I. Introduction: The Challenge
“The heart knoweth”, says Emerson. “The whole human family is bathed with the element of love like a fine ether.” Joys and sorrows, injustices and reconciliations, all together form this world, “in which our senses converse.”
It surprises me that I am inclined to agree, given that I was almost destined to be a cynic. I was born six blocks from the White House during the Watergate investigation. I grew up in Prince George’s County. I heard traffic reports pretty much every week about someone’s rally or candlelight vigil or festival to raise awareness and funds for an important cause. And I noticed that, somehow – even though there was a constant stream of voices clamoring to be heard in Washington – somehow the Post and the Star and then the Times continued to come up with bad news, as if nothing was getting better.
Growing up near DC had its good moments and its tough moments, and it didn’t affect everyone the same way, but for me there were certainly when the evidence indicated that nothing mattered. Some days, it seemed like organizing for justice was futile, and that the only thing I could do was speak up for myself.
My first public witness event was the Rally for Women’s Lives in 1995. Being friends with congressional interns and clinic escorts and peer educators had pushed me over from cynicism to believing that putting hands and feet and wheels on your beliefs made a difference. The sun was so bright that day, the speeches so resonant, the people so filled with life, that one was constrained to respect that this world had yet some perfection in it. The feeling didn’t last forever.
I still have bouts of despair and cynicism. Some days caring about the world seems futile. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet, social critic, and Unitarian minister, knew about this empty feeling. He referred to it in his “Divinity School Address” in 1838. He said that when we lose inspiration, something is missing from our observation of the world.
Miracles, prophecy, poetry; the ideal life, the holy life, exist as ancient history merely; they are not in the belief, nor in the aspiration of society; but, when suggested, seem ridiculous. Life is comic or pitiful, as soon as the high ends of being fade out of sight, and man becomes near-sighted, and can only attend to what addresses the senses.
Emerson said that all people have divine nature, and that being open to that divine nature gives a person the intuition to recognize truth because it resonates with what is eternal. Being aware of this connection leads a person to revel in beauty, to lead a moral life, and to actively remove the barriers that hide divine nature in others. Without this awareness, the world seems flat, “comic or pitiful.” When this awareness or, as he puts it, intuition is active, the world seems poetic.
Emerson and the other Transcendentalists of the mid-1800’s believed in creating literature and art and education that would awaken people to this intuition. They agitated against slavery and for women’s rights because of their belief in the unfolding powers of the divine within every person. Many of the Transcendentalists were Unitarians.
In 1838, the year of the Divinity School Address, horror abounded, and every person with enough privilege to make a choice had to decide how much resistance and how much complicity they could embrace. Injustice in that time was nothing new. As we have been reminded this week by the New York Times and the National Park Service, among others, slavery began as an American institution in 1619.
The violence, theft, and destruction that are synonymous with slavery are woven into our nation’s founding and in our enduring institutions. Even in Emerson’s Massachusetts, where the practice of slavery within the state had ended by 1790, textile mill owners and shipping company investors continued to build wealth based on labor that was stolen from enslaved people in cotton fields, sugar plantations, and rum distilleries. Anybody with wealthy friends, patrons, or parishioners knew someone who benefitted directly from slavery.
Then, as now, Americans had to either come to terms with the truth of the atrocities being committed in their name, or maintain an ongoing practice of mental gymnastics to avoid the truth. We can only imagine that Emerson was aware of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, in which about 70 enslaved and free Black people joined a revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. He knew that radical resistance was possible. Emerson did speak out against slavery, frequently and clearly. Yet it’s possible he could have done more.
The Transcendentalists weren’t perfect, but they were remarkable. For better or for worse, these are some of our UU ancestors. They knew as many of you know that working for education and for beauty and for justice is both tough and spiritual. Emerson hints at some ways to deal with that. He would be the first to tell you, though, that each person should discover wisdom anew. Tradition is good if it invokes what the soul knows to be true.
For instance, we have discovered since the 1830’s that using “man” to mean “humanity” does not reflect the unfolding divinity in all people. I will leave Emerson’s quotes intact and hope that we can hear them with new understanding.
The question that Emerson and the other Transcendentalists pose is, can we attend to the “high ends of being,” to maintain connection with the divine nature that runs through all of us and our world, while being truthful about the injustices of our time?
Unitarian Universalist tradition invites us to both be in love with the world and to seek ways to relieve suffering, to incite change for the better. There is a danger, on the one hand, of being infatuated with the world until we become complacent, unable to see the injustices that require our attention. On the other hand, there is the danger of being so focused on creating change that we fall out of love with the world as it is, we lose the ability to appreciate the beautiful and the sacred that abide in the midst of brokenness. We might become cynical or burned out. Somewhere in the center of our living faith, we can find a balance between love in the present and reaching together for what might yet unfold.
II. Be Present to Beauty
Direct experience with beauty in the world comes whether we are equipped with words or not. There are moments when a flash of beauty invokes awe and wonder, and the memory of that moment is repeated over and over, until it becomes a prayer.
