Landscape of the Soul: Re-discovering the Ground of our Being

Lee Clasper-Torch, M.Div., served on the faculty of Moses Brown School for 25 years, teaching courses in comparative religion, philosophy, and ethics. Most recently he worked as the Men’s Engagement Coordinator for the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Ten Men Project. He is a perennial student and seeker, social activist, and nonviolence trainer. Lee does presentations, leads workshops, and teaches philosophy, spirituality, and meditation.

Sermon Text

Reading: Excerpt from “The Over-Soul” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We love in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within [us] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.  And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.  We see the world by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole of life, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

Every morning, for years, literally without exception, I walk outside the door of our house and slowly and attentively circle our home.  I can actually mark this ritual from the time that I returned from a journey to India in the summer of 1995.  I was on a Gandhian study-travel seminar then sponsored jointly by a North American Organization called “Nonviolent Alternatives” and an Indian institute called “Navadarsham” (which means “new vision”).  The trip for me was hugely significant and no less than a personal pilgrimage–as my life passions, and studies, and work were immersed in comparative religion, philosophy, and nonviolence.  India was my Mecca.

And it didn’t disappoint. It was truly magical. Both beautiful and severe, simultaneously inviting and heart-wrenching, with sights and smells, colors and sounds that I could barely have imagined.  And along with the wall of heat that greeted me upon my arrival, there was what I can only call a palpable sense of spirit, of soul, that permeated the air. It seemed like everything was swimming in sacredness.

By contrast our own culture felt (and feels) bereft of this dimension.  Our hyper-secularity and materialism seem somehow thin and one-dimensional by comparison, whereas my experience of India was something like walking into a multi-dimensional reality—animated, vibrating, soul-full.

But just as it felt like a kindred connection for me in that sacred landscape, an insight occurred that I wasn’t prepared for, and quite frankly—in retrospect—seems almost cliché. As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz exclaims breathlessly, “There is no place like Home,” I had the distinct awareness that the same life that permeates and animates all that I was experiencing in India is the very same essence that infuses life right here at home—at 24 4th Street, Providence, RI.  Upon return I began the simple practice of walking around our small house, our small piece of land each morning, attentively, mindfully, opening myself up to the treasure that is hidden in plain sight in my own heart, and vibrating in my own landscape.

The experience was real and revelatory for me.  As wonderful as my travels across the globe to India were, the realization struck that this self-same Reality is available and accessible right where I live—both inwardly and outwardly.  I returned home in more ways than one that summer. And it was then that I thought to ritualize the circling of my own humble piece of land, to give thanks, and to see what I could see.  As I saunter around my home landscape daily, I have also incorporated the practice of silently, internally, reciting a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s: “Never miss an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful. / For beauty is God’s handwriting, a wayside sacrament. / See it in every fair face, / In every fair sky, / In every fair flower, / And thank God for it as a cup of blessing.” 

Without fail I see–each day.  Something new, something small, something startling, something the same but imbued with a freshness that I had not noticed before.  Everything is vibrating, and, like the very air in India, it too holds a magic, a sacredness, a very present soul-full-ness.

The invitation that I share with each of us this morning is to gently re-consider this veritable landscape of the soul.  To entertain the possibility, to seek to re-discover and nurture the Ground of Being—both within and without.

In re-reading Emerson—the quintessential American man of letters, this most recognized and revered figure of the Unitarian movement, this pioneer of the philosophy of Transcendentalism—I have been put back in touch not only with the power of his prose, but with the way soul speaks to soul.  The way experience finds and confirms experience.

“We love in succession,” writes Emerson, “in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within [us] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

In his essay The Over-Soul, Emerson makes an experiential case for a Transcendental and Immanent Reality. One-in-the-same. One within which we exist—whether it be in India or in Providence, in the Meeting House here, or where you are, now—within your own hearts and homes.  There are trees in Emerson’s landscape, there are animals, there is the sun, and the moon…but the very power that animates these particulars is also resonant within us as well—this power he writes, “whose beatitude is all accessible to us.”  And, he says, this “the whole of life, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.” This Whole of Life is the Soul.

How astounding, and inviting!  Emerson stands in the stream of those seers and sages that exclaim a “universal beauty” a Ground-of-Being that is as close as our own heart-beats, as natural as our breath, and as “wise as silence.”

Jesus uttered famously and startlingly, “The Realm of God is within you.”

