This morning’s reading comes to us from contemplative writer and thinker Thomas Merton. The language has been adjusted to be more gender inclusive.
From “No Man is an Island”:
“…There must be a time of day when [a person] who makes plans forgets [their] plans, and acts as if [they] had no plans at all.
There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have a meaning?
There must be a time when the [woman] of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in [her] life [she] had ever prayed;
When [we] of resolutions put [our] resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and [we] learn a different wisdom: Distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill…”
Five years ago, I went on a spiritual retreat called “Mapping Culture with Soul.” For four days we studied a variety of maps that challenged us to see beyond roads, mountain ranges and waterways so that we might read them as we would sacred texts. When I say ‘sacred texts,’ or ‘wisdom teachings,’ I mean sources that speak to the soul or rattle us in some way; help us see anew. This retreat was a time of unexpected creativity–this is our month’s theme–for it took just this–creativity–to be rattled, but also to stand at a different angle. And, ultimately, creativity to make our own maps. Which is what we did on the last day.
My favorite map was a Meander Map of the Mississippi River drawn in 1944 by cartographer Harold Fisk. Do any of you know what a Meander Map is? In this case, it illustrates all the various paths that the Mississippi has taken over the millennia. The different colors represent moments in history when the river jumped her banks and changed her course dramatically. And here’s a ‘wisdom teaching’ to go with it: Indigenous Peoples used to move their settlements along with the river’s constant shifts and changes, but Europeans and later non-Indigenous Americans saw things differently. In the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to lock down the Mississippi River into a certain course. They built walls and levees and declared: “These are now the official boundaries of the Mississippi. She doesn’t move an inch from HERE.” That’s an actual quote. Nature, of course, had different plans. Author Elizabeth Gilbert, when considering this Meander Map and the ways in which indigenous peoples moved with the river, and non-indigenous people tried to move it wrote this in response, another ‘wisdom teaching’:
“…I’ve been thinking lately about the ways that I keep trying to control my own nature. I see the rules and boundaries that I have set for myself over the years, and how often they have failed. I think about the vows I’ve made to myself and others about where I’m going to be next year, or who I am going to be next year. Endless, expensive, stress-inducing efforts to civilize the river of my being. But if you were to look at the history of my life, it looks a lot like this map…This map could be a portrait of my heart’s own journey. Maybe yours, too. I often say that, after a certain age, every woman, every person, in the world could write a memoir called: NOT WHAT I PLANNED. We change. Life changes. We often feel shame, confusion and anger about those shifts and pivots. But what if we just trusted the river? She seems to know where she wants to go. Onward.”
What if we trusted the river? She seems to know where she wants to go. Onward. One of life’s hardest lessons, I think. Hence a wisdom teaching, for that is what wisdom teachings are. Words, images, musical notes that speak to the soul about the big, hard human things.
We heard one earlier: “There must be a time of day when [a person] who makes plans forgets [their] plans, and acts as if [they] had no plans at all.” Written down by the great American theologian and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. We learn a different wisdom, he writes, when [we] of resolutions put [our] resolutions aside as if they had all been broken. Pray as if for the first time. Silence ourselves and consider if anything we think or speak or believe has any meaning at all.
Let that seep in for a minute. One of life’s hardest lessons. Letting go of the plan. Stop trying to wield the river. Let it wield you.
Here’s a question: When was the last time you scrapped your plans and designs, and just let the wind blow you? “Where are you going?” someone might ask, to which you would respond, “I don’t know!” We might do this here or there, but imagine what this would be like in the places of our lives that seem to make Army Corps Engineers of us all? These are the official boundaries! Don’t move an inch!
So often even when we do loosen ourselves from the plan, or our expectations of how things will turn out–when we go into the wild or on a vacation, places of wandering for many of us, we follow marked paths and choose which one to take based on length or difficulty. We cling to maps and site descriptions. We want all the information about all the places we are seeing. Gotta make sense of it! We’re aware of the time–when we must be back. When we must be at the next place. We put a lot in place that contains the meandering, right? That makes us feel safe.
I would say we do the same thing with our beliefs and convictions. We might wander out a bit, but most of us aren’t up for a full-blown surrender or letting go; being wrong; a change of mind or heart.
And the same goes for the waiting rooms of our lives. Where we don’t know what’s going to happen. Where our plans, our hopes, all seem to come to a screeching halt. Time to wait and see. We don’t like this all that much. I don’t like it very much. “The not-knowing is the hardest part,” many of us say in times like these.
We don’t do much better in literal waiting places either: in traffic, long lines, the doctor’s office, the RMV. These aren’t easy places for most humans. …Now we have these gadgets in our pockets (hopefully not being used while sitting in traffic!) to distract us from the torment of just…waiting. Or at least make us feel productive while doing so. That’s a big one for me. I now force myself to not have my phone with me in these places so that I can attempt to see them as places to just…be.
This isn’t just a 21st century challenge. It’s a human challenge. We’ve needed reminders–wisdom teachings, or as Merton puts it, a ‘different wisdom’–for thousands of years about the creative, Divine possibility that is the wild unknown. The unplanned for. The wait.
