Joseph Campbell told a story about a time he was in Japan for an international conference on religion. He overheard another American delegate, a social philosopher from New York, say to a Shinto priest, “We’ve been now to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a few of your shrines. But I don’t get your theology. I don’t get your ideology.”
The Japanese paused as though in deep thought and then slowly shook his head. “I think we don’t have ideology. We don’t have theology. We dance.”
We Unitarian Universalists do not have a religious ideology or a particular theology, but we have poetry that inspires, we have the ancient mythologies in which we can find ourselves, and we dance with science and through these windows we watch the seasons changing delighting in the natural world around us and in us.
Keep this in mind as we sing hymn #52, ‘In Sweet Fields of Autumn.’
Pre-Responsive Reading #583, by Archibald MacLeish
I chose this responsive reading from Archibald MacLeish because of the attack upon the American ship, USS Cole.
You may know that Archibald MacLeish, among other things, was an active Unitarian layperson.
He served in WW I… he rose to the rank of captain in the artillery. He knew a lot about ‘young dead soldiers.’
As a poet he was influenced by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot but he turned away from so-called ‘scholastic poetry’ because he believed it was too far removed from the pressing social concerns of the day.
We share his tribute in honor of those who died on October 12 in service to our country, and by extension to all those who gave their lives to preserve the freedom and prosperity we cherish.
THE YOUNG DEAD SOLDIERS
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say.
They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us
Meditation and Prayer
The silence reminds us that we do not need an ideology or a theology which comes from outside of ourselves… but when we sit still we get in touch with that in us from which all the theologies have come… that deep place, that sacred place.
It’s the well-spring of compassion Jesus drew from to tell parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son; it’s the place Moses went to hear the voice of God in the poem about the burning bush… it’s the place Mohamed went to create the Koran… it’s the tree under which the Buddha sat… the source of all religion, all poetry… the source of human compassion which we want to nurture and which we acknowledge we need to nurture if it is to grow and mature in us, individually and as a community.
As we dig deep into that place we feel a sense of thanks for the gift of life… a sense of appreciation for the opportunity to give something back to those who have given to us… or to others, passing on the best that was passed to us.
We remember those who are suffering and struggling, some among us and some far away… the families of men and women killed on the USS Cole… the families of those killed in the violence in the Mid-East… the victims of prejudice who suffer because of their race or gender or sexual orientation…
As we reach down deep, touching that place where the human spirit resides, may the old wounds be healed and may renewed courage come forth so we can face whatever is in store for us in all the day.
What Makes Life Significant?
Reading: “What Makes Life Significant”
by William James, 1842 – 1910
Introduction to the reading:
William James was perhaps America’s foremost psychologist. He was a physician, earning his degree in medicine after a degree in fine art. He was a philosopher and contributed a great deal to theology.
William James was the godson of Ralph Waldo Emerson; he was an admirer and interpreter of Walt Whitman; a friend of Mark Twain. He admired the works of Dostoyevsky, George Bernard Shaw and he is credited with having had a significant influence on Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and Bill W, co-founder of AA, to name a few.
The list of people who give credit to William James include the likes of Carl Jung, Victor Frankl and Carl Rogers.
James wrote the following ‘Dear Friends letter’ 100 years ago.
A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the border of Chautauqua Lake. It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale. Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out and equipped with means for satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man.
You have a first rate college in full blast. You have magnificent music. You have every sort of athletic exercise. You have kindergartens and model secondary schools. You have general religious services. You have perpetually running water fountains, and daily popular lectures by distinguished speakers. You have the best of company, and yet no effort. You have no diseases, no poverty, no drunkenness, no crime, no police. You have culture, you have kindness, you have equality, you have the best fruits of what mankind has striven for under the name of civilization for centuries. You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be.
I went in curiosity for a day. I stayed for a week, held spell-bound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear.
And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: ‘Ouf! What a relief! This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings.’
Such was the sudden about-face performed for me by my lawless fancy! There had been spread before me the realization—on a small scale—of all the ideals for which our civilization has been striving: security, intelligence, humanity, and order; and here was this instinctive hostile reaction on the part of a so-called civilized man upon such a Utopia.
I asked myself what the thing was that was so lacking in this Sabbatical city, and the lack of which kept one forever falling short of the higher sort of contentment. And I soon recognized that it was the element that gives to the wicked outer world all its moral style, expressiveness and picturesqueness—the element of precipitousness, so to call it, of strength and strenuousness, intensity and danger. In this Chautauqua there was no potentiality of death in sight anywhere, and no point of the compass visible from which danger might possibly appear. The ideal was so completely victorious already that no sign of any previous battle remained, the place just resting on its oars.
But what our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another more rare and arduous still—this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us, and the reality of which it seems to be the function of all the higher forms of literature and fine art to suggest. At Chautauqua there were no racks, and no sweat, except possibly the gentle moisture on the brow of some lecturer or on some player on the ball-field.
Such absence of human nature in extremis anywhere seemed, then, a sufficient explanation for Chautauqua’s flatness and lack of zest.
I first visited ‘the famous assembly grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake’ six years ago. I was taken there by Lory and her family for whom it had become a favorite place. As James said, a ‘serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale.’
William James’s wonderful reflection and psychological analysis helped me to understand my own initial response to the place—to the people and the setting. In spite of all the comfort around me I was uncomfortable. Something seemed wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. James’s reflection helped me to understand not only my initial response to Chautauqua, but my response to life, and what makes life significant, at least for me.
During that first visit I didn’t want to stick a pin in Lory’s appreciation and enthusiasm for the place, and I certainly didn’t want to distance myself from her family, who I was just getting to know, by admitting my discomfort. But Lory, being a therapist and a sensitive and forthright person, could tell that something was wrong. So we talked about it. We dug into it.
