This Wild and Precious Life
A sermon preached on June 9, 2013
by Rev. Craig M. Nowak
“What it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver’s question seems especially fitting in this season of graduations. I can hear Oliver’s question being lifted up in one way or another in commencement addresses all over the country, the words part advice, part warning, especially to the young women and men graduating from high school or college into life’s uncharted waters.
Indeed, though I don’t recall the precise words, I’m sure some version of Mary Oliver’s question was put to the several graduating classes I’ve been a member of over the years. And though I can’t recall my precise response to such a question, I’m sure, knowing something of how I likely heard the question, I probably responded with thoughts of an accomplishment or destination in mind…a degree…a job making so much money…a relationship…a house in the suburbs…etc.
Now, having lived a couple decades beyond high school and college, I realize that had I limited my response to the question Mary Oliver puts to us in her poem “The Summer Day”, to a list of accomplishments or hoped for destinations I would have missed the point entirely…For Oliver’s is a question less concerned with a destination than it is about the journey…a journey common to us all as living beings…and it is this journey, the journey of a lifetime and its meaning, that Oliver’s words invite us to explore.
Some time ago I visited a man in the hospital who, upon seeing the lapel pin I wear on my sports jacket, asked me what religious faith I practiced. The lapel pin depicts the UU flaming chalice…I bought it at general assembly or district event some years ago…When I told the man I’m a Unitarian Universalist and a UU minister, he responded, “So, of course you know William Ellery Channing.” I smiled and said, “Well, yes, of course I know of him…he pretty much defined the American Unitarian movement in the early 19th C.” The man, with just a slight expression of dignified pride, said, “I’m one of his descendants.”
He quickly followed this revelation with another….”but I’m not a Unitarian.” It turns out he was raised Anglican. Now, he was quite up there in years and quite ill; and as is often my experience in such meetings, he talked at length about the life he had led, the things he considered his accomplishments and failures and what, if anything might be awaiting him on the other side of this life.
At one point he paused and with tears welling in his eyes he asked me what I thought his ancestor, the father of American Unitarianism, would say to him upon hearing the story of his life. I’ll be honest I was a little startled by the gravity of his question and more than a little intimidated to dare speak for a such a legendary figure from our religious past.
So I paused and reflected before offering my thoughts.... “What did you notice or learn...about yourself and others...about the world in which you live...what did you learn or come to know about life for having lived it?” “These questions”, I said to him, “are what I think William Ellery Channing would offer to you in response to hearing your life story.” The man, sat up, and nodded in agreement. “I think you’re right.”, he said to me.
In 1838, Channing wrote, “Self Culture”, in which he says, “Science and art may invent splendid modes of illuminating the apartments of the opulent; but these are all poor and worthless compared with the common light which the sun sends into all our windows, which [he] pours freely, impartially over hill and valley, which kindles daily the eastern and western sky; and so the common lights of reason, and conscience, and love, are of more worth and dignity than the rare endowments which give celebrity to a few.”
Channing’s concern or focus on the awe and wonder of existence , the source of that existence, and the capacity of the human mind to perceive and thus share in it its grandeur and mystery is not unlike Mary Oliver’s musings, “Who made the world?” Who made the swan, black bear, and grasshopper...these miracles before our eyes...and then, the “common light” Channing speaks of shines through in Oliver’s realization...”I don’t know exactly what prayer is...BUT...I know how to pay attention.”
“I know how to pay attention.”
And there, in six words, she gives us her answer to the question she leaves us with, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.?
Attention, awareness, mindfulness...any number of words like these, familiar or unknown, describe an approach to life that seeks to engage rather than merely pass the time...a way of life that embodies rather than takes up space. It is life lived in deep appreciation and amazement of both the brevity and breadth of our experiences as finite beings...a response to life spoken of in Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka” as well...
“As you set out for Ithaka”, he writes, “hope the voyage is a long one, full of discovery, full of adventure.... Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all.” “Better”, he says, “if it lasts for years, so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”
These are words which speak to...which life up.... a quality of life over a standard of living.
They are honest words reminding us life’s journey won’t always be easy...with “Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon...” along the way but accompanied with unconventional wisdom... “don’t be afraid of them....”
They are words that do not, in this moment, demand our full understanding, but ask only, our attention...
“Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you would not have set out. She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”
These are words for the journey, about the journey of life, words that remind us that our destination, our accomplishments in this life are secondary to how we get there and all that we learn and experience along the way. Indeed, they are words that seek to remind us of that ancient wisdom which the cynicism of our own age would have us believe is mere cliche, the journey is the more important than the destination.
For we who live in this age of instant everything, where to pause is to lose ground in the race to hurry up to keep up, the words of poet prophets like Mary Oliver and Constantine Cavafy seem radical...perhaps even foolish. Calling us as they do to pay attention or as the apostle Paul might say “pray without ceasing”... to notice with wonder and humility, as Oliver does, the grasshopper who moves her jaws back and forth instead of up and down...but Oliver is no fool, she knows this is life at its most profound and true....mysterious and miraculous.
Cavafy calls us to a life of intention as well as attention, “Keep Ithaka always in your mind”, he writes, “...but not hurry the journey at all... may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things,mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,sensual perfume of every kind—as many sensual perfumes as you can; and may you visit many Egyptian cities to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.” His words encouraging us to immerse ourselves in life and its many wonders.
Still, for so many such a an approach to life may seem romantic, if not indulgent, but utterly impractical nonetheless. Life is too busy....too short, it is said, to take time out for questions about how to live it...to take time to consider anything other than our destination and the shortest route possible to ensure our certain arrival...only to arrive and find the place empty of meaning and ourselves perplexed by the hunger and angst in our soul...feeling we have arrived but gone nowhere... that we have achieved passage through time but not lived even one moment of the it passing.
Centuries ago our religious ancestors banded together and quite literally set off on a voyage...or journey together in the hope of establishing a way of life worth living, a way of life they had conceived in response to their own questions about life’s meaning and purpose. They turned their attention to the Bible and formed their intention in accordance with what they understood as God’s will...which they viewed as God’s gift to humanity.
Today, we who are their heirs, continue that journey. And while we no longer turn our attention solely to ancient texts, and the very idea of God’s will might well give way to dissent rather than common intention among us, the basic question remains the same...
“What is it you intend to do with your one wild and precious life?”
What is it that you, the religious community known as Brookfield Unitarian Universalist Church, intend to do with your one wild and precious life as a faith community as it exists today?
What will be your legacy...your bequest to the generations that follow your own...in this sanctuary...in this town...and in this world?
These are the questions before you this day...and I hope very shortly, before us, together.
Let us then turn our attention towards the journey that awaits us, and with faithful intention, let us set out for Ithaka...and may our voyage be a long one, full of discovery and adventure!
Amen and Blessed Be