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A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, March 21, 2010

A Hymn to the Goddess

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

—Emily Dickinson

Today on the Vernal Equinox, or close enough, I find my heart particularly drawn to the story of Persephone and Demeter. There are many versions of their stories, but the outline is simple enough. Persephone, also called Kore, the Maiden, is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the Harvest, but more anciently, she’s the Earth mother and therefore the goddess of life and death itself. Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter, not knowing what has happened to her daughter, is overcome with grief, which causes the earth to go barren, endangering all life on our planet. She wanders the stricken world seeking her daughter until she learns that Hades has kidnapped Persephone and made her his Queen. Through the intervention of Zeus, the messenger Hermes is sent to reclaim Persephone. But having eaten some pomegranate seeds while in the land of the Dead, Persephone must return back to hell from her mother’s home for a season each year. And ever since, during that season of absence, the earth begins to whither, only saved from sinking into endless night by Persephone’s return to the surface each Spring.

The rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries captured the essences of this story and offered its devotees a spiritual discipline that pulled them right to the heart of the matter of life and death. Using the stories of the seasons personified by Demeter and Persephone, perhaps believing them literally, or perhaps not, but sensing some deep and personal truth, generations would throw their hearts into a deep contemplation of this story.

And, I suggest, we can do the same.

There are many ways into the depths of our hearts. So, for instance, we could investigate the matter of Persephone, herself. My spiritual director John Tarrant writes how Persephone’s story “shows us in our first innocence and shows also how that innocence needs to be carried off by life.” He elaborates, noting, “Whether fate carries us off or we actively seek the night, a time comes when we identify with the dark, however involuntarily – when we marry and serve it.” There is much to be found in a reflection on our innocence and how life itself carries us away to some more broken, but also, more authentic place.

But, I am most caught up today thinking, feeling Demeter’s grief and longing and search, as well as her finding a compromised and yet sufficient victory. This, I feel, is the message of the season and what this time calls us to reflect upon, as the very story of our lives, yours and mine. A perhaps helpful way to engage that story as our story is through the lens of another culture and a set of questions that I’ve found particularly helpful in my own quest. Doushai Congyue was an eleventh century Chinese monk. He asked three questions, which when I first heard them, totally stunned me, literally took my breath away.

As I heard the words I realized he really was asking my questions, the ones that drove my spiritual quest, from Baptist church to Hindu temple to Zen monastery, to Unitarian Universalist church. The questions that would coalesce for me around the deaths of my brother and son, the questions rising from hurts that seemed never to quite heal. And like with all those stories of spring, Demeter’s quest, the Passover feast and Easter itself, I felt, felt as a body longing how Doushai’s questions were about my life, my death, and my eternal possibilities. Perhaps if you give it a moment, you’ll recognize something in them, yourself.

Doushai’s first question was “You make your way through the wilderness on some great quest. Tell me, dear one, right now, where is your heart’s answer?” The second question follows like night follows day. “When you’ve found your heart’s answer, you are free of the tangles of life and death. So, dear one, as your life becomes death, where is your freedom?” And finally, maybe the most haunting of all the questions, “When you die free of the tangles of life and death, you know where to go. So, dear one, when the elements of your being scatter in the winds, where do you go?”

I suggest these questions map exactly the story of Demeter. Showing for me that the way of the heart’s wisdom is available to people of all faiths, and, frankly of none. Wisdom is our human heritage, our heart’s teaching is found in every corner of the globe. I know I see my own life and my own quest and my own finding in Doushai’s questions and in the story of Demeter, and, of course, as my own story. As I attend they turn my heart in subtle ways, in useful ways. Perhaps in this hour you’ll catch a similar perspective, seeing your own story, your own quest and your own finding in these words of our ancestors. Let’s see.

So, the first question. You wander the world, as Demeter wandered the world, seeking lost love. At that moment, at this moment of quest, where is your heart’s answer? For Demeter her loneliness and grief were attenuated by the kindness of strangers. Wearing the guise of an old, old woman she was taken in, in one version of the story by royalty, in another by peasants. Whatever their state in the world, that kindness these mortals showed, that moment of care, of attention, opened Demeter’s heart, and from it flowed all the arts of agriculture, all the arts of cultivation, all the ways we can bring ourselves into full life. Doushuai calls us to stop and notice this moment. In the quest itself we can find the answer, all the answers. It is important not to skip ahead, but rather to attend to wisdom of the longing heart, of your longing heart, of mine.

And, still, there is another step. In the dream story of Demeter her various parts, our various parts are given names. Zeus, the great intellect, who had been complicit the Persephone’s kidnapping, seeing the hurt this caused, and the possible death of the planet itself as a terrible consequence to his actions, finds his own heart broken. And with that happening within us, the mind’s knowing becomes the heart’s knowing, allowing death to join life, to let every blessed thing to become part of the whole.

It births Hermes who can move between the many realms and join them together. I love Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and patron of travelers, merchants, thieves and poets. On the spiritual way we make a mistake if we miss Hermes central role on the quest. It is Hermes, the thieving, conniving, deal cutter, who brings Persephone home, who allows the healing. And this matter is all about healing.

Perhaps your heart has broken? Not quite doing what you dreamed you would, abandonment of one sort or another, illness, impending death for you or someone you love, death itself; the list of hurt is long. Of course you know what your hurt is. When we find this sadness in ourselves, there tends to be two responses. One is to be filled with the sorrow, to be lost in the sorrow, to drown in the sorrow. We have wounds, and the temptation is to poke them and probe them, endlessly, preventing any healing. And in truth, poked or not, some wounds never do heal. But even then, it just doesn’t help to constantly jab a stick into it. And yet we do. Sometimes we spend a lifetime consumed by the hurt, wandering lost throughout the world.

But, there is something else that sometimes happens when we pay attention and are just a little lucky. Through the mediation of the Hermes of our hearts, the trickster who joins all things, we find the sorrow is part of something larger. Winged Hermes connects it all, and we find ourselves in the midst of sadness surprised by joy. We find our hurt and our joy sit together as old friends, we find a larger world, a world that shuts nothing out, but rather encompasses it all. Hurt, longing, the quest, finding, joy, and even death itself: as one thing. And like becoming one with the quest, this knowing, too, is enough.

And, even yet, there is one thing more.

Doushai tells us when we have joined all things, when we have united with life and death, we will know what to do next, we will know where to go. And I suggest this place is neither heaven nor hell, at least in the sense of going to some other place. When Demeter is enthroned and her daughter is at her side, it is the world itself that is healed, this place and no other.

When we come to realize the gods and goddesses are all aspects of ourselves and of the world, then we see how our actions can become the life divine. Informed by knowledge of our true nature, our hearts grow large, and the next step, at least for us in this room, I suggest, is to reach out to another. Exactly how is for each of us to find for ourselves.

However we choose to act, the great mysteries of spring reveal the truth of interconnectedness, how the work of compassion and justice is as much a part of this project as the contemplation of our hearts, actually, this reaching out to another is culmination of our quest, it is the finding of ourselves in the glorious, lost, lovely, hurt, and beautiful, so beautiful family of things.

Nothing less. Nothing less.