Credo by Corky Klimczak
Thinking back, I trace the opening of my spiritual path to a profound experience I had when I was 9 or 10. I went to a friend’s house hoping she could play, but she had to clean her room, so I headed to the woods behind her house alone. I spent a lot of time in those woods and often climbed trees. One of my favorite white pines to climb was on a hill overlooking my friend’s house. That day, I climbed it higher than I ever had before, right up to the very top branches.
Suddenly, strong gusts of wind began to blow and the tree began to sway. I clung to a top branch as we swooped down in one direction, then back upright and down on the other side, over and over. When I have told this story, people usually ask if I was frightened. I wasn’t, because I experienced an overpowering, all-encompassing feeling, first of being one with the tree, and eventually feeling that I was one with everything. I had never felt anything so powerful before, and I’ve rarely felt anything similar since. I didn’t know the words “ecstatic” or “mystical” then, but when I learned them later, I came to associate them with that experience, which has always stayed with me.
This experience of oneness transformed me in ways I didn’t understand then, and still don’t fully understand, but I didn’t need to understand it to know that it was real and had deep meaning. At that time, my family belonged to an Episcopal Church where I attended Sunday school and sang in the youth choir. I don’t remember if it was before or after my experience in the tree that I decided to make an altar in my bedroom, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it came after. I don’t remember telling anyone about my experience in the tree, certainly not any adult because I knew they would scold me for putting myself in danger, but I’m pretty sure I chose not to tell my friends either, because I couldn’t come up with words that would help them understand.
A couple of years later, it was time for my Sunday school class to prepare for confirmation. I participated in the preparation classes, but refused to be confirmed in the end, not so much because of strong objections to Episcopalian beliefs - although I did have some doubts - but because I felt it was unfair to ask a twelve-year-old to make a lifelong commitment to any religion. It was as though I had been given a menu with most of the meal choices redacted. I thought it was only fair to show me the unredacted menu before asking me to choose. I had enough Catholic and Jewish friends to know there were substantive choices to be made. I remember being very relieved when I learned that “agnostic” was a legitimate position on the existence of God.
Even as a young person, I had trouble with the concept of belief in the face of what couldn’t be proved or disproved. Like Rilke, I have always been more comfortable with questions than answers. I think beliefs too often prematurely end the ongoing process of learning that comes from deep exploration of where our questions lead us. I remember a long ago sermon in which the minister preached that the important question for UUs was not “What do we believe?” but “What do we believe in?” To what values and to whom are we committed? To what and to whom are we accountable?
What eventually brought us to USNF was our seven-year-old daughter’s insistent questions about religion, specifically, “Mom, what do we believe?” She was not at all satisfied with my answer that we believed that everyone had the right to decide for themselves what they believed. That only returned us to the question, “But what do we believe?” I realized I needed the help of other adults to provide the religious education she seemed to be looking for. And I was fortunate to have lived in Concord MA as a teen and to have had many UU friends, so I knew that our kids could get the kind of non-doctrinal religious education David and I would be comfortable with in a UU congregation. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much I had been missing a spiritual home for my own growth and development.
Today’s opening words by James Vila Blake were often read when we joined this congregation in the mid-eighties and their simplicity always resonated with me. “Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace; to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.” The Florence Statement was also very frequently read during services. We were proud of our forebears, particularly because in the midst of the Civil War in 1863, they had the foresight to proclaim that all were welcome here, regardless of “sex, or color or nationality.” Since then we have added just a few other categories of welcome, but it was a good beginning, and remarkable for the times. What moved me most in the Florence Statement, though, was the admonishment to ”keep [the] mind and heart at all times open to receive the truth and follow its guidance. . .asking only unity of purpose to seek and accept the right and true, and an honest aim and effort to make these the rule of life.”
