[action: getting in car, starting it up. Reversing out of driveway, head off. Various turns. Humming… singing along to music… Look around startled. “Damn! how did I get here?”]
This is a true story – one that I have repeated many, many times. Luckily, I don’t have a car now, so I’m less likely to set out on a journey and wind up in the wrong place. What happens is that – journey begun – I quickly switch into an absent-minded automatic mode and head to the most familiar destination in the area. My wife will attest to this. If she was in the car, she would invariably have to remind me – “NO, we’re not going to your work!”
Travelling on automatic when driving is inconvenient… embarrassing... Travelling through life on automatic is tragic. I spent a long time where much of what I did amounted to living on automatic – doing what seemed expected and what society valued rather than the things that would have truly touched my spirit and made me come alive.
Travelling on automatic is easy in some ways – that’s why we tend to do it. On automatic, you don’t have to think about the destination or even about the next turning. You don’t have to struggle through the misery of ambiguity – the real pain of having to ask “what is right for me? What is my purpose? What should I be doing with my life?”
In the journey of life, we don’t get where we want to be by travelling on automatic. We wind up at the same old place, thinking the same old thoughts, doing the same old things, and feeling the same old feelings.
Religion’s job – our purpose here – is to help ourselves and each other out of the trap of travelling on automatic. It is to help each of us get going on the journey that touches our spirits and makes us come alive.
In his poem, A Spiritual Journey, Wendell Berry talks about that voyage of life:
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.
The spiritual journey is the one that takes us toward the place where we come alive.
But the metaphor of journey goes only so far. The kind of travelling that we must do to continue to become the kind of people we want to be differs from any normal kind of journey in three important ways.
First, a regular journey has one best route. I know this to be true for a fact because “journey-planner” and Google Maps tell me so. Well, there is no sat-nav system for the spiritual journey. Each one of us is different and that journey is also different.
To all those who would tell us that they know the one true path for themselves or for us, poet David Whyte says:
“...if we can see the path ahead laid out for us, there is a good chance it is not our path; it is probably someone else's we have substituted for our own. Our own path must be deciphered every step of the way.”
I’ve watched you in the ways you approach spirituality in this congregation. You are not all the same. There is no one approach that is right for all.
Some gravitate toward silence and solitude. They need the stillness that quiets the mind so the authentic guide can be heard.
Others are drawn to movement practices – finding in the essential connection between body and mind a key to waking their spirits.
For some, it is engagement with nature that awakens them to the real and important things in our lives – that reminds them of their interconnected place in this universe.
For others still, spiritual progress happens only with other people – in the indefinable something that we can see in each others’ eyes if we have the courage and strength to look long enough and to look with eyes tuned by acceptance and compassion.
There are some of you who just have to do! There’s nothing that makes you feel quite as good as sanding and staining a floor – nothing like the feeling of motion you get by seeing the fruits of your labour – or the satisfaction found in helping others.
I haven’t begun to cover all the possibilities: Your path may involve the intellect and study – reading and talking about scripture, or theology or science... Or it may be the path of devotion – thanking, blessing, and offering love to a force of goodness in the universe.
The second way the spiritual journey differs from just about every other expedition or voyage has to do with the destination. Where are we going? Not only do we not know the exact destination, but we can be fairly certain that there isn’t one. Enlightenment? Union with God? Awakening? You are never there – only closer than you were before.
And the third big difference – progress along the journey changes you. In a car trip, you are pretty much the same throughout the journey – except perhaps for feeling more tired, more stiff and achy, and more irritable with each passing mile.
When we are on the right path – making progress in the spiritual journey, we become – as the 14th century Sufi mystic Hafiz put it – “More human, More kind to every creature and plant that you know." The journey opens our hearts, it enables us to love more freely, to feel compassion, to connect more fully.
We don’t know where we’re going or exactly how to get there, but we do know when we are getting closer. It’s like the childrens’ game where you don’t tell the other person what they’re looking for, but as they get further away, you yell out colder! And when they get closer to their goal, it’s warmer, warmer, warmer, hot, boiling hot!
In this way, and with help, we can make our way along the journey.
But not if we travel on automatic.
