Ancient Myths, New Life

This is a reflection I wrote several years ago for Easter.

Our spiritual tradition emerged from of Protestant Christianity but we no longer follow its biblical theology.

So while the United Church is proclaiming joyously that Christ is Risen, perhaps this service on Easter Sunday should be advertised with the words: “Come celebrate with us. We don’t know what happened.” (UU joke)

Easter is a tricky theological event for Unitarian Universalists.  Even for those of us who experience the presence of God, it’s hard to accept that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven having died for human sin so that we may all have eternal life.

I can accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not his divinity as the son of God.

Celebrating his birth at Christmas is one thing – after all every night a child is born is a holy night – but it is much more difficult for me to understand the veneration of his death.

With our fifth source of wisdom calling us to heed science and reason, I don’t accept the resurrection as historical fact. The gospels were written decades after his death. They aren’t eye witness accounts.

The earliest gospel in its original form – the gospel of Mark – says nothing about Jesus returning and being seen by his disciples.

I struggle with the bible as a historical document, but as a collection of mythic stories it offers wisdom into the human condition.

It has been said that “the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.”  (Antony de Mello).

Stories give us a way to reveal deeper truths, ones that are hard to express in facts: what it means to love someone, how life is both searingly painful and wonderful at the same time, the fear of death. These things we tell sideways – through poetry, through story.

The story of Jesus on the cross and what happens next is a grand tale of death and resurrection, divine miracle and the very human need for hope.

But it tells us more about humanity’s lament about the finality of death than about what happened that long ago day in Jerusalem.

Easter mythology is an old tale told in a new way. A very old tale indeed.

Rev. Kendyll Gibbons writes: “Spring in Minnesota is an act of faith. Easter comes, whether or not the climate around us has noticed, whether or not the sun has fully struck through the last of the winter’s chill. Every year it varies; the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. You have to know that this is a pagan holiday, with a little bit of Christianity grafted on; who would celebrate an historical anniversary according to such an esoteric lunar calculation? The very name of the day is pagan.”

Gibbons is right.

The Easter story evolved from even older myths from even older civilizations that surround the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Stories of death and resurrection has been told all over the Middle East and Northern Africa in all sorts of variations for over 6,000 years.

It’s a story of love and death, of fertility and fallowness. It’s a story of spring.

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One of the earliest variations of the story is about Ishtar, the Babylonian Goddess of war and fertility and Tammuz, her son or her husband – the translations differ.

Tammuz is badly injured by a boar when out hunting. He ends up in the underworld, not dead but spellbound in a sleep.

Ishtar laments:  “Him of the plains – why have they slain? The shepherd, the wise one. The man of sorrows, why have they slain him?”

Grief-stricken, Ishtar goes to find Tammuz in the underworld. Ishtar goes through various trials to reach Tammuz down in the depths.

She spends three days underground and during this time the world above falls asleep, nothing grows. Ishtar awakens Tammuz and when they return to the world fertility returns. The earth awakens.

The Gods and Goddesses personify forces of Nature; their actions shape the world as they fight and love, betray and reunite. A grand drama played out across the sky and the land.

Each spring, the Babylonians ritually re-enacted the story of Ishtar and Tammuz. The ritual honours the fertility of the land, the god dies so the grain may grow.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

The death of Tammuz was told as an act of worship, as an act of respect for the earth.

Centuries later, the Egyptians also shared myths of Gods dying and being reborn. Isis, who was the great mother goddess, had a husband Osiris, who was seen as the first King of Egypt and the bringer of civilization.

Osiris is trapped and killed by his brother Seth, who is jealous of his virtue. Isis searches everywhere for Osiris and finds parts of his body scattered all over the land. Through many adventures she brings his body back together.

In one of her forms Isis has wings. She fans them over the reassembled body. Osiris is revived.

Isis says “Osiris! You went away, but you have returned, you fell asleep, but you have awakened, you died, but you live again.”

But Osiris doesn’t return to life in the world. Instead he becomes Ruler of Eternity; he lives in the underworld and judges the souls of the dead. Isis stays in the world and gives birth to their son Horus.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

These are powerful stories from a time when people believed the Gods and Goddesses were manifest in creation, expressed in the seasons.

