Movies as a Spiritual Experience (My Church Service)

Hello!  Happy Sunday!  Remember how three weeks ago today I was complaining about everything going wrong for the service I was doing?  Well, it’s now up on the church website and I thought, if it’s up on that website, why not share it with you all, on my website?

Bonus, if you are ever wondering what a Unitarian-Universalist church service is like, this is what they are like.  Unitarian-Universalists are the church that doesn’t believe in God.  Although we also don’t NOT believe in God.  You can believe whatever you want, is the point.  This tends to BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS and they can’t process what a church service would be like if God is a question mark.  And there is no set text to follow (we’re not committed to the Bible either).  And if about half the time the person leading the service isn’t even a minister.

The follow the general Protestant structure, welcoming words, “Text” that will be discussed that day, Homily, Benediction.  Only, the “text” isn’t from the Bible, it’s from any old place.  And so are the Welcoming Words and Benediction.  I’m gonna give you the whole darn thing, but start with the homily (which is essentially the same as a blog post) and then just tell you the rest if you are interested.


When I was 17, I went through a real bad time in my life. Nothing dramatic or exciting, just difficult. My Grandfather had just died, my grandmother was slowly dying, my sister (to whom I was and am very close) was away at college and, worst of all, I was 17.  Which is enough of a burden all on its own.

I was looking for something: some comfort and hope and faith and strength that would get me through this time, and I didn’t know where to find it.  So I went to look at my family’s “spirituality” bookshelf.  I was raised UU, and I am guessing most Unitarians have a shelf like that, somewhere in their house. With a whole variety of books lined up in a row, in my case a book of Shakespeare, a book of modern poetry, the Bible, and a book on world religions.

I didn’t know which I liked best, so I thought “well, I’ll just try them all!”  I read right through that whole bookshelf. And I liked them all.  The Bible was a little boring, but it had good bits like the psalm we heard today; Shakespeare and modern poetry were both great straight through, and world religions was fascinating.  But none of them gave me exactly what I was looking for, that sense of being connected to something greater than myself.

And so I got through that difficult period without any spiritual comfort.  I survived it, obviously.  My grandmother got better against all odds, my sister came home from college and, most importantly, I stopped being 17 years old.  But it was so much harder than it needed to be, because I had cut myself off from the thing that could have given me all the strength and connection and faith and hope and beauty that I was craving but couldn’t find in all the books on the shelf.

My first spiritual experience was when I was 7 years old and it was while watching a movie,  Golddiggers of 1933, a pleasant Ruby Keeler musical.  It ends with a magnificent all time classic film sequence, Busby Berkeley’s “Forgotten Man” number, inspired by the march of the Bonus Army of homeless WWI veterans that had just taken place.  I didn’t know any of that when I was 7, I just knew that somewhere in the middle of that last sequence, I felt something I had never felt before.

(This is why blog posts are better than church services, I can just insert videos)

You know that little “mmmm-pop” feeling when you break the seal opening a jar and suddenly all the air rushes in?  That’s what it felt like.  Like something had reached down and twisted the lid off my head and let all the air and light rush in. Suddenly I was connected to a whole new universe I had never experienced before.

Of course, I was 7.  I didn’t have the words to explain what I felt, or even process what had happened.  So I translated all of this to “I like movies”.  Which is true! I do like movies! I like watching them and laughing and being happy, like most people do.  But I think, when most other people say “I like movies”, they mean that movies are a nice entertaining distraction, not that they are a direct line to God.

10 after that experience, back where this story started, I was 17 and looking for some kind of spiritual comfort and strength, and I still hadn’t figured out what that experience back when I was 7 meant, what movies were in my life.  Even though in the years between 7 and 17 I’d experienced the same kind of moments multiple times.  Not every time and not with every film, it was unpredictable. Something as brilliant as “Seven Samurai,” did nothing for me.  Something as average and uninteresting as the Gene Kelly-Rita Hayworth movie “Cover Girl,” there was one line that was so perfect it made my heart stop for a second and gave me that opening up feeling. Whether or not I got that feeling, the experience of watching every film was something just a little more for me.  Because I knew at any moment I could have that feeling, that feeling which never came during the rest of my life.

