The music of the spheres - Ernesto Cardenal
The music of the spheres.
A harmonious universe—like a harp.
Its rhythms are the equal, repeated seasons.
The beating of the heart.
Day/night. The going and returning of migratory birds.
The cycles of stars and corn.
The mimosa that unfolds by day and folds up again by night.
Rhythms of moon and tide.
One single rhythm in planets, atoms, sea,
And apples that ripen and fall, and in the mind of Newton.
Melody, accord, arpeggios,
The harp of the universe.
Unity behind apparent multiplicity.
That is the music.
Shaking the Tree
by Jeanne Lohmann
Vine and branch we're connected in this world of sound and echo,
figure and shadow, the leaves contingent,
roots pushing against earth.
An apple belongs to itself, to stem and tree,
to air that claims it, then ground.
Connections balance, each motion changes another.
Precarious, hanging together,
we don't know what our lives support,
and we touch in the least shift of breathing.
Each holy thing is borrowed.
This is how a human being can change:
there’s a worm addicted to eating grape leaves.
Suddenly, he wakes up, call it grace, whatever,
something wakes him, and he’s no longer a worm.
He’s the entire vineyard, and the orchard too,
the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy that doesn’t need to devour.
These words were written by Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic poet.
I love this poem so much that a few of you Tuesday night regulars are probably getting rather tired of hearing it.
Rumi tells us about the possibility of change – a change so profound and all-encompassing that we can recover from the addiction to grape leaves, or praise, or money, or appearances, or whatever it may be that we have chosen to salve our love-starved souls. Most of all, I like that this poem is about awakening – becoming aware that what we thought was true was illusory. “Suddenly, he wakes up” to realise that he never was only the worm… He is not merely a consumer of grape leaves – he is one with the grape leaves. He is one with the vineyard. He is one with the orchard, the fruit, the trunks... He – we – are a part of the unity of all things. What Ernesto Cardenal calls the “Unity behind apparent multiplicity.”
Beneath the frozen surface of a winter lake, a world of life goes on, invisible to our senses. We walk above on a surface that suggests no other reality within, oblivious, until, in an uninvited flash of insight, we are granted an awareness of the hidden depths of existence. We might call it an epiphany – a sudden moment of clarity when we recognise that things are not as we thought they were.
It has happened to you… Perhaps you recall the delightful surprise of discovering that your impression of someone was completely wrong – that they were much deeper, wiser, and more loving than you could possibly have imagined.
Maybe you have had a sudden appreciation of the beauty in an everyday experience of nature… a scene that you had passed a thousand times before, that was unexpectedly illuminated in almost unbearable splendour – or maybe it was a musical passage that abruptly revealed its depth and complexity…
And this sudden insight often happens with language. I recall the first time someone explained me that the word atonement – a word I had known and thought I had understood for some 30 years – was not about some kind of penitence or self-flagellation, but that it referred to “at-one-ment” – a return from a state of separation to a state of union – returning to connection and oneness. At that moment, my whole perspective on the ideas of sin and reconciliation shifted permanently in a very important way.
Each week in our Tuesday evening programme – Poetry and Stillness for Heart and Soul – epiphany is part of what happens. We explore the words of dozens of inspired writers – we read them silently, we hear them from our own lips, and we hear them spoken in the lovely diverse tones and accents of all the others with us. The first hearing of a poem may be interesting – it may even be appealing or touching.
But it is when we spend more time with the words – when we enter into stillness with those words, thoughts and images – that they begin to whisper deeper meanings to us. It is then that a layer of significance deeply embedded beneath the words so often emerges. The words themselves are not the message – they are a sign – a symbol that points us toward a more profound reality.
I have found this experience on Tuesday evenings illuminating and I know others have too. At this point, I am not surprised that the words of poets like Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Denise Levertov or even some of the Tuesday evening participants, will inspire me if I stay with them long enough. But, I did not expect the same to be true for the name of a web site!
Let me explain…
A year ago, this congregation had two very basic sites – both were completely outdated. One was for the Newington Green Unitarians and the other was for Unity – the name of our Islington building. Recognising the reality that these two historic entities had effectively become one congregation, we went ahead to create one shared web site. But what to call it? Newington Green and Unity… Our email list had previously been named ‘newnity.’ I found that a bit hard to say and besides – what is a ‘nitty’ anyway? So, I just took the first part of each name and the ‘New-Unity’ web site was born. I really didn’t give it a whole lot more thought than that.
I have since written and said New-Unity many times. I’ve lived with this name in much the same way that we reflect on poetry, and it has begun to speak to me with greater and greater depth and urgency.
I am often asked what Unitarianism is about – I’m sure that many of you are also. It’s not such an easy question to answer. We don’t have a simple, definitive response like ‘we believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah who came to take away our sins’ or ‘we believe that Muhammad was the messenger of God and brought the word of God in the Qur’an’ or that ‘we are followers of the Buddha who taught how to attain Nirvana by extinguishing attachment.’ It would be very nice to have an answer like that, wouldn’t it? You could even hand someone a copy of the bible or the Qur’an or Buddhist scriptures and say “Here – read this. It’s all in there.”
A while back, there was a lot of talk among Unitarians about the importance of developing an ‘elevator pitch.’ Imagine stepping into a lift with someone who asks you about Unitarianism and you have all of 45 seconds between floors to give a cogent answer. It’s quite a challenge with a religion as unique as Unitarianism.
There is a tendency to answer with a few hundred years of history – beginning with our disagreement with various Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and human sinfulness. Next, we might talk about our emphasis on the importance of freedom and tolerance in religious belief and how each person can and should seek the truth by the light of his or her own experience, conscience, intuition, and reason. We would want to talk about the inherent worth and dignity of each person – the fact that our challenging faith tells us never to give up on anyone.
We would also probably talk about the increasing diversity of Unitarianism over the past two centuries to the point that it has become a broad inclusive movement that encompasses many different beliefs and perspectives. We might want to say that we welcome all open-minded and open-hearted people – no matter what their theological perspective might be.
Of course, we’d have been talking to ourselves for several minutes by that time… And maybe had a few trips up and down the length of the building…
But “New-Unity” has been whispering something to me…
Unitarianism first emerged in a predominantly Christian context. There was unity then – at least superficially. It was a narrow sort of unity – and a forced one: As long as you agreed with the required doctrine – or pretended to – you were united with the others who did the same. The great undertaking of Unitarians at that time was to fly the flag of individuality. Our religious ancestors fought, and some died in the struggle for a freedom of belief that we now take for granted. They did this not because they were bloody-minded, although many of them certainly were. They held a core belief in the goodness and worth and dignity of each individual led them to insist on each person’s right to think for themselves and to follow where their free search led them.
In Britain today, individuality is generally assumed to a positive thing. And while that reflects a real step forward in the general view of human worth, life is also far from what we know it could be and should be. We live in a society where people are, in so many ways, fragmented, isolated, and disconnected…
This is not the future we have struggled for. Individual freedom was not meant to cause us to lose site of our inter-dependence. What we see lacking today is the deeper sense of oneness and connection – the hidden unity and wholeness that we know is to shimmer beneath the frozen surface. We need unity, but we are not looking for the old unity – a forced mindless uniformity and conformity where people are united only when they are the same.
Eight years ago, an eleven year old orphaned African boy called Nkosi Johnson was invited to speak at the AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. He was terribly ill already and would die of AIDS just a year later, but he did speak, and he wrote every word himself.
Here is how Nkosi Johnson ended his speech:
We are all the same.
We are not different from one another.
We all belong to one family.
We love and we laugh, we hurt and we cry, we live and we die.
Care for us and accept us. We are all human beings. We are normal.
We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk --
and we have needs like just like everyone else. Don't be afraid of us.
We are all the same.
Nkosi Johnson knew about unity. He knew that beneath our superficial differences lies profound connection that holds us all. “Each one of us” says Guy Finley, “Is a secret measure of [the] divine life.” “It is the music of the spheres” writes Cardenal. We are the vineyard and the orchard too, as Rumi would tell us. We lack unity because we have forgotten that the infinite worth of each life is inextricably tied to the common, sacred, united life – to the oneness of all.
Our quest today must be for a new unity – We need a new unity that recognises the value of each individual. We need a new unity that arises not through conformity, but with all of our splendid differences intact. We need a new unity that leads us to know and to live within the greater oneness that we find beneath superficial human differences.
We need a new unity that connects us to the natural world and all its creatures. Where we have become separated from nature and where our civilisation exploits the earth’s limited resources, we must work for a greater connection to all that is around us. We need a new unity that leads us to see and feel and touch and immerse ourselves in the greater oneness of all things.
We need a new unity. And as people who are committed to finding unity in diversity, as people who are committed to the value of every human life, as people who are committed to honouring the interconnected web of all existence, as people who are willing to do the hard work of creating diverse loving communities where all are welcome, we know about a New Unity. We live the quest for a New Unity.
Let us shout this message from the rooftops, write it on banners, sing it in harmony, show it in how we live every day, and whisper it in the ears of the tender ones.
A New Unity is coming.
May it be so.