Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Another Epiphany

The Journey - by Mary Oliver

Story - The Stonecutter

Last week I spoke about Epiphany and in doing so I gave some definitions of what Epiphany means and the third of these meanings was: a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

Or in other words as I said then, ‘a light bulb moment’

Today I want to explore this ‘light bulb’ moment a bit further.

You all know of my love for poetry, well the poem I shared with you this morning – the Journey by Mary Oliver – is my favourite poem of all time.  I am not sure when I first read the poem but I do know that there was a period in my life when it justvkept appearing and each time I read it, it seemed more and more significant as though it were telling me something – pointing me to a Light bulb moment.  Roger Housden says of it:
‘“The Journey” is a poem of transformation, and as much as any poem Oliver ever wrote, it is a mirror in which you can see a reflection of your own story.  It captures that moment when you dare to take your heart and your hands and walk through an invisible wall into a new life.  We do not know the personal history that led Mary Oliver to the truth of this poem. Yet what matters for her, . . . ,is that her poems invite readers to find themselves and their own experience at its centre.  “The Journey,” like so many of her poems, conjures the archetype of a fundamental human experience, and in that collective image we are each able to perceive our individual story.’

We all have our own stories and I am not sure where my spiritual story truly began but somewhere in the 1990’s I found myself going on several journey’s as I began to search for a spiritual path that I could with all honesty follow.  I explored many religious faiths beginning with an attempt to return to the Anglican Church in which I grew up.  Try as I might though I could not reignite the passion of my youth for this faith and so I turned towards what I suppose many would call ‘New Age’ spirituality, exploring many different disciplines and paths.  They were all interesting and with each one my longing to find a spiritual home was fed a little more.  And then came the light bulb moment epitomised in the opening lines  of Oliver’s poem–
One day you finally knew
What you had to do, and began, …

Well it was just like that for me when one day I opened an email from a very dear friend who knew about my searching for a spiritual home.  All the email said was,  I opened the website and after a bit of surfing around the links I came across the NUF website, I was interested in what it was saying and decided I needed to find out more about this Unitarian thing.  I sent an email to Essex hall and received a lot of material including a leaflet on where to find a congregation near me.  I was determined to go along to a service but did not do any more than find out that the nearest chapel was in Padiham.  Quite a few weeks, maybe even months went by and then I once again felt that I ought to do something about it, as Mary Oliver said,
 “I felt the old tug at my ankles”.
 I went to the chapel and it was as though I had come home.  It is surprising how often I have since heard that said from people who have found Unitarianism.  All I had needed was that little nudge, an unexpected e-mail and my whole life was changed.  It may seem such a simple thing and yet it was a significant first step that I had taken.

Some eight hundred years ago, the Persian mystic Rumi said,

Start walking, start walking towards Shams,
Your legs will get heavy and tired.
Then comes the moment of feeling the wings
You’ve grown lifting.

Shams is a metaphor for the true heart of your own life for God if you like.  You can respond to it or you can turn away.  The choice is yours.  There may be forces that try to keep you from doing what you know you must, as Oliver’s poem says……..

Though the voices around you
Kept shouting their bad advice.
though the whole house
began to tremble and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,

Suddenly in my troubled life I suddenly had that epiphany – that light bulb moment – and I turned my back on my teaching career and began my Unitarian journey.  There was no thought of where it would lead me but I was sure that within this faith I would finally realise where it was I should be going.
It is however not just the journey one has to be aware of.  However long the journey or what besets us on the way; there is of course the destination, the place to which we are heading.

T.S. Eliot used these words:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And Thoreau said:
“Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out.”

The implication here, as in the stonecutter story, is that the journey is really a returning and yet I was not returning to the faith of my earlier years. But rather I was discovering God anew.  There was something the same and yet at the same time something that was totally different. It is like the ten Ox-herding pictures that are found in the Buddhist tradition which depict the spiritual journey: 

In picture 1 the herder is searching for the ox – it is the beginning of the spiritual search.
In picture 2 he finds evidence of the ox – although the struggle is difficult there is a hint of achievement.
In picture 3 he sees the Ox for the first time – the way appears but it is still unclear.
In picture 4 he catches the ox but it is difficult to tame – the mind wanders.
In picture 5 he tames the ox – the mind follows by itself.
In picture 6 the herder mounts the ox – the mind has submitted
In picture 7 he transcends the ox and stands alone
Picture 8 is an empty circle – the ox and the herder are transcended.  This is the moment of awakening
In picture 9 he reaches the origin – or recognises what he knew before.
In picture 10, the final picture, he returns to the world where he lives and teaches others.


The person at the end of the journey is apparently the same as the person who started the journey. Everything is the same, yet everything is different. Just like that stone-cutter who returned but this time more happy with his lot.

This reminds me of the Zen story that says:

Once, I said, “mountains are mountains and waters are waters.” After I got insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, “mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.” But now, having attained enlightenment, I say, “mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.”

Thich Nhat Hanh the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teaches the art of a walking meditation, when he does so he is teaching the art of that journey which is deep, infinite and immediate.  He says, “I can take each step asking myself – have I arrived and then in the next step answering – yes, I have arrived, I am home.  Have I arrived?  Yes, I am home.  I have arrived, I am home.”
Home into the present moment, home into where our hearts are…

It is the same as when Mary Oliver says,
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
The stars began to burn
Through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,

In a real sense the starting point of the journey and the destination too, is where you stand and your walking becomes the path. The path is a struggle to find out who you are and to make sense of the life that is uniquely yours.  The journey never ends; it is a continuing unfolding one.

For me, it continues unfolding within the Unitarian faith, because I do not want to walk alone.  I want to walk with others, to be part of a community. I want to be with those who respond with enquiring minds to a faith without dogma or creed.

I continue to quest or search for my God but there is an ease in that searching now that was not present for me before.  This is because there is a knowledge of, or recognition of God in my life.  Maybe that was why I was so pleased when the choir chose this morning’s introit, a piece by Francesca Leftley

In you, my God, may my soul find its peace. You are my refuge, my rock, and my strength, calming my fears with the touch of your love.  Here in your presence my troubles will cease.
In you, my God, may my soul find its rest; you are the meaning, the purpose of life, drawing me near to the fire of your love, safe in your presence my yearning will cease. 

Of course within the Unitarian faith there is not a ceasing of exploration but by being here in this place to be in the company of fellow seekers I know I am in the perfect position to be the only person I can be or “to save the only life I can save” as it says at the end of Mary’s poem,

No one can know where their journey may take them, but in being willing to be on that journey you too may “save the only life you could save.” No one else can ever walk your journey for you.  You alone can respond to your call.  You are the only one who can recognise your own epiphany, you just need to be ready to see the light and say “aha  that is for me.”

So may it be.     Amen          

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