A Pair of Lenses
November 10, 2013
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from Deuteronomy 34
And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to the top of Mount Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. He could see all the land of Gilead, and Judah, and others, all the way to the sea.
He could see the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees,
And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now you have seen it with your own eyes, but you will not get there yourself. Only those who come after you will go over.
And the children of Israel wept for Moses.
Then Joshua, the son of Nun, was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him, and taught him: and through listening to Joshua, the children of Israel could still know Moses, and all the hopes for the future.
Last August I was sitting in church with my cousin, and afterwards Susan said, “I don’t go to church for the sermons, I go so I can sing. I can read great stuff pretty much anywhere, but I don’t get a chance to sing. So a decent sermon is like gravy. It’s an extra, but it isn’t what makes the morning.” It was my husband who gave the sermon that day, so it was good of Susan to find it decent, and gravy-like, but I have been thinking about her comment ever since.
I know exactly what she means. The music is what carries me through a week, and also what connects me to the past. Certain songs can bring me back to my childhood church, or to a certain era. Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John” can make me a six year old, listening to the choir, watching the notes shimmer into that wavery greenish leaded glass that made it look like even the windows were crying. Nothing I’ve read about Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. comes close to affecting me the way that song does. I also have an emotionally charged response to the Judy Collins song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” One September Sunday, the minister played a tape recording – something I have often heard criticized as lacking authenticity — and this music unexpectedly grabbed me and captured everything I felt – even things I hadn’t been aware of until the song played. Music gets inside of us. And it is repeatable. I hum hymns all the time when I am swimming, or chopping vegetables. Even though there have been sermons that kept me riveted, or comforted me, I can’t say as I have ever trudged along repeating lines from one.
So while I tentatively agreed with my cousin, — yes, I can read great stuff anywhere, and yes, the music is really important, I was thinking, It’s not just sermons and music, is it? And it’s definitely not just a choice between them. Church has to do with longing, and belonging; with taking out time; with tradition, and change, and being moved, or misunderstood. I remember Salman Rushdie talking about having a God-shaped hole in his heart after his book The Satanic Verses came out, and some Muslim leaders called him an infidel and a traitor to his faith. I also think of a woman I met while guest preaching at First Church in Chestnut Hill. They use a prayer book there, and – except for the sermon – the entire service is prescribed. She was showing me what to read when, and pointed out the pastoral prayer, in which we ask for help for those in need, and those suffering. She said, “See this comma? I want you to really pause there, so we can think of everyone in pain before you start again.”
I found myself smitten by the idea of everything hanging on that comma. In many ways, I had felt I didn’t understand this congregation and its prayer book, which was last changed in 1923. They listen to the same prayers from week to week, the music is generally Psalms, and the readings are from the lectionary. That means the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible are each divided into 104 sections, and every week you read one from each source, and after two years you are back at the beginning. The sermon is based on those Bible readings. It is all a very external structure, reliable and unrelated to what the minister feels like talking about, or what is happening in the world – although of course these things find their way in. But they are secondary. The architecture of the service, and most of the content, has no relationship to any personal choice. But Sally showed me how that structure worked for her, and presumably others in the congregation. That pause in the prayer was full, and personal; even though we couldn’t see or hear it, everyone was conscious of loss and pain and vulnerabilities, and looking for strength to make it all be otherwise, or to get through it, or accept what had to be. Isn’t that exactly what the whole church-going business is all about – making a pause in the middle of our lives; letting ourselves feel everything that we feel, being renewed again?
A while back I was reading about a woman who had always felt drawn to the cloistered life, even though she was not Catholic. Nuns seemed beyond human to her; compressed by outside forces until they were perfect; hard and clear, like diamonds. Their isolation from the world was by choice – partly their own, but mostly because the universe chose them. She had a sense that the truly religious women had escaped from this world. The regular old struggles that challenge us were not part of these chosen lives. Finally, in her mid 30s, Alexa Mars decided to investigate, and went to live in a convent – not a cloister, but an active convent, with nuns who worked in the world. Needless to say, her picture of the religious life changed dramatically.
It turns out that in many ways, the writer had everything backwards. For the nuns she met, joining the convent back in the 1950s meant a way in to the world, not an escape from it. They were allowed to attend college, to become teachers and professionals. They could have real roles, and choices that women who married were not allowed, and they weren’t judged negatively for it. The convent represented an opportunity for a bigger life. Even though Alexa appreciated this, she remained fascinated with the opposite, believing spirituality comes from a narrower, more constricted life. She had expected to see flocks of sisters in flowing robes. Individuality startles her, and the ugly, practical house doesn’t seem like the place where special people should live. Shouldn’t they wander serenely in stone corridors; perch on sills of tall, Gothic windows with opaque glass? Finally the prioress arranges a visit to a place that matched Alexa’s imagined monastery – a green expanse on the far side of a little bridge, a building replete with arches, and high walls, behind which lie a hidden engine of habit-wearing nuns who churned out prayer without ceasing. The visitor’s room is divided by metal grilles – people of the world on one side, brides of Christ on the other – and there Alexa meets the religious ideal that has haunted her. And suddenly, she is possessed by a question she hadn’t thought of before. She knows they pray all day, but wants to know for WHO? If you are isolated in here, physically cut off from the world, who do you pray for? The answer, she is told, is everyone. We pray for everyone.
I find myself back inside that comma; the space for specifics. “Everyone” might as well be any one, and without the personal connection, we lose the bridge between interior and exterior worlds; between this physical place – the church — and a kind of timeless concept of religion. Something in this story of Alexa Mars’ speaks of this – She seems to be trying to identify the spiritual life as a visible thing. She longs for the beauty of the cloister, the simple ability to recognize faith by appearance; as if those who dress the part have somehow escaped from all the contaminants of the world. But they haven’t, really. They are aware of all the problems – the terrorist bombings, the wars, global warming. Suddenly, being conscious of all that without actually being engaged in the muck of the world seems less beautiful. The nuns appear locked in, shuttered away, and people who keep on living in the midst of fear and imperfection have a new nobility. Who can you really pray for if you don’t know anyone; if you live alone in a cell in an isolated monastery, mostly maintaining silence, and allowed only the rare visitor, half-seen see through a metal grill designed to keep purity in and danger out?
A few weeks ago, Mark and I went to go hear Jill LePore speak about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane, and LePore told us that at one point Ben sent his sister a box of glass lenses along with instructions how to make herself a pair of spectacles. He wanted her to make sure to try a variety of lenses for each eye separately, because, as he said, “Very few people have eyes that are fellows.” It isn’t just that you and I see differently; even our own right and left eyes don’t see the same way. LePore actually had us physically remove our glasses, and I was probably not the only one who was kind of afraid to take mine off. I can’t see anything. I feel completely cut off from the world without my glasses, but I also feel extremely vulnerable. LePore went on to talk about how incredibly rare it was for women to have glasses in the 18th century; that for the most part no one knew or cared whether women could see at a distance, or up close, and their lives did not involve this kind of work. Her talk was fascinating, but what really stuck with me was my own experience of the room with and without glasses, of being in the exact same room with the exact same people, but seeing and feeling everything in completely different ways because of the lens I was looking through.
And I thought, THAT’S what church does: It changes what and how I see. You may or may not know that the powers that be require a person who wants to be a minister to undergo all sorts of testing. I have never forgotten the way the psychologist who completed my final assessment pronounced, “You are an introvert who has learned how to be an extrovert.” She seemed half proud of herself for catching me out, and half-proud of me for pulling it off. I don’t think she was inaccurate, but I also think she missed the big picture — what it was that changed me; that allowed me to be the extremely nearsighted introvert that I am and still be deeply, personally connected to others. That is, she didn’t see the role of church, or faith. Religious community makes us into bigger people. More of the world converges before our eyes.
Jane and Benjamin Franklin shared an enormous amount – sense of humor, values, even DNA – but their lives could not really have been more different. He was rich, she was destitute. He was famous; she was obscure. The Revolutionary War made her homeless. He went to Paris, and talked up his humble beginnings, to trick the aristocrats into thinking he was stupid. She described her life as a litany of grief, and then chastised herself for questioning God’s will.
And yet they could and did see through each other’s eyes. After Ben Franklin sent his sister glasses, he sent books. Among them were sermons from a Unitarian minister in London. Jane read them, and wrote afterwards, “Dr Price says that thousands like Isaac Newton have been lost to the world; have lived and died in ignorance and want, merely because they were placed in unfavorable circumstances.” This idea changed the universe for her. She stopped seeing pain as her lot in life, handed to her by a God who demanded that she accept it. Instead she defined the issue as social and economic inequality, an unfair situation that could and should be changed. Faith, which had once meant resignation, became a force that strengthened and encouraged.
Today we were formally introduced to some of our young people, and we all—especially the adults who took the time to meet with Marina and David; with Ruben, Rowan and Chloe, — suddenly have more lenses through which to look at the world, at ourselves, at our beliefs and practices. How do we sustain the things that matter to these kids; how do we nurture them, and help them grow strong? What can we provide that will help them cope with pain and sorrow, and will make them stand for justice, even when it involves sacrifice? Also, what do they see that we missed, or ignored? What do they point to that makes us stop and think and do things differently? We become conscious of our connections, and now their loves, their worries and fears; their hopes and dreams for this world become partly ours, too.
The original Mentor was a character in the Odyssey, called in to the story by his old army buddy, Odysseus, soon after that famous hero and his wife have a son. Telemachus is barely a toddler when his father sails off for Troy, asking Mentor to keep watch. But Odysseus never comes back! A dozen years pass, and his wife, Penelope, is locked in her room weaving and then ripping out her work, doing all that she can to avoid the disgusting men crawling all over the house, competing to replace her missing husband. Telemachus is desperate to find his father and get him to come home and take care of the mess. And Mentor helps him do that. He doesn’t say, grow up and handle this. He doesn’t say, take care of your mother, and he doesn’t take care of the situation himself. He doesn’t say, this must be your destiny. He doesn’t do what Odysseus asked him to do, either. Instead, Mentor helps the boy do what he wants to do, which is sail to the Peloponnesian Islands and look for his father. They arrive at sunrise and see a huge bonfire on the shore, and five hundred men gathered around it, knawing on the charred bones of black bulls and invoking the name of Neptune. Telemachus anchors the ship, and heads ashore, hoping to find news of his father, but he is nervous and worried about what to say, how to address the king of this land, who is obviously in the middle of a religious festival. Mentor calmly says to the boy, “Some things will be suggested to you by your own instinct, and heaven will prompt you further; for I am assured that the gods have been with you from the time of your birth until now.”
The gods have been with you from the time of your birth until now. I doubt it felt that way to the boy. He had been living in chaos – absent father, mother taken to her bed, greedy people swooping in. Yet in Telemachus’ case, this is literally true. Throughout the Odyssey, half the time Mentor is himself, and half the time he is actually a front for the goddess Athena, who shape shifts and inhabits Mentor’s body to disguise her presence, the way Greek gods and goddesses like to do. And that is what Mentors have come to be, little packages of divinity that come and sit by our sides without anyone knowing their identity as immortals. The most important thing about being an immortal is time. There is always a future when you are going to live forever, and you are always invested in that future. And so Mentors act as reminders that what tomorrow looks like depends on the choices we mortals make today. The decisions are always our own to make, but they feel different when the people beside us have the long view; when we are attached to eternity.
The timelessness of faith is not about permanence, or peace; it is about containing us all, as we were and as we yet shall be, engaged in a voyage out into the pitfalls and pleasures of the world. As Mentor whispered, Trust your instincts. The heavens will prompt you. We are all with you.
Closing Words Forgotten Language by Shel Silverstein
Once I spoke the language of the flowers,
Once I understood each word the caterpillar said,
Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings,
And shared a conversation with the housefly
in my bed.
Once I heard and answered all the questions
of the crickets,
And joined the crying of each falling dying
flake of snow,
Once I spoke the language of the flowers. . . .
How did it go?
How did it go?