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Leap Day, 2016

Dates often have significance for me, and some dates more than others.  But seeing Elise Swearingen’s (former  All Souler, and daughter of Lon Swearingen) charming video for Providence, RI on the topic of what are you going to do on Leap Day, triggered a lot.  First – check out the video:

It was four years ago today that I resigned my membership at All Souls, something spoken of elsewhere on this blog site.  In the interest of dramatic use of serendipity, I chose Leap Day 2012 to take my leave, or to take my leap of faith in a new direction.  I didn’t land in my new and current religious home until 1 April 2012 (it was a long leap, but I wanted to land just right, with solemnity and silliness in equal measure).

While I contemplated my leap, during the leap, and even after landing (though I continue to bounce), I have periodically posted in this space, named All-Soulo to honor All-Souls, to keep in mind an existential loneliness I find ever-present, to highlight a sense of exile, and to call to mind the Feast of All Souls (2 November) in the Catholic calendar, a day to remember the oft-forgotten souls, the broken souls who have not yet made it into the presence of God (whatever that might mean), as opposed to All Saints Day (1 November) a day of celebration for those who have so made it.  As a kid, I put a lot more time and thought into All Souls Day — the saints didn’t need my help, or my attention, but lost souls, well — maybe my attention and thoughts might have some effect there.

And now, at SMUUCh, I am part of the Ministerial Search Committee.  At SMUUCh, we have leapt from settled minister to interim, and we look forward to making that leap forward from interim to new settled minister.  So this leap day has some significance all its own.

But, in leaping forward, I always look back, and the ghosts of my past are never far away. I often reflect on William Faulkner’s line (at least it was attributed to him) that “the past is never  dead.  It’s not even past.” (from Requiem for a Nun).  For Faulkner, that line largely referred to the troubled history of the South (and this nation) and how old issues linger on.  I love the line.  At times I share its melancholy, but in its beautiful play of language, I see an opening for better times and a more joyous and useful embrace of the past as we move ahead.  Like Lot’s wife, I find myself looking back, but I like to think that I (and we) can find better use for that salt, to season our lives, to preserve our cherished memories, and to sow into those fetid fields of bitterness that too often flourish and to check them.

As I’ve jumped from one side of the state line to the other to be in community, I sometimes notice that the very superpower of leaping — before he could fly, Superman could “leap tall buildings in a single bound” — which power appears to make mockery of boundaries and borders and barriers, doesn’t last.  I’m thinking of those big fat bullfrogs now — you can tell that they can leap, some quite far, but most of the time, they’re just chillin’ on a lily pad and seem more immovable.  And in that restful state, just chillin’ on my lily pad, boy do those borders and barriers become hightened and highlighted.  And I think — crossing the state line or crossing some other boundary just seems too much work, and I croak out a ribbet and just sigh.  But I then dream and remember, to paraphrase a favorite song about footwear, that “these legs are made for leapin’ and that’s just what they’ll do…” Having leapt away does not mean I can’t leap back for a visit — I have made such hops, and will so hop again.  Borders can be a good thing, and people with a poor sense of boundaries are often unsafe.  But when borders turn to barriers and barricades, well, the leaper in me won’t stand for that — one way or another, I believe, we shall overcome, or and least come over, by leaps and bounds as we are able.  So, I hope you’ll jump over for a visit from time to time.  During this time of search, I’m afraid I have not been at SMUUCh much.  And so, though you are all always and, I hope, in all ways, are welcome at SMUUCh, I’m likely to miss you if you visit before May.But, if you come after May, if all goes as we hope in the search, you will come into a place always welcoming, but energized and reinvigorated in joyful anticipation — oh, it will be a hoppin’ place. Even in the off-chance of a failed search, hop over.  In that case, you will find a place more subdued, but still welcoming. I shall be glad, in either case, to see you again.