In spring the Nile River rises, swollen with the tears of Isis as she mourns Osiris. As the waters restore the parched fields, Osiris is revived in the greening plants.

Life and death, fertility and fallowness, are all mixed up together.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

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What I find interesting about the story of Jesus in his final days is how it both echoes and challenges the older myths of Babylon and Egypt.

The earlier stories are about Gods and Goddesses  – not people, but Jesus is a person as well as the son of God. His story becomes the human story.

Like Osiris, Jesus is betrayed. He is crucified, hung on a wooden cross to die, a common form of execution in his time.

After his lonely death his body is placed into a tomb and it is sealed by a rock rolled across the entrance. Three days later, women go to the tomb to care for the body. When they get there the rock has been moved, the tomb is open, and it is empty.

The women weep in shock, and an angel appears to tell them that Jesus has risen. This is where the original gospel of Mark ends. Jesus has risen, but this remark isn’t explained.

The story of Jesus mixes myth into history. It’s a fascinating blend of new theologies and old images, shifting the old myths of the Gods into the new religion of the One God.

The gospels are rich with historical detail while asserting this new mythic way to understand humanity and the divine. Death and resurrection still happen in the spring, but the story of Christ isn’t related to the changes in the land.

His story isn’t about the Gods embodying the cycle of nature. Of life ending and life beginning.

His story is about how people die and are reborn, about our relationship with one all-powerful God, a God that is beyond nature, indeed this a God that can confound the cycles of life and death.

It’s now life never ending.

With the death of Jesus humans no longer die. Christians are promised eternal life in heaven. It’s a paradigm shift.

The idea of everlasting life is appealing. While I can intellectually accept that Death is a necessary part of life, it is not so easy to accept in my heart.

Many of us have loved ones we miss dearly, that we long to be reunited with. The thought of being together again is a great comfort. It lessens the pain of loss.

And wanting life – your life – to continue on is understandable. To believe my life in some way will be unending sounds wonderful.

But I don’t know if this is possible.

Truly, we don’t know anything about what happens after death. It is the last “great adventure.” It’s the mystery that all of us, every being, will meet one day.

All we can do is live here on this earth right now. And live as well as we can in the face of inevitable death.

In the end, the older myths appeal to me more, the ones that don’t offer me hope of my own everlasting life, but point to a harder truth that life goes on even when I will not.

The daffodils of this year are not the same daffodils as last year.

The old makes way for the new, it is that never ending transition that makes life precious.

We are all temporary beings. Life ends so that life may begin again.

Life as a whole renews endlessly.  Ishtar returns from the underworld and the earth reawakens. Osiris is torn apart but is knit back together. Jesus is born and dies yet lives on in people’s hearts.

I take comfort in knowing that when I die, babies will keep on being born. Winter will end as it always ends. Life will spring forth as it always does.

In a way I feel relieved that while I can do my small part to live well, that is all I have to do.

I’m not responsible for the sun rising or the snow melting, just my own small part of this time and this place. Life carries on, with or without us.

While the ancient myths speak to the reality of death, they also highlight the fallow periods of life, reminding us that they provide the fertile ground for new life.

We might enter the underworld many times during our lives, but we can emerge restored.

One moment it seems like the snow will never go away, the trees and the earth are a uniform dirty grey, and then one morning there are purple crocus’ blooming. The grass is growing bright green. The cardinals are singing lustily.

Life is back!

We too can be brought back to life. We might have a time of sleeping, of darkness, but the planet continues to turn and we awaken. We feel forsaken and then forge new connections. We find a new path and start walking. Resurrection!

This is not easy, it takes emotional strength. And it’s a messy process.

Spring is an ugly time of year. The earth looks hung over. In my garden, broken branches and scattered leaves are remnants of the stormy winter. But the green shoots of the tulips are already bursting forth. I just have to help by cleaning up a little.

And life will burst forth, even if I don’t clean up the broken branches. It might be a little messier, but the green grass grows again.

There are times when for three days or three months or three years we live suspended, not knowing whether we are truly alive.

These are times which can be incredibly lonely, when it is so hard to connect to others, so hard to connect to our own spirits. We can become so isolated in pride and fear of telling others about the fallow periods.

