Contents: March/April 2002
Travel guides for the spiritual journey
by Rosemary Bray McNatt
The quest for home in whatever form it may take for us has assumed a special urgency. There is a certain reassurance to be found in the stories of our sister and brother travelers, who describe paths so much like our own. Four books by Unitarian Universalist ministers explore, in different ways, the subject of home and homecoming and invite readers to consider a reimagined world, one that invites us in and bids us welcome.
The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, for 24 years minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, has become perhaps our most visible spokesperson. Back when most Unitarian Universalists seemed content to share their faith only with the few who stumbled upon it, Church was publishing book after book to share his liberal faith. Now that our movement has once again "gone public," Church has found a broader audience most recently through his appearances on morning talk shows and in a powerful National Public Radio report on the service he led at All Souls following the September 11 disasters. The publication of his latest book, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide (St. Martin's Press, 2002; $22.95), presents a fresh opportunity to encounter Church's sturdy faith.
In 12 chapters that are by turns analytical and autobiographical, Church touches on subjects as varied as humility, grace, purgatory, self-absorption, procrastination, success, and death, writing as a pilgrim who has found his home in a God that opens both hearts and minds. He acknowledges that God is a subject fraught with difficulties for Unitarian Universalists a subject he examined in UU World last November [click here] but he insists on taking God seriously and avoids the apologetic tone that has become all too familiar among us. "By my own definition, God is our name for a power that is greater than all and yet present in each," he writes. "Only by positing the existence of a power beyond our comprehension can we begin to account for the miracle of being with an appropriate measure of humility and awe."
A recurring theme in this book of journeying is Church's alcoholism: both his growing awareness of the disease and his eventual move into the territory of recovery. His struggle, which he describes without making it the subject of Bringing God Home, enriches his account in all the ways common to the best spiritual biographies by providing a road map of change. "When I awoke one day to discover that God was nowhere in my life, I knew enough to recognize that alcohol . . . was part of the reason," he writes. "I felt an emptiness I could no longer medicate against and to which I had to either respond or succumb."
He takes comfort from his discovery that "when we are at home within ourselves, we are at home everywhere. Yet to be at home within myself, I found I needed God's company." His need inspires a renewed religious quest. Although the book doesn't cover new territory for those who have read his earlier books, he clearly isn't finished exploring territory he knows better than anyone. Church finds companions through the writings of a host of other pilgrims, from St. Augustine to Eldridge Cleaver to Rumi to Marcus Aurelius. In the end, however, Church's ongoing journey may make him the irrestistible companion for a new generation of restless hearts.
One spiritual pilgrim who captured Forrest Church's imagination is a Unitarian Universalist colleague, the Rev. Sarah York. The author of a well-received earlier book, Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death, York has now turned her attention to the inner life. Her new book, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home (Jossey-Bass, 2001; $18.95), is shaped by York's experiences of travel in Scotland and Nepal and by a road trip to Alaska precipitated by an abrupt and traumatic resignation from a previously fruitful ministry.
Yet this is not a travelogue: "This book . . . is not so much about pilgrimage or travel as it is about approaching life with the heart of a pilgrim." Adopting this stance requires a heart open to change and growth, York says, not a sentimental attachment to the mythical and unchanging place we often see as home. "A holy restlessness is what prompts the pilgrimage of the spirit a journey real or metaphorical that calls us away from what we have grown to think of as our home in order to discover a deeper sense of being at home with our human nature."
She takes on the task of pilgrimage by writing to its rhythms. The book's chapters discuss the importance of preparing for the journey; facing fears; notions of the wilderness; the pilgrim's connection to the larger community; and the return to "regular life" made all the more precious by personal transformation. York takes seriously her role as faithful guide, posing questions for the reader and outlining ways to prepare for the journey, always leavening her comments with the stories of her own spiritual quest and the surprises that always seemed to await her.
Her account of preparing for a trip to Nepal in which she describes her use of journal writing to face her multi-layered fears of travel, and her discovery that at least one of her fears was valid is amusing as well as instructive: "Landing in Bangkok after 20-some hours of travel and sleep deprivation gave me the opportunity early on to meet the fear of being the Ugly American. . . . I did, in fact, get to see how cranky I could be, and I am sure that my demeanor toward the attendant in the luggage room transcended all language barriers. . . . Before I could fall asleep that evening, I had to return to the luggage room to offer an apology."