I know that the previous sentence had the sound of a coda, but nowadays in movies, it is common to have teasers to possible sequels, so consider the following just such a teaser, a reward to those who stayed through the credits.   This teaser will have the form of a prayer — some of you have heard me say I’m not a praying man, and so are probably thinking Huh??? —  I can only say, it’s leap year, so and prayer feels right for a leap of faith.

The covenant we speak at SMUUCh, and which the church entire (so far as I can tell) loves and cherishes deeply, concludes with the words “so that all souls may grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with one another.”  The first time I heard, and saw, and spoke those words I saw All Souls and it caused some cognitive dissonance within — for I had left All Souls, and divine is a word that causes some there discomfort. But my connexion to all souls predated my signing the book at All Souls, and it survives my transferring membership across the state line.  And every time I speak that covenant, which has taken on the tone and timbre of a plainsong chant for me, I see and hear, and feel both all souls and All Souls.  In that moment, I am mindful of the world beyond, of all in need, of my part in a greater whole, and of friends and family at 4501 Walnut, all at once.  That’s a long prelude to a shorter prayer (feel free to replace prayer with hope, dream, vision, open-ended promise):

May the coming years remind us that the lines on a map need not confine us, need not separate us, one from the other.  May the coming years recall us to our common humanity, and may it remind us of our uncommon specialness, that definitions are always imperfect, and that there is a porous quality to that which separates us.  May the coming years, on this holy Leap Day, remind us we are more than our labels, and we can all leap to transcend our often self-imposed limits, leap to the defense of those in distress, leap to drumbeats of our hearts.  Finally, let us remember that Unitarian Universalism is a movement more than an institution.  What say you, All Souls and SMUUCh?  Shall we leap together into the future?  I, for one, hop so.



I(,) Sa(a)crifice(d) — my sermon at Shawnee Mission UU Church, 3 January 2016

The Aqedah (“the Binding”) of Isaac is one of the most difficult and troubling passages in the Hebrew Bible.  In it, God appears to demand that a father sacrifice his son, and that father and that son offer up no word of protest.  It is the passage’s difficulty that appeals to me.  Along with the Book of Job and the Book of Jonah, this story serves as something of a koan, a “riddle” that admits no easy answer. I’ve heard some dismiss the story as a sign, not of anything divine, but rather something demonic, the very thing the Epicurean poet, Lucretius, condemns in his On the Nature of Things, as the very sort of craziness that religious fundamentalism leads to.  One can read it as a story of “blind obedience,” as some scholars, including Soren Kierkegaard, do; today, though, we know only too well the terrible results of blind obedience, especially in the days of terror bombings and mass shootings for a “higher cause.” But must that be the story’s point, or could it be something else?

The Midrash, the rabbinic commentary on the Torah, discusses this story again and again; in difficult times, Jews have turned to this passage and seen, in the rescue of Isaac, a God who would see them through difficult times; Zionists of the 1920s saw themselves as Isaac, willing to die that a Jewish state might live;  some Christians see Abraham and Isaac as prefiguring the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; artists have painted and sculpted images from the story from the Renaissance to the present day; philosophers ranging from Soren Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Charles Schulz have put their two cents in; musicians from Igor Stravinsky to Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen have set this story to song.  I found at least half a dozen sermons done by Unitarian-Universalist ministers on the story, and the story gets extensive treatment in the UUA curriculum, Tapestry of Faith, where participants act out the story and have a chance to ask Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and even God questions. There’s a poem by an Israeli poet which looks at the story from the ram’s perspective – the ram is the one who “saves the day.”  And, at the level of the ridiculous, there is even a video game called The Binding of Isaac, in which players try to keep Isaac away from his crazy mother, who’s trying to kill him.

My own history with the story goes back to 1967 when I first heard the story, retold by my sixth-grade teacher, Sr. Paschal (that’s right, her nun name was that of the Paschal, or sacrificial, lamb), a woman for whom the story may have had deep significance.   In high school, I first heard Leonard Cohen’s song, a song which has stayed with me all these years.