Yet the ancient myths remind us that we aren’t in this alone, even when we think we are.

Jesus cried out, believing himself forsaken by God. But He was not. Osiris was in pieces, but Isis put him back together. Tammuz was alone in the underworld, but Ishtar came for him. Even the Gods needed help sometimes!

These myths remind us that we are not alone. We all belong somewhere, to someone, to something. We all belong to this grand drama of life on earth.

We can all be brought back to life, through the strength and support of others, through love, through kindness.

We might need to get out the rake and make the first move, or even the second or third moves, but life will respond.

The wagging of a dog’s tail. The kindness of a stranger. The patient support of a loved one. Any small moment might be the beginning of hope. And in the next breeze we can feel that spring is in the air.

We can begin again.  We are not alone, even in the worst depths of despair, someone is looking out for us, whether we know it or not.

Let us be grateful for those that love us and care for us.

Let us be grateful this spring morning for all the kindness and compassion that surrounds us, even when we can’t quite feel that support.

Let us be grateful for ancient myths that reveal deep truths. That remind us that we are part of the cycle of life and death, that despite the broken branches and scattered leaves, spring blooms once more.

As we celebrate life renewing, knowing that spring returns year after year, let our hearts be glad and grateful.

Let us remember that we too can be renewed.

So Say We All.

 

Sources: 

The Myth of the Goddess. 1992. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford.

The Pagan Christ. 2004. Tom Harpur

The Spiritual Spiral

This is an excerpt from a reflection given at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga in May 2015, about the value of tending to your spirit.

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How do you understand the term spirit?  Does it include connection? Something Greater? Something Vital?

Something greater might be God, it might be nature, it might be the universe. The words will always be inadequate. And will vary from person to person.

But the difficulty in language should not prevent us from speaking about matters of the spirit.

For me, the spirit is the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We all have bodies, minds, and emotions.  We have personalities and histories, and experiences. And yet taking it all together we are still something more.

In Unitarian Universalism, spirit refers to the wholeness of the self  – the wholeness of all beings. It can also refer to the greater whole – again that might be God or the universe. I use it both for the wholeness of the individual self and the wholeness of the – well – whole.

Words are inadequate!

“From the Latin spiritus, the word spirit is linked with air and breath: felt but not seen, intangible yet essential, ephemeral yet connects us to one  another. No name is large enough to hold this power [that is larger than life, although it contains life], but of all the inadequate names, the one that comes to me now is spirit. […the word seems to catch the lightness, radiance, and wind-like subtlety of the power that I seek].”  (Scott Russell Saunders in The Force of Spirit)

Spirit. Breath. Wind. Air.

Air connects us all, it surrounds us, the air we breathe is the air that has always been part of the planet.

We are rarely aware of the air. We notice air when there isn’t enough of it – people with asthma know it all too well. And we notice air when it is in upheaval – whirlwinds creating chaos.

I’d say the spiritual aspect of living is a little like air. We notice when it’s missing and our lives feel constricting and tight. We notice when life is too intense and blowing us about. It’s why many people when they first come to UCM need to sit in the back and cry.

Spirit may be intangible, but it is also vital to our well being. And many people, whose lives are neither too constricting or too intense, might never pay attention to their spiritual side.

But for those who are aware, wonder awaits.

“”Spiritual treasure can be found in our everyday life. Spirit does not exist except as part of the bodily experiences of human life on earth” (Barbara Brown Taylor).

The spiritual is not separate from the material but is entangled. Just as we are entangled in air – it surrounds us and is within us. It is when we live with attention and awareness that we begin to see this.

It is of primary importance, perhaps more now than ever, that our spirit, the essence of ourselves, which some might call soul, can experience a sense of connection to the immensity of the greater whole – to the spirit of all.

Spirituality can be, at its most basic, understood as the awareness that all life is connected. Spirituality is not a set of beliefs, but a way to experience the universe whole.

Sara Maitland, a writer who went to live alone and experience true silence, describes a moment when she was sitting on a rock high on the side of a valley looking down onto a river in the distance.

