“Strength for the Journey” Mark W. Harris
January 6, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words from Walt Whitman
I tramp the perpetual journey
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
Reading – Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
2nd Reading – “Ready” by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” —Exodus 12:34
You’ll need to travel light.
Take what you can carry: a book, a poem,
a battered tin cup, your child strapped
to your chest, clutching your necklace
in one hot possessive fist.
So the dough isn’t ready. So your heart
isn’t ready. You haven’t said goodbye
to the places where you hid as a child,
to the friends who aren’t interested in the journey,
to the graves you’ve tended.
But if you wait until you feel fully ready
you may never take the leap at all
and Infinity is calling you forth
out of this birth canal
and into the future’s wide expanse.
Learn to improvise flat cakes without yeast.
Learn to read new alphabets.
Wear God like a cloak
and stride forth with confidence.
You won’t know where you’re going
but you have the words of our sages,
the songs of our mothers, the inspiration
wrapped in your kneading bowl. Trust
that what you carry will sustain you
and take the first step out the door.
Sermon – “Strength for the Journey”
Last Sunday Afternoon Andrea and I went to an open house at her college mentor’s home in Concord. He and his wife live a good distance down Main Street, but we decided to park close to the center of town in order to have a brisk walk on the way there. We passed by many lovely historic homes, and had to squint in the twilight at one to determine that its historical marker said Thoreau. Later someone told me that Thoreau had moved there after he left Walden, and remained in the house until he died in 1862. Thoreau’s first book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was an inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Kerouac hoped to join with other young people to be enlightened on a wilderness journey. Some of us would define wilderness a little differently than others. Thoreau’s enlightenment was found on a journey up the river, and Kerouac’s on road trips across America. Thoreau, as you may remember was on a different kind of journey than trying to accumulate exotic travel destinations or experiences. He remembered that his friend Emerson once said that “travel is a fool’s paradise,” and that it is far more useful to change one’s soul than to change one’s landscape. Some people try to change locations or partners or jobs thinking they will change themselves, but they find it is still the same old me who I am keeping company with after arrival. Thoreau wants us to grasp that our real traveling must be internal soul searching, and not something far away and glamourous.
In the conclusion to Walden, Thoreau writes, “It is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” He equates acquiring more exotic places with the ridiculous enterprise of counting felines. Earlier in Walden he had noted. “I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and every where, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.” You can do all kinds of travelling, he insists without leaving one’s hometown.
Thoreau had a sad trip in 1850 down to Long Island to look for the body of Margaret Fuller, her husband and her son, all of whom died in a shipwreck there, when the vessel the family were passengers on was driven into a sandbar by a vicious storm.. Her brother Arthur, who later became our minister, and a tragic casualty at the battle of Fredericksburg, went with Thoreau. Margaret had been on a lifelong journey to find herself, and the meaning of truth. In an era when women were expected to be silent mothers and homemakers, she asserted that “We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as it is to Man”. This pioneering feminist wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century, became a foreign correspondent for Greely’s New York Tribunewhen she traveled to Europe, and then found love in the midst of the Italian revolution, but had kept her young son a secret because he was conceived outside of wedlock. Refusing to submit to the stereotypes of women, and overcoming the ridicule of those who found her neither attractive or submissive enough, she became the most brilliant woman in America. She was coming home from this voyage of soul-searching having found love and family, carrying the priceless manuscripts that described her journeys. And then all was lost as she drowned 300 yards from shore at Fire Island. Her journey to find truth took her far afield, partly because she could not live and be accepted for who she was in America.
Many of the journeys of our lives can be perilous, too. Embarking on a journey is a universal theme, each of ours as well as those of religious sages. In myth we usually hear about the difficult trials the hero goes through, when he or she is threatened by enemies or storms, or even ocean waves, such as I was, or in the belly of the whale such as was true for the Biblical character, Jonah. Nearly dying in that rogue wave led me to contemplate the meaning of my life. Herman Melville considered the crew of the Pequod as they ventured on the high seas of a perilous journey. That crew was a metaphorical cauldron for the good and evil struggles of the world. Yet chasing the great white whale was fruitless, and Ahab was destroyed by his thirst to capture Moby Dick, who had bitten off his leg in a previous voyage, and now the Captain only feels anger and seeks revenge. He succumbs to his feelings, but Ishmael the narrator, survives. We, too, mostly survive the perilous journeys of our lives, perhaps enduring hardships of financial or personal loss along the way. Perhaps we develop deeper character, and grow in understanding. We may even find spiritual insight.
New Year’s is a typical time for each of us to think about our journey. We may reflect upon what is next for us. In our resolutions for the new year we may ask if we have spent too much time at work, and not enough time with our children. We may resolve to see more of the world, or get more involved politically to help stem the tide of global warming, or work towards more just immigration policies. What does retirement mean? What if work is the primary source of meaning in our lives? Where will I go each day? What will I do with myself? Who will I meet on this journey to a new land, where I will not be a visitor only, but a permanent resident?
Are you thinking about where your journey has taken you this year? Just before Christmas Andrea and I had dinner with my brother and his wife. Some of you may recall that this is the brother to whom I had not spoken in 25 years, but we were reconciled last year. He has still not spoken with my other brother or my sister. He was angry over my father’s will, which was terribly unfair to him and me. He had no issue with me, but simply gave up on the family entirely. In some ways he replicated a family squabble that my father had precipitated with his own brother, when my father went into competition with his brother in the same kind of business, retail fuel oil, causing a rift after which they did not speak for 25 years. Incredibly, the generation before that, my grandfather’s generation had also endured a family rift, when my grandfather went into competition with his brother in the same kind of business, water control devices. I guess the moral of the story is avoid family businesses. In my journey, I wisely decided not to go into the family business, declining my father’s invitation.
Yet despite this long history of conflict my brother suddenly wants a family reunion. On top of that it turns out that he has been doing a remarkable amount of research on the family tree, and was hungry to exchange information with me. He had one of these DNA tests showing our northern European and very white Anglo Saxon roots. He discovered our maternal great-great grandfather James Verney, who won a Medal of Honor during the Civil War for his performance at the battle of Fort Fisher, where the Union seized one of the last Confederate held ports, Wilmington, North Carolina. But perhaps most perplexing of all to me, is that he wants to be buried in the Harris family plot in Orange, Massachusetts, where my parents are buried. He has even been to Orange to see the cemetery plot, but has not been to visit our other brother, with whom he remains unreconciled. What struck me was a desire by him to somehow sum up or conclude his own life’s journey with some kind of reconciliation with the family, and a coming home to the location of our parents, even though I am the only member of the family he has spoken to. I told him that I wondered if the other family members would speak to him after his years of rejection. Yet it is evident that he wants a journey that somehow leads homeward, as he approaches the end of his own life. He wants to place himself within the family genealogy, and assume his place among those who have gone before.
We do try to find pieces of our lives that will somehow give them meaning or make them whole. It was more meaningful to me that our great-great grandfather Verney was born in Bath, Maine, near where I will make my future home. I will look for those things that will help me on my journey into a new life. I look to the ocean that I will see every day in Rockland harbor, providing my life with beauty, ebb and flow, and a connection with all of life. I look to a Unitarian Universalist church where my faith will be sustained and nurtured by people I will come to know. I look to places where I can learn and grow, relationships I can forge, and a partner who I love and trust. I expect these things to come to fruition, but one never knows. My brother does not want to feel he has lost his family, and wants reconciliation in some way. He wants to come home. But perhaps the rift is too great, and been too long, and perhaps he will crash on the shores, and ultimately feel saddened that he cannot go home.
We all leave home in different ways. Many voyages of discovery occur on youthful road trips like Kerouac’s. I remember leaving my parents yard bound for the West Coast to study for the ministry. I said it was going to be my California experience, as a nearly worn out old Ford jetted, or should I say puffed, across America pulling a U-Haul trailer that ultimately yanked away the car’s rusty bumper causing me to leave my belongings with scattered people across the continent. Through Badlands and Grand Tetons I ventured. These were journeys to discover new lands, ultimately leading to an end time of living in England. This was the true homeland. These journeys west, and then east were truly times of traveling light, taking only what I could carry – a bag, a book, and a train ticket from Sheffield to London St. Pancras station, a ticket I found the other day, as a book mark.
I was never fully ready to go, to say goodbye to the only home I knew to go West, and then to uproot again to learn a new Yorkshire dialect of automobile boots and bonnets. It was my future’s wide expanse. Yet in each of those places I heard words from sages, tried to listen to those I met, and learned new ways, that I might be broadened. To be inspired by history, by buildings, to be burdened by a past that makes me cry, and yet I somehow hope I will learn from it and be made stronger. We are never ready to go, but there are place to see, things to learn, people who care, and a heart that trusts that I will be alright. And so I am off, or was off, then, to find new meaning.
