We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come out.
When the brain and the belly are burning from fasting,
every moment a new song rises out of the fire.
The mists clear, and a new vitality makes you
spring up the steps before you.
Be empty and sing as a reed instrument.
Be empty and write secrets with a reed pen…
But even when all will and control have been lost,
they will return…, like soldiers appearing out of the ground,
or pennants flying in the breeze.
I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity down there:
each day I'll wake up and find the lowly nearby,
a handy focus and reminder,
a ready measure of my significance,
the voice by which I would be heard,
the wills, the kinds of selfishness
I could freely adopt as my own:
but though I have looked everywhere,
I can find nothing to give myself to:
everything is magnificent with existence, is in surfeit of glory:
nothing is diminished,
nothing has been diminished for me:
I said what is more lowly than the grass:
ah, underneath, a ground-crust of dry-burnt moss:
I looked at it closely and said this can be my habitat: but
nestling in I found below the brown exterior
green mechanisms beyond the intellect
awaiting resurrection in rain: so I got up
and ran saying there is nothing lowly in the universe:
I found a beggar: he had stumps for legs:
nobody was paying him any attention: everybody went on by:
I nestled in and found his life:
there, love shook his body like a devastation:
I said though I have looked everywhere
I can find nothing lowly in the universe:
I whirled though transfigurations up and down,
transfigurations of size and shape and place:
at one sudden point came still, stood in wonder:
moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent with being!
~ A. R. Ammons ~
Have you seen the new Batman film? I liked it – lots of explosions and special effects – just my kind of film! But one thing really annoyed me: Batman’s voice. When he was his alter-ego, Millionaire Bruce Wayne, he had a nice normal sort of voice. But when he was Batman, he talked something like this. I’m the Batman.
I suppose it makes sense that he should try to disguise his voice to protect his identity. Some other superheroes haven’t made quite as much of an effort. [Turns around, put’s on glasses, and turns back to the congregation.]
Hi - you don’t know me. I’m Clark Kent Pakula, a mild-mannered husband, father and writer for a great congregational newsletter. [Turns again and removes glasses.]
And then, there’s me. Faster than a 73 bus caught in traffic, more powerful than a ranting retired Baptist minister, able to leap two stair steps in a single bound, look up in the pulpit, it’s super-minister!
Well, maybe my identities are not so very distinct as that, but I do have different identities and so, I suspect, do you. There is the public minister identity that you see here today. There is the loving husband, the proud father. There is the fierce negotiator fighting to get the best possible rates from renters at Unity. There is the caring pastor who will give a listening ear and all the time and attention you need. There is the administrator, who organises events, programmes, and services and still manages to do small repairs and get building quotes.
And there are other identities that I’m less proud of. There’s impatient Andy, who doesn’t want to wait one second more than he has to. There is judgmental Andy, who is just a bit less tolerant of other peoples’ views than he’d like to be. And frantic Andy - that’s an identity I take on far too often - with too much to do and seemingly no time to take a breath to find a calmer version of myself.
I know that I’m not alone in having these different sides to my personality. The influences around us encourage this. If you work, you probably have to put on your work personality. If you have family, you probably have several different ways of being with them. Perhaps you have one or more personalities that especially emerge when you come here.
The life of our big city environment has an enormous energy and force to it. At its best – or at our best – it leaves us appreciative of the diversity of humankind and awestruck by humanity’s creative power. All too often though, it pushes us too hard and can leave us frantic, distracted, short-tempered, weary, envious, and frightened. Rumi compares human beings to lutes – he explains that the soundbox must be empty for music to emerge. The lives we lead fill us to bursting with stimulation and consumption. It can be no surprise when the strings of our souls fall silent.
I have often suggested to you that good religion includes three essential and interconnected dimensions. These three are spirituality, community, and the pursuit of justice. The spiritual dimension of religion is about the quest to be more attuned with something that seems to defy words. It is the sacred in life. The true, the peaceful, the loving. To grow spiritually is to grow into unity with the sacred and with all life. It is to know the connection between all things and to walk with equanimity through all the days of our lives. To grow spiritually is to find among all those identities we encompass and all the masks we wear, our best selves.