“..Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I slipped a gear, or something like that.  There was not me and the landscape, but a kind of oneness: a connection as though my skin had been blown off.  More than that – as though the molecules and atoms I am made of had reunited themselves with the molecules and atoms that the rest of  the world is made of. I felt absolutely connected to everything.  It was very brief, but it was a total moment. “

Spiritual experiences are experiences of connection. They happen in your body, in the world.

Spiritual practices are disciplines that help us develop patterns of behaviour that make it easier for us to be aware of a sense of connectedness.

Some might not even call it a spiritual sense, like sports fans. But to cheer so ardently for the Blue Jays baseball team, to feel such connection to the team’s wins and losses, what else is it but a sense of connection to something larger?

I was on Yonge Street way back when the Blue Jays won the 1993 World Series. I suspect the euphoria that night was not much different from the joy at the Hindu festival of Diwali.

We all need to belong to something larger than ourselves.

The spiritual is the sense that despite all of our knowledge, all of power, all of our control, that we are part of something beyond our comprehension.

Something so vast, so immense, so beautiful.

Something we didn’t have to do work for or sacrifice for, but simply is.

And we are part of that oneness.

Our molecules reuniting with all the other molecules.

It is a way to press the reset buttons on ourselves.

After experiences like Sara Maitland’s slipping gear up on that rock high up in the valley , people report feeling lighter, or comforted, or freer, or joyful.

After the Montreal Canadians win the Stanley Cup, (fingers crossed) people will express similar feelings!

And that’s okay, connection can be found in unexpected places.

It can also be found here.

We are the place with a spiritual perspective.  It’s what religions do. As people of the chalice we are called to look beyond ourselves and pay attention to the luminous web of life.

One of the symbols of our chalice community is the golden spiral.  Also known as the golden ratio, or the divine proportion, it is a mathematical spiral of precise geometry.

The spiral has the self at the centre, going out to the community, to the earth, to the universe.

Our spiritual lives are like this as well – a going outwards into connection with all that is and a going inwards into greater self awareness –  the spiral movement taking us ever forward.

Let us live into the spiral, live into our bodies, and so find ourselves part of the mystery.

 

Nature Immersion

My final spiritual practice – after gratitude, meditation, and journalling – is being in nature. This is probably the most meaningful and restorative practice for me – spending time walking in the woods always lightens my spirit –  and the one I find hardest to experience living in the surburban Greater Toronto Area.  I typically drive so much I don’t want to drive more to get out of the city, and while there are some good trails nearby they are short and haunted by the sounds of traffic. Walking there helps, but it isn’t the same as a longer walk or bike ride away from city sounds.

Reading nature writing helps fill in the gaps when I can’t get out, so today in this time of social distancing I offer you this poem by the brilliant thinker Wendell Berry.

Return 

Through the weeks of deep snow
we walked above the ground
on fallen sky, as though we did
not come of root and leaf, as though
we had only air and weather
for our difficult home.
But now
as March warms, and the rivulets
run like birdsong on the slopes,
and the branches of light sing in the hills,
slowly we return to earth.

Wendell Berry

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Precious Autumn

“I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

This week’s spiritual practice is to pause, notice, open to the beauty of autumn.  Last week there were some glorious fall days with azure skies and tangerine leaves, leaving me amazed and delighted as I walked the dog.  It was impossible not to see the intense colours, so strong and alive in the sunlight.

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Pause, Notice, Open is a simple practice that brings us into the moment.

Go out for a walk around your neighbourhood or a local park, during the day, in sunshine or not.

Pause, breath slowly and deeply.  Check in with yourself, stretch and relax. Shake out your body. Re-direct your thoughts to the present. How are you feeling? Take a few moments to sit with what ever emotion you might be experiencing.

Notice, after checking in with yourself, look outwards.  Look at the vegetation around you, at the trees and shrubs, even down at the ground. Try to keep your eyes “soft”, let your eyes roam about you and then return to whatever tree or shrub captures your attention.  Look more closely, study the leaves, look at the light.  Move around to see the tree from different angles. Take photos if it helps you focus.

Open:  Once you’re satisfied with the looking, stand still and breath deeply.  Look a little more, take the experience into your body, and offer some gratitude out in return – to the trees, to life, to God, whatever works for you.  Then take one more slow, deep breath and return to your walk.