A commitment to actively practice remaining open to receive the truth and to follow its guidance, and making an honest effort to live by the right and true is a reasonably good description of my spiritual path. Over the years, this path has led me to explore in many different directions, including membership in a pagan women’s circle, attending gatherings led by people channeling wisdom from non-corporeal beings, experimenting with various forms of meditation, and regularly worshiping with Benedictine monks at the Weston Priory in Vermont. I have more often received glimpses of truth through opening my heart and discerning when a new path is opening to me than by using my brain to seek understanding. My experience in the tree as a child laid the foundation for my faith and trust in a transformational power for the well-being of all that is greater than the self, a power that is revealed to us when we open ourselves to experiencing it and when we witness it moving through others. For me, no one word adequately encompasses this power, but words I associate with it are love, wisdom, justice, beauty and truth, and sometimes even God. Opening to it motivates us to be our best selves and inspires us to better our world, to quote from our USNF mission statement.
During my many personal spiritual explorations, I have always considered this congregation to be my spiritual home. My path would have been much lonelier and less vibrant without this community, seeking the right and true, and finding ways to live our values and be our highest selves - together. Your moral courage and passion for peace and justice have inspired me, over and over.
The power of love moving through this community is an awesome force. One time I felt it most strongly was when our son was diagnosed with cancer when he was 10. The prognosis was good that the cancer wouldn’t kill him, and it didn't, but the treatments almost did, multiple times. He received many cards, gifts and visitors from USNF and we had more offers of help than we could use. After 3 months at Bay State hospital, Evan was finally able to come home. The following weekend was the annual USNF picnic at Look Park. He was still very thin and weak, but wanted to go, and I can remember sitting on a blanket beside him as adults and his RE friends took turns welcoming him home. The outpouring of love and caring brought tears to my eyes. It still does.
Last year when Janet challenged us to craft a credo in 6 words or fewer, I came up with “Seek wisdom. Pursue justice. Grow love.” I was already on the path of seeking wisdom and committed to growing love before I became a member of USNF, but my commitment to work for justice, particularly racial justice, developed here. I’m not sure it would have made the cut to be included in my six word credo without the education, support and inspiration of the Racial Justice team, USNF the Vote, and the Climate Action group. Working for justice has become central to my identity, and for that, and so much else, I am deeply grateful to all of you.
Credo by Craig Dreeszen
Reading from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (adapted):
“When we recognize uncertainty about the future, we realize we may be able to influence outcomes – alone or in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the known and the unknowable, an alternative to certainty. It’s the belief that what we do matters – even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same.” ~~~
As Unitarian Universalists, we support each other here in our search for truth and meaning. I suppose my credo is an answer to what I’m learning from that search. What do I believe? What is truth? Ultimately, I don’t know. And that may be the truest thing I say today. Not all I believe is true. I believe I’ll be here next week. We’ll see.
What do I believe? Perhaps better to ask, what can I trust? I’ve been asking a long time. I have a vivid memory of sitting drowsily in a big auditorium, a high school English class. There were small televisions mounted around the walls projecting a remote instructor. This was 1967 cutting-edge education. The teacher was talking about the Transcendentalist writers Emerson and Thoreau and the poet Walt Whitman. I have no idea now what the teacher said, but decades later I still recall a quickening of my attention. I woke up! This was something true. I may have heard then, as I believe now, that all things, including me, are intimately interconnected; there is an ultimate unity; and I can know this directly.
Poets may have wisdom, but their words are not the ultimate truth. I read poetry and spiritual texts and respect religious leaders – but these can’t ultimately tell me what is true.
Hakuin wrote in 17th century Japan about what Buddhists call the Great Matter, “Realize that this cannot be handed down, and cannot be explained: rather it is like knowing for yourself by drinking it, whether the water is warm or cold.”
There is an intimate knowing that transcends teachers and words. I get a glimpse of that insight from time to time. The first sip of coffee in the early morning, the clear sound of a bell, or light glistening off water can open a door to the infinite. A loving gesture or news of loss can do the same. When I pay attention, when I become still, I can stand in awe of the profound and ordinary.
Books and teachers can only point the way. The Japanese poet Basho understood this. He wrote, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” Basho wrote the famous haiku, “Old pond/frog jumps in/splash.” With that splash he may have been describing his own experience of direct knowing.
