John Haynes Holmes, former minister of Community Church, New York City, put it this way:
But when I say ‘God,’ it is poetry and not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race, and God – whoever he (sic) may be – has at one time or another reached my soul! More and more, as I grow older, I live in the lovely thought of these seers and prophets. The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears. I never seem so near truth as when I care not what I think or believe, but only that these matters of inner vision would live forever.
In his signature poem, Song of Myself, Whitman asks the basic question and gives his answer:
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you
reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and the sun, (there
are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
specters in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self…
I have heard what the talkers were talking the talk of the
beginning and the end.
But I do not talk of the beginning and the end.
There never was any more inception than there is now,
nor any more youth nor age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Sermon: Natural Selections, Part I
Darwin investigated the process by which organisms best adapted to their environment tend to survive–survival of the fittest. Those less adapted tend to be eliminated through the process of natural selection.
Certain ideas, values and beliefs tend to survive, for each of us in the process of living-thinking, feeling, questioning, doubting, remembering, forgetting, etc.
We learn from experience. Hopefully. To glean the best from our personal experience requires thoughtful reflection, testing, and further testing, or experimentation.
Out of that process we develop beliefs, ideas, opinions, and all of that is condensed in what we call our faith system.
We hold on to and cherish those things which have helped us to survive the trials, tests and challenges of life. Hopefully, we’re able eliminate the rest. We need to eliminate what diminishes us, what might otherwise convince us that we are ‘sinners in the hands of an angry god.’ We eliminate what offends our sensibilities–the prejudices and hatreds we learned earlier. Otherwise we get bogged down in guilt, a sense of inadequacy, or we sink in the quicksand of narrow prejudices.
What survives, then, is what fits, at any given time in our lives. We gather all of that into a special collection-it’s the basis of our faith system, whether we call it that or not; whether we’re aware of what’s in there or not.
Most of what we collect isn’t written down, of course. But it’s there, down ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’ It helps to sustain and to nurture that aspect of life we call the spirit, which dwells in that sacred place–the soul.
Recently I was asked to make a list of my favorite poems–the poems which have survived the process of natural selection in my life and ministry so far….the poems that feed my spirit and nurture my soul.
I’ve read thousands of poems, but only once in a great while does a poem get a full reading. Most poems, like many books on my shelves, don’t survive a complete reading. Maybe the first few lines in a poem or the first chapter of a book gets read.
If it seems to fit, it gets a full reading, and if it enters that rare place–the fittest, it gets added to the sacred literature in my collection.
There are some books which I’ve read over and over; they are underlined or highlighted with comments in the margins, as if I was having a conversation with the author, which, in a way, I am. They are ‘stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears,’ as Holmes put it.
Poems that survive a full and thorough reading are rare. But if they survive that first reading they may get to the next stage of sorting–a second and third reading, and a page in a file. If they get used again and again they go into my personal anthology–many of which are committed to memory, since they are so important to me.
Most of the things I’ve memorized arrive in that place on their own, so to speak, since I rarely commit something to memory on purpose. It goes into memory because it speaks to me, and because it gets used, again and again. Repetition leads to memorization.
A natural question I ask myself is this: Why is a poem important to me? What’s the criteria?
I’ve been on a spiritual quest since I can remember. It began in a conscious way when I was about six years old, having survived a near-drowning experience. That early brush with death did something to me. It made me appreciate being alive–an appreciation which I believe to be at the heart of what I know to be my spiritual life.
Meister Eckhart (c.1260 – c.1327) said, “If the only prayer you know are the two words ‘thank you,’ it’s enough.”
The deepest kind of thanks is the conscious appreciation for being alive, for having survived, thus far.
So, thirty years ago, when I heard a Unitarian minister colleague, Ed Atkinson, of blessed memory, read cummings’ poem ‘i thank You God for most this amazing day,’ it hit some inner target I didn’t even know was there. It was immediately added to my then small collection of sacred literature.
I remember listening to Ed read the poem; I recall the setting–in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Church in Cohasset. I clearly remember the feeling…something in me was fed, nurtured. I wasn’t sure why that poem hit home and did what it did, but I knew for certain that it spoke to something deep in me–something very deep, beyond my conscious knowing, at the time.
