SoundCloud (click here to listen)
In 1978 was an advert for the ‘Sevenoaks Grand Prix’. I’ve watched it again on You Tube (click here to see the advert).
One of the competitors in the race was motor racing champion Jackie Stewart, driving a lovely red Mark III Ford Cortina (alas without black vinyl roof). His formidable opponent was the then popular comedian Hattie Jacques.
The race began in Rockdale Road. But Hattie was not driving. Hattie started on a bike. Then quickly stopped and took the train from Sevenoaks station.
Of course, it wasn’t really a Grand Prix, it was instead an advert for British Rail. Hattie and Jackie were ‘racing’ to London, and the purpose of the advert was to show how relaxed Hattie was throughout her journey, and on arrival. Whereas the hapless Jackie Stewart gets caught in traffic, has several near misses, and is late for agreed joint lunch out side Charing Cross station.
All good fun. And a great demonstration on how much simpler the train is than the car. In those days, the environmental impact of the car wasn’t even mentioned, so the advert has added relevance today.
Jackie and Hattie got to the same place. But not at the same time, and not in the same manner.
Hattie read a glossy magazine and sat in her own bubble of personal space. However, Jackie, through comedy hold-ups and crashes actually experienced life and other people.
Would it be right to say that Jackie probably leaned more from other people on his journey? And Jackie would probably be able to remember what he saw on his way to London. Hattie less so. Hattie was oblivious to everything around her. Except her glossy magazine.
So, on the one hand, Hattie’s train journey provided a win for time and convenience. On the other, Jackie’s car journey gave him the upper hand in memories, emotional experience, and human interaction.
Different journeys. Similar destinations. Yet different journeys and modes of transport.
In our first reading today, James Roose-Evans spoke of journeys too. He referred to the poem Ithaca, by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (click here to read the poem). Written in 1911, it refers to the classic ancient Greek stories of Odysseus, by Homer, and Odysseus’ return journey to his home. On Ithaca.
The poem reflects a view that life is journey to be savoured and enjoyed, and that the soul will mature on the journey – provided it is exposed to experience on the way.
And it is this experience, this uniqueness of the journey, that makes our religious quest, our striving for the spiritual, all the more fascinating.
Because our journeys are unique. We may be heading in the same direction. Perhaps. But the route we take, and the life we experience on the way will vary greatly from one to the other.
And, as Unitarians, this simple observation must surely lie at the heart of our own approach to faith and to this loving community.
As Unitarians, we accept that faith, like life itself, evolves over time, rather than remaining static. Our religion is very different to that of earlier Unitarians – and the future of our movement will change again. We have always been a group that trusts personal conscience and personal experience over taught or directed ways to think.
But what does this really mean. And how is it helping us as individuals, as congregation, as community and as part of this awesome world of which we are a tiny part?
We speak of journeys. All religions speak of journeys. Well, most, anyway. This is completely understandable and natural; life is a journey on which we are all moving forward. We cannot move backwards in time – despite my hopes that the Tardis can exist. We are forever moving forward. There is no way to slow this, or speed it up. We move ever onwards.
And yet although we can do nothing about the pace, it is this that we often worry so much about. We wait for things to happen – focusing on the event, not the waiting. Or we rush to reach a goal that, realistically, we didn’t really need to reach just now.
And, on the way we have missed a number of things. Children growing up, loved ones aging, life events passing in a blur.
And that is a shame.
It’s a shame because these are the elements of the journey from which we can learn. The parts of life that help us to see who we are, how we fit, what we are capable of. They help us to see. No-one can experience your journey for you. You are the traveller.
Back in the Ithaca poem, the reader is warned that the final destination – Odysseus’s symbolic return to his home – is but a final destination. It is not necessarily a goal, nor a place of great riches.
No, the adventure, the experience of life, was found in the journey rather than the arrival.
And of course, this notion of an experiential journey fits into a number of religious traditions, each of which represent the searching for truth by peoples from across the world over hundreds of years. And from which we can learn and gather so much.
More than that, it is the notion that the journey will provide an opportunity to feel, but also the chance to interact – to learn from others, to form community, to achieve peaceful aims through a brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity.
And this is relevant to all those on a search for spiritual enrichment. Our souls are fed by the experience of the everyday. It is by reflecting on our world, our lives and our interactions with them that we begin to make connection to the greater sense of worth that some might call God. Others might call an Eternal Sprit of Life, and others still simply the indescribable something that seems to bind us together as members of the human race and inhabitants of this planet.
It is through our experience, through the characters and lessons we meet and engage with, and subsequent reflection upon it that our souls are nourished.
And, in many, if not all, the great religious traditions there are examples of this seemingly implausible link between external and internal experience.
In Buddhism, for example, the legends of the young Buddha, searching in many different ways, unsuccessfully for enlightenment, finish with him meditating against a tree, the Bodhi Tree, and receiving three great insights. Buddha then remains in the garden with the tree for a further seven weeks, contemplating how he might respond to these awakenings. He eventually realises that it is only through other people that he can put any of his spiritual experience to any good use, and he travels to Benares on the Ganges where he is able to use the hospitality and good will of former associates to spread his teachings.
Buddha’s story took place some 400 years before that of Jesus. But it is that common story of a disembodied enlightenment, and a continuing recognition that it is only through people that these unanticipated spiritual changes might be put to good use. Jesus’s reflections took place in his 40 days in the wilderness – a time many Christians are remembering now as the period of Lent.
So perhaps we need to be doubly aware of possible experiences. Not only those experiences that happen to us, and upon which we might wish to act or change. But also the importance of recognising that friends and acquaintances, and complete strangers, may also be coming to terms with something completely new and overwhelming, something about which they are unsure, uncertain or simple confused. Our fellow travellers. And we need to be ready to make allowance for that, and to be there for all who need a steadying or helping hand through a time of change.
And such experiences are in no way confined to one spiritual or religious path. Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, Christianity, Judaism and many more. And none. There is a broad sweep of those who feel they have, at sometime, experienced ‘something’ of the transcendent. Something unexplainable. Something that might or might not be known as God. The sheer scale of such religious experience confirms to me my belief that there is no single religion that might take you closer to your spiritual centre. People of all religions and none have experiences of this kind. It is part of our existence and interaction with the world around us.
For me, that is one of the values of this Meeting. As Unitarians we gather together to celebrate life and reflect on the deeper truths that our humanity and the divinity around us might benefit from. We gather in community.
And we differ.
We are different.
We heard earlier a piece by Cliff Reed. It was, in response to questions as to what or where God might be for a Unitarian. The question put to James Martineau. Where is your God?
Cliff gives his own response. He speaks of the God that is found in every heartfelt truth. The God that is in the beauty of Creation. That God that is in the breath of every life that breathes.
For some, the use of the word God here can prove troublesome. But I’m not sure that matters. We are all able to grasp the notion of that all-that-is, the impossible something that seems to draw us together. God, Eternal Spirit, Life.
And for each of us that experience, that notion of the divine will be different.
And we can each learn from each other, and from a variety of writers, spiritual explorers, ancient mystics, modern storytellers.
We learn our lessons from the experiences we have in life. And it is on these that we are able to reflect.
In the 1978 Grand Prix of Sevenoaks, we first see and hear the idea that Hattie Jacques, by travelling on the train, had the easiest, quickest and most pleasant journey to central London. Yet the reality is simply that Hattie and Jackie Stewart had different journeys. They both got to where they were heading, but took different routes. Each will have learned something different. Each will have had an experience, an interaction, that will in some way inform their future look on life.
What is great is that they met for lunch at the end of the race. Hopefully, they used the time to tell each other their stories, to share their knowledge, and to help each other in making their decisions for the future.
In our spiritual lives, it is rarely the destination that matters. Ultimately, there is only one, and we’re all heading there.
No, life is about more than destinations. Life is about the journey. The experience. The learning and the sharing.
We will not complete everything. We shall never experience everything. We certainly won’t know everything.
Yet we can ensure we take note of the things we pass by. The people we meet. The lessons we learn.
By reflecting on our daily encounters, with others and with the Divine, we can strengthen our spiritual selves. We can feed our souls.
The Sevenoaks Grand Prix isn’t about winning, or taking the easy route. The ultimate prize is reached on the journey itself.