Monday, June 15, 2009

What to Do on Your Summer Hiatus

Summer Hiatus

We’ve come to the end of a Church Year. Beginning next Sunday we enter our Summer hiatus, when regular activities will be suspended through Labor Day. Four Summer services are on the calendar. I’ll be doing two—one in July and one in August. And there will also be two lay led services in each Summer month. All will be held at 10:30, the time we will observe, after Labor Day, for our one consolidated Sunday service.

In the rhythm of our Unitarian Universalist ways, a summer hiatus is a long standing tradition. The popular story says that in the nineteenth century Boston Brahmins who summered away from the city took along their ministers, too. So the Boston churches were left without clergy. And without clergy the churches were closed. That’s most likely apocryphal.

I’ve concluded that we’ve long taken a holiday, a summer hiatus, because we can, and also because we’re the better for it. We all return glad to see familiar faces. But most of all we’re refreshed, eager to start anew, rich with experiences and reflection during our time away.

And surely in the background is our sense of religion and the place of Sunday services in an overarching scheme of personal exploration and self-culture. So, while we won’t be meeting regularly for a dozen weeks, nearly a fourth of a year, I usually give you a recommendation on how to use this time well, for the sake of your personal enrichment.

Summer Story

And this time is special interlude, a season of particular value that is captured in a special literary genre known as a Summer Story or a Summer Tale. I have two favorite, relatively contemporary Summer Stories that you’ll recognize. One is the children’s classic by E. B. White, the wonderful Charlotte’s Web, with Fern the farm girl, Wilbur the pig, and Charlotte the spider, whose death at the story’s end is compensated for by the host of tiny spiders who hatch from her eggs—a poignant conclusion but true to life’s cyclical nature. A second Summer Story is the novella by Stephen King, The Body which became the popular movie Stand by Me, that chronicles the in-between, eventful summer of four boys and their transition from youth to the first realizations and responsibilities of adulthood.

Summer is a momentous span of time.

Keeping a Journal

Here’s my recommendation, then, for you to use your time away from UCH to the advantage of your spirit/psyche/soul. Keep a journal. Discover your own Summer Story.

Every day set aside time to record and process the conjunction of the day and of your life.

Some of you may remember that I’ve created a structured journal, format based on the psychology of Carol Jung. You can purchase it through or via It’s called All the Elements and each book has enough pages for one season. It would serve you well, particularly if you were of a more serious mind and interested in exploring archetypes and the process of individuation as described by Jungian psychology.

However, what I have in mind for most of you is a free form sort of journaling that you might naturally discover in the process of journaling.

Keeping a journal is significantly more than writing a diary or a mere recording of events. It is a matter of you responding to, by processing, the day, relative to your inner life, in an ongoing way. Keeping a journal has many good results. Here are proven benefits of keeping a journal.

Benefits of Keeping a Journal

A record of your days. Each day comes as a precious gift. Yet those days are so ordinary that we too easily lose them in the retreat and onrush of time. Contemporary life is an ever accelerating tumult. Your journal entries are like souvenirs—beloved reminders—that you pause to gather and keep so you will not neglect or forget the preciousness of your days. And each day is a precious gift.

Embedding you in the moment. When you keep a journal you are generally more aware, because you've charged yourself to keep a record. Be aware: of weather, health and mood, events and relationships, dreams and memories. Details and texture pop into clearer focus. Context becomes apparent. Journal keeping encourages the active form of meditation known as mindfulness.

Centering. A journal gives you a sense of order and at least a semblance of control of your life. You focus on yourself, but you also see yourself in context, particularly through your many relationships. Such a vision allows you more easily to repose in your world with understanding and even serenity, though the demands of the world press upon you and time rushes you into the future. It is good to be centered in this fashion, especially in our demanding, hectic contemporary world.

More memories and more accurate memories. We unconsciously forget much more than we ever consciously remember. What we do choose to remember is sometimes so processed as to be fabrications rather than facsimiles. (Psychologists speak of “the graceful degradation, as we make our memories fit our current circumstances.) A journal's record is a memory aid and a memory corrective.

