The following message was shared with the congregation of Unity Atlanta on Sunday, June 30, 2019. I was the guest preacher for a “multi-faith Sunday” and so I geared my message toward celebrating the commonalities between Christian mysticism and Unity.
I would like to begin by sharing with you a quote I found online from an Episcopal Bishop, who has written many books; his name is John Shelby Spong. When responding to an inquiry from a woman who told him that she had abandoned fundamentalist Christianity for Unity, this was Bishop Spong’s response:
I have great respect for the Unity Movement. I believe Unity is in the vanguard of calling Christianity into a new self-understanding. This movement is deeply life-affirming, not life-denying. It does not wallow in sin, but rather celebrates life. It also recognizes that there are many pathways to God and that none is evil. I have been greatly enriched by my close association with Unity over the years.
Friends, I agree with Bishop Spong.
I come to you today as a Catholic Christian, but perhaps even more as a lifelong student of the wisdom teaching in Christianity known as “Christian mysticism.” It’s my understanding that Unity’s approach to ecumenical or interfaith dialogue is to emphasize what unites us, rather than what separates us. Mystical Christianity, likewise, celebrates what unites us. And that’s what I would like to do this morning.
And speaking of what unites us, here’s a question for you. Can you feel the love in this room? I hope so — for I certainly can.
From where I stand, looking out over the community gathered here, I see miracles. I see faces that are shining like the sun. I see LOVE in human form.
We all know that God is Love. It’s a basic, core teaching — not just of Unity, or of Christianity, but indeed of the entire Western Wisdom Tradition.
William Blake, the great poet, once said, “And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love.” We could paraphrase that like this: “We are put on the earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the radiant beams of God.”
Think about it: every time you say “I love you” to somebody — even if it’s to your own self — you are giving them God. Every time someone says “I love you,” they are giving God to you.
This means that every time you fall in love, you are immersing yourself into God — ever more deeply into God.
I once heard a spiritual teacher say that a true mystic is someone who falls in love at least three times a day. I had another teacher, a few years later, who used to instruct her students to look for at least three miracles every day. I think these two are related. Fall in love — manifest a miracle.
Okay, the point here is not that we all need to be finding three new boyfriends or girl-friends every day! That’s not what my teacher meant, nor is it what I’m trying to say now.
“Falling in love” is bigger than just “Finding a Sweetheart.”
Falling in Love is something we can do with the sky, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars and the trees. I fall in love every time I see the ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico. I fall in love when I travel. I fall in love when I stay at home. I fall in love with my friends, over and over again.
And my wife! My wife — Fran — I fall in love with her, over and over again. Each and every day. Last Wednesday was our 26th Anniversary. And we are just getting started!
We can fall in love with works of art, with great poems or symphonies or songs, with movies and stories and legends. And don’t get me started on kittens… I do have a weak spot in my heart for kittens. My wife has to keep reminding me, “they do not all have to come home with us.”
Miracles All Around Us
Friends, take a moment and, if you are willing and able, please look at the person sitting next to you, to your left or right, in front of you or behind you. If it feels safe to do so, take a moment and gaze into their eyes.
You are gazing into the eyes of love. Right here and right now. You are gazing into the face of God. You are gazing into a miracle, a miracle in human form.
And that miracle in human form is gazing into your love, your Divine Presence, your miraculous being. You are a Sacred Gift. You are a blessing. Right here, right now. You don’t have to earn it, or prove it, or make it. There is nothing that needs to be achieved or manifested. It just is. You just are, and you are surrounded by love and miracles.
Does this make you smile? I hope so, because the more I rest my heart and my joy in the miracles of love that surround me, the more I smile. The more I experience joy.
Which reminds of a powerful affirmation that comes down to us from a woman who lived in the 1300s in England.
Julian of Norwich: “The Fullness of Joy”
Julian was a 14th-century English visionary, a mystic who had powerful and life-changing visions of what she called “Divine Love.” In fact, her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, was the first book written by a woman in the English language, at least to our knowledge.
And what a message she had for us! What a joyful, affirmative collection of wisdom is found in her book. Right now I just want to focus on one such statement:
For the Fullness of Joy is to Behold God in all.
Let’s fall in love with this amazing statement, and discover what it promises for each of us.
Julian lived at the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer, so she wrote in Middle English which is difficult to read in our day; so scholars translate her writing into modern English. What’s interesting about this line is that it gets translated as
For the Fullness of Joy is to Behold God in all.
but it also sometimes gets translated as
For the Fullness of Joy is to Behold God in everyone.
Friends, let’s take a moment and let these words of wisdom from over 600 hundred years ago sink in. As you know, I’m here today as a guest preacher so I’m a beginner when it comes to Unity — but based on my knowledge of Unity teachings, I think this wisdom from Julian of Norwich would fit right in. This may seem second nature to many of you, but I think we cannot hear this often enough.
Julian of Norwich beheld God in everyone because God IS IN everyone.
And she wasn’t the only Christian mystic who recognized this, either.
