Posts Tagged T.S. Eliot

The Cruelest Month

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, April 8th and looks at the poetry of T.S. Eliot as it speaks to times of change in our lives.

 

We just heard a few words from T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Wasteland. The great poet, was one of ours before he wasn’t. He was raised Unitarian Christian, before he would begin to explore the world’s religions in depth, only to find his way back to Christianity in his later years. There’s a tension in his poetry that seems to return us again and again to that central reverence in life – the moment between the moments, when all else stops, and we are present to the eternal. There’s a way that in all his questing through world religions, he was striving for that eternal spirit at its core.

I first came to Eliot through religion. It was taught in religious studies, rather than English literature, at my undergrad. Going line by line through his dense allegories, required far more knowledge of folk, religion, and the classics than the common poem. And in an age before google, translating his non-english pieces took far more work than it does today. But like language and word choice, poetry sometimes takes the long way round, in order to help the hero in the story get back to the heart of their meaning. “The moment between the moments,” may reveal more meaning than telling someone to “simply pay attention.” It’s evocative, and that evocation brings us somewhere new.

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” There’s so much to his epic narrative poem, but this line is the core spiritual message we’ll reflect on today. Eliot is traveling through the Wasteland. He’s feeling tired, feeling aged, and April is reminding him of the possibility all around him, that he feels cut off from. The world has possibility; he does not. Lilacs from what has died, brings back memories of yesteryear, and fresh spring rains taunt his dull roots that ultimately won’t respond. It’s an act of cruelty from his vantage of spiritual decline. Aging becomes a condition, rather than a perspective; banality rather than wisdom. And spring’s hope feels like a thing flaunted, rather than the road forward. It’s an extreme case of being cut off from the moment between the moments; the fullness of time causes us to forget the fullness of life.

The first few stanzas become a walk through memory lane. It shouldn’t surprise me that the poet that can write these sentiments into words, would be the same poet who would pen the silly verses about cats, that would lead to the same named Broadway play. If you instantly want to evoke a sense of nostalgia, begin playing in your head the song Memory, from the musical Cats, and it might get you to where Eliot is taking us in this poem at the beginning.

I want to point out two more ideas from this poem, before I go through my own sort of memory lane, and how we can spiritually use memory, or be used by memory. The point of this poetic message isn’t in staying in the Wasteland, but in finding the key through, in the image of the Hyacinth Girl. “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; they called me the hyacinth girl. – Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden, your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer.” (empty and desolate is the sea). [The earlier german quote and this one together, are a reference to Tristan und Isolde, an 1865 opera by Richard Wagner about the ill-fated affair between the knight Tristan and the lady Isolde. The opera is based on a medieval romance that was absorbed into the Arthurian tradition. The quoted scene occurs near the beginning of the opera, with Tristan escorting the captured Isolde by ship to Cornwall.] Talk about pressing into a few words the fullness of another story. We know Eliot’s connection to the Hyacinth Girl is likened to an ill-fated romance. But what does she signify?

The flower and the girl are the counterpoint to lilacs out of dead land; the other side of dull roots with spring rain. She’s the force that doesn’t allow winter’s snows to keep us forgetful, but warm. If April reminds us of the fullness and the sting of time, the Hyacinth girl reminds us of the fullness of life – and that fullness, can leave us speechless – our eyes can not contain all of it, and it reminds us that all the things we think we know, amount to nothing in the face of that fullness.

How do you story your days? In the fullness of time, reflecting the cruelty of April’s seasonal time-clock of the spirit, or do you story it in the fullness of life, being stunned over and over in our not-knowing before it’s face?

Over the years here, I’ve told most, or probably all of these stories in one way or another. Today, I’m going to try to story them (this time) by reflecting on the tension of time and life.

When I was a teenager, I kept myself busy. That’s a character flaw I’ve yet to grow out of. I replaced lunch with an honors class. I replaced study hall with choir. I stayed after school for Cross-Country or Theatre. I was at the gym five days a week, and ran 7 miles a day right after school. I tried to control every bit of my day, so that I could feel like I was succeeding. I was finding the fullness of time, but not the fullness of life.

I also had the competing desires to lose weight and put on muscle. I was about 65 pounds lighter than I am now… and I thought I was fat (and today, I laugh and laugh and laugh at all I did not know.) It’s amazing how the pressure we put on our youth, and the pressure our youth put on themselves, can translate in weird ways – ways that bring harm to our teens that we would never imagine or wish on them. I remember the day, after working out for an hour in the gym and running the usual 7 miles on top of that, when I looked down at my leg and realized what I had been seeing as fat, was in fact muscle. I was so busy trying to achieve something more than I thought I had, that I stopped allowing myself to see that I was already there. One of my mentors, the Rev. Forrest Church, would often remind us to “Want what you have.” It’s difficult advice to hear or live by. I already had what I wanted, but couldn’t even see that. That phrase would often remind me of my teenage years, and how not wanting what I had, kept me from appreciating and living the fullness of life.

But not to knock the teens years too strongly, many of us keep coming back to that hard lesson in every stage of life. I learned in human development, that we areevery age we have ever been.Wanting what we already have doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we age.

I don’t know what shifted inside me that allowed me to see me for who I was. It’s probably the first moment of Grace that I can vividly recall. I’ve had others, but I was too young to remember them. Being born was probably my very first moment of Grace, right? We come in this world through no fault or effort of our own (- that we know of at least.) That moment in the gym felt like that. So many people hold onto poor body image for years, unable to free themselves from the traps of the mind. I woke up, but I didn’t do anything to wake up. I just did. Moments like this, echo backwards and forwards through time for me. Openness – openness to our selves, to others, to loving ourselves, or loving others – doesn’t always come, but when it does, we don’t achieve it through effort or actions. It’s a gift that we allow to happen. We can get in the way, or we can simply be. But sometimes, we learn to love ourselves – in the fullness of life – seeing the hair dripping wet as the poet tells us, and being stunned by encountering worth.

Moving forward in time – Parenting, or success in our careers, can be very similar creatures. We don’t always have control over what comes from our love or care. We don’t always know which way the road will turn; what will happen to our kids, or what jobs we’ll lose.  Some of us have huge families we’re born into and love. Others have a tight-knit family they’ve made by their own care and effort. Careers can be the same. We can fall into the vocation of our dreams, or cobble together a living from so many different parts of our lives.

Often when we’re teens, dealing with school or considering college, we’re given a false-road map; one that many of us continue to buy into throughout our lives. We’ll work hard at school; we’ll make or fail the tests that matter; by our Junior Year in High School we’ll know what major we’ll focus on for college and that’s what we’ll be doing entirety of our lives (and I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.) Why do we tell that story? Frankly, it’s a silly map – one that will only get us lost if we trust it too much. There should be a legend at the bottom of the map that reads “*Objects May Appear Closer Than They Really Are.”

And for those that work hard, and succeed, or do well enough to just get by – believing in that roadmap – sometimes think it’s mostly about their effort, and not about the grace of being in the right place at the right time too. Or living into a world that privileges some, and makes it even harder for others. A recent study in the news this week indicated that “40% of white Americans think African Americans just have to work harder.” It’s painfulto hear that – 50 years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. That so many white folk can forget the parts of history, the parts they need to forget, so that they can still pretend that silly map, that silly, dangerous map.

I started out studying environmental science at Rutgers, Cook College. Dropped out, and started up again a year later studying Teaching; then English; then Anthropology, then Archaeology, then Religion. (That combo is probably the main reason why I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot as I do.) I went on to work in computers for the first 5 years after college. Funny, right? We tie ourselves in knots throughout our lives hoping we can control what comes next, as if our best laid plans will come together as expected; That all hard work, in the fullness of time, is neatly sequential and ordered. When you hear me say that aloud, you’re probably thinking, no, of course it doesn’t work that way. But then we go about and live our lives as if that story was in fact the way it worked.

Sometimes they will, most of the time they won’t. It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan. We have to plan if we want to have any chance of getting to where we want to go. Spiritually, we go off course when we think the map we’ve drawn though, is the same as the life we hope to live.The map, the plans, the details – are not the fullness of life; they’re the fullness of time. The art of growing up, is learning to leverage the details to enjoy our life, but not to replace our life with the to-do lists.

Or in parenting – who here as ever read a book about parenting? So many of these books tell you how wrong you are, or how right you are, or how to hover over your kids, or how not to hover over your kids. It’s like reading an owner’s manual to a car – except you don’t know which car it’s for – it’s just for “cars.” My favorite parenting book is called, “Nurture Shock.” It’s my favorite because it never intended to be a parenting book, even though it’s a parenting book. The biggest lesson I took from it is the simple truth that of all the tricks, tips and things we can do for our kids – the most important lesson we can ever give is that when the nearly-verbal child points at a spoon – we in return say “spoon.” All the rest are details. All the rest,will likely drive us mad if we let it. Human connection, attentiveness, being fully present to the fullness of life, rather than tracking the achievements in the fullness of time.

That’s the essential lesson in life. Being mindful to the moments when our best course of action is to say, “spoon.” (avoid making the joke about The Tick here.) Whether growing up throws at you challenges around continuing school, or career, or parenting, or not parenting – we struggle to learn to live in the fullness of the life before us, not clinging to the to-do, or the details or fretting over what might be or never was. Over the course of a life, all our choices lead us to who we become. We may feel trapped by what we once were, both good and bad. Both are always part of us – as the good and bad has nurtured the person sitting in your chair today… but we’re not trapped in any one of our many lives we lived. Doors close and open, sometimes through our actions, and sometimes despite our actions. Beyond what we can control – are the moments of grace.

For me, Grace came in each career rebirth. From computer guru, to community development specialist, to religious educator to congregational minister. There were things that I accomplished to make each happen; but being open to the possibility of change – was not an act that could be measured anywhere on a map. In all of our struggles, it is possible to hit the reset button when we need; I only know that it rarely seems possible… until we actually do. Lilacs do rise out of the dead land – and we don’t need to see them as April’s cruel reminder of possibility for other people – we can rise out of our own dead places, suddenly, through no fault or cause of our own – Grace.

But we still age – and the Wasteland will not allow us to avoid this truth.

For years, I would spend the night of Christmas Eve over at the house of a close friend’s grandmother along with her extended family. The family friend’s grandmother wasn’t blessed with good mobility in her elder years, but she had her clarity, kindness, and wicked scrabble moves. Her home would be decorated in every corner for the holidays. We’d attend worship at her Baptist church, and follow it with the best Chinese take-out made to order. Those Christmas Eves were something I cherished. My own grandmothers had passed years ago, and this was one way to see them again.

Then one day, she had a stroke, and should have died, but the visiting care-giver resuscitated her – against her previously written instructions. The clear- thinking grandmother I knew never really came back. Now relegated to a nursing home, there would be no more Christmas Eve’s, or take-out Chinese food. The dementia that set in was strange – as so often it is. When her grand-daughter and I would visit her in the nursing home, she would completely remember me. The part of the brain that stored the memory of meeting me remained largely intact; but her grand-daughter would be a stranger to her. She would remember her own children as if they were still in their teens. Time didn’t mean the same thing any longer. The year would be in the 2000’s with me, the 1960’s for her children, and her grandchildren didn’t quite fit anywhere – but they were in the room, they kept making sure they were in the room.

That fits well into what many of us would consider a nightmare. You prepped as best you could, handling the paperwork you needed to handle; raised an awesome family that you loved and who loved you well into your eighties; who even brought their friends,who also loved you, around to spend time with you for the holidays – and chance rolls snake eyes – memories blend, disappear, and you’re no longer self-sufficient. Your helpless, confused and don’t recall many of the highest points of your life while your loved ones watch helpless themselves to change or heal what will remain broken.

That can happen. That can be what chance brings to us. For some of us, we’re carefully treading in this territory right now; whether for ourselves, noticing some things slipping more readily from our minds – or for our loved ones, wondering how we will cope with slowly losing the person we knew. There are practical matters that need to be attended to, medical advice that might be sought after, or financial concerns that should be addressed.  Each of these can matter immensely to our quality of life. And yet, our perspective may matter the most for our sense of wholeness. How do we view the changes – beyond being horrified, or fearful?

For me, the moment of grace was in the witnessing of her granddaughter still visiting her daily or weekly; she still visited even though she wasn’t recognized any more. Grace is found when we focus on the relationships we built and whose love continues on in our passing. There’s no thing we do that makes this love endure. We don’t deepen our love in the fullness of time with busy-ness or tasks; we make eternal our love through the fullness of life. I want to live my life in such a way that should the worst happen in my elder years, if I am so lucky as to make it to my elder years, that I know the people around me will still love me and try their best to make my close as peaceful as possible, knowing I helped to make their life as joyous as possible. You can’t quantify that; and it’s what life is about. It’s what we mean when we speak of reverence – at its core. Being in awe of the depth of humanity; being in love with the possibility of the human spirit – unfurling even when its bud is swaying in the storm.  It is not given to us to know when our bud will open; it is given to us to know that it may at any time; again and again and again.

 

Advertisements

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sermon: The Still Point (The Poetry of T.S. Eliot)

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on Dec 8th, 2013. It reflects on the intersections of the B-52s, T.S. Eliot and Nelson Mandela.

