Why I’m a Mystic (But Maybe You Shouldn’t Be)

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


From the essay “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

From Louisa May Alcott’s satire on Transcendentalism, “Transcendental Wild Oats”:

“Each member [of the community] is to perform the work for which experience, strength, and taste best fit him,” continued Dictator Lion. “Thus drudgery and disorder will be avoided and harmony prevail. We shall rise at dawn, begin the day by bathing, followed by music, and then a chaste repast of fruit and bread. Each one finds congenial occupation till the meridian meal; when some deep-searching conversation gives rest to the body and development to the mind. Healthful labor again engages us till the last meal, when we assemble in social communion, prolonged till sunset, when we retire to sweet repose, ready for the next day’s activity.”

“What part of the work do you incline to yourself?” asked Sister Hope, with a humorous glimmer in her keen eyes.

“I shall wait till it is made clear to me. Being in preference to doing is the great aim, and this comes to us rather by a resigned willingness than a wilful activity, which is a check to all divine growth,” responded Brother Timon.

“I thought so.” And Mrs. Lamb sighed audibly, for during the year he had spent in her family Brother Timon had so faithfully carried out his idea of “being, not doing,” that she had found his “divine growth” both an expensive and unsatisfactory process.

Sermon: “Why I’m a Mystic (But Maybe You Shouldn’t Be)”

When I was 16, the summer camp I worked for sent me to a weekend workshop led by Steve van Matre, an environmental educator. Steve van Matre was an observant educator. After several years of working with kids, he noticed that conventional environmental education, with its emphasis on teaching identification skills and intellectual concepts, didn’t wind up producing environmentalists. So he, and the other environmental educators with whom he worked, began developing activities that would — to use his words — “turn people on to Nature.”

One group of these new activities was called “solitude enhancing activities.” Van Matre felt that most of the time when we are supposedly in solitude, we are actually listening to a little internal voice that is constantly talking. Van Matre called this voice “the little reprobate in the attic of your mind,” and he said that it was a dangerous voice in some ways, because it keeps us from living in the present. (1)

When he said this, for the first time I became aware of that little voice in my own head. And that little reprobate in the attic of my mind did in fact talk on and on with no respite. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t un-notice it: it was constantly talking, on and on and on, and saying (if I were to be honest with myself) little or nothing of interest.

Van Matre outlined several activities that environmental educators could use to help quiet that “little reprobate in the attic of your mind.” I decided that I wanted to teach those activities to this children I worked with in the summer. Since I was brought up in a family of educators, I knew that if you’re going to teach something, it’s a good idea to try doing it yourself first. So I tried some of van Matre’s solitude enhancing activities.

One of these activities, which called “Seton-Watching,” was to sit outdoors somewhere and do nothing but simply be aware. Van Matre had told us about a time when he did this: He went outdoors, and settled down to stay absolutely still for some lengthy period of time, perhaps half an hour. After sitting absolutely still and in silence for perhaps a quarter of an hour, a hummingbird came along to look at his red hat band. This prompted van Matre to look up, so he could see the hummingbird. The motion of his head startled the bird and it flew away before he could see it, and he concluded he would have been better off remaining motionless, instead of listening to the little voice in his head that told him to look up.

I began trying this “Seton Watching” activity. One afternoon while sitting at the foot of a birch tree, the little reprobate in the attic of my mind finally stopped talking. In that moment, I suddenly became aware of — for want of a better way of describing it — the connectedness of the entire universe. It was quite a sensation. I then discovered that words were not adequate to describe this sensation — it was not in fact a sense of the connectedness of the universe, but something that couldn’t be put into words. Which makes sense, because this sensation only occurred when that little voice in my head stopped talking. Words are very powerful and very useful, but there are other kinds of knowing that have nothing to do with words; and trying to describe those other kinds of knowing with words must obviously be a pointless exercise.

It turns out that experiences like this are fairly common. These experiences have been classed together under the title “mystical experiences.” When the psychologist William James studied mystical experiences, he argued they had two defining features. First, said James, the person who has a mystical experience “immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” James goes on to add: “It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.” Second, James said, mystical states are experienced by those who have them as a kind of knowing: “They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” James also pointed out that mystical experiences tend to be short-lived and transient, and they are generally passive. (2)

Mystical experiences are fairly common — William James believed that as many as a quarter of all people have them. And that makes me wonder — what good are these experiences? I’m less interested in whether these experiences are useful, but instead I wonder whether these experiences tend to move you towards or away from truth and goodness. To use the language of the Unitarian minister and mystic Theodore Parker: the moral arc of the universe is long, and the question is whether these experiences help bend it towards justice, or not.

I think mystical experiences can lead to justice, but they can also lead to injustice. In my observation, mystical experiences, when supported by the right kind of community, can strengthen individuals to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. However, I’ve also seen how mystical experiences may twist an individual towards psychopathologies like narcissism and delusion, or embolden an individual to abuse their power and indulge their greed.

Here’s what I think causes someone to follow one or the other of these two possible paths. If someone has a mystical experience and they think it makes them special and somehow better than other people, that can prove to be the path to psychopathology or abusiveness. These people tend to have mystical experiences outside of a supportive and critical community. They are hyper-individualists, and the combination of mysticism and individualism can create a toxic brew. On the other hand, if someone has a mystical experience and is part of a community that holds them accountable for their actions, then a mystical experience can help that person bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. A mystical experience can provide a vision for a better future where Earth shall be fair and all her people one.

In the second reading this morning, the excerpt from “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Louisa May Alcott tells a story of how mysticism can be destructive. “Transcendental Wild Oats” is based on Alcott’s lived experience. When she was a girl, her father moved his family to Fruitlands, a utopian community in Harvard, Massachusetts. The men who started the Fruitlands community were mystics, and their mystical insights informed them — so they said — of how to run the perfect human community. But the Fruitlands community fell apart in seven short months. The male mystics in charge of the community were unable to grow the crops they were depending on, unable to do anything practical, while the women in the community did their best to keep the children safe and feed everyone. Louisa May Alcott’s story “Transcendental Wild Oats” is a thinly disguised satire of the Fruitlands community. Alcott lays bare the sexism and the ignorance of the men whose abuse of their mystical experiences made the lives of other people miserable.

(I should note in passing that Louisa May Alcott was a Unitarian. But hers was not an individualistic religion; hers was a religion of community, connection, and mutual support.)

In our first reading, another Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, described one of his own mystical experiences. In a now-famous image, Emerson wrote: “…All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Christopher Cranch, a contemporary of Emerson’s and a fellow Unitarian minister, drew a cartoon making fun of Emerson’s transparent eye-ball: the cartoon shows an eyeball wearing a top hat atop a tiny body with long spindly legs. (3) I think what makes Emerson’s transparent eye-ball image so prone to mockery is the fact that it’s too individualistic. This is my criticism of Emerson’s mysticism: he is too self-centered. Emerson had the opportunity to go out and wander in the fields and become a transparent eye-ball in part because he left all the housework, all the management of their children, to his wife, Lidian. (4) This sounds too much like the mysticism that Louisa May Alcott satirized. If you become a transparent eye-ball while wandering the fields in leisure, that will be quite different from the mystical experiences you might have while caring for children, or mending clothes, or cooking dinner for your family.

And this brings me to another well-known mystic, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was raised as a Unitarian, but left in his early twenties because the church in Concord, where he was a member, refused to offer wholehearted support to the abolition of slavery. Thoreau’s most famous descriptions of his own mystical experiences occur in this book Walden. Once again, Thoreau’s mysticism is open to mockery. Critics of Thoreau love to tell the story of how Thoreau didn’t actually lead the life of a mystical hermit at Walden Pond — he went home regularly so his mother could do his laundry and cook him dinner. It’s easy to be a mystic when your mom cooks you dinner.

But I think Thoreau’s critics miss the point. While it is true that Thoreau didn’t break out of the strict gender roles of his time, at least he did much of his own cooking and cleaning while living at Walden. And Thoreau had to go home regularly to help his father run the family business of manufacturing pencils (an appropriate role for his gender in those times). Equally important for our purposes, Thoreau also went home to attend meetings of the anti-slavery group led by his mother. The Thoreau family was part of the Underground Railroad, and Thoreau wrote that his cabin at Walden Pond served as a place to harbor fugitive slaves. And while he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau spent that famous night in jail because he refused to pay taxes that went to support an unjust war.

We can rightly criticize Thoreau for his sexism, the unquestioned sexism of his time. And it’s easy to make fun of his mysticism. But unlike the mysticism of the organizers of Fruitlands, Thoreau’s mysticism didn’t keep him from successfully growing his own food, and building his own house. And while Emerson’s mysticism can come across as self-indulgent, Thoreau’s mysticism gave him the strength to take courageous action against slavery, and against unjust war.

When I had my own first mystical experience, I lived in Concord, where Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau had all lived. The Concord public schools gave us a heavy dose of the Concord authors, so at age sixteen I knew their stories. I had even started to read Thoreau’s Walden, and liked him the best of all the Concord authors. So when I had my own mystical experience, I had Thoreau’s example to show that mystical experiences could move one towards making the world a better place.

The justification for a mystical experience is to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. This helps explain Martin Luther King’s fascination with Thoreau. I suspect King had his own mystical experiences, which he no doubt understood from within his progressive Christian worldview. King understood how his deeply-felt religious experiences could give him the strength he needed to confront injustice. Nor is he the only one whose mystical experiences helped them bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Hildegard de Bingen drew strength from her mysticism to enlarge the role of women within the confines of her medieval European society. Mahatma Gandhi drew on his mystical experiences to help him confront the evils of colonialism in India. And so on.

Just remember that you don’t need to be a mystic in order to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Some people have mystical experiences, and some people don’t. Having a mystical experience doesn’t make you a better person; what makes you a better person is furthering the cause of truth and justice. But if you are one of those people who happens to have a mystical experience or two, may you use it to strengthen you to help make the world a better place.


(1) Van Matre’s approach is outlined in his books Acclimatizing, a Personal and Reflective Approach to a Natural Relationship (American Camping Assoc., 1974) and Acclimatization : A Sensory and Conceptual Approach to Ecological Involvement (American Camping Assoc., 1972). The quote comes from my notes of van Matre’s workshop on 6 May 1977.

(2) William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 381.

(3) Here’s Cranch’s cartoon:

A sketch of a transparent eyeball on long spindly legs.
from Wikimedia Commons, public domain image

(4) For an account of busy Lidian’s daily life, see the biography by her daughter, Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. by Delores Bird Carpenter (Boston: Twayne, 1981).

What the World Needs Now

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was the poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo.

The second reading was from the essay “Friendship” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Gender-specific language has NOT been changed, since it may be central to Emerson’s argument.

Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins. We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements, by affairs. We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds. I knew a man, who, under a certain religious frenzy, cast off this drapery, and, omitting all compliment and commonplace, spoke to the conscience of every person he encountered, and that with great insight and beauty. At first he was resisted, and all men agreed he was mad. But persisting, as indeed he could not help doing, for some time in this course, he attained to the advantage of bringing every man of his acquaintance into true relations with him. No man would think of speaking falsely with him, or of putting him off with any chat of markets or reading-rooms. But every man was constrained by so much sincerity to the like plaindealing, and what love of nature, what poetry, what symbol of truth he had, he did certainly show him. But to most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age is worth a fit of insanity…. Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him.

Sermon: “What the World Needs Now”

Back in the 1960s, lyricist Hal David was working regularly with pop composer Burt Bachrach. One day, while commuting in to New York City to work with Bachrach, Hal David came up with the line, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Then for more than a year, he couldn’t make any progress with the lyrics. He knew the song was talking to God, but he wasn’t quite sure what the song wanted to say to God.

Now it would be easy to jump to conclusions about what Hal David meant by the word “God.” In this decade of the 2020s, it seems like the only people who talk about God are the right-wing Christians; as a result, when we hear the word “God,” we often think of their god, the stereotypical old white guy sitting on a cloud wearing long white robes and advocating for school prayer and the Ten Commandments displayed in every classroom. Hal David was most definitely not a right wing Christian. He was the child of Jewish immigrants who left Austria in the 1920s and settled in New York City, where they ran a delicatessen. On his website, when discussing this song, he left the interpretation of God wide open; it could, he said, be the “someone or something we call God.” In other words, not the narrow, sectarian notion of God so beloved by right-wing Christians, but an open expansive understanding that could include a range of ideas from a traditional Jewish God, all the way to “God” as a humanistic or even atheistic metaphor.

In any case, Hal David finally figured out what he wanted to say to God: we don’t need some transcendent all-powerful God to create any more mountains, we don’t need any more oceans, we don’t even need any more rivers or meadows; what we really need is enough love to go around. Once the lyrics were done, Burt Bachrach wrote music for it, they both looked at the song, and decided it was “a flop.” (1) Burt Bachrach had hoped that Dionne Warwick, whom they felt was the singer who was best at performing their songs, would record it. But, as he later recalled, “Dionne rejected that song. She might have thought it was too preachy and I thought Dionne was probably right.” (2)

Well, Dionne Warwick was right. The song is indeed too preachy. It begins with the chorus: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing there’s too little of.” How very mid-1960s. Not only is it too preachy, but it’s hard not to make fun of the lyrics. If we all had just a little more love, then all those 1960s problems would just go away — the racial prejudice, the Vietnam War, the assassinations — just a little more love, and they’d go away. Just another pop song about love, and the problems will all go away.

