Friday, July 20, 2012

My Altar in the World

My Altar in the World
Dr Gaye W. Ortiz

Worship can take place within four walls, like we are doing this morning, but it can also take place outside of them.

Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.

This line in Mary Oliver’s poem ("It Was Early," Evidence, 2009, pp 20-1) is a source of great reflection and meditation – and challenge – to me. During the three decades I spent as a Catholic, I developed a real appreciation for the sacramentality of matter. The Mass is central to the Catholic faith, and its climax comes when Catholics receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. The idea behind the Eucharist – that it is the body and blood of Christ – draws upon the idea that plain, ordinary things can hold within them something of the sacred. So the bread, which is a food product that is made with flour, water, oil, yeast, salt – can with faith become flesh, and wine, one of the oldest beverages known to humanity made from the grape – can with faith become blood.

Now, I have italicized with faith in my sermon text, and the words ‘with faith’ are the crux of the matter. In coming to terms with the Eucharist Catholics have to be willing to suspend belief, succumbing to the irrational or mystical or mysterious, in order to go along with this central tenet of the Roman Catholic faith.

But sacramentality to me as a Unitarian Universalist is nothing to do with the Catholic notion of the Eucharist. It is my intuitive feeling that there is a special something to all of creation; it is grounded in my recognition of and commitment to the 7th Principle, the interconnectedness of all existence of which we are a part. The belief that everything is connected suggests that there is something sacred, something of the divine in that connection…however each of us defines that in our own lives and experience. Sacred to some of us is a word we find hard to identify with: it can mean that we regard something with reverence, that has religious importance, that calls for veneration or respect.

Think of the Promised Land that the Israelites sought in the desert for 40 years…think of the sacred ground where Moses was commanded to take off his sandals…the Qaaba to which Muslims face when they pray…a tree, a mound or a stone for those who practice earth-centered religions. What is the feeling that we get when we are in a sacred place, a place we find special, for which we have respect? Think of a sacred place or space where you have felt called out of yourself, have perhaps connected with a larger sense of purpose; this is where we can begin to talk about spirituality. Maybe we use terms like ‘spiritual seeking’ or developing a ‘spiritual practice’ around certain things: prayer, meditation, other kinds of internalizing of a spiritual nature.
But for this morning we can broaden that idea of a spiritual practice to include being and doing, interior and exterior modes of spiritual practice. One day I will be able to sit down and write about my favorite spiritual practice, the spirituality of grandmothering. That is a ‘doing’ kind of spiritual practice, not in my head but certainly in my heart.

And the reason I feel I can say it is a spiritual practice is in part due to reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called An Altar in the World (2010, HarperOne). Taylor expanded the definition of a spiritual practice for me in her reflections on doing everyday things. Her idea of spiritual practice taking place within the context of a ‘geography of faith’ means encountering the holy in unexpected places, being mindful of the miracles and blessings that come to us in our physical environment. And by this I mean the sheer amazement and joy that we can have by looking at a leaf or an insect through a magnifying glass. It’s not that there is some magical power or supernatural element, but that the very existence of each created thing is a source of wonder. I felt that very keenly when we were in England earlier this month and got the phone call one afternoon that our daughter Molly’s best friend Helen had just had a baby boy…we went to the hospital and got to hold Freddy, just barely one day old. How perfect and precious he was! “Sometimes I need only to stand where I am to be blessed.”

Holding Master Freddy, 1 day old
This morning I want to use 3 of the chapter headings from Taylor’s book – the spiritual practices of getting lost, of encountering others, and of saying ‘no’ - in order to frame the experience of worshipping at my own altars in the world. These spiritual practices can take us out of our heads, where we spend so much of our time.

