Opening Words: The Pasture, Robert Frost
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may)
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.
We’re here to clean the pasture spring; to tap into the fresh water that can refresh the spirit; it won’t take long…you come, too.
In his book, To a Dancing God, Sam Keen writes: Once upon a time when there were still Indians, Gypsies, bears, and bad men in the woods of Tennessee where I played and, more important still, there was no death, a promise was made to me. One endless summer afternoon my father sat in the eternal shade of a peach tree, carving on a seed he had picked up. With increasing excitement and covetousness I watched while, using a skill common to all omnipotent creators, he fashioned a small monkey out of the seed.
All of my vagrant wishes and desires disciplined themselves and came to focus on that peach-seed monkey. If only I could have it, I would possess a treasure which could not be matched in the whole cosmopolitan town of Maryville! What status, what identity, I would achieve by owning such a curio!
Finally I marshaled my nerve and asked if I might have the monkey when it was finished (on the sixth day of creation). My father replied, “This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one someday.”
Days passed, and then weeks, and finally, years, and the someday on which I was to receive the monkey did not arrive.
In truth, I forgot all about the peach-seed monkey. Life in the ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all of those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was merely delighting in their existence. One of the lasting tokens I retained of the measure of his dignity and courage was the manner in which, with emphysema sapping his energy and eroding his future, he continued to wonder, to struggle, and to grow.
In the pure air and dry heat of an Arizona afternoon on the summer before the death of God, my father and I sat under a juniper tree. I listened as he wrestled with the task of taking the measure of his success and failure in life. There came a moment of silence that cried out for testimony. Suddenly I remembered the peach-seed monkey, and I heard the right words coming from myself to fill the silence:
“In all that is important you have never failed me. With one exception, you kept the promises you made to me—you never carved me that peach-seed monkey.”
Not long after this conversation I received a small package in the mail. In it was a peach-seed monkey and a note which said: “Here is the monkey I promised you. You will notice that I broke one leg and had to repair it with glue. I am sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.”
Two weeks later my father died. He died only at the end of his life.
For me, a peach-seed monkey has become a symbol of all the promises which were made to me and the energy and care which nourished and created me as a human being. And even more fundamentally, it is a symbol of that which is the foundation of all human personality and dignity…
(The) civility which separates (us) from the lower animals depends upon the making and keeping of promises, covenants, vows and contracts. As Nietzsche so aptly put the matter, “man is that animal who makes promises.”
Sam Keen’s carefully crafted story about the peach-seed monkey touches the heart of what it means to be human – it’s about creating intentional relationships; it’s about our ability to make and keep promises; it’s about dealing with disappointment; it’s about understanding and forgiveness; it’s about different kinds of love and different stages of love; it’s about the life-long process of becoming a person; it’s about dying with dignity; and it’s about the legacy we leave when we’re finished with this life. It’s all there in the story of the peach-seed monkey.
Much of the teaching in the story is explicit – the story itself is so rich in its imagery, beginning with memories of childhood – believing there were Indians, Gypsies, bears and bad men inn the woods, and there was no death. Paul’s famous words come to mind: ‘when I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child…’ I Cor. 13 (He might have added, ‘I trusted like a child…I was in awe, like a child…I felt loved unconditionally, like a fortunate child.’)
The peach-seed is explicit, and we can see him watching his father carve it and thinking of his father as some kind of ‘omnipotent creator,’ which is the first Biblical image we have — God the all-powerful creator who took the clay and fashioned it into a man.
He remembers his excitement and his covetousness, wanting that peach-seed monkey, not only for the sheer pleasure of owning it, but for the status it would give him, the identity it would bestow upon him.
A promise was made, but he and his father both forgot about that promise – it’s not as though his father broke the promise; it was less like a promise than an expression of love in the moment: “This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one someday.”
There’s much in Sam Keen’s story that is explicit and much that is implicit, contained in his memory like a seed is contained at the center of the peach.
The promise his father made was more than a peach-seed monkey; it was the core idea that his father provided a sense of security and a promise of unconditional love, without doubt, without question – implicit.
“Life in the ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was delighting in their existence.”
This sense of having someone delight in your existence has a theological component – there’s a God-like component to the realization that you are loved as you. But that’s a view that comes from the adult looking back on his childhood, able to appreciate the seed that was planted in him when he was a child.
Sam Keen’s story is about memories of his childhood and the sense of appreciation he has, now, for the most precious, lasting gift his father gave to him,
His father taught him how to live, how to love, and eventually he showed him how to die.
“One of the lasting tokens I retained of the measure of his dignity and courage was the manner in which, with emphysema sapping his energy and eroding his future, he continued to wonder, to struggle and to grow.”
His childhood memory is about sitting in the shade of a peach tree; his adult memory is about sitting under a juniper tree – an evergreen with sharp needles but a sweet scent with seeds in the cones that grow at the top of the tree – symbolism that seems intentional – the sharpness of realizing that his father is close to death, but the realization that the gift he gave to his son will live on after he’s gone.
