Spirituality, Art, and Self-Transcendence

Today's central anthem was a premiere.  Words and music for the piece were written by Margaret Walker about whom you will read in the sermon; it was arranged for choir with piano accompaniment by Melissa Heieie.  (Happy 8th anniversary with Silverside, Melissa!!!)

“Spirit Filled,” words and music by Margaret Walker, arranged for choir and piano by Melissa Heieie

God shines through everything,

though all I see and ever do.

In God I move and have my being.

I’m reborn in Spirit.

But more than seeing the light,

I try being the light.

On a journey of transformation--

not how to believe, but how to belove,

an empty vessel I’ve become.

When God flows through me

I can truly see and fully be.

God shines through everything,

through all I am and ever will be,

In God I have my being.

I’ve become a spark.

I am made of light.

And I am--yes!—divine!


Today's Response of the People (from E. Carson Brisson, Viktor Frankl, John Milton, Huston Smith)

One:  Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies...

Many:  ...those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

One:  Might we begin then to transform our passing illuminations into abiding light?

Many:  What is to give light must endure burning.

One:  There is a fire that frees from all lesser flames...

Many:  ...Once it holds you close, you may still regret the others...

One:  ... and respect their capacity for harm and destruction...

ALL:  ...but from all fear of them you find yourself freed.



Today's sermon:  "Spirituality, Art, and Self-Transcendence"

    Zeroing in only on the individual attacks by ISIS gives virtually no possibility for understanding the why of those attacks or, more importantly, what in the world could be going on in the minds of the ISIS-master-planners.  We need the larger picture, the wider perspective, to move toward any understanding at all.

    Gestalt was a movement in the early development of the field or discipline of psychology that reacted against what some critics referred to as something like therapeutic molecularism--which had a therapist picking apart every little piece of some client’s behavior and thought processes with little or no awareness, apparently, of the client as a whole.  The word, “Gestalt,” refers to a unified whole or a meaningful whole, the big picture.

    I assume “family therapy” evolved for similar reasons.  Family therapy operates on the assumption that there’s almost no way to understand someone’s behavior unless the therapist can observe the client relating to/reacting to those with whom she or he lives on a regular basis.  I was really shocked when I began studying this approach as a part of my pastoral care preparation in seminary to find that even persons dealing with what I took to be highly individualistic issues, such as how I perceived alcoholism, were treated in a family context by therapists with that bent.  
    Dr. Roger Sperry’s initial research on the dual hemisphere theory of brain functioning has been critiqued and tweaked a good bit since the early 1960’s when he first made known the results of his research on “left hemisphere” brain functions over against “right hemisphere” brain functions.  Simplistically stated, a person who behaves more in keeping with left-hemisphere dominance is inclined to see initially the individual parts of a car or a great work of visual art or a code of morality than she or he is likely, right out of the gate, to pay attention to the whole car or the whole painting or the whole moral code.  In contrast, someone who acts according to right-brain dominance without any real effort sees the whole, sees the big picture, at first glance and may or may not later be interested in looking for the individual parts of the whole already taken in.  We need both kinds of people in the church and in the world at large--those who keep up with component parts of some process as well as those who would get lost in details if that’s where they had to stay, but who can comfortably monitor the big picture of whatever it is they’re involved in.  

    When it comes to religion and spirituality, which are increasingly differentiating themselves from each other in our time, left brainers prefer rules-based religion and religious practices while right brainers are more comfortable with the open-endedness of spiritual seeking.  Jesus’ disciples who requested that he teach them how to pray were lefties in all likelihood wanting a one-two-three model for praying, and the righties who followed Jesus were probably content to hear Jesus pray and take what they heard as suggestive of possibilities for them--big picture praying, we could call it.


    William Blake (adapted):

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to us as it is, infinite. For we have closed ourselves up, till we see all things through narrow chinks of our cavern.

Sometimes, seeing the big picture isn’t enough.  We have to move away physically and/or psychically from whatever is causing us to keep our blinders on.  
    Our creative person for today is Margaret Walker.  As is the case with the six creatives who have preceded her, she’s an amazing person and an amazing artist. She brings her gentle spirit and her sense of joy and enthusiasm about life along with her eye for beauty in people and in nature to her “ministry of photography.”  I am in the groove on this “Spirituality and Art” sermon series and am not really ready to let it go though the time has come.  By the time we gather  here next Sunday, it will be time to begin preparing ourselves to take in the profound spiritual significance of Christmas. 
    At the beginning of this whole process, Margaret sent me some reflections about her extraordinary photograph that I trust you saw on your way into the sanctuary this morning. Margaret took the picture of the hummingbirds sipping sugar water from the hand of one of Margaret’s friends.  Later, it was Margaret’s hand out of which the hummingbirds drank.

   We are fortunate to have some of Margaret’s own reflections to ponder today.  First, some general observations; then, some details about the remarkable hummingbird moment caught by Margaret’s camera while she was in Colorado.  

