- Exodus 3, 13-16
And Moses said to God, Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. And God said moreover to Moses, Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial to all generations. Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me.
- From Best American Poetry 2016, Robin Coste Lewis on her poem "On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari"
"The poem is an homage to the goddess Parvati. I wanted to write something that pleased her—a poem as an offering, something that could say thank you for destroying my ridiculous life. I appreciate, very much, certain ideologies that ask us to understand our individual lives as private expressions of the divine. Within that frame, everyone, including myself, is a manifestation of the divine—in this case, the Goddess. The problem with this ideal, of course, is that life is a heckofalot harder, sicker, darker than an ideology. It has to be lived, practiced, not merely discussed."
- Annie Dillard, from Holy the Firm, p. 11
"Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split."
Sermon: Finding Your Holy
Whenever I can’t figure out what to say in a sermon, or at least how to start it, I read over the readings I’ve chosen for the service, then I go for a walk.
It always works.
For this sermon, as for all of them lately, I head out toward India Point, where the Seekonk River and the Providence River join, then wind together by some docks, by the small windfarm on the point just before the Narragansett Bay begins to widen. I walk alongside the time-and-weather sculpted remains of the pilings that supported the docks when India Point was an active part of Providence’s port, then I turn right under Interstate 195, and make my way along the Providence River toward downtown.
All the way, I’m thinking. About what Annie Dillard felt as she greeted her holy morning, about what Robin Coste had had to say about how the Hindu god she had tried to investigate might manifest herself in her, the poet herself. And about the Hebrew god telling Moses, “I am that I am.”
I have always been especially intrigued by that statement, by that concept. By the god telling Moses to tell his people, “I am that I am,” and then to tell them that he had been sent by “I am.”
This made me think of the jellyfish.
I had passed the jellyfish dozens of times before I finally paused to look at them. To really look at them.
They’re in a plastic aquarium on the groundfloor of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Waterman building, just uphill from the river.
One evening a few months ago, on a walk just like my finding-a-sermon walk, I stopped, for some reason, to peer through the window into the room. There, in a two-foot by two-foot by one-foot plexiglass case, were the jellyfish. You know the translucent kind with a tail waving behind like a banner, the kind that from time to time sort of flaps its semi-circular body to propel itself along.
Maybe two dozen of them moved in a slow clockwise circle. They seemed to float on an unseen current, their – are they bodies? What is a body, anyway? – periodically sort of inflates itself, then presses the water down and out to push itself along a bit faster. Sometimes a small one will fit itself into another’s umbrella-like body, and the two will move in tandem until one or the other essentially flaps itself away from the other.
I decided to concentrate on one jellyfish for a while. This was, of course, sort of a Heisenberg-like dilemma, because if I watched one, I might begin to see its patterns of motion, maybe – you might call it – its preferences for speed and distance from others and such. But this wouldn’t really help me understand jelly-fishhood, since by paying so much attention to one, I’d not be able to compare it with another. I could, apparently, either get a general idea of what all the jellyfish were doing, or a specific idea of what one jellyfish was doing, but without being able to differentiate its choices –choices? Is that what they should be called? – from any other’s or even from all the others’.
I watched and watched and watched.
I wondered about all the questions I’ve added as parenthetical comments in the description I just offered you. Were they making choices?
Did they behave in patterns? And all the other possible questions: were they eating something? How could I know? Were they looking for something to eat? How could I know? Was there anything like some level of consciousness? When one jellyfish nestled itself against another, was it choosing to do this? Did it like it? What would it mean for a jellyfish to like something?
I was entranced. There’s no other word for it.
Not the kind of entranced one feels when settling into a deep meditative state, pulling oneself as far as one can from consciousness and individual awareness. But a highly alert, highly aware state. I knew they were there. I knew I was watching them and thinking about them. I could even imagine myself watching and thinking about them.
Whatever I was doing, there was no feeling for it but the feeling of being surrounded by holiness. Not by the holy, which would mean that there was something separate from me, denoted by a definite article, The Holy. No. And surrounded is probably the wrong word. Enmeshed. Embedded. Simply part of it all.
The longer I looked, the more I began to think about my own jellyfishness. They went round and round and round, somehow making something approaching a decision about where they were going and how they would get there.
As I had decided to bring myself to the Waterman building, uphill from North Main, just below Benefit Street, and then to stop, to watch them.
There they were, all those jellyfish. All those I Am’s. What else could you say about them but that they are, that they are that they are.
As I felt myself to be, standing staring through the glass at the little aquarium.
I found, that evening on Waterman Street, my holy.
I’ve come back to watch the jellyfish many times since then. It remains a fascinating phenomenon, that slow-moving circle of life. But it’s not the same now. It’s still relaxing and thought-provoking, but that first encounter with them was something else, apart. Was something truly holy, making me feel myself to be holy, with them.
Interesting word, holy. We use it as a synonym for sacred. But the roots of the two words take us down two very different paths.
