Shared Journey

Shared Journey

Lanier Smythe

Retired Art Historian

Present-Day Rower

 

When I look back on my spiritual journey, I see three areas that played a role. The
first was form, then social action, and finally nature.
I grew up in the South and, with various relatives, attended a number of churches.
One thing that interested me, as a child, was the different ways people behaved, especially
in the time before service began. In the Episcopal church, they came in very quietly,
kneeling and crossing themselves. In the Presbyterian church, we nodded discretely at our
pew neighbors (always the same people). In the Methodist church they greeted friends on
the rows around them with a few whispered words. And at the Baptist church, someone on
the first row might call to someone at the back to come on down and join them. I never got
much further than this superficial formal analysis. Theological differences didn’t interest
me and in the end I lost faith in these churches when they failed to take part in the battle
for civil rights.
When I discovered Unitarian Universalism, I found a church heavily involved in social
action. Richard Marius and I lived in Knoxville and attended a UU church which housed
the ACLU on Monday nights and the Knoxville Council of Christians and Jews on
Tuesday nights, and so on through the week. After moving to Belmont I became involved
in the Sanctuary Committee which sponsored a family from El Salvador, and the
Coffeehouse which gives assistance to many good causes. But when I took the course
“Writing Your Own Theology” I found I could not work out a definition that satisfied me.
I needed the social action, and I had found an important community in the process, but for
me, it did not seem spiritual.
It was, finally, a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon which helped me see nature as
the locus of my spirituality. I had long been aware of the importance of place to me. I
grew up in the Mississippi Delta, an alluvial plane of rich soil and big sky, with creeks
winding through the fields. My first trip out of the South was to the Rocky Mountains, and
the startling contrast between that vertical landscape and the flat land of home helped me
to see and appreciate each more clearly.
But nothing prepared me for the splendor of the Grand Canyon, seen from the level of
the Colorado River. To be in a place of immense beauty, a mile down in the earth,
surrounded by stone formed close to two billion years ago, a place which will continue
while we come and go, is to be confronted dramatically, unavoidable, with the smallness of
our human existence. I found this simultaneously exalting and humbling.
I’ve returned every chance I’ve had, but I’ve realized that the reassurance of continuity,
the sense of peace, I feel in that overwhelming place can be found in subtler form closer to
home. Rowing on the Charles River early in the morning where I may see scores of herons
or a pair of elegant swans. Or wondering through an old orchard on the side of a hill, the
trees backlit by brilliant sun. Or simply walking along the bike path near my home with a
glorious sunset peeking through the trees. These have become for me resting places on my
spiritual journey.