Sacred Sensations

Poet David Brendan Hopes tells this story:
“A literary friend and I walk a whole day in the Ohio woods. By main force we keep the topic of conversation away from books.
‘Well, what did you see?’ he asks at the end, fumbling for the car keys.
I tell him, ‘I saw white pine, wild geranium, sassafras, raccoon sign, mayapple past its prime, beech, chestnut shoots.’ I cease enumerating, catching the look of flat astonishment on his face.
He says, ‘I saw greenish light under low leaves, how the radiance shifted from red to blue as the day went, purple now toward evening, the undersides of things paling in contrast…’” [A Sense of the Morning: Field Notes of a Born Observer]

One man experiences the woods as a world of familiar and interesting items – birds he can identify, plants he has learned to notice and understand, and a web of interacting lives. The other man experiences the world through his senses, noticing the play of colors and the interaction of sun and shadow and form. Both of them find something of mystery and wonder, and yet their language – and their approach – are completely different.

Maybe you feel more attuned to one of the two responses: to Hopes’ tendency to observe and catalogue his surroundings, or to his friend’s more visceral impression. Each one of us tends to favor certain abilities. We have different learning styles. And just as some of us prefer rhythm to melody, or sailing to crossword puzzles, so too, we each have our own individual religious impulses. Some people are uplifted by the comfort of familiar rites and prayers. Some are transformed by the physical experience of ritual dance or meditation, or lighting a candle of hope. Others need the intellectual challenge of ideas. Some people need the solitude of a forest path or a quiet room. And other people have experienced their deepest sense of connection in a busy emergency room or the middle of a meeting … when they suddenly know they’re a part of something deep and holy.

As ministers, we know (intellectually, at least) that every experience allows us to serve God. But how do we help our members feel a sense of divine purpose in an alien practice? Calling something a “ministry” may help, but it doesn’t change their basic orientation. For instance, I have no appreciation for liturgical dance. In fact, it frequently irks me. I know the dancers feel they are praising and worshipping God, and I’m glad when others validate their art. However, I chose to ignore an attractive parish opening because of its liturgical dance troupe. I could feel myself resisting before I even started.

Perhaps I sold them – and myself – short. I may have engaged with the dancers and learned from their art. It might have brought a new rhythm to my own worship, or at least made me more cooperative and flexible. It’s good to know our parameters, as long as we aren’t limited by them. We have as much to learn as our parishioners. I think the real key is to listen to each other with an open heart and a knowledge of the great scope and diversity of this holy creation.

About Rev. Alison Hyder

My name is Rev. Alison Hyder and I am a Unitarian Universalist parish minister from Baltimore, MD. I am a professional Clergy Coach, with degrees in divinity and social work. I specializing in parish issues, helping ministers and rabbis determine their goals in areas like pastoral counseling, congregational relationships, worship, administration, and social outreach, and then develop practical steps for improving their skills and achieving their vision. I find that a fulfilling ministry is often the cure to spiritual malaise. The more confident we feel about our abilities, the better our relationships with other people, and the closer we feel to God. I also find spiritual sustenence in music and painting. I am a sometime artist, performer and handyman. Please visit my site at
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