Trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces as answers to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”

A while ago I spent some time reading and reflecting upon a number of Mary Oliver’s poems. My meditations on that occasion settled upon a single stanza (section 4) from her poem Something (in Red Bird, Beacon Press, 2008):

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.

That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of the trees.

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career:
So to please her I studied – but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

Together these poems made me think carefully both about the kinds of religious or philosophical answers that I once sought and also the kind of answers I now not only continue to seek but also have reason to think I find.

Like most people within our culture I was brought up thinking that all the important religious or philosophical answers were in propositional form. To remind you, a proposition, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, is:

“That which is proposed or stated; the content of a declarative sentence, capable of truth and falsity. To grasp a proposition is to understand what is said, supposed, suggested, and so on.”

So, as a child growing up in a Protestant Christian context, the answer to life was essentially a belief in the truth of the propositions found in the Nicene Creed:

The argument was that if I believed in these propositions — which were, I was taught, of the kind that were capable of being true or false (though, of course, their truth was, for the most part, simply assumed rather that ever proven/shown) — then all would be fine. I was told they provided the fundamental, necessary answers to the question of the meaning of my life and, indeed, all human lives.

Lest anyone think that this address is going to be a simplistic, one-sided swipe at creedal forms of Christianity, then it is worth reminding you that non-creedal forms of the Christian tradition (such as the one in which the Cambridge Unitarian Church stands — where I am the minister) have also traditionally defined themselves in propositional terms about an abstract object of thought. The only difference being that their propositions have attempted to define that abstract object, i.e. God, differently. So, for example, in the Unitarian tradition the chief propositions were that “God is One” (whatever that meant or might mean today) and that, therefore, “Jesus was not God but a man”. One might be more or less inclined to agree with these propositions but my point is they are still propositions designed intellectually to be understood and capable of being shown to be true or false.

In general, those who promote such a way of articulating and offering-up religious or philosophical answers to people seem to be saying that religious belief is all about identifying an abstract object of thought, generally given the same of God, and they are very little, if at all, concerned about our orientation to towards more worldly objects which, today, I shall represent by those listed in Oliver’s poem, namely, trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces. It is worth noting that Jesus, too, concentrated on more worldly objects as the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast reminded us. Also worth noting is that the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus lived the concept of ‘belief’ or a ‘believer’ is entirely absent. Instead of a believer, in the Hebrew Bible (which Jesus knew), we find only the idea of “y’re shamayim”, that is to say “someone who stands in awe of heaven” (c.f. Howard Wettstein in The Significance of Religious Experience, OUP, 2012).

Anyway, as we know, for many people today, propositional based religious belief is becoming increasingly problematic because such religious propositions have become increasingly hard to understand and which now show up, to many of us anyway, as obviously false.

Of course, it’s not that all propositions about about actual things and/or states of affairs obtaining in the world are, per se, going to be wholly wrong or misplaced — some of them clearly have a real and important place —, it is just that they are now singularly failing to do the job required of them when it comes to providing satisfactory answers for questions like “the meaning of life.”

But this propositional way of proceeding is so hard to challenge. Over and over again in my role as a minister I get asked by people interested in the meaning of life, their own and others, “what do you and your community believe?” or, “what is Unitarianism?” and they expect to hear from me, of course, a list of propositions that define this imagined -ism.

As most if you know, I don’t think that, today, there is any such thing as Unitarianism because by now it is a free religious movement characterised not by doctrines but upon the practise of an as complete as possible, spiritual freedom which can't meaningfully understood to be any kind of reference to a simple (or simplistic) -ism. So, although it might at first seem bizarre — even to some of you — these days I can really only give my questioners an answer by way of reference towards our various attitudes and orientations towards things like trees, kettles, ladles, bottles of wild sauces, mustard seeds and yeast and other worldly objects.

