Guided by the Light Within

In medieval Judaism, in the esoteric tradition known as kabbalah, the story is told of the beginning of humanity, the beginning of the universe. In this story, only God existed. God was pure light, Divine Light. Wanting to understand himself better, God created the universe by contracting into a tiny seed of burning energy, withdrawing in order to make space for creation, and then exploding in a cosmic Flaring Forth.

In the process of this flaring forth, the emanating bits of Divine Light broke up into shards. These broken splinters are what constitute the material world. Within everything that exists, there is a broken off bit of Divine Light. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy.

When God then created the primordial human being, God was gathering bits of luminous dust in an attempt to reintegrate and bind together broken pieces of the Divine. The human person, then, represents the intention of integrity and wholeness. When Adam disobeyed God, his divine essence sank to a lower realm of existence and with him, all of humanity fell and falls.

Religious practice, in this Neo-Platonic Jewish version of Gnosticism, is a matter of collecting shards of Divine Light. Through prayer and study of scripture and worship and ethical action, the broken bits of God are joined. The cosmic Humpty Dumpty is being put back together. The work that people are called to is the binding together of a broken universe, the recollection of the divine particles into an integral whole.

Myths, and especially myths that tell of the universe and humanity’s origins, are valuable in that they describe a particular culture or religion or worldview’s anthropology. These stories are saying something about the nature of humanity and human life. I find a number of things compelling in this mythic story of the origins of the universe.

Human beings are made of stardust, bits of what exploded out of the origin of the universe, and so we are related to all that is. And the stuff we are made of is sacred, literally godly.

A God who is not omnipotent, and which needs humanity in order to exist is a contradiction of mainstream Jewish thinking about God, and indeed to many monotheists is pure anathema. God cannot mend the world on his own, in this worldview, but needs humankind to do it with and for him. Salvation, creating an integrated whole out of what is broken, is human work, not divine work. It is human beings, through our actions, that mend the broken world. This is the meaning of tikkun olam, literally the repair or mending of the world. Contemporary liberal and progressive Judaism has taken this notion of tikkun olam and applies it to the work of social justice, helping contemporary Jews and others understand the work of making the world a better place as a sacred calling.

And finally, I find this myth compelling in what it says about human community. It is when we gather together that our tiny sparks unite to make a divine fire, a collective godly blaze. Inherent godliness, action in the world and the importance of community are the parts of this myth I find captivating.

The traditional, accepted version of how the world came to be in Judaism is found in the Bible. There are actually two creation stories told there. We find in the book of Genesis a basic affirmation echoed throughout the world’s monotheistic religions.“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” so that humans can rule over the rest of God’s created order, to be, in some sense, God’s representatives in creation, God’s agents in creation.

“So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

In this cosmogony, God distinguishes between the human race and the rest of creation. God made us in his own image—we bear a family resemblance to our Creator. We have capacities beyond those of other animals, including, as it turns out in the second creation story in the book of Genesis, the capacity to choose.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands.” (Psalm 8:4-6)

This celebration of the human has frequently been misinterpreted as a divine permission to do whatever we want with the natural order. Or that we are over and above the rest of the natural world rather than embedded within nature as creation’s self-reflective agent. This story calls us, instead, to act within the creation as God would—creatively, caringly, with a sense of balance and order and rightness.

In this worldview, we are given abilities and responsibilities in order to reflect God’s own nature in the world. Our task, our calling, as human creatures, is as bearers of the divine image in the ongoing and unfolding drama of creation, to participate in restoring the world’s balance, saving the world’s integrity, and savoring the world’s beauty.

The human person, as a living icon of the divine, is sacred. The worth and dignity of the human person is inherent. We are not intrinsically wicked or depraved or flawed. We are not the unwilling heirs of an original sin committed by primordial humankind. We are inheritors of divine consecration, born into original blessing. Our dignity and worth is not something that we have to work at, it does not accrue to our personhood through acts of righteousness.

