Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words from Quaker Advices and Queries, no. 5.
Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible … and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Vernon Marshall
May this chalice remind us of the shared cup of fellowship.
May its light remind us of the light of wisdom.
May the warmth of its glow remind us of the warmth of God’s everlasting love.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this world in which Covid again seems to be rampant,
Keeping in touch however we can,
And helping each other,
However we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way.
Reading from Seven Pathways to Wisdom by Richard Rohr
This is the first of two readings from one by Richard Rohr, in which he outlines seven pathways to wisdom:
Wisdom is clearly more than mere intelligence, knowledge of facts, or information. Wisdom is more synthesis than analysis, more paradoxical than linear, more a dance than a march… In order to grow in wisdom, we need to move beyond cerebral, rational knowing… I’ve created a list of seven “ways of knowing” that together can move us toward greater wisdom.
Intellect: The lens that we most associate with knowing is intellectual knowing. It’s the result of formal education and it has to do with science, reason, logic, and what we call intelligence. Most of us are trained to think that it is the only way of knowing or the superior way of knowing. Yet that isn’t necessarily true. Seeing intellectual intelligence as the best or only way of knowing is actually a great limitation.
Will: The second way of knowing is volitional knowing. It comes from making choices, commitments, and decisions, then sticking with them, and experiencing them at different stages. Anyone who has made and then kept vows knows what I’m talking about. It is a knowing that comes from making choices and the very process of struggling with the choices. This knowing is a kind of cumulative knowing that emerges over time.
Emotion: Great emotions are especially powerful teachers. Love, ecstasy, hatred, jealousy, fear, despair, anguish: each have their lessons. Even anger and rage are great teachers, if we listen to them. They have so much power to reveal our deepest self to ourselves and to others, yet we tend to consider them negatively. I would guess that people die and live much more for emotional knowing than they ever will for intellectual, rational knowing. To taste these emotions is to live in a new reality afterward, with a new ability to connect.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading from Seven Pathways to Wisdom by Richard Rohr
Here are Richard Rohr’s other four types of wisdom:
Senses: Bodily or sensory knowing comes through the senses, by touching, moving, smelling, seeing, hearing, breathing, tasting—and especially at a deep or unconscious level. Becoming aware of our senses in a centered way allows us to awaken, to listen, to connect. It allows us to know reality more deeply, on our body’s terms instead of our brain’s terms… Something very different is communicated and known through physical touch, in contrast with what is communicated through mere words.
Images: Imaginal knowing is the only way that the unconscious can move into consciousness. It happens through fantasy, through dreams, through symbols, where all is “thrown together”. It happens through pictures, events, and well-told stories. It happens through poetry, where well-chosen words create an image that, in turn, creates a new awareness—that was in us already. We knew it, but we didn’t know it. We must be open to imaginal knowing because the work of transformation will not be done logically, rationally, or cerebrally.
Aesthetic: In some ways, aesthetic knowing is the most attractive, but I think it’s often the least converting. Art in all its forms so engages us and satisfies us that many go no deeper. Still, aesthetic knowing is a central and profound way of knowing. I’ve seen art lead to true changes of consciousness. I have seen people change their lives in response to [art of all kinds]. Their souls were prepared, and God got in through the right metaphor at the right time. They saw their own stories clarified inside of a larger story line.
Epiphany: The last way of knowing… is epiphanic knowing. An epiphany is a parting of the veil, a life-changing manifestation of meaning, the eureka of awareness of self and the Other. It is the radical grace which we cannot manufacture or orchestrate… It is always a gift, unearned, unexpected, and larger than our present life. We cannot manufacture epiphanies. We can only ask for them, wait for them, expect them, know they are given, keep out of the way, and thank Someone afterward.
Prayer by Sue Ayer
Spirit of life and love, we have gathered here in search of answers to hard questions. We have come in search of understanding, in search of community.
We have come in search of hope and healing.
Let this be a place not only of searching, but of discovery.
Let this be a place not only of learning, but of wisdom.
Let this be a place not only of meeting, but of connection.
And let this be a place where healing fosters giving and hope fosters service.
This is our prayer: that we may create here a circle of love,
ever expanding, ever growing,
as we seek to know you, the source of our being. Amen.
Reading Becoming an Elder by Kathy Carmody
Leaving behind my journey of struggling and racing through
the white water of many rivers, I become the river,
creating my own unique way.
Leaving behind my self-imposed role as a tree upon
which others have leaned, I now become the wind,
with the freedom to blow whenever and wherever I choose.