I am now doing this service, though, to honor a pledge.  In the first year of her interim ministry at All Souls Church across the state line, Rev. Lee Devoe instituted a Worship Associate program.  At the initial meeting of the Worship Associates, Rev. Devoe tossed out ideas for services she’d like to do to see who wished to help.  The others showed no interest in the biblical stuff.  When she mentioned the Binding of Isaac, I alone had my hand in the air.  Of that first meeting with Lee Devoe, it is that moment I most remember.  I was really looking forward to working with her on that service.

Of course, the “troubles” soon arose.  A vocal minority was convinced that Rev. Devoe’s challenging interim would destroy the church.  Rev. Devoe never mentioned Isaac again, and, in the circumstances, I saw no way to resurrect the idea.  When her second year of interim began, the troubles only intensified and her ability to be an effective interim waned.  Finally, she was dismissed by a bare majority of a splintered board, and left the area for the Northeast where she had been a successful interim.  I didn’t keep up a correspondence.  Immediately after her departure, it would have been wrong, and, as time passed, my hopes of striking up an epistolary dialog on Abraham and Isaac passed too.  When Rev. Devoe died of cancer a couple of years ago, I knew I had blown my chance of any such dialog, but I still felt a need to honor my pledge and wrestle with the story alone.

In doing my own study, I found that I could not disentangle the story from my own story.  At different points in my own life, I’ve been the various figures in this story.  Like Isaac, I found myself on the block, a victim to some bully or other, afraid, but unable to effect a way out of my sacrificial state;  like Abraham, I’ve been willing to sacrifice others – not physically, but emotionally, to placate an angry god within.  I’ve even been the ram, willing to take a hit for the team.  Like that Israeli poet, I too see the ram as heroic. In Kansas City, some five to six years ago, I was the servant on the side.  During the “troubles,” I had friends on both sides of the dispute, and chose to remain neutral, just as the servants who say nothing when Abraham and Isaac leave together without a lamb, and when Abraham returns alone, without Isaac.

What I have said to this point may seem critical, but I don’t want to leave that impression.  Let me state clearly that I believe that sacrifice is sometimes called for.  I cannot help but think that the sacrifice of men and women in World War II was necessary, that the loss of life in the Civil War was terrible, and necessary.  And when victims of oppression or violence fight their way out of abusive situations, it can also be terrible, but necessary.

That said, I believe that any sacrifice, especially a sacrifice of another, comes at a cost.  The most moving line I recall reading in preparing for this service came from Barbara Cohen’s children’s book, The Binding of Isaac.  In that book, Isaac, late in life, recalls that awful day to his grandchildren, the sons and daughters of Jacob.  When Isaac gets choked up as he remembers that horrific moment where he nearly died under the knife, one grandson, Joseph, reminds his grandfather that he didn’t die.  Isaac, in reply, says, “You’re right.  I didn’t die.  But something died on that mountain.”  It is clear in Cohen’s telling that the “something” Isaac refers to is not the ram.  It’s the love between father and son, and perhaps the love between wife and husband.  Whatever Abraham’s motivation, the action he almost took must have seemed a betrayal to Isaac and Sarah.

So what meaning might this story have for UUs, and for us here?  Well, I would agree with Elie Wiesel, who sees Abraham’s not slaying his son as the central point.  It is that which makes him a hero, and which makes him a figure worthy of respect in Judaism.  Wiesel suggests that, had Abraham killed Isaac, he might still have been the patriarch of a people, but it would not have been the Jewish people.  Wiesel notes that Jews do not die for God, they live for God, and, in this scene, which Wiesel reads as Abraham faking God out – by preparing this act, by taking the action all the way (or almost all the way), he gets a concession from God that God will never make such a demand on his people again, and, when they mess up, as they will, he will be forbearing, and forgiving.