I am indebted to William James, not only for this essay, but for much else. When I was in seminary I read his wonderful book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. I was majoring in the psychology of religion, and his book was the classic text those of us in this field.
In this little piece, which I referred to as a ‘Dear Friends’ letter, James is talking about his own experience at Chautauqua, and, by using it as a reference point, he’s talking about his own experience of life—of being and becoming a person. His reflections helped me to understand mine, which is always the point, I hope, to my Dear Friends letters, sermons and other verbal efforts.
I had attributed my initial response to Chautauqua the way I had often analyzed my responses to things and people. I thought to myself, and said to Lory, “This is obviously a gathering of upper middle class people and I’ve always thought of myself, with a mixture of pride and humility, as part of those with a working class background, and not part of the so-called middle class.”
Lory has helped me to deal with that because it has a negative side to it; it brings out my defenses which cause me to feel like the outsider…and glad of it! Does that make sense?
As a practicing psychotherapist Lory had to deal with the HMO requirement to do short-term therapy. Do you remember the cartoon of the therapist practicing short-term therapy? The client comes in for the first session, lays out the problem and the therapist walks over and slaps the client in the face and says, “Snap out of it!”
That’s basically what Lory did with me, metaphorically, at least.
I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy Chautauqua. We spent a week there last summer and I’m scheduled to do that again next summer, having signed on with the Unitarian group there to do the service on July 8 and spend the week in minister’s housing. Minister’s housing is fine, actually; it’s affordable. People who have been going to Chautauqua for a long time complain about the high cost of staying there now.
But William James wasn’t talking about that. He was certainly part of the elite Boston upper crust. What was it, then, that made him uncomfortable.
“…to my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: ‘Ouf! What a relief! This order is too tame…this goodness to uninspiring. Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings.”
When James asked himself what had been lacking in that ‘sabbatical city,’ and why it didn’t bring contentment, he said it lacked ‘strength and strenuousness, intensity and danger we seek and need in life.’
What our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another more rare and arduous still — this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us, and the reality of which it seems to be the function of all the higher forms of literature and fine art to suggest.
That explanation hits home. He snapped me out of it; he took away the feeling that the other people there are somehow above me—or think they are. This is something with which I had to struggle when I moved to Westport 17 years ago; something with which I had to struggle when I began teaching in Wellesley 38 years ago.
Now I understand myself a little bit better.
So I’m a little more liberated—freed from old, limiting ideas that impose themselves and deprive me of being in the moment, in the place where I am, in the way I want to be.
He helped me to understand why I resonate to those lines in Whitman’s poem, Song of the Open Road, where he says:
Now understand me well, it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, comes forth something to make greater struggle necessary.
“Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another more rare and arduous still—this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us…”
That’s why we admire the athletes who compete in the Olympics.
“Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost … inspires us…”
That’s why we appreciate the World Series, the Superbowl.
That’s why we have a special feeling for the underdog who has to overcome some big obstacle—an illness, an injury, a handicap…the gymnast who completed her routine with a sprained ankle four years ago.
We’re inspired by the struggle.
We have to be careful in this regard. We can create more struggle in life than we need to. It’s easier to see the other guy doing just that than it is to realize we, too, may be doing it to ourselves. The struggle can be seductive!
I got a letter from a young woman this week who was concerned that our service last Sunday didn’t focus on the problems in the Middle East and the loss of life on the USS cole. We exchanged some thoughtful Emails.
I was at the service where you spoke of the dump in Mexico City, about the suffering and pain those people were dealing with every day. I remember driving away in my brand new car, to my brand new house, with my three healthy children and thinking ‘what have I done to deserve such a wonderful life?’ I remember feeling ashamed for not having the courage to ever face that kind of adversity, for staying in my bubble, afraid to venture out, afraid of what is out there, afraid of really having to feel other peoples’ torment and suffering. This is the reason I felt so anguished by those photos (of the Palestinian boy with his father being shot). I was forced to see what is outside my bubble and it forced me to think that I can no longer stay here. My letter to you was to help me understand and to not be so afraid.
Isn’t this what William James was saying?
What makes life significant is the struggle.
What makes life significant, or meaningful, is our engagement in that struggle, our sense of involvement, our ability to look life squarely in the eye and to feel the suffering that so many have endured and are enduring now.
The significant or meaningful life requires courage; we are forced to let go of innocence the way Adam and Eve are said to have lost their innocence by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Ignorance is bliss.
Those photographs blast through the bliss and send us crashing to the depths. And guess what? Something clicks into gear down there ‘where the spirit meets the bone!’
In our suffering we become aware of the compassion that makes us human; a compassion which compensates for the loss of innocence.
What would we be without that sense of compassion?
I choose to think of this ingredient as God’s presence, way down there…down where the spirit meets the bone.
Yes, it’s painful. But it’s real. It’s life. It’s alive!
We have to balance our sense of responsibility with a deep sense of appreciation. It’s okay to feel good about the new car, the house, the healthy kids, the money. It’s more than okay, it’s essential.
Those two things make life significant: a deep, genuine sense of appreciation, and a deep, genuine sense of compassion.
I like Carl Jung’s response to William James’s question. Jung wrote:
The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me. Or conversely, I myself am a question which is addressed to the world, and I must communicate my answer for otherwise I am dependent on the world’s answer. That is a supernatural life task, which I only accomplish with effort and with dignity.
May we learn to help one another, as our affirmation says, by seeking the truth in love. That is a great covenant. Not that we ever reach it perfectly, but we have something to strive for, something which guides and inspires us along the way.
This is why we are here, in this place.
This is why we are here, in this life; to bring significance, to make meaning.
Again, Whitman said it well:
Comerado, I give you my hand, I give you my love, more precious than money. I give you myself, before preaching or law, will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?