That was the outward journey to new places. What about Thoreau’s inner journey? How do you make the journey to the soul? I suppose some might say Thoreau tried to discover the soul as he paddled up the river and saw the sparkling water, or felt the wind on his face, or in the days of reflection at Walden. Some of us go to quiet places, and pray, or walk, or listen for the bird’s call. Perhaps I feel it as I stroke the rhythm of my kayak paddle along the granite coast of one of Maine’s thousand inlets. Once I thought it could be done with psychedelics, and I recalled this when I attended the Boston Book Festival, and the keynote speaker was Michael Pollan, who most recently has written about drug induced trips, having graduated from food. This is a kind of trip you have to experience, and so he did. As did I. Here we know the limits of language when drugs make you see the most remarkable array of colors, like a kaleidoscope gone wild. Yet the brain carries this vision further. My trip focused on how consciousness developed, and soon I saw the evolution of apes in the clouds of the sky. Was it telling me that I was one with the whole human race? It seems like ordinary consciousness makes us compare and compete ourselves with others, wanting to be better or more, but this was the miracle, Pollan says of a realization of the beauty of existence. The chemical thing opens the doors of perception. Flowers become more than beautiful. We see how the morning of creation unfolds.
The birth of a baby does that for us, too. Imagine something fresher and newer and deeper. Every year we go on a journey with the three kings or magi. The sixth of January is day they are reputed to have arrived at the manger, the end of the twelve days of Christmas, or Epiphany. The magi made a long journey to find the baby. It was also a journey in perilous times. The family that the three magi go to visit are often depicted in a desperate situation. They are homeless. They are poor. There is no place for them to stay. They are a migrant family. They seem so much like those immigrants on the southern border. And in response to hearing about the use of tear gas to keep them out, the holding of children in custody, and the lack of care for them, we despair. These people fear for their lives, and all they want is a home, a job, a place to be safe and at peace with those they love. We want them to have that epiphany of total welcome.
The new year means the beginning of a journey for many. For me it will mark retirement, and a big move. What journey will you be going on? How do you seek the holy child, the holy within you? These three travelers were never called kings in the ancient scriptures. They only appear in Matthew, and everything we know about them is made up. As magi, they were astrologers, seers, or fortunetellers. Yet we all know it is a mistake to try to predict or control the future. As John Steinbeck once said, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. . . In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
There is an Armenian tradition identifying the “Magi of Bethlehem” as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. They represent the lands of the East. We think there are three of them because there are three gifts: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death. They are following a prophecy of Zoraster, who says they must follow a star which hangs in the sky over the child’s birthplace. Yet this is more than a mere child. He or she is holy. We know that because the magi bow down, or kneel when they behold the child. They worship the child. This led to particular religious practices, all of which have disappeared from our ways of worship.
At the Open House party I attended, the man who told me about Thoreau’s house also talked about a friend of his who was Muslim. The man brought in his prayer rug to work, and he prostrated himself at each appointed hour, giving thanks, worshipping the power of creation, reminding himself that he came from dust and to dust he would return. You could see the indentation on his forehead, the man said, from how hard he pushed his forehead into the ground. I suppose that was what Thoreau’s inner journey was about – letting go of all that stuff that adds up an accumulating score. How can our journey bring us back to a spiritual home? My brother knows he is getting old and is going to die. That is all he can predict, and so he tries to travel and enjoy life as he can, but ultimately he wants reconciliation and a homecoming. He wants to know he is going to be at peace. The desire is there to let go of those ugly, selfish, spirits that have dwelled in his soul, to let go of that cyclops that Cavafy says tarnishes our souls.. I suspect he seeks forgiveness, and reconciliation to be able to come home. Can he not harbor resentment anymore?
That is a good start. That is really what new year is about. We want to find a way in the new year to get back to our soul. We may be afraid of approaching illness and pain, and we feel our losses more often. We want to be reconciled to those we call family and friends. We want a life that gives us renewed hope that there is love in the world. And so we go in search of that which will renew us, and when we remember that the journey is about adventure, discovery, and excitement we will have recovered that awakening soul. What if each of us felt that humbling reverence before the source of life every day in our faith? What if we began the journey by getting down on our knees each day in gratitude for life, in praise of beauty. We won’t worry about what we might lose because we realize we are gaining new eyes to see, and new ears to understand, and the world becomes alive once again.
Closing Words From Michelle Obama
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.