Living a religious life is a like playing a sport. You can't just read a manual and memorize the rules and consider yourself a player. You have to play the game. Religion is all about myths. For a religious person, it is not about which myth you believe in, but how you get off the sidelines and allow that myth to transform who you are and how you act. Service led by Rev. Susan Maginn.
"Give Your Heart Away to A Myth"
Rev. Susan Maginn
Wy'east Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 15, 2009
Like fresh water, we seek it out.
Perhaps you are seeking it today, hoping to be lifted on the waves of joined voices and give your heart away for a moment and see anew the spark of the divine that is within all - even you, even now.
All around the world on this very morning and throughout human history, houses of worship have been the place where people look for transcendence. Shared silence, shared meals, candles, incense, song, movement, ritual, tradition, prayer and mythology: all of these are the elements that can help us to awaken our senses, so that we can be oriented beyond the mundane and toward the ecstatic.
But that does not mean that we religious types have a corner on the spiritual marketplace. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, "I'm spiritual but not religious," meaning that they seek out ecstatic experiences but for a variety of reasons they don't find it in houses of worship.
I can understand why. Ecstasy has to do with surrendering our certainty and losing our stand in our ordinary life. Our ego is transcended and for that moment we are awake. It is no wonder that people would need to look beyond religion to find it. Religious faith has become so much about certainty, about finding answers, rather than keeping our eyes open.
But we human creatures will still wade through the mire of all this to find moments of ecstasy, and if not in religion then we will find it in dance, or in music, poetry, art, sports, sex, drugs, rock and roll. There are countless ways. My sister does sky diving and scuba diving. Now how's that for seeking out the highs and lows of human experience?
Making love is probably the ecstatic experience that most human beings have in common. In this heightened state we see something about our true selves. And yet this state of being, no matter how blissful, is not meant to replace our daily reality. These experiences are to be for a particular moment in time and may even leave us a bit transformed. Like a parent lifting a child to see through a high window, most ecstatic experiences lift us up for just a moment to see the world from a new perspective and then deliver us back down to the ground, returning us to daily life.
I have a friend that has just started Alcoholics Anonymous and so I am reminded that this search for ecstasy has a dark side. When the pain of our daily life is not one that we want to return to, then addiction can emerge. For people who are suffering so deeply in their daily reality, a blissful moment of new perspective is just not enough. You do not want to be delivered back to daily reality, no matter what. You will try to find ways to make ecstasy replace the pain through the use of alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling. But ecstasy is not in our control and when we try to control it, we are playing with fire. Ecstatic experiences can become a destructive force instead a creative one.
This is why I am in organized religion (the more organized the better as far as I am concern!) and not just off being spiritual on my own - because I want to explore this yearning for transcendence grounded a tradition that will continually call me back toward the creative and away from the destructive. You can't get this calling of community when you are just bouncing from one spiritual high to the next.
Mythology is one of the elements that commonly brings human beings into the ecstatic realm. These stories become words, imagines and characters that people return to again and again. When the faithful give their hearts to a story, it is as if the story gives something in return.
But in our secular world the word myth has become synonymous with the word lie. For the religious, a myth is simply a truth that cannot be told any other way. These are the stories that spark our imagination and point us on our way to transcendence.
Most of us don't live by mythology though. No, our daily sacred text is really our 'to do' lists and our calendar. That is what we live by. So myths can give us mere mortals some help - an immediate access through the material toward the transcendent.
Myths can guide us from 'what is' to the land of 'what could be'. When you are in conversation with a myth, the story can guide you to imagine possibilities beyond what is here now. You can imagine growth that has yet to emerge and even imagine words that have yet to be given voice.
Just as Adin Ballou took the stories of Jesus and when he looked at the world through the lens of Jesus' teachings he saw the possibility of a world without violence and began to imagine ways that he could actually create such a world.
It is the imagination that has the power to dislocate you from the ego's destructive side toward understanding the life of another being. It is the imagination that can bring you to your knees to pray or bring you singing in the rain with gratitude for the beauty of your life, even though it might not be how you thought it would be.
