We’ll begin with William Blake’s most well-known poem:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Words like heaven, infinity and eternity are generally associated with religion — Blake used them as poetry.
William Blake was a poet, painter and printmaker-engraver. He often combined these three creative talents in a single piece: a painting would be illustrated with a poem and he’d make a print of the painting with the poem.
Like many artists he was largely unrecognized during his lifetime. He was born in England on November 28, 1757 and died almost 70 years later, on August 12, 1827.
We heard another of Blake’s quatrains at Margie Allen’s installation – words used by Ann Morrow Lindburg:
He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
Blake was hostile to the church, but he was fascinated with mysticism; he had a very active imagination. Some of his contemporaries believed he had gone ‘over the edge,’ that he was mad. But he is admired today. He said, “The imagination is not a State of mind, it is the Human existence itself.”
He would have been fascinated with what the human eye is able to see today, with the aid of the electronic microscope – to see a world a grain of sand; and the Hubble telescope allows us to see the heavens — to see the convergence of science and religion.
The Hubble telescope has allowed discoveries that have vastly improved our ability to look at the universe we live in, and to understand it — to look back in time, in a very real sense. Galileo would be amazed—we’re glad that NASA is going to keep the Hubble going.
Jacob Trap, a Unitarian minister who lived from 1899 to 1992, said similar things in our Responsive Reading today:
“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; to worship is to work with dedication and skill (and) it is to pause from work and listen to a strain of music…to sing with the beauty of the earth; to listen to the still small voice within…worship moves through deeds of kindness; worship is the mystery within us.”
The Dalai Lama expresses similar sentiments in his latest book, The Universe in a Single Atom: the convergence of science and spirituality.
We are witnessing this convergence – and while it challenges those with traditional religious beliefs, it is a similar challenge to those for whom science precludes religion altogether. Einstein said it nicely: “Religion without science is lame; science without religion is blind.”
That’s why we need the poets…poets like Mary Oliver, who is very much in the spirit of Walt Whitman and William Blake.
Mary Oliver’s latest collection, Thirst, opens with a poem she calls Messenger:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Several years ago Joseph Campbell said, “A new mythology is rapidly becoming a necessity both socially and spiritually as the metaphors of the past, such as the Virgin Birth and the Promised Land, misread consequently as facts, lose their vitality and become concretized. But that new mythology is already implicit among us, native to the mind waiting as the sleeping prince does for the kiss of his beloved, to be awakened by new metaphoric symbolization.”
Campbell warned us not to confuse the mystical insights of religion with the truths of science. He urged us to see the symbolic stories in the old myths as metaphors that can ‘awaken the mind’ and nurture the human spirit so that we don’t split the mind.
We need the truths of science to probe the workings of the world; we need the Truths touched by mythology, poetry, music and art to celebrate life, to stimulate all the senses, to be fully alive, to feel that sense of awe that is at the heart of religion – to probe the workings of the human mind.
Science helps us to learn about life on this little planet of ours; it is now warning us to stop doing damage to it. Religion, at its best, motivates us to be more responsible caretakers of the planet, as well as motivating us to care for one another.
Science teaches us how it all works. Religion, at its best, acknowledges that there is something beyond our capacity to know – religion teaches humility; religion celebrates the mystery and allows us to feel a sense of awe.
Religion, in the sense I mean in this context, is an intuition; as Emerson said, ‘it cannot be received at second hand.’
We don’t need to be taught to have a ‘sense of awe.’ Indeed, religion can take away that sense of awe by suggesting that we know all the answers.
The religions of the world have such a bad reputation it’s almost necessary to stop using the word altogether, and to substitute the word spirituality for the kind of religious experience we mean.
Authentic religious experience is deeply personal, and it is woven into our everyday lives. It’s not about supernatural miracles that defy the natural laws, it’s about the wonder, mystery and grandeur of the natural laws – of Nature itself.
Mature religion does not need to speculate about the supernatural; such speculation is primitive and inevitably leads to the tribalism that has divided the peoples of the earth into warring factions.
Speculation about the supernatural is demeaning and degrading, Buddha’s disciples asked him about the existence of God and an afterlife; his response was ‘do not speculate,’ explaining that such speculation leads to problems between persons but also to problems within the individual, setting up a conflict between the rational mind and the intuitive mind, as well as divisions between the saved and the damned, the true believers and the infidels.
Mature religion inspires us to the higher laws that we refer to as morality and ethics; mature religion is concerned about the laws of economics that can help us to feed the hungry, house the homeless, provide universal health care to our children and adequate care for the elderly.
Mature religion inspires us to work for peace and justice, and that work requires us to understand the laws of psychology at work in our attempts at diplomacy – why is it that Madison Avenue knows more about psychology than Pennsylvania Ave?
Peace making requires more than good intentions. We’ve seen too many roads to hell paved with those good intentions.
Mature religion is both down to earth, allowing us to see the world in every grain of sand, and at the same time it transcends the earth-bound, time-bound to see ‘heaven in a wild flower,’ and to be amazed at the amazing discoveries made with the Hubble telescope.
Mature religion affirms the sense of wonder that is part of our human nature; it affirms the miracle we’re living, here and now.
Mature religion nurtures spirituality whose ingredients include humility, gratitude and praise – a spontaneous sense of appreciation for Life: ‘to be given a mind and heart and a mouth with which to give shouts of joy,’ as the poet said.
Mature religion generates an abiding faith in Life itself, and it connects us to other persons, it connects us to all the other life forms on this fragile little planet, and connects us to the infinite—to that which is far beyond our capacity to explain.
As far as I can tell, the religions of the world, at their best, encourage the humility out of which the sense of awe emerges.
Life on our planet has been evolving for billions of years; each one of us is engaged in an evolutionary process, and part of our purpose here is to encourage further progress, growth toward a sense of wholeness.
Our ancestors developed primitive religions to explain why the rain falls and the thunder roars and the lightning strikes.
They served their purposes. They have, of course, done a lot of damage, and must now evolve so that true religion can simply be personal and not confined to institutional religion.
Whitman writes: “I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions; But really I am neither for nor against institutions; (What indeed have I in common with them?—Or what with the destruction of them?) Only I will establish in the Mannahatta, and in every city of These States, inland and seaboard, And in the fields and woods, and above every keel, little or large, that dents the water, Without edifices, or rules, or trustees, or any argument, The institution of the dear love of comrades.”
What motivates and drives the scientist? On the one hand it’s the desire to know, even the need to know, in order to come up with a cure for cancer – a particular type of cancer, of course.
The need to know drives us to investigate, to question, to research, to read, to learn…to move from the unknown to the known.
But there’s something else at the heart of this drive – there is the sense of wonder, the sense of mystery, the sense of awe that is at the heart of science, and this is where science and religion meet and marry and do their dance.
Maybe it’s the same thing that drives the butterfly to move through the different stages in order to sprout those wings.
There’s something that drives the rose – something nearly conscious, or at least comparable to what we call our human consciousness.
I hesitate to make any assertions about God, but the drive behind every form of life on earth deserves to be acknowledged; and it is at once the most obvious, natural thing in the world, and at the same time it is a mystery.
Thoreau said, “Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.”
We’ll close with a story by Anna Quindlen, from her Commencement Address at Villanova:
“Just keep your eyes and ears open, the classroom is everywhere. The exam comes at the very end. No man ever said on his deathbed, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”
I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island maybe 15 years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless survive in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the boulevard when the summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amidst the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides.
But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox?
And he just stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.” And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look at the view. And that’s the last thing I have to tell you today, words of wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. You’ll never be disappointed.”
Closing Words from Joni Mitchell
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devils bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden