Gratitude for the Mystery

Gratitude for the Mystery
preached by Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Flint, MI
April 29, 2013

Good morning.  It is wonderful to be back in this beautiful space again.  I don’t know if any of you have been in the church in East Lansing, but we are housed in an old fraternity house – a space we outgrew more than 30 years ago.  We are currently looking for a new building.

We are in the midst of discernment about our space and identity – and so I’ve been sharing with my people a particular reading by Rachel Naomi Remen that offers perspective.  I don’t seem to have this reading out of my system yet, so I will share some of it with all of you this morning also. 

She writes,
“When I was remodeling my home, I was torn between two ways of creating access to my front door. One way involved building a flight of steps from the street that opened onto a path leading directly to my door.  From the moment you set foot on the first step, you could see the front door and know exactly where you were going.

“The other way was quite different. You come through a gate and climb a short flight of steps to a small landing.  Just beyond this landing is a tree of great beauty.  As you climb, all you can see is this tree.  When you reach the landing, you discover it joins a small deck bordered by a rose garden and passing through this find another flight of steps, quite steep, leading off to the right.  The top step is well above your eye level, and climbing, you see nothing until you reach a deck at the top, where looking to your right you discover a breathtaking sixty-mile view of San Francisco Bay.  Crossing this deck brings you to three gradual steps leading off to the left. 

Climbing these you unexpectedly find a little meadow which is my backyard, and rising from it the exquisite profile of … the highest mountain in our county.  Only then can you see my front door, which is now only a few steps away.  You have been moving toward it steadily, without knowing, all along.

“In struggling to make this decision I consulted two architects, both of whom told me that one of the basic principles of the architecture of front entrances is that people need to see where they are going from the start.  They agreed that the uncertainty of the second approach would create unease in any guest coming to the house for the first time. 

“Despite the uniformity of this expert advice,I ultimately chose the second way.

“Thinking about it now, it seems to me that knowing where we are going encourages us to stop seeing and hearing and allows us to fall asleep.  In fact, when I find myself on such a direct path, a part of me rushes ahead to the front door the moment I see it.  As I hurry to overtake this part, I usually do not really see anything that I pass.

“Not knowing where you are going creates more than uncertainty; it fosters a sense of aliveness, an appreciation of the particulars around you.  It wakes you up much in the same way that illness does.  I chose the second way.
“In fact, perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different.  I have done many things in order to achieve a valued goal only to discover in time that the real goal my choices have led me toward is something else entirely.  Something I could not even have known existed when I first set foot upon the path.  The purpose underlying life often wears the mask of whatever has our attention at the time.  The very reason that we were born, our greatest blessing, or our way to serve may come into our lives looking like…[the most mundane objects].“The truth is that we are always moving toward mystery and so we are far closer to what is real when we do not see our destination clearly.”  and so ends the reading

I don’t need to add anything to it, but of course I will.  She pretty much says it all, though.  We come from mystery  and we are always moving toward mystery.  We do not see our destination clearly, and Remen suggests that this fact makes us far closer to what is real…. “perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different.”

Perhaps, like in our story for all ages this morning.  The wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita suggests that one who is free from attachment is called a sage of steady mind. 

It is human nature to pass judgment, to use our judging minds to navigate the world, and it is a spiritual practice to learn to suspend that same judgment in order to experience what is more real.
One who is not disturbed in mind
even amidst the threefold miseries
or elated when there is happiness,
and who is free from attachment, fear and anger,
is called a sage of steady mind.” 

I looked at some other translations of this same passage:
When a man gives up all desires that emerge from the mind,
and rests contented in the self by the Self,
he is called a man of firm wisdom.


Not distressed in adversities, without craving for pleasures,
innocent of passion, fear and anger,
he is called a sage whose insight is firm.

I think what this sacred text is saying here is that though they served an evolutionary purpose, quick judgments can distort our perceptions.   Quick judgments developed in order to keep us alive –to quickly decide whether a far-off creature is suitable for our lunch, or about to attack us for theirs.  The same quick judgments can hold us back when hunting or being hunted is no longer the immediate struggle of our daily lives.  We are wise to learn to choose our actions, and not let our reactions choose us.

It is human nature to pass judgment, to use our judging minds to navigate the world.  It is a spiritual practice to learn to suspend that same judgment in order to experience what is more real.   “Perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different,” writes Rachel Naomi Remen.

It’s a mystery.   

