“The Open Book”
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
March 13, 2016
Opening Words from The Boy Detective, by Roger Rosenblatt
A walk is a way of entering the body, and also leaving it. I walk within me, and without. But how do you walk in the world? One foot in front of the other, say the pragmatists. But in this life of ours, merely to become vertical requires two years, so any child can see this walking business is not easy. Even when you get the hang of it, you still stumble and take headers….
If you ask me, each one of us has two souls, not one, and we take these two souls on our walks. One soul is for the senses, one for the intellect. They lead parallel lives, these two souls, never meeting, yet connected, and side by side they move into infinity, like legs on a walk.
READING adapted from Words That Count, by Stephanie Paulsell
A friend who is Jewish once recounted her introduction to the religious life of her community for me: She was invited by her teachers to lick honey from the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a practice that dates back at least to the Middle Ages. This delicious invitation to the study of Hebrew linked study and sweetness forever in her imagination, as her teachers hoped it would.
My own early memories of religious education are not as auspicious. My first Sunday school teacher was my mother, and my first memories of church are of hiding and crying under the child-sized tables because I didn’t want to share her with other children. The religious education that mattered most was the one I received with my sister under the crook of our mother’s arm as she read to us. Our sacred texts were works by Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose, Ezra Jack Keats, and Maurice Sendak. The ritual of settling in together, the repeated readings of the same stories, and the proximity of our mother bathed everything she read to us in a kind of sacredness. Snuggled up together on the couch or in bed, it felt as if we had all the time in the world to roll the words on our tongues, feel their rhythms in our bodies, and discover the secrets that a well-drawn picture could hold. My mother gave me the foundation of my religious life—the feeling of having embarked on something of inexhaustible significance, something we would never finish or solve, an open-ended mystery we could seek in our books and, in Sendak’s phrase, in “the world all around.”
When my daughter was a little girl, I could never predict what invitation she would hear at church. Like my mother, I was my daughter’s first Sunday school teacher, but nothing I did came close to the impact of a leader of our church visiting the class. He told the children how he liked to wake up before the sun rose because he felt closest to God in the early morning stillness. The next morning, I woke at 5:30 to find my daughter awake and sitting at the window. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m watching for God, like John does,” she replied.
These feelings and convictions—that language is as sweet as honey, that reading is as intimate and mysterious as prayer, that we long for a glimpse of God’s presence and will wake up early to seek it—are not easy to communicate, even in church. It’s hard to find the right words to express them.
All our days, we work to translate our lives, to cross the boundaries of language and find relationships with others—with honey on the tongue, pictures leaping off a page, and morning light edging up to the window, we stand at the threshold of our rich religious inheritance and are beckoned to enter.
Sermon: The Open Book
Who here knows the very first sentence of Jane Eyre?
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong picture. I didn’t know it either. It is not a book that I have visited and revisited; in fact, I think of it not from the text, but from the black and white movie that horrified and entranced me in equal measure one Sunday afternoon when I was ten. But early in the new year, I picked up the fat volume to re-read, in order to prepare for a visit to a congregation interested in my work on faith and children’s literature. Having already chosen my opening words, in which Roger Rosenblatt neatly solved the dilemma of needing both to be at home in ourselves and in the world by saying we each have two souls, which work together like legs on a walk, I read the opening line: There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. Soon enough, trapped with her horrid cousins, events are set in motion that have Jane sent to the dreary Lowood school, branded as a liar and an ungrateful orphan who does not know how to behave.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. This became a theme for me, too – my planned visit to Newport was called off – they were buried under two feet of snow. The roads were closed; parking was banned, sidewalks were heaped up with heavy white piles. Then I began having recurring visions of Virginia Woolf on her last walk; a March day in 1941. Once I read that her husband found her walking stick, laid down and abandoned by the side of the river, along with her hat, and that was how he knew what that she had deliberately walked into the water. Suffering from depression after being bombed out of two different homes in London, she had been begging not to given the rest cure – not to be packed off somewhere and kept quiet while the world was blowing up around her. If she couldn’t walk in the world, she would walk her way right out of it.
Young Jane Eyre is a more hopeful exemplar. She is indeed constrained in every dimension. It isn’t enough to be kept inside; she is either hiding behind the curtains, or locked in a room, alone and unable to see the world all around. And when Jane reads, instead of granting access to her interior world, the book is thrown at her with such force that she bleeds from the eye. The first time Jane does walk in the story, it is a way of limiting her — it is a punishment; a march in circles in the streaming cold rain and brown mud of the schoolyard.