For Wiesel, this reading makes the most sense, for he knows Abraham.  Abraham is a man who left his own people for God; he is a man who saw his own responsibility to call God out when God wanted to destroy the city of Sodom.  For those who don’t know the story, God was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because they were so sinful.  Abraham argued with God, winning concessions from God, that he would spare Sodom if only a few good people might be found.  A man willing to argue with God to save a city of sinners, Wiesel reasons, surely was not willing to kill an innocent, especially when the death of Isaac runs counter to God’s own promises to Abraham.  Abraham doesn’t argue openly with God here, but he would not slay his son.  Unitarian-Universalist minister, Ana Levy-Lyons, sees in the story the ever-present possibility of transformation.  Sacrificing a first-born son likely was part of many cultures in the Middle East, including those in Canaan; in giving up something beloved, even adored, these cultures demonstrated faith in God, gods, the universe, to provide.  And Abraham was ready to do as others had, but, then, something happened, and Abraham found a new way.  The story says it was a voice Abraham heard; some scholars suggest it was Isaac’s voice, which Abraham heard as angelic commands, breaking through. Unitarian-Universalist minister, Mary Ganz, attributes this breakthrough to Abraham seeing, really seeing, his son, and then dropping the knife.

And here, I’d like to return to All Souls.  One of the first stories I heard about All Souls was about how Westboro Baptist Church (you know, Fred Phelps’ ecclesiastical gang) used to come and protest outside All Souls on a regular basis.  It happened so frequently that members of the church would come out, especially on a cold day, with hot coffee for the protestors.  I love that story, and, it was probably that story, as much as anything, that made me fall in love with the church.  Radical hospitality shown to those spewing bile won me over.  For me, it was Abraham arguing with God over Sodom.  Abraham didn’t endorse Sodom, but he wasn’t willing to give up on those people, either.  Nor did All Souls endorse the hate platform of Westboro Baptist, but instead of getting into a fruitless shouting match, they extended hospitality, and helped to defuse a potentially volatile situation.  They looked past the hateful placards and slogans and saw the people beyond.  Equally important, they let those people know they had been seen.

With Lee Devoe, I think some at the church forgot that insight.  The angry few saw Rev. Devoe as a threat, and felt fine about sacrificing her, and the many fellow members who left their company in the wake of that incident, all to protect the status quo.  But some of those who participated in this sacrifice were the same who had acted so marvelously with Westboro.  In this instance, Isaac got no reprieve.

In the story of the Binding, what is it that makes Abraham turn his hand?  The story makes it clear that it is the voice of an angel who stops him, a voice that has to speak out twice.  But I like to think, as Mary Ganz suggests, that it is that Abraham really seeing his son before him that does the trick, enabling a way for the transformative power of love to work its miracle. And I like to think, as Elie Wiesel does, that it is not Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son that makes him a hero, but that he does not carry out that awful task.

Even though Abraham stopped, harm was done.  Isaac and Abraham never again spoke to each other.  Sarah dies in the very next chapter.  And Abraham never again hears God’s voice.  None of us will be engaged in human sacrifice, but I think we all face this trial in our lives, where a system clouds our beloved from our sight.  But we can do the following: pledge to see each other and look out for each other; pledge to let our voice be heard; pledge to listen to each other as we learn and teach; let us unclench our fists of fear and hate and extend an open hand and an open heart to our brothers and sisters. And when we mess up, let us do what Jews do every year in the Days of Awe, recall this story – admit our failings, ask forgiveness, and begin together again in love.


Allen, Woody. “On Abraham and Knowing the Voice of the Lord.” Allen, Woody. Without Feathers. New York: Random House, 1975. 26-27. Print.

Artson, Bradley Shavit. Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Rflections on the Trial of Abraham, the Binding of Isaac. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2013. Print.

Baez, Joan. “Isaac and Abraham.” By Joan Baez, Wally Wilson and Kenny Greenberg.Play Me Backwards. New York, 1992. Compact Disc.

Berman, Louis A. The Akedah: the Binding of Isaac. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1997. Print.

Bryce, David M. “Forgiving the Unforgiveable.” 23 September 2102. First Church of Belmont (MA), Unitarian-Universalist. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <;.

