Saturday, 1 March 2014

It's A Mystery To Me

Pilar and Daniel Weinberg’s son was baptized on the coast. The baptism taught him what was sacred.

They gave him a sea shell: “So you’ll learn to love the water.”

They opened a cage and let a bird go free: “So you’ll learn to love the air.”

They gave him a geranium: “So you’ll learn to love the earth.”

And they gave him a little bottle sealed up tight: “Don’t ever, ever open it. So you’ll learn to love mystery.”

by Eduardo Galeano taken from "Walking Words"

I find this idea so beautiful. As they blessed their child they gave him these gifts; gifts that reminded him to love the elements that make up life. The final gift that they gave him was the sealed bottle, which they asked him not to open. They wanted their child to learn to love mystery; to learn to love the unknown.

Now a friend of mine asked why they didn’t give him a gift that signified “fire”? To which I answered well that’s a mystery to me. I then thought again and said maybe the fire is the mystery. Maybe you who read this can answer that mystery for us? Maybe, maybe not?

Life offers so many gifts, perhaps the greatest of them all being the mystery, the unknown. Yes we can learn about things about everything. One of humanity’s greatest attributes is this thirst for knowledge and understanding and yet I reckon we still know so little about anything and everything. I celebrate this. The more we know the more we realise how little we know. It’s also worth noting that the search for knowledge does have negative aspects. Sometimes this search for knowledge leads to us failing to simply appreciate the gift and beauty of being alive. If we are constantly looking for what is new and exciting we may fail to appreciate the beauty, the people, the love we are surrounded by.

We need to learn to love life but we must also learn to love the mystery too. For if we do not we may not really love life at all, only the component parts. If I have learnt anything about life and love I have learnt it is far more than the sum of its parts.

Life is a total mystery to me. Now I’m not talking about the component parts that make up life, I have a decent understanding of them. What I mean is life as we actually live it; the experience of life of human life and love of course. I am a total mystery to myself by the way. Although I have gained a great deal of self knowledge and know myself fairly well, I am aware that I am a total mystery to myself. I’m sure I’m a mystery to most of the people who know me, well they certainly tell me so. The last few days have revealed much of this mystery to me. Oh my ever changing moods.

Last Friday I took a full day off and relaxed and rested and took time to take stock. It was fascinating to me how exhausted I felt as I allowed my soul to truly catch up with my body. Last Friday truly was a Sabbath. Over the last few weeks and months so much has happened and I have experienced an incredible amount of emotion. There has been much pain and suffering, but also a seemingly infinite experience of love. I have never known so much love; I have never allowed myself to know so much before. There has been no despair. The last few weeks and months have been some of the most meaningful and loving I have ever known.

There has also been a deepening sense of connection to that mystery that runs through all of life; that mystery that binds it all together. I have noticed as I have been opened up in grief and pain that this sense of connection has intensified and I have felt held, strengthened, guided and certainly loved. I cannot explain this; all I can talk of is what I have experienced. It has brought a deeper sense of belonging, which has led to a deeper freedom. I feel closer to life and the people I share and have shared my life with as a result.

I also feel energised and re-invigorated. Last Saturday and Sunday I felt so energised so filled up with love and life and I know that it showed. By the way please do not misunderstand me I would do anything to take away the pain that my loved ones have experienced but I know I cannot. I would do anything to bring my grandad and our Allen back, but I cannot. All I can do is accept what has happened and to not let it en-shadow the joy of living, which I sing every day and by doing so I know that the greatest mystery of all will enter and grow in my life, the Love that is God. That which Rudolph Otto named “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” – the tremendous and fearful, powerful, fascinating mystery.

“We sing the joy of living, we sing the mystery."

Please though don’t ask me to explain it; it’s a mystery to me.

These last few days I’ve found myself singing a song I loved from my childhood “She’s a Mystery Girl” by Roy Orbison...

“She’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery to me. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery to me.

I woke up early, as always, on Tuesday morning to prepare for my meditation group. The sun was rising, the birds were singing and as I stepped out onto the grove I could see the most beautiful new crescent moon just peeping out from the side of the chapel. It was a beautiful sight. I also noticed that the spring flowers were just coming through the earth too. It got me thinking of the cherry blossom that will come soon and the beautiful pink snow that falls from it. My mind, my heart, my soul were just filled with beautiful thoughts of the great gifts of life, the simple gifts of life. It’s been a difficult winter, but spring is here, new life is coming born from winter’s death.

The following poem "To Music" by Rainer Maria Rilke has been in my heart, my mind, my soul this winter

“To Music” Rainer Maria Rilke

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The quiet of images. You, language where
languages end. You, time
standing straight from the direction
of transpiring hearts.

Feelings, for whom? O, you of the feelings
changing into what?— into an audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You chamber of our heart
which has outgrown us. Our inner most self,
transcending, squeezed out,—
holy farewell:
now that the interior surrounds us
the most practiced of distances, as the other
side of the air:
no longer habitable.

I love this poem particularly those seven simple words “as the other side of the air”; they have been with me much this winter, those seven simple words that have grown in meaning of late. I suppose it’s where I understand those I have loved now dwell. Not some distant place, nor nowhere at all, merely the other side of the air. No longer physically present in this life, but on the other side of the air, the other side of the breath of life.

