Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

February 7, 2016: “The Ephemeral Mandala”

Time for All Ages (Rev Denis)

A Rose Window is a like a kaleidoscope frozen in time.

I know this because I studied architecture in College, and I know this because Rev. Joe told me. Do you know who Rev Joe is?

About 20 years ago, he first started going to church at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. It looks very different than many UU churches, because it is modeled after a 14th century chapel that stands in England, in the Norman style that was popular all across Europe at that time, especially in France.

So it’s not very modern looking.

In fact it has very high walls, and a ceiling that’s just over 80 feet high! So in the center of the church, it’s twice as high as the peak of our Beacon here at East Shore.

When you walk into the church you can see a rose window at the top of the back wall, almost to the roof. It’s called a rose window because it’s round and looks a little bit like a rose in full bloom, when you see it from the top.

Rose windows are in many very traditional sanctuaries, churches and synagogues. Including my first Unitarian Universalist church, in San Francisco.

This rose window in the church in Chicago has four angels in it.

I know it may seem funny to have angels in a Unitarian Universalist church building, but once I tell you about the angels, you may be able to see why they are there.

One angel is holding a sword, and that angel reminds us to work for justice. This angel is at the top of the big window.

Another angel is at the bottom of the window, reading a book. What do you suppose that angel is reminding us to do?

A third angel, on the left of the window is holding a scythe, which is an old tool used for harvesting. What do you think the Angel farmer wants us to do?

And the fourth angel, on the right side of the window, is playing a trumpet. What do you suppose that means?

For Rev Joe, the angels represented the importance of learning, arts and music, as we remain connected to the natural world, working to make sure that everyone is treated fairly. Every time he would go to church, he would look up at that very traditional window, that was so much like so many other rose windows in the world, and and he would be inspired. So inspired, he became a minister.

Obviously, we don’t have any rose windows here at East Shore. Our wonderful building is only 18 years old, not 700. And it is a contemporary style, not Norman. But Halcyon and a few other good people and I thought it would be cool to bring in some artwork that looks kind of like a rose window.

So over the next couple of months, on Sundays after worship, in the Narthex, we are going to make our own works of art that will be kind of like rose windows. They won’t be glass, so they won’t actually be windows. They’ll be made up of canvas and paint and photographs and other images, but all of it will be arranged in the way that rose windows are arranged, a geometric shape called a mandala.

We’re going to get some help from some good and helpful artists, including David Simmerer and Bree Byrd. And I have a feeling a few other people are going to help, too.

Next Sunday, which is Valentine’s day, Halcyon is going to begin the process by asking you to think about a simple question: Whom do you belong to?

When we talk about belonging, we don’t mean being owned by anybody, like slaves. It’s important to remember, especially during black history month, that once upon a time in the Unitd States people were legally owned by other people, like property. What we mean is which groups do you belong to? Your family? Your class at school? Your soccer team? Your drumming troup? Your dance class? Your book group?

Your church?

So, we’re going to ask you to bring in pictures of all these people. Especially, since it’ll be Valentine’s Day, the people you love. The pictures are going to become part of the mandalas, our rose window geometries, so make sure you don’t need the pictures back. It’s okay to scan them, or to make copies of them, or to have new prints made at the photo lab.

Can you remember that for next week? Everyone?

What are you bringing for next week? That’s right, pictures.

Reading (Bree Byrd)

This morning’s reading is from Cathedrals of France by Auguste Rodin, often called the progenitor of modern sculpture, and best known for what is probably the most famous modern sculpture in the world, “The Thinker.”

Cathedrals of France was published by the Unitarian Universalist publishing house Beacon Press for American readers in 1965. He wrote:

Where shall we begin?

There is no beginning. Start where you arrive. Stop before what entices you. And work! You will enter little by little into the entirety. Method will be born in proportion to your interest; elements which your attention at first separates in order to analyse them, will unite to compose the whole.

In the calm exile of work, we first learn patience, which in turn teaches energy, and energy gives us eternal youth made of self-collectedness and enthusiasm. From such vantage we can see and understand life, this delicate life that we denature by the artifices of our enclosed, unaired spirit, surrounded though we are by masterpieces of nature and art. For we no longer understand them, idle despite our agitation, blind in the midst of splendours.

