A Lenten Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein
I would like to share with you a poem I often read at funerals for people who lived with a particular intensity. It is one of my favorites, by the poet May Sarton (who also lived with a particular intensity). It is called “Now, Voyager.”
Now voyager, lay here your dazzled head.
Come back to earth from air, be nourished,
Not with that light on light, but with this bread.
Here close to earth be cherished, mortal heart,
Hold your way deep as roots push rocks apart
To bring the spurt of green up from the dark.
Where music thundered let the mind be still,
Where the will triumphed let there be no will,
What light revealed, now let the dark fulfill.
Here close to earth the deeper pulse is stirred,
Here where no wings rush and no sudden bird,
But only heart-beat upon beat is heard.
Here let the fiery burden be all spilled,
The passionate voice at last be calmed and stilled
And the long yearning of the blood fulfilled.
Now voyager, come home, come home to rest,
Here on the long-lost country of earth’s breast
Lay down the fiery vision and be blest, be blest.
The poem speaks about the peace that comes with death, but also a peace that we can cultivate while we are alive. “Where music thundered, let the mind be still.”
Peace is such a beautiful idea, and such a blessed condition to be in. It is the ultimate free and universally available healing drug, and yet I often wonder if we really want it. I wonder if we feel that we can afford to strive for peace. I feel often, that we live in a state of constant vigilance, constant appraisal, constant judgment, as though our soul’s salvation lay in thinking the right thoughts all the time and having the right opinions. This is our species’ “fiery burden,” one that I am particularly mindful in this season of pre-presidential election politics and general public divisiveness. So much seems at stake, can we afford to give ourselves to peace? Is not peace, in these times, some sort of capitulation, maybe even irresponsible? If I am in a state of peace, if I do not remain on hair trigger outrage alert, the enemy will win. The world will fall apart. No one is listening. I must make my point more loudly and insistently!
I understand this instinct and have felt it, too. The problem is, it is not a healthy instinct. We can be responsible people and be at peace. We can work toward justice and be at peace. We can remain aware of the world of it is and maintain a passionate vision of the world as it ought to be, and cultivate peace, the silent center of humility and surrender of self that brings equanimity and compassionate presence. In fact, I begin to think that this is the only way the world will have a chance – if more of us recognize this fact and work to disengage ourselves from our full-time commitment to remaining in a state of argument. Always loaded for bear and ready to go. All of our fiery opinions, our thundering mind and mouths, are they contributing to the common good? “Lay down the fiery vision and be blest. Be blest.” I have come to believe that when we bond with our fellow man more over outrage than on shared loves and joys, there is a huge cost in creativity, goodness and inspiration.
These reflections are prompted by this coming Wednesday’s marking of the beginning of the season of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter where Christians are encouraged to enter into a time of introspection, with a special emphasis on penitence and the examination of one’s sinfulness. This has never been a popular exercise in the Unitarian or Universalist traditions, which makes sense. After all, as the old joke goes, the Universalists always believed that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believed they were too good for God to damn. Therefore, you will find that many Unitarian and Universalist (and now UU) congregations observed Lent as a season of devotion, writing Lenten meditation manuals to guide daily reflections.
If you grew up Catholic, you will remember Lent as a 40-day period where you gave something up. Maybe dessert, or candy, or some other luxury. I am setting a challenge for myself that will be much more difficult to give up than any exterior treat: I am going to try to give up the “fiery burden” of constant passionate opinion, or at least to notice how often I feel obligated or entitled to offer mine. How often I find common cause with friends and strangers in hating the same things. I want to try to give that up for Lent.
There is something in the created order that does not care what you or I think, and that is a good thing. I remember the words of the old poem, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” Well, all’s not right with the world. However, our constant opinionating will probably not make it more right. Pursuing peace may.
The difficult thing about questing for peace is that… it’s peace. It feels passive, like giving up. Also, it is the opposite of exciting. It is almost never entertaining. And it does not feed the ego, nor does it create a sense of shared identity and solidarity with others.
Think about how we bond over strong shared opinion, how much fun it is to argue about, for instance (and I’m just taking a few examples from my own recent life), whether Big Papi is going to be worth all the money the Sox just committed to paying him for his new contract, or whether Whitney Houston’s funeral really merited all the coverage it got, or the insanity of a Congressional hearing on contraception coverage with an all-male panel of lawmakers, or who should deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Think about how you bonded this week over the terrible service you got at the restaurant, or how ridiculous your sister-in-law is being over Junior’s peanut allergy.
Such energy in all of that, and even fun. Being cynical, being witty, earning points as sharp conversationalists – these are all ego-boosting, and many of us define who we are by exercising those critical muscles, whether privately, in our minds, or in public conversation. Even those people with gentler, less combative natures engage in constant assessment, judgment, opining: what do I think about this? Does that waitress deserve a 15% tip? Where should I take my business? Was my grandchild appropriately grateful for that gift I gave him? I would have been more grateful at his age…
Critical mind is always running.
We hardly know who we are when we are not participating in what David Cadman calls, “the restless quest to put everything in order with ‘me’ at the center.” (A Way of Being, 25) This is not something you or I choose to do because we are bad people. It is the way our culture has shifted in recent decades, as we are being trained all the time to remain anxious, to remain entitled, and to feel that we are at the center of the universe. I hope you understand why. It is because peaceful people do not make good consumers. Contented individuals are not likely to feel that they need a new car, or to wear the latest fashions, or to travel to exotic destinations, or to see the new movie Hollywood is releasing, or to vote on “American Idol” and see all those commercials. If you are tempted to be hard on yourself for being caught up in critical mind, remember that there are multi-billion dollar investments in keeping you that way.
In his recent article, “Feedback Frenzy,” (Christian Century, January 11, 2012) Thomas Long observes that “Hardly a day goes by that I am not asked to share my judgment of some product, experience or person.” Long notes that within the space of one week, he is asked to rate the airport hotel he stayed in, to review his purchases on Amazon.com, and to rate other people’s reviews as “helpful” or not. On Facebook, he is encouraged to act like a Roman emperor, he writes, giving articles and posts the imperial thumbs up or thumbs down. Long writes, “How healthy can it be to think of life not as something to be lived and savored, but as a series of episodes that I am expected – and entitled –to rate up or down?”
His words remind me of yet another poem — a phrase from one, actually. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” ( W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.” )
It is important to have convictions. We should have them, we should work to define them, we should strengthen them in religious community and we should stand for them in the world. But there is a spiritual difference, and a moral distance, between convictions and intensely felt opinion that comes from personal preference and ego investment. It is hard work to discern between the two, especially when we have elevated opinion to the level of sacrament, holding it before us as a object of veneration, as if it will save our souls, or save the world, or even in the end , even contribute anything to the common good.
Now, voyager, lay here your dazzled head. Give up. Let us give up that sound and fury signifying nothing, and let us come back to earth, to the truth of it, to the peace of it. Let us find common cause not through hating and being critical of the same things, but in sharing the bonds of peace in the unity of the spirit. Neither our children nor our communities can be fed on fire and air, but with this bread.