Silent, holy night

Monday night, the night before Christmas eve. The ice storm is finally starting to wind up and drift away to the east, trailing a fine sprinkling of snow in its wake. The sky is darker now than it has been the last few nights, cold clear air falling down from Canada in the wake of the storm front. If the weather clears completely overnight it will be an amazing sunrise over all this ice.

If the weather doesn’t clear completely it will be gray and slushy. Sometimes things are like that.

I did not formally mark the winter solstice this year, but it was this weekend. I notice the turning of the wheel; I just don’t do much about it these days. The powers that move the universe seem able to call the sun back from the underworld without me personally giving the wheel a shove. And so we shift, from the darkening time to the growing light, from contraction to expansion, from abundant caution, perhaps, to hope returning.

This has been a busy month for me on the credentialing and paperwork front; it has also been stressful to come to terms with how much of my academic work is left unfinished. But I am finally starting to feel a bit of stability and readiness to proceed with it – if only there was more time. I needed to land a month ago, and that didn’t happen, and now I ought to be scrambling. But I am feeling contemplative, and I think I am going to go with the inner voice that says to wait, and to listen, and to flow with what happens even if it isn’t what I planned.

I have been thinking the last few days about spiritual formation, about what that means. Do I understand what that means? No, probably not really. I am not sure that anyone does except in a “know it when I see it” (or “when I experience it”) sort of way. I am starting to wonder how things work at traditional residential seminaries – I am in a limited-residency program, and so I find that I am on my own in ways that sometimes it would be easier not to be; I wonder if this is different for my student colleagues in more intensely residential settings, or if they too are floating in the vast open sea. Perhaps we all are. Perhaps meaning and community are what we make of them, where we make them.

These things seem too vital to be left for amateurs to figure out on our own time. Really?

But we Unitarian Universalists are a rational, academic religious tradition, particularly through our Unitarian heritage and the Humanist teachings that come down through that lineage. Often we pride ourselves on our full acceptance of modern scientific thought and our rejection of superstition and the supernatural. At least, many of us do.

I am not sure this is wise.

Perhaps it is because I am a mystic at heart. Perhaps it is because I have come to understand that what is true is a broader set than that which is only factual, that there is room in truth for poetry and mythology and music that lifts the soul without infringing upon the rational bones of the intricate mechanical material of creation. Perhaps it is because I see this vacuum – born of the Protestant Reformation, nourished on Enlightenment Era thought and exercised through the Industrial Revolution and the Information Age – as a raw, gaping wound in our collective psyche.

The world is a great ball, they say, spinning upon an axis as it hurtles through space, pulled and bound by forces we cannot see but can predict with mathematics. It is the tilt of this axis, they say, that sets the seasons in motion, winter to summer, the waxing and waning of the sun, just as the spinning makes the day exactly so many hours and the intricate mathematical dance of sun and moon gives us the tides. It can all be known, they say, known and measured and predicted – and if our predictions are not as accurate as we would like, let us make faster thinking engines and take more measurements and create better predictions. We have done this, the work of human minds and hands, to know the universe that is written in the mathematical language that shapes creation.

And that is why I spent Thursday afternoon chasing around shopping, knowing that an ice storm was on its way. The weather models these days are very good. Imperfect, but very good.

But there is also the story that says the world freezes because the Sun has disappeared into the underworld, that Demeter weeps for Persephone, that Ishtar seeks her lover Tammuz, that this is the time when God is not with us and we wait, uncertain, for His return. There are so many stories of waiting in the darkness for the coming of the light.

We know, in our heads, that the sun will rise tomorrow. But our souls know also this uncertain darkness.

In my tradition we pay a great deal of attention to what is going on in our heads.

This is, at best, incomplete. And there is a danger of sorts in paying too much attention to what is going on in our heads, at the expense of what is going on in our hearts and in our souls. It is easy to give much weight and credence to the things we can touch and count and measure, the objective rather than the subjective. It is much harder to be still and listen to the subtle things in the world. And we who will serve need to learn how to do this and more importantly, how to teach others how to do this – how to guide the willing toward the sound of their own inner voices and also how to encourage the skeptical to be still and silent enough that those who are willing to listen have the opportunity to hear.

The latter is harder, I think.

And I don’t think it’s in the curriculum.

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