Relationships. Be encouraged to register the connection or lack of connection you may experience. You have a relationship with yourself, with other persons, with your work and otheraspects of your life, with nature, with the Divine. Relationships also have a transcendent quality that reveals the spirit that marbles Life; and they can take you toward the depth of existence.

Accumulation of rhythms and patterns. When you review your daily journal entries, certain aspects of your life and world will seem to repeat or progress: a dream recurs; winter weather melts into spring's warmth; a particular relationship languishes; you continue to resolve to lose weight but fail to do so. Rhythms and patterns alert you to the seasons of nature, your world, as well as seasons of your self.

Change and Growth. An accurate record of your days and ways inevitably reveals the changes that are always working around you and in you. When you recognize the constancy of change, it is natural to not only accept the changes but to direct them toward your aspirations and goals. Personal growth hinges on an acceptance of the reality of change in all aspects of existence. A daily record also alerts you to the harbingers of change.

Commitment and Accountability. The seductions of our world are many, and we are culturally conditioned to be perpetually entertained. Many of us fear commitment. It is also said that we tend to deny responsibility for our actions, especially by casting ourselves as victims of this or that influence. This journal insists that the "buck stops here": with you, the person who keeps the journal. If you are not honest, your journal silently mocks and admonishes you.

Confession. Keeping a journal works only if you're honest. The one person you can never deceive is yourself. A journal's intimacy makes it easy to tell the truth, because truth telling is therapeutic. There are two sorts of confession. We generally see confession as coming clean—admitting to something negative. However, there is a more positive confession—baring the depths of your soul. Both are good for the spirit. Your
journal is your conscience on paper.

Discipline. Journal keeping requires commitment and steadfastness. There are days when you for one reason or another you will want to shirk from doing it. These are occasions that make or break the journal's many benefits. Journal keeping is a form of exercise to keep you mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fit. To maintain a healthful tone you do
it especially when you don't feel like doing it. It is an end in itself, too—a dedication to Life and your life, that you sacrifice daily. (Sacrifice literally means to make sacred.) Through dedicated journal keeping you realize the inherent sacredness of Life and your life.

Creativity. You are a work in progress. A journal encourages engagement and participation in becoming your true Self. This is the surface creativity of keeping this structured journal. There is another level of creativity that relates to the art of writing. Reflections, where you can process your day through your marvelous imagination. With daily practice you will discover that writing unlocks creativity. Your life as written down in a journal is a kind of art.

Spirituality. Spirituality animates religion. Spirituality—the emotion, the realization, and the imagination that merge into a unique consciousness—marbles every life. Intention and awareness brings such qualities to our consciousness. The attitude of mindfulness swells our grateful, reverent participation in Life. Many find that keeping a journal illuminates a religious truth: the journey is, at least, as important as the journey's destination.

Journal Mechanics

You have a week to think about how you might keep a Summer Journal. What would work best for you, giving you the satisfaction of the task itself?

Do you want to work at the computer or with paper and pen? A handy way to keep a computer journal is to use an unpublished blog, such as Google’s blogspot. (Only you as the blogger have access to the blog.) In this regard every entry will not only be chronicle and separate, but it will be automatically marked with time and day. Such a blog is also thoroughly searchable.

There are those, who in keeping a journal, prefer a special blank bound book and the feel of pen on paper as a tactile art and continuing reward. A hand written journal is obviously handier in most instances, relative to a computer, and can be taken with you throughout a day or on a journey. It is always at hand.

For the materials of your journal choose what best suits you.

And don’t be intimated by the writing. Approach the writing process through the alchemy of putting pen on paper and letting the words flow. In flow writing you enter the realm of imagination through stream of consciousness. You may be surprised that rather than having little to articulate you have almost too much to articulate.

