Elements of Style

A Sermon (in five chapters with a prologue)

Rev. Douglas Taylor

April 24, 2022

Video Sermon: https://youtu.be/j9HoeHqq1gs


In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/meditation-four-directions

In the pagan tradition, which is grounded in a respect and reverence for the natural world, calling upon the four directions is the usual way to begin any ceremony. Each direction is associated with an element of the natural world, and represents some part of our human nature as well. The directions are not seen as separate and isolated, but rather as part of the interdependent system that makes up the world…

When I title my sermon “The Elements of Style,” I am not referring to the classic writing style guide by Strunk and White. I am talking about the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. The old taxonomy of the four (or five) elements is still informative and can serve to guide our spiritual growth. They can be seen as qualities of being which we can exemplify; traits of our personality, of our living. My title, elements of Style, is meant to evoke how these four elements can be seen as styles of being.

Historically, the concept of four (and sometimes five) elements arises among the ancient Greek philosophers. The concept remained prevalent in Europe up through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Interestingly, there are similar concepts from ancient India and Japan as well, so this is not isolated to the Western worldview. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_element

The conversation I am offering is not an attempt to explain the natural world as they were trying to do in those ancient times. Modern chemistry offers far more than four or five basic elements to understand the natural world. The Periodic Table of Elements is more accurate and helpful in that endeavor. I, on the other hand, am looking inward.

Perhaps a better parallel in our modern understanding is to link the four elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth to what we know about the states of matter: Solid, Liquid, Gas, and Plasma. Not only is this a fair parallel to see earth as akin to solid, water to liquid, air to gas, and fire to plasma – it is also a fair parallel in that it helps us shift from thinking of these four elements as things to thinking of them as styles of being. It is not that you are fire, it’s that you can be like fire.  

Chapter One: Air             “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We begin in the East, toward the rising sun. …Air and breath give us life. It is the direction of inspiration – the word that literally means to take in air. The east is associated with the mind, with knowledge and learning and intellectual curiosity. … Turning toward the east, we look for a fresh start, an invigorating breath, a new idea. When you are feeling stuck in a rut, beholden to a routine, or if the wind has gone out of your sails, look eastward.

I invite you to call to mind birds in flight. This is the image many associate with this element. Indeed, Starhawk suggests specifically a crow, in part because of their intelligence (from Starhawk’s Truth or Dare.) Air is the element of inspiration and vision and curiosity. Such virtues are among our central values as a faith tradition. Air is often a step removed from the fray, it is the realm of calm observation and focus.

You may want to approach this from a personal perspective, considering how you have the qualities of air in your life. But I wonder if we can think of this communally. Does our congregation have enough air? Or maybe you’ll call to mind other communities and circles in your life. What does that look like for a group to have enough air?

The quadrant of air strongly associated with the mind. It is about new ideas, fresh plans that help us live out our vision. Working from the perspective of air is about taking the long view, seeing the whole forest, the whole system, instead of just the individual trees as they say.

Are you a visionary? Do you see the way things fit? Do you imagine solutions to possible problems? The details are elsewhere on the wheel – air is big picture work. Air is about observing and understanding what is going on. Maybe step back a pace and take it all in. Air is the quality in our lives by which we can focus on remaining true to our primary purpose and goal. And then making a plan to move forward!

Be like air: Observe, breath, focus, decide.

Chapter Two: Fire                “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We move around the wheel to the south. The element of the south is fire, …Fire is a transformative force, it is heat and light and powerful change. In the Northern Hemisphere, it makes sense that we associate the south, towards the equator, with the warmth of the sun and the heat of the flame. … When our internal weather gets cold, turning south is a metaphor for turning toward warmth and daylight, seeking out the changes that will warm us up, get our blood moving, call us out of our winters, out of hibernation, into action.

Every Sunday morning and at many gatherings for classes and meetings we Unitarian Universalists will light a chalice. We are regularly reminded of the ‘light of truth, the warmth of compassion, and the fire of commitment.’ Call to mind the dancing flame in our chalice. Or perhaps the mythos surrounding the phoenix – the bird that burns up and is then reborn. Fire is the element of change and action and transformation.

Fire is sometimes cast as a dangerous force, even destructive. All the elements can be, but fire by its nature consumes things, feeds on what is and turns it to ash. But as an element of our inner lives, it is more accurately a force for change. It is energy and excitement, passion for action. It is not negative. It is perhaps fair to say it is a force that burns away what has been, but in so doing it allows something new to arise, transformed

Is there enough fire in our congregation? I imagine there are some individuals in our lives whom we see as ‘fiery personalities.’ Some of you may be those people! But my question is less about individuals and more about the community. We all have the capacity to be like fire. Is there enough fire in our community? 

An obvious way this would show up is in our justice work. I have said several times lately that our justice work has been flattened by this pandemic and we are now working to stoke that fire back into the strong blaze we are used to seeing among us.