Cohen, Barbara and Charles Mikolaycak. The Binding of Isaac. New York: Harper Collins, 1978. Print.

Cohen, Leonard. “The Story of Isaac.” Songs from a Room. By Leonard Cohen. Nashville, 1969. Compact Disc.

Dittmar, Sharon. “The Binding of Isaac.” 24 September 2006. First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, OH. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <;.

Dylan, Bob. “Highway 61 Revisited.” Highway 61 Revisited. By Bob Dylan. New York, 1965. Compact Disc.

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. New York: Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Ganz, Mary McKinnon. “Awakening to the Meaning of Suffering.” 4 January 2009. Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <;.

Goodman, James E. But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac. NY: Schocken, 2013. Print.

Kirkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Walter Lowrie. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Lerner, Elizabeth. “Hineini: Called to Be More.” 14 September 2008. Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Springs. Sermon. 01 December 2015. <;.

Levy-Lyons, Ana. “God, the Outlaw.” 9 June 2013. First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <;.

Moyers, Bill, et al. “The Test.” Genesis: a Living Conversation. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1996. DVD.

Sacks, Jonathan. Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2015. Print.

Sifonietta, London and Oliver Knussen. “Abraham and Isaac.” Stravinsky: the Flood. By Igor Stravinsky. London, 1995. Compact Disc.

Wiesel, Elie. “The Binding of Isaac.” Great Figures of the Bible: Legends and Legacies of our Biblical Heroes. New York: Sisu Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.








On the 23rd Anniversary of my “signing the book”

It was on a cloudy 12 December 1992 that I joined Rev. Nicholas Cardell, Jr. of May Memorial Unitarian Society of Syracuse in his office to “sign the book” of membership.  We were joined by his wife, who served as witness.  I chose the day, 12 December, because it was the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  When I do anything significant in my life, I like to choose a date that has some significance, if I have the choice.  I did not have a choice in my Christening date, nor on the date of my First Holy Communion (and First Confession), nor of my Confirmation (you only get one, hence no “first”).  Those dates were chosen for me (by my parents in the first case, and by St. Peter’s Parish, Dorchester, MA, in the second case, and by St. Peter’s and the Archdiocese of Boston in the last case).  When I got married, I had some say, but not a decisive say — my fiancee had some say (a lot of say) as did the church in Erie (first wedding) and in Kansas City (second wedding) as well as when the reception hall was available.

When I signed the book, something I’ve done 3 times — first, on 12 December 1992, at May Memorial, next on the Sunday closest to All Souls Day 1994 at All Souls’ Church in Kansas City, and most recently on 1 April 2012 at Shawnee Mission UU Church, now of Lenexa, KS.  My choice of the final date might seem as if I didn’t take religion or UUism seriously.  That perception would be false.  I take foolishness seriously.  I think that humor allows us, without benefit of pharmaceutical aids, to get to truths that would ordinarily elude us in our rational day-to-day life.  And I think that “playing the fool” is a liberating experience, something people look for in religion, and in gentle mockery, the all-powerful ego can be tricked, ever so briefly, into letting the guard down, and, for a moment playing along.

In choosing the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I was doing (or so I thought) three things.  One, I was connecting with my Catholic upbringing, which is never too far from my own religious path.  If I walk a Unitarian path, that path, for me, is illumined by Celtic spirituality and sensibility, with a Catholic flavor.  Two, for all my rationality, I am a sucker for miracles and revelation, especially those which point to a generous world of wonder.  In the story of Juan Diego, the poor Mexican native, who had a vision of what he imagined to be Mary on a hillside in Mexico.  The Catholic authorities were skeptical — after all, he was a poor native, someone who lacked the schooling of the Spanish clergy and civil authorities, to whom such visions should come.  When asked to provide proof, Juan Diego had no idea what to do.  After all, who was he to ask the celestial lady for proof?  But the lady complied — the proof was roses, roses in the wintertime.  Had I but known the hymn “Come, sing a song with me” at the time.  This story, in which the “least” are given a special power of vision, moves me a lot.  I am wont to tell people that “I live for revelation.”  And, in my life, I’ve had plenty of revelation, and witnessed plenty of miracles (nothing that contravenes the laws of physics). Three, this particular day serves as Valentine’s Day for Latinos (esp. those of Mexican descent), in which one gives a rose (red) to one’s beloved.  There is a line in Joni Mitchell’s song, “Clouds,” in which she hails the spirit that moves one “to say ‘I love you’ right out loud.” Of course, she later pooh poohs that spirit, but I’ve known that spirit, as has Mitchell, and I could think of no better day to say “I love you (or UU)” right out loud than 12 December as the day to “sign the book” for the first time.  You only get one “first time.”  And I wanted to do it right.

