Living in the Spirit

You’ve seen them while you’ve been flipping through the channels — Bible in hand, fervid, possessed, contorted, shouting sweating and rumpled, explicating and expounding upon a scriptural passage. Well, I’m not going to do that this morning — unless something unforeseen comes about, I won’t be jumping up and down, pacing or haranguing. I’m also not going to be explicating, expounding upon, teaching from, or meditating upon a passage from the Bible. Instead, I’ve chosen a passage from another religious work, a book called “For the Time Being,” by Annie Dillard. This is a very Unitarian Universalist thing to do — taking inspiration from secular sources.

We Unitarian Universalists believe that any literature is sacred when it speaks to the spirit; any writer can be a prophet of truth or an Apostle of spiritual salvation. When I’m asked by the curious if I “believe in” the Bible, I say “Yes. And I also “believe in” the novels of John Cheever and the poetry of Mary Oliver .”

When the Bible preacher preaches, she, or he, assumes the congregation is going to be following along in their open Bibles. I’ve had the passage I’m sharing with you this morning printed on the cover of your Order of Service so that you can follow along just as if we were studying holy writ. Let me read the passage first:

“Spiritual path,” Annie Dillard writes, “is the hilarious popular term for those night-blind mesas and flayed hills in which people grope, for decades on end, with the goal of knowing the absolute. They discover others spread under the stars and encamped here and there by watch fires, in groups or alone, in the open landscape; they stop for a sleep, or for several years, and move along without knowing toward what or why. They leave whatever they find, picking up each stone, carrying it awhile, and dropping it gratefully and without regret, for it is not the absolute, though they cannot say what it is. Their life’s fine, impossible goal justifies the term “spiritual.” Nothing, however, can justify the term “path” for this bewildered and empty stumbling, this blackened vagabondage–except one thing: They don’t quit…Year after year they find themselves still feeling with their fingers for lumps in the dark …They hope to learn how to be useful…Decade after decade they see no progress. But they do notice, if they look, that they have left doubt behind. Decades ago, they left behind doubt about this or that doctrine, abandoning the issues as unimportant. Now, I mean, they have left behind the early doubt that this feckless prospecting in the dark for the unseen is a reasonable way to pass one’s life.”

First of all, What is this passage about? It is about what Annie Dillard’s work is usually about — digging into the depths of life’s simple things, engaging the world at a depth that transcends the ordinary “becoming spiritual,” might be a way to put it. She has written books with such titles as, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a spiritual encounter with nature, “Holy the Firm,” “Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,” and “Teaching A Stone to Talk.” “For the Time Being” is her latest work. It is a book about Spiritual seeking — looking, perhaps, for a sense of contentment, seeking for a way to unite the divided parts of self, and to relate that whole self to what we might experience as the whole of being.

What Dillard calls “knowing the Absolute” would be knowing well enough to get by with something like “God’s in her heaven and all’s right with the world.” Knowing the absolute isn’t the same as knowing what the Absolute is. Knowing God, I mean, is not the same–and does not need to be the same — as knowing what God is.

Some people speak of that search as “being on a spiritual path.” Dillard — and any who have engaged in the spiritual quest — find the term “path” odd for the kind of journeying it is. She thinks it “hilarious.” “Path” suggests a way prepared and leading from one point to another.

Searching for that which will embrace us, hold us, assure us that all is well, that we are loved, that we are enough, that our being and all being makes sense — well, this is no yellow brick road, no mercury-lit highway faithful to the map. It is more a wandering, a groping about in desert darkness, “night-blind mesas and flayed hills.”

Seekers, Dillard writes, “…discover others spread under the stars and encamped here and there by watch fires, in groups or alone, in the open landscape; they stop for a sleep, or for several years, and move along without knowing toward what or why.”

Many, if not most of our kind are content to stay at home and make the best of it or opt to stay encased in towers of glass and stone never having had the opportunity to suppose that there is any other way of being or never daring to make so potentially expensive a supposition. We suspect that in traveling with the urgings of the spirit we would, in time, drop some of the baggage. That it would be our choice to make whatever sacrifices, does not make the prospect less frightening to any whose hunger is fed by things. The image of spiritual transformation is, perhaps, St. Francis of Assisi, once rich devil-may-care, possessed by the spirit and with nothing but a threadbare robe and a beatific smile. Well, it’s a long way to go from Alpharetta, Georgia.

It is said that one does not go forth seeking a Presence, until one becomes aware of an unbearable Absence. The Absence — of deep contentment; of acceptance, of a beatific smile: these absences can be borne by most unto death. As one person said to me once after a sermon — “When you talk about spirituality I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care.” And so, Dillard and I perhaps speak to just a few pilgrims, hoping for a few kibitzers to get curious.

When one does venture out into that unfamiliar “terrain of the soul,” the journeying need not be done alone. There are encounters. “Others spread under the stars and encamped here and there by watch fires.” Others have felt a dissatisfaction with what they were told should be satisfactory and have ventured out. Others are adventuring. A spiritual wanderlust. We encounter their camps. We are drawn to this one’s singing, to that group’s dance, to the beckoning, promising, of another. We stop for a sleep, or for several years.

There are Maharishi, gurus of every kind. There is a gathering of those searching into past lives for knowledge about the present. Here is a community of souls given over to completely to a charismatic leader. Some have sought to shed the rule of western thought and to follow the stars to the east. Some have dropped their baggage along the way, shucking the suits and the wheels and the cell phone turning to folkways and native simplicity. Some recall goddesses from the mist, mingle with angels, give their lives to Jesus.

