We have arrived at the season of darkness. Soon, the hours of light will be at their fewest and the nights will be at their longest. It will be dark when we go out and dark when we return home. Some of us will get tired. Some of us will get depressed. Most of us will long for spring.
Were you scared of the dark when you were young? For me, it was darkness in the basement that I found really terrifying. I wouldn’t go down there unless I absolutely had to. There could have been anything down there – kidnappers, burglars, robbers, giant spiders, and monsters in forms too strange and horrible to even fully imagine…
And the one thing that could almost magically dispel those frightening images and that nameless terror was, of course, light. An overhead light and a good bright torch to peer into any shadowy places… these were the tools that vanquished my fears.
And when darkness came to the earth in ancient times, our ancestors – lacking electricity, lacking an understanding of astronomy or meteorology - felt it. They felt it even more than we do today. They feared it. The loss of light was not just an annoyance, a drag on our energies, a damping down of life energy… no, it was a cosmic problem, a life-and-death struggle, a religious challenge to be confronted in sacred and symbolic ways.
Nearly all peoples created rituals to do exactly what you and I did when we were afraid of the dark – they found ways to bring light into their worlds.
Hanukkah and Christmas and the more ancient celebration of Yule have as central focus and ritual, bringing light into the darkness. This past week was the first of the festivals of light – one that has become increasingly familiar thanks to a growing population of Indian origin - the Hindu celebration of Diwali.
The very name of this festival signifies light… Diwali is a contraction of a longer word meaning simply a row of lamps.
Like just about everything else in Hinduism, explaining the story behind Diwali is complicated… there are several stories and meanings – several victories and triumphs that are celebrated at this time. But the rationale we’ll turn to today is the more universally spiritual one. Diwali is a reminder of and a prompt to attend to our inner light.
Central to Hindu philosophy is an understanding that we are more than our bodies and minds. Hinduism identifies something pure and sacred - the Atman.
Some words commonly spoken at Diwali:
“The sun does not shine there, nor do the moon and the stars, nor do lightning shine? All the lights of the world cannot be compared even to a ray of the inner light of the Self. Merge yourself in this light of lights and enjoy the supreme [Diwali].”
Diwali is the celebration of this inner light – a light that is more powerful than any darkness. This inner light connects us with something larger – with each other and with our essential oneness.
The inner Atman and the ineffable, omnipresent, divine of Brahman are inseparable. Inner light tells us that we ourselves have the sacred within and it tells us that we, together, are part of something greater – something indefinable and universal.
An appealing image. An appealing belief and way of thinking about the world, I think.
And it’s not unique to Hinduism. The fragments of the divine within each of us in mystical Judaism, Buddha Nature, and the way many Christian and Sufi mystics talk about their experience of God – these are all profoundly similar.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in the 19th century helped to draw Unitarians away from a predominant reliance on scripture and toward a way of being religious that emphasized direct and personal knowledge of the sacred, tells us that…
“[We] should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [the] mind from within.”
But how? How do we learn to detect and watch that gleam of light?
The Quakers aim to do just that in their meetings, through silent listening and watching. Their focus is the “inward light” – the something within each person that connects with the divine – so similar to the Hindu notion of Atman.
While we Unitarians don’t prescribe any one particular way of understanding and being, I’m aware that the concept of the sacred within each one of us has deep resonance for many, if not most of us.
As we set ourselves about the journey of growing spiritually – growing more whole, more connected, more loving - it is rarely an entity that is entirely external to us that is the focus of our attention, but rather something that we know to be within and in relationship to what is beyond us.
Whatever our notion of the source of our guidance in the spiritual path – to whatever extent we understand the sacred or wisdom to be within or external to us – the greatest and most challenging tool in this path is…simply… paying… attention.
Becoming more whole does not mean finding missing pieces externally as if we were a jigsaw puzzle where a few key bits fell behind the cushions on the sofa, but rather paying attention to what is present – appreciating, listening, watching.
I read a book recently that asks ministers to reconsider the purpose of the sermon – the purpose of the old and in some ways odd ritual you and I are participating in right now.
Through the past few centuries, the purpose of preaching has evolved and changed. At times, it has been primarily about teaching of scripture. When science began to erode religion’s dominance over our explanations of the world, preaching moved more toward the goal of explaining religious teachings and making them consonant with the truth of science. And then the purpose moved again more toward addressing challenges of living – helping us to find ways to think about and struggle with the questions that arise for us each day.
And this recent book posits that the purpose of preaching should be pure and simply guiding spiritual growth.
As an aside, I want to say that I’ve never really had in mind a specific purpose that made quite these distinctions. I have certainly tried to avoid teaching and justifying scripture has never had a great appeal for me. Addressing life challenges? Guiding the spiritual journey? I’d be interested to hear later how you have understood the purpose of the sermon and whether you understand it differently after today. And I’d also like to hear what you feel the purpose should be. I’ll be happy to chat about this over coffee after the service.
Back to the book, which was written by Kay Lynn Northcutt. Being grounded in the Christian tradition and drawing exclusively on Christian sources Northcutt would have the preacher help and urge people to listen more closely to God and to attempt to discern the direction in which God is leading them.
For some of you, that language and that concept will be helpful. For others, it will be off-putting as it envisions an active, personal divine entity that is not meaningful for you.
But I think that for all of us, the notion behind this view and behind this language can be quite valuable. Even if only as a metaphor, the notion that we can find something that is leading us is a powerful and helpful one. It encourages us to listen, to be still, to be attentive, to wait and watch.
And many of us may not care to use the word God for this something that leads us toward growth and toward wholeness.. Maybe we need a different word – spirit, wisdom, Goddess, and Sophia come to mind. Or maybe the ancient Hebrews had it right in saying that the name of the divine could never be spoken or pronounced. But, by whatever name, what we mean is ‘that wisdom or spirit or knowing or light that leads us toward wholeness, toward being human, and toward being our best selves.’
So, maybe we don’t worry too much about the word God, but instead we ask this question: In what direction is more love? And asking that question, we then ask what block us from moving in that direction. Listening and watching for those answers is central to that journey – central to feeding that light within.
This little light…
Today, I would like to end the sermon in an unusual way. Let’s turn to waiting, watching, and anticipating. Let’s turn to listening for the faint voice of wisdom within. We will now be quiet and still for ___ minutes. In that time, just be with this question: in what direction is more love? How does that question inform your life – where you are at this point in your life? Where would it guide you? What holds you back.