But we see immediately that Jane is the persevering sort, with a belief in justice so pure that she is impulsive instead of strategic, and she has romantic notions of how the world works. It can be a little anxiety provoking, to read of this girl who doesn’t shield herself; who keeps asserting that she is alive, with thoughts and aspirations. A reader might silently pray that Jane learn to be meek and fade into the wallpaper, and yet it is exciting that she refuses. She is bigger than the culture wants her to be, and by reading her story, we grow larger, too. We step out of the boxes or the roles that have been constructed for us, and out into the wide world.
When my oldest son was quite small, I remember noticing the similarities between doors and books; the fascination with hinged objects that open to reveal something new to us; or close to keep other things out. He could not walk yet, and obviously could not decode texts, but would read the room as he sat on the kitchen floor opening cabinets, crawling in to peek out, in much the same way he would sit with a board book in his lap, opening, shutting, turning it over. He was already practicing putting himself in a different place or time, walking out of these pages, and into another story, with a new perspective.
There is a discipline known as divine reading, also called The Ladder of the Monks, which was devised about ten centuries ago by a kind man living in a monastery in the mountains of France. He used the image of Jacob’s ladder as a way to describe a method for approaching a text. The original ladder did not have much to do with books. It was something that came to Jacob in a dream the night after he had run away from home. When darkness fell and he had to rest, Jacob lay on the ground, with only a rock for a pillow. He slept and in his sleep saw a ladder that spanned the distance between earth and heaven, with angels climbing up and down the rungs. Above the ladder hovered God, who spoke to Jacob, saying “the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendents, and by you and your descendents all the families of the earth shall bless themselves. See, I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.”
Well, this was quite something to hear. Jacob had not thought it likely that he would ever be able to return home. He had stolen a blessing by lying to his father and taking advantage of his brother. While it may have seemed like a good idea before he actually did it, now he had to live with himself. He was alone, exposed to the elements, with nowhere to go, plagued with guilt. When Jacob woke, this dream had left him stunned. He said to himself, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I – I did not know it. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He had broken all of the religious rules that governed families, and was lying in the dirt, but now he knew that he was not lost. Starting from right where he was, he could climb onward. In his dream, even the angels were climbing, and they moved in both directions. They didn’t hover and float effortlessly, but had to work their way forward.
The Ladder of the Monks follows from this dream image, and says that we ascend towards God by reading. First, we let the words in, with our whole bodies – like the honeyed letters resting on the tongue. It is a sensory activity that makes us think about what we have taken in that we could not see at first. What letter was concealed under that honey? This method of teaching Hebrew is not just about making learning sweet; it is evocative of manna, the miracle sustenance that came to wandering Israelites. No one knew what it was, really, but it tasted like wafers spread with honey, and it was referred to as the word of God; the only thing that kept the people alive. They had no home, no food, and were treated as slaves, but this manna appeared. What happens when we are in so much despair that we dare to bite down on the unknown? Something bursts, and spreads through us, and keeps us going. There is nourishment in hidden places. We ascend. And if we allow ourselves to be moved by this experience, to extract something that touches us, allows us to see new possibilities, we climb higher still. Ultimately, we can feel completely centered, and yet outside ourselves, too; suspended, as if we can see from a new vantage point.
As a formal plan, this is about a thousand years old, but it is an old, old idea that associates reading with divinity. In many ways, that is exactly what scripture is – you let God talk to you through Scripture, and then you talk back. It is an ongoing dialogue, in which the text comes alive in you.
But does it have to be scripture? Or perhaps the question should be, is scripture necessarily the written word? Isn’t sacred reading something far more like what Stephanie Paulsell described, nesting under her mother’s arm, looking at pictures and knowing that you are on a journey of discovery that will last all your days? In fact, at the time that the ladder of the monks was assembled, reading was essentially just like that! It was all about conveying a feeling from an authority; from a world beyond our own individual ones. It was relational. Until the invention of the printing press, the idea of a sentence as a fixed collection of words simply did not exist. Ideas were voiced, discovered, shared, felt, absorbed. Looked at this way, Stephanie’s daughter, awake at dawn and framed by the window, is reading the sky. Someone from church has shared his book, and opened her to a new page. We can read something holy and precious in the whole interchange. This elder had faith in the children, and allowed himself to be vulnerable. He gave them a fragment of his life, and because of that, something really difficult to explain; a topic that resists words, and longings that recede when burdened with too much meaning – somehow, it has been communicated. The absence of God becomes the presence being sought.
