“Swan Song” by Tracy Johnson
First Parish Watertown, Unitarian Universalist
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Opening Words – from Rainer Maria Rilke
You must give birth to your images.
They are the future waiting to be born.
Fear not the strangeness you feel.
The future must enter you long before it happens.
Just wait for the birth,
for the hour of new clarity.
Reading – from Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich
This book was written after Barbara found her teenage diary while packing up her many papers for archiving. The final entry, at age 16, poses the question, “What have you learned in the time that has passed?”
I came of age in a time of turmoil and, naturally enough, I took a side. The time I could have spent carrying on the quest went instead into meetings and protests; my research interests turned to wages and poverty, war and the mechanisms of social change. I would not expect my sixteen year old self to understand this redirection, she who did not even fully acknowledge the autonomous existence of other human beings. But this is how it turned out: I fell in love with my comrades, my children, my species.
I learned this much, though, which, given the poverty of metaphysical speculation in our time, an atheist admits only at some risk to her public integrity: You first have to revise the question. To ask why is to ask for a motive or a purpose, and a motive has to arise from an apparatus capable of framing an intention, which is what we normally call a mind. Thus the question why is always really the question who.
Since we have long since outgrown the easy answer – God – along with theism of any kind, we have to look for our “who” within what actually exists. No one is saying that the universe, as an entity, is alive, and certainly not that it has motives or desires. But the closer and more carefully we probe, the more it seethes with what looks like life – runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness. Sometimes, out of all this static and confusion, the Other assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes.
In my case this continues to happen right up to the present, although mercifully in much less cataclysmic form than when I was a teenager. Just a few days ago, for example, I found myself downtown a little after noon in a grassy space lined with food trucks. I wasn’t hungry but I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere either, so I fell into the line for one of the trucks, attracted by the great flow of people out of their office buildings queuing up patiently as if for the distribution of some sort of blessing. It was the first genuinely spring-like day of the season, sunny and disheveled. As I got closer to the truck I had chosen to wait in line for, my eye was caught by something inside it, semicircular and brassy, maybe a knob or a handle, gleaming with its own personal supply of sunlight, and I lost it there for a moment, stunned by the audacity of this object trying to condense the light of a star into its little circumference, stunned by the whole arrangement – buildings, lines, trucks – like some paleo-astronomical structure designed to capture the first rays of the solstice sunrise so that the ceremony can begin, the mass inpouring and outpouring of ecstasy from the heavens and back . . .
Sermon – “Swan Song” by Tracy Johnson
This past week I turned fifty-eight and who would have guessed that I could still be giving birth! Like Sarah, in the Hebrew Bible story of the birth of a nation, well past child bearing years, I laugh at the idea! A couple of months ago, Andrea preached a sermon about annunciation on the occasion of “The Annunciation” – that auspicious day when Mary, the mother of Jesus, received word of her impending pregnancy. I was transported in time as she spoke to the previous year. It was noon time interfaith chapel at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and the young Greek Orthodox chaplain intern was leading worship. He shared the story of “The Annunciation” as we read from scripture and then we had some time for silent meditation. Suddenly the words came to life for me. I had this sense that something fresh and new was growing within me, awaiting its moment of birth; something needed and yet unknown to me exactly. There was no shining, winged cherub, with harp or horn standing before me; no audible voice addressing me, but I felt spoken to, to be sure. My eyes filled with a spontaneous, gentle rush of tears as my heart warmed to the experience; the message; and the question: What is this thing coming to fruition?
Of course there was no way to know the answer to that, and it is less important than the experience itself and how it came to happen. The context is the key. It was a moment in time when I was steeped in the potential to become aware of and to become. Any of a vast array of directions and outcomes awaited me and still do. And I purposefully and intentionally had made space for a time set apart from the day to day hectic life I had created; time to simply be present and soak up in sponge-like fashion whatever came my way. I was open. I didn’t let my high mind intrude on possibility; saving the time for analysis for a later date. I was willing to expose myself to beliefs and ideas and experiences that differed from my stated truth in order that “my truth” might remain permeable and moldable.
