Sunday, 29 December 2013

Turn, Turn and Turn Again

"Once a king had a great highway built for the members of his kingdom. After it was completed, but before it was opened to the public, the king decided to have a contest. He invited as many as desired to participate. Their challenge was to see who could travel the highway the best.

On the day of the contest the people came. Some of them had fine chariots, some had fine clothing, fine hairdos, or great food. Some young men came in their track clothes and ran along the highway. People traveled the highway all day, but each one, when he arrived at the end, complained to the king that there was a large pile of rocks and debris left on the road at one spot and this got in their way and hindered their travel.

At the end of the day, a lone traveller crossed the finish line warily and walked over to the king. He was tired and dirty, but he addressed the king with great respect and handed him a bag of gold. He explained, "I stopped along the way to clear a pile of rocks and debris that was blocking the road. This bag of gold was under it all. I want you to return it to its rightful owner."

The king replied, "You are the rightful owner."

The traveler replied, "Oh no, this is not mine. I've never known such money."

"Oh yes," said the king, "you've earned this gold, for you won my contest. "He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

Remember those words of wisdom as you travel the road of life!

Author unknown

"He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

I was sat in the dark, in total silence except for the birds singing outside of the window on Christmas Eve with a handful of like minded friends. It was Christmas Eve, but it was also Tuesday and every Tuesday I attend a meditation group at 7am. It has become a vital aspect of my weekly ritual and I often experience the Divine powerfully during this time. We sat in silence and in total darkness together and as the silence came to a close we began to share one by one where we are at spiritually. As we spoke and the hand of the clock moved towards 8am the sun slowly began to appear. By the time our hour had ended it had turned from night to day.

We had experienced the changing of the light together. What a beautiful experience to share together the turning from night to day.

This is the turning season. The days are beginning to get longer we have passed the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. We are coming to the end of the Calendar year and will soon be stepping into 2014. What has the year been like for you?

If it has been like mine it has been a mixture of many things, some beautiful, some painful. This is life and brings to mind those words of Moses, during his final sermon as the people were about to step out of the wilderness into the Promised Land, without him. In Deutronomy 30 v 19 he said “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,”

I love that phrase “Choose Life”. Not necessarily an easy ride, but definitely one worth taking. There will be bumps in the road and troubles to face, but there will often be treasures too. Those treasure can often be found in those very obstacles, rather like those faced by the man in the story. That said if we face the obstacles and do not flee them we will know a life that is both rich and rewarding and we may well become inspirations to others too. By doing so we can lead the way to a freedom open to everyone

In life we are faced with many decisions each and every day. We are constantly making decisions about which path we are to follow. If you are anything like me you won’t always make the right one; if you are anything like me sometimes you will try to avoid having to make the decision, you will wander around in the wilderness of life, hopefully not as long as Moses and the ancient Israelites, before daring to enter into the promised land. Also truth be told by not making a decision we are actually making a decision. Passivity, doing nothing, is an action in and of itself. In the end we all have to make a decision one way or another; we all have to turn down one path or another.

It’s an interesting phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. It brings to mind a pantomime that is very popular at this time of year “Dick Whittington” which is loosely (very loosely by the way) based on the life of Richard Whittington who was in fact made Lord Mayor of London four times, despite what the rhyme says. He did all kinds of good public works during his career. Now in the pantomime he comes to London from Gloucestershire to make his fortune, “where the streets are paved with gold”, accompanied by his cat. At first he meets little success and is about to return home. As he turns back and climbs Highgate Hill, he hears the sound of the Bow Bells of London ringing. The bells though seem to be doing more than merely ringing, they are speaking to him. He hears them say...

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

So he turns again, he turns around, he does not return home. Instead he turns back to London and a whole host of adventures. One such adventure is on a ship where his cat is employed as a rat catcher, which leads to him gaining many friends. The adventures continue and eventually he becomes very prosperous and marries his master’s daughter Alice Fitzwarren and is made Lord Mayor of London on three occasions (Well actually four it would seem).

