DAYS OF THE DEAD A Litany of Questions

DAYS OF THE DEAD A Litany of Questions November 1, 2015



A Litany of Questions

1 November 2015

James Ishmael Ford

Pacific Unitarian Church
Rancho Palos Verdes, California

Today I offer you a litany of questions. And somewhere near the end, so brief you might miss it – I’ll throw in a suggestion of an answer. Just a hint. You might think of it as sort of a small Halloween treat.

To begin, I recall a few years ago going with Jan to an event for the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry in Boston. They are something wonderful. The oldest social service agency in America, founded in 1834. And, they’re totally a UU thing. Jan and I’ve been long time supporters. Anyway, the event was taking us out on a rare evening visit to the city’s downtown. It was, also, downtown on a Halloween weekend, like this weekend.

We parked about three blocks from where we were going, which in Boston is pretty good. As we walked along it was obvious magic was in the air. I first noticed a large mini-skirted bunny rabbit flag down a taxi. Then, Jan nudged me to noticing we were walking past a vampire, a clown and a pirate standing together engaged in what appeared to be a pretty serious conversation. In those three blocks we walked from the car to the event we passed a surprising number of strange and mysterious creatures each engaged on their own, at least to us mysterious journeys. Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking the shorter variety of ghosts and goblins going about in small and large packs from door to door extorting candy. There were some of those, not many, this was downtown, and these were mostly all of the taller variety.

I love this season.

Brian Kiely, long time minister of our UU congregation in Edmonton, Alberta once observed, “I have always loved Hallowe’en for more than just the costumes and the sugar rush. It is the gateway to the season, the celebration of hidden things and shadowy wisdom. All Souls followed by All Saints.” Brian continues, “I usually take the dog for a walk on Hallowe’en night after the three-foot goblins have gone home with their loot. I feel the leaves blowing and somehow the possibility of spirits reaching out through the veil and across the breeze seems very real.”

It is the tradition within many cultural myths that this season is a time in the cycles of our lives when the divisions between the worlds of the living and the dead are stretched to the thinnest possible membrane, and, occasionally, even torn asunder. And me, I love it. I’m totally caught up with that idea of pushing through and discovering other worlds.

There was a television commercial running, I’m not sure now, last year, the year before. It’s something of a comment on many commercials how the memorable ones actually rarely include that critical element of what were meant to sell. Anyway, this one follows a young woman wearing an astronaut’s gear walking down the street surrounded by people, each of them wearing the costumes of their fantasies, in fact displaying their dream selves. This weekend following my friend’s Facebook posting of their costumed images that as often as not this costumed self-revelation continues. Sometimes not at an entirely conscious level, which may be all for the best.

That’s one face of this season. Here’s another. Of course now Jan and I have returned home to California. Lovely California. And, I find myself thinking of monarch butterflies on their great multi-generation migration. Here that migration cycle has begun once again, and while not yet in full force, you can see the butterflies, if you’re a little lucky. Because their path takes four generations, and nearly three thousand miles, following some mysterious current of their being each of them travels to a home they never actually knew before they arrived. And something like for the monarchs, I wonder if our Halloween self-revelations aren’t also part of some deeper, longer, journey. This feels an important time, a time to pause, to remember, to feel, and to explore, spreading our wings, and maybe even flying toward our ancient home.

I think of mini-skirted bunny rabbits and astronauts and, of course, those other creatures of the night, vampires and ghouls and skeletons. And, and, I think of the many spirits that are always with us, some joyous, others not so much. No doubt to me spirits surround us, that fabled cloud of witnesses. By the bye, that line “cloud of witnesses.” It’s from the Book of Common Prayer, which ranks right after Shakespeare and the King James Bible as a sourcebook of phrase and allusion in our shared Western heritage. That said, once a younger member of the church I was serving in Providence, after a service where I used that phrase, inquired about that crowd of witnesses. She’d seen the courthouse just down the street from the church. Did they come from there?

Cloud or crowd, perhaps this, more than any other, is the time we find the ghosts of memory, and longing, and hope really surrounding us. Some ghosts are joyous. But, some ghosts are sad. These days on Halloween night, wandering from house to house, and for the larger set, to parties of one sort or another, the ghosts we encounter are mostly happy, at least so long as candy or cocktails are involved.

So, two visions of Halloween. One, following our dreams. A second living some great dream. Here’s a third. What about those other ghosts? The wounded? The hurt? This is the season where the membrane that separates the worlds runs thin and on occasion even tears. And it reveals something. Among those things, it reveals our ghosts. For most any adult that crowd of ghosts in our hearts is pretty big. And the longer we live, the more of them there are walking along with us. Today I find myself thinking more of the hurting ones, the ones that hang about half forgotten, lurking in the shadows of our dreams.

This reminds me of a spiritual question asked in some circles. It goes, “How do you save a ghost?” How would you save a ghost? How do you free a ghost? How do you release a ghost? The sad ones? The mean ones? The bad ones? The one’s we would usually rather not notice?

And with that one more question. What are the ghosts of your life? What has torn you apart? What longing? What angry moment? What idea you hold onto no matter what contradictory information you get? What fragment of your heart is following its own current into the graveyard, plucking at the shirtsleeves of passersby, whispering not quite fully formed sentences of longing or anger?

It’s not save a ghost, it’s save this ghost. You know, this one, the one hiding behind your eyes. And the question within the question is this. Bring that fragment of your heart, whatever it is, to wholeness. So, of course still another question is buried within this statement. I did say this sermon was going to be a litany of questions. What is wholeness? Is it some smooth unity that admits no disruption? Or is it a fullness of many fragments brought together within the skin bag that is our sense of self? Let’s just say for the moment we’re woven out of many things, some good, some not so good, but it is all of them taken together that makes us, what we are, and what we can become. If that is true, what would the whole look like?

Earlier Carlos shared with us an old Aztec story about this season. Like with that story, in Japan and other countries in the Far East food is often set out for the ghosts. There are similar traditions in Europe. I assume they exist in Africa, as well. Any place with agriculture has this season. And everywhere this season offers an opportunity to pass through the membrane and to grow larger.

The poet Marie Howe provides a pointer I find useful for this season of saints and souls, of longing and of liberation, and in particular of how we might go about liberating our own ghosts. It’s from the title poem of her collection What the Living Do. It’s partially a recollection of her recently died brother.

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there./And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up/waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of./It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through/the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off./For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,/I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those/wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,/I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it./Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning/What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want/whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it./But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,/say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep/for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:/I am living. I remember you.

I think that’s our work. I am living. I remember you.

Remembering the saints and the souls, butterflies, mini-skirted rabbits, goblins, and ghosts. Particularly remembering the ghosts.

And then putting it all together, putting them all together, putting ourselves all together. And in doing that, also finding like those monarchs, the great arc of our lives, the secret dream home so many generations old that is our true home.

And here’s where it takes us. With that deep discovery settled into our hearts, returning to the day with bliss bestowing hands.

That’s what its all about.

Last night a blessed Halloween. And today, the feast of All Saints. The migration continues.

So be it. Blessed be. And, amen.

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