Sacred Mystery

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
July 2, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

Many, if not most of the world’s religions have a sect that is mystical. We will examine why religious experience is so often to be found through mystery, awe and wonder.

What if I told you that there might be a relatively simple way you can become a more compassionate, ethical person, increase your life satisfaction, slow down you perception of time and improve your health?

Now, what if I told you that to gain these benefits all you need to do is have more experiences of mystery, awe and wonder, brought on at least in part by a sense of your own relative insignificance given the enormity of our universe and the vastness of time.

The good news is, paradoxically, the experience often also involves a mysterious, ineffable sense of expansion – of connection to, even oneness with all that is, ever has been and ever will be. Within these experiences, there is also a sense of non-duality – that the ultimate reality is non-linear and much more complex than can be expressed through either/or thinking.

Broadly defined, these are sometimes called mystical experiences, and mysticism, a belief that this type of experience is necessary for faith, can be found within all of the major world religions. Mystic sects have developed within each of them that have created various practices, some monastic and some communal, intended to bring about these types of experiences.

Within the monotheistic religions, mystics believe that one can only know the ultimate reality of God through this mysterious, awe-inducing direct experience of the divine. And this is because God is so large and so great – so beyond our usual comprehension. God is beyond what words or concepts can capture, and so this ineffable and fleeting experience of oneness with God is necessary.

For instance, many Hindus have concepts called the Atman, the individual soul of the self and the Brahman, the cosmic soul. The merging of the Atman into the Brahman, is necessary for human beings to end a continuous cycle of suffering and rebirth. Paradoxically though, the Atman has always been the Brahman.

The Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – all also contain mystic sects. For example, the Muslim Sufis engage in practices and a way of life intended to bring about experiences of the divine -experiences of awe and wonder over a sense of both insignificance in the face of the divine and at the same time oneness with the divine. Again, we find a sense of paradox and non-duality.

Notably, mysticism does not require a belief in a deity at all. In Taoism there is a mystical sense that one must flow into the Tao, which is literally translated “the way” and is more a process, pattern and underlying substance of all that exists that cannot be grasped as an intellectual concept. It must be lived and experienced.

The Buddhists have a concept of “no-self” or release of self that must be experienced in order know Dharma, the ultimate reality that involves constant change and paradox. Even the very concept of “no-self” is non-dualistic. It is like the flame in our chalice, which visibly exists to our eyes. Yet, it is actually being burnt away and begun anew in each instant and therefor, also does not exist.

And, one can certainly find mysticism within Unitarian Universalism. The transcendentalists of the 19th century developed at least in part in reaction against what they viewed as the overly staid, overly intellectual Unitarians of the time. They argued that an experience of the over soul, a kind of oneness between God, man and nature was necessary for spiritual development, and they often found and experience of wonder and awe through nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most well known of them all, wrote of an experience he had in a forest, “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes, I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Likewise, Universalism also has long had elements of mysticism within it. Later, after the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists, many folks with a spiritual grounding in the earth-centered faiths came into Unitarian Universalism, and also brought experiential practices into our religion.

Today, even many Unitarian Universalists (or UUs for short) who ascribe to non-theistic (or at least firmly undecided) humanism and/or naturalism, nevertheless also consider themselves mystics. We even have a national UU Mystics in Community group with a website, newsletter and Facebook page.

Rather than experiences of a diety, these UUs describe having had experiences of an ultimate reality or a oneness with all of humanity and with all of existence. Often these are brought about through encountering the wonders of nature, contemplating the mysteries of our universe, or engaging in ritual practices such as meditation.

Even loss, sorrow and facing the mysteries of death can sometimes lead to mystical experiences. Here is a story from someone who found themself in just that situation.

“It was a few weeks after my mom died. I was lying in my bed the evening after her memorial service. I was experiencing this strange mixture of grief and gratitude all at once – gratitude that she was no longer suffering – gratitude that I had been able to be with her until the last. I had been able to look into her eyes and tell her how much I loved her and how grateful I was for all she has done for me. I held her hand and sat with her even after she had fallen silent and her eyes had gone dim. I was there at the sacred moment when she exhaled her last breath.

At the same time, I was feeling overwhelming sadness and grief over losing her. I had this sense of unreality. How could it be that I would never see her again, never get to hug her again or tell her that I love her? And there was this feeling of being unmoored. With my mom now gone, I felt unanchored in my world, adrift and floating without direction.

And as I drifted between fitful sleeping and then waking up, being washed over by great waves of sadness and sorrow and contemplating the mysteries of life and death and my own mortality, I suddenly had this experience of spreading out, dissolving into all that was around me.

It’s hard to describe, but it was as if I was in the leaves of the trees in my yard and in the roots of the plants in my garden. I flew in the birds, swam within the creatures of the sea, moved within my fellow human beings and the myriad creatures of our earth. So too, was I in the rocks and stones, in the wind and rain, ever expanding, ever dissolving, ever no more and yet ever everywhere.