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Beautiful Together

“This is my fundamental conviction: diversity is beautiful.  All people in all their colours, all the flowers in the sunlight, this is beautiful.”  Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle.

Each spring  Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America celebrate a flower ceremony created by a Czechoslovakian Unitarian minister Norbert Capek.  Capek wanted a ritual which would be acceptable to both the Jewish and Christian members of his congregation. He turned to the universal beauty of nature, asking people to bring in local wildflowers, he blessed the overflowing vases of blooms, then invited each person to take a flower home. Capek asked people to remember that we are all brothers and sisters, all connected. We are all different, yet we are beautiful together.

We offer our chalice communities the gifts of our unique selves, and we receive the unique gifts of others. The flower ceremony is a symbol of the value of diversity, the necessity and beauty of our differences that fit together to create a thriving system. It is a joyful service, with lightness and gratitude. I love that the flowers also connect us to the land, as people bring the flowers of the season, from delicate buttercups to sumptous roses, reminding us of the riches of nature.

For our spiritual practice this week, I invite you to create an at-home flower ceremony.

With Friends
Host an informal get-together and ask each friend to bring their favourite flower, whether from their garden or a florist. Have a communal vase and ask each person to speak about their flower and what it represents to them. Is it their favourite flower because of its associations with a special event or person in their life?  Does its colour or shape symbolize a meaningful attitude? Is it an aesthetic choice? Ask them to reflect on what their choice says about them in this moment in time.

At the end of the evening, gather around the vase and ask each person to choose a different flower to take home.

With Family
If you have a garden with flowers, go outside and ask each person to pick a few flowers.  If not, bring home a variety of flowers from a florist.  Place them in a vase and have the family sit around it.  Take a minute to sit quietly and look at the flowers.  Ask each family member to talk about which ones they like the most.  Parents may want to point the differences in the flowers, how well they look all together, or how a healthy system has room for lots of different kind of plants or people.

Invite the family to take a favourite flower and place it beside their bed. Ask them to look at in the morning and before bed time.

Solo Flower Ceremony
The UU flower ceremony is a celebration of community. As a personal spiritual practice it can be a way to honour people who matter to you. Using a bouquet of flowers, place each stem into a vase one at a time. With each flower, connect it to a person within your life. Reflect on how that person contributes to your well being. These may be your closest friends and family, or who provide you an essential service you deeply value, or an acquaintance who has had a positive impact on you in the last few weeks.  Silently or out loud thank that person as you put the flower into the vase. Continue adding flowers until you run out of people you wish to uphold and appreciate.

Sit back and appreciate the abundance of people and beauty in your life.

Walking with Spirit

A few years ago I was driving  son to hockey along a road we have driven many times over the years.  As we passed a small strip mall, I was astonished to see an old weathered barn tucked in between the mall and the sea of residential backyards that backs onto the road. Obviously the barn was from the original farm, it had probably been there for a hundred years, yet despite driving on this street regularly for years I had never noticed it.  It can be so easy not to notice our surroundings, but what are we missing?

For the month of May, mindful walking will be the weekly practice. Walking, moving in the world has long associations with spirituality.  Spiritual walking practices include: pilgrimages, labyrinth, meditative walking, walkabouts in aboriginal traditions, and ritual walks.

For Unitarian Universalists, our version of the mindful walking experience – SpiritWalk – is intended to tune your mind and your senses to the present moment, to encourage attentiveness to the world around you. 

The emphasis is on experiencing being in the world, to the here and now, letting your attention linger on whatever catches your eye.  A SpiritWalk can be done alone or in a group, but is walked in silence.  Take fifteen minutes to half an hour walking, moving slowly, stopping to examine what catches your eye.  You won’t get very far.  Take a camera and take pictures if that helps you notice things. It can feel like a luxury of time, to simply wander slowly and pause, like a toddler, whenever your fancy takes you.  After the walk, sit in reflection for about fifteen minutes. You might write in a journal, review the photos, or simply sit and consider what you have seen.

Mindful walking is a good spiritual practice for grounding.  It opens your senses while soothing the spirit.   For Unitarian Universalists, it allows us to integrate our mind, body and spirit.  Walking moves the body while quieting the mind, allowing our busy minds to slow down and let go of the usual worries.  It isn’t about emptying the mind, but allowing it to refresh and focus on the present moment.

