Sunday April 10, 2016: Our Quests and Spiritual Journeys

Mounted Knight

Prelude Tri Martolod – Alan Stivell

Welcome The beauty of the whole – Meg Barnhouse

We gather to worship, our hearts alive with hope that here we will be truly seen, that here we will be welcomed into the garden of this community, where the simple and the elegant, the fluted and frilled, the shy and the dramatic complement one another and are treasured. May we know that here, each contributes in their way to the beauty of the whole. Come, let us worship together, all genders, sexualities, politics, clappers and non-clappers, progressive or conservative, may we root ourselves in the values of this faith: compassion and courage, transcendence, justice and transformation.

Chalice lighting Embrace The Night – Jennifer Leota Gray

Universal mystery,
Guide us away from the desire to
Shine light in all the corners.
Teach us to embrace the night,
For without the darkness,
We never see the stars.

Song Gathered here in the mystery of this hour

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages: The Stonecutter
(a tale from Japan, from Best-Loved Folk-Tales of the World, selected by Joanna Cole)

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Lesson Our Quests and Spiritual Journeys
Robert Helfer


We had a lot of books and magazines around our house when I was a child: novels, history books, law books, an encyclopedia, and all that. One book I remember in particular, although I have no memory of its title, was a thick collection of fairy tales and fables. And my favorite stories in that book were a small number of tales about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It seems that these were the stories I most asked my parents to read to me, and later, when I could read by myself, I often turned to those pages. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book anymore and can remember very little of the tales I read then; I suppose they had been selected from Howard Pyle’s revisions of Arthurian legend. But I know they influenced my life later on. It is probably due at least in part to these stories that I eventually decided to study Medieval Europe when I was in college.

Quest for the Grail:

So, what attracted me to these tales? I think there were several things, but mostly it was the Quest.

Now the knights of King Arthur’s court were accustomed to wandering about the countryside fighting other knights and various magical foes. They were called “knights errant” because they wandered. But the Quest for the Grail was different from those more-or-less random peregrinations. It was special, because the Grail was special.

In the early 13th century story Quest for the Holy Grail, the Grail quest begins with the arrival of Galahad, newly knighted and very young, at Arthur’s court. He is quickly revealed to be the Desired Knight, the paragon of chivalry, the one preordained to attain the Grail and bring to a close the troubles of Britain. And that very day all the knights of the Round Table vowed to take up this quest — in Gawain’s words, “pursue it for a year and a day, or more if need be … provided that I am capable and worthy of such grace. And if it prove otherwise, I will return.”

The Quest itself is actually a series of tests in which each knight must prove himself “capable and worthy”, both in valour and in purity. Each knight encounters a series of challenges — fantastic beasts, ferocious knights, magical situations. And each one fails because of some character flaw. Their strength or skills are not sufficient, or their faith is weak, or their lives have been lacking in virtue, or, for most of them, they are overly proud. It seems likely that most of the knights took up the Quest out of a spirit of adventure, an expression of bravado, rather than a spirit of piety; and that most of them had no idea what they were getting themselves into. But I think the Quest itself can best be seen as a spiritual journey, and attaining the goal, the Grail, is a confirmation that the knight is spiritually worthy.

They stared at his complexion,
The oddest face they’d seen;
He bore it to perfection,
But ’twas completely green

A separate tale, the Middle English poem Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyʒt, involves a rather grim game, similar to the Grail Quest, but not directly related to it. A knight, dressed all in green, with body, face, and hair all green, arrives at Arthur’s court during the Christmas season and challenges Gawain to cut off his head. Gawain complies, thus joining the game. The knight then picks up his head and tells Gawain that a year hence he must present himself to the Green Knight, who will then pay Gawain back for his blow — that is, he will cut Gawain’s head off. Gawain demonstrates his virtue by holding up his end of the bargain, presenting himself to the Knight on the appointed day, where he receives three blows from the Knight’s axe. The first two blows do no harm, but the third cuts Gawain’s neck slightly — a small failure of Gawain’s honesty was to blame, a failure in the last of three tests preceding his meeting with the Knight. Gawain has shown himself mostly worthy, but not entirely.

