I believe in mystery, that it is both sacred and benevolent. Mystery is a fathomless container not only for all the world’s religions and spiritual expressions but also for our questions, doubts, and deepest longings.
I remember the first time my religion felt too small. Raised in the pre-Civil Rights south, I was a child when my WASP church resisted integration. Around the same time, I learned that non-Christians—even the most virtuous—could never be admitted to our robe-wearing, lyre-strumming, choir-singing celestial afterlife.
The idea that divinity favored some people over others seemed to me, even as a kid, just plain wrongheaded. Shedding my religion like an overcoat I’d outgrown, I began to search for a faith that was broadly and generously inclusive, set no one doctrine over another, excluded no soul. I attended a Unitarian service for awhile, sampled a Baptist church headed by a charismatic minister, took a course in Catholic catechism. I found something to admire in each faith but still did not find the spiritual roominess I craved.
I began to read widely: in Buddhism, metaphysics, the Tao. I devoured the work of Joseph Campbell, the great teacher of mythology and culture, who helped me see that religions were human inventions—local and specific in their nature, analogous to languages—but universal in their divine impulse. All were sacred pathways.
In the poetry of Walt Whitman, I discovered the ecstatic, egalitarian spirit who saw the equality of souls and the miracle of a single blade of grass. In the mystical words of Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet made so contemporary by translator Coleman Barks, I encountered the rhapsodic credo—Love is the religion and the universe is the book—that rings, for me, with a spiritual truth that transcends all boundaries and limitations.
Last September, my sense of mystery deepened. One night, an astronomer friend set up his powerful telescope in the dark countryside, far from the light pollution of the city. Under his tutelage, I saw—for the first time—the Deep Sky.
On a normal evening, one can see, at best, 2500 stars with the naked eye. That night, through his telescope, we saw our own galaxy—the Milky Way—as well as double stars, several open clusters, many beautiful Messier objects, and three other galaxies.
Far from appearing loosely connected like the stars in the constellations we are so familiar with, the stars revealed themselves that night, through magnification, as they truly are: thick and dense as glitter in a glue stick. In the Great Nebula in Andromeda alone, we saw around 200 billion stars at a staggering two million light years away. They had been there all along—and in beyond mind-boggling profusion—an object lesson in beauty and inscrutability. My finite human mind cannot begin to unravel the enigma of the cosmos but my spirit intuitively knows that this ultimate mystery is sacred and benevolent, and that we part of its eternal grandeur.
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