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s chronicling of a search for truth she finds herself as a young teen transported from a decidedly atheistic stance into mystical encounters which left her wondering if she wasn’t a candidate for therapy at a minimum. She hadn’t so much made space for the experiences. They came upon her without a moment’s notice, which was the troubling part. But they did occur in what Brain Pickings blogger, Maria Popova, calls ‘the unburdened spaces of life’ where one may have ‘the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with their own mind.’ For me this happens in the shower or on a bike ride. In any case, they spark in Barbara the bigger questions of life; an unending desire to freely posit the “What if’s” of any given argument; an ability to seek from more than one angle as a tool to develop an ongoing stream of truths and, ultimately, more questions on the other side. With the gift of a long life to reflect back upon those instances, which plagued her less now, but have always remained, she ponders meaning as, perhaps, we all do as we come of a certain age.
Barbara is an atheist, a scientist, a rationalist, an activist. I am a naturalistic theist, a theological anthropologist of sorts, a realist. And you are who you are, too. But beyond the labels we place upon ourselves; and the categories into which we find ourselves placed by culture and individual imposition; we are all also something other; something deeper and hidden beneath the layers of existence. When Michelangelo sculpted, I have read that he saw the completed sculpture waiting in the uncut stone before him. His job was to “carve away the excess, freeing the thing of beauty . . . waiting to be released.” In our living we sculpt away at the stony surface of our existence in order to find that other within which we cannot name and no outside other can name for us. There is a thing of great beauty at our center waiting to be birthed. And it comes to light in fits and starts that feel strange, as Rilke points out; in moments of clarity and vision that strike as suddenly as a lightning bolt; electrifying moments, really, that leave us tingling and asking, “What was that? What does it mean?”
We sit in those moments suddenly altered by the unexpected visitation of an idea that marks the space between what was and what might be. Our minds have been preparing to receive it, shaped by events and circumstances, pre-requisites to our ability to grasp it. Our task is to stop thinking long enough, to suspend belief in favor of a singular stream of light, enabled now to pierce our consciousness, to bubble up from that deep, other place and reveal itself. It is for each of us to tackle this in our own way and in our own time, but it is a necessity, I am convinced, if we are ever to move from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, to find our own personal reason for being, to establish a new reality, and to move toward it with intention. Popova cites William James in saying that our experience is the product of what we attend to; that our minds are shaped by what we notice. We have agency to choose how we will be in the world – both our inner and our outer worlds. Why wait until we have come of a certain age to begin? Our future dwells within us. We must offer the invitation.
My husband Chuck is an avid swimmer and a pretty “science-y” guy who loves to explore. Some years ago he tired of the view through a snorkel and mask and decided to take up scuba diving. We were on vacation and he found he could take a quick course and be certified to go down forty feet. He spent the week practicing in the pool and in the water and then, finally, out they went for a true dive. He came back so-o-o pumped up about all he had seen beneath the surface, showing me pictures of corals and fishes taken with his throw-away underwater camera, which really didn’t do the scene justice, but his excitement made up for it! He was hooked and with an addicts hunger signed on for more the next chance he had. This time he would go down eighty feet and return with tales of a giant lobster discovered amid the corals below. The deeper the dive, the more enticing the panorama before him; the more his curiosity was sparked; the more astounding his reality became. The lure of this otherwise unseen world tempting him always to go deeper and investigate; to wait on the mystery of life in the ocean’s depths; and to receive whatever fascinating new creation awaited him. The self is expanded in such a way that is gratifying and humbling both; to be and to bear witness to something so near to us and yet so hidden if we fear the deeper journey.
“The Grail, whether chalice or cauldron, gives of its grace unstinting, to gentle and simple, wise and wanting.” These words introduce a meditation I recently read about Celtic mythic tradition; about these restorative vessels of nurturance, inspiration and rebirth. Both provide food for the spiritual quester and healing from sickness. They apparently appear unbidden during times of great need for restoration that is sincerely sought. A large factor in their appearance is the realization on the part of many concerted hearts that their quest is part of a larger whole; that when one’s singular efforts are unable to turn the tide we reach an awareness that others must be engaged in order to restore what we cannot alone achieve. The hopes and desires of a gathered body invite this mysterious grace to enter into the mix.
