OUR RESPONSE TO EVERYTHING, TERRIBLE & LOVELY A Meditation on the Horror at Newtown, Connecticut



OUR RESPONSE TO EVERYTHING, TERRIBLE & LOVELY
A Meditation on the Horror at Newtown, Connecticut

James Ishmael Ford

16 December 2012

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island

Text

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature of change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions.
I am the beneficiary of my deeds.
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

The Five Remembrances (from the Upajjhatthana Sutta)

Some years ago a member of the congregation I was serving walked up to me during coffee hour and asked, “So, James. Why are you trying to kill me?” I was a bit taken aback and asked what he meant. He replied that when he’d visited our Zen meditation group, he was shocked at our all repeating together the line “I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.” It turns out he was of the opinion that if you say something or think something it will happen. Coffee hour did not seem the right place to talk about the fact that whatever we think, however positive we keep our attitudes, well, I’m sorry to be the carrier of the news, but here’s the truth: we all die. With a period. Full stop. That’s it. We die.

But, you know, here now, within the sanctuary of this old, old Meeting House, this is one of those right places to talk about such things. And, I believe, this very much, is one of those right times to speak of such things. The whole passage that my friend was alluding to is I believe particularly appropriate for us today. Here’s how it goes.

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me, and everyone I love
are of the nature of change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions.
I am the beneficiary of my deeds.
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

It’s attributed to the Indian sage we usually call the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, one time prince, then fierce seeker of truth, and out of what he found for forty years preacher of a path through the sadness of life. The passage comes from the Upajjhatthana Sutta, itself a part of a collection called the Anguttara Nikaya, or the Numerical Discourses, an anthology of several thousand talks attributed to the Buddha. While there are reasons for not being certain, I am pretty sure they are the actual words, or close enough, to something that he preached to wandering hearts, to yearning souls some twenty-five hundred years ago. It is one of the reasons I believe he is with justice called the world honored one.

Today, we stand in the shadow of something terrible. So, however much we might wish otherwise we are unable to pretend death isn’t real. As someone who has lost a child, I followed the events in Newtown with an urgency that bordered on compulsion. I listened to the radio in the car and I watched those painfully small amounts of news repeated over and over, waiting for something new, a little more information, and, yes, maybe hoping somewhere for the story to take a different turn. No, wait, everything is okay. Of course everything isn’t okay. Twenty-eight people killed, including the shooter, and of those twenty were children, all six and seven years old. Horrible. Horrible.

For those of us with living children or grandchildren, this is the worst of nightmares. Perhaps that ancient Chinese blessing haunts us: grandparent dies, parent dies, child dies. So, yes death. But only in that order, it should happen only in that order. But, whether in order or not, death is our fate. Like with sickness and old age there is no escape from these truths. Whatever we wish, however we might adjust our attitudes, whatever stories we tell ourselves, however tightly we cling. There is no escape from sickness, old age and death.

But, there is more to the picture than those harsh realities. There are things that happen when we open our hearts, when we don’t turn away. For the larger majority of us, we cannot expunge feelings that rise within us when we think of those children. Of course those feelings are complex. I know how much I can’t separate my own lost child from my thoughts. Nor, can I expunge my own visceral sense of my own death. But, there is a current that informs these feelings, something I believe to be as real and compelling as the sun and the moon and the stars above. It is as much what brings us here, maybe in fact more than the knowing of mortality. It is what leads us to sign the book and become members, that thing found between people, not in general, but in specific. That feeling, sense, intuition, we name love.

Love, as we know is a big word, really too big for its own good, or for ours. It is a catch all term, which can mean, within context, romance, or family, or country, or God. It can mean sex. Someone claims the Indo-European root survived into Sanskrit as “lubhyati,” meaning desire. I rather like that two-edged sword aspect to it. It is a great mess, some spiritual force that both pulls us together and tears us apart. Actually I like all of it, all of the different loves that come together under the umbrella we call love. If there is a non-material thing that deserves the appellations of divinity, for me the only real candidate is our human experience of love.

And, of course, the love that we can call god is no sweet candy carrying fat cherub, but a terrible and compelling thing, a storm or a falcon that in an instant pick us up carries us away, and, then, at its leisure devours us. Love is the joy I feel when I think of Jan putting up with me for all these years. And, it is the gnawing hurt I feel when I think of those children and of their teachers. I find myself thinking a lot of the teachers and love. Perhaps you have, as well.

There’s that meme going around Facebook, attributed to the late Fred Rogers, Presbyterian minister and children’s television host. Cathy quoted it earlier. It is worth repeating. He is said to have said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers, so many caring people in this world.”

I have seared into my heart the images from that other horror a decade ago, when firemen and policemen raced into the already unstable Twin towers. And now, I find myself thinking of schoolteachers in the same way. I think of Kaitlin Roig, who took the first graders in her charge into a bathroom, barricaded it, and then tried to keep them quiet. When she thought the gunman was coming, she realized all she could do was tell the children that she loved them very much. Because, she later reported, if they were going to die, she wanted those to be the last words they heard. I think of Vicki Soto, another first grade teacher, apparently also trying to hide her children when the killer came. There are conflicting stories. What we do know is that her body was found huddled over the children. Greater love. No one demonstrated what love means better than these two young women in the face of unspeakable horror.

Back to the Buddha and those five remembrances. It is important to note how in his little homily, the Buddha doesn’t end with the announcement of the inevitability of sickness and old age and of death. Rather it speaks to what is in our hands. Our deeds. And it hints at what we find within our actions, how important how we engage the world, what our reaction to the facts, hard and otherwise, might be. A great secret is revealed. It is that same intuition we feel in so many ways and artlessly call love. It shows what love means. It shows what Kaitlin and Vicki and, truthfully, all of us can do. In the face of loss, we are being shown a way through.

We are what we do. And if we respond with love, our actions become the healing of the world. Nothing less.

There are many ways we can respond to the horrific event in Newtown. I think addressing the insanity of our gun culture is one. And an important one. It is time to speak out. Past time. And we will return to that issue in due course.

But there are other things to do. The emphasis is on doing. As we know right after service we have our grand procession, a very small, but also, frankly, a holy thing, carrying food from the basement under the Meeting House and into the Parish House, getting ready to share it with hungry people. If you can, join us. And, if you can, come back on Monday. There’s plenty to do. And doing something, however small, can be powerful.

For goodness’ sake, do something. For the sake of goodness, for the sake of love, do something.

And, of course, within the list of things to do now, of possible immediate responses to the sadness and hurt and helplessness many people are feeling, as you know we are sponsoring our twenty-fifth annual Amnesty International Write-a-thon, between one and five, today. Here, in the Parish House. Somehow this seems an amazingly right thing to do on this day even more than it might otherwise have been. It is something actual and real to do that can help someone, someone we don’t know and will likely never meet. If you can, bring a kid or two to help write a couple of letters. Show them the way, show them our way.

I think our call, our spiritual call, what brings us together, and what holds us together, is that we look full on with full heart. And then, from that place, that holy place, where the mystery of the universe is revealed as so sad and so beautiful, informed by that love which shows the connections, do something. And here’s one thing to do. Today, come, write some letters, help someone you don’t know who is in desperate circumstances.

It is a small act of healing, a stand against the worst, and a stand for the best of our human condition. Come; light a candle against the darkness. It is our human way; it is the path of love.

It is our response to everything, terrible and lovely: to be present, to bring ourselves full into the great project of healing this world.

That’s why we’re here.

Amen.

Print Friendly


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X