Once upon a time I used to read a lot of poetry. That was back in another life, when I was a graduate student in poetry and creative writing at a couple of fine universities in Maryland and Virginia. I still read poetry, of course, but not as voraciously or as seriously as I did in those days. And I have to confess that of all the poems I read, the one poem that had the biggest impact on me was this one by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

“You must change your life,” Stephen Mitchell’s rendering of the original German “Du mußt dein Leben ändern,” really spoke to me as a perpetual graduate student with no real career prospects. So I took Rilke seriously and made some changes, changes that brought me to seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, to my current job with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and to a home in Saint Paul, Minnesota with a wonderful family and a cat name Chloe. All because of a poem. Okay, not just because of a poem. But because I was willing to make some changes in my life, willing to undergo a Transformation, which is the topic if this week’s small group ministry session based on resources from SpiritualityandPractice.com.

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

The great metaphors from all spiritual traditions — grace, liberation, being born again, awakening from illusion — testify that it is possible to transcend the conditioning of my past and do a new thing.
— Sam Keen in Hymns to an Unknown God

Check-in/Sharing

Topic:

An Excerpt from A Path and a Practice: Using Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a Guide to an Awakened Spiritual Life by William Martin

William Martin presents his lyrical translations of Lao-tzu’s spiritual classic along with practical application of its truths. Here is an excerpt that contains a translation from the Tao Te Ching on letting go and a philosophical explanation of it.

This is a path of letting go
so there will be room to live.

If we hold on to our opinions,
our minds will become dull and useless.
Let go of opinions.

If we hold on to possessions,
we will always be at risk.
Let go of possessions.

If we hold on to ego,
we will continue to suffer.
Let go of ego.

Working without thought of praise or blame
is the way of true contentment.

This is a path of letting go
so there will be room to live.

Thinking ourselves somehow separate from life, we conclude that our safety and well-being are dependent on our ability to control our circumstances. Attempting to control circumstances, we separate ourselves from those circumstances to such a degree that we end up bringing to ourselves and to others misery rather than promised safety. Lao-tzu teaches us to let go. We let go of the belief that control is possible. We let go of the notion that our efforts at control will keep us safe. We let go of the countless conditioned beliefs that have promised safety and happiness, only to deliver anxiety and suffering. We eventually let go of even the ideas of who we are as a separate ego.

This path accepts that developing an ego is an essential element in human growth. But it also suggests that this development might be a stage of human development rather than its end product. Developing a cocoon is a natural and essential part of being a caterpillar. But the time comes when the cocoon softens, wears out, and opens up. What if this is the case for all our opinions, possessions, and even for our ego? What if, when the cocoon of ego opens, instead of the feared abyss we find a butterfly?

Questions: Share the story of a transformative experience, one you came out of feeling like a different person. It might be an encounter with a person, a story, or a work of art; an occasion of intense joy, sorrow, or pain; or a time when you faced an illness or another challenge that resulted in your making changes in your life.

Check-out/Likes and Wishes

Closing Words:

You are destined to fly, but that cocoon has to go.
— Nelle Morton quoted in Writing from Life by Susan Witting Albert

To Practice This Thought: Invite Transformation into your life by making simple changes. Start by doing something different — walk to work by a new route, answer the telephone with your other than usual hand.

Group Session Plan based on resources on Transformation from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Transformation.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

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