Tomorrow is the first day of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar – the month of Ramadan. For the entire thirty days of Ramadan, devout Muslims will abstain from food, drink, tobacco and sex from sunrise until sunset. And this abstinence – the physical restraint of Ramadan – this is just the beginning. The observance of Ramadan is, more than anything else, an approach to holiness – a unique time for each individual to approach the indescribable sacredness of life. Muslims are expected to be kind to one another, to increase their generosity, and to pray deeply and often at this time. Fasting is not a punishment, it is a tool for redirecting the heart away from the physical and the day-to-day influences and toward life’s fundamental and yet ineffable truths.
In our lives of distraction and distress, of consumption and confusion, of frenzy and fractiousness, Ramadan seems perfectly suited as a time for reawakening to the sacred and returning to our best selves.
[Sing “return again” Singing the Journey # 1011]
Let’s enter into a time of meditation now. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so. Imagine yourself waking up from a long, restful, sleep. As you wake up, you feel none of the usual dread about the day ahead. In fact, you feel excited to see what life will bring your way this day. You get up, wash, and you have your breakfast. Everything tastes better today – your toast is crisper, your jam wakes up every taste bud, the warmth of your tea fills you with a feeling of comfort.
Imagine leaving your home now. As you encounter people - friends, strangers, everyone - you feel connected to each one. You understand them as though their thoughts were your own. You feel compassion for those who seem to be in pain and you share the joy of everyone who wears a smile today. You continue on your day feeling light, and connected. Take a moment in the stillness to imagine a bit more of how that day might go.
Now, I’d like to ask you to share a bit of your sense of the way of being you just imagined. As you feel ready, just speak out words or phrases that describe for you what it is to “return to what you are, return to who you are, return to the home of your soul.”
[Sing “return again” Singing the Journey # 1011]
What a wonderful way of being. It is truly this [lists] that we seek in our journey toward personal wholeness.
In the States, we used to have these terrible late night advertisements where they’d show you some amazing new kitchen device that could chop, slice, grind, stew, broil, wash windows, and make your coffee all at the same time. And then they’d invariable say “What would you pay for all this? 50 dollars, 100 dollars, 500 dollars? And of course, it would only be 19.99… but I digress.
What I want to ask is what is it worth to you? What would you give to return to the home of your soul? Would you be willing to give it a try? Maybe you’d be willing to give up food, drink, tobacco, and sex from dawn to dusk. But we’re Unitarians, if you want to take inspiration from Ramadan and make it your own, you’re allowed to do that here.
What could you do for the next thirty days that would remind you, guide you, lead you toward being more in harmony with the sacred dimension of life. Perhaps you’d give up television, or skip lunch, or abstain from beer. Maybe you’d write a journal for the thirty days, or meditate twice a day, or pray morning and night.
Think about it for a moment. Think if you are prepared to commit to something for thirty days. If you are, write it down on the card you received when you came in. This is just for yourself – your contract with yourself – so put it away in a safe place. When you get home, you might consider putting it in a place where you’ll see it often.
Ramadan ends Tuesday the 30th of September with a celebration called Eid Al-Fitr. On the preceding Sunday, we’ll revisit our experiences of the past thirty days and share what, if anything we have discovered during this time - what special experiences we may have had.
These words are from Wendell Berry’s poem, “A Spiritual Journey.”
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.
The sacred surrounds us. When we turn suddenly or blink or squint, we might just catch a fleeting glimpse of it – we might notice that, as in A. R. Amman’s words “there is nothing lowly in the universe” – just before it is pushed out of view by our racing thoughts, our worries, and our busyness.
Life offers itself to us, rich and abundant. So often, we fail to notice, fail to grab the great gift that is before us. So tied up in all those identities we use to make it through each day, we have almost lost the peaceful one that connects us to all that is good and true.
Return. Return to who you are. Return to what you are. Return to the home of your soul
May it be so.