Inward Journey – Outward Action

A sermon by Lee Clasper-Torch. 

Lee served on the faculty of Moses Brown School for 25 years, teaching courses in comparative religion, philosophy, and ethics. He is currently a workshop, presentation, and retreat teacher and serves as the Men’s Engagement Coordinator for the Ten Men Project of the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Audio Recording

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Good morning! I am so appreciative and grateful to be invited to share some reflections at First Unitarian Church this morning.

I am well aware that most of you are probably more familiar with my better half—Cathy!  It seems I am often known around Providence as “Cathy Clasper-Torch’s husband!”  As a professional musician, she gets around—and has even performed here at First Unitarian with her group The Gnomes numerous times.  I have to say that I  think some of the best and most enthusiastic dancing I’ve ever done is with many of you here at First Unitarian Church!

We have many good friends here…and it is a joy to be sharing in worship with you all this morning….

My own life journey and study so resonates with the Unitarian philosophy and practice.  While my primary spiritual discipline, ordination, and practice is that of the Christian Communion, my undergraduate and graduate studies, my passionate interest and my spirituality has been fully informed by all the world’s wisdom traditions and paths—both East and West.  Certainly one of the UU’s hallmarks has been its expansiveness, the “search for truth and for  meaning” (as your UU principles state) and your practice of the spiritual disciplines as they resound in the multifarious traditions of the world…..

My message is a simple one this morning.   I hope that you will find something in it that sparks your curiosity, has you wondering, gets you thinking, raises questions.  It may feel resonant to you or—for one reason or another—cause some little dissonance….but I think there is a hunger in all of us…….the universal need of all human beings—all conscientious seekers—to find words and wisdom to live by, to link our spirit with our actions, to bring our inner convictions into our outer engagement.

Now I don’t know, but I would guess, that all of you—like me—have those days where you really begin to wonder what it is all about.   I wake up to the radio and NPR (which may be my first mistake!)  Being tuned-in and aware of the world’s news and contemporary issues is critical, but to be confronted first thing in the morning by the reckless, disturbing  and unprecedented actions of our current administration, the terror of hunger and destitution, of violence in all of its gruesome and horrific forms—from war to mass murder in Las Vegas, racism in our streets, drone attacks in distant lands, torture at the hands of our own government, not to mention  the planetary environmental degradation and eco-violence of human induced climate change where recent news headlines announced that “this past year was measured as the hottest on record” and a climate scientist at Rutgers University was quoted as saying, “Any wisps of doubt that human activities are at fault are now gone with the wind.”

In the face of so much grief, injustice, violence, and ecological upheaval in the world we need to be able to find our center, to re-collect ourselves, re-new our spirits and commit ourselves to constructive and compassionate action in—and for—our world.  But how do we do so?  How do you and I not succumb to the cycle of retaliatory violence or the darkness of despair?

I begin with a story from E.F. Schumacher, a British economic theorist and philosopher who wrote the now classic book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. The story comes from the preface of a second book he wrote entitled, A Guide for the Perplexed, written about 8 years later and which he stated was something of the philosophical underpinnings of his earlier work.

“On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “This is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.”

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; and no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.”

Schumacher goes on to outline the dire need to develop our attention to our inward awareness. He suggests that inner-knowledge (or in-sight [vidya or vipassana] as the Eastern sages might say) is critical to developing a healthy, whole, and integrated life.

“Adventure,” wrote George Eliot, “is not outside man, but inside.”

For Schumacher, the world’s religious traditions have provided guidance and wisdom for this inward adventure. This is precisely the “other intelligence” that Rumi spoke of in the poem read earlier—“This other intelligence,” writes Rumi, “does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid, and it doesn’t move from outside to inside through conduits of plumbing-learning….This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.”

Just as we might affirm the physical-biological truth that in some significant sense “we are what we eat.”  So too, genuine spiritual growth is a function of the education and understanding—the care and feeding—of the soul.

So I want to talk some this morning about this mysterious and powerful relationship between spiritual—or what I might call soul—development and the deep capacity for loving acceptance of ourselves, others, and the power and where-with-all to do justice and act with compassion in the world.  The Saints and Sages throughout time seem to be calling us ever back to our own and deepest Selves.  Aldous Huxley in his spiritual and philosophic classic called this the “Perennial Philosophy.”  If we cultivate and grow this inner-most self with attention, it will—and does—lead to a dynamic clarity and acceptance of the universe, ourselves, and others, and offers the ground, a “place to stand”—the fulcrum—from which to move to vital action in the world.

I have been acquainted with Richard Rohr – Franciscan Monk, contemplative, activist, author—for many years….(Washington D.C. Capitol Rotunda, nonviolent civil disobedience)

In his book—A Lever and a Place to Stand: the Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer.  Rohr leads with a quote from Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer: “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.”