These themes survive into our times. The movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade features some appropriately Arthurian adventures. A perilous journey brings Jones, finally, to the repository of the Grail. But then he must pass three tests in order to proceed — the first test forces him to bend down as a penitent, thus demonstrating his humility; the second test forces him to spell out the name of God, thus demonstrating his religious knowledge; and the third test forces him to trust in his faith — he must cross a chasm, despite its being too wide to leap. Now, personally, I think Jones actually failed the third test, because instead of stepping boldly into the gap, relying exclusively on faith, he throws dust into the gap to reveal the stone bridge that is hidden there. Nevertheless, only after completing each of these tests can he approach the Grail itself.

But what was the Grail? Seen over a number of versions of the stories, the Grail seems to change with time and author. In modern tales, it’s usually a chalice, the cup Jesus and his disciples drank from at the Last Supper; and maybe it’s reflected in our own flaming chalice. Jones, having finally found the repository of the Grail, finds himself confronted by a table filled with chalices, ranging from the most elaborately bejeweled to a plain, rather battered silver cup. Jones’ final test, of course, is to select the True Grail from among all those on the table; the reward for choosing correctly is eternal life, the penalty for an incorrect choice is instant death.

But the old stories describe the Grail as something a bit different. Some stories make it to be a stone that fell to earth from Heaven during Lucifer’s rebellion. Other early tales make it out to be a dish or platter of some sort, perhaps preserving old Celtic traditions. In the Quest for the Holy Grail, it is a platter, capable of serving every knight, some 150 of them, at Arthur’s table, and serving each man with exactly the food he most desires.

Later in the Middle Ages some writers stretched the language a bit, deciding that san gréal, “Holy Grail” in the old French form, really meant sang réal, “Royal Blood” — the royal blood of Jesus, the King of the Jews.

So, perhaps those seeking the Grail don’t even know what they are looking for. Is the Grail the symbol of divine grace? The reward for a virtuous life, the conclusion of a difficult spiritual journey? Or perhaps a symbol of the perfection of a person’s spirit through the trials of life? And perhaps we, also, don’t know what we are looking for when we talk about spiritual practice.

Spiritual Practice:

Well, the general topic of this service is Spiritual Practice, and my original intent was to look at the Grail Quest as a spiritual practice. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe if we think of the Grail Quest as a spiritual practice we’re missing something important.

“Christian practices are not activities we do to make something spiritual happen in our lives. Nor are they duties we undertake to be obedient to God. Rather, they are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, these are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God.” — Craig Dykstra

Let me say that again, modifying just a bit:
Spiritual, practices are not special activities we do to make something spiritual happen in our lives.

The Grail Quest, as described in the books, is clearly an activity done to make something spiritual happen in the life of the person on the quest. But what of the rest of one’s life?

I stole the preceding quotation, and what follows, from a rather Christian site, who in their turn had borrowed it from another site. I have modified the teaching it contains somewhat to reflect a more general concept of spirituality rather than a strictly Christian point of view,but for the most part these are stolen words.

Spiritual practices are things religious people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in light of and in response to our duties to all creation. When we live the practices of our faith, we join together with one another, with our predecessors and with the communion of saints across time and space in a way of life that resists death in all its forms – a way of life that is spilling over with spiritual awareness for creation, for our neighbors and for ourselves.

Each practice …

  • is a complex set of acts, words, and images that addresses one area of fundamental human need
  • is learned with and from other people;
  • comes to us from the past and will be shaped by us for the future;
  • is thought-full; it implies certain beliefs about ourselves, our neighbors, and creation;
  • is done within the church, in the public realm, in daily work, and at home;
  • shapes the people who participate in the practice, individually and communally;
  • has good purposes, although it may become corruptive;
  • comes to a focus in worship.

12 Spiritual Practices

Honoring the body

The practice of honoring the body is born of the confidence that our bodies, our selves, are worthy of care and blessing and ought never to be degraded or exploited. It is through our daily bodily acts that we might live more fully into the sacredness of our bodies and the bodies of others.


