READING: This reading comes from neurologist and poet, Parker Towle, who wrote this poem, “Hooking Rugs and Ice-Fishing” after hearing a chaplain tell the story at a talk he attended.

 Hooking Rugs and Ice-Fishing, Parker Towle

He volunteered with a dying patient
expecting to go through the five stages of grief
at the first meeting.

Instead
she talked about hooking rugs:
the needle, the thread, the cloth,
the rhythmic movement of the hands.

He tried other matters in conversation —
she talked of hooking rugs.

On the next visit she spoke of the intricacies
and hardships of ice-fishing that her husband
had enjoyed before his death.

Week after week,
hooking rugs and ice-fishing.

Angered, he said to friends,
“I can’t go on with this
interminable hooking rugs
and ice-fishing.”

One day as they sat
in the hospital cafeteria,
she going on, he bored and vexed
with hooking rugs and ice-fishing,
the room
went silent, the air turned
a luminous shade of green, hooking
rugs and ice
fishing stopped. She leaned over and said,
“I could not have done this
without you,”
then on again with hooking rugs
and ice-fishing.

Soon after she died.

At the funeral
relatives said to him, “Thank you,
all she ever spoke about
was you.”

“To Be a Soul Friend”

The reading that Djalai offered us this morning came to me while I was serving as a Chaplain at Hebrew Senior Life, I’ve shared about time there with you before. I worked in the wing for long-term elderly residents suffering from dementia for a year back in 2017.

And before I began this ministry at Hebrew Senior Life, I thought I knew what chaplaincy was. More or less. I pictured someone who was called upon mainly, not always, but mainly, by deeply religious patients or families who needed a prayer. To prepare for this I made a little book of prayers, a kind of cheat sheet, made up mainly from the Jewish tradition as this was the main demographic at Hebrew Senior Life, but also many Christian prayers. Some UU prayers, just in case. I really thought I was prepared.

Do you know how many times I pulled that book out of my pocket in the year I worked there? Zero.

And this isn’t to say I didn’t pray with people. But like the story of our volunteer chaplain in our reading today, prayer and spirit and connection arrived in varied, and mysterious forms. So often through simply listening to peoples’ stories.

Chaplaincy taught me a lot about listening. And it taught me a lot about what it means to be a soul friend to someone.

Soul friend. S-O-U-L. This is what the early Celtic church called someone who acted as a true companion. Soul friend. They called this Anam Cara in Gaelic. Anam meaning soul; Cara meaning friend. Twenty-five years ago, Irish poet and scholar John O’Donahue wrote a lovely little book called Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. And he writes in it: “With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging…” O’Donahue says that, “In everyone’s life, there is great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension…[and] where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging.”

But let’s unpack this word ‘soul.’ ‘Soulful.’ ‘Soulfulness.’ It means that which is imbued with genuineness and depth. Soulfulness is not an intellectual enterprise or pursuit, it is revealed in words (or no words!) that come from the heart. That touch the heart.

You know this feeling. Because you have a pulse. When you feel it, your nervous system is quieted. Your mind slows. You feel that love is near. Maybe you get a tear in your eye or the chills. You feel safe. In good company. Not alone.

Anam Cara puts all of this soulfulness, this depth, that “cuts across all convention, morality, category” those are John O’Donahue’s words, puts all of this into the realm of friendship–connection with another human being. It cuts across convention, morality and category because when we are in these deep, soulful waters with another person, difference, division, separate-ness recede.

And friends, my anam-caras, this kind of open-hearted intimacy with another human being takes courage, am I right? To get to the heart of the matter with someone?

But isn’t this why we come to church? To cultivate this kind of courage? To be soul friends, companions, to one another? Doesn’t this speak to our deepest need here? The pandemic offered us a glimpse into the reason why we need church, didn’t it? It cut to the root of the root of what is needed, and why we do what we do here. For what else mattered but caring for one another? Companioning one another? It preceded all else. And it should continue to precede all else. And IMBUE all that we do here.

And I am glad that this is alive here at First Parish. Many of you found, for example, great comfort and companionship in your Chalice Circles last year, we plan to offer them again this year, circles where soul friendship is nourished. Or in Evening Vespers. Where silence and candlelight and music hold us together in mysterious ways. This takes attention and requires the ability to be present, which in our fast-paced world where we pass one another by all day, it takes practice. But it’s worth it. Because in the silence, we arrive home to ourselves. And our capacity to be a soul friend to someone becomes possible. I believe that Rev. Andrew preached about this last week.

A different kind of soul companioning and friendship takes place here every Sunday during worship, in our weekly practice of sharing our joys and sorrows with one another. Or when we come up and silently light candles, and without words or gestures, bear witness to one another.

And what a magnificent and holy reciprocity there is in anam cara! For soul friendship both meets our deepest longing to be seen and heard and known and cared for, but also requires us to see and hear and know and care for. Out of this simple and balanced practice of reciprocity we are nothing short of transformed. I sense you already know this well. For you are a people who care deeply for one another.

