Knowing Unknown


Sermon: Knowing Unknown 

When I was seven, I became obsessed with a series of wooden sculptures that hung on each side of the walls of the sanctuary, in my little Catholic church where I grew up.  They were spaced out equally, so that they one after another, they told the story of Jesus in his final hours.


queen of angels catholic church, port angeles, WA, courtesy of google. see the wooden statues? still there.

Each year – about this time (we’re in the first week of Lent) a group of women would gather every day to move from one figure to the next.  One suffering scene to the next. There must have been men who came and prayed the stations. But only the women came as a group.

They exuded an incredible combination of both utter boredom and total commitment.  Commitment to this muttering of words that they had long ago disconnected from, commitment to this kneeling, sitting, standing, moving – and repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

Yet somehow, at seven, all the mysteries of life felt to me contained in this routine, this rhythm.

I was in second grade at the attached Catholic school, and I had been watching them.

One day I asked my teacher if maybe during recess, I could go over and join them.

I wish I could remember my teacher’s face, to get such a question.

But all I remember is that she said yes.

I don’t remember the women being especially warm when I showed up, or willing to look after me.  Which was fine. I didn’t feel I needed looking after.  I came for the sculptures, the story. I came because I too knew the words by heart, and wanted to recite them with the same regularity, the same duty.  I came to move from one station to another, with others who had moved in the same way for years, all within this story of suffering and salvation.    

I came most of all, because I needed to be a part of this knowing, a part of the mystery – the knowing, and the mystery.   

That same year I went to my priest and asked him what I should to do to become a saint. His face, too, I’m guessing would’ve been a sight.

I had other questions: about God, and Jesus, and what it meant to live a good life. But this question – about how to be a saint – was the real reason I asked to meet with him.  How I could become like the saints in my book, that I had read over, and over. 


Theresa of Avila.  Catherine of Sienna. Joan of Arc. Theresa the Little Flower.

Just like those who gathered to pray the stations of the cross – and in contrast to the priests, or the kids who got to be altar BOYS, or the bishops, the saints were often women.  Sometimes really young women – teenagers.  Even though their middle-ages, plague and crusades-filled stories – were ridiculously far from my own cozy 1980s childhood in the pacific northwest…. somehow their ways of knowing felt accessible to me. Like a path I could travel, if I could just learn how.  

The saints seemed to know – everything.  Not just a piece of truth, but the most important truth.

Just as importantly, they were recognized for this knowing – in their times, and now. Their voices mattered, their lives were lifted up as examples.  

They were powerful.

Their example was what drove me to spend my recess time studying sacrifice, and stillness, around a series of wooden sculptures, with women mostly my grandmother’s age.  (I know it seems unbelievable, but I swear it’s true!) 

It is a different sort of knowledge that comes in these sorts of rituals, and these spaces. Here we learn the wisdom of our bodies, of community, the wisdom held, and released through the breath, and in breathing together.  It is the sort of Truth that comes through direct experience, without observation, or interpretation.  

Truth in the now, in our Being.  Truth before words, before story, before meaning. When we’re children, we accept this sort of knowing intuitively, readily, automatically.  Our ignorance is a gift that allows us just to dive in, and receive.  It’s only later, when we try to “make sense” of things, when we try to attach language, and meaning, and logic – then, the spell breaksand this once-intuitive-wisdom becomes harder and harder to access.  

It can be a kind of grief, this breaking of the spell; even when there is also liberation and release – the grief can linger.  So much, we wish we could go back to unknowing, so that we could know in this way, again.

The mystical tradition – and many of the saints were mystics – is what happens when the unknowing stays, and the spell remains unbroken.   Mysticism is Truth disconnected from language – and any attempt to connect words or concepts to mysticism degrades it, by definition.

Which makes a sermon on mysticism basically ridiculous.  

It reminds me of the first time I heard the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka speak.  She started by reminding us that “God” is a word to describe an experience, and a reality.  But before the word was the experience.  The experience is first order spirituality. The language we put around it, the meaning we try to make, this is second order.

All theology, and most of what we do together, it’s second order.

It’s why my theology professor used to say – remember, all theology is a lie. But unfortunately, as I said last week, even when we are wrong, we often start to believe we are right.   

Julian of Norwich – a powerful Christian Mystic once proclaimed: “I am made of God.” 

In his recent podcast on mysticism, Mike McHargue shares her words – and then he adds: “Whatever that means.”

It’s the perfect phrase as we attempt to talk about mysticism.  An open acknowledgment of an open hand, as with our meditation, knowing that these utterances are an inadequate, and yet all we have.  

Philosophers Walter Terence State, and Douglas W. Shrader are two of the more well-known scholars who’ve also made this attempt to put into words that which is beyond words.  And so I’m going to thread their work together, and offer what the 10 things that mystical experiences have in common. 

The first one is what we’ve already named.  Their ineffability. They are beyond words.

Second, mystical experiences are transient– they don’t last.

Third, there is a sense that this experience happened to you – you didn’t make it happen.

Fourth, mystical experiences put you in touch with a unity of opposites.  There is no separation between you, and not-you. You realize “You are God – in Drag.”  Everything is everything, and you are a part of everything. But also, you are nothing, as everything is nothing. 

Fifth – there is a timelessness about the experience – it transcends time, and space.

Sixth – there’s a sense that you have encountered your true self.  Or Truth itself. Truth that was there all along, but just hidden. You have been a “divine elephant with amnesia, trying to live in an ant hole.”