I am no expert on travelling with complete mindfulness. I don’t know of anyone here who is. In fact, religions throughout time have had to devise all kinds of tricks and systems to help us get out of automatic mode.
This Wednesday marks the beginning of one of the most interesting – the month of Ramadan.
Most of us know something about Ramadan. We may know it as a time of dawn to dusk fasting, and that’s correct. For thirty days beginning Wednesday, observant Muslims will abstain from food, drink, tobacco and sex from sunrise until sunset.
We probably have quite a range of perspectives about Islam. Sadly, our impressions tend to be coloured by the most extreme ends of that faith – we may think of extremism, oppression, corporal punishment, and the subjugation of women. We’re not going to spend time on those aspects of Islam today. It is worth noting that every widespread and powerful religion has its failings – and they are often terrible ones. (Perhaps we should be glad that we are not big enough or strong enough to be capable of such evils.)
What I do want to raise up is Islam’s strong tradition of observance. Islam has a tremendously rich and beautiful history of faith and mysticism. It has generated moving and insightful art and poetry. It places an emphasis on justice and charity that are unmatched by most other faiths.
One thing that I particularly value about Islam is that it provides a system for increasing mindfulness. Observant Muslims stop what they are doing five times a day in order to pray. In a world of speed and busyness – Islam’s system of daily prayer seems an almost antidote to the frenzy of modern life.
And once each year, there is an even greater opportunity for pausing: observant Muslims take the thirty day month of Ramadan each year as a time of greater spiritual depth.
The observance of Ramadan is more than anything else, an approach to the sacred – a unique time for each individual to approach the wonder of life. Muslims are expected to be kind to one another, to increase their generosity, and to pray deeply and often at this time. Fasting is not a punishment; it is a tool for redirecting the heart away from the distractions and materialism of everyday life and toward
Unitarianism has no such requirements. In some ways, I wish we did.
It is said that, while Judaism and Christianity revere the 10 Commandments, we look instead to the great ‘10 Suggestions.’
OK, today, I am going to offer you a suggestion – a strong suggestion. I suggest that you use the 30 days of Ramadan to do the sorts of things you wish you did all year round. Choose activities, actions, practices, whatever you want to call them – but choose the ones that will help to make you more human – more kind to every living thing. Choose the ones that will help to open your heart, connect you, and make you come alive.
Maybe you already know what that will be. Maybe you have no idea. You do not have to do the same thing for each of the days – you can vary. You can experiment. You can pick and mix – exactly what the traditional religions deride people like us for – but it’s OK. Tell them your clergyman told you it’s OK.
To help you, you’ll find a basket full of little cards available [where?!] during social hour following the service. Each card has one idea for a spiritual practice written on it. Look through them and if you find one you like, take it with you, or write your own if you like.
I would also be happy to recommend a few ideas for you if you get in touch with me.
As this is a community dedicated to supporting one-another along our different spiritual journeys, I want to suggest – again just suggest – that you take some time during social hour to share ideas with each other. You might trade practice cards, make suggestions, or just listen.
And finally, to support and inspire each other in this project while we’re not together – which is most of the time – I offer a technological answer. You’ll need internet access for this. Go to our website and look on the front page for a link to “Ramadan practice.” Click it, and it will take you to a page where you can enter what you’ve done on any particular day and where you can also read everything that everyone else has entered.
For those who do not have internet access but want to participate, there will be a computer available after next Sunday’s service at Unity for you to use.
Now, I know that this may not be exactly what you wanted to hear today. You may have hoped that I would say something that in and of itself would change your life. This, dear friends, is the nitty gritty of spiritual growth. This is where the rubber hits the road on the spiritual journey. This is where we commit to taking action, to having discipline, to doing the homework.
I hope that the coming month can be a time for growth for each of us individually and for this community as a whole. I will be happy to talk to individuals or groups to support you in your work. And more so, I hope that you will find ways – technological and otherwise – to support each other. Ultimately, this is the work of the path.
The way has no clear destination and there are many paths. Be guided by the knowledge that the true path will make you more human, more kind, more loving to every living thing.
Wake up. Don’t miss the turning that leads toward wholeness.
May it be so