December 2, 2018: “Alive to Mystery”


“Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” by Jane Kenyon

I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….

When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .

I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .

I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .

I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .

 SERMON: by Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator (copyright)

Here’s a well-known old story from the pages of The New Yorker:

 In the spring of 1929, the American novelist Anne Parrish set sail for France with her wealthy industrialist husband. In Paris, the couple went to mass at Notre Dame and ate lunch at Deux Magots. Then Anne went for a stroll. She ended up at one of the book stalls along the Seine, where she found a copy of Helen Wood’s children’s book Jack Frost and Other Stories. Anne paid a franc for it and brought to show to her husband. “Look what I got! I loved this book when I was a child,” she said. “I can’t believe I found a copy here in Paris!” Her husband opened the book and found, in a child’s scrawl on the overleaf, “Anne Parrish, 209 North Webber Street, Colorado Springs.”

It was Anne’s own copy!

Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and a mystery.

So, December’s worship theme is Mystery, and oh, what a theme it is. So appropriate for a month when we celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah, mark the passing of the winter solstice, and anticipate the complexities of Christmas.

And such a rich theme. Mystery can encompass every ponderable enigma, from:

How do black holes bend space-time? to

How do amino acids fold into enzymes in the cells of your body? to

How did Anne Parrish’s book get to Paris? to

Who shot JR? to the absolute mystery of

Other People. From our children to our spouses to our presidents. Why do they do what they do?

Mystery a big spiritual theme. And so important.

We live in a culture that keeps telling us that we are in control. We are the masters of our own fates. If we work hard enough, we can . . . well, you know. blah blah blah.

Is it true? Well, yes and no. Yes, maybe there are some things under your control. But maybe not as many as you reckon.

This time of year, it might be useful to let go of control for a time, to open up a space in your life for mystery, for not knowing, for allowing for surprises and spontaneity and new growth.

Speaking of surprises, what do you think about Anne Parrish’s book? Is the story intriguing? Why? Isn’t that just an amazing coincidence?

Math professor Joseph Mazur from Marlboro College in Vermont, says yes, it is just a coincidence, and it’s not even that amazing. In this book Fluke: The Math & Myth of Coincidence, Mazur digs into the facts and the math behind the Parrish story.

Parrish’s mother, apparently, was close friends with the French painter Marie Cassatt, who had died just three years before Parrish visited Paris. If the mother had given Cassatt the book, then it stands to reason that Cassatt could have brought it back to Paris with her and that, when she died, her belongings may have been dispersed in the city. At the time of Parrish’s visit, there were only two places to buy English-language used books in the city, so if the book were in Paris, there was a 50/50 chance it would end up at the Seine book stalls. Mazur goes on to weigh the factors, and he actually calculates the odds of Parrish finding her own book in Paris – he says it’s something like 3,331 to one. So you know, not bad, actually. That’s better than your odds for being dealt a four of a kind in poker, and in Vegas, four-of-a-kind happens every day.

What about you? What do think about the coincidences in your own life? Are they simply random happenings, or do they sometimes mean something more? Can they point toward mystical connections?

No less a mind than Carl Jung, one of the twentieth century’s leading psychoanalysts, posited a theory to that effect, which he called Synchronicity. (Some of us of a certain age will remember a hit 1983 rock album by that name by the band the Police. On the cover, in one of many photos, head singer Sting is seen reading Jung’s book, Synchonicity.)

For Carl Jung, when two events that held meaning for an observer happened simultaneously – but no causal connection between them could be discerned – they formed what he called a “meaningful coincidence.” These events could be seen as evidence for what he termed the Unus mundus, which is Latin for “one world.” Jung believed in the concept of one underlying unified reality, from which everything emerges and to which everything returns. In other words, there are no coincidences. Everything is connected.

Heavy, huh? What do you think? What do you FEEL?

Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

If you opened your Midweek Updates this week, you saw that weird little painting I put at the top of the newsletter, by Paul Gauguin. In the real world that painting is massive – 12 feet wide – and it’s housed at the MFA in Boston. Gauguin titled it D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. In English that’s the three questions that inspired both the painting and this month’s Centering Song – Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Gauguin’s explanation is that the painting is an allegory for the three stages of life, when you look at it from right to left. At right, three young women tend to a baby – that represents the start of life. In the middle, other young figures go about the daily tasks of mid-life. And at left, older figures companion a dying woman. There’s also an eerie blue figure in the background, which apparently represents the great Beyond and a bird who, according to the painter, demonstrates the futility of words.