(“It was Tuesday”.  I know, I’m crazy, but it still makes me cry right now watching it again)

Dr. Paul Heintzman, in the same book that I quoted during the readings, came up with 8 dimensions to leisure activities as a spiritual practice: Balance in Life, Leisure as Time and Space, Attitude of Openness, Leisure Settings of Personal or Human History, Being in Nature, Being Away, Solitude, Connections with Others.

You’ll notice some of these, particularly the last two “Solitude” and “Connections with Others” conflict with each other.  And that’s okay.  Not everyone is the same. What you do during your “ ‘leisure’ time spiritual practices”, aren’t one size fits all.  For some people it is joining together with a group to watch a sporting event, for others it is being alone in an art museum.  Most often it is an overlap of some of the elements Dr. Heinzman lists, going to a place with personal history for you, entering into it with an attitude of openness, being away from the rest of the world.

Some of the features Dr. Heintzman listed were ones that I began, unconsciously, to build into my movie watching as time passed.  I would do it alone with complete focus, often returning to my “favorite” movie theaters over and over again, especially ones that had vivid memories for me.  I would set aside certain special times and try to keep them separate from the rest of my life.  Watching movies slowly and naturally became more of a ritual to me than a hobby.

I was in college before things finally started to fall into place and I began to realize what watching movies meant in my life.   I started taking a lot of film appreciation classes and I realised that I enjoyed films on an intellectual level, I liked discussing and analyzing them.  Which also made me realise that I enjoyed films on a NON-intellectual level, that there was something there besides the “entertainment happymaking” and “intellectual stimulation” kind of experience, some third element I hadn’t yet identified.  I slowly came to accept that I found not just intellectual satisfaction and physical pleasure from watching films, but also a deep connection to God.

Part of my journey to accepting that film watching was a spiritual practice for me, was finding the one particular flavor of movie that gave me that rush of enjoyment and intellectual pleasure like nothing else, and which also gave me that third element, that feeling of a direct line to God.  My whole first year of college involved spending every weekend going from movie theater to movie theater, watching every era and language and genre of film I could find.  My own particular spiritual quest.  And then 14 years, 8 months, and 8 days ago I went to see the Indian film “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” at Facets Cinema and it changed my life. That was the first time I found myself sobbing in a movie theater, for no reason. It’s not a sad movie, but somehow it was so beautiful and so perfect that it brought me to tears. I had found my filmic religion, the beauty and faith and hope that would sustain me.


(You guys know from my posts that it was this moment in DDLJ)

So I spent my college years watching every single Indian movie I could, 3 to 9 films a week.  On top of my film classes.  Some of the films were terribly stupid, some were ugly, some were just plain bad in every way.  But there were enough moments of beauty mixed in that it kept me going through 4 sometimes difficult years of college.  Watching these films every week, no matter what happened to me, kept me feeling always connected, always loved, always part of the universe.

When I was 22, I found myself in a tough place in my life again, just like when I was 17.  All my college friends had moved away, I was stuck in a job I hated, life was hard.  And I found myself, once again, sitting in a room thinking “where can I go?  What can I do to feel better? What will help me get through this?” And this time, instead of looking at a bookshelf, I realized I should be looking at my DVD shelf.  That was the moment I accepted that this was my spiritual comfort, this was my spiritual practice, this was what would help get me through anything life threw at me.  And it did. And it still does. Every Sunday I go to church, and every Friday I go to the movies.