Stop to sleep, or stay for several years. And then, Dillard says, we move along.

Sadly, it is not always so simple. Some of these are bandits, kidnappers, soul-stealers. There are some who, once we’ve stopped by, would not take kindly to our moving along. There are those whose own stand in the wilderness is so incomplete, so unfulfilled and fragile, that they cannot bear doubt — yours or their own. For one to step away suggests there may be more truth elsewhere. An unacceptable suggestion. At the very first hint that this encampment, this prophet/teacher/reincarnation claims the only truth — slip away.

Beware the true believer. The true believer has given up seeking and finds small, temporary comfort only in the total surrender of others. We should bear in mind also that we, too, are among those along the many ways that others might encounter in their journeys and stop for awhile by the warmth and light of our campfire. For the seeker — novice or Master — is also Teacher, professed or not, and some will see our figure in the light of sun or night, and want to know what we have found, perhaps walk with us awhile.

Encourage by example. Teach by being. Speak for yourself. Remember that what you have picked up along the way is not the Absolute.

Moving on.

“They leave whatever they find, picking up each stone, carrying it awhile, and dropping it gratefully and without regret, for it is not the absolute…” This passage takes me to a small Pacific cove I love: walking the edge of sea and sand, eyes down, collecting shells and stones. I have often found the most perfect of stones. Rolled gently to a still point by receding water, it glistens in the sun, banded with color, water and wind-worn to curious shape. I hold it for a long time, this perfect discovery, intent on bringing it back, “bringing it home.” Somewhere along the beach — perhaps bending to another stone, I look again at the “perfect” stone I carried. It has dried. It no longer glistens. The colors are not so brilliant as they seemed back there. I put it down — and move on. Dillard says “gratefully” and “without regret.”

When we first find something in our searching, it shines and glistens. It is the best. The most true. Absolute. It may serve us well for a short time or for many years. Then something else may appear in our path and we put down what we had carried. It was not, after all, Absolute. But there is no need to regret that we held it, for it had the feel and the color we needed for that time.

Preaching, I have found — sermon writing — has the advantage for the preacher of being a record of the journey. Saved sermons — and I’ve saved most of them — remind me of truths I once thought eternal, ideas I once thought explained it all, positions, viewing places, taken and left. Preachers, pundits and all sorts of pontificators quoted again and again as those-who-know. All put down, put away, left behind after awhile. With no regrets.

Never regret the places left behind on the journey. Be grateful for the gifts found there. Only learn, perhaps, in the passion of new discovery, that this, too, is not Absolute. Decade after decade, Dillard writes, we see no progress. “But they do notice, if they look, that they have left doubt behind.”

Pillar to post. Camp to camp. Wandering in the wilderness, sometimes carrying a fading stone. Where’s the “progress?” What’s to show for it? The error, of course, is in expecting “progress.” Again, the spiritual quest is not a path, not really. There is no destination. No place of final arrival. It is almost sinful — one theologian does in fact call it “sin”– to claim to have accomplished the end, achieved the destination. That is to assume that All That Is Holy, Blessed be its name, has a limited offering — that we could actually take it all in. Worse, it is to assume that we, of all people, have become the proud possessors of the Truth.

What we do come to learn, as Dillard says, is that doubt isn’t important anymore–certainly not important enough to argue about, to draw up sides to defend, or even to lose a moment’s sleep. As we move about the landscape — picking up and putting down and moving on — what we do discover is what does not matter. What is Truth? Who is God? Is God? Jesus? Mohammed? Joseph Smith? Baptist. Buddhist. Methodist. Sin and Salvation. Infant Baptism? Total Immersion? Virgin Birth and Resurrection? “Decades ago, they left behind doubt about this or that doctrine, abandoning the issues as being unimportant.”

The doctrines and beliefs of the religions are an old place in the spiritual landscape. In our journeys, we may discover that it does not matter if we believe in the virgin birth if there is an emptiness at the core of our being. It does not matter if we are tenaciously convinced that ours is the one true religion if, within the walls of the one true religion, we live in spiritual poverty and if we live lonely as orphans in the universe.

A certain spiritually-inclined woman was reported to have said, “I accept the universe!” Hearing of it, Winston Churchill said, “Egad. She’d better!” But hers was not a simple statement. People bound by religion most often do not accept the universe. They impose doctrine on it to make it manageable. They say it was made thus and works thus and means what is said in the sacred books. To accept the universe is to doubt all doctrine and explanation and let be what is and live within in.

And Annie Dillard says,

“Now, I mean, they have left behind the early doubt that this feckless prospecting in the dark for the unseen is a reasonable way to pass one’s life.”

I’ll tell you what I like most about that statement. It does not shriek the necessity of salvation at us. It does not frighten us with an imminent end time that will find us empty-handed. It does not say, “You must,” “You ought to,” or even ask “Why don’t you?” It simply says that this journeying, this wandering about from campfire to encampment carrying a pretty something or having just put it down and looking for another- Dillard simply says that all this fumbling after enlightenment is a reasonable way to pass one’s life.

I find that enormously liberating. It brings perspective to what might seem to many of us — many so unfamiliar to such a thing as spiritual journeying — what might seem to us as being such a burden. Must we do all that and go all that way? Not at all, says our lesson for the day. It is simply a reasonable way to spend one’s days.