Last Sunday was our homecoming, the beginning of our newchurch year. So I read Lucille Clifton’s little poem:
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
Her poem reminds us of Rosh Hashanah, the new year in the Jewish calendar, which just turned to 5768. The story says that 5768 years ago ‘the earth was without form and void…and God said, ‘let there be light,’ and that’s how it all began.
Her poem is also appropriate for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. which is about forgiveness. Kol Nidre literally means ‘all vows,’ and the poet talks about all of her old vows, her promises; the vows that she has to let go of; and it’s about forgiveness: ‘i beg what i love and i leave to forgive me.’
The traditional New Year practice includes the sounding of the shofar, the trumpet made from a ram’s horn. The shofar is the Jewish alarm clock, telling those who hear it to wake up and pay attention to your inner life; take stock, think about what you’ve been doing, how you’ve been behaving, and to fix whatever needs fixing in your life.
The traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is “Shana Tova, Hebrew for “A Good Year.” The longer version is, “May You Be Written in the Book of Life and Sealed for a Good Year” (ketiva ve-chatima tovah).
Our Unitarian roots are traced through Christianity, back to Judaism, especially focusing on the Jewish teacher, Jesus, whose life was mythologized but whose teaching is rooted in his Jewish upbringing and is summarized in the Hebrew saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the high holy days of the Jewish faith, to remind ourselves of our heritage, but more importantly to remind ourselves of our humanity; to be reminded, also, of our individuality and to take responsibility for our moral and ethical behavior.
Rosh Hashanah literally means ‘the head of the year.’
Yom Kippur means ‘the day of atonement,’ which is the heart of the year; a time to look into yourself, into your heart, and, if need be, to feel some sense of remorse. Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, Unitarian guilt…human guilt…from the Old English word for crime…from the Latin crimen, judgement.
The old religious idea is that after you die there will be a ‘day of judgment’ when you’ll be read the riot act and sentenced to a fitting punishment in hellfire and brimstone.
Well meaning inventors of that idea believed that the fear of hellfire, and the realization of the day of judgment, would keep people in line, make them behave themselves.
It’s an idea whose time has passed. But the deeper meaning of that idea reaches into this life we’re living on the inside.
I prefer Emerson’s wonderful summary of that inner life, the life of morality and ethics. In the Divinity School Address he said:
“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space…Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immorality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being…So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he.”
Judaism, and Christianity, which is the first-born son of Judaism, wasn’t formed out of whole cloth. It grew from the seeds of the intuition Emerson referred to: ‘the intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul.’ That insight, that seed, gave birth to Judaism with its Ten Commandments, it’s warning against the danger of idolatry – as illustrated by Moses’ brother Aaron fashioning a golden calf to worship because he and his Jewish brothers and sisters got impatient, waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain.
When he returned with the original stone tablets carved with the commandments – the rules for living in community – he saw what Aaron and the others had done and he smashed the tablets.
The people weren’t ready for the kind of inner work that religion requires; for a concept of God that is not a big, bearded person in the sky, but an insight into the moral laws on which the life of the soul depends.
Is humanity ready for that kind of God now? Are we ready to embrace the invisible God of Judaism, a God that is built into the structure of the universe, including our own human structure, our human nature or that which ‘makes us human?’
Are we ready to accept the truth of the Christian assertion that God is love; are we able to grasp the Buddhist notion that when it comes to God you can only be silent, you must be silent, you must not speculate about God’s existence but simply live out your own human existence to the best of your ability?
Every once in awhile a book comes along that, while I’m reading it, I think: “I wish I had written this!” or “This is the book I need to write…but someone else has written it.”
Such a book was given to me by someone who knew I’d appreciate it; an Episcopal priest who I met at Dana Reeve’s memorial service last year and we’ve been meeting regularly to share a portion of our professional and personal lives.
The book is titled Looking in the Distance: the Human Search for Meaning, and was written by Richard Holloway, a man in Scotland who had been a priest in the Church of England.
He begins with the quote from which he took his book’s title, by Vasilii Rozanov, a Russian poet/philosopher:
“All religions will pass, but this will remain:
simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance.”
He says, “For years I have been haunted by that aphorism. Indeed, I could claim to have lived its meaning in my own life. I was drawn into religion as a small boy from the back streets of an industrial town in the west of Scotland. The religion I encountered there was of the high romantic variety, heavy with incense and laden with mystery. I had no clear sense about what it meant except that it suggested some heroic adventure, an endless quest after an object flying from desire.”
“I gave my life to that search. I became a priest, then a bishop, then a primate.” (The highest ranking bishop in the country.)
He writes, “Now, forty years and many battles later, it has passed and I am left sitting in the chair looking in the distance.”
“What remains is the innate compulsion to go on asking the unanswerable question of life’s meaning. And it is the fact of its unanswerability that makes the question so compelling. We find ourselves as conscious beings in an apparently unconscious universe and wonder what it means. We know quite a lot about how we came about, but there is no satisfactory explanation as to why we came about.”
