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A late middle age man steps into the dim chapel. Its early evening. He is bone tired. He is in that place in life where he is no longer ascending, his proposals and emails often go unanswered. Those who meet him often quietly dismiss him as old, at the descent of his career. He knows his sun is setting. He longs to go home to his wife and children and just break down and cry. But he is the adult now, they depend on him. He cannot do that. So is finds himself sitting in a pew, with only an old woman in the corner saying her prayers. He stares up at Virgin Mary and as if from some old corner he remembers a prayer. He prays, “Mother Mary, help me. Hold me. Forgive me.” He falls to his knees and tears pour from his eyes. Tears that so often come not from desperation but from comfort. He feels in the moment, like he is being held for the very first time. His shoulders drop and he feels a warmth he had long forgotten.
This story, borrowed from the book Religion for Atheists, could be about any of us. The skeptical might think all of this is infantile, but the fact remains, that cult of Mary, like the cult of Mazu in Buddhist China, Venus in ancient Rome, Kali in India, exist for a reason, mostly to take the place of that which we all primordially need, a being into whom we can fall and find forgiveness. This man could be anyone of us, who has fallen from the sheer mediocrity in life. There is a reason mother cults have survived through the ages. And the reason is us; we need a place, a person, a time to let go in order to forgive ourselves and move on.
Every chance I get, whenever I go to the hospital to visit one of you, I stop in at the chapel or meditation room. If it is a Catholic Chapel, I pull down the kneeling rail and I fall to my knees and pray. Not to any God as such, just to be free from the cares of life for just a moment. To let go. In fact, it is the art of falling and letting go that keeps me sane. It is the art of falling that keeps any of us sane.
Falling is of course seen as a danger. For the elderly, a fall is often the tragic door to deteriorating health. But falling, as we remember from when we were very young, is how we learn. We fall to learn to walk, we fall to learn to ride a bike, we fall when we make a mistake with a new job, a new love, a new life. We fall because our center of gravity is so much higher than sense should allow. We walk on these two spindly legs, our feet sending signals to our brain and inner ear, to keep balance. But even when we fall more permanently, we quickly learn that life has lessons there as well. Christopher Reeves who played Super Man fell of his horse in a riding accident. He was paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life. But what most of know is that he eventually learned to stand taller in character than any more able man had before in his support for stem cell research and a host of other worthy causes. And what not all of you know, is that Christopher Reeve was part of this congregation.
There is an old saying that when one door closes another opens but it can be pretty dark in the in the hallway. How many of us have been there? Can I get an amen? How many of us are afraid to close the first door at all? The darkness of the hall though is where change really happens. Daring in the dark means allowing ourselves to experience pain without avoiding it or medicating it with consumerism and addiction. It means opening to mystery and trusting that what we do not know or cannot know is also a place to meet the divine. Only in letting go of the darkness and being willing to fall are we able to move onto the path of forgiveness and redemption. And while we may think we don’t need to be forgiven, I would bet that any of us needs at the very least to forgive ourselves, for some wrong we had done, or forgive another for how we were left alone. Forgiveness is a universal need, and the fastest way to that forgiveness is to let go.
How do we learn from our falling? Beloveds, it has to do with the creative art of finding every opportunity we can. Perhaps the greatest challenge of abuse is not the pain but the fear of the unknown when we leave the pain. I have counselled many women and a few men through the pain of divorce. Often it is just a parting of the ways, one changes and the other doesn’t or there is an infidelity that is just too hard to return from. And sometimes it is a matter of abuse; not always physical but certainly always painful. The decision to leave is not a matter of common sense; why doesn’t she just leave him? The decision is whether we have the strength to let go of the familiar and go into the mystery, the divine feminine power of what we cannot see until we find another way. When that decision is finally made it is not a matter of relief, but dread. And make no mistake about it, it will be painful. But worth it? Oh my yes.
The art of redemption, has a lot to do with learning to fall. Actors and stuntmen learn to fall. They learn to avoid most of the hurt. They learn to anticipate the descent. You look at the ground and try to position yourself to fall on just the right spot. Once we accept the fact that we are mortal, we can learn to let go of its fear and live as if each day is most precious.
After the fall we get up, if not in body than in spirit. We remain. We who are their words, their creation, their dreams and their failures. We remain, and in the remaining we are forgiven And still we go on.
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.
This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last she named Hakuin.
In great anger the parents went to the master and accused him of impregnating their daughter. “Is that so?” was all he would say.
