In Praise of Slowness:  Week 49 Sermon


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Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme:  pilgrimage.  It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along.  It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis


Have to get this finished.  Lot of holiday busyness.  Parties to arrange.  Gifts to buy.  Tours at the Museum.  Drive in to get my boy and bring him home.  Take him back.  Talk to kids in Colorado.  Thank you notes.  Yule log to cut and burn.  Dogs to feed.  Movies to watch.

Well, you get the picture? 

Yes, exactly.  No time to slow down.  I mean, when would it happen?

Hmmm.  How many of you feel pressed?  Too little time, too much life?  Too many meetings, not enough hours? 




Let me admit something before we get too far along here.  I have not read In Praise of Slowness

I don’t have time.

No, just kidding.  I have time to read whatever I make as a priority and it just wasn’t up there.


A number of reasons. 


Coming of age in the late sixties.  Turn on, tune in, drop out.  Remember the back-to-the-land movement?  Voluntary simplicity?  Mother Earth News?  Well, I used to have all the Mother Earth News issues ever published, from volume 1 right up to whenever my life got too busy or too complicated to read it anymore.

Drop out.  Drop out of the consumer rat race, drop out of the careerist world that feeds the military-industrial complex.  Drop out of the outdated sexual mores and quaint marriage customs.  Drop out of the mechanized, v-8’ized internal combustion confusion and tend to bees, cut your own wood and heat with a fuel-conserving wood stove.


Have I ever told you about the Peaceable Kingdom?  No?

In 1974, at the height of the Arab oil crisis, I bought a farm.  It was outside Nevis, Minnesota in Hubbard county.  The farm had a house and seven outbuildings, plus 80 acres of tillable land.  My wife, Judy, and I named it the Peaceable Kingdom, and decided it would be used as a training camp for non-violent resistance.  A Highlands Institute of the north.

My alcoholism and Judy’s adulterous nature drove a stake in the heart of that dream.  I divorced Judy, sold the farm, and moved back to the Citys to continue seminary.

In the run-up to buying the farm I read the usual texts on such ventures.  The one most close to my own heart, then and now, was Helen and Scott Nearings, Living The Good Life  Scott Nearing was an economist at the New School for Social Research, an early advocate of a mixed economy, and, with Helen, a practitioner of what would today be called simple living.

I believed then, and I believe now, that the thrust of your life, its intent or purpose, perhaps its vision or vocation, lies at the heart of the good life.  And, I believe, living the good life is far more important than living a slow life.  

That’s why I haven’t read In Praise of Slowness; the focus on time strikes me as coming down hard beside the point.  Why live slow?  Why live fast?  Why live?  What’s the point?  How you live and what you live for matters far more than the speed at which you live.

Let me say this another way.  Slowing down will not make you more concerned about systemic injustice, tsunami victims, or Rwanda, Eritrea, Bangladesh, north Minneapolis, Frogtown.  Slowing down will not make you a better lover, a more compassionate friend or parent.  Slowing down will not mean you stop to smell the roses.

Time, for one thing, is either irrelevant or fixed, and in either case, not important.  If we can be here now, like the Buddha, or live in what Eckhard Tolle calls the Eternal Now, then time is irrelevant and we can’t move through it faster or slower.  We will have moved ourselves to the side of time; we will become observers of time from the only time any of us ever has, ever can

Or, time has a fixed quantity: 24 hours in a day, sixty minutes in an  hour, sixty seconds in a minute.  Since we know time’s quantity, and, since the quantity is the same for everyone (set aside relativity for the moment), then to move through it faster or slower makes no sense.  Time simply passes as it passes.

So, what is all the fuss about?  Here’s a thought.  See how it goes with what you’ve already got concluded.

Alain de Botton, a philosopher, has written a book called Status Anxiety.  Botton believes we have two great motivations in life:  1.  To find physical love, eros, relationships.  2.  To find love from the community at large. (to achieve an acceptable status.)

The latter, he believes, is the love that dares not speak its name.  It is the ambitious us, the us that wants to be minister of the biggest UU church, or become a famous, wealthy novelist, or a well-respected and wise scholar, or the most radical guy on the corner.  It is the part of us that accepts as our just due any achievement we make, then instantly sets the bar at least one notch, if not a full six inches, higher.

It is, as a result, the part of us always in doubt, the part of us that has a barely admitted fear, “Am I a failure?”  “Did I live up to my potential?”  “My parents said I was special; that god put me in the world for a purpose.  Have I blown it?”

