Learning to Kythe: A Ministry of Spiritual Presence

A sermon delivered March 19, 2005 at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation

A sermon about what I learned from our YRUU youth about presence, ministry, and soul-to-soul communication.

Reading: from a weaving “Of Being Woven” and “The Granary Floor,” by Rumi

The way is full of genuine sacrifice.

The thickets blocking the path are anything

that keeps you from that, any fear

that you may be broken to bits like a glass bottle.

The road demands courage and stamina

yet it’s full of footprints! Who are

companions? They are rungs

in your ladder. Use them!

With company you quicken your ascent….

A sufi was wandering the world.

One night he came as a guest to a community of sufis.


He tied up his donkey in the stable

and then was welcomed to the head of the dais.

They went into deep meditation and mystical communion,

he and these friends. For such people

a person’s presence is more to learn from

than a book. A sufi’s book is not composed

with ink and alphabet. . . . A sufi loves footprints!


When two of them meet they are no longer two.

They are one and six hundred thousand.

The ocean waves are their closest likeness,

when wind makes, from unity, the numerous. . .

The human-divine combination is a oneness. . . .

Friend, we’re traveling together.

Throw off your tiredness. Let me show you

one tiny spot of beauty that cannot be spoken.

I’m like an ant that’s gotten into the granary,

ludicrously happy, and trying to lug out

a grain that’s way too big.


 Reading, from A Wind in the Door, by Madelein L’Engle

Proginoskes, [an angelic being of pure spirit, who sometimes spurts a little fire], looked at [young Meg] with two ringed, owl-like eyes. “You’re beginning to learn how to kythe.”

            “To what?”

         “Kythe. It’s how cherubim talk. It’s talking without words, just the same way that I can be myself and not enfleshed.”

         “But I have to be enfleshed, and I need words.”

         “I know, Meg,” he replied gently, and I will keep things worded for you. But it will help if you will remember that cherubim kythe without words among each other. For a human creature, you show a distinct talent for kything.”

         She blushed slightly at the compliment. 



What a good morning this has turned out to be. The earth is finally warming and last month’s snow showers are, here at the end of April, finally giving way to spring rain. It is a good morning to talk about the warmth of community and the blossoming of human connection.

I have been one of four Unity Temple youth advisors for four years, and in addition to sharing some of what’s happening in our Young Religious Unitarian Universalist (YRUU, for short) youth program, I also want to share what I’ve learned in this time about presence, and ministry, and soul-to-soul communication—something I’m calling kything. It’s something youth are good at, and a skill that I believe we all can develop, or redevelop, at any point in our lives.

I don’t think I’ve said this in public: I never planned on being a youth advisor. Ne-ver. It wasn’t until my own son, Jevin, was entering high school and asked me what was so religious about religious education (what in my youth we called Sunday school). The previous year, I had entered seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Hyde Park and thought working with youth might be a great opportunity to give back a little of what I was learning and to learn something about our movement’s YRUU program.

Next thing I knew, I was at my first youth con. I hadn’t even known what a con was until I downloaded the registration form. I learned that they’re weekend-long conferences with workshops, worship, and time for youth from different churches to meet, dance, and connect. Sounded cool. But then some questions: Where are we sleeping? The floor? With 300 youth? And they’re locking the doors with us inside?

At least by the date of the con I had spent several weeks with our own group.  They were a nice bunch—friendly, open, and kind. Our youth advisor handbook says, “You’ll always have at least one disruptive youth.” In our group: not one. But I didn’t understand where I fit into the new world I entered. I know at first I tried a little too hard to gain acceptance. And I learned what all advisors must happily come to understand: we may be among them, but we can never again be a youth. So I learned how to take a rewarding place on the sideline. It’s something like what I’ve learned about ministry: it is from a vantage point on the margin that we become better aware of another’s needs.


Here’s the general flow of a youth con: Everybody arrives on a Friday night, and after a brief introductory meeting, perhaps some small group bonding, youth and advisors from different churches all head off to “home hospitality” where the local church members let us invade their homes, eat their food, and try to sleep on their floors. The next morning, it’s back to the host church for workshops and activities. I’ve gone to meditation, music, social mission, and yoga workshops.

But I don’t think it’s the workshops that keep folks coming back.

What keeps them coming back is perhaps difficult to describe—but out of all the touch groups, doggie piles, and just the overall togetherness, something organic emerges from the mix. It’s something intangible that you feel viscerally in the frenetic and vibrant energy. Maybe it’s the commitment to leave nobody un-affirmed, nobody left alone, nobody unnoticed—even when it’s hard. Maybe it’s the dancing, music, and circle worship. Everything’s geared toward focusing soul onto soul, spirit onto spirit.

