8 Apr

A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on April 7, 2013

We had gotten up three hours earlier and to make drive around the island and were finally heading up route 550. The road was winding and I was not comfortable with the rightward pull of the rental car, so we were going pretty slow on our way up to Koke’e State Park in Kaua’i. As the road turned precariously, we noticed a look-off point and pulled over for a short break. The view was breath-taking – Waimea Canyon opened up before us. I realized, first-hand, why this amazing canyon is called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” – it is 10 miles long and up to 3000 feet deep, having been formed by both the steady process of erosion and by the collapse of the volcano that created the island Kauaʻi. The lookout point was near a peak. The red of the clay, the green of the foliage and the blue of the ocean beyond were highlighted by the rays of sunlight coming out from behind fluffy gray and white clouds. Suddenly, a double rainbow formed stretching from one end of the canyon to the other. And I wept.

I wept, because it was so beautiful. And so big. And so, so old. And my life was so insignificant and tiny and precious and amazing in the face of something so ancient and huge. And I wept because I was a part of this amazing cycle of nature that had created both my puny wonderful life and this grand awe-inspiring canyon and in fact we were made of the same star stuff that exploded from the big bang millions of years ago.

I wept. And I remembered one of my favorite lines from the movie Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan. Ellie Arroway is a scientist who has been sent into space and travels through wormholes and sees planets and solar systems and more. When she comes upon a celestial event, she is struck dumb by the experience: “No words,” she says “No words to describe it. Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful.”

When we experience the transcendent, that which is larger than us, we are often left without words. Because the transcendent is so much larger than we can comprehend. Unitarian Universalist minister Karen Herring points out that poetry can help us talk about the transcendent “because it is all about pointing.” The poet says “Look here! Experience this!” Like this poem, What Is There Beyond Knowing? from Mary Oliver:

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me? I can’t

turn in any direction
but it’s there. I don’t mean

the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off

fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning

theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;

or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still

in the same — what shall I say —

What I know
I could put into a pack

as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,

important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained

and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly

to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.

There are many ways that we transcend. We can transcend our living circumstances. We can transcend the boundaries of our social class. We can transcend something that we feel pulls us into the depths – whether that is an experience where we choose to take the high road, or where we overcome the anxiety that threatens to pull us downward. And those are all valid understandings of ways we transcend – ways we rise above. But that is not what I am talking about today. Today I am talking about the experience of the transcendent. The experience of knowing that we belong to a larger reality, or as Fred Campbell puts it, when we “participate in the larger process of creativity that permeates our universe.”

Experiences like that of Thomas Merton on March 19, 1958. Merton was a famous writer, Catholic mystic, and Trappist monk. On that day 55 years ago, he was here in Louisville, standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut (what is now Muhammad Ali Boulevard). That day, he wrote in his journal:

“Suddenly I realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the ‘special’ vocation to be different…I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there…Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them.”

The spot at the entrance to 4th Street Live where Merton had his epiphany, where he had this experience of transcendence, is marked with a historical marker. But I think that the marker is there because of who Merton was, not because his experience of the transcendence was unique to him. Indeed, many of us have stories of experiencing the transcendent, of experiencing our own particular uniqueness in the context of something so, so much larger. Chris shared one of his stories in his reflection. On the back of your order of service are two stories by other Unitarian Universalists who have shared their experiences. Personally, my experience of Waimea Canyon is one of several ways I have connected with the transcendent – I have felt my own unique preciousness in the face of vast largeness when I was pregnant (knowing that every human being in all of time has been carried in the womb of a woman and that I was participating in something that was unique and universal at the same time); or when I held a baby goat and felt in my whole body my connection to the interdependent web of existence of which both I and the kid were a part of; or whenever I get a chance to get away from a city and gaze up at the Milky Way and pause to consider the size and age and wonder of the universe.

Another poet points to it like this. Primary Wonder by Denise Levertov:

Days pass when I forget the mystery.

Problems insoluble and problems offering

their own ignored solutions

jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber

along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing

their colored clothes; caps and bells.

