Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/03/2016

“Grit” --© Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila

In grammar school, they taught me division, multiplication and composition. In High School, they taught me trigonometry, the causes of the Civil War, our 23 chromosomes and King Lear on the Moors. In college, I was taught Hebrew and Greek and Classical philosophy. In seminary, I was taught church history and UU Polity. In graduate school, it was process theology, German idealism and American pragmatism. Big important ideas – or so I thought.

That’s all well and good, but there was only one thing I really needed to learn. The one thing we really need to learn is contained in one word. Just one word makes sense of whole systems of words and ideas. One word to make all the other words more understandable. “One word to rule them all,” if you are Lord of the Rings fan! This word encapsulates an entire education and while no one will pay you for knowing this one word, if you have inside what this one word means, people will pay you.

The word is “grit.” That’s right, grit. It’s a four letter word, but it’s a good four letter word. Not the five letter grits, chopped corn mush, which northerners must learn never to order, for only Southerners truly love grits. No, not grits, but grit.

As a noun, “grit” means little bits of abrasive material, as in sandpaper, 300 grit, 150 grit, 80 grit -- all these measure the size of the little pieces of grit. The smaller the number, the larger the grit. The dictionary defines grit as pluck, but that’s too weak a synonym really. There is also something much better, “firmness of character, an indomitable spirit.” Grit is easier to say indomin-in-intinable spirit. “Grit” much easier.

I like the imagine of grit as the rock of the soul that has been smashed to bits, but still thinks of itself as a boulder rather than as sand. Grit is that fine fleck of flint on the beach that think it is a Mountain of Basalt.


Kid Playing Soccer

The boy couldn’t play any more now. He couldn’t play soccer. The coach didn’t really want to sideline him, but the rules were clear. The little six year old couldn’t take his place on defense, offense or even goalie. He was in the out and out from now on. He was benched, the poor little tyke.

The boy’s parents were saddened as was the boy. The coach had taken him out because his walking aids could be a hazard for other children. He was handicapped, differently-abled, disabled. The boy used crutches; he couldn’t even walk without them. And with all the kids running around, a pair of metal poles was, as the coach was right to see, a hazard both for the boy and for the other children.

But he had grit. He protested. He didn’t just give in to the coach’s decision.

The parents, too, protested, although they understood the safety concern. Finally, their son was allowed to play.

The TV news showed a film of the little soccer star playing. He could not run for the ball, and almost never even got anywhere near it. He hobbled about trying to catch up with the other children, but was spending most of the time in no man’s land, alone. But on occasion, the mass, conglomerated play of little kids, a happy, shrieking mob of shimmering feet, would come to him by sheer happenstance. And he would get a chance to kick. And kick he did. He had the time of his life. And then the kicking feet, like the whirring pistons of an internal combustion engine, would drive off, and he would hobble after. Grit. Grit. Grit.

He knew what he wanted to do, and he wasn’t going to let embarrassment or shame, sadness or regret, or the question why or the answer no, prevent him from playing the game, because, because, he had an indomitable spirit, guts, intestinal fortitude, G-R-I-T, grit.


Not Grits, Not Gruff, But Grit

Grit not gruff. Gruff is rough, surly, irritable, cynical and rude. I won’t belabor the point about what being gruffy really means for all of us know what it is, and see it more than we want, whether in others or in ourselves. We know we need to, and we want to, move from the “gruff” to the “grit.” The question is how.

We know that we need, not gruffness, but having fortitude, courage and a persistence in finding ourselves on our spiritual journeys.

Not grits, not gruff, but grit.

--Not grit as ladder-climbing determination, not monomaniacal interest, but the strength to transform a challenge into something expressing character.

There’s something I find very spiritual in the word grit. Grit is the smallest of bits of stone. It’s our particular self, our soul, as in the poem, “The Three Goals,” – “to see the thing itself in and for itself… for what it is.” This, to me, should be a central part of spiritual practice, not thinking about people for what they believe, but what they really are.

When we really see another person, we can them as something like Yeats poetizes:

“I would spread the cloths under your feet,

…embroidered cloths, Enwrought with gold and silver light,

…But I, being poor, have only me dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet.”

And this is the goal of human life, it seems to me, to find ways of being the particular person that you are, to find your particularity in a universe that won’t necessary hand it to you. Whether or not you can run or have to hobble about, get out on into the field of life, like the six year old who wouldn’t take “no” for answer.

You have to work out your salvation, your own religious credo. When everything seems smashed to pieces you need to start from the core, from the bits, from the shards, the grit. You must have grit, a spiritual force of inner resolve, strength to meet the challenge, persistence on figuring it out, a willingness to play the game: with canes and crutches, shame and locked latches, all to get there. And also I think we must learn to do it also by treading softly, by opening your heart.

And where is the “to” we are getting to with our grit? It’s something of a Mystery, this thing called life and the goal of this thing called life. Perhaps there’s some wisdom in the old meaning of the term grit, from the O.E. greot "sand, dust, earth, gravel.” To have grit, is to be fully in touch with the earth that is in you, with the earth that you are.



