Spirit of Life (123)

Good Morning.  And welcome to this morning's celebration of the Unitarian Universalist Society of the Daytona Beach Area.  This Unitarian Universalist Community welcomes and celebrates the presence and participation of persons of all races, nationalities, previous religious beliefs, and sexual orientations.  Our policy is one of inclusion of all persons who are attracted to our service.  And so, I welcome you all most cordially.

Introductions and Announcements
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Chalice Lighting:
I light this chalice with words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed this sacred flame.

Responsive Reading
Reading #664: Give us the Spirit of the Child.

Hymn   #305: De Colores


Let us each center ourselves in each one's own fashion, be that by way of a  mantra, a prayer, or silent reflection.

When my spirit no longer hurries
on the wings of dream into golden distances,
when my eyes linger no more with longing glance
at the eternally distant stars;
then will the winds and birds whisper
in harmony with my longing and life.
[from: Anne Clark's album The Law Is An Anagram Of Wealth, the song: Longing Stilled, "Gestillte Sehnsucht"]


When we talked first about spirituality this summer, I pointed out that the Latin "spirit" and the Greek "pneumaton" both are derived from the terms for "breathing."  Spirituality, for the people of antiquity was merely the ability to breathe.  When, according to the biblical creation myths, god breathed his holy breath into his clay creatures, he gave them life, the ability to breathe.  That's all "spirituality" means to me.  Yet, saying so has the ring of reductionism, as though I were to wish to tear down an edifice of thought and religion and philosophy.

Not so.

To me, the ability to breathe, the quality of being alive, the marvel of simply BEING are 'spirituality' in its widest possible sense.  To go beyond that meaning is to invite nonsense; to fall short of that realm of meaning is to invite an impoverishment of the quality of life.

I suppose we seek a transcendent sense to the term "spirituality" because we have come to accept life as commonplace, as old hat, as repetitious routine, as something we all know already and could not possibly find anything startling about.  At that moment, we seek in some beyond of which we know nothing, some qualities which we cannot fathom, that are attributable to spirits or deities which we cannot understand.  What I think is necessary is to give ourselves to an appreciation of the life that we have here and now.  But how to do that?

One way I have found life to lose its commonplace character is to look at it through the eyes of children  I used to troop all over the German countryside with my kids in tow to crawl up mountains in search of remnants of castle ruins.  What was a fairly mundane way to burn calories and to make space for the next Sauerbraten and red cabbage, was metamorphosed into a Romantic venture into the past through the eyes of my children.  Just recently, my daughter shared some of her poetry with me, where she saw herself as the noble maiden, inhabitant of a medieval castle.  And I have further become witness of her beginning interest in the Society of Creative Anachronisms.  What a different and richer view of our past experiences!

But seeing through the eyes of children can be at a less complex level: the delight of child at a plant, at a bug, at a starry sky, at a lightning bolt, and at thousands of other trivial phenomena--these are things that metamorphose the commonplace into enriched experiencing, enriched spirituality, enriched living.  Let me remind you of Blake's verse:

To see the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

That is the childlike vision that I have in mind, a vision which metamorphoses the commonplace.  We have all seen it at work when we explain the features of life to children, and we probably all have experienced some measure of the child's marvel.  That to me is a kind of spirituality.

Art has a way to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary also.  While we stayed at Dresden this summer, Angelika and I visited Fortress Königstein, a stronghold built by August the Strong of Saxony, so solidly built that no military might has ever conquered its walls.  In one of the towers of the fortress, a room had been set aside this summer to display the art of the former German Democratic Republic.  These were pieces that the government had sponsored, had paid for, and then had let disappear.  It was clearly art that was not of the propaganda variety: strong peasant, built like Hercules, lifting bales of hay, and young women workers, strutting about in figures fit for Miss Universe contestants.  This was art of the soft underbelly of the revolution: pictures of a young couple renovating an apartment in a ruin of a house, not too flattering pictures of the greats of that regime, and many other fascinating works of art.

But two stood out for me.  One painting depicts a stairway, presumably to a subway station.  The viewer looks from somewhat below, but not exactly from the bottom of the stairs.  A male figure is even with or slightly below the viewer, his hat pulled deeply over his face, his gaze intent on the next stairs.  A woman is a few steps behind him, similarly intent on taking the next step down.  At the top of the stair, one sees the heads of some, the torsos of others, and the resolute step of the one closest to the stairway, his leg hovering over the first step.  All figures and all architecture is geometrically precise, as though drawn by a ruler.  And in the midst of all, about halfway down the stairs, we see a young woman's face, eyes wide with surprise or perhaps even anxious fear.  Perhaps she has lost her footing.  Perhaps she is struck by some personal tragedy.  The viewer does not know.  But she is clearly segregated from the others; she is quite alone with her fears.  I am reminded of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream," one which has the entire universe reverberate with the existential Angst of the agitated individual.  This painting, however, is antithesis to Munch.  The universe and the other people remain indifferent.  One wonders whether the artist might have seen this as a symbol of the individual in the overly bureaucratized socialist society: alone, despite all the official admonitions for popular togetherness, as alone as the political prisoner in the StaSi cell, as alone as Kafka's characters in a bureaucracy that they cannot understand fully and that denies their humanity.

And another group of paintings stands out also.  One artist was to do a series of paintings on the theme: The Socialist Human Being.  He never was permitted to do more than the first two: The Socialist Adam and Eve.  The government did not fund the rest of the project, but luckily, they did not destroy these two paintings either.  One depicts a haggard, concave chested Adam, unshaven, with drooping shoulders.  The other shows a pendulous breasted Eve, knock-kneed, dull-eyed, and as haggard as her male counterpart.   Both paintings are clearly a slap in the fact of the normal propaganda depictions.

All three paintings bring out an aspect of an existential commonplace and make the experience fresh by focusing on something we might otherwise have overlooked.  One of  the major flaws of  the former regime of the German Democratic Republic was its unwillingness to listen to criticism.  Erich Honnecker had surrounded himself with yes-people.  If the regime had offered free reigns to the forces of criticism, it might have shaped a different world by seeing its world differently.

Such visions that art offers add to my sense of living and help remind me of the wonder of living, of my aesthetic sense, of my ability to think and reason, and of my, if you will, "spirituality."

But I also indulge my aesthetic sense in things that I stand in awe of, very much as a child does stand in awe of many a commonplace.  One scene that brought that feeling home to me with an immense strength was my entry into the arena at Leptis Magna in North Africa, when I was there in 1980.  From the Mediterranean Sea, I walked toward a huge gate, about 10 times as tall as I.  The road bent to the left, went through a vaulted, short entrance way.  Then the gate opened to a huge arena of stone seats, every bit as vast in its expanse as a modern stadium.  For a moment, I had that feeling of deep emotional union with the gladiator, who must have stepped that same path some 2000 years ago.  What a marvelous experience that lifted me out of the commonplace of stony rubble to an identification with a far distant historicity and a deep connection with the grandeur and the rich variety of human existence.

I have much the same feelings when I step into the grand cathedrals or castles in Europe.  What magnificence of the human spirit they bear witness to!  Every time I experience these buildings I am moved to the sublime, and I am moved always again when the experience repeats itself.

This summer we visited the small town of Pirna, capital of a tiny county at the border to the Czech Republic.  This town was closed to most Western visitors until unification of the two Germanies.  During the endless European dusk that lasts from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the summer, we wandered rather aimlessly through the streets of Pirna, marveling at some of the houses from the 15th century and earlier, we marveled at their disrepair, the consequence of forty years of a political and economical naiveté that thought to take from the rich and give to the poor, thus eliminating the middle class that might have maintained these ancient homes.  And then, being two atheists who love to visit churches, we stepped into the centrally located cathedral, partly attracted by organ music from the church.  The concert was already past its mid point, but we were admitted nonetheless.  And we sat quietly, transfixed by the music of the huge pipe organ, overawed by the huge vaulted ceiling of this early gothic building, with its frescoes and its ornate and intricate baroque altar, its richly gilded figures all aglitter in the sparse light of the chandeliers and some small lamps along the sides of the church.  What a magnificent architectural, musical, and aesthetic testimony to the existence of humanity and to the magnificence of life itself!

The experience repeated itself in the Marienkirche in Rostock at the Baltic, member city of the once mighty Hansa Shipping League.  The church dates back to the time of the Hanseatic League and bears witness to that time with an opulence one feels it must have had once.  I saw one stained glass window that had survived the bombs.  It had been donated by a Taylor-master Mann, ancestor of Thomas Mann and Heinrich Mann.  We saw the world clock there at that church, a clockwork that had been devised in the 15 hundreds and still shows phases of the moon, various world times, ornately carved astrological signs, and sundry other astronomical events.

The clock chimed at noon.  And we stayed for those chimes and the noon prayer which followed them, not because our atheist consciousness had softened, but because the prayers were followed by a concert of pipe organ and flute, echoing in this huge building that, according to a poster display, had been the sole survivor of a devastating bombing run on the city of Rostock.