I want to share with you one of the moments that gave me that opening up feeling.  It’s a bit of an example turducken.  It is from a movie Jodha-Akbar about the historical figure Akbar the Great, who had his own untraditional spiritual practices.  He was raised traditional Sunni Muslim but through his life he explored all sorts of other religious practices, especially Sufism, eventually creating his own individual religion.  This sequence represents his first moment of spiritual awakening while listening to a Sufi hymn.  The song is written and sung by the composer AR Rahman, who was born into a Hindu family but chose to convert to Sufi influenced Islam as an adult and currently expresses his religious faith most often through songs he writes for popular films. A very untraditional spiritual practice.  And finally, when I watched this in theaters 10 years ago, I had one of those moments of feeling like I was opening up. This is one of my own spiritual practice songs.


This sermon isn’t to encourage you to go see more movies (although I won’t stop you if you want to!), it is to encourage you to look beyond those bookshelves to find what it is that “restoreth your soul” as the Psalm says.  Whatever it is.  It could be the Bible, it could be poetry, it could be classical music, it could be nature, one of those commonly accepted and understood practices. But it might also be watching baseball. Or weight lifting.  Or rap music. Or baking cookies.

The universe is full of wonderful things, and the human brain is also wonderful.  You can’t predict what will connect your brain to the universe, what activity will be that direct link between the two.  What I have learned over my many years of struggling with this within myself is that there is no way to change what it is which connects me to the world, it is not something I can control.  No matter how much Shakespeare I read or how many nature walks I take, they will never give me the thrill I get when the lights go down in a movie theater.

So instead of trying to change who I am and what moves me, I am trying to accept it and appreciate it for the blessing it is.  Part of which is giving this service today, revealing to many people here what my own “spiritual journey” has been like.  And my hope this service helps you to accept whatever it is that is your own spiritual practice, even if it is something that you have never felt comfortable acknowledging.  If you are in that point I was in college, struggling to come to terms with enjoying something physically, emotionally, but also in a third way, spiritually.

Everyone is going to have hard times in their life.  Everyone is going to face a death, an illness, or just plain being 17 years old.  And everyone is going to need a little bit of extra strength to get through it.  There is something out there in the world which will give you that strength.  Whatever it is, name it, appreciate it, and don’t be afraid to use it.




If you want to know more about what an entire UU service looks like, read on:


Before the homily, at the start of the service, I read this responsive reading, my words in plain text and the responses in italics read back to me by the congregation:

To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars,

before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or  a grain of sand.

To worship is to be silent, receptive

before a tree astir with the wind.

or the passing shadow of a cloud.

To worship is to work with dedication and with skill,

it is to pause from work and listen to a strain of music.

To worship is to sing with the singing beauty of the earth;

it is to listen through a storm to the still small voice within

Worship is a loneliness seeking communion;

it is a thirsty land crying out for rain.

Worship is kindred fire within our hearts;

it moves through deeds of kindness and through acts of love.

Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond

It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak;

It is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal

(by Jacob Trapp)

And then we had church announcements and blah blah boring stuff, before the fun bit, when the kids come forward and get their special part of the service.  My plan was to talk about what we do when we feel bad, and then tell them about how my mother gave me worry dolls when I was little and told me that if I whispered a worry to the doll, the doll would hold the worry and she could put it away in the box so it couldn’t escape.  But I ran into problems.  First, I couldn’t find my childhood worry dolls.  Which I eventually learned was because my mother still conscientiously has them locked away, probably the reason I haven’t worried about what to wear the first day of kindergarten in 28 years.  Thank goodness she never opened the box and let that worry escape!  So I went to Ten-Thousand Villages and bought new worry dolls.  Which I left at home on the day of the service.

Image result for worry dolls

(Worry dolls!  you tell them your worry and then lock them away in their container.  My childhood ones are in a box, which feels much more secure than a bag.  With a bag, they could manage to crawl out through the little hole in the top and all your worries would suddenly pop up again)

So instead I talked to the kids about what they do when they feel bad (“cry”, and “count to ten” were two suggestions).  And then I passed around what I happened to have in my purse, a bright pink flamingo magnet.  They whispered all their worries to it and I put it away in my purse, and now I have this enormous responsibility of a dozen small childrens’ worries infused into a pink flamingo magnet.  It was supposed to be a present for my sister, but she refuses to take it now, since it has toxic worry cargo.  Maybe I should bury it?