Taylor, a renowned preacher from north Georgia, is not perfect, and she is forthcoming in recalling times when she fails to encounter the sacred – this is a comforting thought for us who are amateurs in spiritual seeking. So, something to remember is that we should be open to the possibility of encountering the sacred where we least expect it. Last week Wilfred and I returned from the trip I just mentioned, back to the United Kingdom, where we lived for over 20 years. Our trip was confined to Yorkshire, and we had 9 lovely days to go to favorite places, eat favorite foods, and meet up again with old friends. We rented a car at Manchester airport, and Wil was an able chauffeur. As we drove from the airport to our friends’ house in Shipley, West Yorkshire, there were so many memories…of getting lost on those very roads!

In an earlier career working for Yorkshire Television as a program researcher, I managed to get lost practically every week on the roads and in the dales all across Yorkshire. It was my job to arrange shoots so I needed to know – in those days before Google maps – how to get to the locations and then give directions to the camera crew and my director. It was pretty embarrassing when I would get it wrong, but rewarding when at last I found what I was looking for. When I went off the beaten path I was often amazed at where I was being taken in my lost-ness.

Taylor says that if we let ourselves be lost, we can see the unexpected benefits that arise from our failure to navigate accurately. Of course, when we do get lost, we realize the need to summon up the skills that will help us on our way again – managing our panic, marshalling our resources, taking a good look around to see where we are and what this unexpected development might offer us (Taylor, 72).

Taylor mentions the fact that for women, it is easier for us than it is for men to get out a map to see where we need to go. “Why does it take thousands of sperm to fertilize a single egg? Because the sperm refuse to stop and ask for directions” (80).

Let’s broaden out from being literally lost and think of how we got to where we are today. Sometimes we set our life’s path squarely on what we want to be. When I mentioned to a student recently that it took me many years to know what I wanted to do in life, he snorted, “I can’t understand those kinds of people who do know – my girlfriend knew she wanted to be an optician when she was 11.”
We never expect life to turn out the way it does; sometimes we lose our way through divorce, loss of loved ones, illness and addiction, career changes…Taylor says that, after getting lost in life a few times, she has decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and to “engage it as a spiritual practice instead” (73). 

Setting out on our path in life, and assuming that it will take us directly to where we want to go, we may become very disturbed by anything that deflects or delays that arrival.

Think of the Promised Land that the Israelites sought in the desert for 40 years…

There are many biblical stories of people losing their way, most notably the Israelites after their escape from years of bondage in Egypt.

“Think of the Promised Land that the Israelites sought in the desert for 40 years…” They learned the ‘holy art’ of being lost and endured so many misfortunes in their 40-year wandering that, Taylor says, “when they finally arrived in the land of milk and honey, they knew how to say thank you and mean it” (75).

Getting lost means that we become vulnerable, and Taylor tells us that there is “something holy in this moment of knowing just how perishable you are” (76). Maybe we can accept that there are ‘spiritual fruits of failure’ (78) and that consenting to be lost can build up the spiritual muscles we need for radical trust: trust that we can rely on our own resources but also find value in being a stranger in a strange land: the Hebrew Bible calls on its people to love the stranger, for they were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Taylor wisely tells us, “Those most likely to befriend strangers are those who have at some time been strangers themselves. The best way to grow empathy for those who are lost is to know what it means to be lost yourself” (83).

Love your neighbor as yourself
Now to what has been described as the ‘hardest spiritual work in the world – to love your neighbor as yourself’ (93). In our UU congregations we strive to live in covenant with each other, and perhaps a way of making this a spiritual practice is to reconsider our patterns of everyday interaction with people. Can we aim to make every encounter with a human being a holy one? Is that what our first principle, to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is all about? Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that a lot of the time we fail miserably to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially in our daily routines when we treat others as means rather than as ends. Think of the casual encounters you have each day, with the person behind the counter at the gas station; the server who takes your lunch order; the receptionist you speak to on the phone to arrange a medical appointment.

