30 March 2003, FUUNCO
Dr. Barbara Coeyman
Last winter in Portland, Oregon, I saw a documentary movie about Rhosina Levine, a Russian-born pianist and teacher. Levine taught at the Julliard School of Music in New York City for many years in the mid-twentieth century. She was a well-loved, inspirational teacher---her students included pianists like Fort Worth's Van Cliburn. The movie was a moving experience for me. As I watched, I felt great nostalgia. I flashbacked to some of my own music teachers, and how important music was to me during my formative years. Back then, I would never have referred to music as 'spiritual,' but in fact I now understand how it was, how music has been an important spiritual practice most of my life.
At the time I saw the movie, I had been feeling that there was something miss- ing in my life, and even though it was January in the northwest, it wasn't just the sun that was missing. Many of you know that last year I served a Unitarian church in Portland as intern minister. It was an important assign- ment for me, and I wanted to do a good job. I had many positive things going for me, but I also worked hard. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of taking care of myself spiritually---meditating, journaling, hiking and folk dancing. But as I watched the Levine movie, I realized why the dreary hole I was feeling... 'It's the music, stupid' --- or rather, the absence of the music. I hadn't played music since arriving in Portland six months earlier. Somehow I guess I thought that I didn't need it in my life of intern ministry. It took this movie to remind me about a well-balance spiritual life. Even ministers can neglect spiritual practice.
So the day after the movie I got out my instruments---called viols--- and played a bit. After months of not playing, I was out of shape, but what I sounded like didn't matter. I was playing for myself, not anyone else. Some days five minutes was all the time I had. But I played nearly every day, and it made a big difference in clearing up the dreariness.
What feeds you spiritually? Do you have regular spiritual practice? If not, would you like to, start something new, or resume some practice you've been neglecting?
Our speaker last week, Dr. Mike Luedde, prepared us well for what I planned to talk about today. Mike talked about spirituality and how it is both part of religion and beyond religion, beyond institutional systems that articulate specific explanations of the mysteries of life. Clearly, as a spiritual direc- tor, Mike encourages people to lead spiritually fulfilling lives, no matter what their religious affiliation. Spirituality matters, to make sense of the unexplainable, to reduce stress, to get us through tough times as in these days of war and terrorism.
I agree with Mike that spirituality transcends religious identity. But I'd also like to consider spirituality in relation to Unitarian Universalism for a few moments. My experience is that UUs are all over the map in understanding and practicing spirituality, and even in agreeing whether it is desired or not. I suppose some of this suspicion comes from our heritage --- at least from the Unitarians --- as a religion rooted in reason, which some regard as the opposite of spirituality.
On the other hand, surveys indicate that spirituality is becoming increasingly important in UU congregations, especially among youth and young adults. Certainly, we CAN find spirituality outside of church---the market is flooded with books, retreats, workshops, etc.---but I do hope that our churches include many opportunities for spiritual practice. In fact, spiritual develop- ment is one of UUs greatest needs, especially in response to what our younger folks---our future---are looking for when they come to church.
Mike spoke fairly theoretically about spirituality last week. Today I want to offer some thoughts about practicing spirituality, about how to actively keep the music in our lives.
To talk about spiritual practice, let me first offer my explanation of spirituality. It's a lot like Karl Weston's children's story last week. For me, spirituality is about connections, at three overlapping levels.
First, it's about connections I feel within myself... how my various parts... my emotions, my reason, my physicality... communicate in making me aware that I'm alive, that I'm in tune with myself. No wonder music--- and all the arts, for that matter----function as spiritual practice. The harmonious connections in art resonate with and reinforce our internal connections, our internal harmonies. Second, spirituality moves from myself to that which is not myself----to other humans, other living things, the earth. Spirituality is about being part of the interdependent web of all life, a web that we celebrate in the UU seventh principle and a web that Coyote in our children's story learned he could not live without. Finally, spirituality involves con- nections to the sacred, to the inexplicable mysteries of life, to that presence that I call god. This god resides both within me and outside of me, what Mike identified last week by the theological term 'panentheism.' Through these three levels of connections, we experience transformations that enable us to experience life in new ways and so discover new layers in what it means to be alive.
From this three-fold definition of spirituality, then, anything we do with intentionality and regularity to support our connections becomes spiritual practice. This sense of connections means that we are not alone. It is that same 'we-ness' that Mike talked about at the core of religion.
A few things about spiritual practice.... For one, it's important to avoid value judgments about how well we do a certain practice. I've heard some people talk about not being talented enough, so they avoid an activity like music that might be a great source of spiritual nurturing. Spiritual practice is not about how well one does the practice, it's just about doing the prac- tice in the first place. Also, spiritual practice ought not feel like drudgery, like something that we have to do. I've heard spiritual practice described as 'saltiness,' because it spices up our awareness of being alive. If we think we have to use salt, we easily stop tasting it. If we think we HAVE to do spiritual practice to be a good person, it won't be nearly as effective.
So clearly our understandings of spirituality and spiritual practice are wide- ranging. One approach to spiritual practice is what I'll call formal events --- retreats, workshops, programs of study, worship services --- the type of activity some of us may think of first when we think of spiritual practice---- spirituality practiced in holy places, through exceptional deeds and people, maybe through high price tags. Formal practice might be the aspect of spirituality some of us are turned off to, or may not be able to consider because we don't have time or money to invest in it.