It’s hard to be a photographer of...anything!...without feeling spiritual.  Even without a camera in hand, I’m always looking for opportunities to see my surroundings in new ways--the angle of light, eye-catching patterns, a moment frozen in time, anything lovely or unusual. To do so means I have to be outside of myself as I connect with the world around me. 

Margaret takes seriously what she does with her art, doesn’t she?  In addition to the color in the photograph and the sense of movement of the hummingbirds, the most striking aspect of the picture for me is the coming into unusually close proximity of a human being with a tiny exquisite creature who has no reason to trust a person at all.   More from Margaret now:

Almost as remarkable as holding a tiny iridescent jewel like this in your palm is the opportunity to capture the mutual moment of trust through photography.  Whenever I cradle a tiny pool of sugar-water in my palm, a female hummingbird is the first to investigate. This is a brave thing for her to do, because of the risk involved from her bird’s eye point of view.  She starts out by making a series of fly-by’s while her male cousins—in the safety of a nearby aspen tree—cheer her on.  When she gathers enough courage for a closer look, she hovers at a dead stop, treading air.  A current of cool air floats over my hand as she beats her wings as fast as 50 times a second or more.  This fly-by-and-hover routine might continue for five or ten minutes (it feels longer when you’re extending your arm as motionless as possible).  Eventually, she’s bold enough to attempt a few touch-and-go landings.  At last, this exquisite creature feels safe—or curious—enough to land on my hand.  I can feel her tiny feet gripping one of my fingertips, but never have a sense of her weight, though she probably weighs as much as a paper clip or penny.  She’s now motionless, staring at me, woman to woman, mother to mother, living being to living being. This is when I feel the strong sensation of endorphins surging through my body. This is an incredibly spiritual moment for me.  It fills me with wonder and joy.  But it’s not about me.  It’s about being outside of myself.  It’s about connecting—worlds blending.  Most of all, it’s about trust.  The hummingbird has learned to trust me just enough.  And because of her trust, we are both magnificently filled—she with sustenance, me with spirituality.  To me, this is what spirituality is all about—the joy of being outside myself and part of something larger.  Connecting. 

Our morning prayer is from Father Michael Quoist (read antiphonally):

Dot Salisbury:  I would like to rise very high, Lord;
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

David Farmer:  I would then see the universe, humanity, history, as [you see] them.  I would see in the prodigious transformation of matter,
In the perpetual seething of life,  your great Body that is born of the breath of the Spirit.

Dot:  I would see the beautiful, the eternal thought of [your] Love taking form, step by step: 

David:  Everything summed up in you, things on Earth and things in Heaven.

Dot:  And I would see that today, like yesterday, the most minute details are part of it.
[All individuals] in [their places],
Every group
And every object.

David:  I would see a factory, a theater, a collective-bargaining session and the construction of a fountain.

Dot:  I would see a crowd of  youngsters going to a dance,
A baby being born, and an old man dying.

David:  I would see the tiniest particle of matter and the smallest throbbing of life,
Love and hate,
Sin and grace.

Dot:  Startled, I would understand that the great adventure of love, which started at the beginning of the world, is unfolding before me….

David:  I would understand that everything is linked together,
That all is but a single movement of the whole of humanity and of the whole universe [in you, by you]. 

Dot:  I would understand that nothing is secular, neither things, nor people, nor events.
But that, on the contrary, everything has been made sacred in its origin in [you],

David:  And that everything must be consecrated by [humans], who have themselves been made divine.

Dot:  I would understand that my life, an imperceptible breath in this great whole,
Is an indispensable treasure in [your] plan.

David:  Then, falling on my knees, I would admire, Lord, the mystery of this world…

Dot:  ...Which, in spite of the innumerable and hateful snags of sin,
Is a long throb of love towards Love eternal.

Both together:  I would like to rise very high, Lord,
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.



   Transcendent moments when we may feel connected…

●    When we sing Christmas carols together even though the theology of those carols may run against everything that we would want to affirm in the realm of theology; we are still singing with people who sing the songs that we've sung in other times and places; sung with people dear to us, in good times and bad times.  Thus, no matter where we are, we feel connected.
●    When some of us who are moved by music hear just the right combination of melody with volume played by perfectly chosen instruments those unique sounds touch us, whether or not words are involved; we can self-transcend. Beauty is greater than the repeating routines of our lives as important as those are and as meaningful as they can be.
●    Being a person of words, when I hear someone use just the right words to describe the moment or an emotion, and the combination of words is one I probably could not have thought, I can move to a higher plane of understanding life--when I hear the perfect words used to describe something grand or significant or touching I am thereby connected to someone who truly understands what I want to understand as fully as possible.
●    When I realize that whatever I'm doing professionally most of the time builds on something that someone, known or unknown to me as well as to those with whom or for whom I am doing whatever it is.  A predecessor laid some kind of foundation on which I am able to build giving me an opportunity to do something I might not otherwise have had an opportunity to do. Phillips Brooks