In 1965, Jackie DeShannon finally recorded the song, and to the surprise of the songwriters, it became a top ten hit. Since then, it has been recorded and performed over and over again — by singers, by jazz groups, by hardcore punk rockers, by high school bands. It even got performed at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. The song still sounds preachy. It still sounds too much like a willfully naive and saccharine 1960s pop song. Most performances of it wind up sounding schlocky. But somehow the song has managed to strike a chord in our popular unconscious.

There’s a good reason for that. Hal David was actually correct. The world actually does need more love. Maybe it wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems, but with all the hatred and violence in the world — yes, we do in fact need more love.

Though we need to be careful what kind of love we’re talking about here. The English language uses the single word “love” to smush together several different concepts: romantic love, love between family members, love of oneself, love among good friends, love extended to strangers, a kind of selfless love that includes all beings, and so on. Even though this was a 1960s pop song, Hal David’s lyrics are not talking specifically about romantic love. Nor are Hal David’s lyrics talking specifically about love between family members, or love of oneself, though these might be a part of what the world needs now. The song is talking about a love that is “not just for some, but for everyone.” This is a love that is inclusive, that includes all of humankind.

Back in the 1960s, there was an ol-fashioned term for this kind of love. They called it “brotherhood.” Brotherhood meant that people should extend idealized feelings of sibling love to all of humanity. Political conservatives like Hubert Humphrey referred to “brotherhood” in their speeches. Progressives like Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of lifting “our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to solid rock of brotherhood.” Indeed, some Unitarian Universalists in the 1960s, when asked what they believed, might have responded with the words of Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress of mankind onward and upward forever. Brotherhood, the brotherhood of man — those old words and phrases aimed to capture the kind of love that the world needs now. If all men are truly my brothers, how could I do anything hateful to them? — brotherly love would prevent me from acting with hate.

Of course, we now know the big problem with the word “brotherhood” — it ignores women. The second wave feminists pointed out this uncomfortable fact in the late 1960s. At first, some people pushed back against the second wave feminists saying that of course the word “brotherhood” included women and girls. In response, there were a great many women and girls who bluntly replied that they did in fact feel left out; oh, and by the way, if that’s the way things worked, then they were going to start using the word “sisterhood” to include all people. The men who liked the word “brotherhood” decided they didn’t want to substitute the word “sisterhood.” By the 1980s, we Unitarian Universalists had stopped using the term “brotherhood.”

We really haven’t come up with another word to put in its place. I’ve been thinking about this recently. We know what we want to say: that all human beings are interdependent, we are all connected, we are all part of the same human race. What single word or short phrase might we use that communicates this rather complex idea? And it is a complex idea. Rabbi Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” (3) Here is a very simple statement that gets at the same basic idea — If you wouldn’t do it to yourself, don’t do it to someone else — but then Rabbi Hillel ends by telling us to go study the Torah. It looks like a simple idea on the surface; then we need to study the rest of the Torah to help us fully understand this seemingly simple idea.

It is this same seemingly simple idea that Emerson was getting at in his essay on friendship. Friendship, in Emerson’s essay, is the meeting of souls. Friendship is when we can be utterly genuine with another person, speaking directly to each other’s consciences; not speaking falsely, not falling into gossip or chit-chat, but a meeting of souls that is entirely honest and lacking in pretense. If we could be this genuine with others, if we could know another’s soul in this way, then we would naturally follow Rabbi Hillel’s maxim; if I fully encounter another’s soul, how could I possibly do anything hateful to them?

But I’ve finally decided that Emerson is missing something in this essay in this essay. Yes, there are those intense friendships where you feel like your soul is directly meeting another person’s soul. Emerson writes, “to most of us, society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back.” But I realized that many of my best and strongest relationships with other people have taken place, not face to face and eye to eye, but side by side.

For example, I think about the times when I helped prepare a meal for a certain homeless shelter that aimed to provide not just food and warm housing, but human interaction as well. While we were cooking dinner at this homeless shelter, we spend quite a lot of time seeing the sides and backs of other people, because everyone was working; not just the volunteers, but some of the guests would also come help prepare the meal. Then, before COVID hit, an essential part of this homeless shelter was that the people cooking the meal would sit down with the guests and everyone would eat dinner together. When you’re eating a meal with other people, you don’t spend all your time staring at their faces and eyes. When you’re sitting at a table with half a dozen others, you’re going to see the faces of some people and the sides of others — and maybe the backs of other people who are sitting at other tables. And then when everyone joins in cleaning up together, once again, more often you’d be side-by-side than face to face. Emerson would say, this was society showing its side and back. But it seems to me that there was just as much real connection happening in that setting as in some intense one-on-one face-to-face conversation with a Transcendental friend.

