I’ve decided to attend services at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. The first service convenes at 9:15, which dovetails nicely with the Dance Tribe celebration at 11.
In the context of Trump’s immigration ban, last week’s service was serendipitous. A local couple shared pictures taken last year on the island of Lesbos, the point of access to the EU for those fleeing conflict throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. The refugees were drawn by Angela Merkel’s pledge of sanctuary to cross from Turkey over the five-mile channel on rubber rafts. Rafts made unstable by choppy seas and shoulder-to-shoulder passengers. As water was taken on, personal goods were often tossed overboard.
The refugees arrived on rocky shores against a steep cliff. Happy but exhausted, they were forced to climb up to a receiving zone, because laws prohibit private transport of illegal immigrants. The presenters ignored this risk, ferrying young and elderly alike in their car. Seeing the stress on the faces of parents, they also brought in paper and markers, inviting the children onto blankets where many of them documented the crossing – not excluding, in one little boy’s picture, those lost in the waters.
Reverend Julia Hamilton favors the spiritual image of the “cloud of witnesses,” and in this case, the cloud was hung around the sanctuary: photographs of children with their pictures. I struggled to maintain my composure, feeling their exhaustion and confusion beating through time, and echoed in places around the world. We rode through it, and in the receiving line afterwards, I simply asked “May I?”, before joining the hands of the husband and wife in mine, bending forward to allow my cloud to affirm theirs. When I offered “Thank-you for your compassion,” the woman echoed “Thank you!”
Today’s service was more typical: a reflection on personal spiritual growth. After inveighing against identification of our selves with our struggles, Rev. Hamilton continued with a parable on the traps of dogma and creed. Visiting with another master, the Zen poet Basho quoted sage after sage, until his host interrupted to ask: “Basho, you are clearly a master of Zen teachings. But could you offer me one thought of your own – one authentic expression of self?” Basho’s embarrassment deepened minute by minute as nothing came to mind. Finally, he looked outside and felt welling up in him:
The old pond.
A frog jumps in.
His host clapped in delight.
Rev. Hamilton explained the parable as signifying the importance of being where we were – we are not our struggles, but nor our we are achievements. We are who we are in the moment.
As she illustrated the point, I found myself wondering when she was going to remark on the emptiness of a journey made alone. But it never came. That is the challenge of Unitarian Universalism, full of iconoclasts synthesizing the views of many traditions, each achieving a unique spiritual practice. In the best case, the seeker stands on the shoulders of avatars from every culture; in the saddest case, the seeker ends up like Basho – empty of personal understanding. It was this contrast that Rev. Hamilton developed: the spiritual journey is a journey to self-knowledge.
I really didn’t catch the last ten minutes of the service, my mind spinning as I grasped at methods for expressing the flowering of my own journey from sterile self-knowledge. For some reason, they crystallized in haiku form, bringing surprise and delight to her eyes when I intoned:
God finds meaning: