Talk presented by Rich Hayes
Oct. 26, 2014
at Unitarian Universalist Church
Pittsfield, MA

When someone is admitted to hospice all the disciplines call to offer a visit. When I introduce myself as the chaplain, I can just imagine them thinking to themselves, “I guess this really is bad! They want to send the minister”

A lot of people will tell me that they’re not church people; that they are spiritual but not religious.

One such man, I’ll call him Kenny*not real name), had initially described himself as a heathen, saying he didn’t believe in religion and wasn’t so sure about a God either. But what the hell, he could use the company if I wanted to stop by.

He lived in a low income apartment complex in a small 1 bedroom flat that was impeccably neat and clean. He was dying of lung cancer and when I arrived for my first visit there he was sitting at his kitchen counter smoking a cigarette and drinking some kind of health drink concoction.

He told me he’d read some of Edgar Cayce’s writings and this drink was supposed to balance out the acid and the alkaline.
I was familiar with Cayce and that seemed to please him, and on that first visit we spoke of some of the remarkable readings Cayce had done.

Kenny was in his early 70’s and had this kind of rogue-ish charm about him. He’d been a professional boxer, grew up in a in the city on the wrong side of the tracks and had what he described as a varied career path after his fight career faded. He said his past was a bit “checkered”.

He reminded me of a character you’d see in a movie like “Goodfellas”, or a show like the Soprano’s.

When I asked him about his earlier life he didn’t say much other than he’d done some bad things.

I commented that most of us do things we aren’t proud of (that’s the chaplain in me who tries to let everyone off the hook).

He looked rather intently at me and simply said, “ I mean
BAD things (emphasis on the bad).
Maybe it was in the way he said it but I didn’t pursue it any further.
He invited me back and I began to see him often. The more time I spent with him the more I grew to like and admire him. There was something noble about him- a nobility of spirit. Yet he was irreverent and funny too.

There was this gentleness and compassion and kindness about him. Despite all he’d been through and the rough things life had presented him with (prison time among them), he’d not been defeated by these things. They’d not eroded his spirit; just the opposite- they seemed to have revealed his spirit-to have strengthened it and brought forth the
qualities of that Spirit.

He was an avid reader. Although he’d never even made it out of high school, he read all sorts of books-philosophy, metaphysics, literature and all manner of esoteric stuff. He was what I would describe as a “seeker”. He asks questions all the time.

After a few months of visits with him I began to regard him as a kind of Spiritual Ninja – I looked forward to every visit. Most times it was hard to leave his presence.
He had been stable for so long that I began to think he was not really dying, when all of a sudden he started to fail.

One of our last visits together he told me he believed that we’re all here to help each other-to be kind and to love as much as we can, to love all of it-both the good and bad-everything.

Then, with this tough-guy puzzled look, he said to me, “I only have one question” I asked him, what’s that.
“Why couldn’t I have known this sooner, like when I was younger…?”
Of course I couldn’t answer that. So instead I asked him a question: If you could go back in time and speak to that younger you and tell him all you’ve learned, what do you think would happen?”
He thought about it for a minute or two and then smiled at me, shook his head and said, “He wouldn’t have known what I was talking about.”
I asked him, “Knowing what you do know now, if given the chance would you do any of those things today?”
Almost immediately he said ”Of course not!”

I said, "Lesson complete."

You see Kenny, while not being religious was really very spiritual. As I said he’d read lots of books. He’d become interested in some of the teachings of the East and he’d often speculated that every person comes into this life to learn lessons, that the end objective is to become better people and thereby to evolve spiritually.

He’d been left back in the 7
th grade and said it had been a terrible and humiliating experience.
He said he didn’t want to be left back ever again.
And he said this time he wanted to graduate.

I was with him the day he died. And the sense I had as he left this life was that he got to do exactly that-and with honors. There was a great sense of light and love in that room.

As Joseph Campbell reminds us, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure”.

Kenny’s life story speaks to this truth. He took the things that he stumbled over and eventually found the treasure.

That is the way of the spiritual path. It is not all sweetness and light, it is one that challenges and breaks us too. But what’s that saying? We become strongest in those broken places.
If you’re feeling a bit broken please take heart.

The 3
rd of Unitarian Universalists 7 Principles states “Acceptance of one another and Encouragement of Spiritual Growth”

It’s often said that we need to get our priorities in order.
We do.

I encourage you to make spiritual growth a priority.
It will serve you well. But the truth is we're all on the spiritual path whether we recognize it or not. It's part of the human journey.

So how do you cultivate spiritual growth?
Here's a few suggestions:
Ask questions, spend time wondering, explore things you normally bypass. Begin to develop practices that will help you on this path: silence, take time out of you busy schedule and just "be" for a few minutes, meditate, pray, dance, sing;
Find ways to feed that unseen part of you that is your spirit-
daily feedings are encouraged(and necessary)!

And probably the most effective thing you can do to grow spiritually is to be of service to another human being. in the words of my late friend Peter, get out of yourself! Go help another human being. When you get stuck in feeling sorry for yourself (even if you are fully justified in these feelings) allow a limited time to offer yourself comfort, then go and do something for someone else.

It doesn’t have to be a big-small stuff and small acts can make big differences in life. Start with kindness - practice random acts of kindness everyday. Don’t tell others about your good deeds-just do them. This alone will change you for the better. And build spiritual "muscle".

And always keep practicing. The spiritual path is not about arriving anywhere, so let that go! Remember, it’s always about the journey! And the journey is about mystery-because we cannot know until it is time for us
to know.

This is usually the most challenging part of the whole spiritual Journey for we human beings who just love to “know” answers and figure things out ahead of time!

A big part of the journey is about letting go, which is so hard for most because we always want to be in control. Modern life has given us the illusion that we
are in control, or at least sold us on the idea that if we do or buy certain things we will be.
This feeds our ego which always tries to run the show.
Practically ALL spiritual practice is about taming the ego, and thus about seeing the limits of what we really do control.
There is no greater challenge for most of us.
And to let go can feel dangerous and very scary.

Ted Murray writes:
“What happens when you let go of trying to micromanage your life and simply fully trust the universe? For some it seems like nothing happens while others can manifest miracles. What is the difference? The first step is complete faith that the universe always provides for your highest good. This trust can be a challenge to maintain when it seems like so many things haven’t worked out for you. However, if you can take the approach that even the most challenging experiences are what is needed for your spiritual growth, then you can begin to see the good in everything. The other key is to set clear intentions and communicate them clearly to the universe. When you keep them broad and leave it to the universe to flesh out the details, then something even more amazing than you can imagine is capable of being created. However, you need to take the action that moves things forward. You are a co-creator with the universe, so you need to do your part. However, with this model of creation the action is joyous and fun, not a struggle. This energy of co-creation is now accessible to everyone. Combine faith with action and expect miracles to happen.” 

We’re not human beings having a spiritual experience, but the other way around: we are spiritual beings having a human experience. And we're each here to learn.

To wrap this all up for you let me conclude with an excerpt from “
Learning Life”
by Catherine Garland

And I’m glad I was not told
any of these things
else I would not have grown as tall
nor stretched as far.
I am glad these things were kept hidden from me
until I could open the gate to taste and touch,
to smell and feel, and
to discover my self along the way.

I wish you all good journey and happy trails!
Thank you.