Emerson levels another criticism at society: “We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements….” And in every homeless shelter I’ve volunteered at, in every communal living situation, in every family — there are always the little dramas going on, just as Emerson pointed out: people who are temporarily angry with each other, people who have stopped being angry with each other, and so on. But I think Emerson got it exactly wrong. Gossip, compliments, amusements: these are how we hold our fellow human beings at arm’s length; these are all ways that human communities can become more closely interwoven. When you think about it this way, Emerson’s use of gender-specific male language actually makes sense. In nineteenth century America, middle class and upper class men were able to have time to have intense face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with other men, because women took on much of the burden of housework. Since women were considered inferior to men, the kind of social interaction associated with women — small talk, exchanging news with others, keeping each other entertained while working around the kitchen table — these kinds of social interactions would also be considered inferior. Yet it is in these daily mundane tasks that the complex love of human communities becomes apparent.

Which brings me to the first reading, the excerpt from the poem by Joy Harjo. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” she tells us, and then she lists all the other things that happen at kitchen tables: food is prepared and served; babies teethe; children are instructed in how to be human; we gossip; we dream; we laugh when we fall down; we pull ourselves back together again. Births happen next to the kitchen table, bodies are prepared for burial there. We sing there, we pray, we give thanks, we laugh, we cry, we eat “the last sweet bite.” Joy Harjo says the world begins and ends at the kitchen table.

Emersonian friendship is a lovely ideal, especially for those who have the time for it. But I think it is the kitchen table kind of love that the world needs much more of. It begins with the love that comes when preparing food and eating it together. This love includes gossip too: not hateful hurtful gossip, not the mean gossip of junior high school, but gossip that is actually the exchange of everyday life-and-death matters: who is ill, who is caring for whom, who is well, who is falling in love with whom, all the little bits of news that come with the ordinary life of a human community. It is through this kind of talk around the kitchen table, this talk of ordinary life — who is dying; who just gave birth, who has grown up, who has become a wise elder — this is how children learn to become human. It is through these ordinary conversations that adults are reminded how to remain human, to remain humane. And sometimes the deepest conversations on becoming human happen when we are working side by side with our elders, with our children.

Maybe this is what we should mean if we want to talk about the kind of love the world needs more of. I would not call this brotherhood, nor would I call this sisterhood; but it is a way of being human together. Like Emerson, I want to be genuine and to stand in true relation with other people; but in my own life I’ve found that is most likely to happen when human beings are cooking a meal together, when we are cleaning up together, when we are gossiping (in the best sense), when we are helping one other.

Not that sitting around a kitchen table is going solve all the world’s problems. No more did “brotherhood” solve the problems of racism and war in the 1960s. No more did “sisterhood” solve the problems of sexism in the 1970s. But in a era when we spend more time staring at screens than we spend sitting around a kitchen table, I would say that it would be worth our while to spend more time sitting around kitchen tables than staring at screens. It is more difficult to do something hateful to another person if you have sat down with that person at a kitchen table. Once someone sits down to dinner with a homeless person, they have to see that person as just another human being. We also saw this phenomenon during the fight for marriage equality: acceptance for same-sex marriage increased as more and more heterosexual people had friends who were same sex couples. These experiences are even changing the right-wing Christians: younger conservative Christians are more likely to be tolerant of same sex marriage than older conservative Christians. We are slowly seeing this phenomenon play out in the struggle against racism: as our society becomes more and more racially diverse, racial attitudes are being changed; when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with your cousin or in-law who is of a different race than you are, it’s harder for you to be racist.

This is where it begins, and this is where it ends: seeing ourselves in the other, and seeing the other in ourselves. For some, this might happen in great Emersonian moments of Transcendental friendship. But for most of us, it happens in day-to-day life. It happens around the kitchen table, if we would just notice it. This is the love, sweet love, that the world needs more of.


(1) Hal David, “Words: What the World Needs Now,” Hal David: Official Website, https://www.haldavid.com/words.htm accessed 28 April 2023.
(2) Burt Bachrach in an interview with Ken Sharp, “Burt Bachrach: What the World Needs Now,” Record Collector [UK magazine], May, 2006, issue 323.
(3) Talmud Shabbat 31 a

Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2014 Daniel Harper. The reflection was delivered by Brooke Bishara on the same date. Reflection copyright (c) 2014 Brooke Bishara; used by permission.

Reading — from Mysticism: Holiness East and West by Denise and John Carmody,

“[C]onsider Lao-tzu, reputed author of the Tao te Ching. Grappling with the Way, he found his reason clouding. All around him moved bright, busy, and certain people. They seemed clear about what they were doing, about who they were and what was happening to them. He alone seemed to feel overcast, dull, and not at all certain. They more he searched, the less he found. The long he studied, the less he knew. It is easy to picture him trekking off into silence: the Tao that could be told was not the Tao. However, painful though his dissociation was, hard as his alienation struck him, he was in love with the Tao and so was willing to suffer for it. Life without the Tao would have been no life. Clarity without reality and depth would have been horrible.”