Gauguin painted this work during his time in Tahiti and it reflects the island’s lifestyle, more agrarian than 19th century France, his homeland. While he painted it, in 1898, Gauguin was mourning the recent death of his daughter and he was mired in debts. It’s said that Gauguin had planned to kill himself on completion of the work, and that he did then make unsuccessful attempt with arsenic. After the painter added the title to the painting, he told people that he considered it a masterpiece, the culmination of his philosophical quest.

And that seems strange at first glance, really. Because yes, the painting asks the three monumental existential questions, but it doesn’t really answer them. Gauguin’s painting says we live and we die, and beyond that, we just don’t know. To my modern mind, that’s not really shedding any light, but .. . in the context of his 1898 world, was that in itself, that “I don’t know,” a radical statement?

Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

In his 2008 book When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy, Boston Globe science writer Chet Raymo tells the story of his visit to Down House in England, where Charles Darwin wrote Origin of Species in 1859. Walking through Darwin’s cluttered office and the greenhouse where he researched the evolution of plants, Raymo muses about Darwin’s intellectual courage. At the time, most of his contemporaries were satisfied to believe that everything, all the plants and animals of this complex world, were created in six days. Raymo says, for them, “A single explanation sufficed. God did it.

But “God did it was not satisfactory for Darwin,” writes Raymo. “[Darwin] sought a story of the past . . . that embraced the hills, the valleys, the myriad fossil organisms with their similarities and differences. . . . As for the agency behind the story, he was content to say ‘I don’t know.’

“Those three little words,” says Raymo, “‘I don’t know’ may be science’s greatest contribution to human civilization. Yes, we have learned an astonishing amount about how the world works, but of equal significance is our growing awareness of how much we don’t know. Darwin was not averse to confessing his ignorance, and he did so often.”

And that, in the 19th century, was a radical act. For Darwin to stand against the common “knowledge” of Creationism, in fact to invent that stance, was wildly countercultural. And brave. And it remained so, a mere 40 years later, when Gauguin dared to declare, in his masterwork, that this is all we truly know – we live, we die, the rest is mystery.

I think it’s worth noting here that Darwin was raised as a Unitarian Christian in England. Unlike most of his peers, we was encouraged to partake in robust and wide-ranging theological debates his whole life-long, and he changed his own outlook as he himself evolved.

Reflecting on the Origin of Species a year after its publication, Darwin wrote:

“I had no intention to write atheistically. . . .I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.- Let each man hope & believe what he can.”

Raymo writes: “Darwin unveiled as much of nature’s hidden mystery as any person before or after. And having seen as deeply as anyone into the secrets that nature is wont to hide, he knew that ultimate knowledge receded from his grasp.” Unquote.

The more we know, the more we can see what we don’t know.

Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and a mystery.

“The whole subject of ultimate knowledge is too profound for the human intellect,” says Darwin. “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

It might be handy here to turn to metaphor. Raymo recommends a metaphor first used, coincidentally by another Unitarian, the 18th-century English scientist and preacher Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen.

Echoing Priestley, Raymo envisions all human knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. “Since the sea is effectively (perhaps actually) infinite, the growth of the island does not deplete our ignorance. Rather it increases the shoreline along which we may encounter mystery.”

I just love that image. Human knowledge is an ever-expanding island, and we, inheritors of all those questions, walk along the shoreline, looking out at mystery.

Some of us feel more comfortable on the dry sand or even up in the dunes, working with known quantities, building outward. Others, like Darwin, build sand castles on the edge of the known, or like the poet Jane Kenyon, look out to the waves and speculate on mystery. And still others, like theorist Carl Jung, are happy to swim out and dive under, feeling about in the darkness for what lies beneath.

Let us all, as the season of darkness enfolds us, pause to take a deep breath and let the mystery of it all wash over. There is so much we don’t know and can’t know, can’t control, and really, that’s okay. It must be. It’s our human condition.

(With Darwin and Gauguin, let us claim that brave statement, “I don’t know.”)

The fact that we live, we love, we build, we share, we grow, these are miracles enough.

Spirit of Life, Great Mystery surrounding us and all of us

as we walk along that beach,

at edge of the known word,

Let us look out in awe and thanksgiving, as love shows us how.

This season, O spirit, awaken our senses to our deepest connections, awaken our vision of peace and justice, help us to draw strength from the long view outward, help us to feel and to trust the deep power of being in all.

Let us, so renewed, light the path forward with hope. Amen.