In this regard journaling is an antidote to the deleterious effects, the skimming across the surface and dwelling on the insignificant, that is part and parcel of the likes of text messaging and twittering. (There seems little room for reflection or depth of expression in the limits of 140 characters that Twitter imposes. And even a cascade of twitter messages—so many tweets--doesn’t seem to offer much compensation, merely piling triviality on triviality.)

I thoroughly maintain that journaling, for the discipline it imposes, as well as for the insights it offers, is one of the best tools of self-understanding. Give it a try, if you haven’t done it before. And if you’ve done it before, take in up with new enthusiasm and resolve to stick to it. Discover your own Summer Story.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Writing Your Spiritual Biography

This morning I recommend a process by which you might begin to explore your "spiritual biography."

I have two goals in mind. 1) I want to urge you to "examine your life," in keeping with the aphorism that "the examined life is the one life worth living." 2) And I also want you to become aware of your "spiritual trajectory"—not just the flow of your life, but also the direction your life is taking relative to values and meaning. The latter, I hope will apprise and surprise you—that you have a spiritual trajectory and your life has more than an unfolding, it has a destination that can be conceived in religious terms (In theology/philosophy this is known as teleology.)

A child's development is amazing, isn't it: from the pure, potential of the zygote at conception; to the birthed personality nine months later; to the walking, talking, reasoning individual, say of two years; to the morally sophisticated youth often or twelve years old? [In fact, our church school program is grounded in a clear vision of the child and youth's psychological development. Our Unitarian tradition was the first to fit developmental psychology into religious education and moral nurture as early as the 1940s. And so our children's religious education is guided through an unfolding, age appropriate scheme.]

As I age, coming to better self-understanding and also gathering information from others I encounter, I am more and more appreciative—sometimes in awe—of the significance of the earliest yearshow we are formed; how the first quarter of our life is more than a frame of reference, it is an inescapable presence casting long shadows through all our years; how our innate personality plays its part.

Early Elements and Influences

So, in writing a spiritual biography, special consideration must be given to the earliest years. You know, "as the twig is bent, so the tree grows." This is what I want to reflect on today.

The obvious starting place is Family. Parenting figures are monumental influences on a child. They represent a convergence: two distinct genetic and cultural heritages, perhaps quite different from one another. (Our church is haven for what used to be called "mixed marriages"mixed in the sense of being of quite different faiths; for example Jewish and Gentile.)

Each parent brings something unique to the tender child. It might be something as fundamental as a basic understanding of love: unconditional love associated with Mother, and conditional love associated with Father. Or what a parent brings might be exceedingly complex or conflicted. In my counseling experiences the influence of a parent, which might include absence, as in a death or divorce, because it is foundational, has an ongoing effect.

In my own Family I can clearly identify how my parents shaped me. My mother by action and word articulated a very real and enduring experience of love. One of my great life lesson's occurred when I saw her introduce my infant daughter to her first spring, carrying Katie in the crook of her arm, and moving from plant to plant in her garden, repeating a refrain: "Look! What's that? It's beautiful!" Perhaps I became a freethinker at our Sunday dinner table, where and when, from my father I learned how to be constructively critical of the priest's homily and the scriptural illustration that went in it. Each of my parents had a strong work ethic; and their way of spending leisure time was to tend their fruit vegetable and flower gardens and finish the house that my father literally built himself—a long work in progress. Though my work ethic is somewhat different, it is similarly strong.

It's worth considering what beliefs and values your parents instilled in you with their words and especially their deeds.

Home is a subset of Family. You might try drawing a house from your childhood, something as basic floor plan perhaps. Fill it up with things and people from then. When you have it complete, write a narrative to accompany what you've drawn, being particularly sensitive to the feelings and strong memories evoked. One of our enduring children's curriculua here at UCH is Haunting House, with its conviction that the places we inhabit fill us up, even as we fill them up.

Closely related to Home is Place. A decade ago, the poet Kathleen Norris wrote a fine book called Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, in which she explored the spirituality of a remote town, Lemmon, South Dakota, where she had family roots and where she retreated as an adult from New York City. I recommend it as a guide to exploring Place.

