This I Believe: Lisa Wersal (2010)

Experiencing the Divine

Last spring, my mentor and friend, Sister Brian Spain of the Order of St. Benedict, passed away.  Louis and I were privileged to be at her bedside a few days before, and sat quietly in prayer and meditation, as she slept.  I offer my remarks today to honor her and her Benedictine Sisters, who nurtured my spiritual development during my college years and beyond.  They demonstrate many of the values we UUers hold dear: extending hospitality; being environmentally conscious and responsible; encouraging free thinking, listening, and reflection; and being peacemakers and community-builders.

I wear purple today in solidarity with Catholic women who aspire to be priests.  While this is not allowed officially, some women are ordained through unofficial channels, and when they conduct services, they wear purple stoles.

I have also brought with me today are few props that are on display behind me, which you are welcome to come up in view after the service.  Their significance will be explained during my talk.  Now, let’s begin:

Last November, I made an impromptu visit to White Bear Lake, to commune with the energies there, which I perceive as feminine in nature (as in, “The Lady of the Lake).  I wasn’t dressed warmly enough for late November, so I shivered as strong gusts of wind accelerated off the lake.  Still, I felt drawn down to the water’s edge, and I strolled along the shoreline, enjoying the serenity of the deserted beach, and studying the remnants of fall — the decaying vegetation, and broken bits of snail shells and bird feathers scattered about.

As I gazed into the water, studying the rippled sandy bottom below, I felt an urge to bless myself with this crystal clear water.  Now, I was already chilled to the bone, so I didn’t want to put my hand into the frigid water.  Instead, I searched my pockets for the only container-like item I had — a drinking straw.  Pinching one end shut, I dipped the straw into the water, and then sprinkled myself with whatever icy clarity these waters might hold or inspire (about life, generally, or my own journey, specifically).  Twice more, I scooped the straw into the water, and then turned to toss blessings in the direction of my home and Louis, my partner.  It was a simple ritual, but through the process, I felt peacefulness and self-assurance rise up within me, until I was completely filled.

Grateful for the gifts I had received, I stepped back from the water’s edge, unwittingly tracking through writing left in the sand by another visitor.  As I backed up further, I discerned a message, drawn in large, round, perfectly-proportioned letters: “Jesus really loves you!”

I laughed out loud at the irony.  I was at the lake, communing with the Divine Feminine, and all the while, someone else was eager to avail me of another theology.  Still chuckling, I recalled that Jesus, along with legions of other people in various cultures and times, likewise conducted rituals at convenient bodies of water, to bless and sanctify, to make whole, or to ease suffering, each with his or her own symbolism in mind.

From the careful, artistic shape of the lettering in the sand, I imagined the writer to be a young teen girl — someone who dots her i’s with smiley faces, and wears a “What Would Jesus Do” wristband.  I sensed her enthusiasm, her joy in sharing…and I received the gifts of comfort and hope she no doubt intended to convey.

I, too, had been raised in a Christian tradition, so her outreach was not entirely foreign to me.  But as I reflected on my own youth, I remembered that in all my times of receiving consecrated wafers of bread and sips of wine, I felt confused and undeserving.  The predominant message I had received in my religious training was that I was unworthy, and it seemed that no amount of penance or good works on my part, or Jesus’ outpouring of love and sacrifice on his part, were sufficient to overcome my flawed nature.  I might have been receiving Communion, but I wasn’t fooling anyone, certainly not God.

However, there was a venerated figure in Catholic tradition with whom I resonated, one that felt gentle and nonjudgmental  —  Mary.  I didn’t have to work to win her favor; she didn’t have a list of Commandments.  I wasn’t expected to model myself after her, and she wasn’t scheduled to sit in judgment at the end of time.  She was the Divine Mother, the one to whom I confided my troubles and offered up intentions, saying, “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy.  Hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.”  These words still feel like poetry to me, embodying the essence of beauty.

As I matured, connecting with the energy of Mary became even more satisfying.  Even now, although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I still occasionally steal into Catholic churches to meditate at shrines dedicated to Mary.

Additionally, several other feminine divinities now capture my attention, and their representations grace my home mantle: Tibet’s compassionate Kwan Yin, the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, who inspires creative endeavors, and Yemaya, the Yoruba Goddess of the Ocean, the mother of all life.  Yemaya traveled with her people when they were hoarded onto slave ships.  She reminds us that even the worst catastrophes can be endured with wisdom, courage, and grace.

I also have many statues of angels in my home.  As messengers, Angels embody good communication skills.  They are also associated with protection and joy.

All of the qualities that these many figures represent, I try to emulate and carry with me in my interactions in the world.

No doubt, by now, some WBUUC members may be feeling skeptical, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable, with all this talk of deities and angels.  Some might be wondering just what powers I attribute to these beings …or to White Bear Lake, for that matter.  A few may insist that whatever powers there are, they are of my own making…and perhaps that is correct.

In my spiritual life, I am content with ambiguity.  And although this series of talks is entitled, “This I Believe,” I rely more heavily on experience than belief.  For me, things of the Spirit are not rigid or narrowly-defined, and certainly not static.  They are paradoxical, subtle, expanding, and evolving.  In my perspective, spiritual understandings are not etched in bold letters in the sand (“Jesus really loves you”).  They are found in the winds and the waves and the footprints that shift the sand, gradually obscuring any writing.

As I believe that experience is key, I’d like to leave you with a little experiential exercise that is part of my spiritual practice.  It doesn’t involve any deities or angels.  It’s a meditative exercise that focuses on the power of love, so it is in keeping with our shared UU commitment of standing on the side of love.   As I walk through the steps, feel free to do it along with me, or simply observe, whatever feels comfortable.  In the interest of time, I’ll go through the steps a little more quickly than you might wish to do on your own… so if you try this later, I encourage you to spend more time with it.

(Guided meditation follows)