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Know Yourself - Unitarian Sermon by Gary Kowalski

"Know Thyself" has been an admonition uttered by philosophers down the ages. Socrates supposedly learned the motto from the ancient oracle at Delphi. In China, the sage Lao Tze said that "He who knows others is wise, but he who knows himself is enlightened." Rabbi Susya, in the Jewish tradition, told his followers that on the Day of Judgment, he expected the following inquiry — not "Why were you not like Moses?" but rather, "Why were you not more like Susya?" Jesus also, according to the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas, advised his disciples that "When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty ...."

Fairy tales and fables are filled with the motif of the boy or girl who has somehow misplaced the knowledge of his or her true identity. The beggar turns out to be a prince. The stepchild who's been told she's plain-looking is actually the most beautiful of all. Discovering who you really are, the stories suggest, is like uncovering an unsuspected treasure — something you didn't know you had that bestows value and meaning on the rest of life, and which you possessed all along.

But knowing oneself is no easy task. For most, it is a lifelong endeavor. The author May Sarton wrote of her own quest for selfhood and authenticity in her journals and her poetry.

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,

It wasn't until mid-life, Ms. Sarton said, that she began the work of creating a self, after the death of her parents forced her to confront seriously the purpose of her own life here on earth. With her childhood home gone, she turned to the task of establishing her own space, building a private retreat in Nelson, New Hampshire, where the New England landscape seemed a reflection of her own rugged resolve to face life on her own terms. "For ten years I have been rooted in these hills," she wrote at the age of sixty,

The changing light on landlocked lakes,
For ten years have called a mountain, friend,
Have been nourished by plants, still waters,
Trees in their seasons,
Have fought in this quiet place
For my self.

"I came here to create a world," she said,

As strong, renewable, fertile,
As the world of nature all around me —
Learned to clear myself as I have cleared the pasture,
Learned to wait,
Learned that change is always in the making
(Inner and outer) if one can be patient,
Learned to trust myself.

That trust had its costs. In 1965, her literary agent advised her not to even try to publish the novel where Sarton first revealed her own sexual orientation. Her lectureship at Wellesley was canceled as a result of her coming out. In her journal Recovering, she wrote: In spite of all the doors opening these days that permit homosexuals to enter the stream of life instead of being treated as outcasts forever relegated to the backwaters, pariahs whom it is best to pretend do not exist, there is still much civilizing to be accomplished. On the whole, society itself still reacts to certain words with outrage ... 'Lesbian' is such a word today. And yet for all her frankness, Sarton always resisted those who wished to label her as a "lesbian writer." She saw herself instead as a humanist, in the original spirit of that term, as one who could say that "nothing human is alien to me." Sexual liberation for her was never an end in itself, but rather a means to the thing that really mattered, learning to be at home in her own skin and at peace with herself, learning to be singular and mortal, comfortable with her own birth and death.

Affirming this personal journey is the reason that we celebrate Coming Out Sunday. Being a Welcoming Congregation implies much more than support for any so-called "gay agenda." Rather our commitment to build an inclusive community springs from the realization that each one of us has a unique personality and a special contribution to make. Finding our own voice, learning to love and care for ourselves in the way that enables us to care for others, is work that concerns us all, male and female, gay and straight. It's a task inseparable from the commandment, "Know Thyself."

I think in this regard of Stephen Sharp, a member of our congregation who died not many years ago from AIDS. Stephen was cut down in the very middle of life. He had been born in 1965 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Although he was exposed to the arts early in his youth, when he had a chance to study with a gifted teacher from the Alvin Ailey dance company at a private academy in Norfolk, Stephen seemed to drift for many years. Like many young people, he felt isolated and unsure of himself, his teenage insecurities compounded by the fact that he was gay. In his twenties, he said, "I wasn't doing anything with my life, I wasn't happy, I wasn't doing what I wanted, I was going from a string of jobs ... feeling like a failure." Then came the test results for HIV, and something shifted. "It really dawned on me, this is it," he told a friend. Stephen had to begin thinking hard about what he intended to do with his life at that point. "I quit my job and started to do what I wanted to do, which was theater, and I threw my whole body into it," working first with the Garage Theater and then founding his own troupe, the Green Candle Theater Company. "I get a lot of comfort and solace in the things that I have done since being diagnosed," he said before he died. "It's like everything I did before was inconsequential. I wanted to be someone that people would respect, who had integrity, who stood for something and accomplished something and somehow benefitted the rest of the world and society." Visiting with Stephen at his home and in the hospital, it became clear to me that he'd achieved the personal integrity he longed for, he'd come to terms with who he was and what he'd done with his life, and although Stephen's notions of an afterlife and immortality remained rather nebulous, his thirty-some years in this world had attained a kind of purposefulness and self-discipline that enabled him to meet the end with an equanimity and calm born of the knowledge that his life was in some important sense complete. His life had gained a self-contained dignity and repose.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus proclaims, "That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. That which you do not have within you [will] kill you if you do not have it within you." It's one of those pithy and paradoxical teachings that seem to have come straight from the master's lips, addressed directly to each one of us. That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves ... that being your own, inimitable, perishing and luminous self.

Embracing that, we begin to embrace all things, so that we can say with May Sarton:

I am not ready to die,
But I am learning to trust death
As I have trusted life.
I am moving
Toward a new freedom
Born of detachment
And a sweeter grace —
Learning to let go.
I am not ready to die,
But as I approach death
I turn my face toward the sea.
I shall go where tides replace time,
Where my world will open to a far horizon.
Over the floating, never-still flux and change,
I shall go with the changes,
I shall look far out over golden grasses
And blue waters ....
There are no farewells.

First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, October 12, 2003