“Standing On Your Shadow” by Mark W. Harris

 June 7, 2015 –   First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.


Reading – “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson


I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;

And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.


The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—

Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;

For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,

And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.


He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,

And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.

He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;

I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!


One morning, very early, before the sun was up,

I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;

But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,

Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.


Second reading – “Speak, You Too” by Paul Celan

Speak, you too,

speak as the last one,

have your say.


Speak —

But do not separate the no from the yes.

Give your saying also meaning:

give it its shadow.


Give it enough shadow,

give it as much

as you know to be parceled out between

midnight and midday and midnight.


Look around:

see how alive it gets all around —

At death! Alive!

Speaks true, who speaks shadows.


But now the place shrinks, on which you stand

Whereto now, shadow-stripped one, whereto?

Climb. Feel yourself upwards.

Thinner you become, unrecognizable, finer!


Finer: a fathom

along which it wants to descend, the star:

to swim down below, below

where he sees himself swimming: in the swell

of wandering words.



A couple of weeks ago a lecture I organized took place at the UUA headquarters in Boston. It was given by Megan Marshall the biographer of both Margaret Fuller and the Peabody Sisters. Marshall mostly spoke about Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, as early feminists, who were also Unitarians. Peabody operated a bookstore on West Street in Boston in the 1840’s where Transcendentalist literature was borrowed and sold. The building still stands housing a Mexican restaurant, where Andrea and I ate recently. Peabody was famous for being the founder of the kindergarten movement in America, but long before she peddled romantic literature or organized children’s playtimes, she was employed as an amanuensis. I love this word. Does anyone know what it means? I want one. Peabody was enraptured with the preaching of Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, the chief luminary of the movement, and happily took the job of copying his sermons, a perfect amanuensis, if ever there was one. Copying sermons is not a job for which there is much demand anymore, but if you will, it was a kind of personal secretary, a copyist for all the writing and speaking that a clergyman or politician did. The word originated in ancient Rome, meaning a slave at his master’s personal service “within hand reach,” or a right hand man. Being a personal secretary reminds me of the work I used to do when I worked at UU headquarters. The president of the Association frequently used me as a ghost writer. I would research papers and write them, put together speeches, and once even saw an article in the Harvard Divinity School bulletin that I had written published under the president’s name. I knew this was what I was getting into when I took the job, but it was still annoying that my work was credited to someone else. It felt a little like plagiarism, a crime my college roommate was once suspended from school for. With the UUA president, I felt like I was standing in his shadow. He got all the credit. Even though the work was mine, no one could see me. Have you ever felt like you stood in the shadow of a boss, a partner, a sibling, or your parent?

Shadows have long fascinated me. I remember being amazed as a child by this dark reflection of the outline of my body mimicking everything I did. Was it me, or was it somebody trying to make fun of me by copying everything I did? Did you ever try to run, and then stop quickly, hoping the shadow would keep going? It was so magical, seeming to have a life of its own. Thinking about it takes me back to reflections that could grow so tall and then short depending upon where the sun is positioned in the sky. When the sun is overhead, the shadow is short, and then becomes taller as the sun moves towards the horizon. I could become as tall as the sky at the end of the day. As Stevenson wrote in his famous children’s poem, “For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball, And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.”

Who can forget shadow puppets to entertain at night? We could do marvelous things with our hands, including simple ducks with beaks and an eye to bunnies with two ears to more elaborate creatures like swans requiring two hands to make it come to life. Shadows are fun. They can even be traumatizing. I think I told you in a previous sermon that one of the worst moments of my childhood occurred when I awoke one night to see a dark figure standing in the corner of my room. I screamed and screamed bringing my parents running from their bedroom. Once the light was on, they showed me clearly that no one was there. I was reassured. But then when the light was turned out again, the tall man in the cowboy hat menacingly reappeared in the corner again. When I opened my eyes to see him there, the screaming commenced again. My parents returned, and eventually found a small toy soldier on the floor that was being projected as a tall man by moonlight to frighten me to death. I went back to sleep, but have never forgotten the shadow terror.