This is a great activity to do with children as they often notice interesting objects adults miss. Choose a shorter route and stay on quieter streets or try a park, where the kids can move more freely.

In Your Neighbourhood

This week, start close to home.  Walk two or three blocks from your front door. See what is in your immediate neighbourhood. Are there trees? Wildlife? What is the architecture? Notice the condition of the sidewalk.

Check a map and choose a route before you go. A route you can walk briskly in 10 minutes will take about 25 minutes in a SpiritWalk. Bring the map with you if you don’t know the area well. Knowing where you are going allows you to relax into the walk, instead of looking for signposts.

Before leaving the house, sit for a minute in silence, breathing slowly.

Leave as quietly as you can.  Remember the walk is done in silence.

After 20 minutes to 30 minutes outside, find a quiet place to reflect. Consider what attracted your attention. What was compelling about these items?  What did you see that you hadn’t seen before? How did you feel during this mindful walking?

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you

This month we will explore the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer can be tricky for Unitarian Universalists, if you don’t have an experience of God/Goddess, then to whom are you praying? We’ll look at different ways to understand prayer – as gratitude, as listening – as we try this ancient practice.

Prayer is traditionally understood as a petition to God, a request for help from a deity. If you don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world, then what does praying to God mean? What does it mean for atheists and others who have a different sense of divinity?

For some, prayer is a way to relate to the greater whole, a way to connect to that which is beyond us. It is about being in relationship with the sacred, not whether the sacred will answer.  Poet Czeslaw Milosz in his poem On Prayer describes prayer as a bridge:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold…

I like this sense of prayer lifting us up. Some people who pray regularly feel a sense of lightness, of openness. We must each decide for ourselves whether prayer is a meaningful exercise, and to whom, if we wish, we might direct our prayers. There is no one answer. Many UUs who pray don’t think of their prayers as being directed towards a Being, but to the Universe, the Earth, or to all beings around them. Others use terms such as Spirit of Life to enlarge their understanding of God.

Through out this month, consider who or what you might be praying to, but try to take a few moments each day to pray. It may be the practice itself reveals the relationship. I won’t be offering written prayers to be recited, but encouraging you to take some time to think/feel/be each day, with your own words or even in silence.

Prayer as Gratitude

Gratitude as prayer is as simple as the words “thank you”.  Gratitude as a daily practice comes easily to Unitarian Universalists, it has even been argued that our theology is based on an ethic of gratitude.

For this week, our practice is to name our gratitude in prayer. Rather than writing down what we are grateful for, or posting it to facebook, take some time to sit with gratitude.

If ritual helps you move into a more spiritual mode, light a candle before beginning, and end by extinguishing the light.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. What made you thankful today?  What should have made you thankful, but you were too busy to notice? What was difficult but ended with something positive? Sit with your gratitude until you feel you have acknowledged everything you are thankful for.

You might be directing your gratitude towards God (thank you God), or to the people or creatures or land itself (thank you first robin of spring), or you may be letting your gratitude out into the world without a particular direction (I’m grateful for sunshine). Experiment and see what feels right.

End with a final thank you, or an Amen, or So Say I, or another word or phrase that feels right to you.

Try to do this practice daily for the next week.

The Flame Within

There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.  Rumi

In Unitarian Universalism our chalice light symbolizes the spark of life within all beings. The light within each of us doesn’t always burn steadily. At times we might feel our light burning strong and steadily, at other times it might be fiercely ablaze, at others a dim glow. Today’s practice is intended to provide insight into the state of the flame within. Do we need to nourish our spirit with more self care? Do we need to channel some of our energy out into the world in more productive ways? This practice involves drawing and can be done with children.

The Flame Within

tools:  chalice with candle, paper, pencil or black pen, red, yellow, orange crayons and markers

Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably and draw easily.

Light the chalice with the words “I honour the light within me.”

Sit and watch the flame for a few moments. Find your pulse on your neck or your wrist. Feel its beat.

Let go of your pulse. Close your eyes. What does the flame within you look like? What does it feel like?

