Learning to See

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Yesterday, I did a memorial service for a 90-year-old man I must have known at least 40 years, up in Massachusetts.  He was a pillar of my home church, the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Newton. He and his wife are longtime and close friends of my parents, and their children are about the same age as my sister and me.  I was very fond of Allan, but I was never his minister. The only reason I was doing the service was that my good friend Erin, who is now the minister there, just underwent a double mastectomy earlier this week.  So when she called me a few weeks ago to ask if I could step in and do this service, at my home church, for this longtime family friend, while she was laid up recovering from this devastating surgery…. of course, I said yes.

As is almost always the case with memorial services, I found that though I knew Allan well for decades, there was a great deal about him that I didn’t know at all.  I knew he had a big heart and a big personality, that he could be a gadfly at annual meetings, that he loved the performing arts, and led a number of original and important men’s groups at the church that had created important bonds among many men over generations there.  I didn’t know that he had mentored countless youth in the Coming of Age program.  I didn’t know the ins and outs of his great relationship with both his children, that when they were little, he used to tell them bedtime stories he made up himself, entertaining and educational both, featuring characters with names both unusual and prophetic like Ego and Ergo and Libido.  I learned a lot about this man I knew well, and as always, it broke my heart a little more that such a remarkable person is gone from our midst.  And that, our love cannot compel immortality, unjust as that realization seems every time it comes to me, as it does too often.

I looked around at all the people gathered for his service.  Around 300, I think.  Some of them are longtime members, and I remember them. I remember them much younger. It takes a little bit sometimes to place these faces now to those faces then and those names I carry with me.  But I looked at them yesterday – some had travelled from far away for the service – and what I saw was the blurring of time, younger faces present still within older faces.  And I saw my own parents, also there for the service, looking older to me in that setting than when they were at the height of their involvement in their ’40s and ’50s.   And I saw the blurring of identity, all the people like cells in a body, changing and evolving in all their identities, evolving so often through relationships that defined them – generations of families, generations of friends, friendships that go back half a century, people who look almost the same now as they did 20 years ago, people widowed from spouses I remember well, people newly partnered after a death or divorce, people who were kids much younger than myself there now with their own children.  What a lot of change, what a lot of flow, to hold.

The poem “Monet Refuses the Operation” was written by the German-American poet, Pulitzer prize-winner, and holocaust survivor Lisel Mueller.  It’s based on the true story that the great impressionist painter Claude Monet, until almost the end of his life, refused an operation that would treat the cataracts which began to impact his sight in his later years.  The poem presumes some knowledge of Monet’s painting – the way light suffused everything he painted, whether hay stacks or Rouen cathedral or Venice or his beloved garden and lily pond at Giverny, the way shapes dissolved in light more and more as his painting evolved, the way objects lost their definition and became strokes of color and form in relationship to other strokes of color and form, their actual subject increasingly subtle as his painting went on.

“Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Did you hear that?  “I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being.” He’s talking about seeing, about learning to see, over the course of a lifetime.  About a change in vision that evolves over time, not a diminishment, but an enrichment that sees beyond the mundane to the transcendent, beyond the seeming boundaries to the boundless, beyond fixed notions to a ceaseless flow that moves in and through all things.

And he will not, he says, he will not return to a universe of objects that “don’t know each other.”

Lisel Mueller published this poem around 1996, when Pokemon made its debut, as did the Fox News channel and major league soccer and EBay.  Bill Clinton was re-elected president.  Michael Jordan was the unstoppable god of basketball.  Around the world, people were dancing the Macarena.  Osama Bin Laden was expelled from Sudan and moved to Afghanistan.  Divers discovered the ancient port of Alexandria.  Prince Charles and Princess Diana got divorced.  The United Nations adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  Scientific consensus was developing about climate change.

Those are all things we knew were happening.  Much we didn’t know was also happening.  There were police shootings, we realize now, that we never heard about.  We were not paying attention to racism in this country.  We were not paying attention to much of the ‘isms, nor were we perceiving what the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed two years earlier, was doing to agriculture in Mexico, creating conditions that would eventually trigger increasing streams of immigrants crossing our southern border in search of a better future for themselves and their children.

We were, more than we knew, more than we saw, in a universe of objects that didn’t know each other, filled and defined by lines that don’t actually exist.  Our vision has changed, is still changing. Part of what we are learning to see is each other, and part of what we are learning to know is each other, and how essential it is that we know each other, not as separate or fixed but as interrelated and changing and relevant, as relevant, as real, in our living as we ourselves are,  “…to soften and blur and finally banish the edges.”

We, too, cannot, will not, return to that universe of objects that don’t know each other.  This community has shown this already in our justice work, in our food ministries, sanctuary church commitment, and many of the ways we engage with the world.  But this sharing you offered last week is something different, affirming our work for justice and the transformation of our society, but lifting up spirituality, personal evolution, and community.  What an honest, enmeshed, flexible, growing, rich set of responses you gave.  What a vision you cast.  Not programs or quantities but experiences and feelings, manifestations of spirit and kinship that are as open-ended as they are profound, as open-hearted as they are courageous.  What a vision you cast.  Love.  Deepening connections.  Community.  Spiritual support.  Tangible support.  New friends.  Strength for living.  Comfort.  Welcoming.  Hope.  Peace.  Diversity and inclusion.  Gratitude.  Balance.  Beauty.

I read your words, and I remembered how many of the great religions struggled to find their way in the wake of World War II because of what that great nightmare suggested about both the existence of God and the nature of humanity.  One critique of liberal religion that evolved was that it was altogether unequal to the challenge of responding meaningfully to all that had transpired, and so would, like a dinosaur, soon expire.  Our marvelous 20th-century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, set himself to discern a relevant path forward for our faith.  His main critique, which he knew we must overcome, was that we had begun to glorify the self at the expense of the common good.  His main hope was that we could accomplish this, over time.  His main reason for this hope was a core understanding he was the first to name: for liberal religion – for liberated – free – theology – revelation was not sealed. It was not done. It was, in fact, continuous, ongoing, all the time.  If new revelation, ideas, understandings might appear to us any time, then the deceptively simple challenge is this: we have to pay attention – a lot!  Because otherwise, dulled by habits of perception and customs of understanding, we would miss the revelation when it appears.   But if we pay attention then, then we begin to see new things, and can grow in new ways, which is the essence of progressive religion – progress, not perfection.

Perhaps now, as a faith, we are finally beginning to live into James Luther Adams’ vision, more than we ever have before.  We are beginning to look to community rather than self, and relationship rather than individual development.  On this small and fragile planet, with this large and fragile company of human beings, we are learning to see more, to blend more, to presume less and ask more, to perceive past the construct of a horizon to the meshing and interdependence of sky and sea, sharing one state of being.  And now we see, now we begin to see, the light that moves in all of us, our utter kinship to each other, a ceaseless flow that moves in and through all, including all me, including you, in all the ways we are the same and in all the ways we are different, lost children of one great continent.  This is the vision you have cast, and it is beautiful.  We are on a journey of mind and heart. We cannot always know what we will find as our hearts expand to claim this world and each other.  Painful lessons.  Beloved friendships.  Gifts and challenges beyond imagining.  There is no better journey we could be on.  And what a company this journey is making of us.  Amen.