I was driving down the road – the same road I drove almost every day. It was a pleasant road in spots, with trees on both sides, but nothing really special – nothing that made me take any particular notice.
And then, this one day, it was abruptly different. It was the moment when Dorothy’s black and white world changes to brilliant Technicolor.
It was as though the windscreen of my car had been dark and grey and had suddenly become completely transparent – allowing me to see at last what was really out there.
The trees were green – very, very green – lush – deep – alive. The sky was a more brilliant blue than I could imagine. The world – it was obvious to me now - was enchanted and blessed. And I realized that I was part of that world and lucky enough to share in its blessing.
I wanted to hold on to that moment – to hold on to what I was experiencing, but it vanished as abruptly as it had arrived.
Back to black and white. Toto – I think we are in Kansas again.
This Thursday, the ten-week “Spirit in Practice” series will draw to an end with its last session looking back on where we have been and looking forward to how the participants might want to continue with something of what they have learned.
Over the past nine weeks, we’ve explored and experienced a wide variety of activities. Some of them, you might naturally be inclined to call spiritual practices, such as prayer, communal worship, and meditation. The classics, if you will…
We also broadened our views of what a spiritual practice can be, as we considered that intellectual work, listening and being listened to, moving our bodies, creativity, and justice work can all be spiritual practices as well. In fact, much of what we do in our lives can be spiritual practice. It all depends on how we do it. Thich Nhat Hanh – the well-known Vietnamese Buddhist Monk – has described doing the washing up as a spiritual practice. Of course, you have to wonder if this is simply a way to get out of doing the chores… but having done washing up in a mindful way on occasion, I think he is probably quite sincere.
My moment while driving was something that I would call a spiritual experience. It brought me a new – if fleeting – awareness of the world and its beauty. You have probably experienced moments of a similar sort, in nature, in conversation, with animals, in deliberate spiritual practice, or many other situations.
After ten weeks of talking about, experiencing, and thinking during the Spirit in Practice workshops, I’ve arrived at a rather simple notion about spiritual growth. I love simplicity! I want to say that there are two basic parts to spiritual growth: awareness and action.
The first part is what we recognize and see and notice and are present too in the world.
The second part – action – is how we enter into that reality and what we do about it.
In the flat where my family and I first lived in London, there was a curious stipulation in the letting agreement. We were required to have our windows washed once every month – need it or not. If we didn’t do it, we’d be in violation of the agreement. I thought that was a bit much – that’s what you get for living in Highgate…
Now that we’re out of that flat, I’ve been much more lax about my window washing. Just the other day, I finally got out a long stick with a sponge and squeegee to reach outside and around corners and clean the windows of my kitchen. Not an easy job… it took a long time. I had to bend and twist in all kinds of odd ways. I had to stand on the window sill and lean partly outside to get to some of the tougher bits.
When I was done – wow! – what a difference. I didn’t even realize what I had been missing. The world wasn’t nearly as blurry and grey as I thought it was.
Most of spiritual practice is about finding ways to clean the smudged and streaky windows of our perception.
In the 1995 film “Smoke,” Auggie Wren is the owner of a small cigar store in NY. Auggie has taken one photograph a day from the street corner outside his store every day for the past 14 years. When he shows his collection of pictures to his friend, the friend protests that the pictures are all the same. Auggie replies “you’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend”.
He points out the differences: the light, the season, and the look on people's faces. "People say you have to travel to see the world,'' Auggie says. "Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you're going to see just about all that you can handle.''
Spirituality is not a matter of creating something new. It is about coming into awareness and then into relationship with what is already there. Cleaning the window to see that there is a dove and then opening that window to let the dove fly in.
Spiritual growth begins with cleaning the windows – opening up our perception to sense the wonders and beauty around us. When we are open to the world, we find the sacred in everything and all around us.
But cleaning those windows is not an easy matter. It’s not simply a matter of making a decision one day to open our eyes and ears a bit more. Spiritual awareness requires practice and it can take some contortions. It can mean risking a step onto the window sill as we reach to clear the stubbornly grimy bits and those that are heard to reach.
How are your windows?
There are so many different ways that the windows of spirit can be obscured.
Some of us are frightened. We have learned to see the world as a dangerous and unfriendly place. The world of nature is filled with venomous serpents, claws, and sharp teeth. The world of humans is rife with thieves and conmen ready to take advantage of us. It is poisoned with toxins that will sicken us. When we are frightened, we are unable to see the wonders around us, much less open the window or let anything fly in.
