Desperately Seeking Solitude In Season - Unitarian Sermon
"Starlight, star bright"
in sky of blackenameled bone, ice-sharp,
carving the earth in tense annunciation,
and dissolving time
into snowflakes multiple and breathless,
over reluctant thresholds of hearts
into the weary window of the world.
"First star . . . ".
first as each mystery is always a beginning
eternally for the first time,
sing your white song to all beasts,
who are lost in leafless places, and sorrowing;
sing from the feathered cedar
a lullaby to foundling peace.
"I wish I may . . . . "
How do I wish? How do I wish?
With love, with love,
turning the dark corner of the year
to walk into quivering flocks of sheep,
to look into the soft eyes of a lonely mouse,
to touch the downy-breasted owl,
and to see - nimbused in small starlight,
naked hope as a child come home.
"Have the wish I wish tonight."
What do I wish?
That the dark sky shall comprehend
and wrap itself in silence,
that all aching mortality fall to its knees
before such minor miracles as stars,
a handful of fire to warm a room,
the inexpressible alleluia of birth,
and the frail, imperishable body of love.
These words of poet Sheila Moon set the equation for my holiday/holy day season. The Nativity story captures my mood - dramatized so powerfully by The Cantata of the Animals. This time of year, so often characterized by the unnecessary hustle/bustle of frenetic people, is an ideal occasion for helping time stand still, for relishing silence, for enjoying solitude - as a healthy balance to the communal celebrations we so enjoy. Back and forth we go - from the minor miracle of stars to the equally minor miracle of beloved community.
While many dread this season of darkness, illuminated only by its festivities, I relish its opportunities for reflection. For me, the time of shortest days and longest nights is an invitation to contemplation. I require solitude as much as community.
The poet of urban life Carl Sandburg talked about solitude:
"Only those who learn how to live with solitude can come to know themselves and life. I go out there and walk and look at the trees and the sky. I listen. "I sit on a rock or stump and say to myself, 'Who are you Sandburg? Where have you been, and where are you going?'"
Those are questions which we neglect at our peril. We Unitarian Universalists are a gregarious bunch. We love to converge and talk. Are we as comfortable being alone when we must face ourselves? This holiday season is a good time to consider solitude - together.
Our Unitarian Universalist muse May Sarton celebrates solitude in her Journal of a Solitude: "Begin here. It is raining. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my 'real' life again at last. That is what is strange - that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened.
"Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and 'the house and I resume old conversations.'"
We need solitude to remember the meaning of community. Yet people are suspicious of solitude, as Robert Frost discovered during his short career at Harvard University. He came under suspicion by his classmates for taking long solitary walks in the woods.
Alfred North Whitehead once said that "Religion is what a man does with his solitude." One of my colleagues said derisively it was the only dumb thing Whitehead had ever said. Perhaps. But while religion is not just what we do with our solitude, I believe that is part - a much neglected - part of it.
Erich Fromm was once asked for a practical solution to the problems of living. "Quietness," he answered, "The experience of stillness. You have to stop in order to change direction."
We center down in such a way that the whirl and swirl of passing events does not overwhelm us. To be alone with ourselves from time to time reminds us that we are alive - a truth we sometimes forget when we are enmeshed in our day-to-day routines with people and places. To be alive - that is the meaning. It was so obvious, we missed it.
In solitude we have a chance for a soulful look at ourselves.
Solitude allows us to escape the tyranny of the urgent which besets us in a world that is too much with us.
Solitude is not isolation or withdrawal, but simply a capacity to maintain tranquility in chaos.
In solitude we find our "inner weather" which enables us to make our way through the storms of our "outer weather."
Whenever the world is too much with me, whenever "getting and spending I lay waste my powers," I read the words of Walt Whitman, and am content:
"When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."
Richard Gilbert December 10, 2000
First Unitarian Church of Rochester
- "Starlight, Star Bright" by Sheila Moon, contemporary American analytical psychologist, poet, The Choice Is Always Ours.
- May Sarton, Journal of a Solitud, New York, WW. Norton, 1973, 11.
- Christopher News Note, November 1974
- Walt Whitman, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomers," Masterpiece of Religious Vers edited by James Dalton Morrison (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), # 95.