Mystery aside, this fragment of wisdom calls out to us who inhabit our silos, often too busy to even notice the meaning in the mundane, opting to flow with the familiar lest we break with routine and cause ourselves to labor unto the birth of something fresh and rare adding new color to our existence. It assumes a level of depth in our personal seeking, which is itself a stretch in our sound bite inhabited world; products of our culture we struggle to hold on to what is most important. It calls us out of our individual quests for knowledge and meaning to a place of shared contemplation.
After all, there are reasons we don’t go scuba diving alone! There is a buddy system in place and it takes more than two to manage the whole operation anyway – someone to drive the boat and the “first mate” – the diver and the “buddy” – and a few other pairs simply make it more of an adventure. There is a silent language down there under the water. One must pay attention to their partners; watch for cues; communicate on a level that words alone cannot impart. You must be vulnerable enough to trust another with what could ultimately be your life and have a willingness to be that person for them. Sometimes the air in the tank fails; we are left breathless with no recourse other than to signal for help, knowing that someone will share from their source. And who back on land would ever believe you found a giant lobster without witnesses to corroborate your story?
We go deep together trusting that someone will guide the journey; provide the venue and the tools. We grow in relationship was we prepare to dive; sharing our fears, supporting one another in preparation to enter on a path, the end of which is vast and unknown. We enter the waters, two by two, with a sense of anticipation; a hopefulness about what lies beneath the surface; transported to an altogether different world; sharing in the feeling of wonder and awe as it unfolds before us. Surrounded by the deep we become a part of it; one with it as we give ourselves over; one with each other as we receive the gift that it holds. In our struggles to make meaning of it all, we take our turns as source of breath and life; as vision keepers; as believers in the truths unveiled in each heart.
The swan song – I bet you were wondering when I might get to this! – originates from the fact that a swan makes no sound until it is prepared to die and then utters one beautiful melody, happily awaiting unification with its maker. I may be quiet, but I am certainly not silent! And I am not preparing for the end of life, although life with all of you on regular basis, at least, will cease in a few weeks. But I will be on my way to a reunification of sorts with my inner guide, as I work on discerning my path from this point forward. Poets through the ages have embraced the superstition of the swan’s song using it to describe one’s last eloquent words or performance; hence we have Shakespeare, the Swan of Avon and Homer, the Swan of Meander. For today, let’s say that I am Tracy, the Swan of Watertown, as I attempt to parse out some meaningful message to sum it all up before I go.
Step outside of your heads for a moment and embrace the mystery that awaits. Sometimes there are answers that we can produce by thinking long and hard, but sometimes the answers are embedded in a deeper space that only quiet reflection can bring to light. Here is where meaning is to be found; in the coming together of the whole self – body, mind and spirit. Let go of the fears that hold you back, saying that life is good the way it is; that change is too much work. Embrace the meaning that is revealed and go deep with it, incorporating it into all the levels of your living. Inner change does sometimes mean you need to make outer changes in order to live more fully, but this is a goal to aspire to, not to run from.
Step outside of your heads together and embrace the mystery that awaits. Time and again I have watched as small groups of us have delved a little deeper and a little deeper still; watched as we let down our guard and shared from those depths; watched as connection has sparked community; a coming together of spirit that binds us one to another in relationship even when it seems that it might be too raw an experience to handle. In those times the grail presents itself with uncanny grace to shape and reshape; a wisdom wells up in our midst that prevails and carries us forward. We are changed by those times; altered by a proximity of spirits that makes way for moving beyond who we are as individuals; who we are as a gathered body; to who we are as part of something much larger; a piece of the whole that adds a distinct dimension, sending it off in otherwise unnoticed directions.
Go deep and meet that Other which dwells at your center. Your personal center. Your collective center. Ask the tough questions. In searching you will find the “who” that beckons from within; the self that is reflected forth from the mirror of the soul; the true self calling out for bold endeavors; calling out for a safe place of expression; calling out for beloved community. Therein, you will find the capacity to give birth to the necessary and the yet unknown.
So may it be.
Closing Words – adapted from Meister Eckhart
Mark how to know yourself. To know oneself one must ever be on the watch over themselves, holding their outer faculties. This discipline must be continued until one reaches a state of consciousness . . . The object is to reach a state of consciousness – a new state of oneself. It is to reach now, where one is present to oneself. “What I say unto you I say unto all, be awake.”