Some years ago a man with terminal cancer came to my office to tell me that he was entering the final months of his life – he was a doctor; I had officiated at his mid-life marriage and sat with him while he told me about the seriousness of his initial diagnosis and the surgeries that followed.
In the conversation that day he talked about his life and the centrality of his parenting, how blessed he felt. Then he said, “Now I have to show them how to die.”
Sam Keen’s father, he said, ‘died only at the end of his life.’ It’s a powerful line. “He continued to wonder, to struggle and to grow.”
By reminding his father that he didn’t keep his promise to carve a peach-seed monkey, Sam Keen re-established the father-son relationship; the all-powerful father and the dependent and appreciative little boy. By so doing, he provided his father the opportunity to ‘keep all of his promises.’ It was a gift he gave to his father in his last days.
Not long afterward he got a peach-seed monkey in the mail with a note attached: “Here is the monkey I promised you. You will notice that I broke one leg and had to repair it with glue. I am sorry that I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.”
To me the monkey’s broken leg is about the flaw in every father; the flaw in every son, the flaw in every person. The imperfection that we all have to live with, and the brokenness we sometimes feel as we struggle through the day and move through the dark night of the soul – the inevitable struggles.
None of us has time ‘to carve a perfect life.’ And we’re sorry about our imperfections…especially the imperfections in parenting, or in a marriage or committed relationship…in a friendship…
Keen says that the peach-seed monkey became a symbol of ‘all the promises which were made to me and the energy and care which nourished me and created me as a human being. And, more fundamentally, it is a symbol of that which is the foundation of all human personality and dignity.’
‘The foundation of all human personality and dignity,’ carved from a peach seed!
We often notice important things by their absence, and we see , too often, the absence of ‘dignity.’ We see it daily – and you don’t have to resort to Fox News to find it; we read it daily in the New York Times – all the news that’s fit to print!
Father’s are imperfect – that’s what the peach-seed monkey’s broken leg, repaired with glue, is about. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.” In other words, “I’m sorry I wasn’t a perfect father.” Or husband, son, brother, minister or friend.
Sam Keen writes: “Life in the ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was delighting in their existence.’
Sounds like the traditional Western notion of God the Father: the Omnipotent Creator God; the Omniscient God – who has searched us and known us, as the Psalmist said, the way we feel known by a loving father.
The economic downturn, as it is euphemistically called, has threatened that sense of security which is essential to the soul’s well being.
The Great Depression had a lasting effect on the generation that lived through it, and the next generation – my own. We were glad to have enough – the following generation, influenced by things Vance Packard and others wrote about Madison Avenue, was convinced there was no such thing as enough; they were taught to want more; a good, solid, growing economy depended on the people wanting more, and turning wants into needs.
Wanting more is what Keen referred to as a ‘…shallow and hostile life,’ from which we are redeemed by ‘the sacrificial love and civility which we have gratuitously received.’
Keen’s reference to being ‘redeemed by the sacrificial love… which we have gratuitously received’ is, of course, at the heart of the Christian idea of redemption from sin by Jesus’s sacrifice. To redeem is ‘to keep a promise…to pay off a debt.’
There are moral ideals that carved this nation from a seed that was planted in 1776; those moral ideals led in the 1860’s to the abolition of the pernicious institution of slavery; those same ideals led in 1920 to universal voting rights and in 1964 to the Civil Rights Act.
We keep carving the monkey, and legs that break off have to be glued back, and we have a long way to go – the need for universal health care, for example – to complete the task of carving the most perfect specimen we can. Thoreau put it more poetically:
“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
Sam Keen watched his father carve a monkey out of a peach seed, a symbolic way of saying that he watched his father carve out a life, and he was loved by that father, and the love was reciprocal.
We are the promise makers and, to one degree or another, the promise keepers, gluing the legs that break off, and never really having the time to carve a perfect one, and, eventually discovering the sense of perfection that’s built in to the broken leg that gets glued back on:
We recall those famous lines from Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping By Woods On a Winter Evening: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”
Yes, we have promises to keep. We have promises to one another, here in this community. We have promises to keep with our children; with our parents and partners and friends.
Being here today implies a promise to yourself, nicely illustrated in Frost’s poem—to stop, from time to time, to notice the woods filling up with snow…
…to notice a flower, to marvel at the face and fingers of a new born; to create a Sabbath moment by stopping the hectic pace, to notice, to say a silent thank you…to nurture this thing we call our spirituality so we can live a balanced life.
So we’ve stopped, awhile, to think about something as simple as a peach seed monkey, now it’s time to stop.
May you continue ‘to wonder, to struggle and to grow, and may you find ways to keep the promises you’ve made and by so doing to become the person you want and need to be. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
We’ll close with a poem from E. B. White – he calls it Natural History:
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.