In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life …
“Refulgent” is a delicious word. It means “shiny.” Not just shiny in the sense that a new penny is shiny, but bright with an intensive force. Shiny in the sense that the “meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.” Bright like the shine of students on their graduation day.
In the refulgent summer of 2019, it has been a luxury to negotiate with hungry cabbage beetles, and then notice the deep, textured color of the kale. It has been a luxury to feel the heat of the relentless summer sun over my head, and then give thanks for the cool river moving around me at Gunpowder Falls State Park. It has been a luxury to observe from afar as my children learn things for themselves that I did not and could not teach them. There is so much beauty.
Even without the distractions of mundane tasks, it’s hard to stay present to beauty all the time because there’s only so much refulgence a person can take. Too much shine can be glaring. Emerson suggests that beauty provides relief from itself.
The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn.
Even so, nonstop awareness of the refulgent summer will quickly lead to a realization: it’s hot. And kind of smelly in some places. And there are cracks in the sidewalk that I’m going to trip on if I’m always looking at the sky. Then what? What happens to being in love with the world when something less poetically inspiring comes across our awakened senses?
In the poem we heard earlier by Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, he hints at a way of being that embraces the wholeness of everything, the space in between all of what is:
still, god is no spring blossom, no wood thrush.
god is neither the sun nor the bee.
god is what you see in the blossom.
god is when you hear the river
and suddenly discover
how much of it is part of
It would seem that being open to beauty where I don’t expect it means being open to seeing things I might have wished to ignore. It means honoring the spaces in between. On a good day, all of these experiences lead me to an unconditional love for the world. The spiritual work is to maintain a mature love for the world, one that sees the hidden beauty as well as the obvious. Mature love sees the flaws and the challenges as well as the growth potential. I believe that it’s this kind of mature love that Emerson is praising in the refulgent beauty of summer. This mature love will help sustain a life of justice, equity, and compassion.
III. Be Present to Truth
Being present to beauty is one strategy for balancing love for the world and engagement for positive change in the world. Another strategy is being present to truth. Truth can be upsetting. It has been a difficult year to be a human being. For some of our neighbors, drawing the breath of life is not a luxury they continue to be afforded.
We have grieved with the families who have lost loved ones to gun violence and police brutality. We have held each other in fear and sympathy following terror attacks, suppression of political dissent, and warfare. Survivors of abuse and sexual assault are constantly reminded of the shortage of justice in response to their trauma. We have watched the effects of climate crisis play out at the farmer’s market and in world migration. Our government, in our name, continues to escalate human rights abuses against immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and American citizens. There is horror in our own time.
All the while, our coping resources have been engaged with the same life events they always have, deaths and divorces and diagnoses, distance from those we love, a drifting sense of purpose. How do we hold all of this truth? How do we stay anchored to the high ends of being?
A steady diet of outrage and despair makes it hard to sustain the kinds of actions that have the most impact. There’s the advocacy route: helping to suggest legislation, lobby for votes, lose, lobby for votes again the next year, and eventually win. There’s the direct action route: following the lead of people most impacted to disrupt business as usual and bring people together in building something new. There’s the healing and support route: tending to the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable neighbors, and boosting their voices in public witness. There are several paths of productive response, and they are largely fueled by love, though anger and sadness also have their places. Uninterrupted outrage makes it hard to trust other people enough to organize effectively for change.
Somewhere in our response to the fullness of truth, there must be room for creativity. Somewhere in our response must be the acknowledgement that beauty persists. Listen to the spoken word poets who are out marching in the streets as they spin syllables into being. Watch the murals go up in response to a community tragedy. Hold on to the splendor of people continuing to care for one another.
Being present to truth means continuing to be receptive to it, in all of its surprising forms. This is part of what Transcendentalism was about – that the human ability to experience truth is shaped by the Transcendent. When people are open to being surprised by truth, the theory goes, they are open to what is essential and Divine. Sometimes truth leads to anger, and that’s real, but there is also the truth that love grows, that beauty persists, and that hope is a lived experience.
Truth can’t just sit there. It has to be spoken, sung, and acted upon. Emerson wrote about that in the Divinity School Address.
If utterance is denied, the thought lies like a burden on the man. Always the seer is a sayer. Somehow his dream is told: somehow he publishes it with solemn joy: sometimes with pencil on canvas; sometimes with chisel on stone; sometimes in towers and aisles of granite, his soul’s worship is builded; sometimes in anthems of indefinite music…
Being fully present to the truth involves equal parts observation and action. The complete truth is that we have both wholeness and brokenness. Actively appreciating the wholeness and seeking healing for the brokenness – hope in action – helps keep that truth from going stale. And, as Emerson points out, once we are fully present to the complete truth, we cannot help but share it.
Being fully present with our neighbors – in times of joy and times of sorrow – being present with one another brings peace, even if we don’t have easy answers about the meaning of joy or sorrow. In the midst of brokenness, we can love the current world and also the possible world.
Be present to beauty, the obvious and the hidden. Be present to truth, even when it contradicts itself. Through these, may we become present to the faith that is kept between people in community. May the traditions of our ancestors and the revelations of your own soul sustain you.