We light our chalice, symbol of our Unitarian Universalist faith: let it be for us a beacon of hope for the world and a symbol of the separate light each of us carries on our quest for truth, meaning and purpose as we move through the years facing whatever challenges come to us and reminded that though we live our separate lives we are not alone.
Opening Words: In 1974 eleven women were the first to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. Alla Renee Bozarth was one of these women. She wrote this poem:
The small plot of ground
on which you were born
cannot be expected
to stay forever
and home becomes different
You took flesh
but the clay
did not come
from just one place.
To feel alive,
important, and safe,
know your own waters
and hills, but know
You have stars in your bones
You have opposing
terrain in each eye
you belong to the land
and sky of your first cry,
you belong to infinity.
Sermon: The Journey Home
At the start of a new decade we are reminded that we move through time – indeed, life is measured by it – by the years. And it is marked by moments we remember – moments we cherish, and some we regret.
Lucille Clifton captures the essence of this in the following 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
We are running into a new year, a new decade on the calendar, and ‘the old years blow back like a wind.’ It was a difficult decade, dominated by the attack on America on September 11, 2001, followed by wars on two geographical fronts and terrorism that keeps popping its ugly head up all over the map.
Clifton’s poem is a reminder of the changes we experience within ourselves as the years pass, but it’s also about that in us which doesn’t change, or that within us which changes reluctantly: ‘it will be hard to let go of what i said to myself about myself when i was sixteen and twenty-six and thirty-six.’
When I was forty-six, in the first years of a new ministry, a member of the congregation, Jerry Davidoff, introduced me to the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, with his poem titled Ithaca. Before offering up his poem, a word about the poet:
Cavafy was born on April 29, 1863 and died on his 70th birthday, April 29, 1933, his allotted three-score and ten, on the dot!
In an autobiographical note written in midlife, before he returned to live in his native home in Greece he wrote:
“I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria—at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited (my homeland) as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece.
Ithaca, Constantine Cavafy
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road’s a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You won’t find them on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty and a fine
emotion touches your spirit.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you won’t encounter them,
unless you carry them within your soul.
Pray that the road is long.
May there be many a summer morning, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to discover new things and to learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to finally arrive at the island when you are old,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, filled with so much experience,
you will finally understand what an Ithaca means.
What does ‘an Ithaca’ mean?
Homer’s famous poem, The Odyssey, is the story of Odysseus’s journey home. It is one of the oldest stories in Western literature dated about 2,800 years ago. The metaphor of ‘life as a journey’ is one of those smooth, round stones, worn and polished by such constant use.
Homer’s story says that Odysseus was king of Ithaca; he left to fight the Trojan War and had been away from home for ten years. When the war ended he set out for home and it took him ten more years to arrive in Ithaca. The war involved some challenging battles, and on his journey home he encountered more battles, more struggles, and even when he reached his destination he disguised himself, engaged in more struggles before he could reveal his true identity and be fully ‘at home,’ again.
The story is a reminder of the spiritual struggles — the internal battles that bring us down into that place ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
It’s about the disguises we wear, even when we’re safe at home in our Ithaca; the internal struggle goes on, perhaps it never ends as long as we’re alive, as long as our mind is capable of engaging deeply with our ever-changing self, as we move from one year to the next, from one battle to the next, from one era to the next.
In another of Cavafy’s poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the narrator, with some cynicism, explores the idea that we cultivate fear of an invisible external enemy to serve internal purposes. An external enemy justifies our fear of living without a sense of purpose.
An external enemy is the glue that holds a society, group or nation together. Recently comparisons have been made between Cavafy’s poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, and the war on terror.
The Ithaca poem’s theme is about the life-long journey toward home – toward feeling at home with oneself; it’s about the internal journey as we move through the chapters in a life, with its enjoyments on the one hand, and the pain and struggle on the other.
Ithaca is a reminder of our tendency to carry things within us that prevent us from enjoying the journey – in ancient Greek mythology, the Lestrygonians were a tribe of giant cannibals, Cyclops was the giant with a single eye in the middle of his forehead, and Poseidon was the god of the seas, described as ‘an awesome, unruly, and powerful god’ who was associated with storms, earthquakes, and some other violent forces of nature.
When Poseidon got angry he would stir the sea to a fury, but he could also calm the raging waters with just a glance. He directed his fury at anyone who failed to show proper respect – any sailor will tell you that you must show proper respect to the sea.
