`Prisoner, tell me, who was it that bound you?'
`It was my master,' said the prisoner.
`I thought I could outdo everybody in the world in wealth and power,
and I amassed in my own treasure-house the money due to my king.
When sleep overcame me I lay upon the bed that was for my lord,
and on waking up I found I was a prisoner in my own treasure-house.'
`Prisoner, tell me, who was it that wrought this unbreakable chain?'
`It was I,' said the prisoner, `who forged this chain very carefully.
I thought my invincible power would hold the world captive
leaving me in a freedom undisturbed.
Thus night and day I worked at the chain
with huge fires and cruel hard strokes.
When at last the work was done
and the links were complete and unbreakable,
I found that it held me in its grip.'
To climb to the seat of [his] throne, [the legends tell us that King] Solomon had first to pass between the lion and the ox, ancient representations of the sun and moon - that is to say, the active and the passive forces in the cosmos. On the second step he passed between the lamb and the wolf, symbols of the pure heart and the devouring passions; then the goat and the leopard, symbols of self-sacrifice and aggression; then the eagle and the peacock, representing the striving toward transcendence and the earthbound vanity of the ego; then the falcon and the cock, representing obedience to the higher and the satisfaction of lust; then the hawk and the sparrow, representing courage and timidity. At the very top of the throne, also fashioned in pure gold, there rested a dove surmounting a hawk, the dove being the great symbol of the force that reconciles the primal opposing energies within the being and life of man. [Each pair symbolised in its own way the spiritual and material forces that man must harmonise within himself.]
Some of you are swimmers. I envy you. I am not a great swimmer. That’s an understatement… I am a lousy swimmer. I thrash about in the water expending a lot of energy, splashing mightily, don’t get very far and come out gasping for air. I don’t like the idea of having to breathe in the water. Air is for breathing and water is for drinking. It’s just unnatural to try to breathe while moving through the water. Of course, just this problem makes some people deathly afraid of the water - and that seems pretty reasonable to me!
At a recent poetry evening, we engaged with the topic of fear. We shared with each other some of our biggest, most hair-raising fears – the kind that make you shriek and jump up on a table or worse – the ones that keep you from sleeping at night or enjoying your life. You can imagine some of the fears that were mentioned: spiders and snakes were there. Clowns - lots of people are afraid of clowns. Someone should have mentioned certain American Vice Presidential candidates! And the fears went deeper too: some mentioned failure, loneliness, disease, disability…
I shared one of my greatest fears. I said “being destitute.” After the evening was done, another participant came to me and said – “Thank you for saying it. Destitution – that’s my biggest fear also. It’s so big I was afraid even to speak it.”
I have been fortunate in my life. I have never been poor - I’ve had to live on a very limited budget when I was a student but I never knew the kind of poverty where you need to worry how you will eat - where you fear you will lose your home - where you have to decide between clothing, medicine, or food… Where you can’t provide for those who depend on you.
Some of you may have known this kind of poverty. I sense that you have learned something important about what is required for survival – perhaps like being thrown in the deep end can help you get over your fear of water, but can also provoke a terrible life-long dread.
Why is there such a tremendous fear of having nothing for me and others? I am at no real risk of becoming destitute. Why be so afraid of having nothing when other risks are so much more real and would be so much harder to survive? The answer, I think, comes from the fact that money is not just money. In our society, money is not just something that you need to exchange for housing or food, it is much more.
Money has become more than a tool. It is a symbol and a measure and an integral part of how we live. Money can determine our self-worth and it can define how others think of us. A famous rock star said something I liked: “Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.” Maybe money can’t make you happy and it can’t buy you love, but it certainly can solve an awful lot of the world’s problems. Many of the things you and I would like to change about this world – poverty, slavery, hunger, disease – many of these could be fixed or at least greatly improved with enough money. And money is power – without money you are at the mercy of those who have it.
Despite its importance in our lives, most of us are uncomfortable with money - especially at certain times and in certain special places.
When I first attended a Unitarian service, I was pleasantly surprised. As most of you know, I was raised in a Jewish family and entering that very churchy-looking white-steepled place was very scary. I was relieved and increasingly pleased as I began to understand Unitarianism’s open-minded approach to religion. Everything was on a very good course until they got to something called – the collection! Believe it or not, they actually collected money – cash! – in the middle of the service. I was appalled!
Why did I find that so troubling? Why do many of us find any discussion of money so uncomfortable - especially when it is connected to our spiritual lives?
This discomfort has to do with a general sense we have that we have something of a split nature – that there is a duality to our lives. We imagine that there is a higher self - the self concerned with love, compassion, connection, wholeness, and a relationship to the sacred dimension in life… this is the self we aim to cultivate in our spiritual lives. It is the self that we want to bring to this place.
And then there is our lower self - the self that has to eat and sleep and survive. The self that needs shelter and gets angry and frustrated and yes - the self that needs money to do so many things in the real world.
And we don’t want to mix them - we don’t want to contaminate the higher side with the lower.
Perhaps if we lived in monasteries or convents, we might be able to have that pure spiritual life, unsullied by worldly concerns – although I imagine that even in that environment, more worldly issues manage to creep in pretty regularly. Someone has to take out the rubbish and clean the toilets, after all.
The challenge with trying to build a barrier between our higher and lower lives is that we must live in the real world. We all need to deal with money and the rest of it. If we can only be in touch with our best selves when we are free of the world, we are limited to, at the very best, an hour or two each week. And how do we act the rest of the time?
Taoism teaches that everything in life contains two opposing forces and that we must bring those together just as Taoism’s symbol of yin and yang brings dark and light together and reinforces this with a dot of light amid the dark and a dot of dark amid the light. From Taoism’s Lao Tzu:
‘Yield and overcome,
Bend and be straight,
Empty and be full,
Wear out and be new,
Have little and gain,
Have much and be confused.’
Our challenge is to be whole people all the time – to recognize the friction between the higher and lower aspects of our selves and to live with and within that tension.
Money is the great symbol of this ongoing inner struggle. When we put money in the collection here each week, we join together the pure spiritual life with the impure worldly life. By staying with the discomfort in that juxtaposition, we can learn more about bringing together the two sides of our nature and living a less divided life.
“Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are.” These words from James W. Frick are obviously true in a way, but spend some time with them and they present a real challenge. How well does your spending reflect what you really care about? How well does the way you use your money promote the values you profess?
I’ll be the first to admit that the way I use my money does not mesh terribly well with my values or with my vision for the world. I suspect that some of you may be in the same boat with me.
The difficulty is more than simple forgetfulness and it is not necessarily a sign of selfishness or greed. It runs deeper. It gets right to that division between the two parts of our selves and once we get into the real world, it is ever so hard to bring our higher self along.
And yet, this is what we all must endeavour to do. We must live consciously - ever aware of the clash between our natures - ever mindful of that tension. We must jump into that rolling sea and begin. Taking a breath and then a stroke through the water. Another breath. Another stroke. Together, we’ll get it eventually.
May it be so.