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A sermon by Joan L. Richards for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on June 22, 2008

Passion, Patience and Principles

When Jim asked me to give a service this summer, he wanted me to think in terms of the principles of Unitarian Universalism. However, the closer I came to the whole question the more I began to fear that I may be a Unitarian Universalist heretic. My problem is that the more I have thought about the assignment, the more I have found myself wondering not whether the principles really do capture ideas that I find true—they do—but rather whether a set of principles, any set of principles, can be said to lie at the heart of a religion. So, when a couple of weeks later, I was asked to give a title for my sermon out popped: “Passion, Patience, and Principles.”

It may seem that the inspiration for this title was the letter “P” but actually there was more to it than that. It is a title in which I juxtaposed a bunch of words that have long intrigued me to the word “principles”. Let me explain. “Passion” and “patience” (like also “passive” and “pity,” “pathos” and “pathetic”) all have their origins in the verb “pati” which means to suffer. “Passion” began as a/ if not the central word for Christians; “the passion of Christ” is the story of “the sufferings of Jesus in the last days of his life, from the Last Supper to his death.” I know that this story of the Passion of Christ, means very different things to all of us here, but whatever our responses to it, the story details a tragedy of enormous proportions that continues to vibrate through the very words that all of us use. “Pity” and “pathos” focus on the pain and suffering of this story, but they are only two of the words that have spun off over the centuries.

More interesting to me at the moment are other words, which have not focused on suffering, qua suffering, but rather on the dynamic that lay behind Christ’s suffering and possibly behind most suffering, that is on the interaction between a human being and external forces. “Passion” itself, is an example of a word that has morphed into one that lacks the specificity of suffering, but retains the intensity of the experience—in modern English we might describe love and hate as “passions”.

Another early, but now obsolete meaning of “passion” also shifted meaning away from the specifics of Christ’s suffering: “The word passion signifies the receiving any action, in a large philosophical sense.” This definition—taken from a 1725 work by Isaac Watt—is not one that I would recognize as a meaning of “passion” but its import has remained within the family, if you like. In modern English the word “passive” describes a being “that is acted upon or is capable of being acted upon from the outside.” I don’t know how it strikes the rest of you, but I find it hard to find the holy in the “passive”. It connotes for me a dead weight, with little or no spirit left.

“Patience” is quite another thing, however. “Patience” as in “[The ability] to wait calmly; quietly expectant; not hasty or impetuous” is for me the best of this lot. Here I find a wonderful combination of the passive and the passionate; the external force and the human response, the engaged and the still. “Patience” describes for me a way of being, an active state, an open state, a waiting state, a state of alertness in which the world can come in and change and surprise. In short, I find something centrally important to a religious sensibility to lie in the word “patience”.

So where in all of this dynamic around human experience and response are “Principles”? The quick answer is nowhere. The word begins with a P, but it shares little else with “passion,” “patience” and their etymological family members. Its origin is apparently just French—“principe”—and its meaning from the 13th century is “fundamental concept in a science, origin, source, first cause.” For our purposes, its most relevant modern definition is “A general law or rule adopted or professed as a guide to action; a settled ground or basis of conduct or practice; . . .” at least this is what I hear when people refer to UU “principles”. And the heretic in me wonders how or whether this kind of “principle” is up to the task of creating, and/or supporting, the kind of deeply human and deeply religious experience that I see shimmering around the edges of words like “passion,” “patience” and even “passive”.

So that is the question, that I’ve chewed it over in the past couple of weeks, and the closest I seem to be able to come to it has been to change the subject. So, that’s what I’m going to do now in hopes that in the long run I can bring us back here with a bit more to work with. So now, I’m going to try to get an angle on the question of how a religious group relates to principles, through a comparison.

As some of you know, and many others may not, I am not only a member of this church but also of the Narragansett Boat Club, which lies on the banks of the Seekonk River next to the Henderson Bridge. For almost all of the twenty five years that I have lived in Providence, I have spent at least as much of my time in the Boat Club as I have in the Church. These days I spend at least the first hour and a half of every day—not including today—on the river. A number of other members of this congregation—including two of our most recent past presidents—do as well. And so, the question has arisen, more or less in jest: “What is the difference between the Narragansett Boat Club and the First Unitarian Church of Providence?” Well, for a moment here, I’m going to try to take that question head on.

Starting with the Boat Club: it would seem obvious that what draws people into the Narragansett Boat Club is a love of rowing, but it’s not that simple. Rowing is many things to many people, and their engagement with it moves among a whole range of meanings. For some, rowing is an exercise routine—being a member of the Boat Club is like being a member of a gym. For others, rowing is a social thing—on the river they clump in boats of eight, or four, or two, and off the river they also clump in very tight groups of friends. For some, rowing is a competitive thing—their time on the river is spent honing their skills and their bodies for regattas all over the country. In this multifariousness of meanings, the boat club is similar to the Church. Here too people gather for many different reasons—for the church school, the friendships, the services, the outreach, the social action. Here too these meanings glide into each other, catching all of us more or less at some time or another. For both groups—members of the Boat Club and members of the Church—it can be difficult to capture and define what it is that makes us all alike.