Nor, conversely, can it be taken away. I remember participating in a ludicrous online discussion among Unitarian Universalist ministers who publicly pondered the inherent dignity and worth of the terrorists who committed the unspeakably horrific acts of September 11, 2001. Could these terrorists’ inherent dignity and worth be denied because of their heinous crimes against humanity? these ponderous theologians asked, as if the meaning of the word “inherent” had escaped them and as if they had forgotten the witness of our movement’s most basic theological principles.

The radical and distinctive testimony of Universalists and Unitarians throughout history has been precisely that the most wicked of men and women are still made in the image and likeness of God, and are therefore redeemable. Every person, no matter how lowly or uneducated or misguided, is salvageable and will be saved. Every person, no matter how imperfect, can be perfected. The torturer and the terrorist, the dictator and the demagogue, share with the entire human family the divine likeness.

Hangings and lethal injections, torture and war, hunger and injury are all desecrations. They desecrate the holy image of God. Any threat to the health, wholeness and integrity of the human person desecrates what reflects the divine. Unitarians and Universalists, and contemporary Unitarian Universalists are inheritors of this worldview. Our heritage is rooted in these stories of original blessing, though today we no longer have a common theological language—or indeed much of a theological language at all.

We speak in secular terms of the inherent dignity and worth of every person. We speak of the inherent dignity and worth of each individual person as an a priori philosophical assumption. These words flow glibly off the tongue—inherent dignity and worth of people—and we don’t always wrestle with the radical, deeply profoundly radical, implications of this affirmation.

Are we really able to recognize something divine, something precious and holy, in the most despicable of individuals?

To have forgotten the divine imprint, to have forfeited God’s original blessing, is to deny the responsibility of being divine agents in the world creating the social order of justice, peace, and wholeness. The work of making justice is therefore work that needs to call to mind “that of God” in every person. Justice making is work that reminds torturer and tortured, terrorist and terrorized alike that we each bear the image and likeness of our Creator. The work of tikkun olam, the mending or repair of the world, happens only as the divine light within each person is acknowledged and honored. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy, an Inner Light.

Our vocation as contemporary religious liberals is to act in the light of our affirmation that there is something precious about each individual. There is something unique and indeed sacred in every person.

And that includes people we don’t like. That includes our enemies.

It is our calling, through our actions, to mend the broken world, to create a social order grounded in justice, equity and peace. What story do we tell today about the how and why of this high calling?

Pauses, Grace Notes and Gratitude

Growing up, my family only said grace at special occasions, meals that the whole family was there for. We might have said grace at other holidays, but it was consistently said every Thanksgiving. Because of the nature of the holiday, a meal eaten with thanks, it would have all seemed rather hollow had we not paused before the turkey was carved, the feast of vegetables and sweet potato and stuffing and cranberry sauce spread before us, and actually given thanks. This was usually a perfunctory, rote prayer uttered by one of us children.

In the years that followed, I’ve noticed a space at the front end of every meal, every social occasion that included sitting down together to eat. There would come a moment, as everybody was assembled and seated, before the food was served. Everybody settles in and a quiet, a hush, comes to rest upon the assembly, an expectant pause, a breath, a glance around the table. Often, somebody would cheerfully say, Bon appétit! Or lift their glass and say, Cheers! Something needed to be said in that silent, ceremonial moment. It was only as my social network began to include more churchgoers that somebody might suggest, Shall we give thanks before beginning?

Give thanks. Those are the words of the wordless pause, the voice of the silent moment before the meal. As you regard those gathered around the table with you, as you look at the food and drink, the bounty of labor and love, delight and delicacy, even if you don’t have the words, or are not in the habit of saying grace, there is that space that is filled with gratitude, a breath of satisfaction and contentment. I’m so grateful we could all be here. I am grateful for friends and family and food, that I have enough, that I have what I need. I am grateful for these necessities of life, for life itself.