This is because it increasingly seems to me that the meaning of life is best to be found in a form of life in which we, as whole beings, take full, intra-active, account of our relationship with these worldly objects rather than focussing on the highly abstract conceptions of God that have hitherto claimed our religious focus and loyalty. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that my focus and loyalty these days is, not at all to an abstract God but, rather, to the kind of divinity and sacredness that emerges in our encounters and relationships with these worldly objects because it is among them that the meaning of life, at least my life, is found. Again it is worth reflecting upon the fact that Jesus reminded us that the kingdom of God (howsoever this is to be understood) is to found among (or within) the people and the things of the world.

A modern illustration of in what this kind of answer might consist is found in the beautiful vignette that is Oliver’s poem “Answers”. We see there enacted a tiny moment in her grandmother’s actual form of life that is, itself, an answer. It is an answer that is found in the actual act of hurrying between the kitchen and the trees of the orchard “on small uneducated feet”, in the “easy taking of shining fruits into her eager hands”, and expressed “among her kettles and ladles” as she makes, cools and labels “all the wild sauces of the brimming year”. It is a form of life that Oliver feels viscerally is able to “pour confusion out” — both, in fact, in her grandmother’s life and, potentially, in her own in so far as she can herself imitate this kind of living.

One thing Oliver already knows during this green summer as she, too, hurries in seeking her own answer to life — not on this occasion by physically hurrying between kitchen and orchard but, instead by engaging in an abstract hurrying between “books and music and circling philosophies” all whilst sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen — is that all her hard, propositionally orientated seeking (good though it may be in other areas of her life) “could not solve the mystery of the trees” and, likely as not, was not going to be able to “pour confusion out”.

Oliver’s genius as a poet is to have found in her writing ways of asking and answering the question of the meaning of life in a manner analogous to the way her grandmother asked and answered it. Indeed, it seems to me, that Oliver’s poems are her versions of her grandmother’s wild sauces, they are made only after having gone out into the trees of the orchard of the world on uneducated feet (that is to say without any foregone conclusions and theories) to collect the fruit of experience so as to come back to her kitchen (her desk) and her pencil and paper (her kettles and ladles) so as to cool (that is to say reflect and meditate) and label (that is to say write a first draft of a poem) from what she has found so that it can be published and brought to us as a kind of jar of wild sauce (her published poems). Like a jar of wild sauce a poem has to be tasted, imbibed by us as whole beings. A poem, as you will know, simply cannot be reduced to mere propositions about the world! No, you must taste them and on tasting them you begin to sense how confusion is poured out and meaning enters life. Then, when the jar of sauce is finished, the process must be begun again — for just as there is always the need for a new bottle of sauce, so there is always the need to bring a new poem into being. 

This whole activity, this form of life of poem making from the wild fruits of experience, has helped pour confusion out for Mary Oliver as wild sauce-making helped pour out confusion for her grandmother.

To achieve this Oliver has consistently followed the simple method expressed in that single stanza from “Something” we read earlier:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

But a major problem for most of us comes in the telling about the pouring out of confusion we have experienced in paying attention and being astonished. This is because it is so easy to think we have to do the telling propositionally (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). But it seems to me that what we need to do in our own individual ways — as Oliver’s grandmother did, as Jesus did, and as Mary Oliver continues to do — is find ways to tell by showing others (and ourselves) a form of life that has meaning.

Our telling — as individuals and a community — needs somehow to become a showing; to show our own versions of running between kitchen and orchard, of our collection of shining fruits held in our eager hands, our kettles, ladles and cooled and labeled wild sauces — a showing that can somehow solve on a day by day basis the mystery of the trees and, indeed the mystery of our own life.

All of these thoughts finally bring me back to one of my favourite poems by the eight-century Chinese poet and religious, Layman P’ang (740-808), who beautifully wrote:

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

There is, of course, no single way this miraculous power and spiritual activity that gives meaning to life is experienced and can then shown to others. This means we have to accept an almost unimaginable plurality of life-expressions in a free-religious community like this, none of which can be passed on to another person via propositional statements of the kind, "Unitarians’ believe a, b, c, and d" — No! Instead, the meaning of life must be shown in our own relationships and dispositions to towards, not only other people's miraculous power and spiritual activity but also towards the wondrous trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces, mustard seeds and yeast.