Holloway left the church for many reasons, some of which are undoubtedly deeply personal and some are ecclesiastical. One reason he left was his utter dismay and disgust about the church’s punitive stance about homosexuality. As an expression of that dismay he finally threw his miter, his bishop’s hat, into the Thames.
I smiled at this act of defiance. His book has the flavor of Emerson and is splattered with the poetry that tastes like Whitman.
Holloway writes about ‘…fleeting moments of encounter with what feels like a kind of presence…we have to be careful not to turn those moments into religious objects…explanatory idols. They are, anyway, beyond description. Poetry comes closest to communicating the mystery of the experience.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are like poems that encourage us to look in the distance. They’re about the human search for meaning and the ultimate sacredness of that search.
Look carefully and I think you’ll see that the message of the high holy days is that we are not punished for our sins, we’re punished by them.
The Day of Judgment doesn’t come after we die, it is built into the moments when we’re most awake, symbolized by the sound of the shofar that is meant to wake us up.
The deeper meanings of the so-called high holy days, the days of awe, are built in to the part of us that makes us human, whatever you call it.
The spirit behind the high holy days has to do with our human sense of fallibility – we realize our capacity to do and say things we wish we hadn’t done or said; our capacity to feel shame or guilt, which is too often perverted by religious systems that pour salt in that open wound, and so often turn the most thoughtful persons away from the religions.
Richard Holloway turned away from such a punishing, inflicting religion and by so doing he got in touch with real religion. By turning away from the religion that inflicted him, the religion that made him a bishop, sealing his fate, locking him in — by throwing that heavy hat into the river, he was able to liberate himself and reveal in his book the deep spirituality that runs like a river deep in his soul.
To illustrate his point he includes a little poem by Edward Hirsch called ‘Simone Weil in Assissi‘:
She disliked the miracles in the gospels.
She never believed in the mystery of contact
here below, between a human being and God
she despised popular tales of apparitions.
But that afternoon in Assissi she wandered
Through the abominable Santa Maria degli Angeli
And happened upon a little marvel of Romanesque
Purity where St Francis liked to pray.
She was there a short time when something absolute
and omnivorous, something she neither believed
nor disbelieved, something she understood – but what
was it? — forced her to her knees.
Holloway says, “I have had one or two moments like that in my life.”
I’ve had some of those moments. It happened one day this summer in Rome. We went into St. Peter’s Basilica with our enthusiastic tour guide, Raulle, stopping at Michelangelo’s first masterpiece, the Pieta.
I had seen it before. I had marveled at it. But this time, in one of those fleeing moments, I experienced something that didn’t come to me before, something that didn’t touch me, before; something I didn’t notice before; and I was stunned by the depth of meaning that penetrated itself into the depths of my soul. I choked up; tears came to my eyes before I knew why; surprise, surprise!
That’s what a piece of art can do – it can skip the stop at the rational gate and go directly to the depths, beyond logic, beneath all the stuff that covers up the tenderness of pure Being.
It was only afterward that I thought about it; that I thought about the young mother holding the lifeless body of her son, sacrificed on the cruel cross — the intersection of religion and politics.
The mother and son look the same age; they are ageless and timeless; the Pieta, the pity, the sacred sense of human caring and compassion that unites us in a timeless sense of sorrow; the sacred source of real religion, beyond the narrow confines of any one of the thousands of religions that we’ve invented.
Those healing moments of ‘grace and transcendence’ are out of time and place and take us by surprise when we encounter the mystery of being, or feel something we know we need but couldn’t force it, couldn’t think our way into it.
Michelangelo carved this piece out of a single block of Carrara marble that he chose when commissioned by a Cardinal; he was 22 years old. It’s the only piece the artist actually signed, or needed to. From then on his work needed no signature.
Rosh Hashanah is a reminder of the passing of another year, like a birthday when the number changes. It reminds us of the passing of time, which we measure in seconds and minutes that accumulate into years.
May it also be a reminder of the little moments that connect us to something outside of time, to something within us that is sacred, something that great art might touch, something that comes as insight and as serenity and as a sense of atonement, of feeling ‘at one’ with all that is.
Yom Kippur is a reminder of that sense of one-ness, or the sense of feeling forgiven, the sense of re-connecting with those we might have offended, the sense of re-connecting with the inner self from which we might have felt alienated.
End: On this date six years ago the fires at the World Trade Center were still burning; we came together in this sanctuary
to find some sense of companionship as we faced the tragedy. It was the most demanding day of my ministry. During the week, someone had given me a poem by Pablo Neruda which I read during that service and have read many times since, including this week’s memorial service at Weston Town Hall.
I was surprised by the depth of feelings that were expressed by those who participated in that service, after six years, and again I was surprised at the depth of my own feelings.
I thought it appropriate to close the sermon with Neruda’s poem:
Keeping Quiet, by Pablo Neruda
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.