I think of those moments as grace notes in the unending musical score that is life. In music, a grace note is ornamentation, an unneeded or unnecessary embellishment. It’s not essential to the melody or harmony. It’s a little addition that enhances the beauty of the unfolding sequence of events. The grace note sounds as glasses clink in a toast to life, as the host thanks you for being present, in the hushed recognition of the holy moment before you dig in. There are other decorative moments that come unbidden, times of wonder and a sense of peace, times of clarity, when the mind unwraps the vivid sense that all of life is a gift.

Pausing to give thanks in the face of our blessings is an essential religious act, an essential human act. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. If only that recognition could be more frequent, more regular, how our lives would be filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace!

The word grace comes from the Latin gratia, which means favor or charm as well as thanks. In the Romance languages, the words for thank you echo this origin: gracias, in Spanish, gratzie in Italian. To say grace before a meal, then is to say thanks, affirming that our daily bread is a gift. Yet the word grace is resonant with meaning. The reverberations of its roots—gratia—are found throughout our lexicon. We are grateful for what we have, we are gratified by good news, congratulated when we have achieved something, a grace note, as we’ve already observed, is gratuitous, we leave a gratuity when a person’s service has pleased us. Something given with no expectation of repayment is gratis. We’re sometimes given a grace period on paying bills. A generous, accepting sort of person is gracious, an unthankful person an ingrate.

Echoing through this vocabulary of grace, those parts of our speech that ring with “gratia,” is an essential religious affirmation. Theologically, grace is the unmerited, freely given mercy and kindness of God, a gift of divine favor and love. It is universal and unconditional, given to all who are aware it is available. That love is so persistent, so generous, so overflowing that it offers forgiveness to all who ask. Wholeness, integrity, and peace are the gifts of being in right relation with God and one another and all we have to do is open ourselves up to it, acknowledge our shortcomings and brokenness and give ourselves over completely to the justice-making, relation-repairing power.

Have you ever experienced a kindness from somebody that came out of the blue? An act of generosity that you did not expect? When somebody did something for you that they did not have to do? Remember how that made you feel. Imagine how that might make you feel. Gosh—thanks! What a wonderful, wonder filled occasion! I feel blessed or fortunate or special.

Such acts may also stimulate an aspiration to go and do likewise. Such generosity gives us permission to do something similar for somebody else. We can add a gratuity to everyday acts—being friendly to strangers, sincerely thanking a cashier at the grocery store, a gratuitous kind word to a co-worker, making small talk to one who everybody passes by. Sending a handwritten note to somebody just because you were thinking of them with fondness. Listening patiently to one you find dull and usually interrupt. It doesn’t take much to produce this sort of grace among people. It doesn’t take much to add such ornamentation, such grace notes to our daily lives.

The thing about grace is that the more it is offered to us, the more we offer it to others. The more space we make in our lives for grace, the more gracious we become to others. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have been offered and blessed with, then we become more generous. When we realize how far we fall short of our potential, and humbly understand how much we are loved and forgiven despite our shortcomings, when we comprehend how much we have been forgiven, then we become more forgiving, more charitable. The one who has been forgiven little loves little, Jesus says.

When we have experienced loving acceptance just as we are, when others are gracious with us, we are more likely to look kindly on our failures, less likely to beat ourselves up over them. When we can be at peace with our own inadequacies and limitations, holding them lightly, we can be more generous with the inadequacies and limitations of others. Recognizing that no one is perfect, of course, one wants to work at perfecting what we can. But we do so with a sense of ease, of compassion with ourselves, and we extend that compassion generously with others. It is in knowing how much we have been forgiven for our failures that we can forgive others.

