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Something With Good At Its Core

by Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
Service at UUCSS on September 16, 2007


Something With Good At Its Core

Rev. Elizabeth Lerner

A couple of years ago, I got a phone call from someone at the UUA, asking if I would contribute to a pair of pamphlets they were looking to publish, one on the nature of the sacred, the other on the nature of evil, both from UU perspectives. That’s the clerical equivalent of catnip to a cat. I said yes right away. They gave me a short deadline for the copy, but that wasn’t the problem, it was the amount of copy – 200 words, maximum. I’d recommend trying out the exercise yourselves – give yourselves 200 words to sum up, as UU’s, your individual view of the sacred. For those of you who tend toward an everything-fits-on-the-head-of-a-pin haiku style of exposition, it may work. For me, it was painful. What I ended up with began with a line from the English poet John Keats that kept running through my head while I was trying to be pithy. So finally I decided I’d never be free of it until I included it:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Then I wrote: “Beauty, when it is not contrived, indeed seems a quality of truth, and real truths, even harsh truths, have the beauty of their realness. And what is beautiful and true, is sacred, because of the meaning and ultimacy that beauty and truth point to. Rituals are the same – they are not sacred in themselves; though important and often beautiful and true, it is their occasions that are sacred – religious commitments, lifelong covenants, the impulse of the human soul toward the transcendent divine.

Long before Keats, Plato said that the good and the beautiful were inherently related, almost interchangeable. What is true and beautiful and good? Music. The fragile interrelationship of every living thing. Tying our hearts to one another, though we know death parts us. Poetry. The impulse toward self-sacrifice and greater good. Commitment to justice. The Unitarian Universalist principle that revelation is continuous. And beyond mere human abilities to define or create: so much in nature, from dainty miracles of life to such bastions of awe as the illimitable sea.”

I’m not satisfied, but I haven’t improved on it yet, so I’ll need to let it go, at least for now. What I was trying to express was, first, that all things sacred have a quality of meaning and of ultimacy such as we often find in things that are beautiful or profoundly true. The three are not inseparable, but they are linked. There is a quality of ultimacy and beauty in truth that is the reason why we seek truth and are not satisfied with less. Think even of such jaded characters as Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. When his love interest suggests, at the very end, that they could have been happy together, Barnes says “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” And because we all understand what he means, and why he is contemptuous of her happy ending, it is devastating.

What I was also trying to do was to distinguish rituals – which are the trappings or means by which we honor sacredness – from sacredness itself. We sometimes conflate them, which is easy but not right. Crudely, rituals are means, not ends. For example, ceremonies such as baby namings or weddings or memorial services – all these are sacred occasions, but it is the meaning and fundamental nature of the event, rather than the event itself, that is sacred. The wedding day may be rainy or sunny, perfect or flawed – well, none of them is ever really perfect – but that’s not the point, the point is what is happening – two people joining themselves to each other forever. Is there any more beautiful, more hopeful, more gracious, more faithful act we can perform than that? And so the ritual commands our great respect because what it marks is sacred.

And though rituals are not themselves sacred, their relationship to the sacred is tight and collaborative. In casting my mind over my most powerful recent experiences of sacredness, there were the usual list: solitary walks in nature, particular moments in worship with all of you, profound experiences I’ve shared in the course of ministry, communal meals that have been spirit-filled, and one memory that popped up and surprised me – but only at first. Last year I led a small worship service for a close set of colleagues in my study group. I used readings I had written myself. I included music I loved best in the world that I thought they might not already know. I included a tea communion, with a favorite tea I brewed them and asked them to sip and taste in silence. The service wove in and out of those three elements. In the end, I realized I had done this as an expression of my love for these cherished colleagues. I had offered what I love to people I love, without saying it in so many words. I didn’t know if it would work.

After it was over, one of them came up and said: “It felt like you just gave us all a footwashing, right out of the bible.” This is the highest compliment he could have paid me. And in reflecting on that experience – how much it meant to me, and how glad I was that it also meant something to them, I realize that in that case, the ritual elements combined to create something that was sacred to all of us – and since it was rooted in love, that all makes sense. Because it may sound like a Hallmark card, but love is connected to beauty and to truth and is surely ultimate.

But speaking of Hemingway, this is all starting to sound suspiciously pretty isn’t it? Love and beauty and truth and sacredness – I’ll whip out the hearts and flowers next, right? What saves this from mere prettiness, and thus untruth, is that sacredness also touches and is rooted in what is difficult and fearful, even haunting. Death and loss are sacred – which is why we mark them with ritual. Illness and suffering and injustice that twist and incinerate human lives and other lives every day are sacred also, because of what they touch. They are sacred in a very difficult way. That is why they are, rightly, the concern of almost every religion in the world, and why we address them from within positions of faith; why so many faiths give such attention to healing and nursing and caring for the suffering.

