Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life
Story: The Politest Man in the World
Reading: A Present to Myself by Pat Ingoldsby
A few weeks ago, Bridget and I were talking about the design of the north window here in the church, and the five subjects that Rev. Ernest Savell Hicks had considered important enough to be illustrated there: Inspiration; Truth; Love; Discovery; and Work. ‘If someone gave the church a substantial amount of money in order to pay a stained-glass artist to fill the empty panels on the east window (on the balcony),’ asked Bridget, ‘what would you suggest should be depicted there?’
It’s an interesting question. I could have suggested that we reproduce variations on Savell Hicks’ choices because, while they were central to Savell Hicks’ personal philosophy, they do represent very important themes within Unitarianism as a whole. But, instead, I thought I would add some others, some principles of spirituality which have informed my own preaching and my own philosophy. This is the list I came up with: Concentration; Compassion; Amazement; Gratitude; Generosity. I think that most of my sermons over the past dozen or so years have been about one or other of these, principally because I feel that, taken together, they provide a comprehensive and practical guide to spiritual living. This morning I’d like to look briefly at each one in turn.
By concentration I mean, simply, paying attention to life, refusing to be buffeted about on the winds of circumstances; acting rather than reacting. The default mode of the human being is what Colin Wilson calls ‘automatic pilot’, and what the Buddhists call ‘sleepwalking’. We move through our days in a kind of stupor, habitually going through the motions but not really taking any notice of what is going on within us or around us. Like the citizens of the City of Fools in our children’s story this morning, we rarely stop to think, to analyse, to plan, or to reflect. Consequently, we are unaware of our motives, our prejudices, the effects of our actions and words on those around us. We concern ourselves with endless recrimination and regret about the past, and fruitless worrying about the future. Rarely do we actually come to an awareness of the present moment which, say the all the spiritual traditions, is the only way in which we can begin to live sanely and happily. There’s an old story about a seeker after spiritual wisdom who, after many years of travelling, eventually finds his way to a remote monastery in the Himalayas and he asks the guru living there, ‘What is the most important thing in life?’ The wise man answers, ‘Attention.’ ‘Is that all you can say?’ asks the seeker. ‘Have I travelled hundreds of miles over land and sea to hear just one word? Can’t you elaborate?’ ‘Yes, I can,’ said the guru. ‘Attention, attention, attention.’ Coming to an awareness of the present is the primary objective of meditation and prayer, and any spiritual community should attempt to foster this attentive and prayerful attitude to life and to wake us from our somnambulism. So, concentration or attention would be in my first window. Why do we come to church? To learn to pay attention to life.
Compassion would be in my second window. We all know what this word means: it means ‘feeling with another’; being able to accept that these strange creatures who are walking about beside you are just like you. They can rejoice, suffer, laugh, and think just as you can. This is the hardest realisation of all, this is why we constantly and routinely condemn others while justifying ourselves; why we love those who love us, but find it difficult to love those whom we perceive as different from us. It’s the reason why we can countenance the fact that millions of people are starving as we speak; why, like Cain, we can ask, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’; why we can say, ‘blood is thicker than water’; ‘it’s nothing to do with me’, ‘it’s their own fault’ and a hundred other justifications for our callous indifference to those who share our nature and our planet. The Gospels have a really perceptive story which describes this aspect of the human psyche. It’s about the blind man whom Jesus cures by rubbing spittle on his eyes. ‘What can you see?’ asks Jesus. ‘I can see people, but they look like walking trees,’ replies the man. Jesus rubs his eyes again, and the man can see clearly. This man is you and I. We can see people, but they look like walking trees – that is, we don’t really grant them the same status that we grant ourselves. We don’t quite see them as human. The spiritual life is an attempt to rub our eyes again, to bring us to a realisation that every single human being is a child of God, with just as much right to live on earth as we have, who is just as necessary to the divine economy of the universe as I am. Learning to treat everyone as kin is the supreme objective of the spiritual life, and the hardest task we all face. ‘How can we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?’ asked a rabbi of his students. ‘When you can tell whether an animal in the distance is a sheep or a goat,’ answers one student. ‘No,’ said the rabbi. ‘When you can distinguish a fig tree from an apple tree,’ answered another student. ‘No, that is wrong too,’ said the rabbi. ‘How can we tell when the night has ended?’ asked the students. ‘When you can look into the face of any man or woman and see them as your brother or your sister. If you cannot do this, it is still night,’ replied the rabbi.
So many sects, so many creeds,
So many ways that wind and wind;
And all the lore this sad earth needs
Is just the art of being kind. (Ella Wheeler Wilcox)
‘My religion is kindness,’ said the Dalai Lama. Spiritual communities exist to help us see people instead of walking trees.
James Le Fanu is an English doctor and writer whose latest book Why Us? so impressed me that I was prompted to write a short review of it on the Amazon website. He has recently started to write a column in the Oldie magazine, in which he takes a look at something we generally take for granted and points out how its intricacy, its complexity or its beauty is cause for amazement. Last September his column was devoted to the human hand, which, he tells us, quoting Milton, is ‘the first gift of heaven’. This is part of what he writes:
….our hands are almost too familiar, the facilitators of every mundane action of our waking lives – from brushing our teeth in the morning to turning off the bedside lamp last thing at night. And yet they can conjure from the finite resources of the bones, muscles and nerves of which they are made a near infinite variety of possibilities, in a way that lies far beyond the power of our minds to comprehend…..The source of this achievement lies in the hand’s incorporating into a single structure three quite different attributes: it is an organ of manipulation, of knowledge and of communication – the hand acts, it knows and it speaks.
