Our principles offer us the encouragement and challenge to spend a lifetime searching for truth and meaning. This is a personal process, but it is also deeply relational.
One aspect of my self-care is to make my own greeting cards. I approach this a few different ways. Sometimes, I have a specific need in mind; a loved one has a birthday coming up and I need to make a card for that. Other times, I just need some crafting time to renew my spirit. Either way, the process begins with chaos. I pull out some patterned paper, ink, stamps, paint, stickers. I hold different items next to each other, observe how the colors complement or clash. Sometimes I try a few different combinations until at some point, something clicks. There is a moment when all this flurry of randomness collapses into a specific vision for the card. It may be that the colors and patterns align to form what resonates in my heart as gratitude or sympathy. Occasionally, an image and a color are just so perfect for the intended recipient that I don’t know why I didn’t see it earlier.
I then put away everything that I won’t need for the project as my mind begins to order all the steps for completing the card. By this point, I’m in the zone. I completely lose all sense of time as I work to make my vision a reality. This process can take 40 minutes or four hours. Either way, it nourishes my soul. Don’t get me wrong – these cards aren’t anything amazing or life-changing, but actively engaging in making something beautiful roots me in the Spirit of Life.
Beauty as a Guiding Principle
For me, beauty is a guiding principle in making meaning of the world. Spending time exploring and creating beauty has taught me to seek beauty in whatever circumstances I find myself. This is easy to do when I’m walking in nature, with Her gorgeous colors and patterns, but I find that beauty is in the everyday as well. The gloves I wear when I do the dishes are a lovely shade of orange.
Planting myself in the soil of beauty allows me to grow and nourish my soul. Beauty is my spiritual home base from which I can learn about all the patterns of human behavior, including my own, the patterns of physics and mathematics, and the patterns of the nonhuman natural world.
Cultivating beauty in my life and seeking it around me is part of what gives my spirit strength and resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the ability to adapt well, to bounce back in the face of adversity and challenge. Resilience is not something some of us have and others don’t. It can be nurtured. In a recent article, the APA encourages us to build resilience by making time for mindfulness, tending to our physical wellness, embracing opportunities for self-discovery, and accepting change, among others. In my life, beauty is the large container for all of these practices.
The Third Principle of Unitarian Universalism encourages us to spiritual growth, and the Fourth Principle holds our commitment to affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Free and responsible. We all seem to be clear on the “free” part. Essentially, it says that capital-U Unitarian capital-U Universalism doesn’t tell us the nature of Life. We as a faith don’t hold a definitive understanding of how the world came to be. We won’t tell you the meaning and purpose of your life. We hold no collective opinion on what happens after you die. You are encouraged and challenged to seek the answers to those questions in whatever way is correct and good for you.
The “responsible” part is a bit more complex, so want to spend some time unpacking it. First, a responsible search is one in which we don’t force our conclusions onto each other. I am not telling you that seeking beauty in your life is only way to make meaning of our existence. Artist and welder, and former UUCE member, Debbie Caruso refers to this as The Theology of the Paperclip. “You can have any theology you want. If you want to build your theology around the worship of a holy paperclip, it makes no difference to me. But if you start poking me with your paperclip, now we have a problem.” Straight forward, right?
However, in a covenantal community, “responsible” also means we are responsible to and responsible for one another. Each of us does our own spiritual seeking and as we do, we discern what aspects of life we hold sacred. And then we construct a life so as to honor the holy as we understand it. We each find the ground in which we can grow our soul. We develop practices by which we can put down roots, tapping into our own sources of strength and resilience, which we then, as individuals, bring to our Beloved Community.
Because we need one another.
Spirit of Life
In Carolyn McDade’s autobiography, she names herself as a songwriter, spiritual feminist, and social activist. Songwriting for McDade is a spiritual practice. She creates from her own experience and for her own nourishment. Her lifetime of activism has been sustained by this constant musical exploration. In the early 80’s, she had been working with a group on actions of solidarity with activists in Central America. After a particularly grueling meeting, McDade drove home feeling spent, hopeless, and just worn out. She entered her house, walked straight to the piano, and began, musically, to pray.
“Spirit of Life,” she sang, “come unto me.” The song was not written for use in her Unitarian Universalist congregation. It was a spontaneous outpouring of her own soul’s longing for strength and support. “Roots hold me close/wings set me free.”
McDade took this prayer with her into activist spaces and retreats, hoping that others would find a connection to Spirit from which to draw sustenance for their work for peace, equality, and justice. From group to group it spread until it was eventually included in our hymnal. In fact, it was her prayer that was the hymn chosen to represent Unitarian Universalism at the Parliament of World Religions.
We are the interconnected web of encouragement and support. We experience the Spirit of Life when we show up for one another. When we are feeling depleted, we can rely on our spiritual practices to replenish us, but we can also lean on each other. Because when our spirits are flourishing, we have extra energy to share. That APA article I referenced earlier also notes that resilience can be nurtured by prioritizing our relationships and helping others. Resilience grows from keeping things in perspective and maintaining a hopeful outlook, mental practices that are much easier to do in community than on our own.
And we can provide this type of mutual support without sharing the same metaphysical understanding of the nature of the Universe. You may identify with the artist from Paul’s story, or you may be the mystic or the scientist from Rowan’s reading. In fact, a variety of perspectives can provide a necessary and challenging sounding board, and can also spark our creativity. Due to the plurality of theology shared here, we may learn what we need to pull us out of a downward spiral and reinvigorate our spiritual growth. It is each of us tending to our own souls that fills all the niches needed to keep the ecosystem of our community growing strong. Dr. Suzanne Simard researches forest ecology, and she gives us a beautiful illustration from the trees she studies:
We Are the Religious
There are many folks in the world today who will tell you they are spiritual but not religious. Like us, they have their individual spiritual practices and have developed their own understanding of how the world works. We, however, are here together on a Sunday morning. We are the religious. Or, if you are new this morning, I assume you are at least open to the idea of religion. We who are religious recognize the value of doing this work, our individual spiritual seeking, in community, in a reciprocal relationship of give and take, support and leaning. We help each other by sharing joy and laughter, music, art and poetry, and challenging ideas. Each of us finds our own roots interconnected with each other’s in the soil of our common values, thereby haring our sacred resources.
Doing our own work, tending to our own souls, making time for spiritual practice and reflection, strengthens and builds resilience in our whole congregation. And as part of a living tradition, as we bring our individual meaning to our community and to our faith, the faith as a whole evolves.
We need each other to live out our mission. The work to bring more compassion and justice to our world can be exhausting and demoralizing and isolating, but when we are mutually responsible, we are mutually sustaining.
When a practice grounds you, it grounds our community. When a practice orients you, it orients our Living Tradition. The individually is the collective. The personal is the relational.
I find this web of interconnectedness beautiful.
May your search for truth and meaning sustain you. May your search sustain us all.