The Most Sacred of Times: Life, the Universe, and Everything
A message delivered via Zoom, March 29, 2020
by Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, California
See the video HERE.
This morning’s service was to have been a service celebrating the end of our annual Stewardship campaign – our annual pledge campaign here at UUCM – and it was also to have been a service welcoming our newest members. These are both still important things to do and so we will accomplish them in other ways, including incorporating some of our newest members in these online services.
But given the nature of our lives right now, a couple weeks into the closer presence of the COVID-19 virus, with its waves of ramifications, it feels important to be present this morning to this life-changing aspect of our journey.
The title of this service, when we planned it a couple months ago, was then simply “Life, the Universe and Everything.” It was, yes as some of you might expect, a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with its humor around the search for meaning. In light of the current moment, the encouragement on the book’s cover – “Don’t Panic!” – takes on added meaning.
More seriously, it was a reference to the reasons that members commit to support this congregation and its mission to create a world more compassionate, sustainable and just, and a reference to the reasons people join a community like UUCM in the first place.
Although we understand it and frame it in many different ways, in the end religious community is always about the search for meaning and connection, whether we, ourselves, sense meaning most directly through the world of ideas and concepts, or values and commitments, or through the visceral experiences of our bodies, or through our heart-centered emotional relationships with one another. The shared journey of this congregation is a never-ending discernment of what matters most and why, and therefore how best to live our days.
And Then Some Other Stuff Happened
In The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the answer to the meaning of life the universe and everything is revealed. For those who don’t know, spoiler alert, I’m about to tell you (in the event that a person near you hasn’t called it out already): it is the number 42.
I once heard the book’s author, Douglas Adams, explain that as he was writing the series he would pause frequently in his writing process, and take the most outrageously distant idea or image that popped up randomly in his mind, and then he would insert that thing, prominently, right into the story line. That’s why a towel figures so prominently, for example. And a Chesterfield sofa.
Life feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it? With its random reversals of fortune, and arrivals of unexpected items that suddenly figure prominently. The current moment feels a bit like that, though people have been warning for many decades that a pandemic would arrive at some point, and that we ought to be prepared, not surprised, when it did.
Life, the Universe, and Everything
In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the answers to the “meaning of life” questions are not spelled out for us and they are not permanent. The answers are continually being discerned by each of us, in community, dancing with the questions together.
When I talk about my closest friendships and the friends whom I feel able to be most vulnerable, I say that when we talk, “we talk about life, the universe, and everything.” The point being not only the wide scope of our conversation topics, but more important, the deep quality of our conversing, no matter what we are talking about.
In UU congregations, a key spiritual goal is to cultivate the quality of our conversing, no matter the topic. Right now, more than ever, faced with the danger of a life-threatening, world transforming virus, the meaning questions come flying to the surface – what really matters? and why? how shall we live in this world now? – what meaning does my life have, and what meaning shall we make of it all?
So, an important part of our work is to find ways to continue our shared searching and conversing while we are each relegated to our newly separated spaces, to connect meaningfully while we are traveling this new road.
The Most Sacred of Times
At the same time, the introvert in me sees that we have an important opportunity to honor the spaciousness of this time for its invitations and its gifts.
A couple Sundays ago I shared Rev. Lynn Ungar’s wonderful piece titled Pandemic. Rev. Lynn begins, “What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath – the most sacred of times?”
This morning, I’d like to extend Rev. Ungar’s invitation to approach this sequestered, life-altering time not first as a nuisance, or a mistake, or a terror, but as potentially, the most sacred of times. A once-in-a-lifetime prolonged orthodox sabbath, outside our usual ruts and distractions and automatic pilot behaviors. A sabbath set aside for us to face in deeper, more honest, more frightening (probably) ways our selves, and the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
To jump traditions for a moment, I feel like we have all been placed, without being asked, in a remote Zen monastery of sorts for an extended and rather severe retreat. A retreat, not simply because we are away, sequestered in our separate spaces, with simplified amenities, and away from our usual distractions, but because in this kind of space, for this amount of time, with these kinds of worries and questions on our minds, we will be confronted, increasingly, by the most elemental aspects of who we are. I know that I am already seeing more of who I am – as a minister, as a leader, as a neighbor, and as human being faced with an external, human-delivered danger.
One of the first times I went to type the new portion of this sermon title – “The most sacred of times” – I transposed the “a” and the “c” in the word “sacred’ and instead typed, “the most scared of times.”