So to all who may be reading this post — Happy Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!  Get yourself a rose (or two) to celebrate.  And think of the miraculous in your own life.  And as you do, I hope that finding wonder there, it helps make your day.


Lent, Day 28: A Reflection on Language and Grace

This morning I found myself watching some documentary in which Shakespeare and especially Shakespeare’s History Plays were being considered.  As I watched, I was aware, as I always am, in reading or hearing Shakespeare, just how masterful Shakespeare’s use of language is.  But Shakespeare is not just some huckster, pushing a particular idea or view by casting it into beautiful language.  He is a philosopher of language.  He takes words and uses them in new ways (the example I always record is “But me no buts” from Hamlet, where he takes a conjunction, “but,” and uses it as a verb — but he does this all the time using verbs as nouns, nouns as verbs and the like).  In doing that, not only does he show himself a master of language, but shows, in his play, the very malleability of language.  In beautiful and poetic language, he demonstrates that language is not fixed, as we can always use it in new and creative ways, and because language cannot be nailed down, it cannot “define” any eternal verities.

And the fact of the changeability of language is a cause of wonder for me.  I’m just amazed whenever anyone uses language in some creative way, playing with language to suggest new possibilities.

For me, this masterful use of language by someone like Shakespeare (or Bernard of Clairvaux, a man who was considered a master of Latin style in his day, whence his nickname, Doctor Mellifluus. — the mellifluous or honey-tongued doctor) is maybe even more significant in that I think there is little we can “know” outside the realm of language.  There is a truth beyond language — certainly the truths of ecstasy and of agony, where we are reduced to a series of interjections, are something beyond language.  But the world we know we know and express through language, and language tends to color the world we see.  In his book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum describes the wonderful green color of the emerald city, but that color is entirely due to the spectacles given to those who enter the city.  It is the green glass of the spectacles that make the Emerald City green, not the city itself.  I think language can have that effect as well.  For Bernard of Clairvaux, much of physical desire is cast in terms of sin, so that, instead of experiencing sexual pleasure, or the pleasures of the palate, Bernard is likely to condemn them as leading one astray.  It is language, with its binary nature, that leads Bernard and other Catholic writers of late antiquity and the Middle Ages to equate the mind and soul with the good, and the body with the base or bad, and so asceticism is good, but sexual or other pleasures are bad (suspicious at least).

But when poets are at their best, and Shakespeare is a poet at his best, language becomes a way to celebrate language itself, and by playing with it, demonstrate both its limitations and suggest something more than the words alone can say.  Shakespeare’s history plays are a good example of his use of language and how he uses language to suggest something else, something more.  They are largely based on Hollinshed’s Chronicles, and in some cases — the scene between the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry over the legal justification for his war with France — Shakespeare lifts whole lines and passages from Hollinshed, but in others, he takes great liberties to comment on the historical record as well as open up broader issues (what makes a ruler?  the ability to command (Henry IV and Henry V have that), or divine right of kings (which Richard II has on his side, despite his poor qualifications as a ruler);  what does it mean to be a good man or a good son?).

