First Parish of Watertown LAY SERVICE: “BEYOND THE RATIONAL” MAY 22, 2016
“My Credo” by Judy Kamm
Good morning! I am honored that Jeri Bayer invited me to speak because she assumed I would have experience beyond the rational, aka spiritual, to share with you today. It is nice to know that I am viewed by at least some as one who is a spiritual person, who has spiritual experiences, because that is something that I do aspire to be.
It seems to me, though, that there are different ways of defining what a spiritual experience is. So, lest you think I’m going to talk about my encounters with ghosts, or ability to foresee the future, neither of which I have, I’m going to begin with how I define, for myself, “spiritual experience.” Then I will describe some examples. Of course, others may have different definitions, and I am open to those, too. For me, though, a spiritual experience is a sensation, a realization or thought, a practice, or an event that seems to come from a mysterious source and which makes me feel as though there is more to existence than I can explain rationally or understand.
However, I don’t really believe in God in the ways most world religions frame It. For one thing, I can’t imagine that It would need a gender, or has a will, or loves or exacts revenge, or responds to prayers. Human characteristics and labels don’t apply to It. I do believe, though, that there must be some mysterious force or power: That Which Has No Name or The Unknowable. If or how It creates what we know of as existence in this universe, and if or how It intervenes in this universe, I have no idea and never will, in this life at least. Nonetheless, I do believe in “more than the rational” and I’ve had and continue to have experiences that have resulted in my faith. Wow, is this different from my good little Catholic girl self’s catechism Credo, or what??
Please don’t be disappointed, but I have never had anyone’s spirit appear to me. That doesn’t mean I believe it is out of the realm of the possible. One of my husband, Roger’s MIT colleagues, a man we both respected greatly, told us his deceased father’s presence appeared to him. Of course, I have had dreams that include people in my life who have died, but it’s never been that they directly addressed me. I have had occasional experiences, however, when I have been thinking strongly about someone for no particular reason, then I hear from them. Of course, I’m talking about living people. And, many other people have similar experiences.
On the other hand, I have felt direct contact I couldn’t understand. A few days before the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, I strongly felt anxiety and restlessness I couldn’t explain: free floating and very noticeable. It was as if I was being nudged, and I associated that nudge with my departed father’s presence. At the time I couldn’t make sense of it, so brushed it aside. Once that horrible event happened, I began to think my father had been trying to warn me.
I know it’s crazy, but I will confess that before he died in 1992, we made a pact that if there was “somewhere else” and he could send me a signal, he would. We’d always been very close and had a few ESP experiences, so this pact wasn’t out of character for us.
Another example for me was when Roger and I decided that we wanted to move out of our home in Weston. I was propelled to clean out the house and do whatever I could to make the move happen as quickly as the real estate market would let it. At the time, I didn’t know where all my energy was coming from, or my sense of urgency. We sold our house in the spring of 2008, just before the real estate bubble burst. Had we waited another 6 months we probably would have lost a lot more money on the sale, if we could have sold the house at all. And, we definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford the new home we bought. Maybe that feeling of urgency was intuition, or knowing without knowing, or maybe it was Dad again, pushing and pushing. I like to think it was the latter.
What else makes me think there is more to existence than what we can explain using reason? Unexpected encounters with nature thrill me and have inspired much of my artwork, now that I am retired and able to become an artist. It wasn’t always this way for me, though. It was only after our daughter, Meredith, died in 1990 that I became almost obsessed with nature as I grieved losing her and as I tried to heal from that loss. It started with birds, then trees, then ferns, and now flowers and butterflies. Their astonishing beauty and resilience, and the fact that they go on about their life cycles while we human beings are otherwise occupied and not noticing, somehow comforts me and gives me hope. It is almost as if there is indeed a parallel universe operating out of our awareness. Coming upon a deer or bear (!) or turkey in the woods, seeing wildflowers I never expected to see, or discovering a type of butterfly I didn’t know existed are exhilarating experiences for me. I would say that they are spiritual. They make me feel that “Yes, there is a world outside of my awareness and I have been privileged to get a glimpse of it. “ I am filled with gratitude, awe, praise.
And, if my cellphone or Nikon camera is handy, I try to capture an image, if possible (I was too scared by the bear so didn’t!). I want to savor and prolong the experience by trying to reproduce it in a painting or drawing. In that sense, making art is a spiritual practice for me, especially when I am making a representational nature painting. Sometimes when I paint a flower, I feel like a bee or insect exploring it thoroughly. The concentration required puts everything else out of mind as I become one with the subject and completely unaware of myself, time, or my surroundings….sort of like meditation.
Now when I am outdoors I find myself keenly aware of my surroundings, looking for nature’s surprises. Even in the city they present themselves and some of my paintings reflect them: the Great Blue Heron hiding in the shadows on the Boston bank of the Charles River, a bare tree full of sparrows that look like brown leaves, and an arcade of cherry blossoms along the Charles River lagoon are examples. I am in a state of mindfulness.