If we could but understand gothic art, we should be irresistibly led back to truth. (1)

Sermon “The Ephemeral Mandala,” Rev. Denis Paul

Once upon a time, there was a mystic, a man who sought enlightenment through contemplation and self-surrender. His goal was to be one with the divine order of the World. He wanted to not only understand the root of all knowledge, he wanted to be absorbed into the universal truth, truth that goes beyond mere intellect.

So he went to the mountains, and actually surrendered himself, by engaging in meditation, almost every hour of every single day. In fact, he only left a few minutes every couple of hours to attend to his bodily needs. The rest of his waking time, he was in the lotus position.

He would sit down on thin mat on the floor, cross-legged, with one foot placed on top of the opposite thigh with the sole facing upward, and the other foot placed symmetrically.

His knees would be in contact with the mat, which came to be compressed in those spots, hard as the floor. His torso would be bolt upright, his spine perfectly perpendicular to the ground, with his shoulders back. His arms were slightly bent at the elbows, and his hands rested together, one on top of the other, palm up, between his thighs.

His eyes were not quite closed, fixed in soft focus on a spot on the floor about three feet in front of him.

His entire body was in perfect symmetry, with perfect balance.

There he would sit, paying attention only to his posture and his breathing, letting go of every thought that entered his brain. His goal was to avoid what his teachers called monkey mind.

I have to tell you, for a long time I didn’t understand the whole goal of emptying the mind. I figured if your mind is empty, if you are having no thoughts, you must be dead. But the goal of this mystic, was not to have no thoughts, but to let go of the thoughts that didn’t serve him. So instead of fretting about what he could have done differently in the past, or worrying about what may happen in the near or distant future, he just let go of all of his thoughts. Paid attention to them for just a moment, then let them go, without judgment or pressure. Then, he waited for thoughts of enlightenment.

He thought of his mind as a bowl. If it were filled with thoughts of chores or conversations or food or whatever else, there would be no room for the Universal Truth he sought.

He did that for thirty five years! He sat in the lotus position, knees developing record breaking callouses, against the hardened mat. The only time he left the position was to eat, which was never more than miso soup with the tiniest amount of tofu and seaweed in it. And pickled lotus root.

What else? You sit in the lotus position that long, you should eat lotus root.

For thirty five years, the only exercise he got was to stretch a bit, eat a bit, and use the bathroom occasionally. He never went to a job. He never went to the doctor or the dentist. And even though he had reached superstar status among the meditators who traveled across the globe to meet him and sit with him in the lotus position, he didn’t really take very good care of himself.

He became frail. His teeth were bad. He had atrocious breath, but still, people came to see him, to learn from him.

Some learned better postures for sitting. Some were inspired by the mystic’s dedication. Some even got to hear him speak for a bit, and were amazed by his deep understanding of koans, seemingly oxymoronic or even impossible statements or questions. A very, very, very few of the people who met him got to hear his answers to the koans.

Thousands of people had come to see him over the thirty five years, and no two took away the same lesson from the mystic. But the one thing they could all see, which he did not teach them, was that he clearly, obviously, was a super calloused fragile mystic, vexed with halitosis.

Most of us are not like the mystic.

We don’t have the stamina, the conviction, the dedication to bodily symmetry that the mystic had.

Plus, if any of us sat for thirty five years like that, how would we survive? Who would pay for the miso soup, and provide us with a place to sit and sleep and go to the bathroom?

But still, many of us seek the benefits of meditation, even if we can only do it for a few minutes each day. We can still make time for quiet to seek balance and symmetry, space for the divine presence to make itself known in our lives.

Last year I heard that the big new thing in the retail world, the thing that was flying off store shelves across the United States, was coloring books for adults. That’s right. Coloring books. For adults.

When I heard about it, all I could think about were twentysomething hipsters, with their righteous beards, skinny jeans, plaid shirts and dresses, and big glasses, getting home to spend an evening coloring after a dinner of kale. I imagined them using organic crayons in earth tones, coloring pictures of fixed-gear bicycles, craft beer bottles, backyard chickens, tiny houses and uber drivers in Priuses.

It’s dismissive imagery, reliant on stereotypes, I know, but it was all I could picture. I mean adults? Coloring? Nobody I know colors. At least, not that they would admit.

Then a few weeks ago I was in a craft store picking up a gift for my niece, when I saw them. The fabled, mythical adult coloring books! Only they were nothing like I had imagined. They were filled with abstract images, complex geometries that were always symmetrical, and mostly bilaterally symmetrical. By that I mean that if you drew a vertical line through the image, it would be the same on both sides, only perfect opposites. And if you drew a horizontal line, the top and bottom would also be perfect opposites, mirror images of one another.