Reflection — Brooke Bishara, worship associate

A mystic is one who seeks direct experience of ultimate reality. The mystic senses that the divine is always present, but also that in our “normal lives” we are only dimly aware of it. The mystic wants to come closer, to connect, and know the truth intimately.

About ten years ago, I had a mystical experience. It started as I was painting a picture to express a painful feeling from the past. With black paint, I painted the top half of a face along the bottom edge of the paper. It almost looked like the face was peeking just above a window sill at me. The face had a sad expression, with a hat pulled down close to its eyes. In the act of painting the image, I was allowing an old feeling of shame that I had held for a long time to be expressed. I asked the spirit for help with this feeling, and suddenly I received a surge of energy through my arms and into my chest and head. It tingled like electricity, and it was so strong that I got up from the desk and lay down on my bed. I stayed there for about a half an hour, feeling this tingling current of energy radiating through my body. I was fully awake and consciously thanking God for this gift, and for the love being shown to me. I was deeply changed by the experience.

The next day, when I had to get up and go through the regular motions of my life and work as a teacher, my eyes were open a little wider. I was awed by what had happened to me. I wanted to tell my colleagues and students, but I knew it was not for telling, not yet. Mostly, I wanted to reassure the people around me that there is, indeed, an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. As years have passed, and I’ve told this story a few times, someone once suggested that the feeling was a release—the energy of that old emotion leaving my body. Someone else suggested that it was the holy spirit coming in to me to heal what was hurting.

I do not worry about finding the right explanation. Nor do I expect to ever have that experience again. But it has become a touchstone of my life. Though my mind cannot explain it, that experience opened a pathway in my heart that can never be closed.

Sermon — Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

In her reflection, Brooke has given us one of the best short descriptions of a mystical experience that I have heard. She brings out several typical features of a mystical experience: that it is an experience that is difficult or impossible to put into words; that it changed the person who had the experience; that such an experience gives knowledge of some deep and abiding force or presence in the universe; that such an experience ultimately cannot be explained, nor explained away.

I wanted to talk with you about mystical experiences this morning because such experiences lie at the very core of our Unitarian Universalist tradition; more specifically, at the core of the Unitarian half of our tradition. Unitarianism began to arise in North America at about the time of the Revolutionary War, and although the movement later came to be known for affirming that Jesus was not God, it started out as a movement that asserted the free will of individual human beings: in the late eighteenth century, the movement that became known as Unitarianism reacted against the then-dominant Calvinist notion that human beings not only are depraved, but that human beings have little free will and can do nothing to further their own salvation. So the early Unitarians said, in effect, that we human beings do have a fair amount of free will, and that each of us must take responsibility for living the best life possible.

By the 1830s, a number of Unitarians were refining that basic argument further. One person in particular — a man who had been a Unitarian minister but who left the ministry to become a full-time philosopher, writer, and lecturer — made a strong case for individual responsibility and free will in a famous essay titled “Self Reliance.” That person was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, and who had himself been affected by his own mystical experiences. Emerson said that any person could apprehend the ultimate reality directly. You could call that ultimate reality “God,” or you could call it the “Oversoul,” as Emerson sometimes did; the name was less important than was the truth that we all have direct access to this ultimate reality. We don’t have to go through priests or clergy; we don’t have to read certain specified scriptures, nor do we have to engage in specific religious practices like prayer. We all have direct access to this ultimate reality — no strings attached.

Of course, this kind of self reliance carries with it great responsibility. Having direct access to ultimate reality has moral and ethical implications: if you have direct access to ultimate reality, this implies that you will have high standards against which to judge your own behavior and decisions. Self reliance is not an easy philosophy: freedom comes with great responsibility, and that can lead to political action.

One of Emerson’s protegés, Henry David Thoreau, explored some of the political implications of self reliance in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau said that while there are human-made laws, there are also “higher laws,” and we can have direct knowledge of these higher laws. Sometimes human-made laws are unjust, and when that is true, we may be called to obey higher laws. (Notice that Thoreau starts with the assumption that we can have direct apprehension of those higher laws.) In her reflection, Brooke talked about “an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension.” Once you have that kind of experience, it is difficult to put up with human-made laws which go against that abiding love, and which instead promote hatred and warfare. So it was that Thoreau was appalled by the Mexican American War, which he felt was unjust and unjustifiable. Appealing to higher laws, he refused to pay taxes that would support that war, and for his refusal he was thrown in jail. As I said, this philosophy of self reliance is not an easy philosophy.