Seventh, there’s a sacred quality about the whole experience.  It’s why people often end up using religious words – even though still those words are inadequate.

Eighth – these experiences leave you with a deeply felt positive mood.  They are good for you.

Especially for those who have experienced trauma or who struggle with mental health conditions.

Nine.  The experience feels real.  It doesn’t feel like a dream or like you imagined it.  It feels real.  Which is actually complicated – and made more so by those same brain studies.  Researchers can now track mystical experiences in the brain, which means, we can prove, there’s a there there.

But also they’ve found that people with damage to the frontal or temporal lobes are much more likely to report mystical experiences.  Which makes some say that maybe mystical experiences are “simply” the workings of a damaged brain.  This is basically impossible to settle – all we can say for sure is that just because something shows up in the brain does not mean it is ONLY in the brain.  And as with most things, realness is mostly a matter of what happens next.

Which is number ten – what comes next.  After a mystical experience – there is a positive change in the self.  A lasting change.  So the positive mood and health effects don’t just happen in the short term – they stay.

If we use these criteria to describe mystical experiences – researchers estimate that 30 – 40% of people in North America have had a mystical experience.

Which does not mean that 30-40% of people are mystics…..because mystical experiences are not the same as mystical practices.

You can have a lifelong mystical practice – and yet never have a mystical experience (this is called: frustration); and you can have no practice at all yet still have an experience that we would call “mystical.”

What’s more, while all of the world’s religious traditions contain and some even center mysticism, traditional religiosity is not a pre-requisite for mysticism.  There’s an entire field of philosophy called phenomenology –  which basically means, the experience of things, rather than the meaning.  It’s like, the heat of the flame, the smell of the alcohol burning – rather than the meaning of the chalice, these phenomenon are the thing you experience.  We can experience and notice, without meaning-making,  and allow ourselves to be filled with wonder.  

When this wonder transform into an expansive wonder about everything – all in a deeply mysterious way that overtakes you – this too is mysticism.  No religious language or theism required. 

I don’t know if this happens so often with the heat of the flame, but maybe – with the wind on your arm, the aspens singing, the light vast across and through the clouds, maybe there, a kind of transcendent beauty has overtaken you – everything coming into clear focus, while also dropping away – 

Maybe there you have felt – both how small, and how great you are.

This too is mysticism.

It is what Ralph Waldo Emerson was trying to describe when he wrote of about being a “transparent eyeball.”

I put the full quote on the cover of the order of service – it’s from his 1836 essay Nature.

“Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

This too is mysticism.

Emerson was a Unitarian minister – or at least he was until about four years before he wrote that essay, when he decided to resign.  

He was a part of a growing reform movement in and around Unitarianism at the time – what became known as Transcendentalism.  This group of reformers were responding to Unitarianism’s focus on rationalism, and tradition as sources of truth and authority. They didn’t believe that truth should come in in second-hand, or through anything other than a person’s direct experience.   Emerson especially thought the  preachers of his day were fake, inauthentic – and he wanted none of it.

When you learned about Transcendentalism, you probably heard it in relation to Emerson, or maybe Henry David Thoreau.  It’s less likely you heard about the women – Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody – for example incredible leaders, feminists, social reformers, and intellectuals. 

Women were drawn to Transcendentalism for the same reason women were drawn to early mysticism – the same reasons women gathered for the stations of the cross – the same reason I wanted to gather, too – it was a rare place where women were affirmed in our capacity to directly understand, and to know the Truth. 

This is the radical assertion of mysticism – that any and all of us have access to this knowing.

Despite my early start, I have spent much of my life entirely disconnected from this sort of knowing – caught instead in the broken spell. Like most of us, I got filled up with so many words, and ideas, and mental models – a different sort of knowledge that has been consistently rewarded, and rewarding. I have felt less a transparent eyeball, let alone God in drag – and more like a big brain, with an incidental body, and a bunch of terribly-inconvenient feelings.  

For much of my life I have studied mystical experiences, but I don’t have them.

But then, over these last few years, things shifted. Life shifted.  The world shifted. 

Just in the last year, I could point to at least 3 moments I’ve had that fit most if not all the 10 I listed. Life has shifted, the world has shifted, and I have shifted, as I have come to know a degree of pain, and grief, and lack of control – I just didn’t know before. 

I don’t believe I am alone.

I see it all across our progressive communities – in this community, in us.  As we have come to understand that answering the call of courageous love is inherently risky –  it’s why it’s called courageous after all.  Answering the call of courageous love often asks us to turn towards rather than away from suffering, and sacrifice – our own, and others.  Suffering that we cannot fix, maybe not ever.  We find ourselves feeling lost, ill equipped, ill prepared.  

Our big brains are not enough.

As one of my colleagues has said, the sort of problems we face today, we can’t simply “think” our way out of them.

The past few years have taught me – mysticism is not what happens when the spell never breaks. That’s maybe a childhood version of mysticism. Mysticism is actually what’s possible when the spell breaks, but then the breaking breaks, and then all knowing comes apart.  Mysticism is the surrender to unknowing after the knowing. It is the surrender that allows us to know everything.

“At the end of all my ideas, I glance freedom.”  Mike McHargue says.  “When I surrender to my limits, I glimpse the infinite.” 

As I lean in to the suffering that is everywhere, including, in me – I see also the beauty that is everywhere, and in everyone because as Julian says – they are made of God, too.

“Whatever that means.”

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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