A little wisdom teachings fly-over. Disclaimer. These are just little morsels of huge theologies. Each could take three lifetimes to fully get. Consider them crumbs. In chef-talk “amuse bouches”: bite size appetizers.
From Genesis, the Hebrew bible: “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.” Out of the quiet void, the great artist God, creatively shows up and expands us, wakes us up. But before this: formlessness.
The Zen Buddhist master who says to his eager-to-learn student: “You are like this spilling over cup — so full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup.”
A Taoist wisdom text, written by the great Lau Tzu: “Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving…?”
American Romanticism, in literature, poetry, art, homeplace of the transcendentalists, is ALL about this. “Forgetting daily self, my truest self I find,” writes Margaret Fuller. “I see out and around myself…” writes Thoreau. Creative, Divine possibility disrupting the rote and the norm is the foundation of romantic thought and theology. Wisdom. Disrupting the civilized river of being.
The hero’s journey in myth. Where all that is known must be forgotten. The hero must get lost, literally, in some wild place, plans must be upended, time suspended, all that they believe, think and know chucked out, before they can draw on something incredible, ineffable, to conquer the dragon. Not going to happen without this forgetting of all one knows. Or think they know.
From civil rights activist and black liberation theologian Howard Thurman: “Thank God for the Fallow Time!” Fallow time in agriculture is when the soil is left untouched and barren. “There must be a fallow time for the spirit,” Thurman writes.
I don’t know what you put your trust in, what you put your faith in, that makes this letting go–of the rules and plans; boundaries and containers possible. But I don’t think we can fully loosen, trust in life’s meandering river, befriend formless-ness from time to time, empty our cups, wait for our mud to settle, forget ourselves, look out and around ourselves, create fallow time for our spirits, get lost in the wild…I don’t think we can do any of this without faith in something… I can’t.
The spiritual life, the religious life, really isn’t about pouring more and more in…I think it’s more about emptying ourselves over and over and over again, so that we are ready for what this SOMETHING might be wanting to pour into us. That’s new–a different wisdom. Being a pilgrim soul, like our favorite UU hymn Blue Boat Home sings, reminds us to move with the river. Meander. Cast questions into the deep, and then wait. It makes canvases and artists of us all really.
Now today just so happens to be Pentecost. The day, in Christian tradition, where so the wisdom teaching goes, a bunch of people whose worlds and faiths have just been turned upside down. They are lost. And they just keep trying to figure everything out. Let’s talk this through again! Their leader has been put to death, and then disappears and then COMES BACK TO LIFE. Impossible. Who saw him, did you? Where? I didn’t recognize him–but it was him! He gave us bread! And now Jesus has promised to send something called a Holy Spirit to them. Huh? Nothing made sense. And they wanted sense. And they wanted a plan. And for days they buzzed around like this. With maps and calendars and notes in hand. We’ve got to organize!
And on Pentecost–the Greek word for fiftieth–for a month and half they’ve been carrying on like this; since the day Jesus disappeared out of the tomb–on Pentacost, these people gathered themselves together in a room, made a meeting about a meeting about a meeting and kept buzzing and buzzing until the words, words, words failed them. And they couldn’t understand each other anymore, because different languages now were being spoken, and different customs and ways were all clashing up against one another. And it became chaos. Because the river wouldn’t STAY. And they were afraid. So they gave up. They gave it all up. And stilled themselves. And waited. Threw their hands up and said, “I don’t know.”
And then a wind descended, and shook the place–flapping shutters, slamming doors. This wind was so loud they had to cover their ears. And then something fiery pierced their hearts and gave them the ability to speak to each other in a new way–and hear each other in a new way. And a creative, new possibility burst forth. THIS was the holy spirit. A different wisdom that undid them in all the best ways.
No matter what your theology is, what the SOMETHING is for you, we all have room in our lives to consider how the un-planned for, the wild unknown, both scares us AND offers a wonderful invitation towards creative possibility–something in us and among us that’s new! That might undo us in all the best ways.
And this is your work as a faithful people, bound by seeking sources that undergird our principles, our promises, about how to live. You might consider how to intentionally thread some unplanned-for meanderings into your life. Say “I don’t know” more and just leave it at that. Try to stand at a different angle when you are forced to wait. Carve out a bit of fallow ground in your yards to remind you that it’s good to be formless and barren here and there. Here’s a fun one: find more wisdom teachings that speak to this. And you’ll have to tell me what you find. And I’ll tell you. And tell each other. Or teach us about how you might be practicing all of this already.
I am going to close now by offering you a blessing which is called “The Blessing That Undoes Us,” by Jan Richardson. It’s a Pentecost blessing. Take these words in friends:
“On the day you are wearing your certainty like a cloak and your sureness goes before you like a shield or like a sword, may the sound of Love’s name, God, spill from your lips as you have never heard it before. May your knowing be undone. May mystery confound your understanding…May there come one searing word–enough to bare you to the bone, enough to set your heart ablaze, enough to make you whole again.”
May it be so and Amen.
“We are going…heaven knows where we are going…but we know within. Woyaya. Woyaya.” Let’s sing together, hymn #1020
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.