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“The Mystery of Belonging”

February 23, 2020

Thought for Contemplation:  "The Living Tradition which we share draws from many sources:        Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life...."    UUA Bylaws

             

 

Margaret Fuller, one of the leading Transcendentalists of the 1830’s & 1840’s, said this of nature and of the greater wholeness of which we are a part:

All around us lies what we neither understand nor use. Our capacities, our instincts for this our present sphere are but half developed. Let us confine ourselves to that till the lesson be learned; let us be completely natural before we  trouble ourselves with the supernatural. I never see any of these [natural] things but I long to get away and lie under a green tree and let the wind blow on me.  There is marvel and charm enough in that for me.[1]

Fuller was the leading American feminist of her time; she wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century as a clarion call for the freedom of women from the domination of their husbands and for the full equality of the genders.  She tells a story there of how

“A party of travelers lately visited a lonely hut on a mountain. There they found an old woman, who told them she and her husband had lived there forty years. "Why," they said, "did you choose so barren a spot?" She "did not know; it was the man's notion." And, during forty years, she had been content to act, without knowing why, upon “the man's notion!” I [Fuller says], would not have it so.”[2]

Margaret Fuller was a very practical person, able to look the social relations of her time with clear eyes and raise her voice to act for change.  She was also a mystic, as were many of the Transcendentalists with whom she kept company.  One anecdote says that when Margaret Fuller traveled to London and met [the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas] Carlyle – who referred to her as “an exotic from New England” – she confidently declared, “I accept the universe,” to which Carlyle replied, “By gad, you’d better.”[3]

In his clever response, Carlyle missed the kernel of truth in Fuller’s declaration:  That we belong to the universe, and that true wisdom consists in accepting that we belong and learning to live in harmony with the ways of the universe.  In its own way, this was a declaration of belief in something beyond what we can see and hear and feel and touch – something greater-than to which we belong, which Lao Tsu spoke of as the Tao (in Stephen Mitchell’s translation):

There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born.

It is serene. Empty.

Solitary. Unchanging.

Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.

For lack of a better name,

I call it the Tao. [Mitchell, 1]

Ralph Waldo Emerson, another of the Transcendentalists among whom Fuller moved, spoke of a more specific mystical experience this way:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear....

Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.... I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.[4]

Emerson could equally have said:  “I belong.”  He tried to put that experience of the unnamable in the more formal terms of his own philosophy this way:

The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.[5]

Of course, not everyone took the Transcendentalists as seriously as they took themselves.  One of the historians of the movement reports some of the less positive reviews of the Transcendentalists:

To many people ... the Transcendentalists were unset­tling, and as often ridiculed or reviled as respected. On his famous trip to the United States at the height of the

 

fer­ment, for example, the English novelist Charles Dickens observed that when he inquired of some of his American friends what Tran­scendentalism signified, he was given to understand that ''whatever was unintelligible would be certainly transcendental." When Thomas Carlyle was visiting Boston, he [met a man who had joined the utopian community at Brook Farm and referred to him as a Unitarian] minister who has left the pulpit to re­form the world by cultivating onions. Even fellow travelers could not resist such humorous characterizations. In her old age, Annie Russell Marble, who had lived at Ripley's Brook Farm community, quipped that the Transcendentalists, for all their goodwill, were "a race who dove into the infinite, soared into the illimitable, and never paid cash." The historian Henry Adams, no stranger to New England's ways, concluded that they were "unutterably funny."[6]

One of the positive legacies of Transcendentalism is that among those of their number who most famously “never paid cash” was Bronson Alcott – founder of the utopian community Fruitlands.   At least he inspired his daughter Louisa May Alcott to write Little Women to get cash – since her father was clearly incapable and uninterested in getting it.

There is that at the heart of our Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism that calls us to recognize and to experience the mystery of which we are a part, that which is unnamable but ever present, immanent within us and beyond us.  The first of the sources of our living tradition says “We recognize and honor that “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life...."[7]    

This mysterious greater whole of which we are a part – the Universe, the Tao, the Spirit of Live and Love – this mysterious whole is referred to in most of the world’s religious traditions.  Thus, when the sages who wrote the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, struggled with how to refer to THAT, they referred to Brachman, that beyond which includes everything; and to Atman, that within each of us which corresponds to and responds to THAT.  Or, as the idea is expressed in the first chapter of Genesis from the Jewish tradition, God made humans in God’s image.

Later in the Jewish scriptures we read the story of Elijah, a prophet of the God of Israel, who had just fled to a cave in the mountains after personally slaying the priests of Baal, a foreign god.  500 priests.  Single-handed.  He was a bit of a fanatic, it seems.  AND distinctly unpopular with Queen Jezabel, who sponsored the worship of Baal in Israel.  While in the cave, he wishes his god would come forth with a mighty hand and destroy his enemies.  As the story is told in I Kings,

[I Kings 19:11b-12, NKJV] And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

“A still small voice.”  Another translation offers “a sound of sheer silence.” 

“Voice still and small,” as our music for meditation this morning puts it.

Perhaps this is the voice that the Buddha heard when he sat meditating, listening, under the Bodhi tree twenty-five hundred years ago.

Such a voice, such an experience – calls us to shed the narrow focus of our own egos into a broader participation in the whole.  As Emerson puts is, “All mean egotism vanishes.”  We are more than our own narrow needs and desires, if we listen we can hear a call to something more, something greater than ourselves, something unnamable to which we belong, something that calls us to find our own part in a much larger pattern of being.  The Buddha promises that this participation in the larger whole by avoiding attachment and craving is the only way to overcome suffering.  But the Buddha’s enlightenment did not lead to his withdrawal from the world into the bliss of nirvana.  On the contrary, it was just the beginning of his life and teaching and leading others to overcome the suffering in their own lives.  The highest of goals in the Buddhist tradition is to become a Bodhisattva, one who returns from the experience of true freedom, of enlightenment, to serve others by helping them to become free of suffering in their own lives, teaching them to listen for the still small voice.

And then there is faith. Sharon Salzberg, a prominent Buddhist teacher, says that the “essence [of faith] lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”  So when we listen, when we pay attention, we discover that we are connected in compassion to all other people.  Our faith enables us to experience ourselves as part of the whole – not “self-made,” not alone and isolated, not having to do everything all by ourselves, but part of something much greater – the Unity, as Emerson called it.

This faith, this trust, comes to us when we pay attention, when we are mindful, when we listen to the still small voice.  Sharon Salzberg reminds us that:

The Buddha said, "Faith is the beginning of all good things." No matter what we encounter in life, it is faith that enables us to try again, to trust again, to love again. Even in times of immense suffering, it is faith that enables us to relate to the present moment in such a way that we can go on, we can move forward, instead of becoming lost in resignation or despair. Faith links our present-day experience, whether wonderful or terrible, to the underlying pulse of life itself.[8]

There is listening.  There is finding a faith that links us to the underlying pulse of life itself.  Then there is sharing what we have discovered – accepting the Universe, as Margaret Fuller put it – with one another and with the world.  In the language of our third principle – perhaps this is the way we might speak of the aspiration to the way of the Bodhisattva in our own words, “We covenant to affirm and promote … Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations …”  Listening to the still small voice that speaks from out of the unnamable, the mystery, telling us we belong to something greater – that is the path of spiritual growth that we encourage in one another.

We come here this morning from many different sets of experience, with many different stances toward the world, toward the sacred, the sound of the still small voice, “ultimate reality,” we might say.  We commit ourselves to respecting and learning from each of the paths we have walked to this point in our lives, striving always to strengthen the faith that orients us to the world we live in and which we are called to serve.

This is the essence of faith.  From inwardness we are called to outward action, to putting into practice that respect for all persons and for the underlying pulse of the web of life itself.  In this we recognize that we are part of a greater whole, that we must act with compassion as we ourselves are treated with compassion, that there are broken things in the world that we need to help put together again:  relationships, communities, our Mother Earth.  There is work to be done to heal the world, to engage in Tikkun Olam, as our Jewish brothers and sisters refer to this work.

Listen.  Find faith.  Act.  It begins in listening.  Listening to that still small voice, to the underling pulse of life itself, to the spirit of life.  As our music for meditation this morning puts it:

Voice still and small, deep inside all,

I hear you call, singing.  [you can hum or sing along]

In storm and rain, sorrow and pain,

still we’ll remain, singing.

Calming my fears,

quenching my tears, 

through all the years, singing.  [let’s do that again]

AMEN

 

 

 

[1] Margaret Fuller, “Good Sense,” in A Dialogue between Free Hope, Old Church, Good Sense, and Self-Poise, p. 127

 

[2] Woman in the Nineteenth Century, from Standing Before Us:  Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936, pp. 24-26.

 

[3] Mark Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism, Lanham, Maryland:  The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2004, p. 205

 

[4] http://www.emersoncentral.com/nature.htm 

 

[5]   http://www.emersoncentral.com/oversoul.htm  referenced 1/5/14

 

[6]           Philip F, Gura, American Transcendentalism:  A History, New York: Hill and Wang, 2007, pp. Xii-xiii.

 

[7] Sources – from Thought

 

[8] Sharon Salzberg, Faith:  Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, New York:  Riverhead Books, 2002, pp. xiv-xv

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