Our theme for December is “Mystery” which, by definition, is something difficult or impossible to explain. How comfortable are we with the “mysterium” in general, and more particularly, how does that comfort, or lack thereof, impact our ability to experience “Mysterium Tremendum” (Latin used here for emphasis!)? The world renowned scientist Albert Einstein was once quoted in Life Magazine exhorting humanity to, “not stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.” Maybe, just maybe, this season of mysteries is a good time for us to rekindle that flame?
Sermon “A Holy Curiosity” by Rev. Shayna Appel
December is a month for mysteries. In the Jewish Tradition, we celebrate Chanukah, and the mystery of how oil enough for one night could burn for eight! Bodhi Day on December 8th celebrates the Buddha’s enlightenment. Then comes the Wiccan celebration of Solstice on a day when the night is long and the veil between this world and what may lie beyond it is thin. Christmas is, itself, a mysterious celebration. On that day we recall a time of horrific oppression – a time when those who were oppressed could have really used a great military leader but, instead, they got a baby and said, effectively, “O.K. Let’s go with that!” Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 through January 1. It is more of a cultural celebration than a celebration of anything “mysterious.” But the fact that African culture in America has survived hundreds of years of white supremacy and can still celebrate its noble heritage is mystery enough for me! (And one we should all be grateful for!)
And, speaking of mysteries in the month of December, did any of you know that there is a Unitarian Universalist holiday in December? I didn’t. Apparently it’s a mystery! The holiday is called “Chalica.” The ritual associated with it involves lighting a chalice each day for seven consecutive days (Dec 1-7) and focusing on one of our seven UU principles. We are to reflect on its meaning and do a good deed associated with it. So, for example, on the first day the Chalica website suggests that since the day is all about the First Principle—worth and dignity—it would be a good time to make an apology or forgive someone. And the next day—justice, equity, and compassion—could be marked by working at a food pantry. The seventh day is about the interdependent web so we might begin a compost pile or rescue an animal. It’s so mysterious…like, why didn’t any of us know about it? Apparently Chalica started out on the West Coast in about 2005. GREAT holiday though, right? I recommend, now that we know about it (!) we celebrate it next year!
December is a month for mystery. Living in New England at this time of year seems to support that mystery. The days are short and the nights are so long…it’s a great time of year to light fires in our hearths, or light candles, or hang Christmas schemata all over the place…anything to repel the darkness and questions of the ultimate mystery…why do we choose to live in New England at this time of year?
All kidding aside…we UU’s in particular, and maybe just people in general in this twenty-first century…we’re not all that comfortable with mystery. And yet…right after our 7 UU Principles, those things we covenant to affirm and promote, are the 6 Sources our Living Tradition draws from. And the very first one of those Sources is: Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
O.K. Wow! That’s a mouth-full! Largely due to the 7th Source of our Living Tradition that has never actually been written, but, if it was, it would be something like: The use of many, many words, even and especially when fewer words would be preferable!
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. Let’s unpack that for a moment.
We begin, as Unitarian Universalists, not from any of the worlds great religions. Those come a little later. We begin instead with our own direct experience. That experience is ours and ours alone. No one can give it to us, or take it away.
Our First Source then says that this direct experience is affirmed in all cultures. In other words, every person in every culture, has experience of mystery and wonder. No matter who you are, what you believe, or how you choose to name that belief, we ALL touch mystery at some point in our lives. Maybe it’s at the birth of a child, or simply when the pregnancy test comes back “positive”…and in the months that follow as the baby develops in your, or your partners, womb. Maybe mystery touches you on a starry night, or on the mountain top, or in a candle lit chapel on a tiny little island ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth, NH. Maybe it takes something horrific to remind you that we are part of something larger. Certainly tragedies bring out humanities best and worst sides and seem to connect us more to that mystery which binds us each to each and each to all.
So the First Source our UU Faith draws from the assertion that direct experience IS a thing, and it’s a thing in all cultures. But we’re not talking about just any experience. We’re talking about a particular experience. The experience of transcending mystery and wonder.
A mystery, by definition, would be difficult to explain. In fact we could go so far as to say that mysteries are things we cannot explain. But, when we talk about our direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder we’re going beyond what can or, perhaps, should be explained, all the way out onto a ledge where our mortal understanding, our comprehension and our explanations do us no good. Or, at best, would constitute a booby prize of sorts.
Think about outer space for a moment. Science can tell us a great deal about planets and stars, suns and supernovas, black holes and galaxies far, far away. But none of that takes away one iota from the transcendent mystery and wonder that we exist at all. Much less live as sentient beings living complete lives in which we can love and learn despite being tiny, tiny specs on the grand design of creation. Science, in other words, can help us see a thousand trees…but you have to soften your vision some if you want to see the forest. “Physics can explain the shape of a wave and how long it takes to curl over and crash on shore. But that doesn’t detract from the sense of wonder you feel when you stand face to face with something so powerful and beautiful.”1
1 Ungar, Lynn. RESources for Living. QUEST, Vol. LXXI, No. 6. June 2016. Pg. 7.
But, at the end of the day, there is very little in our culture that affirms this transcendent mystery and wonder. For Unitarian Universalists, affirming the transcendent mystery and wonder is further complicated by our sixth Source; Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind. Is it any wonder then that we sometimes show up as those “fanatical atheists” Albert Einstein described in our reading this morning. Those “whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source.” Einstein described these folks as being “like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium for the people’— cannot bear the music of the spheres.”
That “music of the spheres,” that transcendent mystery and wonder, IS a part of the human experience. But not just the normal, everyday, human experience…it is also a part of our religious experience. That’s what makes it transcending mystery and wonder.
Writing for “Quest”, a journal of the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship, Minister for Lifespan Learning, Lynn Unger noted:
When you transcend something you go beyond a limit or boundary, as in mercy transcends justice, or this chocolate decadence transcends all other desserts. Transcending mystery and wonder is something that moves beyond our ordinary categories of who we are and what life is like. That’s religion.
Religion starts with the experience of mystery and wonder that transcends all the everyday ways we categorize things by how they work and how they are useful to us. Transcending mystery and wonder starts with recognizing that we belong to something so much bigger than ourselves that we can only touch it in imagination and music and art. But it goes beyond that recognition to something more. The statement of our first source says that it “moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”2
In other words, making room in or hearts and minds and souls for that precious transcendent mystery does something to us. Maybe it even does something FOR us. When we glimpse it, it has the power to renew our spirits and open our hearts and minds. It can put the problems and challenges of the moment into perspective. It can re-member us to the whole of creation and remind us that we are a part of a larger order, and that that order is good.
December is a month for Mystery. And so this morning, I want to welcome you to it, and offer you blessings for the encounter with these words by Mary Oliver:
“Starlings in Winter”
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.
May the Mystery abound, around you and within you. Blessed be and Amen.