Now like all great tales, some of it is true and some of it is not. The fact that not all the tale is factually accurate does not mean that the story has no meaning. There is a universal truth in this tale that has spoken to those who have seen the pantomime or heard the story and it is in the rhyme and the voice Whittington heard through sounds of Bow Bells.

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

Whittington did not turn away he stepped forward into the unknown. He chose the heroes path. Just as so  many have done before and since in so many of the stories of life, he heard the call to adventure and he answered it.

It is a curious phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. Did you know that to turn or to re-turn was the original meaning of the religious word “conversion”. Conversion is rooted in the Latin word “convertere”, which meant to turn around to transform.

Now for a long time I use to think that if a person had been converted that this was the end of a process. Thankfully I no longer live under this delusion. Today when I think of conversion I think of it as the beginning of something of the start of a journey, down another direction perhaps or perhaps not, maybe we can turn and keep on turning down the same path. Today I see conversion as an ongoing process, not a once or perhaps twice in life time experience.

This is also how I view the beautiful tradition that I have chosen to walk down and continue to do so breath by breath, moment by moment and day by day. This is not something that comes easily to me, I am not someone who came naturally to religion. In fact I only became interested because of life changing spiritual experiences. I came to religion seeking answers, this eventually led me the Unitarian tradition, where the search has gone on. Have I found the answers? No if truth be told what I have actually found are more questions as the experiences have grown and developed. Do I believe that one day I will uncover the answer? I very much doubt it. That said what the last few years have shown me is that this spirit of humility and openness will lead to experiences way beyond my imaginings. I am sure I will be born again and again and again, I will keep on turning and resisting and turning again. I believe that this is the best way to travel, “platinum class” if you like.

In his seminal work “Varieties of Religious Experience" William James describes those who are religiously inclined as being once born or twice born, or born again as some would describe it. It is interesting that some people have described me as someone who has been re-born. Maybe they are right, maybe, maybe not.

Personally I do not like the definitions, they just seems so static. When I engage with the spiritual lives of others I see nothing that could ever be described as static. I witness people being born and reborn over and over again. I see people turning and returning over and over again. The spiritual life is not a straight path, or at least it’s not for me or the people I engage with. It is a life that is constantly turning and re-turning.

One of the reason I came to Unitarianism and certainly why I stayed is that it not only recognises this continuing process, actually it does more than this, it celebrates it. It’s kind of accepted that Unitarians will keep on turning and returning that their understanding of their faith will go down many avenues. This doesn’t make our faith woolly in any sense, just honest. I believe one of the roots of the Unitarian tradition is that we make the space to hold one another in our searching. In many ways it is probably harder to be a Unitarian than to follow a more orthodox tradition or to reject religion all together. We do not offer absolutes instead we encourage individuals to search their own experiences; individuals are asked to to seek and ask questions not only of themselves, but of each other and to actively engage with each other; individuals are asked to search the holy books of human history and of modern inquiry but not to be chained down by any of them. We say keep on turning down that road and keep on returning.

Unitarians do not all think in the same way, they don’t all believe exactly the same things and as a tradition we celebrate this. This is a joyous thing. Because even though we may not “believe” exactly the same we still journey together in our fellowships of love and attempt to carry what we experience and understand into our daily lives together. It's about being beacons to one another and the world; its about encouraging others and helping them find the courage to do the same, to keep on turning and returning. To keep on turning and not fear what we may or may not uncover on the way. You never know it may be a real treasure.

So here we all stand at the turning point of the year. Ready, I hope, to let go of what has been but without regret and to step out into the unknown; to keep on turning down that unknown road, to keep on choosing life; to keep on being born anew, again and again and again...You never know by doing so you may just make the road smoother for those who follow.


  1. Hello there; very interesting reading here. I do have one single question about Unitarianism: What exactly makes it a religion? Most religions have some very basic tenets. Since Unitarians have many roads of thought, what make this a religion?

  2. Hi Rosalie that is a very good question. It really does depend how you define religion i suspect...I explore this to some extent in the following may be of interest to you