And then

once more the quiet mystery

is present to me, the throng’s clamor

recedes: the mystery

that there is anything, anything at all,

let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,

rather than void: and that, 0 Lord,

Creator, Hallowed one, You still,

hour by hour sustain it.

Indeed, this experience of the transcendent is a part of where we as Unitarian Universalists find insight. The very first source in our Principles and Purposes says that we find inspiration and truth in the “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;”

For Merton and Levertov, the name of the transcendent is God. But as Chris aptly pointed out in his reflection, some of the most mystic authors are atheists. An experience of the transcendent transcends (if you will) theology and cuts across all cultures and religions. It is a humbling experience that makes room for empathy and compassion.

In our own faith tradition, this transcending of traditional theology has its start in the aptly named Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century. These were mostly Unitarians who moved beyond a Bible-based religion and into an experience of the divine that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. These folks, who include such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke (one of the first ministers of this congregation!), Walt Whitman, and Theodore Parker (who wrote first of the moral arc of the universe and it’s bend toward justice).
In 1836, four years after he had resigned from the Unitarian ministry to become a lecturer but two years before he gave his Divinity School address at Harvard, Emerson published his first book, Nature. It’s publication marks the beginning of the Transcendentalist movement. Listen to this excerpt:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. 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 eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

This was radical, RADICAL stuff Emerson was saying. The Transcendentalists were not saying that God was transcendent and beyond, instead they were saying that the divine is immanent, all around us, within us – available to us at all time and through diverse ways. They looked at the Bible and declared that the miracles of Jesus were not proof that the Bible was true, as was the party-line at the time. They went on to say that the teachings of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism were just as valid a way of describing this ultimate reality as was Christianity. They were transcending religion as it was at the time and moved toward an ultimate universalism. They shaped not only Unitarianism but our entire culture. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the Transcendentalists “one of the first and most dramatic protests against civil religion in America. Perhaps even more significantly, transcendentalism marked the first substantial attempt in American history to retain the spiritual experience and potential of the Christian faith without any of the substance of its belief.”

Without the Transcendentalists, who were, it should be noted, despised by the traditional Unitarian church at the time, we would not have had room for the Humanists. Without the Humanists we would not have had room for the Pagans. It is not a stretch to say that without the Transcendentalists, our faith tradition (which prizes our own direct experience as a source of truth and inspiration) would not exist as we currently know it today.

From the transcendentalist poet William Wordsworth:

And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts;
A sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
A motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

“Rolls through all things,” Wordsworth writes. Because for the Transcendentalists and for Unitarian Universalists today, an experience of the transcendent is not far away but is right here. It is the realization that we are a part of something larger, that I am not the biggest thing there is (thank goodness!). Unitarian Universalist minister Meg Riley writes that “Transcendence does not mean that the holy exists separately from the beauty and heartbreak of life on earth, which pulses in our bodies and daily lives…Rather, divine mystery is woven throughout every moment of time, every cell of our aging and imperfect bodies, every interaction and choice. Our spiritual practice is to remember to see it!”

We call the transcendent by many names: Mystery, Wonder, Spirit of Life, God, Divine, Ground of our Being, Goddess, Grandmother, Grandfather, and so much more. It is an experience of that which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. It is the realization of our own, unique, precious, wonderful miniscule lives as a part of the creative processes of Nature, of the Universe, of LIFE which is so much grander than we can comprehend that we sometimes need poets to help us point to it. Poets, like the Sufi poet Hafiz, whose mysticism speaks to me of the immanence and accessibility of the transcendent in ways that move me and to whom I give the last word this morning:

Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.

Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you, Presence most dear, close and intimate.

I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.

I shall surely see you in tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.

Oh, Beloved Presence, more beautiful than all the stars together, I trace your face in ivy that climbs, in clusters of grapes, in morning flaming the mountains, in the clear arch of sky.

You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.

You are the breathing of the world.

Amen. Ashe. And very, very blessed be.

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