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Spiraling

05/14/23 by Joshua Pawelek


I call this sermon “Spiraling.” Spirals are common in nature—the DNA double helix, the fiddlehead fern, the whorl of our fingerprints, the nautilus shell, hurricanes, whirlpools, galaxies. As such they can serve as metaphors for our all the ways we grow, including the ways we grow spiritually. I often say that our lives, including our spiritual lives, move in circles; yet it is more accurate to say our lives spiral. Because are always gaining more experience, whenever we come around to where we’ve been before, we never arrive at exactly the same place. Or we never experience the place in exactly the same way. We’ve grown. Maybe we’re more knowledgeable, more adept, more practiced, more skilled. Perhaps we’re more content, more at peace; perhaps we’re more sad or agitated. As the pagan writer and activist Starhawk says, “a spiral is a dynamic form of a circle. It comes back on itself, but always with a difference. It moves somewhere.”[1] I believe the early 20th-century Unitarian-turned-Anglican poet and playwright, T.S. Eliot, was pointing toward this when he wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / and the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”[2] We come back to where we were, but there’s a difference. Spiraling is a way to talk about how we grow.

Before I say more, I want to thank Ted and Nancy Pappas for purchasing this sermon at last year’s UUS:E Goods and Services Auction. He and Nancy sent me some articles, which I will link to in the online version of this sermon.[3] I have a number of takeaways from these articles:

First, spirals as ubiquitous in nature from the micro to the macro to the galactic: the path of an insect approaching a light source, sunflowers, the flight of a hawk approaching its prey, the snake’s coil, the Milky Way.

Second, the spiral was a sacred and multifaceted symbol for many ancient cultures and religions. While we can’t know for sure what spirals symbolized five thousand years ago, most scholars of ancient religion suggest that they referred to rebirth, regeneration, growth and change.

Third, in ancient cultures the spiral is clearly associated with women and with goddesses, specifically mother goddesses. An article on the website Learn Religions says that “because of its connection with mother goddesses, the spiral is a feminine symbol, representing not only women but also a variety of things traditionally associated with women … lifecycles, fertility … childbirth and intuition.”[4]

Fourth, spirals appear in both sacred and secular architecture, from the Greek Parthenon, to the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, to the Vatican Museum’s spiral staircase, to a newly constructed, 1,000 foot skyscraper at 66 Hudson Blvd. in Manhattan known as “The Spiral.”

Finally, the articles discuss the mathematics of spirals, the place of spirals in the sacred geometry of ancient Greece, for example, or the Fibonacci number sequence which produces a spiral when graphed. Starhawk describes the Fibonacci sequence as a “formula that says, ‘What is, plus what was, is what will be.’”[5] 2 + 1 = 3. What is, 2, plus what was, 1, is what will be, 3. And then it grows. 3+2= 5; 5+3 = 8; 8+5 = 13, and on and on. What is, plus what was, is what will be. Not a repeating circle but growth spiraling infinitely. In the words of poet Suzy Kassem, Circles / Of life … / Spiraling / Outwards / For / Infinity.[6] In the words of poet, Jewell Miller, My soul, on its journey, … / by a spiral staircase / Seeks its path to the stars.[7]

So, as a common natural phenomenon, an ancient religious symbol of rebirth associated with women, a representation of the Goddess, an architectural feature, a mathematical formula, how might the spiral relate to Unitarian Universalist spirituality? This was Ted and Nancy’s question. My response is this notion of “spiraling.”

I realize you may be experiencing some dissonance. If we say someone is spiraling, we typically mean they are losing control, losing their grip on reality, descending into greater and greater dysfunction. We often speak of a “downward spiral.” In the second verse of our opening hymn, Dear Weaver of Our Lives’ Design, we appeal to the weaver to “take up the fabric of our lives … and mend our rav’ling souls.”[8] We might say one who is spiraling is unraveling. This is how we commonly use the term. The downward spiral, especially when we use it as shorthand for active mental illness, is real, painful, and scary. I don’t want to lose sight of that. However, I’m mindful that our lives are also always naturally spiraling. They don’t shoot off in a straight line, a rocket into space. They turn with the days, the seasons, the years. They rotate, revolve and process with the Earth as it spirals around the galaxy. We cycle through the stages of our lives, aging through generations, through time. We’re always returning, but never quite to where we were before. What is, plus what was, is what will be. We’re spiraling.

My oldest child just turned 21. My life is not quite the same. What is, plus what was, is what will be.

My father-in-law died this year. My life is not quite the same. What is, plus what was, is what will be.

I graduated from college. I went back to work after a leave of absence. I moved into a new home. I down-sized. I got married. I got divorced. I retired. My life is not quite the same. What is, plus what was, is what will be. I’m growing. We circle back around to the same place, but it’s never quite the same place. We’re spiraling.

Recognizing how today is different from the same day last year or a decade ago or fifty years ago can bring intense emotions. Contemplate for a moment a place you lived during your childhood. Visualize that place, how it appeared from the street, how it felt inside, how it smelled. Who were you then? Who were the people in your life? Who are you now? Where are those people? What was lives on in you. It mixes with what is to produce what will be. That’s what I mean when I say our lives spiral.

A spiral pattern created by Ellen Castaldini’s mother

Spirals have energy. They turn, they spin, they whirl, they flow. Even when depicted in art, when they are essentially static, etched onto a cave wall or a piece of pottery, sculpted on ancient megaliths or captured on canvas, spirals have motion and power. There is similar energy in the spirals of our lives. One way to understand this energy is to think about the difference between who I was the last time I was here vs. who I am now that I’ve returned. How am I different? What accounts for the difference? What happened to create it? Some movement has happened in me or around me; some power was been exercised, either by me or by some force beyond me. Some energy has been expended. Here’s my question: Are we aware of that energy at work as we spiral? Do we take time to reflect on it? Do we learn from it? Is that energy just carrying us along (which is inevitable if we’re not paying attention); or can we somehow carry it, harness it for the sake of our growth?

Starhawk features prominently in my thinking about how we might access the energy of spirals. One of her more famous books is The Spiral Dance, first published in 1979, about neopagan beliefs and practices. It’s been 30 years since I read The Spiral Dance. I have it somewhere but couldn’t find it. I don’t remember what she says in that book about the actual dance. But some of you will remember Starhawk lectured and led a spiral dance here at UUS:E on March 7th, 2013.[9] Despite a raging snowstorm, about 80 people attended, travelling from all across southern New England and eastern New York.

The spiral dance is a communal ritual, a modern form of magic, designed to harness the energy of a group. In another of her books, The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature, Starhawk says, “In the spiral dance, we coil in on ourselves, then turn outward to face each person in the group as we pass. When we wind the spiral in, we concentrate energy, eventually releasing it as an upward-spiraling cone of power.” I remember this from our time with her, the whole group moving in toward the center at the end of the dance, raising arms skyward. “In the northern hemisphere,” she says, “the sun moves clockwise across the sky, and water forms a clockwise vortex when it drains down a hole. When we raise power for a positive end, to draw in energies and resources or to create something, we [dance] in a clockwise or sunwise direction.”[10] That’s what we did when she was with us—we danced clockwise. But you can dance in the other direction to harness energy for other purposes. “When we want to release or undo something,” she says, “we move widdershins, or counterclockwise.”[11]

The spiral dance ritual harnesses the group’s energy to achieve some purpose, either to create something or to release something. We can understand this theologically. The spiral is an ancient symbol of the Goddess, of feminine divinity, which is one and the same with the Earth or Gaia, to use her ancient Greek name. The spiral dance evokes the goddess. Its energy is her energy. The spiral dance also evokes all the ways spirals occur in Nature. Its energy is that of the coiled snake, the soaring hawk, the river vortex, the twisting tree trunk, the whirlwind, the hurricane, all of which is also the energy of the Goddess. Its motion is the motion of stars around the centers of galaxies, all of which is the motion of the Goddess.

I say our lives spiral because as we return to the places we’ve been before, whether in space or in time, we’re never quite the same. Some energy is at work, is flowing, is swirling. There’s a difference. There’s been movement. My child turned 21, my father-in-law died. What is, plus what was, is what I am becoming. Can we give ourselves the space and time to peer below the surface, to let ourselves recognize that in our spiraling we are in fact moving with the rhythms of nature, with Gaia’s patterns? Can we recognize that our Fibonacci 3+5 = 8 is akin to the 3+5 = 8 of the nautilus shell, the fiddlehead fern, the butterfly’s proboscis, the mouse curling in on itself to stay warm while sleeping, the insect approaching light, the lizard’s tail, the tidal whirlpool, the ram’s horn? It’s the same pattern. Can we recognize that the energy at the heart of our spiraling is the same energy at the heart of all nature’s spirals, is the same energy of the Goddess which the ancients represented in spirals on cave walls, baskets, figurines, pottery and ancient tombs?

Can we recognize that life spirals unceasingly, and that we are inescapably part of it? Can we recognize, as the poet suggests, that the circles of our lives spiral outwards for infinity. Can we recognize, as the poet suggests, that our souls, on their journeys, seek their paths to the stars, by a spiral staircase?

The late, radical feminist theologian, Mary Daly, once defined spiraling as “swirling movement … in harmony with the rhythms of whirlwinds, whirlpools and … galaxies.”[12] For her, spiraling is a practice or a way of being in the world that puts people in touch with Being—her term for divinity, Goddess, Gaia, what she also called Ultimate/Intimate Reality. We are spiraling. The question is do we know it? And as we come to know it, can we harness the energy to release what needs release, and to create what is good and meaningful in the world?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Starhawk, The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature (New York: Harper One, 2005) p. 191.

[2] Eliot, T.S., excerpt from The Four Quartets, in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #685.

[3] Woolfe, Sam “Why Do Spirals Exist Everywhere in Nature,” May 30, 2014 (blog post): https://www.samwoolfe.com/2014/05/spirals-everywhere.html. Beyer, Catherine, “Ancient Spirals,” May 4th, 2018 (on the Learn Religions website): https://www.learnreligions.com/spirals-95990. D’Silva, Beverly, “Ancient Symbols that Still Resonate Today,” March 20, 2022 (on the BBC’s “The Collection” website): https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20220318-the-ancient-enigma-that-still-resonates-today.

[4] Beyer, Catherine, “Ancient Spirals,” May 4th, 2018 (on the Learn Religions website): https://www.learnreligions.com/spirals-95990.

[5] Starhawk, The Earth Path, p, 192.

[6] Kassem, Suzy, “Circles of Life.” See: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/circles-of-life-2/.

[7] Miller, Jewell, “Spirals.” See: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/spirals-4/.

[8] Dorian, Nancy, “Dear Weaver of Our Lives’ Design,” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #22.

[9] Fine, Pam, “Earth Spirit, Earth Justice, Talk by Starhawk,” in the Patch, Feb. 13, 2013. See https://patch.com/connecticut/manchester/ev–earth-spirit-earth-justice-talk-by-skyhawk.

[10] Starhawk, The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature (New York: Harper One, 2005) p. 192.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Daly, Mary, Websters’ First Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (Boston: Beason Press, 1987) p. 167.

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