More than a century later, Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Thoreau when he was formulating his own theory of civil disobedience. King knew that the human-made Jim Crow laws were in direct violation of that deep abiding love that reaches beyond our rational comprehension. Appealing to that higher law, King said that it was acceptable to break the human-made Jim Crow laws. I would say King’s theory of civil disobedience comes out of his direct experience of ultimate reality. King was careful to call that ultimate reality by the name “God” — to call it “God” made it possible to explain civil disobedience to others, particularly to those ostensibly God-fearing authorities who were trying to enforce the human-made Jim Crow laws; but the name of the ultimate reality is less important than the experience. I don’t know that King was a mystic himself; but if he wasn’t one himself, he drew on Thoreau, who was a mystic; and he drew on Jesus of Nazareth, who was also a mystic.

And by telling you about Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience, I am making the point that mysticism can be a disruptive influence. Mystical experiences are personally disruptive: Brooke told us that in her reflection; she told us that her experience was so strong that she had to lie down. (I’ve had my own mystical experiences, starting in my mid-teens, and I can assure you from my own experience that they can disrupt one’s sense of the world.) When you have powerful experiences of an ultimate reality, that can cause you to look with skepticism on the way humans rationalize our actions. This is what happened to Thoreau. He had his transcendent experiences, he had direct apprehension of higher laws, of ultimate reality, and with that perspective he found himself unable to accept the half-truths that were foisted on the public by those who were trying to rationalize the unjust Mexican American War. Nor did he stop there: Thoreau also knew with perfect clarity that slavery and fugitive slave laws were wrong, that those laws went directly counter to higher laws; and he broke the human-made laws by participating in the Underground Railroad. (Indeed, we have independent documentation that he harbored fugitive slaves at his cabin on Walden Pond.) Thoreau’s mystical experiences proved to be a very disruptive influence.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists — all of them open to direct experiences of ultimate reality — went on to disrupt the world around them. They disrupted the older Unitarianism that had been founded on sound, rational Enlightenment principles. The rational Unitarians were infuriated by Transcendentalists like Theodore Parker. Parker infuriated them partly because of his challenge to their rational ways of thinking; partly because he managed to draw over two thousand people to his sermons each week (his was the very first mega-church, by the way); and partly by his adamant opposition to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The more rational Unitarians may have been opposed to slavery, but they were appalled when Parker told them that not only had he harbored fugitive slaves in his own house, thus breaking the law; in addition to that, he had written sermons with a loaded pistol on the desk in front of him, expecting to have his house broken into at any moment by slave-catchers. Keeping a loaded pistol on his desk was not a rational act, as defined by the rational Unitarians steeped in Enlightenment thinking, but it brought Parker into harmony with higher laws.

Mystics can be less openly disruptive — not all of us mystics keep loaded pistols on our desks — but no less challenging in more subtle ways. I think of Mary Rotch, who had a strong influence on Emerson’s thinking. Mary Rotch had grown up a Quaker, a mystical tradition; she knew what it was to commune directly with ultimate reality. When she became a Unitarian in the 1820s, Unitarian churches still had communion services about once a month. Emerson filled the pulpit of Mary Rotch’s Unitarian church for a few months while the regular minister was on sabbatical, and he noticed that Mary Rotch would stand up and quietly walk out of the church just before the communion ceremony. He discussed this with her, and she convinced him that the ritual of communion was an empty ritual; that the direct communion with ultimate reality was real communion, and the only communion that was needed. This prompted Emerson to write his famous sermon stating why he could no longer officiate at communion services. The rational Unitarians of the day were not pleased by Emerson’s argument; to them, communion made complete rational sense, as a memorial ritual that helped commemorate an important moment from our religious history. It’s fairly easy to come up with rational reasons for most things, and I suspect that if rational Unitarianism had prevailed over Emerson’s Transcendentalism, we would still be serving communion here in our historically Unitarian church.

In our day, Unitarian Universalism is once again dominated by religious rationalism. This is not a bad thing: logic and rational thought are extremely powerful intellectual tools. But a year ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Fred Hawley about the way Unitarian Universalism is currently dominated by religious rationalism. Fred was a long-time member here in our congregation, and he gave me permission to tell you about this conversation. Fred suggested to me that our congregation was overly dominated by those who value rationality above all else, to the exclusion of other modes of thinking and being.