After the child was born she was brought to Hakuin to care for. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
Hakuin was willing. “We are sorry for misjudging you” In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”
Because the art of learning to fall often means a going to a new beginning, as Rumi says, “a field beyond right and wrong.” What are we going towards in order to know love and forgiveness? Who hasn’t had learned to go to something new after we have lost what we once loved? Each of you here has gone on after you have lost a love. The man in the chapel, a mother who has lost her child, a Superman who learns he has other super powers, the lost who have found their way.
People come to our churches now as before not to serve on committees, although that work is important, but to find meaning in life. Too often we are about the business of faith not the busyness of faith; transforming our lives into the way life ought to be. How do we do this? How do we let go of our past long enough to make a difference in life? How do we overcome whatever is holding us back to let go to a new beginning?
Our theology points towards the circle of life. When one part of our circle is damaged, whenever we fall, it does no good to commiserate about the damage; this only keeps the circle broken. Finding the courage to deal with these issues as maturely as possible, starting with watching what we say and do, goes along way. Often times the best thing we can do for ourselves after a painful tragedy is to carry on with the mundane and joyful details of life that remain. This does not belittle or bury the sorrow but places it where we can work on it best.
But most pain can be overcome with help. Christopher Reeve didn’t rise up in courage all on his own. His wife, Dana helped him. Many helped him. Because while we often fall alone, we rarely get up alone.
It might take a while, it will be painful in a concentrated sense but it is possible to find joy again. The scars remain but the pain is lessened. How? Inside this step is perhaps the most critical part of letting go: that of forgiveness. If I learned one truth from my years of studying Buddhism it has been that only forgiveness can lead to healing and compassion. Not a blanket forgiveness, not even complete forgiveness and certainly not forgetting what happened but an understanding of what holds our pain in. Many times the Dali Lama has been asked if he hates the Chinese. His response: “hate the Chinese? Oh no, no hate. I forgive the Chinese, not because what they did was right – it is wrong – but because to hate them holds me prisoner to them.” Sometimes this practice is as easy as mouthing the words “I forgive so and so”, remembering that right speech leads to right thought. It might take years to truly forgive. But those who have suffered abuse for instance find it so much more powerful to forgive, even to be still angry in the memories of someone who did something that may have been a continuation of their own pain into your life. Those who seek revenge are rarely satisfied. Families of murdered children know that forgiving only frees the soul. That capital punishment, while a temporary elixir to our pain, does not result in freedom from that pain. Forgiveness is the hardest part of falling.
A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.” When will we have the courage to get up from our stumbling, to accommodate ourselves to our true condition, our deeper self? This is the work of our time, even amidst the pain.
And then? Then you come out of the rapids. Then comes joy again. Being here and being lifted by this view. Enjoying that first cup of tea or coffee. Feeling the air in our lungs. The warmth of a touch. Not in what we could still have but in what we have. The Chinese have a name for this: Wu Wei wu. Action, inaction, action. It is so much easier not to resist the winds of change. When life happens to you respond slowly to it, don’t assume the worst. The point is to not jump to the worst case in seeing what life has for you. Every crisis has an opportunity. Imagine an ocean. On the surface there are waves and storms, this is wu, the pain of life. But under that ocean is a calmness that comes from being in the safety of life, this is Wei. Seek within each pain, the lessons of joy. For every winter a spring. For every night a day. At the heart of all life, even in its ending there is a stillness of joy in being alive. Even in the darkness there is comfort, the very deep dark chaos from which the feminine power of creation emerges again.
We are all trying to get up from our falling. This is what it means to be alive. Pain can give way to joy when we believe that joy lies at the heart of our being. We are, as I remind all of you, as originally blessed as we are flawed. Sin, separation, the pain only leads to completion and wholeness.
Robin Williams was Christopher Reeve’s best friend. They roomed together at Julliard. After Reeve died in October 2004, there were services at Julliard and here in this church. Williams eulogized his friend calling him a true superman whose courage to brave his fall made him a hero to millions suffering from disability. Ironically, Williams would take his own fall from depression, and not get up, taking his own life just last year. Two men falling, but in very different ways. Learning to fall is not a defeat but an act of courage. And falling is what calls us to rise up again, in ways we can’t imagine.
There is a Zen parable about the man who was being chased by a tiger. The man ran and ran and came to the edge of a cliff. He had no choice to leap. As he was going down he saw a branch growing out of the hill. He grabbed it. Not knowing what to do next, he looked down and what did he see? Another tiger. Just then his eye caught sight of a small strawberry growing just within his reach. He plucked it, how sweet it tasted! Only then did he let go and fall. (from Phillip Simmons Learning to Fall) Amen.