Spiritual experiences like the ones I’ve just told you about give me hope that there is another dimension or another reality, where the essence of lost loved ones resides and where our energy that we know as “us” (one definition of our spirit/soul) will also reside when we finally put away our birthday suits. Sometimes I feel that I must be crazy to be this way, and I don’t talk about it much unless someone asks. I know that many of you, though, must be the same way, and have had similar things happen. I am trusting that you won’t dismiss me as pathetic, weak, and needy for having and now sharing some of my spiritual experiences with you.
So, with gratitude for your attention, I wish you the kind of experiences that give you comfort in this world, hope, and joy. May it be so.
May 22, 2016 – First Parish Watertown – Lay Service: “Beyond the Rational”
Cloud Contemplation or The Understandability Of Things You Can’t Explain,
Told in a Series Of Moments with One Brief Detour to the Bus Station
by Lynn Bratley
Part One: I am a child who goes to Sunday School every Sunday. We sit at a round table with our teacher and read chapters from the Bible and what Mrs. Eddy had to say about them. And every Sunday we read the Scientific Statement of Being.
“There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation.” Manifestation? I think that Jesus is probably the man at the station, and I picture him waiting for the bus in his white robes. When we go downtown, I look for him, even though I don’t understand why Jesus would be waiting for the bus in Racine. But it is one of those mysteries I learn about in Sunday school.
The Scientific Statement Of Being goes on to say, “for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.” [none of this makes sense] “Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God (and this is where I can begin to understand…), and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.”
I know that I am included in the word ‘man’. I know beyond a doubt that I am created in God’s image and likeness. When things are not going well at home or we feel sick, my mother reminds us to ‘know the truth’ about ourselves and to remember that we can demonstrate healing on ourselves the way that Jesus did for others. This gives me a great sense of possibility.
So my life of spiritual practice was set down as a deep foundation in my soul that I didn’t even appreciate was there for a long time – a spiritual practice that has emerged over the years.
Part Two: I am standing on the front porch of our camp on Turtle Lake, a small lake on the edge of Turtle Valley, rich farmland carved out by the Wisconsin glaciers. My dad and I are watching the storm come across the valley. My mom – terrified of thunder and lightning – is urging us to hurry into the house. My dad is saying, “Look at that! Just take a look at that!” so deeply thrilled to be in the middle of this phenomenon as the thunderheads cross the valley from the west and the line of rain comes marching in a perfectly straight line across the lake toward us until we are impossibly wet, the lightening is getting closer, and we have to go in.
That’s what he did – the farm boy who moved to the city – he would pull the car to the side of the road and make us look up from our comic books. “Look at that! Look how far you can see from here! Look at that field of alfalfa – that long-legged bird over there in the marsh!” He was the one with the map, the binoculars, the camera and the sense of reverence.
Part Three (much later): I am reluctantly attending my first 12-step meeting in Cambridge at 4:00 in the afternoon on June 28, 1982 after a few years of hiding the extent of my nightly addiction: I have been sneaking gulps out of the wine bottle in my closet and walking around my house in a blackout every night – and it’s getting worse. On that day in June those many years ago something happened, and I haven’t found it necessary to pick up a drink since then. People ask, “How does it work, this 12 step thing?” The answer, “Just fine.”
Part Four: A summer watercolor workshop in Taos, New Mexico with my sisters: we are outdoors at Ranchos de Taos and everyone in the group has found a place to set up their easel to make a portrait of the church. I am trying to paint the adobe structure, but the clouds above the church are so beautiful – their shapes, their colors, their changing, moving countenance. There are no mistakes in the sky, no errors. Clouds are unruly and fantastical, they are perfect no matter what they do. Putting up an easel under the sky and putting hand to paper is a time out of time, no thoughts, no agenda, just what’s in front of me.
Part Five: Chuck is leaving for one of his international assignments. “Would you like to use this camera since it’s too heavy to lug around in a backpack?” I take my binoculars off from around my neck and strap on the heavy camera. I photograph the clouds reflected in the river. An old friend from high school sees my pictures on facebook. “These pictures are very Miksang”, she writes. I look it up and learn that it is not simply a method to shoot pictures, it is a way of living, of meeting the world, which allows you to be aware of the beauty that is always there, ‘contemplative photography’. “Water”, she writes, “is a good friend of Miksang”. And I am thinking…yes, and so are clouds.
Conclusion: Much like the fluid reflections of clouds in the water, changing, moving, I see that my spiritual life has also been a reflection of underlying principles and experiences of mysteries and wonders, also changing, moving – that have kept me connected to a power greater than myself. My understanding and faith have grown out of my journey and from those who encouraged me to look around, to look up, to look inside – to take time to be an observer of mist and vapor, of that which is elusive, ever-changing unruly and improbable, with no mistakes.
PS: I just joined the Cloud Appreciation Society whose philosophy in part is “We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.”