Note: One hot, sunny day last summer (August 23) Poseidon paid a sudden visit to Old Orchard Beach; we watched from my daughter’s beach house as life guards went up and down the beach warning would-be swimmers and surfers to stay out of the water. Some failed ‘to show proper respect.’ The life guards rescued twenty two of them and failed to rescue two others.
Further up the Maine coast four other people drowned that day in Acadia National Park when a huge wave washed dozens of wave-watchers into the angry ocean.
In his Ithaca poem Cavafy says that the Lestrygonians, Cyclops and Poseidon are only encountered ‘if you are carrying them within your soul.’
“You won’t find them on your path if your thoughts remain lofty and a fine emotion touches your spirit.”
Here, of course, we’re talking about the internal journey toward home, toward an inner place of peace, toward a place of reconciliation, involving forgiveness and the ability to accept what has been and to move on to the next leg of the journey, the next year, so to speak.
The poet says that you shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to arrive at your destination: ‘better to let it last for years and to finally arrive when you are old, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way…wise as you’ll have become, filled with so much experience, you will finally understand what an Ithaca means.’
Ithaca is the inner journey, the spiritual journey each of us has to take for ourselves; it has to do with self-acceptance, it has to do with forgiveness, it has to do with storms – the trials and tribulations of life, the detours – the loss of loved ones, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of youth, the loss of faith, and so forth.
This week there was a television program called A Girl’s Life, about adolescent girls growing up in this new century.
Researcher and author Rachel Simmons interviews girls in middle school and talks to their parents, teachers and social workers: she wants to help young women negotiate the journey, the challenges they face during the adolescent years in 21st century America.
It’s part of the ‘journey to Ithaca,’ to get to the place where a girl becomes a woman and feels ‘at home’ with herself, with her body, with her relationships, with the changes the years have brought and will bring.
Simmons says that 50% of adolescent girls don’t like their bodies, and nearly 100% think there’s something wrong with them, physically.
She says, “Almost every girl I know things there is something wrong with their body.”
She talks about the incidence of depression among adolescent girls, and the competition and anger – the increase in physical violence and assault on one another.
This is ‘what an Ithaca means:’ the long, difficult, challenging struggle to feel ‘at home’ with oneself and with one’s family of origin, and peers. Adolescence is an Ithaca.
In a way, the struggle never ends. Whitman says, “Now understand me well, it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success comes forth something to make greater struggle necessary.”
The spiritual reward is an increasing maturity of the soul, which, from a religious point of view, is all we can ask. Tennyson’s version of the Odyssey is summarized in a passage from his poem Ulysses, Latin for the Greek Odysseus:
Old age had yet its honor and his toil
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note may yet be done
Not unbecoming men that strive with Gods…
Come my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a new world
…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die…
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now the strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson
Now we’re running into a new year – or, if not running, a better way to describe it that we’re walking carefully, especially with all the ice and snow under foot.
‘May there be many a morning when, with joy, we enter ports or places seen for the first time, or what feels like the first time, seeing with our new, more mature eyes.’
We’re headed for the same place, ultimately: that’s the basic affirmation of our Universalist faith – whatever rewards and punishments there are, we’re experiencing them now, along the way on our journey to Ithaca.
The poet Pablo Neruda captures the essence of our Universalist faith in a passage from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1971. He said:
“I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature. And no less strongly I think that all this is sustained… by an ever-wider sense of community, by an effort which will forever bring together the reality and the dreams in us because it is precisely in this way that poetry unites and mingles them….
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song – but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”
‘The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops, the angry Poseidon, do not fear them: you won’t find them on your path, if your thoughts remain lofty and a fine emotion touches your spirit…you won’t encounter them unless you carry them in your soul.’
Take your time: ‘connections are made slowly,’ as Marge Piercy reminds us. And little by little we see that all things are connected in this intricate web of existence…we are connected to all things…we are connected to one another. We are part of the One-ness our ancestors referred to as God.
‘Live as if you like yourself, and it may happen!’ The ultimate journey is the journey toward home — Home: an inner sense of belonging; of connectedness; acceptance of oneself, in spite of flaws or mistakes, faults and failures…real or imagined. Home: that’s what an Ithaca means!
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. We must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our own sorrowful song – but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”