Even the con rules (there are rules) affirm community. The big rules are: “No leaving the church,” for obvious reasons; “No drinking or drugs,” for obvious reasons; and “No overt or covert sexual activity,” but not for obvious reasons. Unlike the church camps in my youth, where we were taught that PDAs (public displays of affection) were sinful, the youth themselves described for me the reason that they don’t think they belong at their cons: It isolates those pairing off from those who don’t want to pair off, or are threatened by the idea of being pursued, or who just want a weekend free from being pursued. They embrace the rule because it affirms and promotes community and the worth and dignity of each individual. Sound like our seventh principle, doesn’t it?

So you take these covenants, add in what a chaplain friend of mine calls multiple “melty heart” moments, throw in some music and worship, and by around midnight on that Saturday night, something magic has formed in the midst of that gathered community of love and presence.

At a ceremony last year for graduating seniors, I heard stories from youth from other states that really brought home how powerful these cons can be. One youth said she used to freak out all her school friends after cons because of how affirming she would be—and adamant that they all be kinder to others.

I heard a gay youth from a small town say that he could only be “out” at cons. He said three times a year he could express his full humanity without worrying about being rejected, beaten, or killed.

I heard a youth tell that one year he was contemplating suicide but decided to postpone making a decision until after an upcoming con. Three years later he had made it to graduation, full of life, full of hope.

I watched an example of how this connection happens last year at the spring con in Springfield. Some of us adults had become concerned about a youth sitting alone, headphones on, looking very much like he didn’t want to be there. We had encouraged the youth to join in and participate, but to no avail. Then another advisor told me how she pulled a youth over and pointed out the situation. The youth said something like, “no problem,” and walked off, in the other direction! Hmm. The next thing the advisor knew, the youth had gathered up a bunch of other youth from his own group and sat down with the one who had isolated himself. The headphones came off, he had a new group of friends, and he wasn’t alone again.

What the advisor didn’t know when she pulled over the youth in the hall, who happened to be my own son, was that he had the same experience at General Assembly (our annual gathering of congregations) this past summer. He arrived at G.A. alone, the only youth from our church, and by the second day still had no idea how to fit in. I walked with him down to the youth room, and, to his great embarrassment, I introduced him to a group sitting in the hall, asking them if they’d let this poor wandering kid hang out with them. That was the last time Jevin was alone at the conference. As I’ve heard many times, “Let the youth care for themselves; they’re good at it.” Often all adults need to do is point out the right direction.

Boy could I have used something like this in my youth! I’m not under any illusion that life as a youth today is easier than when I went through it. People can be mean, cruel, unfeeling. I remember the church camps of my youth being an antidote to some of that cruelty; I also remember a theology that for me was oppressive and alienating. What a lucky thing to be a young Unitarian Universalist and to have an opportunity to grow up with this small freedom we can carve out. How lucky we are to have this vibrant group of people among us.

New advisors are told a few things coming into the YRUU program: be a presence for the youth, but don’t try to be like them; let them minister to each other, because they’re good at it; and don’t enforce rules that don’t exist. I’ve learned something else, though: Hang out and be present with them long enough; be there month after month, con after con; and they will affirm you in powerful and enduring ways. For me, these many months have shifted the course and tenor of my ministry. I’ve remembered what it’s like to just sit and listen without trying to fix things and be “all adult-like.” (That’s a quote.) I’ve remembered what it feels to be alienated and marginalized by an adult-centric culture that sees youth as consumers but not as participants. I’ve remembered to feel and let go and be myself—without some of the barriers that time has put in place.


In the passage I read earlier from A Wind in the Door,” Progin-ah-skees, a cherub of pure spirit, calls soul-to-soul bonding an act of kything, which comes from the Middle English word meaning “to bring forth.” Psychologists Louis Savary and Patricia Berne, in their book Kything: The Art of Spiritual Presence, say that while most people are familiar with being physically present (body-to-body) or psychologically present (mind-to-mind) there’s another level of involvement that is possible: being spiritually present to another. This represents for them the art of communion, or oneness.

The word kything in A Wind in the Door is fascinating, “Could the word and the concept offer a key to a method of establishing spiritual presence among humans? [Meg] begins to recognize kything as a means of spirit-to-spirit presence and also as a way to communicate with that presence” (Savary and Berne). Could Meg’s distinct talent for kything be a natural talent that most people can develop? I’d like to suggest we don’t need cons, or to be 16 again, to engage each other’s spirits.

One of the most natural contexts for kything is in the family, where it can promote love, sincerity, and openness for children and the family as a whole. Savary and Berne discovered in their research that most children know how to spontaneously kythe by the age of four, and are helped by having a name for it. (This is one reason I’m trying to attach a name to it this morning.)


One mother they worked with, Terri, had a routine she used with her four-year-old daughter Angela. “Go quiet inside yourself,” she would instruct her daughter, and they would use a repeated, single-word mantra to find a quiet, embodied place together. When Angela reported that she was inside herself, her mother would say, “Okay, now let your soul creep over to mine if you like,” and then they would visualize their souls “sliding” back and forth. Terri used the child’s name as a mantra, but any centering would have worked. What was important was a willingness to join souls for a moment in time.