Because what is sacred is what is of ultimate value, even death, in all its forms and with all its terrible injustice and tragedy, is sacred because it is part of life and paired with life and without it we would not value life as we should. Madeleine L’Engle was a distinguished author who treated, again and again, the necessity of spiritual wholeness and authenticity, life balanced and reconciled with death, and faith balanced between, as she once wrote, ‘gravity and levity,’ She died last week. I discovered her writing when I was a girl, and she has remained a treasure for me. When I think of the first investigations of sacredness I encountered, they were hers. One of her works was the young adult novel and Newbery Award finalist A Ring of Endless Light from which we heard earlier. Elsewhere in that book, the grandfather and minister says: “ ‘ If we knew each morning that there was going to be another morning, and on and on and on, we’d tend not to notice the sunrise, or hear the birds, or the waves rolling into shore. We’d tend not to treasure our time with the people we love. Simply the awareness that our mortal lives had a beginning and will have an end enhances the quality of our living. Perhaps it’s even more intense when we know that the termination of the body is near, but it shouldn’t be.’” (p. 64-5)

He is speaking to the fact that sacredness is not simple, not even always what we want. I’ve said before that living with respect for the sacred sometimes offers us more than we expect, and also sometimes requires from us more than we expect. But there is, for all that, a goodness, a beneficence, even given the tragedies that mark our lives and our history. In the world, in living, in dying, in the interrelatedness of all things, in the evolution of life and of morality, there is a balance and a cyclic rhythm that are incontrovertible and redemptive. This is why the grandfather can say, with joy and truth, alleluia at the grave of his friend, and even anticipate his own death, at the end of a long and good life, without despair. We would all wish for such an enlightened and accepting awareness when facing what is so often fearful to us – the end of life, the unknown. We would wish for it at least so as to be free of our dread, but also because his joy in life paired with acceptance of death is right and it is inescapably true and ultimately the nature of all existence. And despite all the differences and details in interpreting the sacred across cultures and continents, none the less, all peoples hold love sacred in some way, all peoples hold living sacred in some way, all peoples recognize elements of life and the world around us as sacred in some way because they all honor that the balance and the cycles that hold us all whether we will or no.

With that in mind, here is another take on how I would name the sacred, not in a pamphlet, in the same number of words: Decisions that have torn me in two The long, boring summer days we spent in a windowless room or in my grandmother’s room while she breathed on a ventilator, and then going in to see her when she stopped. The memories and sameness that span all the difference and distance between myself and my sister. The steady regard of one blessing dog, and another The stories I have heard my father tell, told again. The frosting roses my mother taught me to make on wax paper. All the me that is really my parents. All the me that is really me. All the good and love and light and creation that has passed between you and me, and from us onward. All the good lessons and beloved friends I got from wasted love. Certain places: particular cliffs and meadows, precipices and islands and bends in roads, ancient twisted olive trees still blooming, the clear imprint of the god’s hand in the furrows of a valley. Oh, the people who have held me when I could not hold my self. Who have been a net beneath me when I was falling. The grace I never saw coming, that I hope to be surprised by again.

Interwoven in the sacredness I have known is freshness and brokenness, endings and beginnings, despair and love. It is like a particular path I’ve mentioned to you before; the Ieros Odos, or Sacred Way, in ancient Athens, that led through the cemetery and the agora, and then climbed right up to the wide, smooth marble steps and majestic entry gates to the sacred precinct of the Acropolis and the temple of Athena. On the other end, 30 kilomenters away, it lead to the important sanctuary of the goddess Demeter and the site of the famed, popular secret, ancient Eleusinian mystery cult, which welcomed such famed pilgrims as Plato and Pausanias, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

In its day, the Ieros Odos must have been breathtaking, linking two such important and striking locations, passing through beautiful countryside and some of the ancient world’s finest art and architecture. Even now, to our modern eyes familiar with the dimensions of skyscrapers and stadiums and the complexity of national capitals and museum buildings, the conclusion of the odos at the Acropolis is imposing, complex and beautiful.

But if you take the Sacred Way from Athens (as anyone still can, the ancient road has survived into modern times, paved, still called by its timeless, evocative name which is printed in bold, modern street signs just like any other roadway), you can drive on it or take the bus, all the way to Eleusis. You will be disillusioned. The road passes through some of Athens’ dingiest business neighborhoods, and continues as a small, litter- and business-strewn commercial highway all the distance to Eleusis, which is now a small, polluted, industrial town. And all the way you cannot escape the sad, almost blasphemic reminders, as grimy street signs, and then overhead highway tablets inform you, over and over again, that you are on the Sacred Way.

The Sacred Way, with its rich history and pathetic fate, is an apt example of sacredness; enduring and elusive, yearned for and surprising, and very different from one person or culture to another. Someone else’s list would look different than mine. And oh, the beauty of Unitarian Universalism, likely tomorrow’s would look different than today’s.

What should be on such a list? Children? Elders? Childbirth? Death? The geography of pilgrim paths and sanctuaries? Life transitions – from childhood to adulthood, girlhood to womanhood? Lifestyle and status changes such as marriage? Are places sacred? Are natural elements sacred? Are the four cardinal directions sacred? Are texts sacred? Is life sacred? All life? Equally sacred? Is time sacred? Are words sacred?

Obviously there are as many answers to this as there are faiths. We can find affirmative answers and examples to all those categories and more. I’ve already spoken of rituals to commemorate life transitions as sacred occasions. Sanctuaries and shrines at springs, mountaintops, oceansides, valleys, caves and glades. Spirits or deities believed to inhabit particular trees, rivers, pastures, oceans and skies. Prayers honoring and invoking the four directions. Texts that are handled with as much reverence, ceremony and love as any treasure or any monarch. Beliefs that divide or unite forms and ages of life in sacredness. Numberless faiths that demarcate time in moments, days, hours, weeks, months, seasons and years, of holiness and ritual. Words that may not be spoken, or that must be spoken, in observance of faith, or in relationship with the divine.

Humanity’s faiths are a kaleidoscope of those visions of the sacred. I am sure that even as I was just speaking you were reminded of particular rituals, particular forms of sacredness you have known or experienced.

We are, even now, in the midst of a particularly sacred time, Ramadan, the Muslim holy month and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which both began this past week. For both faiths this is a time of celebration, reflection, self-accountability, feasting and fasting, repentance, and renewed commitment to right and good living. There are rituals that take place in the houses of worship and at home, ways for eating, dressing, praying, reading, behaving with friends and family - and these evolve over the next days until they reach their fruition in the end of Ramadan and in Yom Kippur, some days from now. For both faiths, this is the most important, sacred period of the year.

But even these holy occasions remind us that what is sacred to some, may not be sacred to all, at least not when we get down to details. Another example is that Dr. Stuart Kauffman, Director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary, recently summed up his take on the sacred and he said it is the creativity of the universe. His sacredness is different than what I’ve talked about: Dr. Kauffman says life, agency, meaning or consciousness, are all transcendent; they can’t be captured in any scientific definition and understanding. Thus they are sacred.

He says it is what we cannot fully comprehend that is sacred. His argument reminds me of an excerpt from the English poet Henry Vaughn’s work The Night:

“There is in God, some say A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here Say it is late and dusky, because they See not all clear…”

I would not argue with his definition in so far as it goes but I have to add to it – because there are different ways of understanding. We may not be able to express consciousness or love or moments of spiritual connection or revelation scientifically – or even in words at all. But that is not to say we do not understand them. Some part of us does – our psyches are lifted, our breath is quickened, our eyes are dazzled… we have, thank God, more than one way to understand, and something in all of us responds to forms and moments of life, and living, and love and knows what we cannot prove: sacredness.

Lastly, and perhaps particular to our worldly faith, sacredness does not proscribe taint from itself. In this world, the only thing that is 100% pure, untainted, extra virgin is olive oil – and even that is under question these days. But that’s okay. What is truly sacred is breathtaking and its sacredness is perhaps only heightened by the inherent flaws of this world, as life’s preciousness is heightened by death. We may drive down the Ieros Odos and see only what has been lost, or we may look and see ourselves. Limited, stained, aged or flawed as it may be, still the sacred is what it is: ultimate and precious and miraculous to us, present around us, even in us.

Beauty, truth, ultimacy, miracle, transcendence, sacredness. I say these words to you and you know what they mean and each of us has our own knowledge of the sacred, and all of them, I say to you, all of them are true. In this sacred season, treasure what you know and honor it. Only thus are we blessed. And blessed we are, every (sacred) one of us in our (sacred) lives and their unfolding meaning for this world that blesses and keeps and relies upon us. Amen.