A Process of God
by Jessica Star Rockers
Last December I took a trip to the UK and I spent New Years Eve in London. While I was there I attended a prayer service at Westminster Abbey. The service was held at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, a rare historical figure who has the distinction of not only being a deceased king of England but also a saint in both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church. He is the one who first commissioned the building of Westminster Abbey, and he has been buried in that spot since his death in the year 1066.
When I attended this prayer service I was seeking some spiritual uplift. I’m in seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School taking classes that are called intensives. They are called this for a reason. They are really intense. So because of the stress of preparing for my intensives in January and the jetlag of a winter trip across 8 time zones, I was suffering from insomnia and fatigue. I was falling asleep at 4pm and waking up at 1am, my internal clock completely confused.
This wasn’t the first time I’d suffered from insomnia, but it was definitely the most severe. And there is no easy or quick way to access one’s circadian rhythms. It’s not like a clock on the wall that can be rewound or reset. Medicines have side effects, and natural remedies don’t always work. I have found that it really just takes patience. It takes intention and care and thoughtfulness. It is literally a wake-up call from my body, telling me I am spiritually, emotionally and physically disconnected, and I need to take some time to reconnect and heal.
My pilgrimage to the shrine of Edward the Confessor wasn’t intentional. We happened to be visiting the Abbey when I heard a prayer service announced over the loudspeaker in the sanctuary. I grabbed my son and husband and dragged them through a huge group of tourists, trying to weave through mobs of people without being overtly rude. There was a woman at the bottom of the little staircase that led to the tomb, and she was discerning who was a serious religious seeker and who was just wandering around. I guess she could tell by the look on my face that I meant business. Because she immediately moved the velvet rope aside and let us through. So there I was, ascending the stairs to a religious service that I wasn’t quite sure about. I wasn’t sure what I’d gotten myself into. And my husband and son, as you can imagine, were even more confused than I was. But thankfully, they know me well enough to know, that sometimes it’s just best to go with the flow.
“We pilgrims arrive here,” the chaplain leading the service said, “from all over the world. We arrive here at the shrine of this holy man on the eve of a new year and we seek healing. We ask to be relieved of our worries, freed from our troubles, and given the gift of peace.”
Unitarian Universalists don’t have saints. Nothing stands between us and that which is greater than us. Our religious forefathers and foremothers believed that spiritual experience, “revelation”, is only between God and receiver. And what’s more, it shouldn’t be clouded by sentiment. It should be balanced, tempered by logic and rationality. Our own direct experience, coupled with scientific intellect and reason, make meaning of our lives. This is the foundation of liberal theology.
The challenge is that spiritual experience is often purely sentiment, which is to say it is a “feeling.” And its meaning can shrivel up under the hot lights of logic. Like dreams and poetry, these holy sentiments, this experience of the divine, has its own language. And it resists translation.
This summer I spent three months as a chaplain at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, sitting at the bedside with patients and families in trauma, dying or terminal, or suffering a long and difficult recovery. And each time I entered the room I didn’t know what I would encounter. All I had was myself to give them. I offered silence, a supportive presence, sometimes a prayer. And for the majority of those patients and families, this made a difference. Through this simple act of showing up and being present together, authentically and honestly, we made space for the divine. And each time I was amazed to discover, we all experienced some recognition of peace. Time and time again, it felt holy. This has been difficult for me to rationalize. Why was it holy? What was it that was happening there?
When I look back on that day I prayed at the tomb of Edward the Confessor I recall a similar feeling of transcendence. It was holy ground… a sudden and overwhelming recognition of my own search for meaning, born out of a desire for wholeness and a fear that this wholeness was out of reach. I was surrounded by believers, participating in a ritual that was hundreds of years old, in an architecturally imposing physical space that was built just for this purpose, praying aloud in community with not only those who shared my immediate space but all those buried in the abbey and all those pilgrims through a thousand years who prayed in that church in that way. With nothing but their brokenness and their searching. With no urge but the desire to be freed from their own suffering. I felt suddenly timeless. As if I could hear the sounds of chanting 8th century Benedictine monks echoing through the stone hallways.
“God is the great companion.,” says philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. “The fellow-sufferer who understands.” Whitehead wrote the book on process-relational philosophy. It is the idea that the world is always in transition, that rather than being made up of material substance, at its most fundamental level, reality is made up of events, momentary events of experience. These events are called “occasions” and they are all interrelated. So as humans, we are not substance, but a series of occasions, organized by the dominant event, that is our mind.
To process-relational theologians, God is the foundation of these events, while simultaneously being subject to the influence of these events. So when Whitehead says, God is the fellow sufferer, he means that God is experiencing our lives with us while we experience them, and as it affects us, it is affecting God. It is changing God. As we change and evolve and adapt, so too does God.
So all that makes up the world as we know it, electrons, molecules, microorganisms, are part of a relational web. Everything is affected by everything else. And as we evolve, our capacity for learning and adapting increases. The more complex the organism, the more power to be affected.
Think about power in those terms for a minute. When we think of power in western industrialized society, we think of a unilateral ability to affect without being affected. It’s the classic white male CEO. And the God that this society has created wields a similar power. But what if God’s power was rather like the relational web. And as part of that web, if anything, God has the greatest ability to be affected. Instead of the hierarchical God on high, who sits in his throne unchanging, God becomes the aspect of ourselves that is most compassionate, most adaptable, most willing to change.
My experience at both the beside and the tomb was relational, as a reciprocal relationship. And it wasn’t between me and God, it was between me and the community around me. God was this relationship, of wounded seekers in communion with one another. And rather than a relationship of worship in posture to a God-king, God was there because we were there. This is a familiar Bible passage from the book of Matthew: where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst. But when I sat at the bedside at Harborview, when I prayed at the tomb in Westminster, I understood that passage as this: We are all broken. Throughout history. Forever. And acknowledging this, in community, is the divine. In our brokenness together we are holy.
In those moments we don’t transcend in spite of our brokenness. We transcend because of it. Our brokenness is what makes us whole. And when I pray in these moments, I’m not praying to God. I’m experiencing it. It is a process that theologian C. Robert Mesle calls, “an open-ended search for what is true and good.” This experience of God is God itself.
In his book Process Relational Philosophy, Mesle, says “Everything is in process, becoming and perishing. The smallest events are momentary drops of experience or feeling. These are the building blocks of reality. Your mind, your flow of awareness, for example, is a series of events.” Or as Whitehead says, “The actual world is a process, and the process is the becoming.”
As we participate in the becoming, of ourselves, of one another, of God, we don’t just find the meaning in life, we make meaning. We create it. We are making meaning here, today, gathered in community. This is holy because we gather together and we say it matters. The patients at Harborview seek to make meaning from their lives, too, sometimes through their suffering and sometimes in spite of it. This is the experience of God’s presence that we are all after. And it occurs in relationship. When we are gathered in community, when we are seen and loved wholly by another, we feel that connection to something greater.
So what if Mesle is right, that God is an open-ended search for what is true and good. Or, to put it in UU terms, what if God is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning? What if God is also the inherent worth and dignity of every person? What if God is respect for the interdependent web of life, of which we all are a part? You can see where I’m going with this. I challenge you to go home later today and put “God is…” in front of each one of the seven principles. This is God as process, as relationship, and we all do have a part. We are all a part of the God that is the process of building a beloved community together.
After I prayed at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, overcome as I was at being surrounded by community and history, I finally got a decent night’s sleep. But sadly, it didn’t last. The next night my insomnia came back, and that moment of miraculous redemption had passed. But afterwards, I went easier on myself.
And for the patients and families at Harborview as well, peace is fleeting. Holy ground can be hard to come by, even when you’re looking for it. We connect, we disconnect. We transcend, and then we descend. But for those moments, for those brief moments, we feel the peace of wholeness, connected to something larger than ourselves through our shared brokenness, connected to something whose presence we feel, and in whose becoming we get to participate. In the great becoming of ourselves and all those around us who simultaneously feel that call to wholeness, and connection, and love.
As theologian Frederick Buechner, “It is not objective proof of God's existence that we want but the experience of God's presence. That is the miracle we are really after. And that is the miracle we really get.”