That poem immediately became part of my sacred literature and helped me to realize that I wanted and needed to build on that sacred literature. My spiritual survival depended on it.
Sacred literature is anything that helps us survive. We have to survive losses and changes, both small losses, little changes and the more dramatic and sometimes devastating losses. We have to survive encounters with death. We become aware of our mortality very early on and most of the time we keep it at a safe distance. But it’s there. It sits there, quietly. But it wakes us up from time to time–it can startle, alarm and frighten us.
Certain things we find in literature give us something to hold on to, and to feel held and comforted by. They nurture and nourish; but they also challenge, prod and provoke, like people who love us and know we need to be challenged, prodded and provoked as much as we need to be comforted and cuddled.
Those things we hear and read which sink down into that private place where our deepest thoughts hang around day and night might be called our personal sacred literature; our natural selections.
John Locke was right when he said, “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself.”
The care of the soul–or the human spirit–allows us to say yes to life, in spite of the burdens, the suffering, the pain, the losses.
There are moments when it feels good to be alive. We learn to cherish those moments and use them as little building blocks to house the soul.If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,And filter and fibre your blood.Failing to find me at first, keep encouraged.Missing me one place, search another.I stop, somewhere, waiting for you.
Mary Oliver, in Morning Poem, put it this way:
Every morning the world is created.
Under the orange sticks of the sun
the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches–and ponds appear like black
cloth on which are painted islands of summer lilies.
If it is in your nature to be happy you will swim away along the soft
trails for hours, your imagination alighting
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than
lead–if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging–there is still somewhere
deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it
Each pond with its blazing lilies is
a prayer heard and answered
lavishly, every morning
Whether or not you have ever dared to be happy,
Whether or not you have ever dared to pray.
There are moments when it feels good to be alive. Anyone who suggests that we can or should even try to be happy all the time loses credibility, I get distracted and very quickly the process of natural selection takes over; they don’t survive.
I remember a winter day thirty five years ago when I was riding a chair lift up a ski trail on a mountain in Vermont. Beside me was an older member of the church group in Wellesley with whom I had gone on this ski trip. I did not know how to ski with skill, but I was skiing that day with enormous pleasure, in spite of falling down again and again. I was covered with snow, including a good solid icing on my red beard. My breath came out in big white clouds and some of it froze into the beard.
My chairlift parter, who I knew only slightly, looked at me and smiled and said, “Life is good.”
I don’t know what I said to him, but I remember very clearly how I responded in that deep place where spirituality is nurtured. It was beyond mere words; it was an affirmation of life: “Yes,” I knew in that moment, “life is good.”
Now, if the same thing were to happen to me today I would turn to my chairlift partner and say, yes, life is good, and listen to the way e e cummings said it:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth )
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
I had that poem in my memory before I realized that one of the reasons it hit home and became part of my sacred literature was the line “i who have died am alive again today.”
When I was at the bottom of that little muddy pond in Medfor at six years old, I was so sure I was going to die that in a sense I had died. I remember those long, terrifying moments so well. It was dark, and it seemed I could see the dark, as if it was a big, black object. It certainly was a dark moment. The thought was vivid: “I’m going to die here, but I want to live! I’m not supposed to die now, but my death is here…now.”
I lived. I remember going home from that dark day of the soul episode, walking down the horse-riding trail that led to that little forbidden place, and thinking, “I’m alive! I made it!” Yes, I could say with Cummings, I thank You God!
I use the poems I’ve accumulated the way the Rabbi uses what he or she carries from the Torah or Psalms, the way the practicing Muslim uses the Koran or the born-again minister uses the Bible. I take out a poem that fits the moment and recite it, usually to myself.
Sometimes I take a risk and recite a poem to someone with whom I’m walking on the beach or counseling in my office. It’s a risk because I never know how it will be received. Too many clergy have imposed Scriptural passages on me–I certainly don’t want to impose mine. Those of us who like to recite poems, or have poems as a reference, are cautious. But I know it’s possible to become too cautious.
Let me give you an example of reciting a poem with some risk. Scotty Erca was terminally ill and she came to my office several times to talk about her process of dying. One day I recited a poem from e e cummings:
Death if Death
when(instead of stopping to think)you
begin to feel of it,dying
cause dying is
it mildly lively(but
& artificial &
evil & legal)
we thank thee
almighty for dying
(forgive us,o life!the sin of Death
It did what I had hoped it would do. She got it, or she got what I got. She asked me to recite it a few times in the weeks leading to her death, and the last time I saw her, just hours before she died, she whispered from her hospital bed, “Give me that poem again.”
As a Unitarian minister I work on the assumption that each of us needs and wants to feed the Spirit. We’re involved in a spiritual quest. You and I are here, in this house of worship, to nurture that spiritual ingredient–to be encouraged in the quest, to be challenged and prodded, too…challenged and prodded, as well as comforted.
“Truly speaking,” Emerson said, “it is not instruction but provocation that I receive from another soul.”
The spiritual quest takes many forms–something a little different for each of us, individually. It takes many forms collectively, too. The collective forms are called the religions of the world, and there are many.
As Unitarians, one of our working assumptions is that each of the religions of the world had its origin in the human experience.
Remember Whitman’s words: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.”
The best in all the religions is a kind of poetry or mythology. Religion, at its best, speaks to something so deep within us that we didn’t even know it was there, and we cannot find adequate words for it.
The sacred literature of the Taoist, the Tao Te Ching, begins with this poetic passage: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”
In addition to poetry and mythology the spiritual quest is seen and heard in music, painting and photography, in architecture, in the arts, in general.
Music stimulates something in us which is more spiritual than it is intellectual or rational, since it is non-verbal. The same is true for the visual arts, including architecture, which is so important to us–our sanctuary is itself a statement about our approach to religion and spirituality. The windows that bring the outside into us suggest that God and Nature are one.
Most of us have grown up in Western culture, influenced by the Jewish-Christian-Muslim religion, with a particular world-view–a way of understanding Creation, and our place in It.
Western religion asserts a monotheistic idea of a God who is often a projection of ourselves–a person who makes decisions, like the decision to create the world we inhabit–a God who intervenes in history and who has a plan, a big blue print or design.
This is the definition of anthropomorphism–God is a person, like ourselves.
In art and literature–in poetry, for example, anthropomorphism is also the depiction of natural objects, such as animals or plants, as talking, reasoning, sentient, humanlike beings. “The leaves danced…the moon smiled down on us…the river laughed…the fog embraced us.”
Thus we return to John Haynes Holmes’s assertion: “But when I say God it is poetry and not theology.”
Poetry, then, is at the core of my personal sacred literature.
In addition to the writings of the poets, there are lots of novels that hold a special place in my spiritual life–novels like Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamatzov and his wonderful short story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. I think of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; or St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, or Marion Williams’ wonderful book The Velveteen Rabbit.
I love the stories in the book of Genesis. And the story of Job speaks to that deep place in me. Job was written as a cycle of poems. The Parables of Jesus hit home again and again.
Poetry is not my only ‘true religion,’ as if one needed to have the one true religion. Poetry, for me, is what music is for Ed Thompson (our Minister of Music.) What would he do without music? He’d have to go to work! (Remember those lines from Robert Frosts poem Two Tramps in Mud Time: “My object in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation, as my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one is the deed ever done for heaven and the future’s sakes.”)
Poetry is central to my spiritual/religious life, however. It feeds something in me, as music did early on. We had a player piano when I was growing up, and I learned all the old songs, dozens and dozens of them. Now, of course, I realize that the words to the songs are poems–so you know a lot of poetry, don’t you. And I realize the relationship between the music, which is in the right hemisphere of the brain, and poetry and all the other arts that stimulate that part of our brains.
The founders of our own nation looked carefully at the religion question and built a wall of separation between religion and state. Our own Thomas Jefferson had a lot to do with the creation of that wall.
Too often we build walls, between the spiritual and the intellectual or rational self. If we rely on our rational minds only, we will deprive ourselves the source of spiritual nourishment and the care of the soul.
