Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Grateful to Women of the Past

When asked to do the 'Ladies' service at another Unitarian Church I reflected on how I thank some of the women of the past for my being where I am today.

Reading 1: Extracts from an essay by Francis Power Cobbe - a feminist and Unitarian from the  late 19th Century.

Reading 2: Extracts about Annie Dillard, botanist and mystic; taken from Women in search of the Sacred

Hymn - Nearer My God To Thee


Today I have chosen to think about some of the women who have had an influence for me in this life of mine. Today I feel really lucky, lucky and privileged. My chosen path, towards ministry and indeed within the six and half years of ministry to date, has been relatively easy, and the question of my gender has not been an issue at all; but of course it has not always been so for women and even within the enlightened Unitarian movement women have sometimes found it difficult to express themselves.  We just have to look at the writing of Francis Power Cobbe and read her descriptions of a woman’s role, to realise how difficult it was for women to outwardly make a connection with the divine.  Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) was one of the most influential figures in the British Unitarian movement of her day. Although she lacked formal educational and professional credentials, she made her way among the leaders of progressive thought by sheer force of personality and intellect. According to Unitarian historian Alexander Gordon, "In detaching Unitarians from the older supernaturalism, her influence was considerable." 


In the wider community she was one of the foremost protagonists for the emancipation of women, educational and social reform, and a more humane treatment of animals. Cobbe was not always a Unitarian, she was brought up with Calvinism, but started to question this in her teens. By the time she reached her twenties she denied immortality, the divinity of Christ, the trinity, and the divine inspiration and authority of the bible.  When her mother died, she confided her beliefs to her father and he immediately banished her from his house.  A year later though he invited her to return, as his housekeeper!  She persisted in her religious studies through the works of Theodore Parker; whose theology presented God, not as a conquering king, but as a Father/Mother, Infinite in power, wisdom and love. 

Another active suffragette and Unitarian was Sarah Flower Adams, born 1805 and died in 1848.   

Unlike Frances, Sarah grew up as a Unitarian.  Her father was editor and owner of The Cambridge Intelligencer, and she married William Brydges Adams, a well-known inventor and civil engineer. When she married Adams, she made an agreement with him that she would do no Housekeeping. She is most well known for her poetry and her hymn writing.  She met people such as Robert Browning, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Leigh Hunt, and Harriet Martineau, but her convictions owed much to Thomas Southwood Smith, the health reformer, with whom she lived for many years; and there was her association with William Johnson Fox’s radical Unitarian congregation in the 1830’s.  It was at this time when she was most prolific with her hymn writing, contributing at least 13 hymns to the Hymns and anthems published in 1841. 

The hymn - Nearer, my God to thee!’, is easily the most famous.  It has been said that it was this hymn that was played by the band on the Titanic as it sank.  It was a favourite hymn for funerals and the bandleader from the Titanic had always said he wanted it played at ‘his’ funeral so maybe that is where the story came from.
An internet site says this of her.  ‘Her feminism and professionalism, the nature of her work, and her unconventional lifestyle were all grounded in Unitarianism, the most progressive and liberating ideology of the 19th century.

There are many other 19th century women I could mention but there is one who is quite significant for me and that lady is Florence Nightingale.   


She is most remembered as a pioneer of nursing and a reformer of hospital sanitation methods.  She pushed for reform of the British Military health-care system and with that the profession of nursing started to gain the respect it deserved.  What is generally less well known about her though was her development of new statistical methods of analysis.  She developed the ‘polar area diagram’, which was the first form of the Pi chart.  She was an innovator in the collecting, tabulation, interpretation and graphical display of descriptive statistics.  I used to be a maths teacher before becoming a minister and just as I developed my love of mathematics from my father, so too did Florence develop her love for mathematics from her father, when he took over the education of his two daughters.  However, he did not really approve when she begged her parents to let her study mathematics instead of ‘…worsted work and practising quadrilles.’  He urged Florence to study subjects more appropriate for a woman, but after many emotional battles her parents relented and allowed her to be tutored in maths.
Religion was important to Florence and her unbiased view was owed to the liberal outlook in her home.  Her parents were from a Unitarian background although the sisters were brought up as Church of England.  On the 7th February in 1837, Florence Nightingale believed she heard her calling from God, although she did not appreciate what that calling was to be.  She never married, as she believed that God had decided she was one whom he ‘had clearly marked out … to be a single woman.’  There are many quotes attributed to Florence Nightingale, but most of these are about her work and social reform, but I did find one that shows us her more religious outlook.

“For what is mysticism? Is it not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies, but by inward disposition? Is it not merely a hard word for ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within’? Heaven is neither a place nor a time." (1873)

Women of today owe so much to these liberal women of the 19th and early 20th Century, without their efforts in both social and religious matters women such as Annie Dillard could not express themselves as they do, today.  Annie is a botanist and a mystic, I could have chosen any of her experiences to use for a reading, but what is important is that they all relate to the way in which to view life.   

As Anne Bancroft says in her book ‘Women in Search of the Sacred’,       “… Throughout Annie Dillard’s work there is the feeling that for life to be worth living it must be unrushed, based on inner silence and space, where living in the present is the most important act, where sounds can be really heard and sights really seen.”  Or as Annie herself says, “I walk out. I see something some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.”
When Annie ‘saw’ that tree in the reading she recognised this as a glimpse of the eternal, a gateway to the divine.  She began to recognise this in other moments too, such as sitting on a pavement drinking a cup of coffee, stroking a puppy and gazing into the hills on the horizon.  In each moment though, the point when she recognizes the connection is the moment when she returns to reality and she has to move on always in the hope that she will be ready to open up once more.  How fortunate she is, to have the freedom in her life to be open to these experiences, and without all those liberal women of the past it is a freedom that she would not have.

And how fortunate I am to have found my chosen path, within this liberal religion of ours that one hundred years ago allowed the first woman to train for the Ministry.  I started this address by saying how I felt lucky and privileged to be in my position, and now as I come to close I want to tell you about something that is very special to me.  In my spare time I quilt – creating out of small scraps of fabric things of beauty such as this quilt that I made for my daughter.   

Quilting is an activity that requires pure concentration, there is much room for error so I can’t afford for my mind to wander.  I become for a time absorbed and completely in the moment. In some small way, in the words of Sarah Flower Adams through this creative activity I am brought ‘Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee!’, or it can be said I experience the ‘inward disposition’ mentioned by Florence Nightingale.  Or in Annie Dillard’s terms I open up my senses and make a connection with the Eternal.


Sunday, 3 February 2013

Making Choices

A service for 3rd February 2013.

Reading - Chapter 23 from The Life of Pi by Yann Martel  


Reading - The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost


In the last ten days I made rather a strange decision for me.  I chose to go to the cinema, not once, but twice, and each time to see what turned out to be a rather long film.  First I had better explain why it was a strange decision.  Well you see the thing is that I cannot sit for long periods of time without suffering with severe discomfort because of the arthritic problems I have in my hips and spine.  Since the arthritis developed in the 1990’s I only rarely have made a trip to the cinema and then it has to be to see a film that I feel I really must see.  So you can perhaps understand my dilemma when not one but two such films happened to be showing.  And I must say that both films were worth the discomfort I suffered in seeing them.  In the end both films made an impression on me in terms of reflecting on my religious beliefs and the choices that I have made over the last decade of my life.  The films were The Life of Pi and Les Miserables and both films struck me with their message about God, about faith and also about the choices we make in our lives.

Before I look at these two films I am in no way going to attempt to tell you the stories.  If you want to know then you too will have to choose to go and see them or read the books.

Looking at these films in reverse order I shall begin with Les Miserables, a musical version of Victor Hugo’s rather long and difficult novel which has probably plagued many English Literature students in their time.  I have not read the book, nor have I seen the musical before but I must grudgingly admit that I admired this film even though I am not a lover of musicals generally. I never could understand why one would sing a story. But looking beyond my difficulty with the music the depiction of the story made me want to read the novel.  One of the things that struck me about the story was that it all hinged on choice.  Caught in the act of thieving from a church, the main character is saved by a priest who chooses to help the thief and claims that he was not stealing after all but only taking what he had been given.  This simple act of charity on the part of the priest causes the thief to look at his life and turn it around. He develops a belief in God and chooses to spend his life trying to make amends for the wrongs he has committed in his earlier life and this influences how he reacts to future events.  It reminds me of a Buddhist tale that can be found in Bill Darlison’s book of wisdom stories The Shortest Distance

The Thief who Became a Disciple which tells how  - One evening, as a holy man was saying his prayers, an intruder entered his house and, holding a big, sharp knife to the holy man’s throat, demanded his money or his life.  Unruffled, the holy man said to the thief, ‘Don’t disturb me. Can’t you see I’m busy? There’s some money in the drawer over there.  Take it!’, ‘but don’t take it all,’ he said ‘I’ve got some bills to pay tomorrow.’
The intruder, surprised at encountering such a strange response, left some money behind, and as he was leaving the house, the holy man called after him, ‘Isn’t it good manners to thank a person when he gives you something?’
‘Thank you,’ said the thief, and off he went.
Some days later, the thief was caught by the authorities, and he confessed all his crimes, including his offence against the holy man.  Who, when called as witness for the prosecution, said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, this man is no thief.  I gave him the money, and he thanked me for it.’
The thief was jailed nevertheless, but on his release from prison he went to the holy man and became his disciple.

In both the film and this tale someone’s life is turned around because their choices are influenced by the choices and actions of someone who has devoted their life to God and in their turn the thieves choose to seek salvation through searching for God or religion in their own lives.

When it comes to The Life of Pi – I have read the book and was deeply moved by it.  There is much in it about belief and God that I find relates to my own religious development.  In most reviews of both the book and the film it is spoken of as a spiritual experience that will move one spiritually and make one believe in God.  I find the chapter that I read to you earlier speaks to me about my own personal search for God and why it is I was drawn to the Unitarian faith.  It emphasises that there is not one particular God but rather that there are many ways in which to experience God for oneself.  Following the point where the imam and the priest proclaim: “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”
The chapter continues with this passage:

“. . . my father said, “I suppose you’re right.”
 Mother looked at me. A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
“Hmmm, Piscine?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.

My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi.  I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do – love God.”

I thought it very funny that he should say that, he who hadn’t stepped into a temple with a serious intent since I had had the faculty of memory.  But it seemed to do the trick.  You can’t reprimand a boy for wanting to love God.  The three wise men pulled away with stiff, grudging smiles on their faces.

Father looked at me for a second, as if to speak, then thought better, said, “Ice-cream, anyone?” and headed for the closest ice cream wallah before we could answer.  Mother gazed at me a little longer, with an expression that was both tender and perplexed.

That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue. Father bought three ice cream sandwiches.  We ate them in unusual silence as we continued our Sunday walk.”

This is a powerful passage about the question of choice when it comes to faith.  In the end we all have to choose.  Our lives are continual acts of making choices; from the moment we get up in the morning and decide what we shall wear and what we shall eat for breakfast, until the moment we go to bed and fall asleep. Choices govern our days and the way we live our lives; sometimes they are choices affected by the actions of other people but more often they happen in spite of the actions of others a bit like in the story today. Sometimes they are small insignificant choices but sometimes they pertain to the larger more significant questions.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says:
I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word, and thought throughout our lifetime.

So maybe, whatever sort of choice we have to make, just maybe those choices that we have made and are yet to make will have a lasting effect not just on our lives but on the lives of those all around us. Just like the lives of the thieves from Les Miserables and the Buddhist tale were made different as a result of their choices in response to another’s actions.

Whatever happens though, in our choices it is important that we can make the decision as the poet Robert Frost asks in his classic poem on choice . . .
To take the road less travelled, maybe, or
To set out not knowing what will happen, or just…
To walk with hope amid the questions….

For after all, as John Schaar said:
         The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.

Maybe by making the choices we have already made, the choice to be here in this Unitarian Church following a faith that is after all a faith of choice….  Maybe, like Pi we are all making the ultimate choice:  the choice to love God wherever we find God to be.
   So may it be.  Amen