“Beyond Words” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
This month our focus is on love, and this week we dive headfirst into the mystery. Join us as we explore and unpack the truth “God is Love.” What do we mean? Let’s reflect together on this profound wisdom.
A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing, including prayers, readings and songs.
Community Circles Discussion Guide – View and Download
O Gracious, gentle Spirit of Love,Unknown
Your energy permeates the Universe,
Igniting Earth with
Your Goodness, Truth and Beauty.
Open our minds and hearts
To a deeper awareness
Of our interconnectedness with You,
Each other and all creation.
May we experience
Your unique presence Within the sacred web of creation.
A Prayer for Humility
Spirit of Life I find you
In those humble places.
The quiet, still spaces where
I am held in a love greater than myself.
You are the wind in my breath;
The fire in my soul; The subtle
Heartbeat of creation all around me.
O God, your love is unimposing
Yet firm and steadfast,
Present to all those who would know your peace.
You challenge me in my arrogance and
Move me to listen deeply when I fail—
As I always do—to see the fuller picture.
Spirit of Love, you find the gentle words
To speak life into me and hold me when
All else around me and in me feels broken.
You remind me that I am loved
And saved just as I am.
Your salvation is found in living life loved.
Remind me of who I am; O Holy Mystery,
Help me to see you in the small, everyday
Moments where you are found.
Grant me the wisdom to listen for you
And seek you in those unlikely
And unexpected places.
Amen.By Alex Jensen
“Beyond Words” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Welcome, and happy Valentine’s Day!
One of the principles we so often hear, and so often say, is that God is love. It’s comforting and inspiring. As a phrase it caught my attention for today’s talk, as we continue this month to explore the theme of love. So, in 20 minutes, we’ll unpack this notion that God is Love.
It’s one thing to say God is loving – that’s much easier. Many of us grew up with a God who is loving, or compassionate, or at times angry or judgmental. God as parent, with the full gamut of emotions we all display.
But God as love? What are we saying, I wonder? What aspects of God translate into love, and vice versa? Is the universe, all of creation, you and me, all of it created and knit together by love? Is that a scientific principle? A theological one? A spiritual one? All three, and still more?
Even though it may be impossible to describe what we mean, the statement is the true north of what we, and many other faith communities, teach and believe, and it’s worth taking a deeper look at.
First thing, let’s recognize a limitation that applies to all the words that come next. When we talk about God, or love, or truth, our words, any words, fall so far short. They are descriptors of our own personal experience, or metaphors we hope others can understand. For example, if I were to say My love is a rose, I’m not saying that my love is a red flower. I’d be speaking metaphorically, and hopefully my imagery would convey some of the energy of beauty, purity, sheer wonder with which I regard my beloved. We all understand that words will only take us so far.
So the first truth we acknowledge about ultimate reality, when we try to talk about it, is that God is ineffable, defined by Merriam Webster as “incapable of being expressed in words.” We can’t fully articulate the nature of God. Remember the first line of the Tao Te Ching – “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” You can name something, but not the fullness of the Tao.
As Hindu sage Shankara put it in the invocation to one of his prayers, “Oh thou, before whom all words recoil.”
Words are just pointers, giving us imagery that may point us toward a truth we are trying to share. Brother David Steindl – Rast has given us a useful way to think about this, and indeed use it to expand our awareness. He writes “Christians need to think “nothing” when they call God “love.” Buddhists need to think “love” when they say “emptiness.” This will at least wake us up to the fact that words must always fall short of the ineffable.”
Think about that – take the phrase God is Love, and substitute God is nothing. Does that energy change for you? Does it mean that God doesn’t exist, there is no God? Or, do you come away with a deeper understanding of the nature of ultimate reality? The energy for me is that God is no-thing, and indeed is everything, and beyond. Hindu sages described the search for this ultimate mystery as a process in which you regard every thing that exists, and for each you say neti, or “not this” neti, neti, not this, not this. When you have done that for all beings and all things, what’s left is God.
Karen Armstrong points out that perhaps the only correct attitude in the presence of the holy is, as she puts it, reverent silence. When we experience those God moments, words fail us. We are overcome with wonder, with awe, with humility, but not often with accurate descriptions. There is a well-known saying in Zen Buddhism – “He that speaks does not know. He that knows does not speak.”
So the first thing we need to acknowledge when we try to discuss the nature of spirit, by whatever name you call it, is that we are at the heart of ultimate mystery. Even though we are normally so good at describing things, not this. On this journey, we don’t acquire additional information, but fall deeper into the layers of unknowing. As author and teacher Carl McColman put it, “The deeper you go, the more elusive God becomes.”
In the Hindu tradition (if I can call it that, as Hinduism embraces many traditions ), the truth at the essence of all things, what we might call God, or ultimate reality, is Brahman, a concept developed during the late Vedic period, around 1000 – 600 BCE. Sages in that part of the world, and others, began to move into the age of exploding consciousness many now call the First Axial Age, lasting until about 200 BCE. It’s called that because it reflects a profound shift, a turning, as if on an axis. It was the age of the Buddha, Lao Tsu, Confucius, the Hebrew prophets, Socrates and Plato, and the sages of the Upanishads. Moving away from an emphasis only on observance of religious ritual, the Axial sages focused on the expansion of inner consciousness, one’s inner landscape. It was a transformational shift that continues to be the foundation of our spiritual practices today. We stand on the shoulders of these visionary men and women.
The Mundaka Upanishads teach this wisdom this way.
Look at these rituals:Easwaran, Eknath. The Upanishads (Easwaran’s Classics of Indian Spirituality) (pp. 187-188). Nilgiri Press
When the fire is lit,
Pour butter into the fire in two spots;
Then place the offering between these two.
“Such rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing
The sea of samsara, of birth and death.
Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross
The sea of samsara on these poor rafts.
8 Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise In their own esteem,
these deluded men
Proud of their vain learning go round and round
Like the blind led by the blind.”
But those who are pure in heart,
who practice Meditation and conquer their senses
And passions, shall attain the immortal Self,
Source of all light and source of all life.
It’s not difficult to talk about ritual, about where one pours the butter, or places the offering. However, words become a bit more scarce as you try to articulate the truth you perceive as you sit in meditation.
In discussing the concept of Brahman, Hindu sages encountered the problem that language was simply inadequate. To demonstrate and honor this truth, they developed a ritual competition, the brahmodya, which in essence was a match to see if any of the participants could express the true nature and mystery of Brahman. The match continued until a competitor could find no words to respond, and was just reduced to silence. After silence fell, the participants experienced the transcendence of the mystery of Brahman – as Karen Armstrong put it, “the competitors felt one with the mysterious force that held the whole of life together.” (Armstrong, Karen. The Great Transformation . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.)
When we explore the nature of God, we turn into this mystery. So what is a useful way to approach it?
I’d like to explore three aspects of Spirit, or activities of spirit, that may help us understand more fully the concept of God as love.
The first is creation.
This wisdom moves past the notion that God created the world, and then loved it. Instead, love itself was the mechanism of creation. Love is first principle, first mover.
16th century mystic and poet Mirabai put it this way:
I heard a voice speaking to me: ‘The young woman whom you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity… It was love which was the source of this creation in the beginning when God said: ‘Let it be!’ And it was. As though in the blinking of an eye, the whole creation was formed through love. The young woman is radiant in such a clear, lightning-like brilliance of countenance that you can’t fully look at her…She holds the sun and moon in her right hand and embraces them tenderly… The whole of creation calls this maiden ‘Lady.’ For it was from her that all of creation proceeded, since Love was the first. She made everything… Love was in eternity and brought forth, in the beginning of all holiness, all creatures without any admixture of evil. Adam and Eve, as well were produced by love from the pure nature of the Earth.
St. Thomas Aquinas, two centuries earlier and coming from an entirely different faith tradition, expressed this truth in this way. He wrote “It is out of his goodness that God bestows being on others.” God’s essence is “letting be” – his self-giving of being to all of creation. Love and creation come together in this gift of being. God is love is embodied in the act of creation, then and now. This love as creation continues to flow around us, and through us in every moment.
The second aspect of Spirit illustrating God’s love is revelation.
Through love, Spirit reveals to us the truth of who we are, as well as our place in this often confusing and chaotic world.
What are our fundamental questions? Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? We don’t know. Let me give you an image that illustrates this point.
The venerable Bede gives us the picture of a large hall, lit and warmed by fires while a wintry storm rages outside in the dark night. A sparrow flies in from outside, darts briefly around the hall, and then flies out through a window, back into the darkness. He says our lives are like that – we are here for a while, but, as he put it, “of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”
These are the questions that propel us on this spiritual journey.
Throughout the centuries men and women on this journey have shared their own answers with us. We have called them mystics, dedicated to a personal experience of the holy. They tell of that satori moment, a glimpse of ultimate knowing. The Upanishads tell us of a “knowing of That/ the knowledge of which brings knowledge of everything.”
The awakening so many have related is one of overwhelming love and oneness. From the Sufi tradition comes the wisdom of Farid-ud-din Attar, who wrote:
In love no longer “thou” and “I” exist.
For self has passed away in the beloved.
Now will I draw aside the veil from Love,
And in the temple of mine inmost soul
Behold the Friend, incomparable love.
He who would know the secret of both the worlds,
Will find the secret of them both is Love.
What is he telling us? At our very essence, as well as the essence of all that is, lies this incomparable love. Our highest joy comes in experiencing it and knowing it. It answers our questions about who we are, and where we are going. We are one with love, with all of life – we come from it, abide here in it, and return to it. God is telling us this, if we will hear.
A story is told of sage Ramana Maharshi, as he lay dying of cancer. His students were gathered around him, begging him not to die, to please cure himself, not to go. He looked at them and responded “But where would I go?” He understood the message.
No other place to go. Get past the illusion of separation.
The third aspect of Spirit I’d like to explore is Reconciliation:
The love of God towards us, and through us, transforms our way of seeing the world. It transforms our way of being in relationship with each other. It moves us back into relationship with each other, away from this illusion of separation and isolation. It reconciles us one to the other, in love, restoring that harmony that we, through our ignorance and fear, disrupt.
The early Christian scriptures urge us to “love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” What a wonderful message. We are born in God through love – not thru adherence to some religious creed, or through following particular rules we are told will save us. It is love that creates us in God, and binds us to each other.
All the enduring faith traditions have love and compassion for others at their very core, realizing that this is the path to peace and joy for us. The benefit comes to the other, but also to us. Each faith tradition teaches kindness, forgiveness, service as the pathways to the holy. When we can see our world in this way, when we can embody this divine, giving love in our own hearts, families and communities, our lives and our world are profoundly changed.
And we can do it anytime, anywhere. Thomas Merton writes of one of his most transformational experiences which happened one day on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. Not in church, not in meditation. Walking down the street.
In his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he wrote:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God . . . became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . .
That’s the message. God’s revelation of love tells us that we are all walking around shining like the sun, all the time. Even when we don’t feel it, even when we are so burdened and afraid we almost can’t take the next step.
So when we say that God is Love, we celebrate Spirit alive in all those aspects we’ve explored, and so many more. Let’s share them, as best we can, even when description falls short. Because what truly matters is that we each realize, at every moment, that because of this love we are all walking around shining like the sun.
About Rev. Melanie
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
There is a being, wonderful, perfect;Tao Te Ching
It existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is!
How spiritual it is!
It stands alone and it does not change.
It moves around and around, but does not
on this account suffer.
All life comes from it.
It wraps everything with its love as in a garment,
and yet it claims no honor, it does not demand to be Lord.
I do not know its name,
and so I call it Tao,
and I rejoice in its power.
“Surrender” written by Michael Gott
“Let the Mystery Be” written by Iris DeMent
This service originally aired on February 14, 2021.