This past week one of you shared a wonderful opinion piece from the New York Times with me that was written by the Anglican priest, Tish Harrison Warren. It’s title: What if Burnout is Less About Work and More About Isolation?

In it, Rev. Tish writes: “By virtue of how modernity and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual…we have been practicing isolation for much longer than we know.” She goes on to connect isolation and loneliness to the collective burnout we are experiencing, and whose remedy, she writes is, deep soul connection with others. But she points out something important, for a common response to this prescription of ‘connecting with someone deeply’ is often “I don’t have anyone to connect to! I don’t have any friends like this.” Her response is a brilliant one, I am paraphrasing here:

Unless we are hermits living in the Alaskan tundra, we do have people that we could call, but the truth is we are afraid to call them. It’s important for us to be clear that saying things like “I don’t have friends to call” is a way that we tell a story, hear this, that helps us avoid being afraid.

So here we are back at courage, right?

Rev. Tish closes her piece by saying this: “…Your longing to not be burned out is a longing for so much more than that. It is a longing for beauty and goodness that you want and you don’t even know how badly you want it. But that you want it is because you’ve been made to want it by the maker of all good things. And I want to honor that and say to people, “That’s right.” And that’s why I want you to go find the friends that you think you don’t have and tell them, “We’re going to have a conversation like we’ve never had before.”

There are people sitting near you right now, or are in the box next to you at home on Zoom, who would welcome this call. It is just what they long for as well. To be called.

What I so love about that Parker Towle piece, our cantankerous volunteer chaplain story, is its reminder to listen closely, for you never know what can happen. What soul might be touched, transformed, SAVED, by your simply being there. As a soul friend. And I can be that vexed, plan-oriented, distracted, frustrated chaplain, can’t you? Things aren’t happening the way I think they should! I was this person at the beginning of my chaplaincy at Hebrew Senior Life, with my little cheat sheet of prayers and plans in my pocket. And all these blessed residents wanted from their Chaplain was someone to sit with them and listen to their stories–many of which were their versions of Hooking Rugs and Ice Fishing. But friends, they were so much more than these. They were about love and loss and memory and identity. And I was the lucky one when I knew it–when I could see it for what it really was. And you get to be this for one another. The lucky ones. Here in this church.

Let’s listen to Parker Towle’s words again:

He volunteered with a dying patient
expecting to go through the five stages of grief
at the first meeting.

Instead
she talked about hooking rugs:
the needle, the thread, the cloth,
the rhythmic movement of the hands.

He tried other matters in conversation —
she talked of hooking rugs.

On the next visit she spoke of the intricacies
and hardships of ice-fishing that her husband
had enjoyed before his death.

Week after week,
hooking rugs and ice-fishing.

Angered, he said to friends,
“I can’t go on with this
interminable hooking rugs
and ice-fishing.”

One day as they sat
in the hospital cafeteria,
she going on, he bored and vexed
with hooking rugs and ice-fishing,
the room
went silent, the air turned
a luminous shade of green, hooking
rugs and ice
fishing stopped. She leaned over and said,
“I could not have done this
without you,”
then on again with hooking rugs
and ice-fishing.

Soon after she died.

At the funeral
relatives said to him, “Thank you,
all she ever spoke about
was you.”

My prayer for you these coming days and weeks, this church year, is that you will courageously share something deep and true about yourself with someone else. And that you will also change seats. Some of you are really good at sharing, others are brilliant at listening–change that up. Know where you might need some practice on the other side. And if you are feeling like you have no one to call or are lost among us–feeling isolated and lonely–I hope you will participant in some of the groups and gatherings I have mentioned. Maybe you are thinking about something new that is needed here. Tell us about it. Work with one another to bring it to life. We will be better for it.

Or courageously write a loneliness or need or hard truth on your sorrow card in next week’s service with your name on it. This, all of this, is what church is my dear companions.

I offer you this closing blessing from John O’ Donahue entitled, “Blessing for a New Home” to honor this parish this morning:

May this be a safe place
Full of understanding and acceptance,
Where you can be as you are,
Without the need of any mask
Or pretense or image.

May this be a place of discovery,
Where the possibilities that sleep
In the clay of your soul can emerge…

May this be a house of courage,
Where healing and growth are loved,
Where dignity and forgiveness prevail;
Where patience of spirit is prized,
And the sight of the destination is never lost
Though the journey be difficult and slow.

May there be great delight in this place.
May it be a house of welcome
For the broken and diminished.
And may we have eyes to see
That no one arrives without a gift
And no one leaves without a blessing.

And so I say to you, Amen.

We will now merge our many voices together and sing a hymn about knowing one another: Come Sing a Song with Me #346 Won’t you now rise in body and in spirit and join us.

Reverend Sophia Lyons
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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.