Stay together, learn the flowers, go light - an address for the dedication and blessing of Mark Reay

Today we meet to celebrate the dedication and naming of baby Mark and to welcome him into the world (a pdf copy of this service available here). In one sense this is a very simple thing - and the words used in our brief ceremony try to capture something of this simplicity. Yet, as we all know, simplicity begets unimaginable complexity and knowledge of this should serve to remind us constantly to be alert to the need not to get too wrapped up only in what the service says. After all, as beautiful as it may be (and I think it is beautiful) it can, at best, in the end only be a kind of theory about how the world might be and how we might best live and flourish in it. Theories or beliefs are not facts - as science knows well - and so the only way we can have any hope to verify this service is by constantly looking to the use we make of it; as the philosopher Raymond Geuss wisely notes, the 'best way to see what the theory about is to study the systematic long-term effects of applying it' (Geuss, 'Outside Ethics', Princeton UP 2005, p. 36). In other words the questions we need to be asking about this service are not really those about the literal truth or otherwise of what it says but rather what it helps us to show to ourselves and the wider world, about what it helps us do, about how we use it (following Wittgenstein and also R. B. Braithwaite as in his An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief).

One thing this service seeks to do is, as the Unitarian minister Mark Morrison-Reed, wrote:

. . . to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. [To reveal that t]here is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed (580 SLT).

At heart this service is simply an aid to unveiling just some of the many bonds that bind each of us to each other and so show us that we do indeed have a vital relationships with something that transcends the necessary particularities of our own lives. The lens through which we see that today is, of course, Mark.

So, although we are an extraordinarily diverse group of people today containing christians, humanists, deists, atheists, agnostics, and perhaps also members of other faith traditions, we can all gather to share our love and concern for Mark that he may be enabled to flourish appropriately. But experience tells us that this doesn’t happen by simply letting a child go unaided, untutored and unshaped into the world but only when we acknowledge some particularities and show him by example, some of our core values and attitudes. Each of us, in our own ways, will try to do this by providing models of behaviour and thinking for him to emulate. However, the ultimate aim, at least of true liberal education and a liberal church community such as this, is not to become a mere carbon copy of the models we provide but to enable him to become most fully himself. There is a well known story about Rabbi Zusya that illustrates my point well and I recount often at these moments. The Rabbi was addressing his congregation just before his own death and he decided to give them a final teaching: 'Remember that in the world to come I will be asked not, 'Why were you not more like Moses?’ rather I will be asked 'Why were you not more like Zusya?'

If, within this very contingent temporary community of parents, god-parents, friends and church, we succed in enabling Mark to develop his own distinctive vision of the world then we can be assured that we will all gain because Mark will offer us all a unique persepctive on the world - a window that none of us could have opened. What vista that window reveals is not for the guessing either for we have no way of knowing.

But all this is rather general and non-specific. What is it that I, as a representative of this particular religious community, try to teach about how we might use, not only the naming and dedication service we have taken part in today but all the services that are enacted here? For many years I have found that much of great use can be summed up around a poem by Gary Snyder called 'For the Children' from his collection 'Turtle Island':

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us,

the steep climb

of everything going up,
up, as we all go down.
In the next century

or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,

we can meet in peace
if we make it. To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
stay together

learn the flowers
go light.

'Staying together’ suggests that, although we must always be teaching and learning what it is fully to be an individual, we always need to be doing this in community - alone together. Not just our immediate local communities of family, church and town etc. but ever expanding ones. Although we must acknowledge that we are inexorably shaped by our immediate contingent customs, climate and state of knowledge we also need to understand that our own cultural and physical contexts commingle seemlessly with all about it - we belong to an infinitely complex interdependent commingling of networks and systems. Reflecting long and hard upon this over many years it seems clear to me that this ultimately draws us into recognising the only true universal community that human beings can reasonably and consistently posit as being real - namely Nature herself. One can, and I do (following Spinoza), suggest that it is not unreasonable to think of Nature as God and God as Nature. But what ever you think about that utlimately Snyder's call to 'stay together' is to claim that all of us are sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of one another something Jesus' teaching clearly implies. Showing something of this truly universal community is one thing I would like Mark to see here, however imperfectly we express it.

By 'learning the flowers’ I think Snyder is refering to the need constantly to be engaged in a careful and sustained meditation upon Nature or God - a meditation that should encompass all our human endeavours whether we label them spiritual or scientific. Jesus' call to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field is an expression of this mindfulness. So I would like this community to introduce to Mark the importance of quiet, non-doctrinaire observation and meditation as well as the importance of sustained and rigourous scientific equiry - to try to see things as they are. As Spinoza wisely said: 'the more we understand singular things, the more we understand God’ (E5p24). Of course Mark, like us, will fail in many ways but the task of cleansing our lenses of perception remains a central task for every human being.

By 'going light’ I think Snyder means living in such a way that when we die we leave only the faintest and temporary physical traces on the world as is possible. In other words if we succeed in going light our most valuable bequest to the world will be to leave no traces in the universe except love, knowledge, wisdom and compassion. It has to be said that this runs somewhat counter to the kind of advice adults usually give to youngsters which often encourages them to 'make their mark upon the world.' But, in this more ecologically aware time I think we need to be alert to the need to change our advice and let our mark upon the world be only as gentle as loving kiss upon the forehead of a new born child.

Today we have welcomed Mark to the world and I hope that all we do for and around him in the coming years will help him understand that this world, God-or-Nature, is as Snyder also observed, 'not a place to visit, it is home’ (Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild in the Gary Snyder Reader, Counterpoint Washington D.C. 1999, p. 169). And, whatever this service has said may it only show that we consider this beautiful earth to be home and all it inhabitants - animate and inanimate - are in some way our brothers and sisters.

So, brother Mark, may you consider well the flower we have given you and may you go with friends and lightly.
2 comments

Popular Posts