Place gets into us on a deep levels—that middle brain place where sensations and memories reside. Ellie, my wife, grew up in Upstate New York where Lake Champlain runs between the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks Mountains of New York. Her spirit, I ascertain, was shaped by contrasts—the melancholy of isolation, deep winters, and long nights and crisp, invigorating summer days of scintillating sunshine; white/gray winter snow and vibrant autumn leaves; the moan and cracking of the lake making ice and the harmonious stitching of crickets in deep summer. Place is more than the ministrations of Nature. It is also people and habitations. Ellie's experiences of growing up in a village of 800 or so inhabitants were markedly different from those of you who grew up in a city neighborhood—Chicago perhaps.

Whenever I read memoirs of childhood, such as Jean Shephard's stories of growing up in Hammond/Gary, Indiana—I'm impressed by the poignant influences of Place—how they relate to the alchemy of becoming, that the world, no matter how contained or vast, shabby or magnificent is an influential milieu.

An indispensable to Family, Home, and Place is Time—the age in which one is young. Each era and even decade is different, in some ways, startlingly so. It matters whether one came of age in the Depression Era, the War Years, the Conformist 1950s, the Psychedelic '60s, the Excessive 70s, the Greed Is Good 80s, or the Clinton-dominated 90s. The influence of Time includes generational influences. Generational cohorts share general outlooks and dispositions, seemingly in reaction to their parent's general ways.

Begin a spiritual biography by exploring the basics of Family, Home, Time, and Place.

Next take into account your Basic Personality, the consequence of that heterogeneous genetic mix that you are—your uniqueness. This is a good opportunity to search out old friends, as well as family, all those who knew you best. Peer into old photograph, seeking recognition. Remember as best as your able your youthful ways— patterns and passions. What you see may be so poignant as to give you astonishing.insight into who you became. This is the center of a spiritual biography—an exploration of the Inherent Self.

Another helpful area to explore from your childhood and youth are your significant Teachers, Mentors, and Role Models. Consider the quality they possessed that allowed you to learn from them, in addition to what you actually learned. What was their stake in the teaching-learning relationship? Were they even intentional? My earliest Hero was the great baseball player Willie Mays who was not only an athlete virtually without peer, he played the game with style and joie de vivre. (He is also African American, but I never much thought about that one way or the other.)

Don't forget your Friends. Who were they? What were their qualities that met your qualities in the almost mystical bonds of friendship? In what ways did they give you the freedom to be your true self, or at least explore the possibility of true self? Are they friends still?

What about other Influences', books, music, movies, and other aspects from popular culture that stirred you, which perhaps when you think about them now are exceedingly vivid. (I amaze myself with lyrics from old 1950/60 rock-n- roll songs that pop up like aphorisms to suit a specific situation in 2003. I realize they're in my unconscious, I've retained those lyrics, because they affirmed a truth I realized.) The first book that made an impact on me was Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Twain, I recognized knew me or at least we were kindred spirits. And that relationship matured so that Mark Twain continued to be a spirit guide regarding human nature in almost everything he wrote, especially his darker later works.

Also consider the highly charged or curiously memorable Moments of your childhood and youth—those occasions that seemed like they happened only yesterday, because you can recall them in vivid detail. They are special windows into not only the influences that shaped you but who you would become. (Here consider significance of the conclusion to Orson Wells, Citizen Cane—a remembrance of the dying Kane of a moment from his childhood: a snowy day and a sled with the enigmatic name "Rosebud.")

When you have considered such things and perhaps more, try to imagine how you gathered up all this and more into your emerging Self; and as the process carried you toward adulthood, you began to feel the increasing urges of independence, to literally break away and assume more and more self-responsibility. That curious creature was you—an almost mature human being perched on the brink of adulthood—a marked beginning for a differently maturing Self, facing all the predictable crises and passages through the next forty years that I described in my pervious sermon. Sometime in your late teens or so you were a formed adult—formed by the influences of the first quarter of your life, influences that you exerted your will upon in your becoming.

