The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
COME MY WAY, MY TRUTH, MY LIFE
One of the pleasures of this summer was that I got to spend a couple of days in Raleigh, NC with my children. I understand that its residents call it Rally, but the habits of a lifetime are hard to overcome. Although my children no longer attend church for reasons that they have articulated to me and that I have to respect, they still consider themselves Unitarian Universalist and are happy to talk about aspects of it with me. One of the things my daughter said was that the hymn we just sang and after which the sermon is named is her favorite. I was a little surprised. Edith is a pretty modern product. Although I don’t think she spends time on social networking, her favorite toy is the IPod on which she has 3500 books, one of which is Alice in Wonderland with the original Tenniel illustrations animated and made interactive. I must admit it almost tempted me to get an IPod just for that, but I restrained myself. Besides that, she and her husband play competitive online computer games, and though I don’t think she tweets, I’m sure she texts. Yet her favorite hymn is not only ancient but obscure in meaning. The poem was written in the time of James I of England by George Herbert, an Anglican priest, and set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the early part of the 20th century. Here are the words again; we often don’t have time to take them in when we’re singing them:
Come my way, my truth, my life,
such a way as gives us breath,
such a truth as ends all strife,
such a life as killeth us death.
Come my way, my feast, my strength,
such a light as shows a feast,
such a feast as mends in length,
such a strength as makes a guest.
Come, my joy, my love, my heart,
such a joy as none can move,
such a love as none can part,
such a heart as joys in love.
I’m not going to try to interpret that line by line or even concept by concept. It is a mystical poem, an intuitive poem, and though I may have a pretty clear notion of a truth that ends all strife, I certainly can’t tell you what a feast that mends in length might be. Nor, I think, does it matter. If you have ever had a mystical experience and tried to describe it to anyone, you know how difficult that can be. There are a few religious geniuses — Mohammed comes to mind — who can communicate such experiences to the world, but for most of us, the best we can do is a limping description which does not even begin to show the impact that the experience has on us, or the significance of its message. Instead of starting a new religion with our visions as he did, we find ourselves being listened to with a too obvious tolerance for our woolly-headedness, even when we make it clear to them that we are not necessarily taking our visions literally.
Not long ago, and I cannot remember where, which is too bad since I like to give credit where it is due, I read someone who described ours as an essentially mystical faith. My first reaction was to laugh at the idea, but then I realized that he was quite right, although using the word in its true meaning rather than in the way we usually think about it. The real source of truth in our free faith is our own experience interpreted through our minds and consciences and tested in community. Mysticism is simply the direct experience of the transcendent, and that is for us the only religious authority, and even that is subject to testing and to doubt. Even our own tradition only has authority for us as it jibes with our individual experience. That being the case, to call ours a mystical religion is precisely correct, and Herbert’s poem is as descriptive of such an experience as we can find.
The reason that we tend to resist that notion is that we have somehow decided that the mystical and the rigorously intellectual are incompatible. We us mystical to mean something sort of fuzzy and almost magical, and since it inevitably has a spiritual component it is also tarred with that brush. We tend to use spiritual and intellectual as opposites, and I even heard someone define spiritual once as anything religious that wasn’t intellectual. Those of us, then, who believe that we are not allowed to check our brains at the church door tend to dismiss the mystical and the spiritual as succumbing to a belief in the supernatural, while those to whom the life of the spirit is the emotional response to an experience of transcendence which must not be subjected to any kind of critical examination sometimes speak in ways that open them to the accusation of anti-intellectualism.