Basically, they were books full of mandalas.

The word mandala is an ancient Sanskrit word that literally means disk. But it’s more than that. A mandala is a spiritual or ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, an abstract representation of the cosmos. It’s a microcosm of the ever-expanding universe, a geometry that easily could be repeated and expanded in all directions until the end of space and time.

Traditionally, mandalas have been temporal, both in the sense that they are of the world, and related to time. They have been made from natural elements – leaves, sticks, berries and acorns; or shells, driftwood and seaweed – directly on the land, only to be moved, by the wind or the surf. They could be incredibly ephemeral, disappearing almost as they were created.

Over time, mandalas became less temporary, more fixed in space and time. Sort of….permanent, in the form of drawings, mosaics and rose windows.

The books we found, the coloring books that have become all the rage, were full of line drawings that could easily be rose windows, ready for color. They were meditation tools.

Joe and I bought one, along with a brand new box of colored pencils, and set out to each complete one before lunch on a cold day off. By dinner time, we stopped, thought neither of us were done. In fact, I still haven’t finished mine, and something tells me Joe hasn’t finished his either. And we still have a whole book of them, rose windows we have a lifetime to finish.

The funny thing is that actual rose windows did take lifetimes to complete. Gothic cathedrals, the ones Auguste Rodin wrote about, took generations to complete.

The Basilica of St. Denis, in the Paris suburb, is unique because it is considered to be the first Gothic Cathedral. It was originally intended as an abbey, a home for monks, and the head monk, Abbot Suger, is credited with inventing the rose window. Suger wanted to create a physical manifestion of his understanding of heaven…a symmetrical, balanced composition that was massively vertical, the interior of its main hall – the nave – reaching 91 feet into the sky, an architectural marvel in stone that was filled with light, and air, and beautiful, sparkling colors from the glass.

It was originally built over 20 years in the 8th century, and Suger’s two-phase remodel took from 1135-144. Nothing in comparison to the great cathedrals of Europe that later borrowed its style.

Notre Dame de Paris, with its 112-foot-tall nave, took a century to build. And Cologne Cathedral? With its 142-foot-tall nave, it took almost 600 hundred years to complete! That’s 30 generations engaged in backbreaking labor for 20 years each, one after the other. Entire families worked generation after generation, passing on skills of the stone mason and carpenter and stained glass window maker.

Can you imagine working on one window for your entire adult life, knowing that your father, and HIS father, had done the same thing? On the same building!

They were, in their own ways, like the super-calloused fragile mystic, using their bodies for a meditation that reached for the divine, living in the present, not fretting about the work of past generations, or worrying about the next. Just carving and laying stone. Just making colored glass and laying it into massive, elaborate frames.

Theirs was a craftsmanship that doesn’t exist anymore. It just doesn’t.

And part of me feels like that was the appeal of Graystone, the first building bought by this church, back in the days when it was still a lay-led fellowship, only a few years after its first meeting. Graystone was a great mansion from a time goneby. It was no Notre Dame de Paris. It was built as a house and not a Cathedral, but it had the kind of workmanship, the kind of dedication of craft that made it an embodiment of meditation. It was – and still is – the kind of building that simply can’t be duplicated today.

We live in a world where we aren’t typically willing to support people who sit around doing nothing but meditate all day. And it’s just cost-prohibitive to pay people to hand craft buildings over the course of multiple successive lifetimes.

But we have this building. And though it may not have a 142-foot tall nave, it does have our beacon, which we can fill with the butterflies that we made together-dozens of hands folding square sheets, and stringing them up overhead.

We can create art for this space that is reflective of our meditations together, embodiments of our shared understanding of the what it is that gives our lives meaning.

The pieces we make for this space over the next three months will be temporal. We won’t make them on the ground, and they won’t necessarily employ leaves and acorns or shells and driftwood, but they will be temporary. We’ll keep them up for only a few months – just until the Art Show in November, after which they’ll give way to Christmas d�cor. Then next year, just about this time, we’ll begin another project together, another expression of the shared creativity of this place to which we belong, another shared meditation on what matters most, as we listen for the fleeting, ephemeral voice of the divine.


(1) Rodin, Auguste. Cathedrals of France. Translated by E. C. Geissbuhler. London. 1966. P. 35.