Learn the Rhythm


Rev. Douglas Taylor


Recently I stopped in to visit our CUUPS group as it reforms. CUUPS is an acronym for Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. It is a national organization with many chapters. Many UU congregations are home to these groups of people who find their spirituality well fed at the confluence of Paganism and Unitarian Universalism.

Paganism and other earth-centered traditions were welcomed into our official “UU Principles and Purposes” in the early 1990’s as the sixth source of our living tradition: “Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” My minister when I was a child was Dick Gilbert, a UU Humanist. Yet he has said:

There is something of the pagan is us all – something that responds to the great spinning Earth that calls us to worship daily, that fills our soul, that heals our spirit, that enables us to greet the new day and the new season not with dread but with anticipation.

When I visited our CUUPS group earlier this month, they were talking informally after their meal about the different practices they each do. They talked about various rituals and favorite seasonal practices. I chimed into the conversation as well. I admitted that my practice is undisciplined and hopelessly sporadic. I talked about how I can do a daily sitting meditation for a while until I forget to do it and then it slips away. I walk the labyrinth and do chanting and light lots of candles but over time all these things come and go, nothing staying as ‘my spiritual practice.’ But what I would say I have learned from my interaction with Paganism is that my practices need to be embodied. And all of these things I have done over the years have been embodied.

I know enough about myself to know I am very much enamored with the world of thought. I revel in frameworks and delight at theological concepts. I have been tempted on a regular basis to simply reside in the world of thought and abstract notions. I know this about myself. I know and am wary. I have learned that my thinking is clearer, my concepts and frameworks and theology more accurate and useful, if I also stay grounded. The common thread of all my various undisciplined spiritual practices of the years is that they have been embodied practices.

My colleague Kathleen Rolenz says much the same when reflecting on how we access the deepest mysteries of life:

Whether we are digging a garden, or watching a lightning storm, or giving birth to a child, we come to know the mystery of life in our bodies in ways that words can evoke but never capture. (And she goes on to say,) Through embodying and naming the spirits of the world, we recognize and respect their presence, and honor their place in the changing seasons of our lives. (Sources of our Faith, 126)

Studies show we are more likely to act our ways into new modes of thinking that we are to think our way into new modes of acting. This is the root of Behavioral Therapy. And in many ways, this is the root of having a spiritual practice. When you keep acting in a certain way – sitting intentionally with silence, saying ‘thank you’, walking a labyrinth, working with prayer beads – these actions shape you.

The biggest lesson I have found through my interactions with earth-centered spirituality is in learning to listen to the rhythms of the earth and of my spirit. The earth moves through the cycle of a day, repeating it over and over – yet each day is different. The earth moves through the cycles of the seasons, repeating them over and over – yet each year is new. Starhawk calls it a Spiral Dance. We travel the circles of life but each trip around we are in a different place. In like manner, our spirits move through a rhythm we can learn.

Pat Montley, a UU Pagan from Baltimore and author of the litany we read earlier this morning, says this about the rhythm:

The wheel of the year turns. Seasons change. Darkness gives way to light, which wanes into darkness. Birth and death and birth and death and birth. Each has its season, and each season is a necessary part of the whole. It is the way of nature. Let us embrace it with faith.

While theologians and religious scholars tend to speak about the great search meaning, there is something more basic behind it all. Really what we seek is the richness and fullness of living – the experiences of being alive. We then aim to understand those experiences through beliefs and theology and theories.  But really, what people seek is aliveness; experiences that help us feel alive.

The earth itself shows us the ebb and flow changes that constitute the rhythms of living. Our spirits feel a rhythm too and we can learn of it through practices that lead us to the have more experiences. Our shared conversations and thoughts about the practices and experiences are not what make life. Life is made in the living of it. You need not be a neo-pagan or believe in a pantheon to learn the rhythm. We need only seek to practice living, act on our searching and yearning with rituals or practices or actions that lead us to become the people we long to be. And in so doing, learn the rhythms, heal our spirits, and make the world more whole.

Margot Adler, a Wiccan priestess and Unitarian Universalist would tell people that her Wiccan practice feeds her need for ritual and movement and mystery while her Unitarian Universalism nourishes the side of her spirit that required rational thought and grounded activism. Not that the two sides of her spiritual needs were met exclusively out of her two spiritual communities, there was, she admitted a good and growing amount of overlap.

Of the interaction and impact of paganism on Unitarian Universalism, Adler said, “The Pagan community has brought UUism the joy of ceremony, and a lot of creative and artistic ability that will leave the denomination with a richer liturgy and a bit more juice and mystery.”

So lean into a liturgy, try a particular practice, take the ceremony seriously. These things are not the point, but they give you experiences of mystery and spirit which is the point. Learn the rhythms of your spirit through the embodied practices of your daily living. And perhaps that creative expression will lead, as Adler suggests, to more juice and mystery!

In a world without end,

may it be so.