The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
By Rumi, Translation by Coleman Barks
I lift my heart as spring lifts up
A yellow daisy to the rain;
My heart will be a lovely cup
Altho' it holds but pain.
For I shall learn from flower and leaf
That color every drop they hold,
To change the lifeless wine of grief
To living gold.
In a deep dark underground cave in Slovenia, where there is no light whatsoever, the temperature of the standing water remains almost exactly constant from day to day, week to week, and year to year. And in that dark, tepid water lives a species of strange amphibious creatures – the proteus anguinus. It has no eyes. It has no pigment whatsoever in its skin. It’s a pale and fleshy little beastie. Through thousands of years without change in their environment, these creatures have adapted thoroughly to their environment. Sight is not useful in pitch darkness, and pigment is superfluous as protection from sunlight, or for camouflage, or beauty.
If these organisms were now to be removed from their predictable environment, they would surely die. So sensitive are they that even the light from a torch injures their delicate skin. The lack of change in their environment has made Proteus anguinus incapable of change – their survival dependent on the hope that change never enters their protected environment.
There are organisations and there are individuals like these pale, sightless cave-dwellers. They have found protected environments that shield them from change. Their safe shelter ultimately renders them unable to change and adapt to the real world.
Sometimes, though, a nice dark, unchanging cave sounds pretty darned attractive.
The world around us is abuzz with change. No sooner do we begin to grapple with the notion of an economic meltdown when a huge scandal over MP expenses erupts and grabs our attention. And then riots in Iran… but we lose the trail of that story with Michael Jackson’s sudden passing. And we know that more is coming our way at every moment.
It’s no simpler in our own personal lives, and it is, of course, often worse. We’ve all had those times when unwelcome change comes washing over us in enormous waves, a new one knocking us off of our feet before we’ve had the chance to recover from the previous one. If we are lucky, we survive the onslaught and are left exhausted, collapsed, gasping for breath at the water’s edge.
We would be excused for seeking any constancy we can get – any place we can go that doesn’t change – a touchstone of consistency amid everyday lives filled with commotion and confusion.
For many, the place we look to as a refuge from change is church. In the US, the space in a church building where worship is held is always called a sanctuary – the place we can go to be safe from those battering waves of life.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? While this particular place has changed more than many churches as a result of a German bomb in the Second World War, there are quite a lot of comfortingly familiar aspects to our experience here. We sing hymns that are often fairly old, usually to tunes that are very old. The practice of religion itself is ancient. And curiously, the style of our services has changed much less than that of religious groups that we think of as more conservative. In a Pentecostal service, for example, while the theology is much more traditional, the form of the service is often very modern. Drums and electric guitars are commonplace accompaniments. Most Unitarian congregations are conservative about form, while liberal about content.
Lack of change can be comforting. Not surprisingly then, churchgoers are notoriously averse to modifications in the pattern of their Sunday morning experiences.
One of my colleagues conducted his first Christmas service in a new congregation a few years back. He is a consummate professional and something of a perfectionist. The service was stunning. There were darkness dispelled by the flickering light of hundreds of candles and a ceremony that included gorgeous singing, beautiful readings, and a fantastic sermon. It was about the best Christmas service you could hope for. When he returned next to the congregation he imagined that there would be some very positive feedback.
Instead he was greeted with “you ruined my Christmas” and angry demands of “where was the star!” Candles in the service had been lit a bit differently. The old wooden star with the dangling electric cord was gone. Minor changes from established patterns threw otherwise calm and benevolent members of a congregation into an absolute tizzy.
We like the comfort of the familiar and the unchanging. It is a balm for the wounds caused by the turbulence of regular life.
But let us not forget poor sightless and colourless proteus anguinus.
A church that does not change loses the ability to adapt to its environment. It loses its ability to see the needs of the world and respond. Rather than meet the challenges of the world, it must protect its delicate and sensitive nature from the truth of life’s challenges. These are the churches that no one visits – the doors are closed, there are no signs of life to attract the curious outsider. It keeps to its sheltered home as it slowly, comfortably passes away.
For individuals too, an unchanging, unchallenging environment – while comforting – can mean a lack of growth.
Scott Peck, psychiatrist and bestselling author, offered this observation: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled.”
I think we know this to be true. Our happiest times are not the times that truly form and shape us. These are not the conditions that ultimately make us more compassionate and thoughtful people. Comfortable times allow us to ignore our shortcomings. Challenging times force us to recognize and confront them.
Rumi’s vision of life as a guest house – welcoming all of the deeply uncomfortable experiences of life – is foreign to most of us. Welcome “a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture?” Would you?
I do not seek discomfort. I doubt that any of us deliberately seeks discomfort or unhappiness just because we know it can be formative. This afternoon, when my church obligations are done, I will have to make a choice. Will I choose my comfortable recliner chair for a nice nap or perhaps – for the sake of growth - find a group of angry people to criticize me? Not a tough choice…
We want growth and we want comfort. I’m sure you recognize that there is now a vast self-help industry. You can’t miss it when you go into a bookstore or browse online. Everyone seems to offer a simple and painless answer to your fears and pains. Norman Vincent Peale may have started the trend with his 1952 book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Typical of his advice is this: “Start each day by affirming peaceful, contented and happy attitudes and your days will tend to be pleasant and successful.” Thousands of volumes have followed millions have been spent. You’ve probably suspected that it’s not so simple – especially after buying a few such books and finding that your life wasn’t changed after all.
A new study published in Psychological Science confirms that suspicion. Researchers asked a group of people to try some of the “I am happy. I am loveable” kind of affirmations. What they found is that people with low self-esteem became even less happy and confident as a result!
The unfortunate truth is that we can not wipe our sorrows away with a dose of happy thinking. Real growth and change takes work. We don’t blaze a trail through a jungle of fears and psychic wounds by gently flying over it. It calls for a willingness to suffer the scrapes and stabs of the prickly undergrowth and risk the stings of hidden vipers.
And so, here at church we’re faced with a very real tension. If we come to church to comfortable and comforted, and we also come to grow and become more fully developed human beings, are these two goals at odds? Must we choose between comfort and growth?
We can find a hint to the resolution of these apparently opposing desires in a quote from Unitarianism’s great 20th century theologian, James Luther Adams. Adams wrote: "Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human." Practice. That is the key word.
A healthy congregation can be a place where we feel safe – where we find sanctuary. But it is not shelter from everything that we must seek, but the shelter to have the safety to practice. Out there, it can be dangerous to be honest, to be open, to be self-revealing. But this – this must be a place where we have the comfort to take chances – the safety to face danger – the security to practice being human, with all the messy joy and sorrow and love and anger and everything else that goes with it.
It is not thick sturdy walls that can make this a sanctuary of comfort and challenge. It is not in keeping out change that make it safe. Only we can make it a safe place for our practice of humanity. Through our caring and our love, our acceptance and respect for one another we build our sanctuary. It is through our own risk-taking – the risk of openness – the risk to be faithful people - that we can create a spiritual community of comfort and transformation. It is only in this way that we take up the cup that can “…change the lifeless wine of grief to living gold.”
Let us call upon each other to be the people we want to be and to create the community that enables us to make that journey.