I have talked about the stone of the soul being smashed into smithereens, of having gone through traumatic stress, or a shock to one’s life, one’s inner emotions, one’s religious beliefs. And this, while certainly not positive, is one of the main reasons, we are here as a congregation of fellow souls. For religion, in some ways, is the healing of last resort, and while its methods of healing are not always perfect or effective, they can give us some consolation.

If we think of our lives as novels, long stories of many different ongoing events and relationships, we might assume that perfect symmetry is the goal. And for some very few lucky souls, perhaps they have a full novel, all the pages perfect, both covers intact. Their life is blessed. They are given life like a leather-bound novel with gold engraving. Yet, others are given a novel with rips and tears and even some chapters missing. A tragic story. Two tales. Two kinds of human life.

William James, the American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher of about 1910, called the lucky ones first-born souls. They were born, as babies, into a nice and comforting world and didn’t experience anything all that terrible afterwards. They’ve had smooth sailing their whole life. They had their one trauma, birth, and that is it.

Others, however, are twice born. They find themselves in a constricting life-problem of deep suffering, and have to be born out of it a second time. They’ve sailed through a storm. James himself went through at least one prolonged period of what we might call clinical depression.

Being born is a traumatic thing for an infant’s body, yet probably soon forgotten. But being twice-born means having gone through an event of such extreme difficulty that it creates a radical difference in how one looks upon life. As they say, “Religion is for people who believe in hell; spirituality is for people that have gone through hell.” Going through a hell on earth is another way of saying you have been twice born. Being twice born, however, is only the first step. Further steps require growing up once again, becoming mature once again, becoming strong and healthy once more. All that takes grit.

For the once-born, the beliefs of organized religion may seem enough. For those who are twice-born, a more thorough search is required, and often such twice-born souls emerge out of the comforts of tradition religion to the depths of truer spirituality.

As we get older, I would conjecture, most people being to slowly become more like twice-born souls. They acquire the wisdom of the decades. Twice-born souls have experienced something that takes them out of habitual, cultural religion –the religion they were born into. They had to find something new, some way to move from grit to glory.

And yet, shouldn’t human suffering teach us? Shouldn’t we cherish it even for we have endured it? It has made us stronger. It has taught us and formed a richness of character. It has chipped away at our graspy, greedy selves and taught us to be gentler with others and with our dreams.

Sometimes, grit teaches us the lesson of the velvet night of the heavens, the lesson of treading more softly upon the dreams of others. Twice-born souls are those who are able to be borne out of the constriction of the big problem, and emerge into life again with a new appreciation. And often that second level of appreciation far exceeds shallower reaches.


Grit and Velvet

Digging down deep in ourselves makes us better able to be full human beings for others. Having grit will give us the persistence to see it through. Grit can be the engine of our creativity, the vital matter of our souls, the starting point for the sweet fruits of life, the soft velvet blanket that warms us. The soul needs grit, but our hearts need velvet.

Think of the long-term in life. You may be a boy in crutches, you may never have the chance of being a William Butler Yeats or a William James, professor at Harvard, but if you keep to the grit, the earth, your humility and your humanity, you may be twice born, not into a perfect life, but an OK life, a good life, with much in it to be thankful for.

We need to learn to be gentle with ourselves, with that part that is hurt or vulnerable or in pain. We need, beside grit, some velvet, some softness, some bliss.


…And Lastly Religion

And what does grit have to do with religion, with God? Have I been talking about a purely human sense of determination? Or is grit a theological category as well?

Think of Conrad, the hero of Wolfe’s A Man in Full. He remembers the feckless spiritual searching of his parents, a searching that foundered because they lacked discipline. They lacked theological grit. But now that Conrad is in prison, he’s had everything stripped away from him: his money, his job, his freedom, even his self-respect. And yet, he finds something is still there. It’s his character, his soul. And if anywhere, that is where grit resides.

…[T]here was something left, something that caused him to care whether he lived or died and to worry about Jill and Carl and Christy. Perhaps that was his soul. Whatever it was, it was not confined within his body and his mind. It could not exist without …other people…without the only people he had left, his wife and his two children.


Conrad had discovered his soul. He had found the place where grit resides, in the soul, in that space where he sees our earthly nature and can start to look there for that which is divine and full of grace. Or as the Buddhists say, the place where our Buddha nature is, our enlightened and awake nature to what is most real and most full of compassion.

And so, for you, I urge you to look for that something, that place where grit is to be found. And instead of telling you the theology you must strive for, I want to ask you to have the inner energy to continue the process of discovery yourself. I don’t want even to pretend to give you the one absolutely true theological answer but to encourage you to continue looking for your own answers, answers that bear the fruits of wisdom and peace, and to look not always outwardly in churches or temples or scriptures or philosophies, but in that inner place where grit resides, the human soul, your particular human soul. Be strong. Be grateful. Tread softly.

Grit, guts and a soft heart – may these be yours this new year.