was one of the greatest American preachers in the nineteenth century in this country; he was ultimately the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts.  Prior to that appointment, he had been the rector of Trinity Church in Boston.  Most of us know him by this point in time not as a great preacher but rather as the person who wrote the words to the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem"; even so, in his day he was known for much more than writing words to an enduring carol.  He delivered some of the most famous lectures on preaching in American preaching history in the Lyman Beecher lecture series at Yale, which is the most prestigious preaching lectureship in the world.  Theodore Parker Ferris came along to Trinity Church in Boston many years after Phillips Brooks had died; Ferris was rector of the famous Copley Square church from 1942 to 1972.  During that time there was a reissue of Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching, and Ferris was asked to write

the foreword. It was a beautiful foreword, and in it Ferris, who had accomplished a great deal himself, wrote with gratitude and humility.  He wrote of having been able to do what he had done because Brooks had pioneered so much.  Ferris said his experience had been like that of someone lifted to someone else’s shoulders in order to see the parade.  

   Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who is a professor in the psychology department at NYU. One of his research interests is self-transcendence in group settings; that is, not what happens when we are alone with whatever inspires us and pulls us out of ourselves, but instead what causes us when we are with others--at church, in the symphony hall, attending a lecture during which the speaker plays a recording of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” sermon/speech--to be willing to be pulled out of ourselves to places where we can see the big picture of life itself and our own small part of the indescribable whole of life and space.  Professor Haidt refers to these moments as “openings to our higher, nobler” selves, and he--as a social psychologist--categorizes our sensations during such experiences as "self-transcendent emotions." 
   As a self-described atheist, he admits that he began to sweat when he saw numerous positive possibilities for creating opportunities for “self-transcendent emotions” getting expressed in various religious practices.  That would scare us around here too!  In his words:

I began to realize that religions are often quite skilled at producing such feelings. Some use meditation, some use repetitive bowing or circling, some have people sing uplifting songs in unison.  Some religions build awe-inspiring buildings; most tell morally elevating stories. Some traditional shamanic rites even use natural drugs. But every known religion has some sort of rite or procedure for taking people out of their ordinary lives and opening them up to something larger than themselves.

    Sometimes pain is what tries to prevent us from seeking to transcend life-limiting effects.  Physical pain, emotional pain--our pain can cause us to think of nothing else.  Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it’s a lack of energy or imagination.  Sometimes it’s a friend in trouble.  
   We can let this whatever it is cause us to think that it’s the only thing to which we can justifiably give our attention.  That is almost never the case, though. Often, we need to step aside, have to step aside for a bit to get reminded that whatever pain we are enduring has been a part of the experience of many others besides us; such a reminder isn’t supposed to make us ignore our pain or minimize our pain.  It can be strengthening to stop and think, though we can rarely do so in the heat of the moment, that others have weathered these kinds of storms, and as a result we are a part of a worldwide community, perhaps, of people who have stood where we are standing now.  Without transcending ourselves when we are dealing with pain or loss or crisis, we are giving whatever is causing us or our loved ones duress the power to call the shots, the power to set boundaries for us, the power to manage our emotions, the power to limit our coping mechanisms.  
    When the Apostle Paul, who had overcome so very much in life and thus knew himself to be a survivor without question, found himself confronted by a physical and/or emotional condition that was robbing him of life and leaving him completely powerless over what was depleting him, he allowed self-transcendence to happen.  In his case, that meant relinquishing all possibilities for self-sufficiency--momentarily, not permanently--and allowing his spirit to transcend the body, which housed his pain.  I use this image of spirit transcending body only to try to describe what he sensed; in fact, we have no spirit that is separate from our body.  We have no mind that is separate from our brain.  We have no feelings that operate on a level other than physically where they are generated. We humans are unified whole entities.   But one of the gifts we have as humans is the ability to transcend ourselves through contemplation or inspiration in an emotional way that compares to the physical sensation of someone who undergoes what we have come to call in our culture “out of body experiences.”  With life hanging in the balances--some believe death has already won out--people who have the sense of looking down at the doctors working feverishly to try to keep their bodies alive--or to resuscitate them.
    Paul exhausted all resources within himself to try to cope.  He prayed in the ways that were for him “standard.”  Nothing was changing so in near desperation he allowed the love of God to lift him up, as it were, to what he sensed as the “third heaven,” the very dwelling place of God.  This apparently happened three times.  The first two times he sensed that he grew in his understanding of God, but his severe earthly struggle was not addressed.  
   The third self-transcendent time, though, God helped Paul understand that his painful earthly plight was not going to leave him; however, God tried to give Paul perspective that might bring him some peace in his struggle:  “God’s power is made perfect when it undergirds weakness.”  In other words, God’s love is a tremendous force that has the power to sustain us.  Dilemmas do not have to do us in.  Without self-transcendent moments, though, we may never realize this.

Silverside ChurchComment