Image result for pink flamingo magnet

(Looks like this.  Nice, right?  Any of you want it?  Be warned, you may suddenly wake up in the middle of the night worried about whatever 3 year olds worry about)


After the kids left for their classes, the grown-ups had a prayer.  I am terrible at writing prayers, so I used a pre-written one:

This is the week of the spring equinox. We have wintered enough, mourned enough, oppressed ourselves enough

Our souls are too long cold and buried, our dreams all but forgotten, our hopes unheard.

We are waiting to rise from the dead.

In this, the season of steady rebirth, we awaken to the power so abundant, so holy, that returns each year through earth and sky.

We will find our hearts again, and our good spirits.  We will love, and believe, and give and wonder, and feel again the eternal powers.

The flow of life moves ever onward through one faithful spring, and another, and now another.

May we be forever grateful.

Blah blah, the choir sings, people light candles, and then the good bit starts again, we have readings!  I used the Bible (for once.  I think this is the first time we’ve mentioned the Bible in church in a good 4 months), and also an academic text.

Reading 1, Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.


 Reading 2: from Leisure and Spirituality by Dr. Paul Heintzman:

A distinction may be made between extrinsic and intrinsic religious orientation.  An extrinsic orientation is characterized by being religious to gain personal benefits, including comfort and safety; religious practices are not the result of faith but the result of guilt, anxiety, or external pressure.  An intrinsic orientation is characterized by a selfless motivation to pursue purpose and meaning in life for its own sake and an internalized understanding of transcendence based on “faith, hope, and love for others, God, and self”.  An extrinsic religious orientation, which is thought to be less effective when coping with stress, has been found to be associated with a sense of inadequacy when coping with a stressful situation and is less likely to be associated with the feeling that the stressful experience will be an opportunity for growth.  In contrast, during times of crisis, particularly times when a situation is beyond a person’s control, people with a high intrinsic religiosity tend to rely on their religious resources.  An intrinsic religious orientation is also associated with the perception of a stressful event as an opportunity for personal growth, reliance on problem-solving coping during stress, and a sense of meaning during severe stress.

Spiritual coping behavior is a common response to stress and has a significant relationship to a great diversity of adjustment factors.  These behaviors may be classified as organized religious behaviors, private spiritual or religious practices, and nontraditional spiritual practices.  Organized religious behaviors involve participation in activities such as attendance at religious services and volunteer activity offered by formal religious organizations.  Private spiritual or religious practices are personal and private behaviors, such as studying sacred texts, praying, watching religious television, and singing.  Nontraditional spiritual practices are those that differ from traditional religious expressions.  Of particular relevance to leisure-spiritual coping behavior are the nontraditional spiritual coping practices that may include leisure activities with a spiritual dimension.




And then I gave my homily, complete with showing the “Kwaja Mere Kwaja” clip, people cried and laughed, it was awesome.  And at the end, I had them all stand and hold hands while I gave the Benediction.  And I resisted the urge to order them to do a massive human wave through the sanctuary, which is what I always want to do every time I look out at everyone connected.




God lives in all, and abides with you too.  As fragrance dwells in a flower, or reflection in a mirror, so the Divine dwells inside everything; seek therefore in your own heart.




There you go!  If you ever wondered what a church-that-doesn’t-believe-in-God-necessarily is like, this is what it is like.  And if you have ever wondered what Margaret does every Sunday morning, this is it.  I am in charge of 17 services a year (although I don’t usually write the whole thing), and the other 35 Sundays I am down in the basement with the kids trying to force some sense of spiritual values into their heads.


11 thoughts on “Movies as a Spiritual Experience (My Church Service)

  1. Wonderful.

    I like the concept of this protestant church.

