Spiritual Friendship

a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie


Writer David Whyte says that “the ultimate touchstone of friendship is witness, the privilege of being seen by someone and the equal privilege of seeing the essence of another. To walk and believe in someone on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.” Spiritual friendship is a long held expression in our faith. Come and renew yourself in the possibilities and the power of spiritual friendship.

Reading of “The Free Mind” by William Ellery Channing #592

The Sermon

I call that Mind Free which sets no bound to its love. This reading reminds me of why I walked through the doors of a Unitarian Universalist church so many years ago and how each of us here in our own way want to claim our agency and use our gifts to cultivate a better world. I also love this reading because the author William Ellery Channing was the person who by his ministry opened up for me the possibility of a spiritual friendship in my life. You see, the back drop to the reading is that Channing embodied the truth that our self-forming power is not realized alone but something we set free together, not only for our personal benefit but for what he called the ‘social web.” He was mentor and spiritual friend to our first generation Unitarians: Ralph Waldo Emerson who we know for the power of his original thought, Theodore Parker whose words still suggest to us God’s immediacy in our lives, and Margaret Fuller who embodied the spiritual power of women. But my favorite is the friendship he cultivated with Elizabeth Peabody, a friendship that inspired me to reach out to a present day elder, Carl Scovel who has been my spiritual mentor and guide for ever ten years and who like Channing did for Peabody helped me claim my agency and name my gifts. He is now in his late 80’s and I don’t see him as much but when I told him that he is to me what Channing was to Peabody he said with emotion, “you have given me a great honor.”

You see Channing was the person who claimed the name “Unitarian,” which up until his famous 1819 sermon had been used by the Christian orthodox as a term of ridicule. In his sermon he named for us a loving God not a damning one and described our nature as virtuous, not depraved. His words were rays of light onto a gloomy religious landscape and long barren souls by the hundreds responded to his love. His Federal Street Meeting House, today Arlington Street Church in Boston, swelled in number. This is where Elizabeth Peabody met him. She walked from her home in Brookline bereft in spirit. As the oldest of six children and a daughter of an unsuccessful doctor she had to support her family by teaching the children of the social elite. Having read the classics in her grandfather’s library as a child she held views about God and human agency that were similar to Channing’s but too radical for her employers. Their dissatisfaction forced two of her schools to close. She was bereft of love as well. She had recently fallen in love twice. The first time with Horace Mann our Massachusetts champion of public education. Yet he married Elizabeth’s sister Mary. The second time was with Nathanial Hawthorn who instead married her sister Sophia. Elizabeth describes those years so filled with self-reproach she had become depressed in hope. Though she had studied her way out of the Calvinistic doctrine of original sin she realized she had substituted it with her Unitarian discipline of self-improvement which left her feeling responsible for her “failings.” But with Channing she felt as though he could read her innermost soul and in his mirroring she was reconnected to her inalienable being -full of goodness. Carl Scovel saw me through the same lens. As I shared with him some of my losses over the years he was fond of asking this question: “Aren’t you grateful for your suffering?” He stopped me short every time until I finally saw that he was teaching me that sometimes from our struggles comes our destiny and from our suffering comes our greatest gifts.

“This is what a spiritual friend is” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Someone with whom you learn to trust your heart again.” Elizabeth Peabody returned to teaching more determined than ever to set free the minds and hearts of children for back then children were believed to be born in sin, “limbs of Satan even” until taught otherwise. She and Bronson Alcott opened the Temple school that helped children realize their divine goodness by engaging them in conversations about the Bible. When Elizabeth asked 7-year-old Edward, “How is your nature different from God’s?” He said, “God’s spirit is a million times larger than our own and we come out of him like a drop in the ocean.” When Elizabeth asked Ruth if she considered herself a child of God? She said, “Oh before I was born, I think I was of God myself. “ And when asked, what is heaven? David said, “Heaven is in our spirit, -in god. It is no particular place. It is not above the sky, it not material. It is where ever people are good. Ruth agreed saying, “heaven is the spirit’s truth and goodness, it is in everybody.