For many Americans, and for many of us who attend UU congregations, these questions are the ones that lead us to increasingly fast-pace lives. Lives where volunteer activities blend into work activities to become a necklace or bracelet that we hope proclaims our worth, if not to ourselves, then to others.

It is this drive to achieve or to excel in the eyes of our peer group, no matter who they are, that keeps us from sitting back in the lounger with a detective novel, reading a bit, napping a bit, then getting up for lunch.  Or, choosing a path that fits Frederick Buechner’s definition of ministry:  Where your gifts meet the world’s need.

Wrestling with the status demon at the Jabbok Ford of your own life is far more important than slowing down or speeding up.  Coming, literally, to grips with the startling idea that you may be fine, just like you are, is radical.  It’s revolutionary.

Be here now.



In Holland the rise of Calvinism combined with a burgeoning painterly tradition to produce new subject matter for artists:  the life of ordinary people.  This was a marked transition from medieval themes like history, mythology, or Christianity, i.e. saints, the crucifixion, the madonna and judgment day. 

This discovery of the beautiful in the ordinary art historians call genre painting.  Vermeer is the painter most of us know associated with this movement.

Within the genre painting movement there was a submovement which took its theme from Ecclesiastes 1:  Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.  These are the Vanitas painters.  Their subject matter often consisted of memento mori, i.e. skulls, hourglasses, skeletons.  The Vanitas painters also used genre painting’s subject matter in a way designed to create doubt about its virtue.  So, fancy goblets and glass might be depicted as hastily left behind, or, books left open, candles burned down, flowers in decay.

Vanitas painters reminded Dutch viewers of the transience of life and daily distractions from their faith pilgrimage.

The Khmer theologians who guided the hands of the stone sculptors at Angkor had a similar artistic intent when they had the god Kal inscribed on temple gates and doors, the first thing a devotee saw when they entered for worship.  Kal is the god of time and his presence at entrances reminded the devotee of life’s brevity and, therefore, how precious the time remaining.

Neither perspective, the Dutch Calvinist nor the Hindu Khmer, is very different from the Buddhist, Be Here Now.  All three stress the importance of this moment, this point in the pilgrimage.  They remind us that no matter what we had hoped, here we are.  They remind us, no matter how carefully we plan, we never have more time than the moment in which we are, right now.

They remind us, too, that none of us get out of here alive.  As the NPR documentary on cancer research put it, “The death rate for each generation is 100%.”

In October we discussed the Great Wheel of the Year, the holiday cycle of northern Europe and the Celtic lands.  The Great Wheel takes its cues from the seasonal changes we experience in the temperate latitudes:  spring, summer, fall, winter.

There are many lessons the Great Wheel has to teach us, but the one I want to focus on here is this:  We have been here before and will be here again, on and on, or, better, around and around.

Here we are at the second day of the New Year, again.  Again, it’s cold outside and there is snow on the ground. 

The dark nights of the Winter Solstice have come, we have survived, and the light has begun to inch its way back, darkness has begun to recede; there is still far more dark than light, but now we can see literal light at the end of winter’s long tunnel.

Note though.  We have been here before.  We will be here again.

Darkness will overtake the light.  The nights will grow long again this year.  So long that they will seem about to wrest the whole from the sun, to turn our lives into endless night.  But.

They will not.

We know this because we have been here before.

In this sense, too, time is not an endless road on which we journey; it is not a long, eternal continuum on which we travel a short way, then fade out, never to be here again.

No, in the sensibility nourished by the Great Wheel, all we have is one year, one full turn of the Wheel, then it begins again, offering us the same rich lessons embedded in the bloom of the crocus, midsummer’s heat, fall’s crisp melancholy, and winter’s journey to the inward reaches of the heart.

So, this moment, this second day of the New Year is the only now you have.  This is no matter of belief.  This is a matter of fact.  No matter how hard you try you cannot live in the past, nor in the future.  You can only live in the present, and, in the present, the only time you have is this moment.

This belabors the obvious, you may say.  And  you would be right.  It is, however, often the obvious which escapes our attention as we project our dreams, our plans into the future, or sit and ruminate on matters already past: how we would redo that moment with Mom, change our behavior with the kids, have spent less time at the office last year, and more at home, or the reverse. 

All things finished or things yet to come. 