Pilgrim Heart challenges readers to seek balance as they embark on the spiritual journey. Coming home to one's self is only part of the quest. "We meet our familiar self in the unfamiliar," she writes. "We bring our humanity into that space of strangeness where darkness sometimes gives us the power to see." The spiritual journey also involves a pilgrimage toward what York calls communitas, "what happens when a whole group of people cross a threshold and together enter liminal time and space. . . . In communitas, there are no social roles, status, or hierarchical structures. Everyone is equal. Even more significant, everyone feels what it is to be equal, and feels the potential for who we can be as a human family." Anyone who seeks to understand their own potential as a traveler on the spiritual path would do well to begin with Sarah York's graceful guide.
For some years, the Rev. Gary Kowalski has been at work on a different kind of homecoming a way of being at home in the natural world and being at home with all the creatures who are part of it. His previous books, most notably The Souls of Animals, have added a compelling spiritual voice to conversations about animal rights that, in other venues, have been marked by more heat than light. Kowalski, minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, continues this important work in his latest book, The Bible According to Noah: Theology as if Animals Mattered (Lantern Books, 2001; $12).
Using key stories from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a foundation, Kowalski muses on the texts in ways that reveal fresh insights about our culture's anthropocentrism and the creatures who suffer because of it. "As prescientific peoples once considered the earth to be at the center of God's starry handiwork, so they felt themselves to be the crown of all creation," he writes. "Today we know better. Other animals dance and make music, love their mates and cherish their offspring, much like ourselves. They seem to experience life's spiritual dimensions as well, sharing in the qualities we usually suppose to be uniquely human."
Kowalski contrasts Western religions and religions from the East and among indigenous people of North America as he compares Genesis to other creation stories. The "otherworldly mythos" of Greek culture, and its influence on Christianity, he says, is responsible for this vast separation between humanity and the rest of creation. He reminds us that we need not accept such a vision of our world. "Animals can teach us once again the lesson we seem to have forgotten, that the earth does not belong to us, but we belong to the earth. And the creation myths of other cultures . . . offer an important corrective to our own Western traditions." The author's rewritten Genesis becomes a tale in which the creation of the world is actively celebrated by all of God's creatures. In this version, humanity is fashioned not simply from the dust of the earth, but "from the tissue of every living thing."
The story of Noah, retold, hinges on Kowalski's meditation on doves; the story of Abraham and Isaac is refashioned to support a reflection on nonviolence that extends to all of life on earth. And the story of Jonah provides an opportunity to reflect on the painful reality that "life exists only by consuming other life a thought most of us prefer to hold at arm's length."
A skillful writer and storyteller, Kowalski is persuasive in surprising ways. He is clear that "there can be little doubt that our sacred literature is in need of renewal, born of the dawning ecological consciousness that all creatures are interrelated and that all life is sacred." Even readers who resist this premise, or who feel helpless to act on their growing awareness, will find their vision gently expanded by The Bible According to Noah.
In Heretic's Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals (Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, 2001; $20), the Rev. Fredric Muir challenges us to come home to a fertile re-encounter with religious language after a long and sometimes arid exile. Muir, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Maryland, writes that "we have isolated ourselves by speaking a language that very few understand and appreciate. . . . Religious fundamentalists and the religious right co-opted the religious dictionary . . . [but] religious liberals went them one better: we didn't say a thing about it. In fact we were so caught up in the splendors of science, rationalism, humanism, and the demystification of sacred scripture that we practically helped them."
Muir argues that our abdication of religious language cheats us out of our own heritage of liberal faith. To help us reclaim that heritage, he has written brief reflections on 54 words or phrases that he believes are rightly the province of liberal religion: Jesus, Sabbath, family values, miracles, forgiveness, and many others. Even a word such as fundamentalism, a word we ordinarily would not claim, is grist for the mill: "Many of the early followers of Jesus, especially the disciples, were fundamentalist to the core, which drove Jesus crazy," Muir writes. "I wonder how much has changed today. Christian fundamentalists continue reading the words of Jesus without understanding the overtones, but taking what he said . . . at face value. And it still is driving people crazy!"
These mini-sermons are sometimes funny, sometimes bracing, and always valuable, especially for those of us who are prodigal daughters and sons of traditional religion. If you're still wondering whether traditional religious language can be meaningful to religious liberals, Heretics' Faith can help you find a place in your religious home for heirlooms that still matter.
UU World XVI:2 (March/April 2002): 53-54.
All material copyright © 2002, Unitarian Universalist Association.
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