You might imagine the story of Orpheus when his love Eurydice is forever lost to the underworld. You might imagine what it was like for Mary to accept that she would become pregnant with the messiah. You might imagine the Buddha renouncing his palace, his wife and child and following one painful religious path after another until he gives up; he eats and rests and sits to meditate under the Bodhi tree and sees the middle way, the heart of Buddhism.
When I was in acting, I would call this process "getting the words off the page." It is the process of studying the play so intensely that the character becomes real and the lines become second nature. Through the weeks of rehearsal, the more familiar I became with the character, the more easily the lines would be committed to memory. I knew that if I was struggling to learn the words, then I must be struggling to know the character - to fully inhabit their world, to empathize with the character's fears and joys, to imagine with compassion what was insurmountable in this world and what was taken for granted.
For religious readings of mythology the purpose is to ask: What do these mythological characters have to teach you about your life? How can you get the words off the page?
It is only in recent centuries that myths have been flattened down under the weigh of modern literal thinking which tends to be distrusting of anything that can be learned through the imagination. With the advent of modern science, there came a new way to analyze ancient mythology such as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: to judge whether or not these words are an accurate historical account.
And you guessed it: the Bible has failed miserably. Biblical writings and other ancient stories just are not true, in the scientific sense. But we need to realize that historical accounts were not even a literary form in the ancient world. Historical accounts are a completely modern creation. Ancient storytellers had no interest in using mythology to document literal facts about people and places.
And yet fundamentalist Christians and Unitarian Universalists alike love to argue about whether or not these scriptures are factual! Fundamentalists say that they are factual, that the world was actually created six thousand years ago, etc. While many Unitarian Universalists, in our more ungraceful moments, will even mock the scriptures - citing that the stories are fabrications and therefore useless. Both views - the fundamentalist embracing and the UU mocking - are complete misunderstandings of mythology's intentions.
Myths are intended to point beyond history toward what is timeless, what is infinite, what is yes. So judging the merit of mythology based on whether or not it is factual is completely missing the point. We moderns are the ones who need the scientific truth. The ancient writers were not interested in a description of an event, but rather a way to understand the meaning behind the event.
Modern religion is all about thinking and formulating concepts about what you believe. But in the ancient understanding of religion it mattered how you entered into the myth, how you gave your heart to the myth and let the myth change you and teach you about how you live your life.
And not just one story in one moment. For example for Jews, there is the reading of the same stories in the Torah for your entire life. The story of Abraham taking Isaac up to Mt. Moriah will resonate differently as you read it throughout your life. If you read it as a young person you might empathize with the terror of Isaac to have a father that is willing to kill him, but as you age and you return to the story you might grapple with what this story means about the nature of God's expectations and about what kind of person Abraham is to do this.
If we just read the stories and don't let our imagination get involved then the story is just a fairy tale and we are missing out on the fun. If we don't allow the story to truly speak to our life right now, then it is like reading the rules of a board game. It is completely boring unless we put down the words and play the game. It is like seeing your favorite sport being played and yet we insist that we stay on the sidelines.
You may think that you do not have a myth, but a popular myth in Unitarian Universalism is a story that would be called: 'We Are on Our Own.' Giving our imagination to this story leaves us with a strong sense of responsibility- whether it is in relation to God or in relation to the planet and other human beings, we feel the responsibility for what is and what will be. When we put our faith in the myth that 'we are on our own', then it is imperative that we create justice and conserve the planet. There is no one else who will do it. No superpower is going to swoop in and save the day. And we awaken by reading the stories of history and biography.
So I am not so concerned about what myth you live by or what tradition it emerges from, but rather how that myth is one of your many ways of realizing your truest and deepest self.
All myths are open to our imagination. But there is only one dangerous myth that we all fall prey to at one time or another. It is the myth that encourages us to think that we are the best. You know you are on this slippery slope of superiority when you get jazzed up about other people or other religions being 'lesser' than we are. This way sows the seeds of fear and the sin of religious intolerance and self-righteousness.
So the question for us to ask here at Wy'east is: How big is your myth? Is your myth so small that it focuses you only on your superiority? Or is your myth so big that it calls you to seek the depths of silence and stillness? Is your myth so big that it has you risk your own comfort for the well-being of a total stranger?
Choose well and let the seasons' magic unfold.