In the poem, "the lesson of the moth" archy says, "i wish there were something i wanted as much as he (the moth) wanted to fry himself." I suspect that this wistfulness that he expresses is an increasing phenomenon in our post-modern day, and though archy was perhaps a bit ahead of his time, is a consequence of the same pressures which have created our new era of uncertainty. It has become more and more clear to us that absolute truth is unobtainable by us, and many of us have therefore concluded that it simply doesn't exist; that values are as contingent as is truth on our physical, mental and cultural limitations; and thus we can no longer be moral agents in deciding what is good or what is evil. The heroes that we have admired are shown to be villainous exploiters; the literature we have loved is simply the expression of an oppressive society; the religions we were taught are merely one unconvincing explanation among many. "Your truth is your truth," we say, "and mine is mine," and the implication is that there is no way to judge between them, so there is no point in arguing -- and equally no point in trying to discover whether or not one of them is truer than another, since there is no basis on which to do so. It's hard to care very much about something that is so fluid, that you cannot even defend against disagreement, but merely say, "Well, that's my truth." I suspect that if a truth is only mine and no one else's, it is no truth at all, and if that is my only argument for it, I will never be able to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to it, never be able to shoot the roll. Without dedication to something of ultimate importance, however, life is essentially meaningless. It is that willingness to serve what we perceive as sacred, as ultimately worthy, that gives our life purpose. Without it, we simply exist for the sake of our own survival and pleasure. It seems hardly worth it.
Nor is it -- and thus the wistfulness of those who have not yet retreated to the sanctuaries of those who have rejected our new uncertainties by embracing untenable certainties in authoritarian religions and tribal loyalties. We are told by experts in the field of modern society that the religion-shoppers of today are looking for "spirituality" rather than for a religious tradition and heritage, something that will assuage that wistful longing for something worth wanting, and hope to find it in church. We have an almost incredibly affluent society. This is still true even though the media are reveling in every evidence of economic downturn to the degree that frugality is the new chic. I suspect that will even last until the market recovers and credit becomes easy again. Even so and even now our poor mostly live significantly better than the poor have ever lived in other places and other times. I do not want to imply that it's okay to be poor and that poverty and economic injustice are not serious issues in our society, but it is nevertheless true that we are significantly better off than at any other time in human history, in one sense at least, and we are still consumer-driven and focused almost exclusively on material needs and values. For many people this leaves out something important. The commercials that assault us daily. telling us that we will be happy when we have enough toys, the right deodorant, the best herbs, and fat-free junk foods, have failed to convince. We may be happily married, with lovely children, homes and cars, and even St. John's Wort in the medicine cabinet, and still be sure that something is missing. We are often not quite sure what that something is, just that it's not food or clothes or houses or toys. I do a certain number of weddings and funerals for people who have no church affiliation. Any judge can do a wedding --in Florida any notary public can -- and anybody at all can do a funeral, so it has occurred to me to wonder why I get these requests. I have even asked, and I have come to the conclusion that in most cases it is because people want something spiritual, but aren't quite sure what that may mean.
Those of us who look for what is missing from our lives in churches are right. It is a religious quest. We are right to be convinced that it is spirituality that we lack. Unluckily, we often think we can buy it there, as we can buy material goods elsewhere. We can, but not in a nice little package with an ingredient list, with truth-claims and discipline attached, and it is not for sale for the merely contingent commitment that contingent truth elicits. We have to be willing to fry ourselves for it, and that is the currency with which we buy it.
Of course, given the tentativeness of truth, we might commit ourselves to the wrong answer. In fact, I suspect that it is inevitable that we will now and then do so, if we commit ourselves at all. In this small world of ours, limited and finite, and with our own limitations of physical perceptions and abilities and culture, that we can know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is highly unlikely. Knowing this, we have tended to keep our distance, keep cool, not commit. We have said that the closest we can come to an answer is the question. I really do believe in questioning. I think that to accept an answer because out of multiple possibilities it suits us best, even though we know it is no truer than other answers, is carrying an understanding of the inaccessibility of truth too far. To question is not the answer. The answer is the answer, and once we have discovered it, if it is beautiful, our lives belong to it. We can be burned up with beauty. Yes, even if it is the wrong answer, because it is that dedication that gives life meaning. Of course, we should do our best to find the best answer we can. We may learn later that we have shot the roll and lost, that we dedicated ourselves to something untrue or unworthy, to something other than beauty, because even in our commitment to the answer we have found, we must continue the questions and the tests, but if that happens, we simply pick ourselves up and shoot again.
It has been said that ministers really have only one sermon that they preach over and over again in different words. That may be true. This one is the first one I ever preached in Duxbury, MA. I preached it again for the Fellowship Committee. Some of you may not know about that. Although our free congregations may call and ordain whomever they wish for their ministers, the association has a process by which they give credentials to those they find qualified. Besides getting a degree from an approved divinity school, there are other hoops to jump through including an interview with the Fellowship Committee in which we preach a sermon and respond to a barrage of questions. Suzanne, our intern, has her appointment next September. This is the sermon I preached to them and have preached over and over again ever since in one form or another, You've heard it -- perhaps, in a sense, every time you have heard me preach. If it is not my only sermon, it is at least my basic one.
Another poet, in another of my favorite poems, had a similar philosophy to that of the moth:
Life has loveliness to sell
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
Give all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been or could be.
The poem is by Sara Teasdale and has been set to music in our hymnal. She tells us what it will cost to gain life's loveliness -- and it does have great loveliness. Not only the things she lists in the poem, which are sort of expected lovelinesses, and not only the big things we think of when we recognize how much wonder and beauty is around us -- a star-studded night, the gulf smiling under a blue sky -- but all kinds of unexpected daily beauties all about us. Little things which bring the breath of ecstasy, a stab of joy. Things like rainbows in lawn sprinklers, tiny blue flowers hidden in the grass, the majestic sweeping curves of highway interchanges, the isolated brave bright pink or blue of new paint on one of a row of slum houses, a friendly smile from a stranger, a limp bunch of dandelions from a small grubby fist. There can be beauty almost everywhere we look, in almost everything we see, if we are truly open to it -- if we look for it.
Teasdale, though, is not talking merely of openness to beauty, but a total commitment to life, the same commitment as that of the moth, giving everything we are and have to buy the beauty that life sells. That is the dedication of the life of the spirit. The total commitment to life for its loveliness brings the singing hour of peace, the breath of ecstasy, the joy of service to what really matters. and that is what is really meant by spirituality. It is what gives life meaning.
One of the things we Unitarian Universalists used to like to do in workshops or at conferences, was to put on a nametag which included words which have religious meaning for us. The number of words varied, but whatever the number, one of mine was always joy. If we were limited to one word, that was the one I chose. Once the nametags were filled out, the exercise usually included milling about, looking at other people's words, and perhaps falling into conversation about them.
At one such conference, a friend of mine who had been going through some bad times, looked at my nametag and said that she was glad that someone was still able to consider that word a religious possibility. That, and subsequent conversation, disclosed that she felt that it was naïvely charming of me to choose the word joy, but that sooner or later (and she hoped later, being a nice person), with greater age and experience, I would discover the concept of joy itself was hollow.
Now I was not even then so naïve nor so inexperienced as to be unaware that life holds ugliness as well as loveliness -- that such things as poverty, hunger, evil and loneliness may be found all around us. I know that life includes pain, suffering and death. I know of illness and sorrow. I know that even love can die. I know, too, that once you have committed yourself to all of life, to its sacredness and its meaning, you have bought not only its loveliness but also its pain -- that the greater openness to joy such commitment gives means also a greater openness to sorrow.
This is another reason that we can sometimes find ourselves not wanting anything enough to give our lives to it. It is likely to be painful. One way to respond to this realization is not to make the bargain, to decide to live tentatively, putting no more than a reluctant toe into life for fear that it may be cold, dedicating yourself to nothing, keeping distance from everything. It is possible to build a wall around yourself, keeping armored from life for protection from pain. That is one solution, but I don't think it is worth it. If you have withdrawn from life to such an extent that pain cannot touch you, neither can you be touched by joy, and neither can you touch others in the lives we share.
There are so many reasons not to want anything enough to shoot the roll. We are in danger of making fools of ourselves by unworthy choices -- and there's nothing to tell us for sure that our choices will all be worthy ones -- and above all it may hurt. No, it will hurt. There is no way to live life for the beauty and loveliness of it without risking the pain, and pain is as inevitable as error. You cannot love without loss, you cannot try without failure, and at last you will die. And that will happen whether you have burned yourself up with beauty, or whether you have avoided the risk of the bargain that life offers us. It doesn't seem to be much of a bargain, when you think about it. You give everything you have, your whole self, to life, and in return you get what? There are no guarantees of happiness, of gain, or even that you're going in the right direction. The only absolutely sure consequences are pain, and finally death. Spirituality is no cakewalk. Grace is not cheap. Nevertheless, if you don't accept the bargain, shoot the roll, you are left with the emptiness of unmeaning. If you do, if you embrace life -- remembering that life is not giving but selling, and the price is all you have or are, if you learn the lesson of the moth -- the pain itself can be joy, and the beauty is worth all you pay for it.