The Narragansett Boat Club has something else, which lies behind all of the human meanings, desires and interactions that take place in the Boat House: everyone who launches a boat from the dock of the Narragansett Boat Club finds him or herself on the Seekonk River. The River is a different world from that which is sheltered in the club. Winds blow across it, and tides run through it; it can be cold, it can be rough, and even on its calmest days it is drowning-ably wet. Some boat club members seem to understand the river in their bones: when they say “the waves will drop with the tide” they do; when they say “the wind’s coming up” it does; when they say “it’s going to be a great day!” it is. Nonetheless, even their knowledge cannot change the ultimate fact that the river has its own being. Whatever may be the reasons that draw people into the boat club, once on the river they are surrounded by things beyond their control: winds, rains, tides, birds, fish and fishermen. This Church may not have the River, but it has so much more. It has a congregation that is all the time launched in a world much larger and more multifarious than the five or six longitudinal miles of river daily traversed by Boat Club rowers. We are constantly navigating our lives in relation to myriads of beings and forces that work in ways that we cannot control.

The Boat Club deals with this ultimately uncontrollable reality with a whole array of rules. There are rules about when you can row: about lights in the dark; about launching in the fog; about rowing in the cold. There are rules about where you can row; through the bridges, around the bouys, into the bay, and far up the river. There are rules about how you can row—what areas are suitable for going fast and where caution must be exercised. Boat Club members strictly enforce these rules on themselves and on each other; as a result the group runs surprisingly smoothly. We do the same in the Church—with Church governance and with our Principles. When our rules and Principles are working—and they often do—we too work together surprisingly smoothly; when they are working badly, we can always meet and meet again to amend and fix them until they work more smoothly.

There is another side to all of these rules, though; a side that is never discussed or considered in the Boat Club. These rules also act as ways to create the illusion of sense and safety on the interface between human beings and the Seekonk River. And usually they succeed well enough that they protect us rowers from engaging the awful realization that the River was not designed for the pleasure of human beings in tippy little boats.

Sometimes, though, that reality breaks through. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago. At first, there did not seem to be anything special to the day: I pushed off from the dock and headed down the river, dutifully staying to the right as I rowed first through the Henderson Bridge and then to the never-used railroad bridge, the one that is perpetually drawn up behind the East Side Marketplace. But this morning—for whatever reason—the River was swirling in great circular currents under the Railroad Bridge and what for me was staying to the right, was to the River joining the action. Within a stroke of entering the span I found myself pushed up against the wooden cribbing that protects the stonework of the bridge from the waves of the river, with my left oar pinched flat against the boat; my right oar free but useless for anything but pushing me harder into the pilings.

This was both a dangerous and a scary place to be. I was alone, in a very fragile craft and the river was running deep and strong. [“May God watch between you and harm in all the empty places you must walk.”] But in the brief moment that I was just sitting there, quiet and alone against the bridge, I saw something wonderful; I saw myself delicately balanced on an interface between me and an inexorability much greater than I. There was a staggering purity in that moment; the river was as it was and I was as I was—no longer in control of the Boat Club’s boat and no longer protected by the Boat Club’s rules. I had been thrust into the midst of the interaction on which the meanings of words like “passion” and “patience” have been forged and developed. I would not say that I was suffering, but I was certainly alert; the River had asserted itself and I was being forced to recognize its reality.

The rest of this story is not particularly heroic. Over course of the next couple of minutes I made various attempts to regain control that ended in my damaging the boat and being rescued by a coach in a motor launch. Everyone in the Boat Club was very nice about it. They assured me that accidents will happen; they explained about deductibles, and showed me how to tie a damaged boat on top of a car. And I am very grateful—grateful to be safe, grateful to be forgiven, grateful to work in a group where things are managed with such efficiency. But I’m also grateful to have a Church in which to recognize that an accident is never just an accident; that an accident is always reality breaking in.

Recognizing this is for me to return to the point at which I started, the words in the title of this sermon. A truly principled reality would not excite passions in us, nor would it require patience, but our world is not so neat; our world is always much bigger than we can ever be. We may try to understand and approach it with “principles”, but the heretic in me knows that ultimately we will not succeed; we will still find ourselves caught alone under a bridge, stuck without a job, despised by a friend, or—equally randomly—released from our pain, rescued from the water and covered by insurance. Sometimes we will cry out with David “Rescue me, O Lord, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day;” sometimes we will rejoice with Isaiah, and will find “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you and all the trees of the field will clap their hands;” and sometimes we will hear other voices and follow other ways. Through it all, we may do our best to embrace our principles, but in reality, our best attempts to do so will be fueled with passions that are tempered with patience.