However, in addition to formal events, there is another entirely different realm for spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can also take place in the everyday, in the ordinary things we do and live by. In fact, many spiritual leaders these days are emphasizing the spiritual in the ordinary. We don't need special leaders or places --- spiritual practice can occur any place we ourselves treat as sacred. Spiritual practice can occur in short doses, as we go about our daily activities.
To illustrate what everyday spiritual practice can look like, let me read a story by Thomas Groome, an Irishman and a former Jesuit priest. In my opinion, Groome is one of the most progressive scholars of religious education today. Groome illustrates the sacredness of everyday spirituality in this story about his mother, Maggie, and her neighbor, John. In the words of Groome: I want to tell you about JOHN, who used to saunter past my childhood home and greet my mother with a 'Hello, Maggie. God Bless the work.' Maggie invariably responded, 'Yes, always a good day when we have our health.' JOHN FINNAN, with his tattered clothes and raw-boned appearance, lived alone, in a dilapidated cottage. Most people in the village knew that John relied on Maggie ... for daily food. At lunch time, John always looked as if he were just passing by. Mag gie would say: "Beg yer pardon, John," as if delaying John's important business, "I cooked too much meat and potatoes again today and I hate to see them wasted. You'd do me a great favor to come in and finish them up for me." John usually answered: "Well, Maggie I've had plenty to eat already but, like yerself, I hate to see good food go to waste.' Then he'd finish off a fine lunch and report the latest news of the village to Maggie. Even as a child, I was awed by the process, when they both knew what the other knew..... Finally I asked why Maggie didn't just come out and say, 'Hello, John, lookin' for yer lunch again? I have it ready." I have never forgotten her response: "Well, it might hurt John's feelings to say that. And I could begin to think that he's in my debt. He doesn't owe me.... in fact I owe him.' To this day I remember my mother's lesson: that we are ALL partners in this search for the spiritual. I called my mother a 'star of heaven.'
Maggie found spirituality right in her own kitchen. Her spirituality is like the mindfulness and compassion Buddhists talk about, as when the Buddhist monk Thich Nahn Hahn encourages us to find the spiritual when we wash dishes, or when we see --- really see --- the almond tree that grows in our own front yard. It's what Channing talked about in our first reading: it's the symphony of the spirit through the common, the small means.
Yes, there are many approaches to everyday spiritual practice. I do think it's important to have a method for spiritual practice, and to chose a method wisely. What I'd like to do is offer more details from one example of spirituality literature that I refer to alot, a book edited by another UU min- ister, Scott Alexander. It is called 'Everyday Spiritual Practice.' In some ways, its contents might seem simple but following such practice as Alexander recommends really does make a difference.
Alexander describes five categories of spiritual practice. I think it's good to include several or even all of these categories in our own practice. All his examples are easily done in the context of daily life. You may have opinions about labeling some of his practices as 'spiritual,' and you may also have your own spiritual practices that Alexander does not include. If some- thing works for you as spiritual practice, then go for it.
First, Alexander offers examples of what many would think of first as spiritual practice: activities using the mind and contemplation ... such as prayer, or meditation, or observing mindfulness, or taking sabbaths---I'm trying to take a sabbath from email, 24 hours once a week away from the com- puter. But even much shorter periods---a minute or two---of sabboth, of clearing our minds, can reduce stress and anxiety and ease transitions from one part of our day to the next. Even taking deep breaths can strengthen our connections.
Alexander's remaining four categories might be more or less agreed on as viable spiritual practices. Included in his roster are creative activities: not only music, but also painting or sculpting or quilting or flower arranging can be spiritual, as we shape new combinations and connections from the raw materials of these arts. We don't have to do these well enough, we just have to DO them.
Alexander's spiritual practice also engages the body, a resource some might not think of as spiritual. Hiking, jogging, skiing, martial arts, yoga, folk dancing, kite-flying, etc. help our bodies feel more connected with them- selves. And I'll add to Scott's list. I recently helped a friend with a labyrinth walk, that combines contemplation and body movement: good for kids as well as adults, and a good way to make use of large spaces.
A fourth component of Alexander's spiritual practice is work of the heart, work that nurtures compassion and relationships, with friends, with spouses and partners, with children, with parents, as we share life with them and as we grieve for them when they are gone. I suspect that this category of spiritual practice is easiest to neglect as we go about our very busy lives and fail to take time to remember how important relationship is in our lives.
Finally, Alexander talks about outreach to others, as in Maggie's caring for John, or in our social justice work out there in the world, as we take stands against racism or sexism or consumerism or unnecessary war, or abuse of the environment, as some of our RE classes will do after church today.
These five everyday spiritual practices: contemplation, creativity, body activities, relationship, and outreach. Alexander's is just one approach. Any daily activities can become spiritual practices if we approach them with intentionality and with love.
In future sermons, I hope to talk about how varied activities in our religious community are spiritual activities as we continue to live and grow and build our connections with one another.
You may have noticed that we did not have a meditation before the sermon. I'd like to end this sermon time with everyday spiritual practice, that might be meditation for some of you. But I also invite you to consider other practice as well---perhaps prayer, perhaps holding another person's hand or looking in another's eyes, as the kids did last week, or deep breathing, or remembering someone important who is not here with you.
Let us now be spiritually together for a few moments.
SO BE IT