The hand’s ability to act stems from the fact that it has a thumb – just one inch longer than the thumb of our primate cousins, but that extra inch gives it ‘unlimited potential for fine adjustments or minute corrections’. The lengthened thumb distinguishes us from the ape, ‘whose cleverest wheeze is to crush a nut with a stone’, and gives us ‘a vast repertoire of gripping properties that can thread a needle and play the flute’.
Our sense of touch is so exquisite that we can distinguish with a single tap of the fingernail between paper, wood, plastic and steel. ‘The cognitive hand “knows” immediately and instinctively, the size, shape, texture, density and properties of everything it touches.’
The hand can also ‘remember’. Upon hearing the 90-year old Arthur Rubenstein play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a distinguished hand surgeon observed: ‘Ten fingers fly over the keys of the piano, each movement requires a different and precise pressure and timing. From my own calculations I know the powerful arpeggios of the third movement (played at the rate of 16 notes per second) are just too fast for the hand to accomplish consciously. The nerve impulses simply do not travel fast enough. Musicians call it “finger memory”.’
Look wherever you like in the world of nature, and you will find things to amaze you. Unfortunately, familiarity breeds indifference; the job of the spiritual community is to reawaken our sense of wonder at life.
With amazement comes gratitude. Gratitude for what? Principally, for the mere fact of being alive and having consciousness, senses, hands, eyes, emotions, memory. Richard Dawkins says that the chances of any one of us being born are about the same as the odds against a coin falling on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. The Buddhists say that being born a human being is like emerging from an ocean the size of the universe with your head precisely in the middle of a rubber ring. Isn’t that something to be grateful for, to rejoice in?
‘I thank you God for most this amazing day,’ writes e.e. cummings. Which day? Any day. G.K. Chesterton has a little poem which goes:
Here dies another day,
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me.
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
The last time I quoted that poem was on Christmas Day 2006, and I calculated that up to that point I’d lived 22, 478 days. Since then, I’ve lived well over a thousand more – a thousand more days in which to love, laugh, cry, see, touch, hear, taste, experience life in all its complexity and variety. Gratitude for all this is the beginning of wisdom and the foundation of happiness. ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “thank you” it is enough’, said Meister Eckhart. Our spiritual communities exist in order to remind us to be grateful.
And finally, generosity. In a sense, generosity is the natural outcome of all the rest. A person who really thinks about life, who shows compassion, who is alert to the wonders of existence and grateful for them, will automatically be generous to others. ‘Freely you have received, freely give’, says Jesus. ‘What must I do to be saved?’ asks the rich young man of Jesus. ‘Sell what you have and give the money to the poor,’ replies Jesus, who was well aware that our greed closes us in ourselves and deflects us from realising our full potential as human beings, and who, on another occasion warned us all that we cannot serve God and money.
Last week my friend Michael told me that he was sorting out his recently widowed auntie’s finances, and he discovered that her late husband had left £30,000 in a bank account about which she was unaware. He expected her to be excited by the news, but she wasn’t. ‘What do I need that kind of money for? I’m happy as I am.’ Money didn’t impress her. She didn’t need much to live, and she certainly didn’t find her happiness in buying stuff or in looking at her bank statements. ‘The more you have, the greater the tedium,’ wrote St. Teresa of Avila.
Learning to free ourselves from our preoccupation with money and status and to be generous with our time, our money, our skills and our talents is one of the most important reasons why we meet in spiritual communities such as this one.
So, there you have it: five pillars of the spiritual life which could be depicted in our east window. Concentration, compassion, amazement, gratitude and generosity. But there’s one thing to notice about these: they don’t require any metaphysical support; they don’t oblige us to ‘believe’ anything about God, so they are as relevant to the atheist as they are to the believer. They don’t require us to have any specific notions about the nature and mission of Jesus, so they are as relevant to the Jew or the Hindu or the Muslim as they are to the Christian. They are as compatible with the theory of evolution as they are with Creationism or Intelligent Design. Belief in weird doctrines doesn’t come into it. To ask, ‘What do Unitarians believe?’ is about as relevant as asking us what football team we support. Last week I saw an interview with Newt Gingrich, the former speaker in the American House of Representatives, who has recently become a Catholic. ‘Christianity is a historical religion or it is nothing,’ said Newt, meaning that Christianity stands or falls on the basis of its historical credentials. No it doesn’t! Christianity, like every other religion, stands or falls on its effectiveness in deepening our sensitivity to life by fostering spiritual virtues such as concentration, compassion, amazement, gratitude and generosity among its people. These are human qualities, human aspirations, human virtues, and, insofar as spiritual communities – whatever their tradition – preach them and encourage them they are contributing positively to personal happiness and to global harmony. Insofar as they neglect them, busying themselves instead with the promulgation of speculative metaphysics and spurious history, they are at best irrelevant, and at worst, downright pernicious.
May 2nd 2010