In his very use of language, Shakespeare demonstrates a kind of grace — his verbal dexterity can entrance us.  But part of what makes it full of grace in another way is that it does not use that verbal dexterity like commercial peddlers do — to convince us to purchase a particular product (“he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me”) — but rather to raise questions, to expand the discussion and our views.  At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare has an actor, as “chorus,” come out and suggest that the author, by his words, should excite the imagination of the audience so that they can see the “vasty fields of France” in the small confines of the Globe Theatre.  And I guess that’s what I see in language, and what I want in language — something to excite passions, dreams, tears, laughs, and something to provoke thought.  And in doing so, language reflects something greater than itself, and that seems to me my path to grace.


Lent, Day 27, St. Bernard cont’d

Well, the next sections of selections from Bernard’s “Grace and Free Choice” didn’t have much for me to work with.  The chief point in these sections have to do with the fact that Free Choice is a given and cannot be lost ever.  The other two freedoms can be lost or their effect diminished by our making the wrong choices and sinning.  Bernard also emphasizes that those freedoms we have access to through grace and through the saving action of Jesus.

As a Unitarian I have trouble with the idea of savior — I don’t think there is only one way to enlightenment, or to “salvation.”  I do not believe that it is impossible for a Jewish person or one following the path of Islam or the Tao, or a Buddhist to attain enlightenment or come to something that might be called salvation.  The idea of God (or for me, the world or nature) as a backdrop always extending an invitation to us (what I see as “sanctifying grace”) must be open to all.  Otherwise it makes no sense.  For the religions we follow are often an accident of birth.  Born into a Muslim family, or Jewish family, or Buddhist family, one is likely to follow those paths.  Certainly my own Unitarianism, even as a Unitarian atheist (albeit one who likes religious metaphors which are often theist), is very much colored by my own Catholic upbringing, which makes me very sensitive to Lent, and to Lent as a time of reflection;  likewise, it leads me to look at the works of Catholic Saints, who still have a hold over me.  And the idea that one is punished for one’s upbringing seems misguided at best.

I do think that we can dull ourselves to whatever sense of joy and beauty seem to emanate from the world around us.  We can harden our hearts and look at the world as a battlefield where we must be soldiers and fight, or die.  And that would be the wrong path, but that is not an path I would want to follow.


Lent, Day 26, Digression on St. Therese of Lisieux

I just finished watching Therese: the Story of St. Therese of Lisieux (2004), dir. by Leonardo Defilipis.  It was an OK film, though I very much miss the austere beauty of the minimalist treatment of this story done in 1986 by Alan Cavalier.  That French version is quite beautiful in its simplicity, and that austere simplicity resonates with the story of Therese herself.  Therese Martin entered the Carmelite monastery at age 15, having obtained special permission to do so.  All of her sisters became nuns as well.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.  She is associated with the “little way,” a path to the holy through small matters, and small disciplines, and small favors done for others.  If Therese has one virtue that might be considered her cardinal virtue, it would be humility, which I find quite appealing.

I found myself most moved by this more recent film by the austere simplicity of the rooms in which the convent scenes were shot.  There was a Spartan plainness that I found quite appealing.  As I watched the film, I did find myself thinking of what Therese’s path seems especially aimed at — union with the divine.  We know the world, to a large extent, because our senses and the narrative into which we have grown up, presents the world beyond as an object for study.  We can even look at ourselves from the outside, or seem able to do so.  And science presents that way of approaching the world as the way of knowing.  But that way tends to wear one down.  There is another urging in our souls to become one with the world beyond, to let divisions slip away.  In my Catholic background, this is the way of mysticism.  But those moments of insight into union don’t last.  We are pulled back into thinking about our separateness, one from another, and one from the world.  And for those believing in a deity, they feel a profound separateness from the deity, and that feeling leads to a great sadness and even terror.  In this film, that feeling of separateness occurs a few time, and the actress, Lindsay Younce, did a fine job of showing the terror and crippling doubt in the young novice.