The children also spoke of the prophetic power of love. When Elizabeth asked if they thought they could be prophetic for one another, Mary said, “If we had faith enough.” William said, “if we had love enough” and Charles said, “a prophet brings a little love that gives the impulse for more.”

I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love. I like to imagine how the impulse for more love opened possibilities in these children’s loves. I know it did for Elizabeth. She went to Germany to study education and introduced kindergarten to this country. Just as I was contemplating the prophet power of spiritual friendship, the weekly “Brain-Picking” blog popped up in my email about a prophetic friendship that had a huge impact on this world. Does anyone subscribe to this blog? Its great. In this one I learned how the friendship between Dorothy Freeman and environmental author Rachel Carson enabled the environmental movement of our day. For you see it was Dorothy’s devotion to Rachel which helped her overcome depression so she could finish her visionary book “The Silent Spring” that called for us humans to be stewards of the earth for the first time. Ten years before she died in 1964, Rachael wrote to Dorothy “With you, I begin to sense the capacity to enter so fully into the intellectual and creative parts of my life as well as to be a dearly loved friend… Without you, I truly don’t know what I would be doing now.”

I call that mind free which masters the senses and recognizes its own reality and greatness.

Spiritual author David Whyte says that the ultimate touchstone of a friendship is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another. What gifts and beauty have you seen in another and what gifts and beauty has someone seen in you? Take a moment and name that beauty. The world becomes a little more beautiful when we do. After Rachel’s first afternoon together with Dorothy at her home in Maine she wrote a letter describing their time together with the words of Keats’ “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness; but will keep full of sweet dreams.”

Over the years, Rachel and Dorothy stayed connected mostly by letter and in their writing they explored the quality of their love. Happily married, Dorothy explained to Rachael how her capacity to love grows with the exercise of it. Rachael agreed,“ we need all that we mean to each other, and that is what is at the heart of our love.” And she adds, “There is something that is intangible about our love — that the whole is something more than its parts… Like the sun, is more than a gigantic mass of ions, it is a splendor and a mystery, a force and a divinity, it is life and the symbol of life.”

Spiritual friendship is a mystery, a splendor and a force. A student in the Temple school described what this force feels like. When Edward was asked, “Could you move a mountain?” He said, “Yes, but I don’t mean that I can lift the mountain with my hand. But I can feel and know that my conscience is greater than the mountain, for I can feel and do what the mountain cannot. The mountain was made and that is all. But my conscience can grow. The body is a mountain and the spirit is the conscience, it can be moved. I call that mind free that listens for new and higher monitions of conscience.

Spiritual friendship is underestimated in our lives today says David Whyte mostly because overwork makes us forget about whom we will need when our busy selves run into the inevitable struggles of being alive. A diminishing circle of friends is the first sign of trouble says Whyte, and I know for me when my circle starts getting small, I often respond by just working harder. Does anyone else do this? I don’t think we are alone-despite hundreds of friends on Face Book, Americans on average can claim two friends with whom they confide. Here is our call as a faith tradition,- to cultivate a culture of spiritual friendship- a call we claim with the subversive intention of changing the world. But how?

If Channing were here, he would tell us to step out of our context and expand our conscience. He made a point of reaching out to those in need telling his congregation “The force of the soul may be found in the humblest conditions.” If Rachel Carson were here she would say slow down and “open your heart ” we need all that we are to each other. She knew after a few hours with Dorothy, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’ If Peabody or Carl Scovel were here they would say listen when someone bears witness. Sometimes, a simple question or phrase can points you towards your true calling.

As we go forth today, let us hold the truth that together we create friendships rich with splendor and mystery that set our hearts and souls free to do what ever we can do to cultivate a better world: Let us tap the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors to open the heart of another to the possibility of a spiritual friendship, reaching forever inward and outward knowing no bounds to a love that can move mountains. Let us be always hopeful gardeners of the spirit who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth as without light nothing flowers. Let us be forever grateful for the gift of accompanying another for however briefly on a journey impossible to accomplish alone. Blessed Be.