Rohr goes on to write: “The fixed point is our place to stand.  It is a contemplative stance: steady, centered, poised, and rooted. To be contemplative, we have to have a slight distance from the world—we have to allow time for withdrawal from business as usual, for meditation, for prayer in what Jesus calls “our private room.”  However, in order for this not to   escapism, we have to remain quite close to the world at the same time, loving it, feeling its pains and joys as our pains and our joys.  So the fulcrum must be somehow in the real world.  True contemplation, all the great masters say, is really quite down to earth and practical, and does not require life in a monastery.  It is just an utterly different way of receiving the moment, from all life and from anywhere.  However, in order to have the capacity to “move the world,” we ironically need some distancing and detachment from the diversionary nature of mass culture, useless distractions and the daily delusions of the false self.”

The ancients knew this intuitively.  What we in our modern and outward-material obsessed culture seemed to have forgotten:  that what resides within us is what can make us whole.  The Greeks understood and talked about the three-fold dimensions of our existence: “mind, body, and soul (or spirit)”—these three constitute our nature.  Socrates—the first and greatest of the Greek philosophers invited his students to “Know Thyself.”  Indeed, he understood his work to be that of a “midwife of the soul.”  He would say, “those who know (or understand) the Right, will do the Right.”

He intuited what all of the ancients seemed to have known, including the Buddha (who was teaching roughly around the same time as Socrates) that Right Understanding will lead to Right Action.

Contemplation and Action—we might say—are intricately intertwined.  They are part of what can be imagined as the “tapestry” of the spiritual life—like the warp and woof, BOTH directions are needed for the WEAVE.

I have always been struck by the power and the challenge of the great prophetic voices of the Hebrew Scripture….Both the prophet Amos and the prophet Micah seem to be calling the people to turn their attention from the external, physical rites and rituals that their lives had  become so caught up in, and re-directed it to the inner power of God’s spirit—to genuine relationship with the Divine—and it was precisely this relationship that would them embolden and propel them to dynamic action for peace and love and justice in the world.

I have been moved by, and chewing on, the words of the prophet Micah for some time. We actually named our oldest daughter Micah—who we named after this male prophet!…..and we would often affectionately refer to her as “Micah 6:8!”—the verse that is most compelling:  “what, O mortal, does God (the Divine, the Ground of our Being) require of us? But to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” 

This word, this call, seems to have the energy of simultaneity!  Just do this!  Do these three things!  Do them now!  The prophet Micah has, indeed, created the WEAVE for us—the warp and woof.  Let go of the extraneous and be about knowing yourself—the God within (walk humbly), accepting yourself, the universe, and others (love kindness and mercy) and act for what is good and right in the world (do justice)

So my simple message this morning is really no more than an invitation and an encouragement to cultivate and grow your inner-awareness, your “contemplative stance.”  I am convinced that we need more and more what might be termed an “Engaged Spirituality.”  (it is the Buddhist master—Thich Nhat Hahn—who coined the notion of “engaged Buddhism”)  Our activism and social and political engagement needs to be spiritually-contemplatively grounded, and our spirituality needs to be worldly-wise and engaged.  Rohr talks about what he terms an “incarnational mysticism.”  We need to embody genuine action in the world that grows out of a contemplative stance.

But this is not easy. (I guess it’s why we call it spiritual practice!) I am mindful of First Unitarian’s themes for the month of October—courage and death.  Such a life that seeks to develop a spiritual and contemplative stance in this world of non-stop activity and busy-ness takes a certain courage.  Which, in turn, involves—does it not?—a  kind of dying—to one’s frenetic activity, one’s ego, one’s false self.

I am heartened when I remind myself something of what a teacher of mine told me many years ago.  When reflecting on the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, the rhetorical question the teacher asked was “What was more important—that Jesus acted and taught and compassionately healed in the streets….or that he drew himself apart in solitude to pray?(for the scriptures are clear that Jesus quite regularly and intentionally separated himself from the crowds and even his closes disciples to pray) He went on to say that “certainly Jesus could not have done the work that he did in the streets, unless he had drawn himself apart to the mountains to contemplate.”

Such was the “Tao of Jesus”, who modeled the wisdom of the Taoist master and storyteller Chuang Tzu in….

The Poem of the Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood.  When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lai said to the master carver
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied, “I am only a workman:
I have no secret.  There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
on trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell-stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thoughts
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood:
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

 So might we have the courage and the grace to tap into this inner intelligence, to trust—with E.F. Schumacher—the “sanity of your deepest perceptions” and to cultivate a genuinely contemplative stance and the stillness from which to dance in activity and really move the world.

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets


Opening Reading

Two Kinds of Intelligence

There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

–From the translation of Rumi by Coleman Barks