Emerson was inspired by eastern traditions, but preached the western ideal of self-reliance. For a long time, I believed I didn’t need a religious faith. But when Diane and I thought we were ready to raise a child, we knew we needed help. We walked through the blue doors here on Easter 2 Sunday 1986 to a profusion of bright balloons and friendly people. John Farmakis was in the pulpit. He didn’t talk about Jesus. On Easter. We thought, “This place has promise.” We came looking for religious education and found a spiritual home. I had no idea then how important this community would become. Now nearly 37 years later I can’t imagine not being a part of this beloved community. This has changed my life.
I had no idea David Caruso’s adult education class in the parlor on Zen Buddhism would do the same. Nearly a decade after that workshop, I sit in daily meditation, meet regularly with Zen teachers, and am supported by a sangha of other Zen practitioners. My Zen practice and study profoundly shape what I believe. My practice reminds me to find the stillness.
When Janet offered a challenge to express our credos in six words, my practice made this easy. I thought, “Pay attention.” Notice what actually is, right here, right now. Just this, not what I think is, not what I hope or prefer would be, but what is actually before me. That’s my credo, Pay Attention. For just a moment, I considered coming here and saying only that. Pay attention. The Buddha is said to have offered a sermon in which he said nothing at all, just twirled a flower. Must have been a short service.
So, at the risk of saying too much, here are ten other things I trust:
- First, I can’t know for sure what is true. And what I think I know; I find hard to express. We find in the Tao te Ching, “Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.” And yet here I am.
- I trust that everything changes, nothing is permanent. Not me, not you. Not granite mountains that crumble into sand. I need only rake leaves or look into the mirror to see the truth of impermanence. Whatever we encounter, whether we name it good or bad -- this too shall pass.
- I trust in our seventh principle -- we are an integral part of an interdependent web. We are not separate, you and I and the rest of the universe. There isn’t even a unique, independent, unchanging self, a thing I call me. I am my ancestors and what I eat and breathe. We affect and are affected by forces beyond our understanding. And what I do matters in ways I can hardly imagine. Who knows the impact of our prayers and postcards? Quantum physics finds that entangled particles can affect each other even light years apart.
- The yesterday I remember is only a story, the tomorrow I imagine may never happen. I believe only this moment is real -- and now this one. Just this. Pay attention. Why does this matter? Remembering and planning are extremely useful. It’s good to remember how to drive a car and to buy gas before the tank is empty. Thinking back and taking precautions for the future are fine -- until I blame or get anxious. Then I cause needless suffering for me and others. The mistakes I regret and the imagined injuries I’ve suffered are just stories. Most of what I fear won’t happen.
- I suffer when I wish reality were different. I have to relearn this truth every day. When I’m ill, I make it worse by wishing it were otherwise. Asking “why me” is not helpful. I find it more helpful to notice WHAT is happening rather than asking WHY. Eihi Dogen wrote, “Flowers fall though we love them, weeds grow though we hate them.” Things are as they are. When I resist reality, reality always wins.
- Yet, resist we must. When we recognize greed, anger, or ignorance, we don’t have to say “This is OK.” We may say, “This is what is. Now, what shall we do about it?” I believe it was Bernie Glassman, a founder of Zen Peacemakers, who captured this apparent paradox, “Love the world, just as it is, with all your heart, and fight like hell to change it.” We work hard for change yet try not to become attached to the ideal result we imagine.
- There are many things I’m not sure about but, I know kindness is always the right choice. Choosing kindness honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our first principle. The Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible -- and it is always possible.”
- I also know, in spite of good intentions, I will continue to mess up. Mistakes happen. I stray from what I know, forget what matters, and must return to the path again and again. Like many of us have discovered as we’ve tried to understand and challenge racism, I try to do the right thing and fall short. I may look away when I see a chance to make a difference. When I fail to step up and when I mess up, I try to forgive. And if I can’t forgive myself, how can I forgive anyone else?
- I firmly believe what I do matters. What we do here matters. That English teacher and some of you here changed my life and never knew it. I believe our prayers and postcards change the world. “Heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.”
- And finally, I believe in hope. As we heard in the Solnit reading, “Hope is an embrace of the known and the unknowable, an alternative to certainty. It’s the belief that what we do matters – even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same.”