As I said, logic and rationality are powerful tools. Emerson and Thoreau and Theodore Parker and Mary Rotch all used rational thought and logic. But what the Transcendentalists, and other Unitarian mystics, have tried to demonstrate is that logic and rational thinking have limits; we cannot rely on them for everything. The limits of rationality became particularly evident during the twentieth century: Nazi Germany was in many ways the epitomy of a rationally-run nation; here in the U.S., separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws were perfectly rational; and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons was eminently rational. All these things were quite rational, but they were not necessarily right.

One of the things Fred Hawley talked to me about was the book Koviashuvik by Sam Wright [San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988]. Sam Wright is a Unitarian Universalist minister, who served our congregation as interim minister in 1990 and 1991. In Koviashuvik, published by the Sierra Club, Sam Wright tells about living in the Brooks Range in Alaska while the Alaskan pipeline was being built. Koviashuvik is a book about different ways of knowing. Sam Wright knew about the Brooks Range as a place where he and his wife lived off the land; the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline knew the Brooks Range in a different way, as a mere obstacle to the building of the pipeline; the people who worked on the pipeline knew about the Brooks Range as the background to their well-compensated jobs; the Arctic Terns and caribou knew about the Brooks Range in still other ways. Now, the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline were entirely rational people who knew that they had to transport oil from where it was being pumped out of the ground to where it could be refined and used. But, says Sam Wright, the Arctic Tern and caribou have equally valid, albeit non-rational, ways of knowing the world. Were the builders of the oil pipeline right simply because they used rational thought? I’m not sure the Arctic Tern or the caribou would say that was true.

I have never lived in the Alaskan wilderness, but in my work as a religious educator, I see the limits of rationality all the time. Anyone who teaches sees the limits of rationality. As a religious educator, one of the things I like to teach children is how to be radical feminists — that is, teach children that girls and women are just as good as boys and men. Now if you’re trying to teach a nine year old girl about feminism, you can give all the rational explanations that you want, and that nine year old girl will probably agree with you, but she has not really gotten what feminism is all about. But if a boy is given preferential treatment, a teacher suddenly has a moment when they can suggest that perhaps this instance of preferential treatment is part of a larger pattern, and sometimes you can watch as that girl suddenly gets it, suddenly perceives this mass injustice that pervades our society: Oh yeah, boys get preferential treatment all the time, and that’s not fair! We do this with boys, too, and they are equally capable of directly apprehending the unfairness of sexism. But in my teaching experience, this is not a rational process.

Rational exposition can work as a teaching tool, for some people, at least some of the time. More often, however, I think learning takes place in flashes of direct apprehension: suddenly you get it, suddenly it all makes sense, suddenly you can do it. Fred Hawley talked with me about this experience in relation to his favorite pastime of lawn bowling. Referring to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Fred spoke about “flow,” when you get so involved in something that your self is subsumed in the task at hand. In Fred’s interpretation, this happens when you are not thinking about doing something; you are doing it, doing it so well that there is no thinking involved: you have direct contact with the game in that moment. You can learn all you want about the physics and mechanics of lawn bowling; but unless you actually do it, and practice it, and get good at it, mere rational knowledge of lawn bowling means you know everything about lawn bowling while knowing nothing about lawn bowling.

Teachers run into this situation, too: every teacher has run into learners who can talk a good game, but who don’t really know much of anything. Mystics also run into this situation all the time: people who have not had mystical experiences themselves trying to give rational explanations of other people’s mystical experiences. Rationality is a good and useful took, but it is merely one tool in your toolkit, and like any other tool, it is good for some things and useless for other things. What I have learned from our Unitarian Universalist mystical tradition is that rationality is a very useful tool for explaining, describing, and designing new technology. It is less useful for making moral and ethical decisions. It is next to useless for lawn bowling. Just as you should not use an ohmmeter to hammer a nail or open a can, you should not use rationality to do everything. And as for transcendent experiences and direct apprehension of reality and the feeling of “flow” — these are not particularly useful tools for explaining and describing, but they are quite useful tools for teaching kids about sexism, for engaging in civil disobedience, and for lawn bowling.

This is why we are fortunate to have such a strong mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism: it significantly expands our kit of useful tools. If you find yourself engaging in civil disobedience, and being hauled off to prison, it might be helpful to have a rational understanding of why you are getting arrested; but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., might suggest that it could be more helpful to have a direct experience of an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. If you find yourself fighting very rational arguments for ignoring something like global climate change or toxics in the environment, it might be helpful to remember that people can learn through direct apprehension at teachable moments.

I certainly don’t expect every Unitarian Universalist to have mystical transcendental experiences; after all, ours is a non-creedal faith that does not enforce intellectual conformity. But when I think about all the serious problems that face us — racism, toxics in the environment, global climate weirdness — I am glad that we can draw on the mystical tradition of Mary Rotch, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau.