"We need not think alike to love alike" - or what the sun tells us
MP3 Please read Mary Oliver's poem below before listening to the mp3.
Reading: "The Sun" by Mary Oliver
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone -
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance -
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love -
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world -
or have you too
Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Vol. 1, Beacon Press 2004)
As the notices revealed, last week was, in all kinds of ways, very fraught and insanely busy. I knew early on that I would be left with no more than a couple of hours to prepare this address and so, to help the situation I took what is for me an unusual decision to choose a reading at the beginning of the week upon which to base my address - the idea being that I could think about it intermittently and at least have half an idea in my head about what to say by Saturday afternoon when I at last became free. I chose Mary Oliver's poem "The Sun" for two basic reasons. The first was that I thought it would trigger some reflections that would be wholly unrelated to the weekend's events - I just wanted to forget about them for a bit. The second was because of it's final stanza in which she asks whether we have turned from the world and gone crazy for power and for things. I really did feel that the events of the last two weeks - culminating in yesterday's marches - were stopping me from seeing the beauty of the sunset and had especially got me caught up in questions of political and religious power. Questions which, I ought to add, I think must be considered by us in our own gatherings because we are a religious movement that gained its basic shape through protesting and tackling both religious and political forms of oppression.
Anyway, as it happened, after choosing the poem I not only continued to forget to look at the sunsets but also forgot even to think about the poem. I got to Saturday morning but because I'd had to prepare the forthcoming memorial service for Ronald and Agnes with Ronald's son Stephen (all the while keeping an anxious eye on a live twitter feed about the two marches) by the time I actually got to sit down with the poem at about 3pm I felt utterly unable to draw out of it the strong message that I know exist within all of Oliver's poems. All I could make out of it was "OK folks, aren't sunsets lovely." God help us, sermons that are really no more than such platitudinous statements are the thing I hate most about much liberal religion and this was a feeling I shared with my Old Testament and Hebrew tutor, Father John Davis. I found this out after the two of us had attended a terribly sentimental funeral service in my college chapel in which the deceased had been consigned, I kid you not, to a beautiful sunset. As we were leaving Father John told me how when he died he wanted a proper funeral in which he was sent forth to God Almighty who would judge the quick and the dead not some vague sunset. On balance, given only a choice between these two, I'd chose the sunset over the excessively judgemental God but I knew what he meant and I was proud and honoured when he died to find out he had asked me to read from Ecclesiastes at his own requiem mass.
But that's somewhat by the by - the main point is that I couldn't see how to speak to Oliver's poem in a way that had any real depth to it and so the poem had to go. Then I remembered that Richard Howett, our local MEP, brought to the unity service a poem of peace written by John Andrew Storey, a Unitarian minister with Quakerly leanings who died in 1997. It was a touching thing for Richard to do and, since I knew John Andrew Story it had especial personal resonance for me. On my shelves I have an anthology published after he died and I thought, well, maybe this poem would be in there and I could use that. Alas, it wasn't but, as I looked through it, the following piece and poem shone out at me. Why this was the case will be obvious the moment you hear them.
Reading: The Ultimate Reality and Sunset
Many years ago, taking a walk on the cliffs at Sheringham, I was halted in my tracks by the magnificent spectacle of the sun making its majestic descent into the sea. It was the most beautiful sunset it has even been my privileged to witness, and as I watched that breathtaking sight the thought came to me again - as it had come many times before - that it would be utterly impossible to describe such an experience to a blind person. What words would you use to describe a sunset to a blind person?
The thought came to me too that we have the same problem when we try to describe or define God. I do not think it can be done, and I do not think we should even try. We all need more humility in talking about that Ultimate Reality we call 'God'. We should seek not to impose a definition but show a way of life and demonstrate a religious discipline that can lead to personal experience - and experience that involves not only ethical endeavour but also the practice of prayer/meditation. For me the value of religion is in this, that it shows us the path which, if faithfully followed, leads to a personal experience of the Divine.
When the experience comes one can only bow down in speechless reverence. On returning to our holiday flat I sat down and scribbled in the back of my diary some words which eventually became the following poem:
Evening in Sheringham
walking the cliffs,
no breeze stirred,
no bird sang.
The sun set on a silent world
What beauty for the eyes,
what treasured memories for the mind.
A thought occurred -
how could one tell the blind
of such rare gifts,
with what poor words describe the changing shades,
the sea's reflections,
as the rays are caught?
A deeper thought as sunlight fades -
the power behind the sunset's glow?
Life-Force or Universal Mind,
no creeds reveal,
no church can show,
for 'God' can never be defined.
Only experience can know
what words can't tell.
With inward eyes at last we find
that which is Ultimately Real.
(The Inquirer, 23 July 1994)
But, before I come to the immediate point of this address there is one more connection to be made. Because of John Andrew Storey's mention of the futility of describing a sunset to a blind person, I could not but help being reminded of a section of Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief - a book which as you know is my constant companion - where he is talking about Jesus' healing of the blind man found in Chapter 9 of John's Gospel:
"Any demands for proof of the truthfulness of [Jesus']teaching are similar to people demanding evidence from a blind man on how and why he came to see the light. A healed blind man, remaining the same person he was before, could only say he was blind but now he sees. Exactly this and nothing more can be said by the person who did not previously understand the meaning of life, but then suddenly came to comprehend it. Such a person would only say that he previously did not know true goodness in life, but now he knows it. Like the healed blind man, who says 'I do not know anything about the correctness of the healing or the sinfulness of the healer, nor anything about some different, better healing. I know only one thing and that is I was blind, but now I see" (Leo Tolstoy, Gospel in Brief, trans. Dustin Condren, Harper Perennial, 2011, p. 80).
OK. Now we may cut to the chase - but I ought to make it clear that as I was writing this address it was not until the last minute that it became clear to me that I was actually on the trail of some real quarry. If I hadn't you would have been hearing from me an old address!
To see it we must return to the multi-faith service held here on Friday. Whenever I take part in, or as this time, conduct the kind of multi-faith service we had here on Friday I am struck by *how* differently the world shows up to the many people who are taking part. I'm also struck by the fact that, to be truthful - it's one of the painful duties I have - I simply don't comprehend much of what is being said by the contributors. I used to worry about this a great deal and did what many people do which is simply side-step the whole issue by convincing myself that it was possible simply to translate what I was hearing into something clearly intelligible to me - intelligible in a rational, proof-oriented sense. So, for example, I'd hear a Hindu talk about Brahman, or a Christian speak about the Trinity, a Muslim talk about Allah and I would say to myself well, really, we're all referring to the same X - with X being whatever was my preferred understanding of God at the time, let's say Spinoza's 'God-or-Nature' or Hegel's 'Absolute'. But half-an-hour of proper conversation with my Hindu, Christian or Muslim friends very quickly reveals that they most certainly are not referring to such a Spinozean or Hegelian conception of divinity when they are talking about Brahman, the Trinity or Allah. Hmm.
The problem here seems to be a theological/philosophical one and attempts to solve the problem naturally also mostly centre around theology or metaphysics. But over the last four or five years, increasingly I have begun to feel that it is a pseudo-problem and consequently it doesn't require a solution - least of all a theological/philosophical one - for us to be together in an important and meaningfully unified way as we were on Friday. If we go back through the readings, in reverse order, I hope you'll catch a glimpse of what I mean.
Tolstoy recognises that there are some important things in the world that for you suddenly show up as true. The man who is blinded to the meaning of his life (and remember Tolstoy is understanding blindness in this account as not being able to see meaning in life) is suddenly healed in some way; before he could not see a meaning in his life, now he can. Tolstoy points out that this cannot be talked about in a way that allows you to prove whether this is correct or not, or even whether there is a better kind of seeing/meaning around the corner. Again all you can say is 'Before I did not see the meaning of life, but now I see it and I do not know anything more than this.'
Returning to John Andrew Storey's analogy it should be clear to see - and no pun is intended - that should the sighted man try to show the blind man a sunset the attempt MUST fail and, even if the blind man were able to use the words and 'imagery' that relate to sunsets in a grammatically coherent way (that sounded like proof he did understand) we *know* he doesn't know about sunsets in the way the sighted man does.
Now some might feel this is a very negative conclusion - a way of saying well some people will never see 'God' - but it's not at all like that. The key thing to remember is that both the sighted man and the blind man can only live in the world (and in response to the world) as it is showing up for them and here is where John Andrew Storey, in my opinion, goes to the heart of the matter. He says, you will remember, that in the light of this what all of us must do [and the only thing we can do] is "show a way of life and demonstrate a religious discipline that can lead to a personal experience - a discipline that involves not only ethical endeavour but also the practice of prayer/meditation."
And this is what I saw and experienced in that multi-faith service. People acting compassionately together because of the way the world shows up to them - because out of that showing we all knew we had to come and be here together in solidarity - in unity. Not a metaphysical unity but a very real, social and physical unity.
I began the whole service by reminding people that in this church's memorial garden is a stone plaque upon which are engraved some words of the 16th-century Transylvanian Unitarian Bishop, Francis David (1510–1579): 'We need not think alike to love alike'. And here, on Friday, it was embodied. Beautiful.
So now we may return to the beginning and to Mary Oliver's poem. It is a simple but vital call to respond to how the world is actually showing up to us and not to pretend to another person that we are acting out of the world as it shows up to them. What the sun seems to be telling Mary Oliver and, therefore, us, is that we have to live fully and honestly by what we *do* see. We can't do anything else, we can't get behind, or beyond how the world actually shows up for us. As Wittgenstein once said: "Don't think, but look!" (Philosophical Investigations §66). And, on Friday, if you actually looked and didn't think, you could see, really see, that 'We need not think alike to love alike.'