public square.
This is the approach of selfishness, of centering self above all else. Of using others. Of greed. And of an un–fill-able emptiness.
We have seen what that looks like…and watched what that can cause. It has been embodied in a President but that way of being has been around for a long time. It is deeply a part of the DNA of this nation. Not the totality of our DNA, thankfully, but it is there in us. Make no mistake.
We know what lies at the end of that path and it is not the Promised Land. It is emptiness that cannot be filled.
We would pity those who follow that path if their actions did not harm so many of us.
I need to be clear. I am not writing off the value of understanding how things work, nor of our skill at making them work for our benefit.
But that manipulation…without a corresponding depth of gratitude and accountability to creation and to our neighbors…
That leads to the abuse we have seen exemplified these last four years.
There is another path…other paths…with different relationships to creation and to the Spirit of Life…to that presence within us and beyond us.
Even if we don’t know and can’t know for certain what the presence we feel is or how it works.
Not knowing does not need to leave us stuck…because our knowing, our certainty…and our control…are not the ultimate point. Creation…it turns out…is not all about us.
Michael Himes, a former professor at Boston College reminds us that God is not anyone’s name. “There is not some person out there someplace, much older, much wiser, much more powerful than you or I whose name is ‘God’.”
“[God] is the name of the mystery that lies at the root of all that exists. Never forget that we are talking about mystery…since our temptation is to natter on as though we know what we’re talking about.”
[I love that attitude in this very Catholic priest]
We don’t know…for certain…
The mystery remains mystery.
But…there are things that we do know.
Himes tells the story of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamozov. The Father is counseling “a woman who had ceased to believe in God.
“Now everything is colorless, tasteless,” she tells the monk. “Nothing feels real, ‘save the weeds that grow on my grave.’”
Zosima tells her that what she is experiencing is the worst thing that can happen to a human being, AND that he thinks he can help her. She must go home and every day, without fail, in the most concrete and practical way possible she must love the people around her. If she does that, Zosima says, then bit by bit she will come to the point at which she cannot but believe in God. ‘This way,’ he says, ‘has been tried; this way is certain.”
Professor Himes concludes: “ … the only workable proof for the [presence]of God is an experience, and that experience arises out of the daily concrete and practical love for those around us.”
In the Interfaith world, many people are impressed with UU commitment to social justice…our practice of “making love real by the living of our lives”…
For our faith, direct engagement and support for justice-making and service, the living into our vision of Beloved Community is crucial to our spiritual development. Not incidental. Not a nice addition. Crucial.
It is the process, and we have many ways that we embody it, of liberating ourselves and locating ourselves on a path leading toward hope…not emptiness.
As Howard Thurman wrote: “The mystic’s concern with the imperative for social action is not merely … to relieve human suffering… If this were all, in and of itself, it would be important surely. But…the basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to [fullness] in the life of the individual. Whatever there is that blocks this, calls for action.
The removal of all that prevents God from coming to fullness in our lives…
Thurman’s language may require some translation for some.
So try this: Whatever blocks that presence which brings both peace and joy to your life and to all of the other lives around you…whatever blocks that presence from “coming to fullness” … must be dismantled.
We have been blocking too much of human potential…too much creativity and competence has been shut down…too much beauty and talent has been denied…too many, far too many of us have had the Spirit of Life stunted, stymied,…the breath pressed out of us…
But despite all that, there is Good News here.
Because all we have to do…is to stop blocking the talent and that presence that is waiting to emerge within us…stop pressing the breath out of so many…out of all of us really…
What I am seeing…what I am sensing…is that the work of dismantling is where we must bring our presence first…that is where we will discover the Spirit of Life waiting to deepen our lives…where we will discover a wholeness and a joy.
We are being called, I believe, to embody the hope we believe can be real…by removing everything that stands in its path.
We need to ground ourselves as deeply as possible. Because there will be a pull to just return…to take the path of least resistance…to build back what we knew…
We need to develop the spiritual muscle…a spiritual practice sufficiently strong to resist that pull…
But…but what I am sensing is that it will not feel like resisting a pull…the work of unblocking our lives will not feel like working against the spirit…
It will feel like freedom. I think it will.
Because whether it is the work, or our vision, or the Spirit of Life joining with us…or all three…we will be lifted…held up…as we liberate ourselves…
It will feel like transcendence…moving beyond what we have known…toward a quality of wholeness that might justify the language of Beloved Community…might make that language live for us…and make that language live in us.
At least that is what I glimpse…that is what I am willing to put my faith in…we need to be liberated out of those habits and those assumptions that have held us down…liberated out of our fear of each other, liberated out of our fear of our own power…
The way we were willing to live…will not do. It won’t do.
We need to inaugurate something far better.
What I am glimpsing…sensing…is that is where the Spirit of Life will join us…will be present to us.
Can you feel it…something more deeply interfused…something waiting to be born that will flow through all things…
Something that calls us to finally begin living as we want to live and creating a world in which that is not only a possible future but a world in which that becomes so normal that it is the only possible future…
Can you feel it?
Can we live it?