But there are other ways we can talk about the fire aspect in our congregation. The quadrant of fire is about our energy. Where is our energy at this time? What are we excited about together? As we keep pivoting and shifting with the gathering policy and our online presence and hosting in-person activities again – we are building up our fires. We are building up our energy. Can you feel that happening? The fires of our congregation need tending at this time, but they are still there.

Be like fire: Burn, tame, adapt, ignite

Chapter Three: Water          “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

Continuing around the circle, we arrive in the west. The element of the west is water, … In the west, we are drawn into the experience of our emotions. It is a direction that calls us to self-reflection and self-understanding. Our emotions move in us like water, flowing through our lives, sometimes calm and sometimes turbulent, but always flowing. …If you are seeking to get in touch with your inner life, with your emotions, turn towards the west.

Starhawk suggests the image of a snake to embody this element. Water is about the undercurrents, the unspoken understandings at play in our lives. The snake archetype shows up in many places religiously and culturally – some of those still connect to the way Starhawk is talking about and some do not.

Water is the element of feelings and reflection and healing. Feelings are powerful and often ignored or undervalued. There a patronizing way some have of dismissing the feelings of others and usually their own feelings as well. It is not healthy or helpful to do that. Like a snake, it may circle back and bite you when you least expect it.

But even though our feelings may be dismissed and undervalued, they are very important. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Taking the time to reflect on this will lead us to greater wholeness.

Is there enough water in our congregation? When you think about the places of good water in your life, I do hope this congregation is one such place for you. We talk a lot about covenant here. We work at being clear with our communication and addressing conflict when it arises. My sermons often carry some emotionally honest elements. And have I mentioned the value of brokenness lately? As we work to build up our fires, it is valuable to stay balanced with our water as well.

Be like water: Cry, cleanse, flow, let go.

Chapter Four: Earth                        “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We move now to the North. The element of the North is earth, …There is stability here, the ground of our being. The north represents the place that holds us, that allows us time and space to heal and grow, to feel nurtured and respected… The north calls to you if you are seeking balance, the deep wisdom that lives in your bones, a place of rest and recovery.

For an image of earth, Starhawk named this element for the dragon. She named it for a guardian of our greatest treasure, a protector of what is most important. Dragons in myth tend to be ancient and wise. Earth is the element of strength and protection and wisdom.

The aspect of earth in your life is about being grounded and practical and realistic. Earth is about protecting and conserving the resources and energy. Earth holds the boundaries and reminds us of our limits. Earth offers the details that counter the lofty goals of air. When air builds castles in the clouds, earth tethers those dreams into a living reality.

Is there enough earth in our congregation? Is there enough earth in your life? It sometimes feels to me like a little more earth is the antidote to so much of what is off in my life and in our congregation and certainly in society. It is about being grounded. Yes, the aspect of earth is focused on details and resources and limitations, but it also asks important questions: Is our work sustainable? How can we better nurture each other? What concrete skills and resource do we have to offer? What can we build? How can we do this better for everyone involved?

Be like earth: Ground, give, build, heal.

Chapter Five: Spirit              “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We have moved through these four directions, given them shape and meaning:
East: Air, breath and inspiration.
South: Fire, transformation and action.
West: Water, feeling and reflection.
North: Earth, balance and wisdom.

Adding a fifth element is not a wild, new idea. Aristotle suggested it was aether – which he defined as whatever the heavenly stars are made of, because they surely were not made of earth, air, fire, or water. The Vedas from India also talked about a fifth aspect which translates closer to ‘void.’ I am evoking a fifth along the lines of how modern neo-pagans speak of it: Spirit. 

Spirit is the element of wholeness and integration. It is about the connections, interconnections, and the in-between aspects of our living. It is the threads that bind us. It is our common heart. The classic four elements became associated with the four cardinal directions. Spirit is associated with right here, the center.

Is there enough spirit in our congregation? This is a question of balance. We might ask if each of the other elements are present and thriving. But this question of the balance found in spirit that is akin to the idea of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

It is a question of connection. Are you connected? Are we connected? Are we listening to each other? How will you pour your gifts into this community – as earth or air, as fire or water? Where are your gifts? Was there one element or maybe two that you felt drawn to as I described them? What will you bring forth?

How is it with our spirit? The element of spirit is about connection. I know I have felt isolated and fragmented since the onset of this pandemic, but in truth we’ve long lived in a fragmenting and disconnected society.

A deep part of our work as a congregation has been to counter that destructive trend around and within us. Here, in spirit, we work to honor our differences and to strengthen our bonds, to nourish our common heart. Now, more than ever, this is our work as a faith. To honor our differences and to strengthen our bonds, to nourish our common heart.

Be like spirit: Connect, listen, know, be still.

In a world without end,

may it be so.