Spirituality and/or religion is not rational; it’s not intended to be. To take the Bible literally, for example, is to miss the point entirely. The Garden of Eden is…not was; the breath of life is being blown into the dust we are; we are Adam and Eve, we are Cain and Abel; like Jacob, we are alone and we wrestle with a man all night long, as that myth says. We wrestle with our own inner demons and we can’t let go until we ‘get the blessing,’ as Jacob did. We are Jacob and Jonah and Jesus at supper with friends or accused and put on trial and so forth.
Unitarian Universalists do a lot of cutting and pasting. Unfortunately, many stop at the cutting and don’t do much pasting, and so are spiritually bereft, depriving themselves of the comfort, support, stimulation and provocation we all need to continue to grow spiritually as well as intellectually and emotionally.
Some years ago I had a parishioner who had a little book into which she had copied favorite poems and sayings. She collected them for years. She showed me her collection–her sacred literature. Just before she died she handed that book and said, “I want you to have this–you’re the only person I know who realizes what this little book means to me.”
I read directly from that little book at her funeral.
Each of us has to gather our sacred literature, and the sacred literature book for a Unitarian Universalist has to be in a loose leaf notebook…adding and subtracting. Things that once spoke to us may no longer serve that purpose, and may, indeed, become barriers to our soul’s nourishment.
The task of life is to make connections, with one another, with Nature or God, if you prefer, and to re-connect with a self from whom we may sometimes feel alienated. We need to come to terms with that ever-changing, ever-evolving self; we need to be vulnerable so we can find a deep sense of authenticity.
That’s what this process is about–this sermon or preaching process; this worship process; this gathering of people and poems–this community-making process.
The spiritual quest needs to combine basic scientific truth with some other kind of Truth–because there’s more going on than meets the eye; there’s more going on than we can name or define.
We need to make a distinction between things that are literally true and things that contain spiritual truth. The laws of gravity and photosynthesis can serve as good examples.
If you want to walk, you have to observe the law of gravity.
You remember photosynthesis; it’s the process in green plants and certain other organisms by which carbohydrates are synthesized from carbon dioxide and water using light as an energy source. Most forms of photosynthesis release oxygen as a byproduct.
Photosynthesis is the source of our oxygen–so we can breath.
Which leads me back to the poetry which has survived for me. There’s a good deal of poetry in the Bible. The book of Genesis says that God formed humans out of the dust of the earth and ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.’ Pure poetry.
When the breath of life is blown into the dust we’re made of, we are transformed; we are changed.
The word inspiration simply means to have the breath of life blown into you.
This, of course, is simply a poetic way of distinguishing between human beings as one part of Creation, one thing among all the others, and what we call the spiritual life.
What makes us human? What distinguishes us? What transforms us, and feeds what we call the spiritual aspect of life? How do we find meaning, purpose and direction in life? I choose to call it spiritual development.
The Bible, like any good poem, has been a source of spiritual help for generations–and it has been endlessly interpreted.
The deeper we look, the more we realize that there’s always some new meaning that emerges, some new and deeper understanding…in the Bible, and in poetry.
Theodore Parker, one of our most important Unitarian ministers who challenged his colleagues to think deeper in the 19th century, said, “As a master the Bible is a tyrant. As a servant I have not time in one life to find its many uses.”
We Unitarian Universalists are interested in the Bible-in the poems, the mythologies, the stories-some of which have a basis in history, all of which have a basis in what we call spirituality-the search for deeper truths and eternal meanings.
When we find something that speaks to us we used to hang it on the refrigerator or write it out in a collection of special readings–now we put it on the internet. Same thing.
Each of us has such a collection. It is our sacred literature. For some its the Bible of the Jews and Christians, or the Muslims Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindu.
The fourth gospels opens with the assertion: “In the beginning was the word.”
The beginning keeps happening. If you limit your thinking to a linear idea of time, there’s only one beginning and one end, a point at each end. But we are part of something which is Eternal, and although it is beyond our grasp, intellectually, we can feel it in a poem, a song, a work of art or the ocean, a flower, or the birth of a child.
Hopefully there comes a time in our lives, hopefully, when we can say with Whitman,
I celebrate myself and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belong to you.
I loaf and invite my soul.
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass…
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and rift it in lacy jags,
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow frrom the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to find me at first, keep encouraged.
Missing me one place, search another.
I stop, somewhere, waiting for you.