The Mystics’ Path
The first line of the hymn we’ve just sung – ‘a core of silence breathes beyond all words’ seemed a good choice for our service theme of the mystic’s path, It expresses one of the essential features of a mystic approach to life – that there are some aspects of existence which cannot fully be expressed through words. They are experiences, which point to another way of knowing and being in this world, experiences which point to the possibility of realities beyond the life we know and recognise. The task of words is to discern, to clarify, to make distinctions between this and that – yet we know, don’t we, the limitations of words to convey our experiences, our thoughts, our feelings.
Human existence and the workings of the universe in which we exist are filled with mystery and I don’t know if this applies to you as much as it does to me – but the longer I live the more I realise how little I know. Our lives are shaped by mystery. From birth to death and all that lies beyond and within, our creativity and capacity to love, our sense of justice as we witness the sufferings of others and our striving to make sense of our own struggles and pain – all these are part of that mysterious realm.
Carl McColman, Christian contemplative and author, writes: “And even though we live in a world that tries to manage or at least contain the mysteries — hiding birth and death away, medicating the suffering, putting creative folks on pedestals, and settling for a legal system that reduces ethics to a conflict between competing interests — despite all our efforts to control every aspect of our lives, the mysteries are never very far away. They crop up when we least expect them — when we meet someone new and fall in love, when an old friend dies suddenly, when a sudden flash of inspiration leads to the creation of an artistic masterpiece. We never know — literally from one moment to the next — when the mysteries will crack our safely constructed lives wide open. And we never know whether they will fill us with joy or with pain. But they always fill us with wonder.”
These words – mystery and mysticism – evolve from the same root in Greek language. They remind us that our minds, clever though they are, cannot understand or explain everything. There is a realm which lies beyond. And when words fail us, we humans reach instead to symbols, stories, art, music – to attempt to describe that which is seemingly inexpressible in ordinary language. Life’s mysteries fuel our human creativity.
When it comes to talking about mysticism here today I’m aware of the limitations of my own language. I also know that the very word mysticism has been used negatively to describe all sorts of hocus pocus. But I think it’s a word worth reclaiming. We heard Rumi’s poem earlier on where a chickpea cries out to the cook who is boiling the pot, but eventually surrenders to the experience of transformation. When Michaela first read that poem to me all those years ago it was to help me through a tough time, a time when life wasn’t going the way I thought it ought to go. In some ways aren’t we are all chickpeas in the pot, all destined to be mashed into hummus! In 21st century Britain some of us are privileged enough to imagine for a while that we’re in control of our own destinies, we think we can choose the course of our lives. But the mystics are there to remind us that our illusions of control are simply illusions or at best a temporary reality. Our setbacks, difficult though they can be, may also be a source of self-knowledge for us, a potential path for growth.
Life’s mysteries can be our teachers if we open ourselves and allow their teachings to work on us. When the chickpea surrenders to the experience of being boiled it is submitting to the process of softening. Does that ring bells with you as it does with me? Our hearts may soften or harden in response to life experiences. Softening keeps us connected with all of life, hardening isolates us. Another word you come across when reading about mysticism is gnosis – gnostics – meaning those who seek knowledge, deep knowledge. Next Sunday we have a group of gnostic musicians and meditators coming to join our service and to lead us in their open heart meditation practice. I wonder if there are areas in your life right now, as there are in mine, where a softer and more open heart might help towards a greater understanding, both of self and others.
Ever since my early days of studying world religions I’ve been interested by the way that all world religious paths contain elements of mysticism that transcend any of the particularities of a specific religion. Mystics, be they Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or pagan or Buddhist have much in common. Today we can only touch on a few of those common elements. The first is the message of the chickpea that – we can learn from life by surrendering to what is. We are not so much life’s victims but rather its students.
Another shared teaching from all mystic paths is that we are all of a piece us humans, though we spend so much of our thinking time exploring our differences from one another. Yet in truth we are all part of the whole, as Joyce Rupp so beautifully described in our reading earlier on – the whole of humanity staring at the same sky in a ‘dance of oneness’. The Sufi holy fool Mulla Nasrudin can tell us more. You may recall Nasrudin’s love of donkeys and so it was that he visited the local donkey market one day where buying and selling was at its height, the market square packed with peasants discussing the relative merits of their beasts of burden. In the midst of the throng, Nasrudin heard a puffed up stallholder confirm that there were only donkeys and peasants present at the market, nothing else.
“Are you a peasant?” asked Mullah of the stallholder.
“Well, say no more!” laughed Nasrudin.
We are all donkeys or peasants in the market place of life, busily trying to make ourselves different from the rest, thinking we’re special. The mystic path calls on us to hold our illusions of separateness lightly and to recognise that one life pumps through all living beings, indeed through all of existence.
In days gone by our Unitarian faith was noted for its rational approach to matters religious, yet it has always had a mystical element interweaving with the rational. This is perhaps because Unitarians encourage one another to explore their direct experiences in life, to trust and value these experiences. And in the very name Unitarian is the message of unity, of the oneness of all existence.
Alice Walker in her book The Color Purple has a character called Shug who expresses this sense of unity so well. She’s talking here about her ideas of God and how they’ve developed from a sense of a separate entity – a God figure, into an essence of divinity found in all existence: “My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.”
Alice Walker’s description captures something for me of the joy I’ve experienced when I realise that there’s more to life than I’ll ever know or understand, when I sense the barriers between me and others, between me and the natural world, between me and the whole of existence slipping away. And I know from conversations that we’ve had here with Kensington Unitarians over the years that many of you have had similar experiences, similar intuitions that life is filled with mysteries we will never comprehend. Just occasionally we receive a glimpse reminding us that there are realities beyond our own everyday consciousness. Let’s share those glimpses with one another in our conversations here with one another and remind each other that we are indeed in this thing called life together.
Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote this mystic’s prayer:
Give me, Oh God,
The narrow path
The wide outlook
The end in peace.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 17th January 2016