The need for shelter is a fundamental human need. None of us ever knows for sure when we might be uprooted and cast on the mercy of others. But how do we overcome our fear in order to welcome and shelter a stranger? The practice of hospitality is the practice of providing a space to take in a stranger. It also encompasses the skills of welcoming friends and family to our tables, to claim the joy of homecoming

Household economics

Good economic practice – positive ways of exchanging goods and services – is about the well-being, the livelihood, of the whole household. In the face of great economic and environmental challenges, the practice of household economics calls on us to manage our private homes for the well-being and livelihood of the small planet home we all share.

Saying ‘Yes’ and saying ‘No’

Tough decisions and persistent effort are required of those who seek lives that are whole and holy. If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of our lives, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray or meditate, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds the spirit out and yes to a way of life that makes space for the spirit.

Keeping Sabbath or Day of Rest

“I’m so busy… I just don’t have enough time to complete all my work.” Do you need a break, but doubt you have time for it? What about those who don’t have sufficient work to sustain themselves? The practice of keeping sabbath helps us to resist the tyranny of too much or too little work.


In testimony, people speak truthfully about what they have experienced and seen, offering it to the community for the edification of all. The practice of testimony requires that there be witnesses to testify and others to receive and evaluate their testimony. It is a deeply shared practice – one that is possible only in a community that recognizes that falsehood is strong, but that yearns nonetheless to know what is true and good.


We believe we are not alone in the midst of uncertain insights and conflicting impulses. Discernment is the intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of spirit in concrete situations.

Shaping communities

The shaping of communities is the practice by which we agree to be reliable personally and organizationally. This practice takes on life through roles and rituals, laws and agreements – indeed, through the whole assortment of shared commitments and institutional arrangements that order common life. In one sense, then, shaping communities is not just a single practice of its own. It is the practice that provides the choreography for all the other practices of a community or society.


The practice of forgiveness is not simply a one-time action or an isolated feeling or thought. Forgiveness involves us in a whole way of life that is shaped by an ever-deepening friendship with ourselves and with other people. The central goal of this practice is to reconcile, to restore communion – with one another and with the whole creation.


The practice of healing is a central part of the reconciling activity of the spirit in the world. Healing events are daily signs of the divine mercy that is surging through the world and guiding it toward its final perfection. This is true whether they take place by the sharing of chicken soup, by the performance of delicate surgery, or by laying on of hands in a service of worship.

Dying well

Death is a frightening prospect, for the specter of death destroys any illusion that we are in full control of our lives. Yet, dying well embraces both lament and hope, and both a sense of loss and an awareness of ultimate mercy.

Singing our lives

What we sing and how we sing reveals much of who we are, and entering into another’s song and music making provides a gateway into their world, which might be much different from our own. Something is shared in singing that goes beyond the words alone. This something has taken shape over many centuries in a practice that expresses our deepest yearning and dearest joy: the practice of singing our lives to the Universe.

Concluding Thought:

The Quest for the Holy Grail, as described in the tales, was clearly a spiritual journey, proving each knight on the quest in the way a blacksmith proves steel by hammer and fire. Its goal was the Grail, whatever we believe that to be. But is it spiritual practice?

In Deep Down Things, Lin Jensen suggests, “Perhaps we humans look for spirit in unusual or rare experiences because ordinary objects and events don’t seem good enough to qualify.” And maybe we think as well that spiritual practice must involve “unusual or rare” activities. But maybe the true spiritual practice is simply doing ordinary things as though they mattered.

Silent Meditation

Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Covenant (Unison)

Please join together in reading our Covenant, found on the back of the bulletin.

Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest of truth is our sacrament,
and service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve others in community,
To the end that all souls shall grow
Into harmony with creation,
Thus we do covenant with one another.

Song Here on the Paths of Every Day (HCL 180)

Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.

For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Song Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing By Robert F Kaufmann

We have come together to share our deepest concerns, speaking and singing words of inspiration and hope. We have committed ourselves to do what we can to ease the burdens of those who suffer, to stand for decency and compassion. We have pledged to work for a more wholesome environment for us and for all the generations that will follow.

But these are just words. The hymns we sing are just songs. All our reflections are just idle thoughts. When we convert them all into loving and responsible action throughout the week, then and only then will this morning become what we want it to be — a time of worship.

Go now in peace.


(Illustration by Virgil Burnett, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Comedy for Christmas, translated by Theodore Silverstein, illustrated by Virgil Burnett, University of Chicago Press, 1974)