I think standing in the shadow, or being in someone’s shadow is often thought of in a negative way.   Historically bright, talented women have had to stand in the shadow of their husband’s careers. In her book, No Silent Witness, Cynthia Tucker tells how minister’s wives in the nineteenth century were expected to fill congregational expectations of perfect benevolence and quiet charm. These women, while receiving little credit for pastoral work, cooking for the infirm, or nurturing children had to stand in the shadow of their husbands renown smiling demurely and silently as he receives the accolades or authority. William Greenleaf Eliot had his own amaneusis in St. Louis, and in her weekly visits to the parsonage, Sally Smith noticed Mrs. Abby Eliot never sitting down without first grabbing sewing or knitting to occupy herself. She had to patch old clothes until they were ready to fall apart, because her husband spent much of their salary on extending welfare to strangers first. In addition he won fame for being a great fund raiser for the church, but part of the reason for this was that the Eliot name always topped the giving list. Sally kept seeing womanly self-denial. Even when people came to the door with problems, Mrs. Eliot positioned herself as the first line of defense to protect her husband’s time and energy. Eliot had offered his advice to Sally as to how women should behave urging her to bridle her speech and always be cheerful. This was a silent shadow from which you were never to see any color or hear any noise.

Even if we don’t relate to sacrificing our own career to standing in the shadow of another’s we often know that experience in some other way in our lives. We may grow up in the shadow of the parsonage with a parent who was a minister, and the old moral stipulations haunted us as friends and neighbors had certain expectations for behavior we could never fulfill. My brother who earned a PhD. cast a long shadow of academic and athletic achievement that it was expected I would follow. The pressure cast by the shadow of an older sibling can be painful when the same teacher our sibling had asks us why we can’t achieve in the same way in the classroom or on the field as they did. Why can’t you run or shoot like him? Parents can do the same thing with their children when achievement becomes the criteria of a successful life. Sometimes we are happier people when we live in shadows rather than trying to catapult ourselves into the limelight.

This week in a David Brooks column in the New York Times called “The Small, Happy Life,” Brooks tells about a story he heard from the writer Elizabeth Young about a man who was proud and excited to show her a gift he was bequeathed. Surprisingly, the gift was a banged up tin pot wrapped in a cloth as though it was fragile and valuable. She recognized that the lifelong lesson in this dingy old pot is, “we do not all have to shine.” Young went on to say that hearing that story made it possible for her to relieve herself of the need to do something important, as if that would fulfill her and give her life meaning. Instead she noted that she always wanted to be effortlessly kind, and raise kind children. There are small opportunities, or little chances each day to be generous and kind, and true spiritual and emotional growth happens when we act on those opportunities.

The most difficult part of training for the ministry is often the experience of taking Clinical Pastoral Education, usually a chaplaincy of some sort. When I took it, now nearly forty years ago, my supervisors were heavily focused on confronting the shadow side of our personalities. Don’t you see your dark side? they often said. Having been schooled in Jungian psychology, this was not a novel approach for me, but to ask a newly minted Unitarian who was schooled in the goodness of humanity to embrace the evil or sin in myself, was like going back to the childhood faith I had just rejected. Yet we all learn that there is a part of ourselves that we often try to suppress or deny we have, and the more we deny that self, the more it is likely to surface in untoward ways. The moon shadow that caused me such trauma is the same shadow that Cat Stevens sang about so many years ago, “I’m being followed by a moon shadow. . .Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light.”

Many of us struggle throughout our lives to understand the anger we hold in our hearts, or our inability to forgive others. We often see that those with authority problems are drawn to a faith where authority is an issue, and their dark side makes them incapable of granting authority to another. Most of us are followed by shadows that haunt us like ghosts from the past. Jung said that we never truly see others, but instead only see aspects of ourselves that are projected onto them. So the work we need to engage in spiritually is to truly see others for themselves, and not as shadows of ourselves and our past.

Paul Celan was a poet who was born a Jew in Romania in 1920. Both of his parents perished in the Holocaust, and he spent a period of time in a labor camp. He wrote, he said, to construct a language against historical darknesses, as he found himself in a state of permanent mourning. Celan tells us in the poem that we speak true when we speak shadows. He sees Holocaust victims as shadows because the smoke from the crematories goes to the sky, and thus that is where their graves are. In the poem the directions of ascent and descent collapse into one another as air becomes water. Speaking shadows is thinking with grief, so that in our judgment of right and wrong, and good and evil, we feel the informed sorrowfulness of mourning painful events together. The dichotomies we tend to think in do not give us a sufficient moral bearing for living our lives. They are about being right. I think of the unwillingness of the Turkish government to name the genocide of the Armenians for the evil that it was. Instead the dead are merely categorized as unfortunate victims of war, but nothing more. So by failing to name this evil, they fail to see the destructive shadow in their own history, or in their own selves. Is it war or genocide? Naming the past for what it is means we must confront it in ourselves. Genocide may give us a sense of moral unease which we would rather avoid, but it does impact us with the knowledge that we did this, and it’s painful, but it also allows the possibility of reconciliation.When we speak with shadows there is hope we can grow spiritually

Seeing the shadow in us means we can overcome it in ourselves, and create a just future, not just judge or attack the other, and go on imagining ourselves as righteous. Our moral sense of self is constructed not by me having my say, or my being right, but in dialogue and social contracts with others. In a recent article, “The Bonds of Battle,” journalist Sebastian Junger reports that the military now has the highest rates of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in history. Of those veterans treated for a permanent disability though, only about 10 percent have actually seen combat. This means the majority of veterans who suffer form PTSD have been affected by something other than direct exposure to extreme danger. Incredible as it may seem,, Junger says part of the difficulty of war seems to be that soldiers find themselves missing the war after it is over.

The problem seems to be loyalty, reliance on others and cooperation have to be given up when a soldier returns home because those qualities cannot be found in modern society. The danger of war and loss they found brought a closeness they cannot find anymore. Now they are isolated and have to act alone, and all the parades and political accolades don’t really help. When we are in stressful situations, we need one another. And modern life with its terrible stresses and fears and anxieties and darknesses lacks opportunities to fulfill the human need to love, to find others to rely upon, and to be with others in community. Babies need more contact with mothers. Children need more contact with parents, and adults need more contact with one another. And we live in a world where we have less. And that is where you come in. This is why we need church communities. In a democratic community such as ours, or in a dreamed for multicultural world all our voices matter. We don’t give predominance to certain voices because they are louder or more prestigious, or more skilled. If someone is trying to triumph over someone else, then they are not interested in being kind or humble, willing to admit mistakes or apologizing. They are interested in being right. People who act like this don’t speak to shadows because they are afraid of what is in the shadows – the other, and bringing out the other, makes them afraid. Speaking to shadows means we say this is difficult, and I am uncertain. Human relations is messy, but if I want to see the truth, the whole truth, not merely my truth, then I will speak to the shadows.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the silhouette was a popular form of portraiture with families and individuals who could not afford a more formal and expensive mode of having their likenesses made. Oil paintings required several sittings, and even pastels or watercolors took time. Silhouettes were created in one quick sitting, and were therefore affordable. Silhouettes have always reminded me of shadows, a dark outline of the person, but you can never see any detailed features. What did they really look like we may ask. Years ago I remember loving the exercise of laying down on the floor and having someone take a crayon and draw an outline of my body as I formed a silhouette on the butcher paper. Then we would take the body outline and fill it in with a portrait of ourselves – hair, eyes, mouth, clothes.

Long ago Plato said that the shadows that people see on the wall of the cave are mistaken for what is real. But the man who breaks free of his chains, like the philosophers, discovers the shadows are not reality. We are chained to our shadows, Plato implied, and until we break those chains we will never be able to see the real beauty of creating a whole life, or a just community. In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott wrote “Some people seemed to get all sunshine, and some all shadow…”   She is precisely right. Too many of us only receive the shadows of poverty, and too many of us think we have sunshine by pursuing the emptiness of success. That is a vision of inequality, of winners and losers, of too much stress to be better than the other, and make them our shadow. The world we create together in all our flawed humanity, must be a vision of justice, and fairness, for all and must be a personal vision where we embrace the shadows of our own past, the silhouette which we can fill with many colors, a joyful smile that we extend to another.


Closing Words – from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, every craving gives it back to us again.”