Holy is a Germanic word, the Old English connecting with the Old Norse and Old Frisian and the Old High German. All of them going off in a direction that has nothing to do with divinities, with gods and goddesses, prayers and temples. The roots end up taking us to the same roots as the English word “Whole,” with a W, and both of the words coming from words related to health, having to do with wholeness, with not being injured or broken. Health. A sound body. A very physical term.
Sacred, on the other hand, comes to us from Old French, and to that from the Latin that means to to sanctify.
Another interesting difference. As in the French form “sacrée”, we use sacred as the past tense of a verb. When we say something is holy, we are denoting this characteristic as an adjective, like brown or tall, something inherent in the thing we’re talking about.
When we say it is sacred, since we use the past tense of a verb, we are saying something happened to it. Things happen to things only from other forces, usually from outside.
So something becomes sacred, just as something becomes blessed, by virtue of something that has happened to it.
Something holy, however, is simply holy. The word connotes nothing about anything happening, or, to make it sound more biblical, something having come to pass.
I think this distinction matters, that it has some bearing on what one may be looking for when one sets out on – or, for most us, continues to pursue – a spiritual quest.
Most Unitarian Universalists, I think, are pursuing the holy, not the sacred.
We’re less interested in rituals and sacrament than we are in – well, in finding our own jellyfish.
The origins of rituals and sacraments could hypothetically be traced back to some specific decision made by some specific person or people on some specific date.
At some point, for example, some Aztec priest or priests decided that human sacrifice conducted in such-and-such a way at such-and-such a time and place would keep the universe humming a little longer. The same with the Hindu decision light butter lamps to keep this or that god happy. And with Roman Catholics’ communion and Neanderthal cave burials. And so on.
Somebody not only decided to do these things, but sanctified them, made them sacred, and told us that they were sacred.
That, of course, is exactly one of the nicest things about most orthodox religions. You know what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it. Whether that entails providing the right kind of offering when you check in with the oracle at Delphi to find out what may lie in wait for you and your family or your city, or exactly what to say at the beginning of the Seder.
Finding the holy, however, is another matter.
You may discover it when you step out of your daily routines to watch a bunch of jellyfish circling silently around a plexiglass container on an autumn evening. You may come upon it as you watch the sunset turn the horizon into a blaze of crimson and purple. Maybe you see it when a child is ejected from your loins, or from your partner’s. Maybe. Maybe.
But at that moment you knew something, felt something that you hadn’t felt the moment before. And you probably wouldn’t feel a few moments later. And, perhaps, you’d never feel again. Ever.
But that was the holy. That was the sense of wholeness, of oneness that you recognized, on your own, rather than having it filtered through the prognostications and promises of somebody somewhere else, who, as Christians begin their prayer, “taught us to pray, Our father….” Or, as Muslims believe, require that five times a day they stand, kneel, then touch their heads to the floor as they recite lines from their sacred book.
Their sacred book.
A holy book?
I don’t think there are any. Or, better, I think they’re the book that each of us writes for ourselves as our lives unfold and we encounter something that makes us feel connected, part of things, whole, healthy.
The irony, of course, is that the truly holy – although not necessarily the sacred – is Janus-faced. On the one hand, it makes us feel that sense of connection and well-being. But, on the other hand, it reminds us that nothing is as it seems.
Oh, not just the kind of nothing that comes as we contemplate the fact that some deity or deities made it all and we can’t possibly understand it. Not the kind of nothing that is embedded in the Roman Catholic creed that requires that we acknowledge our own dark sides. Or to the fact that Moses wasn’t even allowed to see the god who was passing all those rules along to him.
Such places are like those that Annie Dillard describes when she writes, in Holy the Firm, “The higher Christian churches come at god with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing…. I often see the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to go without their getting killed.”
That’s not the holy. The holy is like my jellyfish, or your sunset, or somebody else’s response to the Women’s March in Washington or to a video about Nelson Mandela.
It’s Wholeness, with a W. It reminds you not only that you’re connected, but that being connected means that you’re just like everything else.
Everything is flawed, so you’re flawed. Everything living dies, so you’ll die. Everything that matters changes, so everything that matters to you will change, and everything about you will change. There’s hope, but it’s fragile. There’s death, and it’s ubiquitous.
A far cry from what others’ visions of the holy – their ideas of the sacred – have to offer, isn’t it? Religions, whether pagan or polytheistic, monotheistic or pantheistic, promise some degree of security and protection. Do this, and you’ll get fill-in-the-blank: eternal life, prosperity, happy children, national greatness.
My jellyfish promises nothing. Any more than your sunset does, that sunset which carries with it the understanding that this brief beauty will be followed by the dark, cold night, and that one day in the probably far-off future, this planet, with its sunsets and sunrises, jellyfish and newly born children, will be gone.
That is the holy. The health that comes of understanding what is, not what we wish there was.
That all we have is the I am that’s here for awhile, along with a lot of other I am’s, the whole of it taking part in the everything of it.
All equally significant. Equally insignificant. All holy.