Meister Eckhart the medieval Christian Mystic wrote: “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”

Have we not all had—even in one fleeting moment—some slight hint of this Oneness?  “Most of us,” someone said, “have had glimpses of what the saints have been blinded by.”—the inner and outer landscape that Emerson celebrates as the Soul.  It seems as if it is our very birthright.  And yet…and yet…quite regularly it feels distant, clouded, hidden.

Part of this. it seems to me, has to do with the philosophical maps that we are given in our culture and society—through our education, through our largely materialist presuppositions, through our technological over-reliance and our single-sightedness. We are something like a one-eyed giant, bumping into things, breaking things, unable to see peripherally, clearly, wide-lensed, multidimensionally. What if we were offered other maps and entertained the possibility of other landscapes and another way of seeing?  What if we honored our experience?  As William Blake—the English artist, poet, and mystic—exclaimed, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to [us] as it is, Infinite.  For [we] have closed ourselves up ‘till we see all things through narrow chinks of our cavern.”

Such “narrow” myopic views have too often severely limited our sight, and shackled our capacity to live fully, deeply, humanly. Thomas Moore, a contemporary psychotherapist and former monk who wrote the well-known book Care of the Soul, went so far as to suggest, “The great malady of the 20th century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is ‘loss of soul.’ When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence and loss of meaning.”

Both Unitarians and Quakers have long self-identified, and been known historically as, “seekers.”  And Henry David Thoreau, that other great transcendentalist, was referred to as a “surveyor of the soul.”  The landscape of the soul is surely worthy of surveying. Re-discovering, tilling, and nurturing the Ground of our Being is a spiritual journey worth embarking upon.

Many of you I know are already on this journey—seekers and surveyors of Soul.  I dare say that your presence in virtual worship today is a testament to this aspiration at least.  For this reason, I am sharing with you these few reflections simply as a “cheerleader for the soul” and as a fellow-traveler.  My experience has offered me humble clues—real but ineffable, deep but indescribable.  These clues to the “universal beauty and eternal one” that Emerson evokes, the “soul of the whole” that he mines, are the self-same nuggets of gold that I have panned–or rather, have been unexpectedly gifted by.  I can say, along with T.S. Eliot as he wrote in The Four Quartets:

These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses;
And the rest is prayer, observance, discipline,
Thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood,
Is Incarnation.

Added to this “prayerful discipline, observance, thought and action” that Eliot invokes, I will offer just a few of my own guides or simple aids to “clear away” whatever may block our awareness of this Ground of life and being. We might view them as “soul-surveying tools.”

First, honor your experience and continue to cultivate your wonder.  Abraham Joshua Heschel—Jewish rabbi and philosopher–wrote that “Awe is the beginning of wisdom.”  Often, we treat as anomalies those experiences of awe that we cannot categorize or simply cannot place in the small boxes that our conventional frameworks, or our one-dimensional maps afford us. Nurture and cultivate that ground of experience because as Emerson exclaims later in his essay, “Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read…by yielding to the spirit of that prophecy which is innate in every person, we can know what [the soul says.]”

Secondly, take time to listen, and to practice silence and quiet. This may include distinct times of meditation, but it just as easily might involve allowing yourself to drink a cup of coffee or tea in the quiet and magic of the morning or at dusk. To sit or walk…and really ‘just sit’ or ‘just walk’…with no other distractions. Turn off, or unplug from the TV, from the radio, from music, from your computer screen for a time. Such practice offers the space to cleanse “the doors of perception” and gain the inner clarity needed to be attentive to the soul, to the “wise silence.”

Thirdly, slow down. As Thoreau opined, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!” Even as the pandemic has created something of a “forced sabbath” for many of us, it is nonetheless amazing (isn’t it?) how we can still fill our lives up and create undoable “to do” lists. “Be still, and know…” says the Psalmist.   In the Buddhist text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva teaches the development of patience—what is translated as the “austerity of patience.” Cultivating the practice of patience, of stillness, of slowing down invites the soul to alight.

Finally, seek to practice aligning your Soul-center with your actions in the world. Only by “yielding to the spirit of prophecy “as Emerson writes, “which is innate in each of us,” can we tap into the “energy of the Highest Law.” What Gandhi termed “Satyagraha” or “Soul Force.” One (revolutionary) Love.  Exploring and re-discovering the landscape of the soul, rather than an excuse for passivity is in the final analysis the foundation for genuine non-attached action in the world.

May I invite all of us then, ever so gently yet persistently to “Return to the land of our Souls” as the words of the song-chant that I regularly sing goes:

Return again, return again to the land of your soul.

Return to who you are,

Return to what you are,

Return to where you are,

Born and re-born again.