There are many opportunities to kythe when you get good at it. It can happen when you kiss your partner and you bring your soul to the embrace as well as your body. It can happen when you visit a sick friend and bring not only flowers, but your open heart on which another’s pain can be written. It can even be done by yourself to connect with a soul that is distanced by time, or space, or death. It can be done with words or without—all it takes is willingness to join souls for a moment in time.

There are even some steps that everyone—adults, children, youth—can follow to facilitate the process of spirit-to-spirit communication, kything. First, there is a centering activity (such as breathing meditation or saying a mantra); second, focusing on another person (either by looking at them or forming a picture of them in your mind); third, establishing a connection by choosing mindfully to create what you envision, to make a union of you and the other a reality.

The youth have ritualized this activity with something called “unconditional love.” After centering themselves, usually in worship, they form two circles, one around the other. While the inner circle faces the center, each member of the outer circle moves from person to person, looks into their eyes and tells them what a beautiful person they are, how valuable they are, or how much they belong to the group. Sometimes it is done with words, other times with an embrace. Either way after reaching out, oh, 50 or 60 times to 50 or 60 different people, it starts to sink in. You are valuable. You are beautiful. You do belong. [Look around congregation and repeat slowly]. You are valuable. You are beautiful. You do belong.


Let’s try a kything exercise right now in our seats, silently. First, let’s together focus for a minute on our breath. As we breathe in, say silently, “now.” As we breathe out, think “one.” … Now … one … now … one.

Now picture the people around you, either someone’s face, or just the many unique souls around you. Realize the connections that exist between us, sitting here now, in the moment, in this space. Now, as we focus on nothing but others around us, imagine your soul’s energy, your being, whatever words you want to use to describe your presence in this quiet space—imagine your soul sliding closer to the person’s next to you. Pause and feel the connection.

There’s a spiritual practice I discovered through this congregation four years ago through which we can exercise these soulful muscles on a regular basis. It may take adults a little more time and effort to kythe than our children and youth, but we can do it. We can break through those barriers that we use to survive in the “real” world. The way I’ve found to kythe is through small group ministry, or covenant groups. I’ve been in my covenant group for three years, and even though this year we’re spread out all over the country and do our covenant group through conference call, I can still feel the spirit-to-spirit bonding as if we were in the same room.

A covenant group, or whatever you want to call it, is a group of eight to 12 people who decide to meet regularly for a certain period of time, usually at least six months. This part of the covenant says, “we will give this a chance.” Covenant groups are not usually made up of people who are already friends and therefore an opportunity to engage with people in an affirming way who may not even be like you. Again, it is to say, “just as I need acceptance from others freely, I will give you my acceptance freely.”


According to the Center for Community Values, an interfaith organization that promotes small group ministry, “covenant groups encourage people to talk, learn, work, and play together. They offer expanding opportunities for growth, caring, and connection within a congregation. In a covenant group, people experience a relational individuality that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person. People experience themselves as part of the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. The defining purpose of a covenant group is to bring people in right relationship with each other and with the larger world.

And now we have a new word, kything, to describe what takes place between us when we intentionally reach out to others, when we pause and consider how it is we exist in relation to those around us, when we mindfully clear a space into which the self gets out of the way and allows another in.

“Kything happens in a state of mutual presence, a state of betweeness . . . It happens neither in you nor in the other person” (Savary and Berne). It happens in the imagined space that may be shared between two souls. This realm of between is accessible to us, and kything is one way of stepping into it. For those of us on a spiritual path, it is a way of enriching our ability to foster lovingkindness in our lives and the lives we touch. It is a way to strengthen our families and friendships. It is a way to reach out to other humans we encounter, even when they are different than us, with the understanding that under all the baggage of this dusty, imperfect world; that under the weight of what our stories have been; that despite what our memories may say to us—we are all inherently beautiful souls, blessed with the potential of goodness, and touched by the truth that a piece of the divine is in all of us.

This is what I learned from our youth. May it be so in all our lives, throughout our whole lives. May it be between us, among us, and through us.

Blessed be, and Amen.




Spirit of life, God of many names and of all faiths, we are gathered in this moment to lift up and to each other the burdens we carry and the joys of our lives. In this holy space that we have intentionally carved out of our busy lives, may it be that we have the insight and compassion to carry forward our values and to act on what we know to be true, and beautiful, and good. And on this Palm Sunday, when it is said that a Jewish rabbi, a man named Jesus, entered the Jerusalem temple and spoke his truth, and was executed for it, let us remember that we, too, have truth to speak, and actions to carry forward, and love to share with the world. Blessed be, shalom, and amen.