Leaving behind the boxes I’ve created in my life,
crammed with roles, responsibilities, rules and fears,
I become the wild and unpredictable space
within which flowers sprout and grow.
Leaving behind the years of yearning for others
to see me as somebody,
I soften into becoming my future,
with permission from SELF to
continually unfold as I choose, without concern
for how others may see me.
Leaving behind years of telling and teaching,
I become instead a mirror
into which others can peer and
view reflections of themselves to consider.
Leaving behind the urge to provide answers for others,
I become – in the silence of this forest retreat
– the question.
Leaving behind the rigor of my intellect,
I become a single candle in the
darkness, offering myself as a beacon for others
to create their own path. I become an elder.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Reflection (words by Frederick E. Gillis)
From many places and conditions of the spirit we come
seeking a centre for our lives,
a sense of wholeness —
From dry places where the words and knowledge seem broken
into brittle fragments that do not cohere —
From overfilled places where information abounds,
but there is no real understanding —
From hard places where feelings are dulled,
and lonely, hollow places where meanings seem empty.
In this caring and supportive community,
at this time of quiet reflection,
we come to be emptied —
and filled with the spirit that flows in and among us
and throughout the world.
Empty us of the clatter and confusion,
the information we thought was all-sufficient.
Quiet our minds, centre our spirits, ground our being.
Enable us to find that power that already lies within us —
power for love, for creativity, for hope.
Open our eyes to the possibilities of love and sustenance
that already surround and uphold us.
Help us to see in everything a miracle,
for life is at each moment a wonder,
a gift of opportunity.
May our hearts be open to compassion,
our minds open to wisdom,
our spirits open to grace. Amen.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Seven Pathways to Wisdom
Last Thursday was the Christian festival of Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the Magi, the three Wise Men, to Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. I’ve decided to mark this by pondering the gift of wisdom (they were, after all Wise men) which, if we are lucky, we grow into as we experience more of life.
As liberal Catholic theologian Richard Rohr explains in our first reading, “Wisdom is clearly more than mere intelligence, knowledge of facts, or information. Wisdom is more synthesis than analysis, more paradoxical than linear, more a dance than a march.” He goes on to delineate seven distinct pathways to wisdom – intellectual, volitional, emotional, sensory, imaginal, aesthetic and epiphanic. Each quite different, each having the potential to lead us along the path of wisdom.
During that phase of life between four and eighteen or early twenties that is known as “full time education”, we fill our children’s and young people’s brains with a lot of knowledge, but often, very little wisdom. Looking back across the many years since then, I wonder at how little of the knowledge and facts I crammed into my brain in those days has come in useful in later life (except in pub quizzes!) Admittedly, I am eternally grateful to Mr. Griffith-Jones, the English teacher who passed on his love of good literature, but otherwise, not much else has had any lasting meaning for me, or influence on me.
It makes me wonder whether we are teaching our children and young people the right things in school. I wonder whether perhaps there is too much emphasis on gaining knowledge, on the accumulation of facts, and not enough on learning the important lessons of life, through gaining wisdom.
Perhaps wisdom cannot be learned through study, but only through the experiences of our lives. Wisdom is more about being awake, about paying attention to what is going on around us. Wisdom is more a way of living in the world; of responding to it, following the best that we know. It is about working out what we believe is right and good and true, then trying to live wholeheartedly, with all of ourselves, as Brené Brown would say.
There are many great teachers of wisdom around, if we could only learn to wake up and pay attention to them. We may learn wisdom by reading the words of wise men and women, or by listening to the worship leader in church or chapel on a Sunday; but I think that a surer route is through our own life experiences. There is nothing to beat actually experiencing something to teach us the wisdom it holds.
A wise sage, the Chinese philosopher known in the West as Confucius, once wrote, “Experience is like a lantern facing backwards; it only illuminates the part of the way that we have already passed.”
And that is true, so far as it goes. But I have an issue with his inclusion of the word “only” – because each one of us is the sum of our past experiences. The lessons they can teach us are so important and can influence how we behave in the part of our lives that is to come. The lessons might come from any of Rohr’s seven pathways. We are able to apply the wisdom we have gained to our present and future lives, if we choose.
There’s a wonderful passage in Neil Gaiman’s book, Neverwhere, in which the hero, Richard, has just entered the world of London Below, and is befriended by a girl named Anaethesia. He has no understanding of how London Below works, and she has to look after him. At one point, they hide from some strangers, and when they have passed, Richard asks her, “What makes you think that they wouldn’t have been pleased to see us?”
