I recently spent time with a Quaker leader, Carrie Newcomer, in a sacred songwriting workshop. I know that Quakers speak often about inner light, hence the silence or space at meetings, to allow inner light or revelation. A few of my favorite passages from the Bible point to this idea of the Spirit within. The prophet Jeremiah envisions the time when divine teachings will be “written on people’s hearts.” Jesus echoes this idea speaking of the time when people will worship “in spirit and in truth” rather than any particular place. Paul says something very similar in his words that the written letter can kill, while “the spirit gives life.” In all these, there is a sense of inner leading, which we could call the divine within.
Carrie has a favorite theme in her songs: the “sacred in the ordinary.” It is the idea that we can find things we might call divine, sacred, holy, in so many places and in so many ways. One of her songs deals with geodes, and the miracle of how unique the sparkling center of each is. Another song deals with the warmth and wonder of a white-haired elder reading favorite poems out loud. And I love this line about an issue we all need help with: “Mistake by mistake we learn to be kind.” Psychology and theology can try to teach us how to forgive and make peace with many steps, yet this line speaks volumes in a just a few words. Truly it is the mistakes, especially our own, that grow compassion and kindness toward self and others.
One little exercise in the workshop I will always remember was simply to spend some time in silence, journaling about incidences of kindness, either received or given. After about 15 minutes, we all began to share the stories that had come to mind, after which we all were invited to say, “And that was holy!” We came from all sorts of faith and non-faith backgrounds, yet everyone had amazing stories to share, so it was easy to chime in saying, “And that was holy.” One young woman helped a bent-over elderly gent and carried his wheelchair up a couple flights of stairs in the New York subway, only to find that at the very top step a crowd had gathered and began to applaud!
A wealth of stories were shared on this theme, then we jointly wrote a song whose chorus became: “Nobody told me little things could be holy. A simple smile can turn around your day.” For me, a simple gift of peanuts turned around one of my freshman days at college. There I was, new to campus, in a sea of strangers those first days. The unexpected gift showed up at my student mailbox, an encouraging “smile” sent from my favorite teacher in middle school, bringing a lump to my throat … “And that was holy!”
The Rev. Ross Varney is the pastor of Belleville Church, Newburyport.