It is possible to reflect on all that constitutes one’s life and think of what we have as unexpected gifts, and not necessarily from a divine source. No one is an island entire of itself, to paraphrase John Donne just a little. We are all connected. Much of what we have we received with somebody’s help. Recognizing how dependent upon others we are and how others depend on us, how our lives are sustained in a network of mutual relation, how our very lives are interrelated in a common life larger than our own individual, we receive and give such gifts thankfully.

Of course, it is entirely possible not to accept a gift. It is possible to choose to turn a blind eye to the blessings that surround us. We are endowed with freedom, including the freedom to reject what is so generously offered. It is possible to be ungrateful, to look around at all that we have and see only what is missing, to look at all that we have been given, and be unappreciative. It is possible to focus only on the wants, the unmet desires, and blot out everything else. Indeed, there are things in our lives that we’d just as soon not have. There are needs that go along with this gift of life. We may look to tomorrow and wonder how they all will be met. We may worry. We may be afraid. Gratitude for what we do have dispels fear. When we cultivate an awareness of what we are thankful for, we see what a treasure trove our lives actually are. Listing what we are grateful for is taking inventory of the treasure we do possess.

And in gratitude, we share that wealth with others. There are others who can benefit from your gifts, even if you would never think of yourself as “gifted.” When we can finally see that we possess something valuable—a specific skill, particular knowledge, money or time—we are free to offer it to others for whom it is useful. As we learn to share what we have, we begin to have enough. As we give, so we receive. The greater generosity of spirit we cultivate, the more we are fulfilled and gratified.

Awakening to the movement of grace in our lives might need some practice. Awakening to our daily life as a precious gift can take practice. Listing what one is grateful for is such a practice. Time can be taken at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect and review the day. What good thing happened that day that you could not have accomplished on your own? What elements of your day can be savored—the fresh air, the beauty? Did somebody—anybody—show you compassion or hospitality or kindness? Did you to do so for others, maybe being patient and friendly with a slow cashier, even though you were in a rush, or a giving money or time to a charitable and just cause, or not raising your voice or getting angry with a family member. Were there times of serenity or joy or laughter or peace? Be thankful for those moments. Be thankful for the good things that happened that you did not create.

If you’re too busy to make lists or sit quietly, there’s always saying grace. It’s a spiritual practice that connects us with our families, sitting together for a meal once every day. If saying grace before that meal is awkward, simply holding hands around the table for a moment of thankful silence might work. Pausing before a meal whether one is alone or with others, whether silently or aloud, and being mindful of what we have to be thankful for is a form of grace. Remembering that the meal itself involves the work of many hands both within our household and beyond it, and that the Earth itself sustains us. We need to eat in order to live, so hopefully the thankful pause will happen daily.

Awakening to the holy in our daily lives, listening for those grace notes, produces in us the fruits of a gratified life. We become artists of grace, giving freely of ourselves to others and creatively standing in the way of anything that detracts from the blossoming of love and mutuality in the world. We become change agents for others, for the social order, helping to shape a more gracious world grounded in the values and practices of kindness and generosity. Hospitality toward those in need, reaching out to the hungry and lonely and marginalized—these are precisely the ways that grace is felt in our world. We do it not out of duty, but because we are participating in an endeavor to humanize our world.

We would be aware of our dependence on the Earth and on the sustaining presence of other human beings. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. As we intentionally take time to recognize this, as we develop practices that bring us to recognize this, our lives are filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace. We are showered with sacred blessings that cause us to blossom and grow in thankful, expansive ways. We are bathed in grace and we in turn become gracious.

There are moments when we survey the banquet of our lives and are thankful. We have what we need. There are times in our lives when we are given exactly what we need. We cannot command them or produce them, but there are moments of pleasure and delight that grace our days unexpectedly. A sense of serenity, that all is well; the comforting silence between companions. The special quality of such moments is that we don’t bring them about by overachieving or being perfect. We don’t bring them about at all. They are given freely, gratuitously. In such moments of clarity, we understand that all of life is a gift.

It comes as simply as the quiet, sacred moment before a meal.