A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, May 1, 2011
A HYMN TO THE MOTHER
A Case for A Spiritual Environmentalism
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.
Heed then, you hearers
and you also, the angels and those who have been sent,
and you spirits who have arisen from the dead.
For I am the one who alone exists,
and I have no one who will judge me.
— Adapted From Thunder, Perfect Mind
Today I sing a song of our mother the earth, and of us as her children. I sing a warning. And I sing of hope.
Our opposable thumbs, language and aggressive natures coupled with an ability to work together with others, has turned out to be unbeatable. Our species has become so successful we have covered the globe. There were an estimated one million people when we figured out agriculture about eight thousand years before Jesus. With exponential growth, today, eleven thousand years later, there are something just shy of eight billion of us on this planet. We are the wildly successful species. No doubt we rule the roost. Of course there can be too much of a good thing, and if you haven’t noticed, the earth is finite. Now, through our numbers and actions we have begun to alter the fragile balance of our ecological systems on a world scale.
While there is no such thing as settled science, something in the neighborhood of ninety-seven percent of those engaged in the study of climate say our human actions have resulted in the earth’s temperature beginning to rise. And it will continue to rise for a while, resulting in environmental changes that will have, probably, some winners but also a great many losers. For us as species predictions range from bad to unimaginable.
However, instead of putting our best thinking to how we can try to slow or stop the changes while dealing with what is already irreversible, here in America we are engaged in a great political struggle over whether anything is actually happening. Playing on the anti-intellectual shadow of our culture, mocking climate scientists and all appeals to science itself, typical of this assault, the right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh dismisses the whole thing, saying, “Global warming is a religion.”
I’ve thought about that. Global warming isn’t a religion. It is a report from scientists who’ve studied the issue. But, then there’s how we deal with that report, living on this increasingly crowded and dangerous and precious world. And for me there is a question about religion in this. Where does religion belong in the great questions of ecology, the mysterious web of our relationships as living things with each other and this world? Today, a day observed throughout much of western history as the feast of a divine mother, I’d like to explore a little where ecological consciousness and religion might in fact come together. And, how that meeting might be a very good thing.
First some truth in advertising: my idea of roughing it is black and white television. Don’t get me wrong, I love nature – it’s just most of the time I prefer a plate glass window between us. Should I hit the lottery it’s a high-rise condo in Manhattan, although hit it big and I could go for one of those rooftop gardens. Although mainly I want a spot for my Webber. In short I’m not exactly the sort of person who would obviously be tagged a tree hugging dirt worshiper. But, here I am about to share some good news, to testify to a large and compelling faith, a spiritual tradition that beckons us toward something wonderful, and from our full presence to it, toward a way of being in our lives that heals us as individuals as well as providing hope for our world.
As I hope you know, our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a statement of principles and purposes. It is not a creed, but rather an attempt to describe what most of us find to be spiritually significant at this specific moment in time. That is our statement is descriptive rather than proscriptive. One solid bit of evidence that it isn’t a creed is how we are bound by the bylaws of the Association to from time to time revisit the statement. In our most recent examination I stood with those who wanted to tweak the language of the seventh principle in the statement, our call to respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we all are a part, substituting the word reverence for the exiting respect.
It was bitterly debated. One minister whom I admire said of the web of existence that no doubt it is powerful and compelling, no doubt worthy of awe, but also no doubt too red in tooth and claw for her to reverence. As I listened to that argument I recalled an incident from my youth. I’ve spoken of it before as an important spiritual turning point for me. And it seems to clarify something important my colleague raised.
At some point the various inconsistencies of my childhood Fundamentalist Christian faith became too much and I could no longer believe in that religion. Fortunately, by my late adolescence I became aware that God on a distant throne wasn’t the only way to approach the sacred. Here is the beginning of my good news, what began the turning of my heart toward a larger liberty.
Through the writings of Aldous Huxley and then Christopher Isherwood, I stumbled upon the story of the nineteenth century Hindu saint Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna was a Bengali and a priest of the goddess Kali. My first personal connection was with his fervent desire to know his goddess. Only a couple of years before reading of him, I’d prayed fervently to my god that he make himself known to me. I even offered a deal, if God appeared, he could kill me right after. I was as sincere about this as an adolescent yearning for truth with every fiber of his body can be. But, he didn’t appear. All I got was silence. Ramakrishna, however, had a different response to his version of that same prayer.
I read about his encounter and was stunned. In Ramakrishna’s vision, his goddess emerged from a river and started walking toward him. She swelled out in pregnancy, gave birth to a child, and then ate it. I read this and it took my breath away. It felt as if my hair were on fire. I was repulsed and at the very same time felt somewhere deep inside me this was a pointing to something more profound than I had ever before dreamt. While it is rare in my life, at that moment words escaped me.
Later I would read that famous anecdote about when Philip Oppenheimer witnessed the first explosion of an atomic bomb, in part his creation, at Alamogordo, New Mexico. An amateur Sanskrit scholar, witnessing the horror and grandeur of the explosion Oppenheimer spontaneously chanted that line from the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna finally answers Arjuna’s request to see the divine as he, it really is. “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One... I am become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds.” For me this began a clarification of Ramakrishna’s vision, and again, pointed a way forward.
And these two events would seep into my heart and become the subject of my dreams. Ramakrishna’s vision would become mine, and Oppenheirmer’s poem my paean of praise in the face of what is. Years later another commentary would appear for me in Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah. “And even though it all went wrong/I'll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” Facing it all, what actually is, pulls out of my heart not respect, but reverence.
And there’s more. This facing the world as it is, leads places. First to that passionate experience, that breaks the heart, and reveals so much. It is facing full on a divine that is nothing other than the world. While there is tooth and claw there is also something else. When we open up, really open ourselves, we find the distinctions that separate us are contingent, temporary. We are in fact tied together in that interdependent web. From one angle we can see it in how we are all one, our distinctions fleeting, our life itself brief as a flash of lightening. From another we see it all as family. We are in fact family. Not always lovable, some relatives can be dangerous, indeed. But always, all of us on this planet are family.
And when we open ourselves fully, we find love. A love, which births the worlds, sustains them, and tears them apart, all at once. And, within our lived lives, this love calls us to live in a particular way, to care, to actions of healing and reconciliation. Everyone who has opened their hearts full has found this. I have. Many here have. I testify to you, if you open your heart full, you, too, will see this as who we are.
Now, our human hearts put a face on this great play of relationship that is our shared life. It’s something we do. And like life itself she, if you’ll indulge a hint of anthropomorphism, think of it as a metaphor, she is the divine quality of what is. The face I often see is Mary, Queen of Heaven. But it can be Gaia, or Kali, or Quanyin. And we need to know this. The earth itself is holy. The earth itself is our mother. And within this knowing we find we are holy, each and every one of us bound together in a great and sacred dance.
And knowing these two things, how vast and terrible and wonderful it is, and that love which binds and heals that arises out of not turning away from what is, as a visceral truth, a deeply experienced reality, my truth, your truth, as true as our beating hearts; much follows. My friend Meredith Garmon, one-time professor of philosophy, UU minister and old Zen hand once observed “The word “God” points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics.”
Knowing our mother, knowing this goddess as the world, we find the way of the wise heart.
Wisdom arises out of our visceral encounter with what is. And it turns out as lovely as things can be, as beautiful and magnificent; it is all also astonishingly violent and precarious. Tornadoes strike and in an instant three hundred people are dead. An aching back reveals a return of a cancer that is eating our very life away. It is all so fragile. The Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj sings to us “Wisdom says I am nothing.” We are bound up together in a cosmic play that doesn’t give a fig about what happens to us. In an instant the universe might kill us. In time will.
But, that’s not the end of it. At the same time, birthing out of the cosmos, something mysterious comes to us unbeckoned. In the deepest place, when we open ourselves wide as can be, we discover a great mystery. Not just in the face of it all, but somehow out of it all. In our culture we call it love. Why should this be so? I don’t know. I suspect it has some distant origins as something to do with being a mammal and particularly with being of the herd sort of mammal. But, while those may be the grubby roots, the flowering is something awesome, terrifying in its own way, and so compelling. And Sri Nisargadatta sings of this, too, “Love says I am everything.”
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj brings it all together when he sings to us of the realities of the earth and our connections to all that is.
Wisdom says I am nothing.
Love says I am everything.
Between the two, my life flows.
And this is the invitation to an ecological consciousness, our good news, the way of the wise heart.
Open yourself. Know the world as your body, find the ecological consciousness. Continue, and know the world as your mother. Continue and know the world as a spilling forth, an endless fountain, of love and the fruits of love.
And then act from that knowing, the great open heart, the way of the wise heart.
We will know what to do. And, all will be well. All manner of things will be well.