I don’t recall that feeling in the earlier film.  What I mainly recall is that Therese in the 1986 film looked on her relationship with Christ as that of a young girl and her beloved.  And I recall a scene in which she confides to another sister that, when she senses something like absence, she reflects on  how she might again attract the attention of her beloved.  That scene in the 1986 film had a sweetness about it that moves me even now, almost 30 years later (I only saw the film the one time).  I guess what moved me about that is the sense of reciprocal relation between Therese and God, or what I might see as a reciprocal relation with the world.  I am part of the world and so I affect it as it affects me.  At the same time, I find myself sometimes caught up in my own reveries and thoughts, caught up in my head, and aware only of separation (sometimes even yearning for loneliness).  But when I am in my best place, I find myself hearing the music around me, or seeing the wonder of things, and rejoicing in them;  and when things are not so rosy (times of pain or sorrow), at my best, I find myself hearing a different kind of music and taking on that pain and sorrow, as if in a dance, a slow and mournful dance, indeed.  It may be this idea of humbling taking up one’s place in the world, not looking to greatness (egoism writ large) but rather doing good for its own sake, and working together with the world.


Lent, Day 24 (Happy St. Patrick’s Day), and Bernard on Sin

The next selection from Bernard of Clairvaux’ “Grace and Free Choice” looks at sin.  It points out that the first freedom, that of choice, which is innate in us, and which is always ours, no matter the choices we make, is what led us to lose the other two freedoms, at least initially. In this, he is alluding, though he is not explicit, to the Fall, to the choice of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge.  That story, from Genesis, is always a bit troubling.  For, in a sense, the fall of Adam and Eve is the fall into language, the fall into consciousness.  Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve did not have to worry.  Everything was taken care of.  But that story is fantasy — it is looking at life as a child does.  And there is wonder in a child’s eyes, wonder that I hope never fully fades, but children don’t have responsibilities to the extent that adults do.  And, as we grow up, we have to weigh options.  We cannot simply do as we will.  One might say that we must learn how to live right.  Some would say that children know this naturally, but children are often cruel to others, as they don’t take into account other’s feelings.

Language is binary and so the world is divided, black/white male/female good/bad day/night and so on.  The reality of the world is not so easily divided into binary pairs, and we do a disservice to the complexity of the world in seeing things in black and white terms.  Seeing things that way also leads us into favoring one (male) over another (female) or one race over another, and that is wrong and hurtful.  But language also helps us get a handle on the world and to consider ideas.  It is language itself that makes it possible for St. Bernard to talk to us, even today.  And it was language that enabled Bernard to wrestle with theological ideas, to contemplate them, and to communicate them. We may use language to hurt others, but also to help and to heal.  And the beauty of language, its rhythms and sonority, is joyous.  We love Shakespeare not just for his big ideas, but for that wonderful play of language in his works.

I think that Bernard might say that my view of language and poetry has something idolatrous about it, but Bernard himself got the title of “mellifluus doctor” — the “honey-flowing doctor”  — because of his own beautiful language.  I think I may agree that we cannot save ourselves by ourselves, but we can use tools, like language, as a way of creating or invoking joy.  We can use words to create prayer, which can summon reverence and wonder into our lives.  Even if there is no personal god, it is possible to see the divine and describe it (in some limited way) through language.  And so, the language of Genesis, in which the story of the Fall is told, is itself a result of that fall.  In a sense, the fall into language and consciousness are what enable us to think big thoughts and to put them into language and share them, and play with them, and argue them.

I’m well aware of the harm that language can do.  Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can really hurt you.  The Auditor of Missouri appears to have committed suicide in part because of a vicious smearing campaign against him.  But words can also be used to do battle for the good.  We each have language we can use.  But we have to be careful about language — it’s a powerful tool, but should not be used to hurt others.  Just like anything else we may do, we have a responsibility to use our gifts responsibly.

At any rate, I choose not to bewail the fall into language and the fall into consciousness.  It is part of being human.  With it comes an awareness of mortality, and of sickness, which can be pretty scary.  But it also allows us to dream and to create and cast our own magic spells.  And these are great things, and beautiful, and wonderful, and full of grace.