Rilke was influenced by the Sufi mystical tradition. The Sufi’s saw the universe divided between a physical world experienced in the immediate and a spiritual world beyond. Rilke saw art as a kind of portal between these worlds, if only a fleeting one. For Rilke art had a transcendental function; for Rilke art created something akin to Celtic idea of “thin places”. Art created “Spots of Time” moments that linked all time and space. You can see these elements in the poem. It begins by describing music as a “language where languages end”, music is a universal language that speaks directly to the ears of our hearts. It also suggests that the usual rules of the physical world are suspended by great art, the poem describes statues that breathe. It also suggests that the normal perception of time is altered by art. In this case that music becomes a portal if we know how to listen to it, “with the ears of our hearts”. Music and art for Rilke have the capacity to carry us to a place of deeper understanding, to a richer and more mature perception. Art therefore bridges the gap between head and heart and transcend the limits of pure reason. That said it can also be dangerous as it breaks the security of our perceived knowledge. We need this to happen; we need to be cautious about our safety, for it is this that liberates us from the shackles of what we think we know.

If I am certain of anything in life, it is the danger of certainty. Of all the dangers present in life, it is this that I need to watch out for the most. Certainty seems to shut down the heart and the mind; certainty seems to always build barriers and close shutters. We need more bridges and or portals in life. We need them between each other and within ourselves, between our hearts and our minds. We also need to live as openly as possible. The problem with certainty is that it often lacks true humility. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about humility is that it breeds openness.

I was recently interviewed about the 200th anniversary of Unitarians in Altrincham. During the interview I talked about the history of our free religious faith. I also described the circumstances that led me to it and eventually to ministry, which are still somewhat of a mystery to me. All those meaningful coincidences that conspired to bring me through the door of Cross Street Chapel some 10 years ago and then brought me to not only ministry, but to serving the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston. I recently remembered a conversation I had a with a friend in Altrincham just weeks before I began training for the ministry. This dear friend who is not a Unitarian told me that I would be minister to the Unitarians in Altrincham when my training ended. How he knew that I do not know, but I remember him saying so. He said it in such a matter of fact way too. Another mystery I suppose and I always say I’m wary of soothsayers. There has been much suffering in my journey to ministry, but never despair. Meaning, mainly in the guise of love and service, has always emerged from the pyre of pain.

During the interviewer I described the Unitarian tradition as an “open faith”. It really is the best description I can think of. We are not tied or constrained and yet we are definitely rooted, but open a bit like those spring buds, that are currently appearing, will soon be. The openness comes from what I see as the humility of the tradition, or at least the tradition at its best. "Unitarianism" is about searching for understanding and meaning and experiences that will carry us beyond what we think we already know and understand. That said it is also about love and service as well as an appreciation of what is beautiful and meaningful in life. The tradition is about using our mental faculties our reason, but it’s not about being slaves to it. Reason, the thinking mind, has its limits. Reason without imagination, without mystery is pretty worthless and certainly meaningless.

Life is a mystery, but a beautiful one at that. Yes there is much suffering, but there is also so much joy if we would but stay open to it.

"Let’s sing the joy of living, let’s sing the mystery."

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with an extract from a sermon delivered by Forrest Church in the year 2000, at the beginning on a new Millenium. Here he is reflecting on a cruise he took with his mother.

From “The Angel and the Deep Blue Sea” by Forrest Church

"...In any event, with a clear conscience I devoted an entire week, as every son occasionally should, to caring for my poor creaky mother. Because she had the entire ship as an audience, I even managed to reread four Saul Bellow novels. In all, it was a noble expenditure of time and my soul is clearly the better for it.

There was also the sea. I grew up in the mountains of Idaho, but the sea has always captured my imagination more than even the mightiest peaks. Not only in contemplating the horizon which beckons one's mind to thoughts of eternity, but in pondering the hidden depths and mysteries beneath the surface, whenever I look out over the ocean, if I am paying attention, I experience humility and awe: humility in reflecting on how tiny we are in the whole scope of things; awe ­ a wonder tinged at times with a hint of terror ­ at the unfathomable depths and unsearchable breadth of creation. As it is written in the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Proverbs,

Three things are too wonderful for me;

Four I do not understand:

The way of an eagle in the sky,

The way of a snake on a rock,

The way of a ship on the high seas,

And the way of a man with a woman.

Physics, anatomy, biology, and psychology can begin to decode such mysteries, but knowledge has its limits. Quoting an academic study, my newly rediscovered old guide, Saul Bellow, recently observed "that on an average weekday the New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime." That includes Shakespeare himself. The Times is a fine paper. I read it every day. But for all its information, it only hints, and then only occasionally, at what Shakespeare knew so very well: that the beauty of the bird, the symbol of the snake, the courage of the pilot, and the power of human love will always be touched by mystery.

We don't need something unnatural ­ like a virgin birth or the stopping of the sun ­ to prove our faith. Neither do we need a gigabyte of data to disprove it. Beyond all proof or disproof, we need only reverence for life itself. Contemplate our awe-inspiring connection, over millennia, to thousands of human ancestors, and ultimately to everything that lives."

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