A few weeks ago Brian and I went to see the B-52’s in concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Twenty-five years after their hey-day, they were still a raucous party on stage. We had a lot of fun. I want to focus in on though what happened before the show. It was an experiment in human psychology and self-awareness. The show was in a massive urban bowling alley, of all places, that had a standing area with a stage that easily fit 1000 people. We got there early for dinner – yes they had a fancy-ish restaurant in the mega-bowling alley. After dinner we bee-lined for the stage to get as close as possible since it wasn’t a designated seating area. We were lucky enough to be be in the second row of people from the stage. There was only one person between us and the band at any point of the show.

As time went on, we began talking with the people around us. It was all innocuous chit-chat – none of which could I recall today. After a bit, the fellow in front of us walked away. After about 10 minutes of the spot being empty, I moved forward to lean my back on the stage. I was getting stiff from the hour plus standing still. After a bit, that same fellow came back – walked up right next to me and began poking me in the side saying “that’s my spot.” “I was standing there.” (poke, poke, poke.) I told him I was just leaning back, and moved (the two feet) back to where Brian was standing.

Some time went by, and the fellow disappeared again for a while. Not wanting to get poked again, I left the space empty. After about 10 minutes, a woman came up and snuck into the empty spot. I began eating my proverbial popcorn and waited for the movie to unfold. In short order, the guy came back and did the same poke, poke, poke – “Move, this was my spot. I was standing here.” In a moment of luck, he found a second New Yorker that was willing to move away and just let it be without any drama.

Some time went by, and the fellow walked away – again. Like a comic routine, the same story unfolded for a third and final time. Three strangers in a row, he sidled up next to and poked them in the side saying, “this is my space.”

I’m pretty forgiving of many things, and I’m rather Zen about the big problems in life. But walking in front of me and stopping, blocking a subway or train door, and randomly poking my side are each ways to really work me up. I let it go, this time, but I wasn’t social with this guy for the rest of the night.

The next day we’re scheduled to meet a friend at Cinema Arts here in Huntington. We were going to see the opening of the LGBT film festival, and our friend was hoping to introduce us to area folks he knew. I turned to Brian and said, wouldn’t it be funny if one of the friends he introduces us to was that space-saver from the concert last night. No way. Well, as it turns out the next night we wind up meeting this same guy from the concert in Brooklyn, here in Huntington, and he’s friends with a friend of ours.

Priceless as this is, it’s not enough for my fiance. At the event he strikes up a conversation with this fellow about how concert-goers can sometimes be really difficult. The guy agrees whole-heartedly and begins to tell us stories of past concerts where some attendees would be really obnoxious about space – about where they were standing and who gets to stand there. (I swear, I’m not making this up.) For bonus points, and a last ditch effort to get me to smile, Brian asks the guy, “Do you think those obnoxious people even realize that they’re being rude or dramatic?” …And the guy says,… “No, I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.” It’s at this point that I have to stop looking at Brian, or I’m going to burst out laughing at the banality of it all.

It all makes you wonder how often we’re guilty of the things we complain about. It’s an absurd story, but a good reminder that whoever we interact with today, we very well may interact with tomorrow. But maybe, most importantly, this concert-driven story tells me how we can carry around for a long time the really small stuff and make it really big. We can flip the story of being bumped two feet into a great wrong that requires us to poke and poke and poke – even if we don’t learn our lesson the first three times.

Moments like this, grievances like this, can overwhelm us. Who here has ever succumbed to vivid moments of annoyance over banal pettiness?  Walk with me now through what I see as a primer for moving through the mundane and into the sublime. T.S. Eliot’s poetry does this for me. His body of work seems to address our insecurities and our foibles while pointing toward that which transcends it all. Eliot was actually raised a Unitarian, but left us as an adult to experiment with various religions and ended up with traditional Christianity in his elder years.

There’s a line from his poem “The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that reminds me of the banality we sometimes succumb to. “For I have known them all already, known them all: – Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall, Beneath the music from a  farther room. So how should I presume.” The larger poem is a metaphor for a man unable to interact or flirt with a group of women. It touches upon feelings of inadequacy many of us feel in our lives. But this particular line has never left me. We know each minute that we can count. We’re creatures that in some ways live meaninglessly to a clock; or terrified through conversations we’re too scared to engage genuinely with; or base our lives around the same every day habits. I’ll be at Starbucks every morning, waiting in line with all the rest. Is my life about the next stir of the coffee spoon, or is it about something more? All of this leads to the poet’s question, “So how should I presume.” Presume to break free of the tick tock of whatever clocks we live by? To presume to talk with those we don’t feel worthy to speak with? Presume to not live our lives as though we were in a dying fall, or our music was less than another’s? (A dying fall is a musical reference to the gradual decrease in volume in a piece.) Measuring our lives in this way, through coffee spoons, is to deface what is timeless about us. It subverts what is eternal about the depth of life and gives us the greatest lie ‘that which is mundane is most significant.’

It doesn’t put us at ease, or find meaning in our days. In fact, making the mundane our focus in our lives, actually creates a sense of discord. It creates an emptiness and lack of peace that isn’t natural for humans – even if it is regretfully all to common. When we live for our habits, or live for that exact space in front of the stage at a B-52’s concert, or wallow in our presumptions – we miss out on life. Or as Eliot puts it in his later poem “The Hollow Men”, “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar. Shape without form, shade without colour, paralyzed force, gesture without motion; Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom remember us – if at all – not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.” Eliot has a way with the dramatic turn of phrase, but he often critiques us for not living fully; for not taking steps when it’s time to do so; or for not richly keeping the gifts we were given in this precious life. Succumbing to the trivial, we trade our living birthright with a hollow shell. There’s a way to live life with color and not solely shades of grey, but it requires a directness to it and an attentiveness. The trap of emptiness or meaninglessness only closes when we live our lives in tepid, unreflected ways.

An excerpt here from his poem, The Dry Salvages (rhyming with assuages), (the part we heard earlier as one of our readings)

“To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual past times and drugs, and features of the press: and always will be, some of them especially, when there is distress of nations or perplexity, whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgeware Road. Men’s curiosity searches past and future and clings to that dimension. But to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint – no occupation either, but something given and taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union.”

 

For me, this T.S. Eliot’s most spiritual poem. If we live hollow lives due to our quiet muttering or our dry cellars – as he puts it – this poem is a response to that malaise. The spiritual practice is in the attended moment. It’s finding the moments of beauty and peace, and delicately placing them upon the altars of our consciousness, and simply bearing witness. Whether they be shafts of sunlight, or winter lightning, or times of celebrated joy or relief, it is in these moments that we apprehend the intersection of the timeless with time. It’s in these actions that we put down our coffee spoons, and stir our lives to another thrum. Nothing neat. Nothing measurable. Intimations… Attention… Hints directing to something more than the measure of minutes and seconds…. It’s in these moments that we incarnate – fully human – fully holy.

These moments though, aren’t always based in the peace of nature. Sometimes they shine through in our messy human interactions – filling our hearts, reminding us that we are part of a greater story that began before us, and will continue on when our part is finished… On Thursday, Nelson Mandela died at home after a three month battle with a lung infection. He lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages.

In my life, one of my moments between the moments involved President Mandela. It was a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.

People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of Mr. Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward, that involved peace and reconciliation.

His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating our moment between the moments. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.

Not to romanticize our public honoring of President Mandela, our own nation was not always a supporter of him. Though no evidence ever directly tied violence to his actions, the NY Times does write that, “in 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.” We can decry acts of violence, but as a nation it’s hard to critique another country’s revolutionaries when our own patriotism is rooted in similar actions. Mr. Mandela served a life sentence though for something else. What began with being “charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport” according to the NY Times, ended with “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.” Mr. Mandela’s appeal to this was “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

His life was as far from T.S. Eliot’s pastiche of the Hollow Men that I can imagine. No quiet whisperings, no empty mutterings, but a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor.  Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government  has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

I mention Mr. Mandela today, because he lived a life that was worthy of remembering. I also feel that lives such as his, are the direction this morning’s poet was pointing toward. The poems I’ve read from by T.S. Eliot today spanned in time from World War 1, through World War 2. They were not ignorant of the great tragedies, challenges and hopes of their day. And they ultimately sketch out the impressions of an ethic for an era that continues to hold vibrancy today. And Eliot makes those sketches rooted in a theological mindset.

I’ll close with the other poem we read earlier from – the excerpt from Burnt Norton: “ At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance, I can only say there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”

This is the theology that grounds the poetry that implies the ethic. We find sustenance in the moments between the moments. Not the practice, not the doing, not the striving, but the being present to the world around us. When time unfolds between our breathes and life inhales our patience. Those timeless glimpses can nurture and sustain us. The path of the infinite pressed down upon us and we know we are more than we are not. It validates all the rest; all the effort, all the striving, all the doing. Knowing that we are not merely the sum of our actions – although our actions do matter – but rather we are the witnesses to the eternal scope of life, albeit for but a moment.  A moment may be long enough to sustain us.

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Small Group Ministry: The Still Point

#33 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn – Based on the sermon, “The Still Point” preached by Rev. Jude Geiger at First UU on 12/30/12. This session explores how we ground our sense of gratitude and our work for justice, in our hearts. The sermon it’s based upon is found here: https://revwho.com/2013/01/02/sermon-the-still-point/

Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting  (Please read aloud) #419 in Singing the Living Tradition attributed to Kalidasa

Statement of Purpose:  To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.

Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.

Covenant Reflection

Reading: An Excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” — “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

An excerpt/edit from the sermon: 

“And it’s those moments between the moments (as T.S. Eliot writes in another section of the same epic poem) that we can return to for solace, for energy, or inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. Those two words may seem like the same thing, but I believe there’s a difference. Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to goto work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal. The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal – stopping so that we can start once more – with fresh purpose and meaning. Gratitude enables us to meaningfully act.”

Discussion Questions: Where do you find places of renewal in your life? How do you allow your heart to replenish itself, and not just your body? Do you agree that gratitude enables us to meaningfully act? If so why. If not, which emotion would you base your purpose and actions upon?

Closing:   (please read aloud ) #688 by Nancy Wood in Singing the Living Tradition

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sermon: The Still Point

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, NY for our annual 4pm New Year’s Vespers service on Sunday, December 30th. It looks at the renewal of the spirit and how that helps us to affect justice in the world.

 

My cat Dewey was helping me with my sermon writing this week. If you have a cat or a dog, you probably have been in the same situation before. I’ve settled down with my laptop on the couch to write. I’ve been away from my cat for two minutes too long, and he’s followed me from his comfortable perch nestled on my pillow. He jumps up on the couch, looks at me. Purrs. Rubs up next to me. Pauses to paw at my arm to show me exactly how it’s done – as if he’s saying “yeah, go ahead and pet me just like this, I’m sure you just forgot how, otherwise you’d be petting me right now.” Focused as I am, I absently give him some attention, but it’s not enough. He’s now up on the laptop, crawling up my chest, and planting his body in my face. At some point he manages to flip around – exactly how I’m not sure. In short, I have a fur-ball in my eyes, nose and mouth.

Now there are a bunch of ways to handle this. If you’re not a pet-lover, there’s going to be one unhappy kitty soon. But for the rest of us, you just have to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. This little ball of life has got you by the face and is reminding you – life is happening right now, right here – and it’s not going anywhere just yet.

T.S. Eliot has a line in his epic poem, “The Four Quartets” that approaches this same lesson from … a different angle. “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” Now I don’t mean to suggest that Eliot’s referencing a cat somewhere between arrest, movement, ascent or decline – even if the image of not “calling it fixity” is very apt. (His cat poems come later.)

Rather, life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief – those are very important too but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude; the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention. Eliot’s “still point” is the lack of motion within every motion. Many of us know how to do the part of the dance very well, but find the part of being the dancer very difficult.

Allegorically speaking, the story of the Birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of Hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane – only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.

One bit of advice I give couples going up to their wedding day relates to this. All the work we do leading up to the wedding, all the logistical bits – planning the party, the caterer, the dresses, the flowers, the music, the ceremony, the guest list, the table eating and so on – are all rituals that we can really get lost in. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also all be a really intentional way of reminding us that for that short 15-30 minute wedding ceremony, we should be really present for it. We committed all this time, energy and focus over the past year to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of “I do” is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.

And it’s those moments between the moments (as T.S. Eliot writes in another section of the same epic poem) that we can return to for solace, for energy, or inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. Those two words may seem like the same thing, but I believe there’s a difference. Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to goto work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal. The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal – stopping so that we can start once more – with fresh purpose and meaning. Gratitude enables us to meaningfully act.

Let us return briefly to the words of Howard Thurman who we heard earlier, “When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost,

To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.” This holiday season we’ve stopped, we’ve celebrated the return of light, and the turning of the world. We’ve paused to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.

We begin again as our full selves – or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of Christmas; striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place. The work of Christmas isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating at Christmas – although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon – although that might be needed as well. The resolution for us as religious people is to figure out how to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and those in prison (or reduce the need for so many people in prison), to shelter the homeless. If we do that work, the rest will follow.

The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking that in reality is not essential – that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the work of Christmas as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront – all are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.

Mystically, T.S. Eliot’s “still point” echoes this. “Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of; that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life – that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning, and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: