The Gift of Tongues
Everything I steal, I give away.
Once, in pines almost as tall as these,
same crescent moon sliding gently by,
I sat curled on my knees, smoking with a friend,
sipping tea, swapping Coyote tales and lies.
He said something to me
about words, that each is a name,
and that every name is God's. I who have
no god sat in the vast emptiness silent
as I could be. A way that can be named
is not the way. Each word reflects
the Spirit which can't be named. Each word
a gift, its value in exact proportion
to the spirit in which it is given.
Thus spoken, these words I give
by way of Lao Tzu's old Chinese, stolen
by a humble thief twenty-five centuries later.
The Word is only evidence of the real:
in the Hopi tongue, there is no whale;
and, in […] English, no Fourth World.
~ Sam Hamill ~
By Mary Oliver
The spirit likes to dress up like this:
shoulders, and all the rest
at night in the black branches,
in the morning
in the blue branches of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather
plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
it needs the metaphor of the body,
lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body's world,
and the dark hug of time,
sweetness and tangibility,
to be understood,
to be more than pure light
where no one is --
so it enters us --
in the morning
shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;
and at night
lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body
like a star.
You haven’t changed a bit!
I found myself saying this upon reconnecting with an old friend after many years. You haven’t changed a bit!
I suppose it’s what we say because we are so indoctrinated in the sense that aging is bad that we want to suggest that our friend has somehow avoided the changes that all mortal things undergo.
And then I remember from my science background that the molecules in our bodies are constantly being renewed. Most parts of your body have been around for only seven to ten years, and ten years from now most of the molecules that you think of today as you, will be somewhere else entirely – many of them part of other beings.
Haven’t changed a bit?
To be alive is to change.
Of all the many choices we can make in our lives, one option we do not have is to remain the same. The question is not whether to change, but how. Isn’t a great challenge of our lives to guide our own change – making our path one that leads toward love, toward openness, toward connection. We know that there are paths that lead to much darker places – where fear and suspicion grow in us like a cancer.
And certainly one of the reasons to come here to be part of this community is to seek out the positive paths – paths that will lead us to spiritual growth and wholeness.
We use this term often – spiritual. It’s a popular word today – not just with us. An awareness and connection to spirituality has grown along with the decline of the religions that once held it captive. Spirituality cannot be owned and brought out for display on special occasions like the withered relics of saints. It has a life that is independent of any tradition.
Spirituality – of the spirit. It may be fair to ask exactly what spirit we’re talking about here! The holy spirit of Christianity? The spirits of animism? The spirit within us? The spirit around us?
It may be confusing. It should be. I will be quick to confess that I don’t know exactly what I mean by spiritual or ‘the spirit.’ And I would also insist that this is no reason not to use these words. In fact, their very ambiguity may be why I like them so much. So, I’m proud to say that I can’t begin to define spirituality and I neither want to nor plan to.
I’m less proud to remember a time when I was quite new to Unitarianism and I threw a bit of a tantrum because someone wanted to use the word spirituality in a pamphlet we were preparing. At that point in my journey, I was positively allergic to anything that smacked of irrationality or the supernatural. I was happy to discuss and dialogue about important matters, but being ‘spiritual’ was to me at that time just so much superstition and wooly thinking. I was frankly afraid of it.
Understand that it’s not that I have now come to understand what spirituality is exactly, but rather that I have come to be comfortable with – and even grateful for the not knowing.
In our first reading this morning, we heard the words of poet Sam Hamill: “A way that can be named is not the way. Each word reflects the Spirit which can't be named.” Echoing the ancient author of the Tao Te Ching, he touches on the ineffable nature of the sacred in nearly all the world’s religious traditions.
The sacred cannot be fully captured in words or concepts. And not, as I once understood, because we are so small and he, it, she, or they so superior – no.
It is more that the sacred is delicate and elusive. It is as hard to catch and hold as air. The very attempt to put a face or a label upon the sacred alters it and changes it. Like catching something dim out of the corner of your eye, try to look directly upon it and it vanishes.
The word spirit comes from the Latin, spiritus, meaning breath. The Hebrew Ruach and the Greek Pneuma, have the same meaning. Breath – the invisible, intangible, indispensable stuff of life.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has another related concept – the soul. But soul and spirit are very different. The soul is thought to be unchanging. The spirit grows, changes, and develops throughout our lives.
Perhaps this is why Unitarians are so likely to speak of and sing of the spirit – and to have less interest in the idea of soul. Our way of being religious is about changing and growing, not about some God-given unalterable constancy.
The word spirit also has another wonderful ambiguity – perhaps a meaningful one – it describes something that is within and also outside of each individual.
We can be a part of spirit and yet it can be larger than any individual. Spirit flows between and through us. “The spirit likes to dress up like this”, writes Mary Oliver. “Airy and shapeless”, it “needs the body’s world.”
Wendell Berry, in his poem, ‘The Hidden Singer’ writes of:
‘…a spirit that needs nothing but its own wholeness, its health and ours. It has made all things by dividing itself. It will be whole again. To its joy we come together -- the seer and the seen, the eater and the eaten, the lover and the loved. In our joining it knows itself.’
This is the language of the mystic – the ones who approach the sacred and recognise that no language can begin to capture it. Only in approaching sideways – with metaphor and symbols, with story and myth - can a sense of the elusive sacredness begin to emerge.
I do not know what this spirit is, but I know what it does. I know that it connects us. I know it that it enables us to be part of everything living. I know that its growth brings serenity and peace as our fearful sense of aloneness eases.
How does the spirit grow? How do we shape and strengthen what we cannot see or describe? Let’s start by not trying to catch it or name it – the etymologist’s nets and bottles and pins are of no use for such elusive prey.
The spirit grows when we give it room – when we give it space – when we give it peace. And it grows when we enter into the connection that the spirit offers – through our care and our love.
We are here to create a place for the spirit to grow – both within us and around us. The work for us is not to try to catch the spirit, but to create an environment where the spirit is welcome. The spirit grows with every loving word. It strengthens with human connection. Every sincere smile and tear nourishes it. And our compassion and service entice it to settle with us and upon us, and to make a home in our hearts.
May it be so.