These people often melt into the background of our busy lives, and sometimes the last thing we need is to use up our precious time to make eye contact, say thanks as if we really mean it, risk engaging with another human being…then think of what Jesus said in his story about God telling the righteous they can inherit his kingdom because when he was hungry they gave him food; when he was thirsty they gave him something to drink; when he was in prison they visited him; and when he was a stranger they welcomed him. They replied, “Lord when was it that we did these things?” For even the righteous, these encounters had melted into the background of their busy lives. But then Jesus gives us the punchline of the story: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (100)

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image”. Taylor echoes this when she says that “What we have most in common is not religion but humanity”… “the degree to which we believe that our faith is what makes us human is the same degree to which we will question the humanity of those who do not share our faith” (99).

A challenge then for us UUs, many of whom have found this faith later in life and who cherish its liberating force in our lives, but who still bear spiritual scars that make it hard to be accepting of those who profess other faiths, especially the faiths from which we are liberated. Jonathan Swift’s comment cuts to the quick of our self-assured tolerance: “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another” (99).
The spiritual practice, then, of letting an encounter with another person change you, is a challenging one; it challenges us to get over ourselves. It challenges us to love our neighbors as if they were ourselves.

And there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.

The final spiritual practice is that of saying ‘no’ – specifically, of creating a Sabbath space in our lives so we can say ‘no’ to busyness and yes to doing less. “And there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.” Remember where the idea of the Sabbath comes from? The creation took 6 days, according to the book of Genesis, and so on the 7th day even God had to rest!

The chapter by Taylor on saying no recalls for me growing up here in Augusta, part of the American South where the Sabbath really was a day of ‘no’ – no riding bikes, no going to the movies, no store open for shopping…and, as Taylor says, the commandment about keeping the Sabbath holy might as well have read, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it boring” (127). Those Sunday afternoons were sandwiched by church services morning and evening, and they were the times when I would sit on the front porch of my grandmother’s house with my aunt and sing through the Southern Baptist hymnal.

Taylor suggests we develop a Sabbath ‘vision’ where routines of the week give way to one day of family get-togethers, worship, and rest. The rise of consumerism and television since my days on the front porch have completely transformed the way we Americans spend Sundays. We have added more and more to our lives, but there is a quote from the mystic Meister Eckhart that we should pay attention to: “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by subtracting” (121).

To have a day marked off as different from the rest – as Jews have with the ritual of the Friday evening Shabbat service – might remind us that in the story of creation God rested on the seventh day and even called it not just good but holy, “making the Sabbath the first sacred thing in all creation” (130).

Not only that: Taylor says that “if Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18 then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex. Because in that chapter there is a command for a Jubilee Sabbath once every 7 years when slaves are freed, debts are forgiven, property is restored, and there is “a year of complete rest for the land” (132). So while sitting on the front porch is not economically viable, it is a spiritual practice that gives rest “to each of us individually, our families, our faith communities, our neighbors, our systems of justice, our human economies, and our planet” (134).

Some of us are unable to say ‘no’ and can find ourselves regretting the constant state of stress that it causes. I once knew someone who would become ill every Sunday afternoon; Taylor names that tendency in many Americans as Sabbath sickness, the feeling of queasiness when you are enjoying your weekend but begin to realize that tomorrow it is back to the grind. You are enjoying your Sabbath too much! Taylor suggests that if we resist the idea of making the Sabbath holy, that we make 2 lists on one piece of paper: on one side list all the things you know that you want to do but never take time to do. On the other side, make a list of all the reasons why you think it is impossible for you to do those things. Then keep that paper where you can see it…and start small if you can’t give yourself a whole day of spiritual freedom.

“Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed”. Are you ready to worship at the altar of your world? Can you navigate in your own geography of faith? Can you lose yourself along the path of life – make time for encountering the stranger – say no to seven days of busyness? The blessings that we receive from our own spiritual practices will help us slow down, live with purpose and pay attention to this wonderful, sacred world in which we live.

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.

Gaye W Ortiz
July 2012