    In Renaissance Hinduism also we have a protestant strand like the Ramakrishna mission. In contrast to the Arya Samaj, which could be thought of as catholic hinduism, the stories I read as a child in the Ramakrishna Vijayam, used to re-iterate exactly, this concept, that each person has their own dharma and all god/worship are equal.
    Even if you don’t believe in god, you can develop your own set of values/morals and that becomes your Dharma


    • Thank you!

      There’s a direct line between Unitarian and Brahmo Samaj Hinduism, I think it was Tagore who corresponded with Unitarians in London while developing his own philosophy. And from the other side of things, Unitarian newsletters and ministers followed Swami Vivekananda’s talks in Chicago in 1893 and were interested in his philosophy.


        • Partly sponsored by the Unitarian church there. yep! Very active UU group down there, they also have a folk song night that my parents used to go to when they were in college there.

          On Mon, Apr 16, 2018 at 2:23 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



    • What the heck is “Renaissance Hinduism”? Or even “Protestant” or “Catholic” Hinduism? Or even “Hinduism” for that matter? This is the danger of letting yourself and your culture be defined by others, they try to fit it into their pre-existing structures, which don’t fit. This is especially true of what, for convenience, I will call Hinduism, and the Abrahamic religions. What is taught by the Ramakrishna Mission, and later by Vivekananda, is all in the Vedas and Upanishads.


  2. Very nice, Margaret, though not particularly new or surprising to me. I find it interesting that you refer to “God” throughout, without defining that term. Finding out what it means is the crux of the kind of spiritualism that you describe. I don’t like any words that have “ism” at the end in this context, as they are unduly limiting, as I explained above. With that caveat, though, let me add that what you describe is one of the essential teachings of “Hinduism” (or Sanatan Dharma, to give it its self described name). The idea is that whatever activity you indulge in, if you practice it with devotion and a consciousness that it is a means of connecting you to “God”, which is defined to be that universal consciousness that is present in everyone and everything, and connects everyone and everything, that activity will help you to find that connection. It can be anything. Doing good works, academic studies, sewing, gardening, watching movies, acting, dancing, music, cooking, even some types of “bad behavior”. The whole point is to do it with dedication and reverence, and it will help you to understand your part in the whole.

    As an aside, this is the reason why I never got impressed with all those “innovative” and “pathbreaking” films or plays in the U.S. that imagine “God” in what are supposed to be shocking new ways — as a “Puerto Rican bathhouse attendant” in the play “Steambath” (this line is repeated by different characters throughout the play), as an old, possibly senile man in “Oh, God,”, as a janitor in “Bruce Almighty”, and probably many more that I’m not aware of. When you come from a tradition that can see “God” in monkeys and cobras, you know, it’s not particularly shocking to see “God” in any of the above. 🙂

    Now that gives me an idea for your “inspiring” post, so I will go and put in a comment there before I forget. 🙂


    • Yeah, that is one of the nice things about being raised UU. I never had that “this is the locked in version of God and now I have to move past it” moment, because I was already always past it, I was never taught a particular version.

      On Sun, Apr 15, 2018 at 7:47 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  3. It was so interesting to read about your Church.From what I understand it’s about exploring alternate ways to explore your spirituality. I really get what you said about the opening and just having an uplifting experience.Your heart expands and suddenly everything is better,purer.You feel that you can conquer the world.In my experience, it grows rarer as you grow older.Khwaja mere khwaja certainly provided me with immense solace during a crisis.It came on radio just when I needed it.


    • I started thinking about this service with “Kwaja Mere Kwaja” because it is just the perfect song both to evoke that feeling and explain that feeling.

      On Sun, Apr 15, 2018 at 8:22 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. I loved this post both for its meaning and for the insight into what pulls and pushes your thinking. RNBDJ’s line of “I see God in you” as a way to show that you truly love has always resonated with me. I think the ability to find God in many places and in many ways is the essence of belief.


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