Gaiman comments, “She looked at him rather sadly, like a mother trying to explain to an infant that, yes, this flame was hot too. All flames were hot. Trust her, please.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century Swiss philosopher, once wrote, “Youth is the time to learn wisdom. Age is the time to practice it.” I’m not sure I agree – in my experience it is a rare “youth” who learns wisdom. I certainly didn’t. Many mystics, including Richard Rohr, suggest that our lives our divided into two parts. The first, which probably lasts into our forties, unless we are lucky, is the First Half, during which we grow up, establish our place in society, and take on the values and norms of that society.
The Second Half, most usually when we are in our forties and onwards, is when we come to wisdom and realise that there is more to life than security and survival, getting on and getting ahead. For me, it started in my early forties, when I first read the Quaker booklet, Advices and Queries, which is full of challenges and questions as to how to live a good and wise life. It has inspired me ever since.
But it was doing the Worship Studies Course and then ministry training and starting to attend Summer School, when I was in my mid-forties and early fifties, which really broke me wide open and helped me to understand that I was still very much in the First Half of life and needed to unlearn so much in order to make space for true wisdom.
It is easier for us to learn from our experiences if we have someone wiser or more knowledgeable than we are to explain how the world works. Often this is a parent but it may be a teacher or minister or manager or other kind of mentor. Like the Elder in Kathy Carmody’s poem, who has learned what to leave behind in order to attain wisdom and wholeness in her life and to be a beacon for others. Without such people, I think our lives would be more difficult, and we would be more prone to repeat our mistakes, rather than learning from them.
So for example, if we have been treated with kindness, we will be more likely to treat others that way. But if we have been treated badly, hurt, abused, oppressed, our experiences may have taught us that the world is an angry, dangerous place, and that others cannot be trusted. It takes a good deal of spiritual work and/or a wise mentor to hold and guide us through the process, to overcome the impact of negative experiences and move on; to learn to trust again.
A wonderful example of this was what happened in South Africa at the end of apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who sadly died recently, writes about this in his book, God has a Dream: “One of the things we learned in South Africa is that there is no true security from the barrel of a gun… There is no peace without justice, and safety only comes when desperation ends. Inevitably it is when people sit down and talk that desperation ends. Negotiations happen not between friends, negotiations happen between enemies. And a surprising thing does seem to take place… enemies begin to find that they can actually become friends, or at least collaborators for the common good… Of course, you must have leaders who are willing to take risks and not just seeking to satisfy the often extreme feelings of their constituencies. They have to lead by leading and be ready to compromise, to accommodate, and not to be intransigent, not to assert that they have a bottom line.”
Good things happened because people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu himself learned from their past experiences that there had to be a better way of living, one which could rise above what their people had suffered, and work towards peace and reconciliation.
But it took time. The last thing I want to share this morning is the idea that “patience is the companion of wisdom” – a quote from St Augustine of Hippo. If we try to rush ahead with anything new, without taking the time to do the groundwork first, it will usually fail. Fall flat on its face. Ideas can inspire us and we want to implement them straight away, but unless we take the time to bring other people with us, it is very possible that we will end up at the end of a very narrow branch, with someone sawing it off near the trunk.
In the context of a Unitarian congregation, this is especially important to remember. It often happens that a minister (or lay leader or committee member) has a wonderful new idea, then rushes off to make it happen, or to lay it before the committee, only to be met by lukewarm reactions, if not negative ones.
Unitarian ministry of all kinds must be collaborative. The leaders in our movement must learn the patience to consult other people, to explain new concepts with patience, in order to help those other people feel his or her own enthusiasm for the project, whatever it is. This applies not only to BIG IDEAS, like removing the pews from a chapel, but also to small ideas, like moving the chalice from one place to another.
Because change is difficult for most people. We are naturally resistant to change – very, very few people embrace it wholeheartedly, at least not at first hearing. So patience is needed to do the groundwork first, to explain the reasoning behind any new proposal, and to allow the congregation time to mull the new idea over in their minds, so that they can ask questions about it. Leaders also need to be open to adapting new ideas, because someone has pointed out a flaw in our reasoning. This takes both patience and humility.
Let us strive, in this new year of 2022, to be open to and aware of new wisdom wherever it occurs and to learn from our experiences, to make our bit of the world a better, kinder, more compassionate place.
Closing Words by Sara Campbell
We receive fragments of holiness,
glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight.
Let us gather them up for
the precious gifts that they are and,
renewed by their grace,
move boldly into the unknown.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley