“Living with Ghosts” by Mark W. Harris

May 26, 2019 –  First Parish of Watertown, MA

Opening Words – “Blessing for a Broken Vessel” by Jan Richardson

Do not despair.

You hold the memory

of what it was

to be whole.

It lives deep

in your bones.

It abides

in your heart

that has been torn

and mended

a hundred times

It persists

in your lungs

that know the mystery

of what it means

to be full

to be empty,

to be full again.

I am not asking you

to give up your grip

on the shards you clasp

so close to you

but to wonder

what it would be like

for those jagged edges

to meet each other

in some new pattern

that you never imagined,

that you have never dared

to dream.

 

Readings  –  “The Names” by Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.

A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,

And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,

I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,

Davis and Eberling, names falling into place

As droplets fell through the dark.

Names printed on the ceiling of the night.

Names slipping around a watery bend.

Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.

In the morning, I walked out barefoot

Among thousands of flowers

Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,

And each had a name —

Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal

Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.

Names written in the air

And stitched into the cloth of the day.

A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.

Monogram on a torn shirt,

I see you spelled out on storefront windows

And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.

I say the syllables as I turn a corner —

Kelly and Lee,

Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.

When I peer into the woods,

I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden

As in a puzzle concocted for children.

Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,

Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,

Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.

Names written in the pale sky.

Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.

Names silent in stone

Or cried out behind a door.

Names blown over the earth and out to sea.

In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.

A boy on a lake lifts his oars.

A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,

And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —

Vanacore and Wallace,

(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)

Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.

Names etched on the head of a pin.

One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.

A blue name needled into the skin.

Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,

The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.

Alphabet of names in a green field.

Names in the small tracks of birds.

Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

*This poem is dedicated to the victims of September 11 and to their survivors. 

“Silence – Poem” by Billy Collina

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now. 

Sermon

 A couple of years ago I told a ghost story at a church potluck. It concerned a visit to a cemetery one Halloween on a foggy night when mist hung over the graves. The ghost hunters included my brother, and his friends, who were five years old than me.  I was eleven. On the proverbial dark and stormy night we ascended an incline, and beheld an apparition of a woman in a shawl and veil.  Her arms were stretched out, as though she was welcoming us, and yet the mist gave the effect of her whole body weeping.  If I were Catholic, I might have said that it was Mother Mary, but I only saw a generic lady of sorrows and I wondered, why is she here, and who is she? We were all terrified. She hovered over the grave, and did not move.  Suddenly we heard a thump behind us, and everyone spontaneously scrambled down the path headed for the car, which we piled into. 

This was the only time in my life that I have actually seen a ghost, or “thought” I saw a ghost.  Whether it was living way out in the country or growing up in a house built in 1770, my surrounding conditions seemed to invite spiritual beings to appear.  The isolation of the rural town, and the age of our home which made it creak and groan more than your average dwelling,  led me to be regularly frightened of things that go bump in the night.

Yet wanting to know who historical ancestors were, and how they lived their lives, and what they believed has always fascinated me, and motivated me to want to become a historian. I have always asked, who lived in my house, what was life like in my town, who gathered this church, and finally of course, who were my predecessors in the ministry besides names on the wall? What was their vision for the good life? How did they take care of each other? What models do they provide to us? How did they handle conflict?  How did they celebrate joys, and commemorate sorrows?

When I was the minister in Milton, I used to exchange pulpits every year with the minister in Dorchester. Dorchester was Milton’s mother church, just as we are the progenitor to Waltham and Weston.  Dorchester’s nearby location intrigued me, but also its history, especially since one of its long term ministers was Thaddeus Mason Harris.  Harris is of interest to me for his name, his location, and ultimately because he was the resident ghost at the Boston Atheneum, where he was first seen by none other than Nathaniel Hawthorne, no stranger to wrestling with ghosts from the past.  In fact, much of Hawthorne’s literary output depicts his struggles with his Puritan ancestors, especially Judge Hathorne, one of three magistrates who presided over the Salem Witch Trials.  We may conjure up memories of his stories of  “The Minister’s Black Veil,” where the revered clergyman suddenly has this black cloth covering his face, or “Young Goodman Brown,” the young upright husband who inexplicably goes off into the night and consorts with all kinds of townspeople around cauldrons and dancing spirits, and ends up losing his soul.

What kind of restless spirit did the Rev. Harris have?  His life in ministry seems relatively quiet, but his father died young, and Harris had to leave home, and work for room and board with other families.. He became a scholar who belonged to many literary societies, but his later life was marked by much infirmity. Harris was a founding member of the Atheneum, and every day it was his practice to read the Boston Postby the fireplace in the reading room.  About noon the day Harris died, Nathaniel Hawthorne noticed him sitting in his usual place, but that night he was corrected by friends who reported, that Dr. Harris had already died, and Hawthorne must be mistaken, and evidently saw someone else. Aware that he was supposedly wrong, Hawthorne went the next day to the Atheneum, entered the reading room, and, as he noted in his journal, “there sat Dr. Harris in his accustomed chair.” While he didn’t know Harris personally, Hawthorne was well aware of his upright reputation.  Yet Hawthorne made no attempt to engage with the apparition, but as each succeeding day came, he returned to the library continuing to find Harris sitting in his favorite spot reading the paper. He never spoke to him or snatched the paper from his grasp.  Hawthorne began to notice that Dr. Harris often gazed at him, and seemed interested in him, but was otherwise obeying ghostly laws which, according to Hawthorne, were not to speak unless spoken to.  Yet Hawthorne refused to engage him, thinking that the other patrons would think him insane if he spoke to an empty chair, and besides since he had never been introduced to Harris, Hawthorne believe he must follow traditional social protocol.  So they never crossed the lines between the living and the dead. What do the dead ask of us?  What errand might Harris have wanted Hawthorne to perform for him? What might put him at peace?  We will never know.  Mythic knowledge tells us that ghosts often seem to have some unfinished business, often messy, like understanding a loss or finding justice, and they want to be able to be at peace.  Yet we might wish that Hawthorne might have overcome his shyness and his reserved fear of engagement, and seen what Harris wanted. 

 Most of us do not spend our waking hours obsessed with literal ghosts, and yet ghosts of one kind or another are something we all struggle with throughout our lives.  The most oft-repeated phrases in the Jewish and Christian scriptures are “do not be afraid,” and “remember.”  We see both of these in the context of Jesus’ resurrection, where the disciples are instructed to not be afraid of his ghost like apparition, and also that they must remember him, and his living truths that will empower their lives on into the future. 

We often think of ghosts as embodiments of particular people. It is the spirit of Harris or of the woman who floated over the grave when I was 11.  But there are other kinds of ghosts we see every day that remind us of a loved one who parented us, or mentored us, or cared for us, and now they are gone.  I am thinking here of how we see those people in ourselves, or in animate objects that represent them.  I remember once sitting down at a restaurant shortly after my father had died, and ordering a Tanqueray and tonic and a baked stuffed lobster, and then beginning to sob. It seems foolish in retrospect, but it was exactly what he would have ordered.  It was like he was in the room, and I was mouthing the words he would have said. Grief comes in small ways and at odd moments. Suddenly that person is alive to us because of their favorite food or musical performer.  I can’t hear Diana Ross, and not think of my Dad.  “Stop In the Name of Love!”  There are these material things that we have inherited from our loved ones – books or art work, or things that specifically remind us of them, like a water color painting of a cable car I purchased with my parents in San Francisco.

These momentos are visual or material reminders of the life we shared with our loved ones.  We say I will remember them by this ring they wore, or this watch, or this piece of furniture.  Every day this will remind me of what they loved, like seeing the photo of my Dad in his baseball cap, also reminds me of how that passion for the game still lives in me. Sometimes we fear becoming our parents.  It is the living ghost in us. I often find myself quoting my father when I say he always said that all insurance is a scam. Buy as little as you can. As we get older, a lot of us take on traits of our parents, for better or worse. We embody their habits of deeds and words, like saving money on clothes or appliances, or repeating a phrase.. Perhaps you identify with the  Progressive Insurance commercial, set at a “Dad Support Group.” We hear men and women tell honest confessions, like that they refer to every child as “chief.” “Because Progressive can’t save you from becoming your parents, but they can save you when you bundle on home and auto.”  The irony is that my Dad would have said be wary of Progressive, it’s an insurance company!

The body has ghosts, too. We all know about scars we carry from our own past trials of surgery and trauma of one kind or another.  My ankle that was smashed in my encounter with the wave so many years ago, still hurts me sometimes, especially in cold weather. These scars remind us we are survivors of one kind of illness or accident, and in fact, we may relive the incident or the trial over and over in our mind.  As the opening words suggest, we try to take the shards of our lives, and put them back together in a new pattern. Some years ago I remember relating in a sermon the shock I felt one week of looking into the mirror and seeing my father’s face in my own. I never thought I looked like him, but suddenly one morning as I was about to lather up with shaving cream, I suddenly saw him staring out at me from the mirror.  Perhaps it was because I was then the age where I remembered him the best. Or perhaps it was because I had attained an age where I was more conscious of my own mortality.  I was no longer a young man any more.  My hair was beginning to thin, turn white, and the skin on my neck began to look thinner and withered.  I was reminded that my generation was aging, and youth would soon be taking our place. Just this week, I crossed the street one day, when I saw my neighbor sitting in his rocker reading a book. I wanted to make sure he had heard about the death of our former minister Marc Salkin, as they had been friendly during all the years the Salkins had lived in the parsonage. He said, yes, he had heard, but he didn’t like to talk about such things. But it is good to remember our common destiny, as it reminds us to live in the present.  We remember on Memorial Day especially that the ghosts of our past are there not to scare us, but to help us. They remind us that this is our fate, too, but they also remind us of what others have given us that still animates our lives with love, and passion, and enthusiasms for living – whether it be books, or nature, or gardening.  We remember another’s kindness to us.  Don’t be afraid to remember, even if it hurts that they are gone, and that you too, will one day be gone. Remember how much they gave, what joy they brought, what meaning they gave to your life.

The body remembers.  I have had a couple of dramatic experiences of this.  Twelve months after I was hit by the ocean wave, Andrea and I were playing with the kids at the beach in Maine.  Our backs were to the water, and an ocean wave came in as pounding surf.  Our bodies recognized the overwhelming danger of the fearsomeness of the wave, and reacted viscerally to this. Suddenly we were both filled with fear, almost like a bodily warning shouting Danger! The joke was that it was not a large wave, but the experience of the prior year, the rushing water over the beach, had been imprinted on our bodies.  Our bodies knew that they needed protection from danger. Perhaps you could define this as a ghost in our bodies, but a more powerful experience of ghosts occurred for me at Gettysburg.  Being a former Civil War scholar may have increased the impact of this on my psyche, but after touring the battlefield I was standing at Cemetery Ridge which was where Pickett’s Charge was repulsed on the last day of the battle in 1863.  It felt like the earth was crying out from the pain of all that suffering, and my body felt it. The fruitlessness of the charge brought death and carnage. Suddenly my body began to shudder, and I was in tears from all that pain of grief from so long ago. Were the ghosts of the soldiers in the ground? Was the pain of the loss of life, still present, and I could feel it rising from below? I have no answer other than I felt the power of the past, ghosts of memory filled my heart and soul, and I suddenly shared in that grief. 

I suspect that this is what Memorial Day is intended to bring back to us. When we stand before the grave, before the battlefield, before the memorial, we feel the sacrifice that others have made that we might live. I just finished a sermon by John Weiss that he gave here in Watertown in 1862.  It is a sermon on giving thanks even as the country is embroiled in war. His gratitude is that God is present, he says in “every disappointment in our history.” He is thankful that the truth has been revealed.  For too long, he says, people had said that letting slavery alone would result in its dying out. But, the cotton crop had grown, and he is thankful that at last, the issue of slavery is “honestly and squarely made at last.”  It does not lurk behind politics. And with this sermon,  he realizes that the country is on the cusp of issuing the emancipation proclamation. Despite what has been destroyed, he can rejoice with thanksgiving that freedom is coming.  This echoes the words of the poet Adrienne Rich,

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:

So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those

who age after age perversely

with no extraordinary power

reconstitute the world.”

We all live with ghosts. When someone goes out of our life we may think we see them or hear their voice. I am sure I will leave a few ghosts around here. They are the sum of the people and experiences we have known and had in our journey of life. Those ghosts live in us forever, and we may remember their words and their kindnesses to us. What they gave us, be it, inspiration, or challenge to live with greater integrity live on. Billy Collin’s poem “The Names” was written in commemoration of those who were killed  on September 11, 2001.  This poem reminds us that we survived. It gives us a sense of the tremendous number of citizens, workers, firefighters and police officers that were killed. “The bright eyed daughter and the quick son.” All those names.  It asks us never to forget. It calms us to say I remember and so can you. It is a lot to bear on the walls of the heart, and as scripture underscores, remembering is so important, the names, the people, what they did and who they were. So we keep these ghosts alive in the warehouse of our memory. Thy continue to give us strength for the journey ahead.

When we do remember, we say, let us recall the person with a moment of silence. Let us never forget that a moment of silence for these ghosts from our past helps us focus on who they were, and what they gave us.  We are silent out of respect. We are silent so we can remember what they gave us.  It gives form to the ghosts in our lives, the form of their gifts, and our loving response. In the wake of the recent shooting at the Mosque in Christchurch , New Zealand,  Prime Minister Arden said that the people should keep silent.  Sometimes silence is a sign of fear or powerlessness or shame or even to protect ourselves, but the Prime Minister suggested that silence in this case was possibility, freedom and even power. Silence was recommended so that the perpetrator’s name would not be spoken, and thus fame or prominence for him were to be resisted.  Silence will bring dignity and respect for those who died. This is, just as Billy Collins says, silence as spiritual resistance. Maybe it is also a response we could have in the face of lies, twisting of truth, and self-aggrandizement that we see in today’s political discourse. There is so much weaponized speech in the media. What if we disarm it with silence?  May silence help us recover the memory of lives well lived.  May we speak the names of those ghosts, and not let them disappear, learn from them, cry about them, and help them live in our lives, but finally, may we do our remembering in silence, in respect, in dignity, and in memory.

Closing Words –  from Elizabeth Tarbox

And so I say ours is a story of faith

and hope and love.

I say it is our need for one another

that binds us together,

that brings us limping and laughing into

relationships

and keeps us at it when we otherwise

might despair at the fix we are in.

I say it is the holy we need,

the eternal beyond our comprehension,

and one place we can find it is here,

working and worshipping together.

And I say there is a transcendent value

worthy of our loyalty,

upon which we may set our hearts,

and its divine manifestation is love.