I had the same feeling of awe and awareness of  sublime humanity, when I visited Prague, passing the pub where Albert Einstein had played the violin for his friends Franz Kafka and Max Brod.  And we saw the huge castle atop Prague, where even today the government of the Czech Republic has its seat and where surely Franz Kafka had drawn his inspiration for his surrealistic vision of the bureaucratic commonplace in his novels "The Trial" and "The Castle."  We crossed the Karl's Bridge into the old town of Prague, staring in openmouthed wonder at the medieval buildings of this beautiful city that had been largely spared any destruction through the war.

To me, such experiences glorify humanity; they let me, as member of the species, think of myself as in some sense part of the rich fabric of our collective living.  That, to me, is a sense of the sublime, the essence of our marvelous ability to live, to breathe, to imagine, to think---in short, to exist spiritually.

There were also such experiences in Dresden, when we visited the Zwinger, a pleasure castle built by August the Strong of Saxony.  The rich collection of medieval armor, the marvelous collection of China, the overwhelming collection of paintings of the Italian and the Northern Renaissance.  And the fabulous collection of mathematical devices, including Blaise Pascal's first mechanical computer and calculator.  Overwhelming!  And a true tribute to human grandeur.

But, as in Rostock so in Dresden: the reality of those bombing nights that herded thousands of refugees to the town's center and executed 300,000 of them in one night of horrible fires, that reality still lurks behind the rebuilt buildings and monuments.  And lest you think me partial to one side, let me remind you that also Kurt Vonnegut shook his fist at the Anglo-American planes that devastated that city where Vonnegut was prisoner at Schlachthof Fünf, Slaughterhouse Five, the novel bearing out his confusion between human suffering and the sense of national affinity in the person of the "unstuck" Billy Pilgrim, the main character of the novel.  I was as unstuck, particularly when I saw a pictorial history in one of Dresden's churches of the devastation in London and other British cities as well as the unspeakable suffering and death of a vast number of Russians as part of the German war machine.

And as though that had not been enough for a person to come unstuck, I also visited Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp outside of Berlin, where Sinti and Roma, Jews, and political prisoners were tormented and had died.  And where just recently vast mass graves have been discovered where Russian tormentors had executed and had disposed of German political prisoners after 1945, a spiral of violence and suffering.

I also visited Teresiin, or Theresienstadt--as it was known before it became part of the Czech Republic.  We visited the camp there, becoming aware again of the suffering that must have filled it, stopping for a moment at the vast field of graves marked half by a Star of David and half by a huge cross.  And then we read the account of how the camp had been changed after the war to hold ethnic Germans, citizens of then Czechoslovakia who were rounded up, incarcerated, and evicted under the pretense that only NAZI criminals were to be so treated.  The literature at Teresiin admitted that old women and young children were rounded up along with others: an ethnic cleansing, though in a different direction and just as unfocussed and blind to the individual human being and his or her fate.

Violence and horror had begotten violence and horror.  And these now silent monuments to that horror also blend into the ambivalence that makes up my sense of 'spirituality.'

Ursula K. LeGuin has written an intriguing science-fiction short story called "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."  Omelas is a society that must have a small child live in horror and fear and depravity for the others to appreciate and comprehend their comforts and pleasant existence, LeGuin's acknowledgment of the logical necessity that a concept of well-being be accompanied by a concept of suffering, else neither condition can be understood and appreciated.

Perhaps human life requires these opposites.  Perhaps we must have a polarity of sublime, on the one, and deep depravity and horror, on the other hand.  Perhaps we need the creative and aesthetically pleasing Apollonian trait as much as the orgiastically destructive Dionysian torment.

In the Marienkirche in Rostock, I saw the gravestone of a general of the Swedish army.  He was depicted in full armor, as large as life.  The stone also showed  an angelic presence.  And the bottom of the stone showed an opening coffin, a skeletal figure exiting the coffin.  Obviously, the symbolism is derived from the Apostolic Creed, which expresses a belief in the resurrection of the flesh, not a straight rise to heaven.  But to me, that symbolism was precisely one of the contrast of angelic grandeur and shocking horror, all unified by a stoic humanity.

Yet something in me rebels against accepting the view that horror must be as part of life as grandeur.  Sometimes, I would like to walk away from Omelas, to become the child who is content to see heaven in the wild flower.  And so I shall close, standing before you, mildly confused and somewhat between Nietzsche and the hippies.

Extinguishing the Chalice

Thus Spake Zarathustra: One must harbor chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.  I say unto you: You have yet chaos within you.

Choir and Postlude