August 6th – Carleen Gerber – with audio
Revelation 21:1-5 and 22:1&2
“In Difficult Times You Should Always Carry
Something Beautiful in Your Mind” (Pascal)
On a recent sweltering summer day, as I hurried out of the Big Y parking, my eye spotted the following advertisement in the form of a bumper sticker:
“Natasha’s Soul Cleansing”
As I made my way home, it dawned on me that I should have paused and taken down the details. Who is Natasha? And exactly how does she cleanse souls? I’ve been ruminating on the bumper sticker ever since. Does Natasha offer a “quick fix,” or does the process necessitate a whole series of sessions?
How does one cleanse one’s soul? It’s a worthy question for our times. For, I believe, we live in an era one could describe as an age of zerrissenheit. The German word zerrissenheit means a state of being when everything seems to be torn to pieces; Webster defines it as a time internecine strife. All around us, things seem to be falling apart. The center does not hold. Our inner spirit feels unsettled, and often anxious. If the soul can be thought of as a kind of stabilizer – an anchor – for the human spirit, then in a time of zerrissenheit we are adrift, tossed about by the chaotic forces around us.
Just this past week, The New York Times, featured these prominent stories: The drastic depletion of soil all across the middle African continent, caused by over-farming, over-population and climate change is precipitating extreme drought. Famine is the unavoidable consequence. Right now severe famine threatens more African countries than ever before in history.
There is dangerously escalating tension between our country and the rogue leader of North Korea; as well as between our country and Russia. We read about strife in Syria, and growing tensions in Venezuela and Poland. We read about the fractures and turmoil permeating our own national legislative bodies, leading us toward a kind of national paralysis. And complex allegations of corruption that swirl around our highest offices.
Now, obviously, I have no integral or personal part to play in any of those world or national struggles; but just staying abreast of the news can leave me feeling bewildered, and defeated and exhausted. Perhaps the same is true for you. So particularly in these times, I think it is imperative that we protect and guard and care for our souls.
Each one of us might have a different answer about how best to nurture and protect our souls. I return often to those words from Pascal, “In difficult times we must always carry something beautiful in our minds.” I think of that as a soul-redeeming prescription.
Rainer Maria Rilke said that in difficult times we should endeavour to stay close to one simple thing in nature. The Celtic mystic, John O’Donohue writes that “When the mind is festering with trouble or the heart torn, we can find healing among the silence of mountains or fields… or find solace in listening to the simple, steadying rhythm of waves. Stillness overtakes us. And we can then let go of the tired machinations of the ego.” How many of us suffer, in the middle of the night, from “the tired machinations of the ego?”
Rilke goes on to say, “When we go out into nature, clay is returning to clay. We are returning to participate in the stillness of the earth which first dreamed us… Solitude gradually clarifies the heart until a true tranquility is reached.” (from The Invisible Embrace of Beauty; John O’Donohue; 2004)
The thirteenth century mystic, Meister Eckhart, urges us to cultivate a style of mind that can reach through to an inner stillness and calm. “The world cannot ruffle the dignity of a soul that dwells in its own tranquility,” he says. (O’Donohue 2004: p 18)
In our scripture reading from the prophet Ezekiel, we read;
“Everything will live where the river goes…there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
There is an old wooden bench on an outcropping of ledge a few hundred yards from our back door. Out there it is entirely possible to look up at the leaves of the oaks and birches and maples, and be awed by the intricate symmetry of the patterns in their leaves. Out there it is entirely possible to imagine being clothed in the green of the forest – being swallowed up by its lush bounty. Out there it is entirely possible to be restored by sunlight and brilliant blue skies and clouds that race past in the wind. Out there it is entirely possible to be humbled by the skillful power of a red-tail hawk in flight, or soothed by the haunting song of a mourning dove at break of day. Out there it is entirely possible to drink from a solace that comes from the deepest regions of earth’s mysteries. Out there, to borrow from the words of Ezekiel, one can find oneself in a sanctuary. A sanctuary of healing and restoration.
If it were possible to strip away from the world the competition, the lust for power, and the insatiable desire for possession of territory that drives so much of our strife, do you think it we would finally come to understand and make real those words from Revelation that come so close to the end of the New Testament?
“ Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I heard the voice of God saying, “ Behold, I make all things new.”…and I saw a river of the water of life, bright as crystal… and on either side of the river was the tree of life.. and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…”
That’s a vision worthy of time spent on the old wooden bench, living inside one’s imagination and hearing over and over again the words of Proverbs: “Without a vision the people perish.”
I believe it was Ghandi who said we cannot have peace in the world, unless we have peace within our own hearts and minds and homes.
There are other ways to be healed in the womb of mother earth, to be restored in the sanctity of nature. If you are a kayaker, try floating with the current in May, when the river runs strong from the winter run-off. Journey through the meandering waterways of Selden’s Creek. Let the wild, brilliant yellow iris etch their beauty into your memory so that, as Pascal said, you can “carry something beautiful in your mind” at day’s end. Hear the osprey as they cry out to warn you to keep your distance from their young. Notice the clarity of the cold water as you float along – so clear you can see all manner of vegetation beneath you. Look for the pickerel weed with its tiny purple shaft of bloom. Commune in this sanctuary without walls.
The Greek word for “the beautiful” is to kalon. It is related to the word kalein which is included in the notion of “call.” When we experience beauty, we feel called. “The Beautiful” stirs passion and urgency in us and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace. (abridged from O’Donohue 2004: p 13)
Earth is rich in healing power. This sermon is not only a call to reach for beauty and hold it fast. But it is a call to live in reverence for the earth – to see it and understand it as a sanctuary – as the sacred work of the Creator. Mother Earth is vital. She is alive. She is beautiful beyond any description. She nourishes us from the bounty of her womb- not only with everything that we eat and drink, but also with a solace that comes from the deepest regions of her mysteries. We are privileged to be one strand in what is a wonderfully, awesomely-woven web of all creation. And I believe that what we cherish we will protect with all the strength we can muster.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, in a poem entitled “Renascence,” gives us these words:
“I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart.”
What if we really understood creation to be an emanation of God, the Creator. How then would be tread upon it? Surely with reverence, being careful not to rob from it the treasures upon which future generations will depend. Surely we would honor its beauty, and sit with reverence in its sanctuaries.
In difficult times, you should always carry something beautiful in your mind.
During these past summer months, the children of the Hamou family, the Syrian refugee family that arrived in our community last May, have been having swimming lessons in our pool. A member of Christ the King, Mike Rafferty, is their teacher. And every once in a while it’s a real treat to watch the lesson, and admire their progress. Having never had the privilege of living near the water before, they have had to overcome a certain level of raw fear.
They are doing pretty well now. But swimming does not come naturally to them, so they have to concentrate intently on Mike’s every instruction. Learning to swim seems to be serious business to them. As we stand by, we hear Mike holler, again and again, “Breathe. You’ve got to remember to breathe!”
I tell that story as a kind of metaphor. You and I do have important work to do as people who seek to be followers of the one we call Jesus – as people of conscience and compassion in a time of zerrissenheit. We’ve got to stay attentive to the news – as painful as that can be- and engage in whatever issues we believe we can influence. But immersing ourselves in the beauty of nature, spending time in the sanctuary of creation, is like Mike’s admonition to breathe while we’re working hard. Breathe. You’ve got to remember to breathe.
I’m going to leave you this morning with a poem by John O’Donohue, entitled “Bennacht.” Bennacht is a celtic word for blessing.
On the day when
The weight deadens on your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
Freeze behind the grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green,
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.