On the paper, draw your inner light. Don’t over think, choose your colours quickly and draw with loose strokes. The drawing is just for you.  Is your light bright and bold? Is it soft and steady? Close your eyes or focus on the chalice light again if you feel stuck in drawing. (For those who are truly reluctant to draw, you could also write out your response, quickly with the first words that come to mind).

When your drawing feels complete, sit back and close your eyes. Focus on the fire within. Open your eyes. Does your drawing reflect your sense of your inner flame? Describe it to yourself. If you feel your flame needs tending in some aspect, what might you do to feed the fire?

Sit a moment more in silence.  Blow out the chalice flame with the words “I honour the light within me.”

The Energy Around Us

The element of fire surrounds us in the form of energy use.  Sunlight is the greatest grace our solar system offers us, sustaining all life on earth. Sunlight is a gift of endless abundance, with the plant life of earth converting that energy into forms we can use (Starhawk, p.99).  As endlessly inventive humans, we continue the conversion by creating electricity, powering our lives in ways unimaginable a century ago.

This week we will use sensory awareness (as in September for the element of water) as a spiritual practice. Sensory awareness or “reverential contemplation” is a Unitarian Universalist way to access our first and sixth sources. Through deep breathing, grounding the self, and paying attention, we can increase our connection to the world around us, reminding us we are part of a “great conversation” among all life on earth. It is intended to help develop observational skills and awareness of place. We will focus on the physical energy active around us, the lights and power we use all day.  This practice will focus on indoor electrical use, but could also focus on the natural energy outdoors (in warmer weather!).

Physical Energy Observation

Choose one room in your house, preferably one you spend a fair amount of time in.

Breathe deeply. Feel your feet firmly, yet loosely, planted on the ground. Let your worries and stresses sink down into your feet and into the ground. Breathe deeply.  Stay with this until you feel centred.

With your eyes closed, what does the room feel like? Do any images come to mind? How would you describe the space? What can you smell?  What do you hear?  How do you feel?

Open your eyes. Look around and notice everything in the room that uses electricity. The overhead light. The lamps. The television. The computer. The kettle. The radio. The blender. The radiator.

Now turn each energy user off one by one, starting with the smaller users. Pause after each one. Close your eyes. See if you notice any difference in sound, light, the feel of the room.

Turn off everything you can and stand in the room. How does it feel now? How do you feel?

Turn each energy user back on. Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Shake out your arms and legs. Open your eyes.

Take a minute to reflect on the experience.

This exercise is adapted from Starhawk’s The Earth Path.

Loving the Light

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”  Anne Frank

I can sit for hours by the flickering flames of a campfire. In the winter, I substitute candles in the living room, and try to get my family to dine by candlelight.  I was drawn to Unitarian Universalism in part because our essential symbol is the flaming chalice, the living light of energy.  This week’s spiritual practice is similar to last week’s fire ceremony, but here all we do is focus on a candle flame.  Not only is the flame beautiful to watch, this is a good practice for building concentration.  Your mind will wander, distracting thoughts will arise, just keep bringing your attention to the flame.  Try this for five minutes at first, then build up to a longer sitting period. I prefer beeswax or soy candles to the more common tealights. Beeswax has an especially lovely smell.

If you wish to do this as a family, have a candle for each person.

Candle Meditation

Find a quiet place and dim the lights.  Candle meditations work best with some darkness. Set the chalice or candle so that it is close to eye level, you don’t want to strain your neck looking too far down.  Make sure it is about 50 cm away, so it isn’t too bright. Get into a comfortable seating position, whether that is on cross legged on the floor or in a comfortable chair, one that you can hold for 5 to 15 minutes.

Breathe deeply.  Light the candle in silence or with words such as “I honour the light”.

Look into the flame.  Breathe quietly.

If you find your mind wandering, study the flame, consider its colour shadings, explore its heat carefully with your hand. If you have a particular worry that is persistent, try to hold it lightly in your mind without focusing on it,  you may find some insight as you watch the flame.

Watch the flame for at least five minutes, breathing steadily, deeply, softly.  Then blow out the candle in silence or with words such as “I honour the light”.

Sit for a minute more.

If you can’t access an actual candle, this meditation video offers 10 minutes of a burning candle.