The moment in which you can act, in which you can take your sacred Self and create another expression of its uniqueness, is this moment, in this place, with these people.  And no other.  You can not use your advanced Star Trek tricorder to beam yourself to next week or even the next hour.  Nor can you use HG Well’s technology and visit the hour before coming here and decide that this will be a waste of time (Whether you now experience it as such or not.  If, however, you do find this experience a waste of your time right now, you could, right now, get up and leave.)


Your Self, the unique bundle of flesh, personal history, shadow, ego and DNA that is you, yearns for realization in each moment.  As Alfred North Whitehead said, each moment is an advance into novelty, a creative instance which helps shape the future into which you live.  Whitehead’s emphasis on becoming as the primary nature of all we experience helps us, from a metaphysical perspective, see just how critical this Buddhist emphasis on the now is.  It is the moment in which we shape, create, even become our future.

And here’s the good news.  In the moment, free from the tyranny of the past or anxiety about the future, most of us feel we can act.  We can choose what to do right now.  Maybe what happens in the next hour might prove too much, but right now I can say yes to the cake.  Or, no.  I can choose to read a chapter in a book or I can put the book down and choose to cook supper.  This I can do.

It is no accident AA says, “One day at a time.”  Anyone with time in the program knows folks who were working it one hour at a time, one minute at a time, building sobriety in the increments their current level of consciousness allowed them to achieve.

You don’t have to be an alcoholic to benefit from this wisdom.  It is the wisdom of the Buddha, too.  It is the wisdom of the Great Wheel, the confidence that as we live well in this winter, so might we live well in the winters we know will come. 


An article in the Economist, November 27, 2004 carried an article titled, “It’s values, Dummkopf!”  This article introduced a new word to me, leitkultur; it is similar in meaning to the more familiar musical term, leitmotif, a dominant or repeating theme in a piece of music.  Think Wagner and the Ring Cycle for instance, or Bach and Beethoven.  Leitkultur means, roughly, “...the guiding or dominant (or repeating) culture or set of values...” p. 54.  

In German public debate the question, What are German values?, comes up more and more according to this article, e.g. immigrants need to learn German leitkultur, religion is visible again in the public square, with its emphasis on values; some Germans point to George Bush’s  (apparent) ability to win by focusing more on values (morality) than on economic self-interest.

To praise slowness assumes a leitkultur of speed, a leitkultur scornful of the past and willing to mortgage the present in service of a future good. 

Yes, it’s true some psychologists define maturity as the ability to delay gratification, that is, manage the present with an eye to a future goal.

These are different matters.  The leitkultur dominated by status anxiety would have us use the present only for the future.  This is the leitkultur in our middle-class and upper-middle class UU congregations, and for sure the leitkultur in which I grew up and against which I struggle still.  This is not maturity, but neurosis, a mass neurosis which grips most of us from time to time, at different stages in our lives.


What does it mean to live a life outside this leitkultur?  It takes a counter-cultural effort, not easy to realize or sustain.

A life lived over against the leitkultur of status is the life of Wendell Berry. 

How many of you are familiar with Wendell Berry? 

Well, for those of you who don’t know him, he is the poet we read at the beginning of this service and who writes occasionally for the Humanist magazine and has some material in the back of our hymnal.

Here is a short bio:

He taught English Literature at New York University, Georgetown, and the University of Kentucky.  His life in letters has produced poetry, essays, and novels. 

A note here:  to live counter to the culture of status does not mean foregoing productivity or avoiding difficult, meaningful goals.  It involves placing productivity and goals in the context of the good life, rather than placing life in the context of status.

When Berry moved back to Henry County, Kentucky to teach at the University of Kentucky, he and his wife, Tanya, moved onto a 126 acre farm.  5 generations of Berry’s family worked this land before him.

If you have read his poetry, say, The Sabbath poems, or his essays (a bibliography is available at this weblink) you will know his commitment to letting the land heal itself.  His commitment to use no engines.  No computers in his writing.  His willingness to let the land teach him what it needs.

He came home to Kentucky and rooted himself in the soil of his family.  As he nurtured the land, the land nurtured him and his family.  He has become, over the time of his dwelling there, perhaps our most eloquent living spokesman for the wisdom of the natural cycle.  He doesn’t write about the Great Wheel, but all of his writing is about the Great Wheel.  He lives in touch with the earth, and not just any earth, but earth for which his family has held stewardship over a long period of time—over 170 years—long, at least, by American standards.

Think of the difference if the leitkultur of our time promoted life lived in harmony with the needs of the earth rather than over against them.  Or, if the leitkultur honored slow-food rather than fast, conversation over instant messaging, face-to-face interaction over cell phones.  (I’m not suggesting cell phones are per se bad, nor am I opposed to instant messaging, as to fast-food—well, maybe there...)  It is our culture which transforms speed and convenience into necessities, that is the culprit here.

It is OUR culture, our leitkultur.  Ours.  Not Gods.  Not a tablet handed down from the White House steps.  Ours.  Not even a book written by the Emily Post of status achievement.  But our leitkultur.

What is ours, we are responsible for.  What is ours, we can choose, in the moment, to transform.  Or, we can choose, once we know it for what it is, to listen to another famous American who lived against the leitkultur of his day, and march to the beat of different drummers.

It is not too late—for America.  It is not too late—for you.  It is not too late—for us to stand up, or, perhaps sit down, and mull this over, decide whether we need the next car, the bigger house, the new job.  Whether the promise of the yellow brick road leads to Oz and the machinations of a latter day Wizard yanking levers and giving us a light show and smoke, or whether the yellow brick road leads to our back yard, our own garden, our children’s room, our own quiet presence in the world of the here and now.

It’s not speed that’s the issue here: it’s the leitkultur and our choices.  Choices we can make. Today, this hour, this minute, right now.

              Charlie Buchman Ellis                                      < Previous    

    A few resources related to the Now, slowing down, simplicity

“...Finally even the mind comes running, like a wild thing,

         and lies down in the sand.

     Eternity is not later, or in any unfindable place.”   The Leaf and the Cloud, Mary Oliver, p. 22


The now, grace, and the peace of wild things...

This season, this year, has been deep and rich for me.  What a privilege it is to live, and to live in these dark nights, cold and filled with snow.  Berry's poem, "The Peace of Wild Things", tells us where grace can be found, very near us.  What a gift.


When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
                                                                                          (From Collected Poems, North Point Press, © 1985)


The simple living network:  This is a series of web pages devoted to the idea of simple living and how to implement the ideas in your life.  Not simplistic.  Helpful

Simplicity is not about poverty or deprivation. It is about discovering what is "enough" in your life -- based upon thoughtful analysis of your lifestyle and values -- and discarding the rest.

If you are willing to act upon what you find and learn here, we promise that you can simplify and unclutter your life and develop a healthy relationship with money -- no debt, complete understanding and control of your financial situation, plus the time and resources for the things that are important to you. This might seem hard to believe, but you may even discover you can quit your job and never work another day of your life!

If you are serious about living a more conscious, simple, healthy and restorative lifestyle, The Simple Living Network is here to help and The Web Of Simplicity will be your guide.

Importantly, the simple life is not simple. Many, diverse expressions of simplicity of living are flowering in response to the challenges and opportunities of our times. To present a more realistic picture of the scope and expression of this way of life for today's complex world, here are ten different approaches that I see thriving in a "garden of simplicity."  Although there is overlap among them, each expression of simplicity seems sufficiently distinct to warrant a separate category. So there would be no favoritism in listing, they are placed in alphabetical order based on the brief name I associated with each.

  1. Choiceful Simplicity:
  2. Commercial Simplicity: 
  3. Compassionate Simplicity:
  4. Ecological Simplicity:
  5. Elegant Simplicity:
  6. Frugal Simplicity:
  7. Natural Simplicity:
  8. Political Simplicity:
  9. Soulful Simplicity:
  10. Uncluttered Simplicity:


As these ten approaches illustrate, the growing culture of simplicity contains a flourishing garden of expressions whose great diversity -- and intertwined unity -- are creating a resilient and hardy ecology of learning about how to live more sustainable and meaningful lives. As with other ecosystems, it is the diversity of expressions that fosters flexibility, adaptability, and resilience. Because there are so many pathways of great relevance into the garden of simplicity, this cultural movement appears to have enormous potential to grow -- particularly if it is nurtured and cultivated in the mass media as a legitimate, creative, and promising life-path for the future.

This essay expands on each of the ten.  A helpful starting place.

Other Resources:     

1.   "In Maine as in Vermont, we made serious and various attempts to live at five levels:

with nature;

by doing our daily stint of bread labor;

by carrying out our professional activities;

by constant association with our fellow citizens;

and by unremitting efforts to cultivate the life of the mind and spirit."

-Man's Search for the Good Life (1954/1974)

2.  The Long Now Foundation

3.   Buddhism can be seen as a set of tools that enable us to see things as they really are here and now.

              Charlie Buchman Ellis              Top                        < Previous