Spring is my favorite season of the year. I begin celebrating it on March 20th or 21st, and I don't stop celebrating till the summer solstice. That’s because it’s not just about spring, it’s hard for some to tell whether it is spring or not in Naples, although there are indications of a new birth even here, new green on the cypresses, different flowers in bloom. Even in the north it is not merely the beauty of spring that appeals to me; the other seasons have equal beauties: Summer's gold and green and warmth, the sparkling clarity of winter, and the glory and fulfillment of autumn — which is for many by far the best. For me, though, spring is best, because it is spring that confronts me with the central religious question: What is the meaning and purpose of life? I think, too, that I find hope more compelling than fruition, potential more interesting than fulfillment.
People frequently ask, Unitarian Universalists and outsiders alike, how it is possible for us to celebrate Easter, the quintessential spring festival. I find that a much easier question to answer than many of that sort. Even those among us who are non-Christians don't have much trouble with it. Easter is even named after a pagan fertility goddess, and Easter eggs and bunnies have nothing whatever to do with the idea of a resurrected Christ, except insofar as they are symbols, as Jesus’ resurrection also was, of the annual resurrection of the earth after the seeming death of winter. Unitarian Universalists are no more separated from the rhythms of the seasons than are members of other religions, and like all religions, Christian and otherwise, we celebrate the rhythms of the earthly calendar.
One of the things I continually wonder as I think of the resurrection myths of springtime is, which came first? Did the occurrence of spring give birth to the idea that death is not final, or did the need to feel that there is more to being human than living, begetting and dying, attach itself to the natural rebirth of spring? There's less answer to that, of course, than to the chicken and egg question, and I imagine that both things worked in tandem. The image of winter as the death of nature and spring as its rebirth leaps to the imagination without any hints from formal theology, and equally necessary, it seems, is the feeling that somehow this life with its trivialities, pains and finitude can't be all there is.
Spring asks — demands! — a point to it all. Spring confronts us with life. Nature's incredible extravagance shows on every hand. There are millions of seeds, millions of baby animals. Every animal, every plant, has an insistent urge to reproduce itself. The trees blossom forth again after the death of winter, and that blossoming is in order to begin again the cycle of reproduction. the point of it, nature tells us, is simply continuation — eternal life, and in conjunction with it, eternal death, since what is born also dies.
Maybe that's enough. I can conceive of a time millions of years hence, when humanity, having failed to destroy itself, is flung from teeming star to teeming star across the galaxy, with each individual on those presently unimaginable planets living life day to day, living, begetting and dying. That's eternal life of a kind — sociobiologists call it preserving the gene-pool — and the productiveness of nature which spring shows us anew each year, gives promise of it, but I don't really see the point; why it should be particularly desirable from a personal point of view.
Spring, however, hints at another possibility, and that's what those resurrection myths are all about, eternal life of another kind, one in which death is not the end of an individual life. In apocalyptic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, even the resurrection of the body is the ideal, but except for the most orthodox believers, particularly in Islam, where heaven is a realm of unending sensual bliss, most religions play down the body and stick to an eternal spirit. We know, after all, that the body dies and decays — even those trees and plants which find new life each spring eventually die and decay also — but the spirit, the animation of the body, must, we feel, surely continue. Spring, birth from death, promises it to us. Nearly every religion, even atheistic Buddhism, promises eternal bliss after final death, promises either an individual bliss of grapes and houris or golden streets and pearly gates, or at least even with the extinction of the individual, a blissful union with the ultimate. They may also promise eternal suffering, and there may be some gradations of individuality, but eternality is never waived.
My own belief, based on what I perceive (though not dogmatically) as experience of connectedness with the ultimate, is that we do have eternal life, not as individuals, but as a part of what is infinite and eternal. That would make us preexistent as well as existing now, and continuing to do so after we die, but again, for all of this, for any of these ideas, even mine, I would ask, what is the point of it? If life requires meaning, it seems to me that eternal life requires it also; it doesn't bestow it.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Spring,” that I read to you earlier makes it clear that the belief that life is eternal is not enough. If our present life is meaningless, why should extending it to infinity make it any better? And, even if that eternal life contains grapes and houris or union with God, wherein does that give it meaning? It is clear that even if any or all of the notions about life after death are true, it is within this life that we must live, and it is only as we find meaning in this life that we can assign a meaning to eternal life.
Okay, fine, so how do we find meaning in this life? It's very easy to say that we should try to make our lives meaningful, but how do we do it? Sara Teasdale has an answer that almost satisfies me:
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.
Teasdale challenges us to give ourselves totally to life without holding anything back, in order to gain its loveliness — and it does have great loveliness. Not only the things she lists in the poem, which are sort of expected lovelinesses, but all kinds of unexpected daily beauties all about us. Little things that 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, giving everything we are and have to buy the beauty that life sells, and even then Edna St. Vincent Millay has told us that even beauty is not enough.
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 are limited to one word, that is the one I choose. Once the nametags are filled out, the exercise usually includes 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 that the concept of joy itself was hollow.
Even all those years ago I was neither 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 wholly to life, 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.
One way to respond to this 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 oneself to nothing, keeping distance from everything. It is possible to build a wall around yourself, keeping armored from life for protection from pain. The problems with that solution are clear. 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 is still that other answer, which is to embrace life — to say a resounding yes to the bargain life offers. Life, however, is not giving but selling; the bargain includes the bad as well as the good, and the price is no less than your totality.
Sometimes, though, for some people, the bargain seems to be a very poor one. For them, suffering can be so great that life's loveliness is hidden. Even to talk about joy may seem a bitter joke. What use is music when all you can hear is a cry of pain? What joy are children's faces or rainbows, when all you can see is inner torment?
Some years ago, the journal Kairos published a poem by one of our ministers, Robert Lehman. It's called "Father".
A young man begot me.
Young, he moved down twisting valleys,
Through tangled brush, up graveled slopes,
Not hacking the branches that elbowed the path,
But setting them gently aside, turning them gently,
He moved in love. Faces of children
And women and men, the shifting shapes of the world
— His love lay on them warm as sunlight.
Old now, he moves quietly still,
Testing the high keen airs, surveying
From tranquil height the long road passed
And the slopes beyond.
On the long reaches of land and on the faces
His love lies still, soft as sunlight.
This poem holds for me the rest of the answer to the questions I was asking. When life's loveliness is patent — when it is all around us, and we are able to be aware of it, life is obviously worth living and carries its own meaning. But when that meaning is hidden from us by the ugliness that is also there, it is the loveliness and love within us that still makes it worthwhile. We bestow our own loveliness on life — our own love or gentleness, our tranquility or courage, sometimes just the sheer gritted-teethed determination to hang on. And there's joy in that, too.