I would swear it was not a dream. It didn’t feel like a dream. It seemed more real than a dream, somehow more real even than day-to-day reality.

And then it stopped.

I was in my room again. Me again.

And yet, I felt a greater sense of peace, a greater acceptance. The grief and sorrow were not gone, but somehow the unreality was no longer so present. The feelings I was having seemed more right, more necessary.

And then, I have no idea why, but into my head popped the one about how the Dali Lama orders pizza.

He just calls up and says, “Make me one with everything.”

And that terrible joke sent me into a burst of giggles. I realized that I could not remember the last time I had laughed or felt joy.

And suddenly I knew that I would eventually find my bearings, get anchored in my world again. I would miss her profoundly the rest of my days and yet the love I knew for her would go on, carried within an all-encompassing love that is enduring and may well even be eternal.

So somehow, delving into mystery, allowing ourselves to be drawn into that sense of awe and wonder, letting mystical experience happen if it comes seems to be helpful to us. As I mentioned earlier, scientific research is beginning to discover it can be beneficial to us, whether we associate such experiences with a divinity or not.

I don’t know why this might be true. It’s a mystery.

I think maybe it is a result of, a response to the situation in which we find ourselves. Perhaps, it is a shift in perspective that brings us both humbleness and a sense of expansiveness and possibility.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford, illustrates this perspective shift through describing what happened some years ago when NASA conducted the Ultra Deep Field Experiment. In the experiment, NASA repeatedly pointed the Hubble telescope at a tiny point of our sky that appeared to be completely dark – so tiny that it would be equivalent to our perspective of looking at the tip of a pencil held at arms length. Using technology I do not completely understand, they hoped to capture any light photons that might have emanated from that tiny patch of space that would not be visible to our naked eye but that could be detected through the Hubble lens and this technology. They thought they might discover a few stars previously unknown to them.

Instead, they discovered thousands of galaxies – trillions of stars like our own in just that tiny patch of dark sky. And because the light from those galaxies had traveled such a great distance to reach the lens of the Hubble telescope, it had taken a long, long time for it to cross that distance, even at the speed of light. Those thousands of galaxies, those trillions of stars in that tiny patch of our sky had existed billions upon billions of years ago.

Now, place ourselves and our lifespan within the immensity, the enormity of the size of our universe and the vastness of that kind of time period. It’s humbling and yet awe inducing. For Eagleman, the enormity of the mysteries that surround us, the vastness of what we don’t know, far from being frustrating, is full of wonder, creative potential and almost infinite possibilities for new discoveries. In fact, he calls himself a possibilian and rejects both fundamentalist, literal interpretations of the world’s religions but also rejects the absolute certainty expressed by some of the neo-atheists. He quotes Voltaire who said, “Doubt is an uncomfortable position. Certainty is an absurd one.”

Over the past 400 years, science and mathematics have brought us wondrous discoveries about how our world and universe work. It has created amazing advances in technology. It has even expanded the average human lifespan. And yet, all that we still do not know in this incomprehensibly vast universe means that ours is still a very, very small island of knowledge floating in an almost infinite sea of mystery.

If we think of our current knowledge as that island surrounded by an immense sea of what we do not know, that means that even as we learn more, as our island of knowledge grows, the circumference, the perimeter of where our knowledge bumps up against that sea of the unknown also expands. We generate even more questions and more potential discoveries to explore.

That sea of the unknown includes that which we cannot yet explore scientifically because our scientific toolkit does not yet have the ability to observe and measure it. It is the yet to be discovered territory, the possibilities wherein our island of knowledge will continue to grow, continue to take us into new understandings and new possibilities.

And the unknown also includes the meaning making and experiences of beauty we create for ourselves over and over again, generation after generation, as we learn more and create new metaphorical understandings – the art and poetry and theatre and dance and literature and storytelling and music we have yet to imagine.

The unknown includes how we are interconnected with the web of all existence in ways that we do not yet fully understand.

Given this perspective, how can we not be mystics? How can we not look out over that vast sea of mystery and be filled with awe and wonder?

Perhaps our human capacity for mystical experience is there to give us glimpses into that almost infinite sea of mysteriousness that surrounds us – to help us gain that shift in perspective – to fill us with a sense of humility, expansiveness and interconnectedness all at once.

My friends, we call ourselves a people of faith. The very word faith implies an acceptance that there is much we do not know, that revelation is not sealed but rather is continuously unfolding.

Given that, shall we embrace the unknown, praise uncertainty, celebrate nearly endless possibility?

What if we did that?

What if we dive into the sea of mysteriousness and swim in its vast waters, at least from time to time?

Might it be where the divine is yet to be discovered?

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