Some of us are angry. The ways of the world have bruised us and our reaction is to strike back. We react to everything as a threat to be confronted and defeated.
Some of us are distracted. We are so busy with our planning and doing and rushing about, that we never get close enough to the window to look through it..
Some of our windows are blocked by unawareness. There is so much to know about this world and the many ways we can think about it – and so much of this can help us to see it with greater splendor.
Some of us are locked in our heads. The spiritual seeing we need to do is not simply visual, but a fully physical, embodied, kind of seeing. Some of us are so out of touch with our own physicality, that we cannot experience the world with fullness.
Spiritual practice is the name we use for all of the tools and techniques that help us to clear the blocked windows of spirit.
This is the work of spiritual growth. It is not only difficult because the work we need to do can be so hard but also because the practice you follow must be well-suited to you. It must fit the kind of person you are and it must suit the window you are confronting. Prayer can help us confront our anger, but if we are not theists, is prayer a practical solution? Maybe yes and maybe no.
Meditation can address our distraction, but if we are people who are unable to sit still? What then?
This is a big part of what we are here for – to help the diverse people in our community to find ways that help them to clear what keeps them from perceiving and connecting to the sacred elements in life.
The workshop has made me think more deeply about these diverse needs and recognize the extent of that challenge.
As this community has grown, we have been able to create more opportunities for spiritual practice. You may use Chi Kung to help reconnect to your bodily sense or to calm your mind. You may use meditation to reduce your distractions. Poetry evenings may help to open new views and new vistas. Engagement groups may help you to connect to others in a way that helps to quell fear and anger. You may find communal worship a time that helps you in a variety of ways.
This community is increasingly becoming a place that can offer the help we need at any point in our lives to clear our windows and to let the dove fly in. The larger we become as a community, the more opportunities there can be.
I know that we do not yet have something for everyone, and as a community dedicated to diversity and dedicated to recognizing the dignity and worth of every person, it is part of our mission to meet more of those needs.
In the days to come, I will continue to try to offer more and different kinds of opportunities for the practices that offer growth. I ask that you too join me in helping to create a community that can meet such diverse needs.
There is much that each of us can do – even today at the current size and maturity of this community.
Let us recommit together to this important ministry – to sharing our wisdom, to easing fears, to broadening perspectives, to listening deeply - so that all people – no matter their beliefs or their stories – may have an opportunity to grow toward their wholeness, and let the dove fly in.
Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?
By Mary Oliver
Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives -- tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging from the branches of the young locust trees, in early morning, feel like?
Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?
Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over
the dark acorn of your heart!
No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint that something is missing from your life!
Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?
Well, there is time left -- fields everywhere invite you into them.
And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!
To put one's foot into the door of the grass, which is
the mystery, which is death as well as life, and not be afraid!
To set one's foot in the door of death, and be overcome with amazement!
To sit down in front of the weeds, and imagine
god the ten-fingered, sailing out of his house of straw,
nodding this way and that way, to the flowers of the
present hour, to the song falling out of the mockingbird's pink mouth, to the tippets of the honeysuckle, that have opened in the night
To sit down, like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind!
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
While the soul, after all, is only a window, and the opening of the window no more difficult than the wakening from a little sleep.
Only last week I went out among the thorns and said
to the wild roses:
deny me not, but suffer my devotion.
Then, all afternoon, I sat among them.
Maybe I even heard a curl or tow of music, damp and rouge red, hurrying from their stubby buds, from their delicate watery bodies.
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters, caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!
A woman standing in the weeds.
A small boat flounders in the deep waves, and what's coming next is coming with its own heave and grace.
Meanwhile, once in a while, I have chanced, among the quick things, upon the immutable.
What more could one ask?
And I would touch the faces of the daises,
and I would bow down to think about it.
That was then, which hasn't ended yet.
Now the sun begins to swing down. Under the peach-light,
I cross the fields and the dunes, I follow the ocean's edge.
I climb, I backtrack.
I ramble my way home.
Words by Joan Chittister
"Where shall I look for enlightenment?" the disciple asked.
"Here," the wise one said.
"When will it happen?" the disciple asked.
"It is happening right now," the wise one answered.
"Then why don't I experience it?"
"Because you don't look."
"What should I look for?"
"Nothing. Just look."
"Look at what?"
"At anything your eyes light on."
"But must I look in a special way?"
"No, the ordinary way will do."
"But don't I always look the ordinary way?"
"No, you don't."
"But why ever not?"
"Because to look, you must be here. And you are mostly somewhere else."