That line from the movie, Shakespeare in Love, is an ongoing joke in my household.  Perhaps you’ve seen the 1998 movie written by Tom Stoppard?  It’s very loosely based on Romeo and Juliet.  Which in this version is first titled Romeo and Ethel the Pirates Daughter, to give you a flavor of the humor. 

This line – it’s a mystery -  is repeated quite often in this anachronistic narrative, beginning with this dialogue:

Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theater business. 
The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. 

So what do we do? 

Nothing.  Strangely enough, it all turns out well. 


I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

From this point on, the line,  I don’t know.   It’s a mystery, is repeated – often when we, the audience, think we know the outcome, but the characters are left unaware.

Like when the boy actor who plays Juliet suddenly  experiences the voice change of puberty.  We are fully expecting our heroine Viola to step in to play Juliet, but the characters don’t have a clue yet about how this will all unfold.

                 Juliet does not come on for twenty
                 pages. It will be all right.

                 How will it?

                 I don't know. It's a mystery.
sI commend this phrase to you in times of uncertainty and confusion.  Or perhaps it’s even more useful when we think we know what is going on, but are aware that our knowledge is incomplete. I don’t know.  It’s a mystery. 

It’s not true, of course, that it all turns out well, at least from a human perspective.  It neither turns out well in Romeo and Juliet, nor Shakespeare in Love, nor sometimes in our own lives. 

But it is true that what happens will someday be what has happened. 

The value we put on the happening is ours.

When we bring a child into this world, we do not know what her life will be.  It’s a mystery.  Likewise, most of us do not know what happens after we die.  That also is a mystery. 

But we can be grateful for the mystery. Grateful to be alive.   In fact, Rachel Naomi Remen, suggests that not knowing wakes us up, makes us alert, helps us notice things along the way that we might otherwise miss.   And for that, we can be grateful.

I understand that Gratitude is your theme this month of April.  Gratitude is an attitude and a practice, a way of being in the world, a way of welcoming what is, even when we don’t know what will be.  Even welcoming that which we don’t understand, didn’t ask for, and don’t want.  Grateful that life is more than what we understand.  It’s a mystery.  And not knowing is okay -  sometimes a blessing.

What are you grateful for now that you didn’t want then?  Even in your worst moments, you can work to uncover your gratitude.  If you can’t think of any reason to be grateful, you can be pretty basic.  Be grateful for your breath, or food, or the sun.  Be grateful if your body doesn’t hurt in this moment, or a stranger smiled at you today.  It doesn’t have to be profound.  But noticing is a part of the practice, and it honestly changes what it is you notice, which then changes what it is you experience, and before you know it, your gratitude multiplies.

For the sun and the dawn which we did not create,
for the moon and evening which we did not make;
for food which we plant but cannot grow;
for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy;
for this gathered company which welcomes us as we are,
from wherever we have come;
for all things which come to us as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves
gifts of life and love and friendship
we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.  writes Richard Fewkes

or if you prefer Shakespeare, take this monologue from Two Gentleman from Verona, the one our heroine Viola in Shakespeare in Love recites to audition. 

What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by
And feed upon the shadow of perfection
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me to look upon;
She is my essence, and I leave to be,
If I be not by her fair influence
Foster'd, illumined, cherish'd, kept alive.

Nothing like the words of William Shakespeare to express the poetry of love and gratitude.  We are grateful for those we love.  Sometimes the mystery of death reminds us of our tremendous gratitude.

When a person dies, we remember all the things we loved about that person, and often times, their faults diminish.  The faults don’t go away, but they no longer matter so much – and we’re left with memories and such thanksgiving.

I wear this stole today in memory of my grandmother.  She taught my mother to embroider who taught my sister and me to embroider.  My sister created this stole and did most of the embroidery work on it, but my grandmother, mother, and niece also sewed stitches on it.  It was given to me on the day of my ordination by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing – the church that has made its home in an old fraternity house, and is looking to find something different.   And yet we don’t know what.  It’s a scary adventure, because we don’t know where we’re going, and there is so much love and life in the building we now occupy.

 Love is sewn into this stole, too, and that love is palpable for me when I wear it.

The mystery of the sea is at one end, and the mystery of the sky at the other – life represented in between.  That life, as much as we seek to understand it, remains a mystery, so that we may notice it, attend to it, nurture it, and be grateful for it.

“Perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different”

So what do we do? 

Nothing.  Strangely enough, it all turns out well. 


I don’t know. It’s a mystery.