One of my Sunday rituals is the television show The Good Wife, but whenever Downtown Abbey is on, I instead play at being a good wife, and watch my show later, on the computer. So now that the series my Anglophile husband loved is over, I have begun catching up with my show. I was a bit stunned when I started the season. Alicia – the good wife of the title – is deeply grieving, lost in regrets and memories and feeling unbelievably alone. Alienated from everyone, including herself, she sits with her kindle and headphones, tuning out the world, while mechanically complying with tasks given her. She is vacant. When her daughter, Grace, asks what she is doing, Alicia says, “I am reading Jane Eyre.” Grace looks completely baffled, and finally asks, “Why?” And the answer is simply, “Because I want to.” It is the first hint of Alicia even having a self to assert. The book has become a signifier, a way of looking for a comrade to show us how to persevere; a way of holding up a mirror to the self while giving us a way out.
The story is one that tells us that we can handle complex relationships AND inner turmoil; that despite everything, we can walk into our lives. This is the lesson of church, of course, as well as of classic novels – to help us think about what makes us whole. Jane Eyre shows us that feelings we may tamp down, suppress, or avoid; feelings of being abandoned by the world, without a place in the natural order; of raging injustice – all of these have value. If we can learn to voice them, we may save ourselves; find a truth that lets us flourish. The external world and all that it inflicts on us makes us travel inward, so we can find a path back, and maybe even point the way for others.
A couple of years ago, in a Salon interview, Jamaica Kincaid said “When I start to write, I suppose I want it to change me, to make me into something not myself. And while I’m doing it, I really have the feeling that this time, at the end of it, I will be other than myself. Of course, every time, I look down at myself and I’m just the same. I’m always disappointed, but I get right back up again, and I think this time–this time—I really will be transformed …When I write a book, I hope to be beyond mortal by the time I’m finished.
“I come from the small island of Antigua and I always wanted to write; I just didn’t know that it was possible. I would pretend when I was a child that I was Charlotte Brontë, because I’d read Jane Eyre when I was ten and, although I didn’t understand it, I loved the idea that this woman had written a book. I wanted to be her.”
Long ago, the concept of reading did not include the idea of an author. The world was an open book that people learned to read by paying attention to dreams, or listening to the voices — in the wilderness, in the temple, in the wind.
Jamaica Kincaid reveals how the shift in which reading became words on a page, in books, meant a tremendous change in the concept of authority. It is no longer completely outside of us. We have agency, too. We can become creators, and those longings for transformation; for a world that is not so cruel and lonely and selfish; become something we can fulfill; or try to anyway. Jane Eyre was written in the voice of a child; a first person narrative with the point of view of a completely powerless being, who yet claimed her power. She embodies faith, rather than telling us to have it.
Jane’s story echoes that of Jacob, a young man who could not abide the idea that only the first born sons mattered. But he didn’t come out and honestly challenge this. Instead, he did a work around, and stole from his brother, and lied to his father. Then, forlorn, cast out, left in the rubble, Jacob sees a ladder to heaven. There is way out of an unfair and constricted life, and into something better for him and all who follow. Jane writes her own story. She, like Jacob, just keeps climbing towards her own salvation, and tells us we can do the same, whatever mess we may find ourselves in at this moment.
There are myriad ways in which we fail in life; when we disappoint others and fall short of our own standards. And there are also ways in which life fails us – losses inflicted upon us, illnesses, cruelties. But taking a walk is always a possibility. That is how we learn to read the world –the scents carried on a breeze, the crunch underfoot, the shadows that stalk or bend around corners, the crashes and whispers and echoes and all the things that can never be adequately named or spoken about, but which are none the less vital, and give us meaning, and beckon us to author of a world of justice and mercy; to see an empty sky as the canvas for a story in which the sun climbs higher, inviting us to walk into a new day.
Closing Words from Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray
The creation ends where I live, at the very end of the sweet earth. Only the sky goes on, widest of the wide…. It appears so close that with a long enough extension ladder, you think you could touch it, and sometimes you do, when clouds descend in the night….
the land is wide open, flat as a book, vulnerable as a child. It’s easy to take advantage of, and yet it is a land of dignity.