Threads of Continuity

I maintain that if you want to know the spiritual qualities of your life, you must begin with your early years, and in those years, look for what I call threads of continuity. Threads of continuity are those attributes, outlooks, patterns that trace—often circuitously—to childhood and youth. Those threads will likely reveal a trajectory—the arc of your years reaching toward a goal.

For example, I can look back forty some years, remembering how I entered into the Sunday dinner conversation about the homily—from my father's common sense perspective trying to make sense of it. As a breakaway young adult, when I became a Unitarian that dinner table model easily translated into the basic Unitarian prescription: "prove all things, hold fast to that which is good." I shall never stop from proving and holding, as I seek truth."

A Season of Reflection

We've entered a season, with longer nights and a hunkering in, that lends itself, quite naturally, to the sort of "spiritual biography^ I'm recommending. My approach to such a "spiritual biography" suits the counsel of the T.S. Eliot, who poeticized in the Four Quartets: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at the place we started, and know it for the first time."

I would hope that your exploration of your formative years might take you to a loving appreciation of the child/youth you were: precious and malleable then and with the bud of a destiny that would take you through your years.

[November, 2008]

Monday, June 8, 2009

For the Love of It

Today, in the Alice Warren Room, thirtysome person are displaying a variety of homegrown art. The artists are writers of novels and poetry; painters and other visual artists; ceramicists and potters; flower arrangers; photographers; quilters, weavers, and embroiders; jewelry makers; and more. None are professionals in the sense that the art they do is their vocation, a source of significant income. Rather it is their avocation—in many instances their passion. Though practiced over many years, in many instances, these artists are continually honing their skills with the humility of a student seeking a deeper relationship with their subject.

They are, in the best sense, amateurs. The word amateur is generally something of a pejorative in popular use. But for me amateur is a word of reformed cachet thanks to a book by Wayne Booth published in 1999 by University of Chicago Press titled For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals. Booth, now deceased, was a distinguished U of C professor who specialized in the field of rhetoric. In the book For the Love of It he chronicled his love for the cello, an instrument he began playing in his 30s.

Amateur, in its origin, literally means for the love of. Booth turned amateur into the verb and gerund amateuring.

To be an amateur is to do something, often in the broad spectrum of the arts, simply/primarily for fufilment and pleasure. In my estimation amateuring has a certain purity, free from the inevitable corruptions/corrosions of the marketplace. An amateur can be more freely responsive to a foundational love—being smitten and enthralled by an art aand motivated by the pleasure it gives when engaged in it.

Amatuering is a high calling and can result in a mythic journey.

I could use any of our thirtysome homegrown artists as an illustration of the amateuring way: Anita Jenks in Ikebana, the refined art of Japanese flower arrangement, Nancy Weill in weaving, Judy Jeske in collage, Al Fischer in photography, Carolyn Sibr in poetry, and on and on.

I’ve settled on Tim Burke and his long and dedicated passion for a small plot of remnant prairie at the nearby corner of 31st Street and Wolf Road in Westchester. Tim is a long time member of UCH. Over the span of the 26 years I’ve known him he’s kept me informed of his work and vision of prairie restoration and maintenance. He’s shown me poetry he wrote and photographs he’s taken at the Wolf Road Prairie, as he shared his conviction that prairie restoration is best accomplished by continually cutting back invasive plants. In this regard, prairie restoration is an art.

Tim is, in the best sense of the word, an amateur naturalist and photographer.

I asked Tim to write a narrative of his work as a prairie restorer. (In my estimation his story is mythic both in his dealings with nature and in his dealings with the politics/personalities of Save the Prairie Society.) And I’ve selected some of his stunning photographs of Wolf Road Prairie plants to display.

[This Introduction was followed by Tim Burke's narrative of a 26 year affair with Wolf Road Prairie.]