I love typos! – for what they reveal, or for the new perspectives they can inspire. Maybe I was feeling more frightened than I was letting myself realize.
This may be, for many of us, the most scared and the most sacred of times.
Sacred, not because it is scarey, or because this time is inherently any more or less sacred than any other time, but sacred because of what we will have a chance to make of it IF we are willing and able to enter it fully, with awareness, and attention, and reflection.
It is so powerfully disorienting, that it is already inviting us to reorient ourselves and our priorities. I can scarcely imagine what it will invite in several weeks.
As we take shelter in our homes, reaching out to connect in the ways that we can, let’s also allow the distances and spaces and whatever spiritual, emotional, intellectual reversals of fortune we are experiencing, to affect us meaningfully, through our intentional internal work, our spiritual practices, as well as through the ongoing conversations about what matters that have moved now to texts, and phone calls and email and Zoom sessions.
It’s tempting to take refuge, to seek comfort and safety, to try not to be too affected by what’s happening, and that will be important, at times, for our wellbeing, but I have found myself thinking about Doug Kraft’s re-take on refuge and the 3 refuges in Buddhism as one set of doorways we might use to enter this as a sacred time.
Doug Kraft is a minister emeritus of the UU Society of Sacramento, and a student and teacher of Buddhist meditation.
Traditionally there are three refuges in Buddhism: one takes refuge in the Buddha, in the Dhamma, and in the Sangha.
Doug writes that “the most obvious understanding of these [three] is: taking refuge in the historic Buddha Gautama as a guide and teacher,[taking refuge] in his teachings [and wisdom] (the ‘Dhamma’) as a practice, and [taking refuge] in the community of fellow seekers, (the ‘Sangha’).”
But, Doug adds, since the Buddha insisted “that we take our own deepest experience as our ultimate guide,” – as we do in UUism – and since “we each have our own Buddha nature that we can rely on if we listen deeply enough,” we can think of the first refuge as “taking refuge in our own true nature.”
Now that we are so much by ourselves, the invitation of our sequestering and our reactions to what is going on, will be to discover and uncover more of our true nature…the most real you. I bet you are catching glimpses already. I know I am.
“The word ‘Dhamma’,” Doug writes, “literally means ‘law – but not human laws, rather natural laws, “the truth of how things actually work,” and so he reframes the second refuge as taking refuge in the truth of how things really are. An unlikely refuge it would seem, at the surface. Facing what is, is a challenge. AND, when we are seeing what truly is, we are indeed in a safer space.
The invitation of the virus and everything that is unfolding in response to it is to see beneath the surface of our expectations and assumptions and the relative ease of our lives, to see with newly open eyes the truths of the world, the full range of how things really are. When we can do that honestly, without denying it, or turning, or running away, we are indeed in a refuge that will serve our spirits well.
And the Sangha? That refuge we know well…the refuge of our community of fellow seekers after the meaning of life, the universe and everything, which for Doug includes all those who have traveled this path before. If absence is ever to make the heart grow fonder…it will be now. We will not return as the same persons who went into our homes with our dry beans and our packs of toilet paper (if we could find some), into these refuges that invite not ease, but courage and depth.
The invitation of our physical distancing is to discover the more subtle aspects of our need for social connection for the sake of our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual health. It is to expand our sensitivity and our ability to connect. We are being invited to learn new ways to connect.
As Rev Lynn Ungar put it, “We are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful….you could hardly deny it now.” Here too we have a chance to come out the other side reoriented toward the most true in us, when we gather in person once again.
In our reading earlier, Theresa Soto pointed out that “People wake up to ordinary days all the time (60).” But, of course, these are no ordinary days, my friends.
If we can find it in us to take perhaps uneasy refuge in our own true nature as it is revealed to us,
if we can brave taking refuge in the sobering, magnificent, inconvenient truth of how things really are without running from it,
if we can take refuge in this, our very human, imperfect and vulnerable community of seekers, our companions on this journey, even now,
this could indeed become for each of us the most sacred of times.
May it be so for you.
May it be so for us.
May it be so for humanity.
So may it be.
Sources Referenced, Quoted, Consulted
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. , 2017. Print.
Kraft, Doug. Getting Out of the Way: Reflections on Essential Meditation Insights that are Easily Forgotten. 2016. Print.
Soto, Theresa I. Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience. , 2019. Print.