Many of us, maybe most of us, are familiar with at least some of what we Unitarian Universalists call our “sources,” those places that our religious identity grows from– our “living tradition.” If I asked you to name all those sources today, I doubt if there is anyone here who could (myself included), but, I suspect many of us could name some of them. “Wisdom from the world religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,” for instance. Or “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
Today, though, we are going to focus on the first of our sources, one which we do not often hold up to honor, the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
This is the land of the mystics of old and the transcendentalists, the Native American traditions, the Buddhists who achieve glimpses of enlightenment, the Taoists who warn us to distrust the tyranny of concepts, our inclination to try to capture in the realm of thought those things which are ineffable and beyond the reach of thoughts and concepts.
In the American literary tradition, there is probably no one who more staunchly challenges the status quo, the traditional, the supremacy of the intellect over the primacy of experience than the poet Walt Whitman. If he was not a Unitarian or Universalist in name or claim, he certainly was one of us in terms of temperament and an expansive view of the world we live in and the Creation in which it is embedded.
Whitman, or “Old Walt”, as some affectionately refer to him, is represented three times in our hymnal, once in Hymn 356 and twice in our readings. The words to Hymn 356 provide a good introduction to the thought of the man– and his search to go beyond thought into the love of life through direct experience.
“Will you seek in far-off places? Surely you come home at last; in familiar forms and faces, things best known you know the best. Joy and peace are in this hour, here, not in another place. Here in this beloved flower; now, in this beloved face.”
Reading #645 is from “Song of the Open Road.” I won’t read all of it now (there’s another longer selection I want to share with you), but here is how it starts off:
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
healthy, free, the world before me.
Henceforth I ask not good fortune–
I myself am good fortune;
Strong and content, I travel the open road.
I inhale great draughts of space;
The east and the west are mine,
And the north and the south are mine.
To know the universe itself as a road– as many roads–
As roads for traveling souls.[sounding the bell of awakening]
So, let’s dive into Whitman for a bit, reveling in the spirit that he evokes, if he does not capture it. How can you capture the spirit? He starts by talking about “trippers and askers.” Are “trippers” those who try to trip him up? Or are they fellow travelers? Certainly, he is not talking about exploring the expanded consciousness through the stimulus of hallucinogens. And he ends with the commonest of things, elder and mullein and pokeweed. And it’s from there, I add my own reflections.
And those things the pokeweed feeds on, bacteria and a million billion microorganisms and the water of the earth in all its wonder and manifestations, flowing, ever flowing and down and beyond and to the end and to the beginning and through time and past time to the ultimate dimension of who knows where.
But you are here. And I am here. And the fields of heaven are filled with pokeweed, pine trees, plum blossoms and pineapples, ripe, rough, bristly, sweet, numberless and wonderful.
Where does it all begin? Where is the ending of tree root searching out the ever elusive stream? Where do you end, O tree? And where do your roots end? Or do they end? And is the last time the same as the first and does wonder cease when it hits stone?
Alone in the vast universe as we sometimes feel we are, we are never alone, always connected, interconnected, flower to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to root, root to earth, earth to water, water to stone, stone to mineral, mineral to dust, dust to the endless passage of time. Time, your time, my time.
Through it we flow, of it we are barely cognizant. That moment I cherished– see it flow past. But, no, here’s another and that one is past, too. Maybe we can digitize it. Maybe we can make of it a product. Product. Product. Produce. Be productive. Multiply. Make of yourself a billion selves and wonder what to make of it all.
Walt Whitman was, perhaps above all other things, an individualist. Nothing contrary to Unitarianism or Universalism in that. He was also a transcendentalist in that his poetry attempts to take us out of ourselves to a more transcendent plane where commonality and universality can be recognized and experienced– the commonality of human beings within their humanity, the universality of the experiences of sentient beings everywhere. His poetry attempts to evoke not only the splendors of being an individual human, but also the transcendent mystery and wonder of sheer existence in place and time that yet transcends the specifics of space and time.
From “Song of Myself”:
Mary Oliver, the American poet, born in 1935, still living, blessedly, is represented by three selections in our hymnal. The beautiful poem “Wild Geese” is the one we are most familiar with, probably, though we have several times used as a closing reading her short poem “To live in this world…”
She seems to find herself by immersing herself in humanity at large. (Whitman seems to find humanity by immersing himself in himself and projecting that experience into the universal.) When she looks deeply at nature, she finds wonder in it, even in the everydayness of it and in the wonder of contemplation, enlarges her sense of herself, yet finds a lodging in the world for her individual self.
In her beautiful poem of longing and release, called “When Death Comes,” she speaks of wanting “to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” and “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement” and ends with “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”[sounding the bell of awakening]
Who wants to end up simply having visited this world? Not Mary Oliver. Not Walt Whitman, who wants to dive into the experience of living. None of us, probably, none of us.
We want to visit, yes, but not simply to visit. We want to make a difference in the lives we touch here and in our families and in our communities and even in this world. We want to not just wear the garment of destiny, we want to fashion it to be as useful and inclusive as we can make it.
If our life is a mystery for us to make sense of, Mary Oliver suggests that death is a mystery to enter, eyes wide open, mind full of curiosity, ready to begin again. We want to make of ourselves something particular and real. Moths are something particular and real. And they fly toward death when they fly toward the light, the light of your candle, your campfire, your streetlights.
In Mary Oliver’s poem “The Moths”, she speaks of noticing a “kind of white moth… that glimmers … just as the pink moccasin flowers are rising” and says “If you notice anything, it leads you to notice more and more.” She reflects that “If I stopped and thought, ‘Maybe the world can’t be saved,’ the pain was unbearable.” Yet the moths, whose wings “catch the sunlight and burn so brightly” sometimes at night “slip between the pink lobes of the moccasin flowers and lie there until dawn, motionless in those dark halls of honey.”
If you notice anything, it leads you to notice more and more.
Does the noticing lead to fulfillment or dismay? Do you get the sense that the poet would like to “slip between the pink lobes of the moccasin flowers and lie there till dawn, motionless in those dark halls of honey”? How will the world be saved? By noticing? By connecting? By valuing all manner of life, yours, mine, Mary Oliver’s, the moths’, the moccasin flowers, the green pond, the life fed by sunlight?
Wendell Berry is represented five times in our hymnal, once in a hymn, four times in readings. But, today I want to share with you his poem called “The Heron” because in it, the sharp lines of separation between species, genus, family, order, and class fade completely and the poet ends up, not knowing how it happened, transformed.
He says, “I forgot the river where it flowed, faithful to its way … I could not reach it even in dreams.” But one morning, he remembers, and he sees “crouched on a dead branch sticking out of the water, a heron– so still that I believe he is a bit of drift hung dead above the water.” He notices the details of the bird, the “articulation of a feather” and the “living eye” and its brilliance. Then he realizes that he is seen by the heron, and “Suddenly I know I have passed across to a shore where I do not live.”
What we are talking about here is what is called in theological terms, “theophany,” which means the appearance of a deity to a human being. If you grew up in the Christian or Jewish tradition, you are familiar with the concept: God spoke to Abraham, intervening before Isaac could be sacrificed. Moses had a direct experience of interacting with God when he received the tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. The apostles experienced the presence of Jesus when he returned to the earth after his death.
Theophany, so understood, is a supernatural concept, an encounter with a supernatural being. But, when we cite in our Unitarian Universalist sources, “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life,” we are talking about theophany as we understand it. As Whitman experienced it, as Mary Oliver interprets it, as Wendell Berry describes it.
We are not isolated beings, each on a solo mission to deliverance, we exist in relationship, person to person, species to species, genus to genus, life to life, microorganism to great blue whale in the midst of a sustaining ecological system which it behooves us to cherish and care for.
Let us bring this part of the service to a close, you and I, by reading responsively Reading #659 in our gray hymnal. It’s by Walt Whitman and it’s called “For You.”
The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are,
Those who govern are there for you; it is not you who are there for them.
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it,
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments,
The sun and stars that float in the open air,
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it;
The endless pride and outstretching of people, unspeakable joys and sorrows,
The wonder every one sees in every one else he sees, and the wonders
that fill each minute of time forever,
It is for you whoever you are, it is no farther from you than your
hearing and sight are from you,
It is hinted by nearest, commonest, readiest,
We consider bibles and religions divine–I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life,
Will you seek afar off? you surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best–
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for
another hour but this hour.
So may it be.
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky, on June 7, 2015.
- Collected Poems: 1957-1982 by Wendell Berry. Farrar Straus and Giroux. New York NY. 1984. wendellberrybooks.com
- New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. Beacon Press. Boston MA. 1992. maryoliver.beacon.org
- Singing the Living Tradition. Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston MA. 1993.
- Three Centuries of American Poetry: 1620-1923 edited by Allen Mandelbaum & Robert D. Richardson, Jr. Bantam Books. New York NY. 1999.
- Wikipedia: Theophany; Mary Oliver; Walt Whitman.