A Sermon

James Ishmael Ford

30 September 2012

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi
or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from East or West,
not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed
of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend
from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body nor soul,
I belong to the Beloved, have seen the two worlds as one
and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human being.

Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi
translated and adapted by Coleman Barks

Perhaps you recall the story. I kind of like it, and, yes, have used it here and there to different purposes. But it fits today just like a glove, so… Agnes was sitting at dinner with the family. At the end her daughter served a strawberry cobbler for desert. She took a bite, then looked at her empty spoon and declared to all assembled, “I must see the guru!” Everyone at the table tried to persuade her to not, the bottom line argument being “You’re too old for the trip. After a terribly long flight you’d have to ride a bus for ten more hours. And, besides, it’s just too dangerous. It’s in the farthest, most remote part of northern India. There are bandits and Marxist revolutionaries behind every rock.”

But Agnes had it in her heart and could not be argued out of it. She purchased airline tickets, took the thirty-hour flight from New Jersey to Delhi, somehow found the bus and then took the ten-hour ride to the remote location where the ashram stood. Getting off the bus, she walked up the long dusty path from the road to the building. There she pounded the knocker, and a young monk in saffron robes opened the door. She said, “I must see the guru.”

He replied how he was unaware of any special appointments for that day. She said she didn’t have one, but it was essential she see the guru. He looked her up and down, made some kind of decision, then escorted her to an interior garden, gave her some tea, and asked her to wait. About an hour passed when he returned and said the guru would see her, but that she could only ask a single question. She agreed and was escorted into a large hall where the guru was seated on a dais in front of around fifty students. The incense was overpowering and she felt a little light-headed.

But she walked up to the dais and without making the traditional bows, said, “Marvin, it’s time for you to come home.”

Yes, an old joke. But, that it’s an old joke says a lot. Spirituality in all its many forms has become as common as a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey becoming a guru in India. Right now around the various social media I’m following an argument about the ethics of yoga practitioners offering their services at the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. There are ads everywhere offering accessories for your spiritual journey, from pants to hats. And bookstore shelves are teeming with volumes on the subject. I’ve even contributed to that problem, myself, and I take this opportunity to apologize.

There are classes available in many church basements and even studios devoted exclusively to the subject, and for the past several decades even schools dedicated to training and certification for the aspiring spiritual leader. And as for spiritual practices themselves, my, oh, my, there are hundreds, okay, thousands of spiritual practices on offer.

What I will try to give you today is a brief way through the larger issues involved. I’ll talk a little about that word “spiritual,” then in passing address “spiritual direction,” and finally, talk just a little about “spiritual practices.” Hopefully it will illuminate some of what this is all about.

The word spiritual is one of those words that has come to have so many meanings that some suggest it would be better to abandon it in favor of something else, or rather for a bunch of different terms. I continue to think the word spiritual has value, even if it must be parsed, and when looking at something being presented as spiritual, knowing we need to look a tad deeper at what precisely is being presented.

Still, the word can work. The etymology of the word spiritual suggests breath. And I think that’s what it is about: that which is as fundamental as our breath, our breathing, about engaging our lives shadowed by the fact we will die. We breathe and we know some day we will not. This is the subject of spirituality.

Of course when you read much of what is written about spirituality, when you look at many of these practices on offer today, too often they’re not about these deepest questions of our lives, they’re about making you feel good about yourself, often by making the self, the ego, into something pretty darned special. As perhaps the last great Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams dryly observed about such things, “Nothing sells like egoism wrapped in idealism.”

Much of what passes as spiritual is just salve for our egos. But, and this is so important: authentic spirituality and its practices play rough with the ego. (An illustrative aside: One of my spiritual teachers, a Sufi master, when asked after a talk about encountering spirits and how to tell those who were from God and those from the devil, said, “Well, if the spirit tells you what you want to hear, it probably comes form the devil.”) There is little doubt in my mind and heart that to really step out into the realm of the spiritual, not the ego-salving spiritual, but the challenging and opening the heart spiritual, is to embark upon a voyage of discovery. However, and this is important, it isn’t a day trip on a swan boat at the Boston Public Garden. Rather it is a voyage into terra incognita, and there is no doubt there be dragons out there.

So, please, be careful. Find worthy friends and companions as you take up spiritual disciplines, and consider who is going to guide you. Now I have gotten into trouble from time to time in expressing my general disdain for the ever popular, at least in the circles in which I move, schools of spiritual direction. I believe for the most part they promise too much and deliver too little. I am, I admit, biased from training in a spiritual discipline where teachers are rarely made in less than twenty years, and along those twenty plus years if one puts oneself forward as a candidate for teaching, if that doesn’t actually rule the person out, it is considered a problem that needs to be investigated thoroughly.

But, while I’m no fan of the schools of spiritual direction, thinking they more puff people up while giving them inadequate tools to help, I in fact think there are many potential spiritual guides without those twenty odd years of intense training – some are likely sitting right next to you today. You, in a given circumstance, might be that guide. If you’ve fallen down nine times and have gotten up ten, you have touched wisdom, and you might be helpful to someone else. And another person in the same situation might be able to help you. Keep your heart open, and your eyes, as well. Then teachers will be as common as uneven bricks on Benefit Street.

It is asserted in many religious traditions that awakening, enlightenment, salvation, whatever we call the summum bonum of the tradition comes to us as a gift. Generally causality is rejected, we don’t earn it, it comes as grace, or, as some have even said, like being hit by a truck, an accident. But, according to some, I’ve heard this attributed to any number of people, including, interestingly, me, that while awakening, enlightenment, salvation comes to us as an accident, spiritual practices make us accident prone.

Wikipedia tells defines “spiritual practices” as “the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of cultivating spiritual development. A common metaphor used in the spiritual traditions of the world’s great religions is that of walking a path. Therefore a spiritual practice moves a person along a path towards a goal. The goal is variously referred to as salvation, liberation or union (with God).”

For me, I would add that essential markers of any particular spiritual discipline include, does it actually challenge you to open up your heart and mind? And critically, does it provide a way to check your sense of where you’re at? Now the practice alone may not do that, but if it is part of a package where you check in with that friend who has walked the way before, then many, many practices will work.

And so what about practice? I love the word with its dual meaning of preparing and doing. Both. Different traditions have different goals, even when dealing with those fundamental questions of life and death, for instance some are theistic, and some are not, and therefore, of course, different practices. I was quite taken with that Wikipedia article’s section on Stoic practices, which I hope are accurate, as they seem particularly appropriate for Unitarian Universalists. “Stoicism takes the view that philosophy is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life and discourse involving constant practice and training

“Stoic spiritual practices and exercises include contemplation of death and other events that are typically thought negative, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation), daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions, keeping a personal journal, and so on. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.”

When I think of spirituality and spiritual practices and what it can mean, I think of that lovely line from William Butler Yeats. “There is another world, but it is in this one.” The project of the spiritual, when it is worthy, is about transformation, of our selves and in the transformation of our selves as part and parcel of this world, of the world.

So, what might be the best practice for us, you and me? There are those Stoic disciplines, maybe worth pursuing. Many of us have found Buddhist practices especially fruitful. That’s why our Monday night Zen group and our Wednesday night Tibetan meditation group both are thriving. We also have a renter on Thursday nights that offers a meditation discipline in the Hindu tradition that several people have told me works for them.

But, nearly one in five of us are involved in what I consider the most congenial spiritual practice for most Unitarian Universalists. The generic term for this discipline is the rather misleading “small group ministry.” Here at First Unitarian we call it “chalice circles.”

I like to call the practice the Art of Conversation. But, in fact, for the most part, it is the Art of Listening. Small groups of us covenant to gather regularly, most commonly once a month, to share in a structured conversation around a “big” issue, different each time. It might be “God” or “mother” or “sin” or “love.” The list appears to be infinite. Then within a minimally ritualized program, lighting a chalice, a reading, that sort of thing, people share in an orderly manner, and in a way that prevents anyone from dominating, no one speaks much more than one eighth or ninth of the time, depending on how many participants are there.

The group becomes the spiritual director.

While it can have aspects of social interaction, which is a good thing, of a support group, which is a good thing, a well-run group is primarily about something else.

The breath, our spirit.

Opening our hearts.

Opening our minds.

Seeing who we are.

And from that discovering who it is we might become.

And that, my friends, I consider a worthy spiritual discipline.

As Agnes said to Marvin, it’s time to come home.

And spiritual practices, like chalice circles, when done right, help us to get here, to our home.


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