Let me say first that I do not believe in the supernatural. I don’t believe in magic spells or in guardian angels. That doesn’t mean that I don’t realize that there is much that I do not understand about the way things happen, merely that to recognize one’s own limitations does not make the natural supernatural. There is a tendency in many of us to make a religion out of things that we don’t fully understand, or for which all the evidence is not in, but we need to differentiate between a lack of knowledge and religious faith, as the man I’ve told you about that I met when I was preaching at a fellowship in Mississippi who came up to me after the service and asked me what I thought about near-death experiences and UFOs. My answer, which shocked him, was that I don’t find the popular explanations for such things compelling, but since they are scientific questions rather than religious ones, I was content to allow science to come to its conclusions. The reason this was so shocking to him was that he could not somehow imagine that something that seemed so other-worldly could be anything other than spiritually significant, but I would even argue that the question of whether there is a sentient, purposeful creator of the universe is essentially scientific, a question of fact, and religious speculation on the matter without sufficient evidence is irrelevant. Should evidence of such a creator be discovered, it is still, it seems to me, neither supernatural or necessarily spiritual. In many of the things we turn into religious awe it is simply an assignment of meaning that is not necessarily inherent in it. For example, if what we call magic spells work (and scientific evidence indicates that they do not) then there is a natural, rather than a supernatural or religious explanation for that.
This rejection of the supernatural does not mean a rejection of the mystical or the spiritual. Critical thinking does not block the life of the spirit — rather it gives it the integrity to remain with us in times of doubt and fear. It also helps us to understand and recognize the experience of the holy whose service gives purpose and meaning to our lives. We sometimes think that it is only in the peak experiences of visions and intuitive acceptance of our oneness with the universe and all living things that we can be in mystical relationship to transcendent meaning. Although those experiences are exciting and awe-inspiring and sometimes life-changing, they are not the only ones. Any experience of the holy in our lives, the call of justice, truth, goodness and beauty, is mystical in the sense my anonymous colleague meant. It is the authority of our own experience, but like the oceanic experience which is what most of us understand by the word mystical, it must also be given the integrity of being tested in the crucible of thought and ultimately the examination of our community of faith.
Sometimes when I talk about submitting our convictions to that examination, it is assumed that I mean that the individual conscience must be subservient to acceptance by the community, but I don’t mean that at all. A whole community can be wrong, too. The integrity of one’s own mind and conscience must be the final arbiter of one’s understanding of truth. However, it’s well to remember that we can misunderstand or misinterpret our experience, and having a community to check it out with can sometimes make all the difference. We have become too tentative about that in our desire to be accepting of people’s honestly held beliefs, but it is a gift that we can give one another to help find the true gold and eliminate the pyrite.
All religions have their mystical practitioners, some organized like the Sufi of the Muslims, others scattered through the various sects of their faiths, and all of them seek the direct experience of the holy within the authority and belief systems of their faith. We have no other authority than that direct experience, and so it behooves us not to forget our tradition of freedom and integrity, our historic refusal to ignore the promptings of our critical intelligence in the joy of our religious experience. Perhaps we still have that center of our faith — one that we have merely temporarily mislaid in the pleasures of uncritical acceptance. That tendency to reject the critical thinking which has always distinguished our tradition is probably a backlash toward the fundamentalist positivists among us who rejected any life of the spirit at all, and could even become irritating in their resistance to any form of ritual or traditional religious language, but this unquestioning universal inclusion runs counter to the integrity of the mind and spirit, which I believe is all that unites us in our mystical faith with our differing beliefs, but our common service.
And that, I think is the real significance of the name of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ tune, “The Call.” It is the name of the mystical experience. The poet sings “Come my way, my truth, my life” — light and strength and joy and love, all that makes life worth living, that makes the life that killeth death. But although we can call to be infused with the holy to give our lives purpose, it is really the call that we answer rather than the one that we send that gives our lives meaning. It is the call that comes to us that gives us the experience of the holy that is our source of truth, but it is our response to that call that shows us the way, in our tradition, of integrity where the wholeness of mind and spirit cannot be divided, the truth which we examine and test to see that it be truth, the life of freedom to serve the truth that we discover, and in which we find meaning. Perhaps, though, the call that we make hoping to discover the life of the spirit and the call that we answer in service are really the same call. We seek the truth and learn that it is service to the truth that matters; we seek the path to what is beautiful and joyful, and find that service to those things is the only way to find them. There is an old reading that speaks of the service to God as perfect freedom, and the paradox is that what we serve we gain as our own.