Epiphany on a Street Corner
In our own time, one of the most celebrated of Catholic spiritual writers was a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton. Merton lived in a monastery in Kentucky and became famous for his wisdom teachings. One of the most fascinating stories about Thomas Merton involves a mystical awakening that happened to him one day in the spring of 1958. He was in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, there to run an errand for the Monastery. And while he was there, he received a moment of enlightenment, and he said that when this happened, he was standing on a busy street corner, and he fell in love with everyone he saw.
Here I am suggesting we should fall in love three times a day, and depending on how crowded that street corner was, he fell in love with 20, 30, 50, maybe even a hundred people, all at once!
And why did he fall in love with them? Well, he wasn’t quite as bold as Julian of Norwich was — but if you read between the lines, it’s pretty clear what he was trying to say. When he wrote about what happened to him (in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), asks this question: “How do you tell people that they are all walking around, shining like the sun?”
He also suggests that if everyone could see what he saw, and now I quote him directly, he wrote:
If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…”
He goes on to proclaim,
“the pure glory of God [is] in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…”
He ends up by declaring, “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”
The ideas of Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton — and there others, names like Meister Eckhart, Jan Ruysbroeck, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, and many others — these great wisdom teachers of the past, none of whom are household names today, they represent the HEART of true Catholic, and Christian, and western spirituality. And their message is a message of love, of hope, of healing, of interior transformation, and of joy — all because it is grounded in the unshakeable conviction that God is present everywhere, in all things, and in all people — and that each and every one of us is a walking manifestation of that Divine Presence, capable of bringing Divine Love, Divine Light, and Divine Healing, literally to everyone we meet.
That is the heart of the wisdom tradition that is known as Christian mysticism. And, sad to say, it does not get taught in most neighborhood churches.
But back to Julian and her profound teaching about Divine Love and beholding God in all.
Lo and Behold!
I’d like to focus on this word “beholding.” It’s not a word we hear too much in the English language any more, except perhaps when your grandmother says “Lo and Behold,” which is an idiom that basically means “surprise, surprise, surprise!”
The only other time most of us hear the word behold is at Christmastime. We all know what the angel says to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
But what does this word behold really mean? At its most basic level, it is simply a fancy synonym for the word “Look.” The angel could just as easily have said “Look!”
And I bet you didn’t know this: but when we say “Lo and behold” — did you know that the word “Lo” is basically a shortened form of the verb “Look”?
The word behold has a much richer sense than merely to look, or to see. If I say “I behold” you, I’m not just saying “I look at you” or “I see you.” The hold part of behold means just what you think it means. Like the old wedding phrase “to have and to hold” — so when I say “I behold you,” I’m really saying “I embrace you.” I embrace you with my eyes — that’s the looking part — but I also embrace with my heart. And with my soul.
“The fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” We are invited not just to “look” at God, like God is a sight to see. That would imply separation! Like I could say “I look at Reverend Jenn” — she’s over there, and I’m here. But when I say “I behold God,” I’m not just looking at something out there — I’m embracing something in here. I’m embracing the Divine within.
And so with Julian of Norwich, when we say “the fullness of joy is to behold God in all,” we are not only affirming the Divine presence in all people, we are embracing that presence, holding it — in our eyes, in our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies. And out of that embrace flows love — for hey, God is love — and out of that love, miracles happen.
The Wisdom of Evagrius
Before I conclude, I’d like to touch very briefly on one other point that I think shows how Unity and Christian mysticism actually have a lot in common. When I was preparing this message, naturally I wanted to learn a little bit about Unity, so I did a little bit of research and I discovered “UNITY’S FIVE BASIC PRINCIPLES.” As I meditated on those, I was struck by this principle: “We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.”
What impressed me about this principle was how similar it is to a basic teaching of Christian mysticism that goes back all the way to the third century.
So I imagine most of you have heard of the so-called “Seven deadly sins.” Now, I know that Unity does not focus on the notion of sin. Unity affirms healing and creativity and abundance, and therefore dismisses “sin” as basically an erroneous way of thinking.
Well, believe it or not, as a student of Christian mysticism, I am comfortable with focus on thought rather than on sin. Let me tell you why.
Before Pope Gregory, back in the sixth century, came up with his idea of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” there was an earlier teacher named Evagrius, from the third century. It was from Evagrius’s teachings that Pope Gregory came up with this notion of deadly sins. But believe it or not, Evagrius never talked about deadly sins Rather, what he emphasized was the importance of letting go of what has been called the Eight Afflictive Thoughts.
Yes, that’s right. If you go back to the third century, you can find the mystical tradition in early Christianity insisting that the heart of the spiritual life consists of letting go of negative thinking that holds us back and that afflicts us with unhealthy, dualistic perspectives.
So it seems to me that when the founders of Unity began to teach about the formative power of thought, they were simply reclaiming and restoring an ancient wisdom teaching, that unfortunately had gotten lost over the centuries.
God is love. The fullness of joy is to behold God in all. The first step into a spiritually abundant life is letting go of unhealthy, limiting, negative thoughts.
It sounds like Unity and Christian mysticism have a lot in common indeed. No wonder Bishop Spong was so positive in his praise for Unity.