Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lights from Many Lamps

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 28, 2008

From very early times, human beings have worshipped the sun, and their deities were mainly sun gods. Many of the holy days, the rites, and the customs of ancient religion have come down to us in our Yuletide festivals.

Our forebears depended on the sun for warmth and light, and for the food that grew in the warm sunlight. When, in the fall, the sun began to wane, the people were afraid because the sun, their god, seemed to be growing weak and ill.

So, to coax the sun back into health, the people brought dry cedar to use as wicks, and gathered the fern seed and the mistletoe to burn as offerings. They also made crude wheels of dry cedar or pine, which they rubbed with resin or fat to make them burn quickly. These they set on fire, and rolled them to the top of the highest hill, to symbolize the sun god’s ascent. This ancient festival was known as “Wheel Day”.

About fifteen hundred years ago, the Christian story of the birth of Jesus was combined with folk customs from much earlier ages, weaving new threads of belief into the rich traditions of the winter solstice celebration.

The Romans dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, an extremely jolly midwinter festival that made lavish use of green boughs, garlands, and especially, holly. Earlier still, worshippers of the ancient Persian sun god, Mithra, reckoned the 25th of December as the date of the festival in celebration of the Mother of Heaven.  When Roman soldiers returned from their exploits, they brought with them news of these foreign celebrations, which soon combined with the ideas of the new Christian groups then coming together in Rome.

The farther north people lived, the more deeply appreciated is the influence of the sun, especially in the dark of winter. The countries of Scandinavia extend far into the Arctic Circle , and their people have long marked each turning point in the solar cycle with rituals and joyous celebrations.

According to the ancient Scandinavian calendar, the night of December 13th was the longest night of the year, and many were the legends of goblins and spirits who prowled that dark night to visit evil on human beings and beasts alike. People yearned for a friendly spirit to intercede and bring back the light and frighten away the demons. Over many centuries, this spirit of light became personified in Queen Lucia, a young girl crowned with a ring of candles. Her appearance on the morning of December 13 is the beginning of the long, joyous solstice celebration in Sweden .
Each culture has its own way of celebrating the Christmas season. The traditional Mexican festival of Posadas combines the solemnity of the nativity of Jesus with the exuberance of a village fiesta.

Posadas , or the Pilgrimage, begins on December 16. Each evening for the nine nights preceding Christmas, people in the villages form a procession wandering through the streets and passageways in a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem long ago, and the search for lodgings that eventually led to the humble manger.

Sometimes, the procession is headed by a man and a woman dressed in costumes like Joseph and Mary. In other places, the pilgrims carry lighted candles and small figurines of the holy couple, as they go from house to house seeking lodging. Neighbors and children all join in the search. At each house, they ask for shelter, but the answer is always the same: There is no room for them in the inn. At the last house along the way, however, the doors are flung open and all are made welcome! A joyous celebration-- with plenty to eat and drink and dancing and games-- and, of course, a pinnate-- then follows on each of the nine nights of Posadas .

But this deep human need to seek out the light at the darkest season of the year certainly transcends our Western or Christian tradition. The Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, takes place in late November. Actually, Diwali is five festivals in one, each quite different from the others. Taken together, they contain everything that holidays are made of-- feasting, dancing, parades, fireworks, worship, presents, traveling entertainers, and lights-- hundreds of thousands of lights.

In the Hindu tradition, Diwali is the time when Lakshimi, goddess of good fortune, comes to visit in people’s homes. No part of the house is left dark, because she’s supposed to be able to find her way anywhere that she may visit. Diwali means “garland of lights” in Sanskrit, and the day before the festival, boys and girls pour mustard oil into tiny earthenware lamps, all fitted with wicks. Hundreds of these lamps are set out in long rows along rooftops, on balconies and window sills, and along the paths leading to people’s homes. A single family might have as many as a thousand tiny lamps-- all welcoming Lakshimi to their home.

Near the time of the winter solstice, our Jewish neighbors (maybe even some of our own families) celebrate Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday in remembrance of a miracle that took place over 2100 years ago in ancient Palestine . Hanukkah means “feast of light” in Hebrew.

In those ancient days, Jerusalem was under the rule of King Antiochus. He worshipped different gods than the Jews, and tried to force his religion upon his subjected people. He captured the Great Templeat Jerusalem , ordered the burning of all Jewish holy books, and put to death many of the scholars and leaders of the Jewish religion.

When Antiochus sent his soldiers to the village of Modin to force the Jews there to sacrifice to his gods, a man named Mattahias and his sons refused to obey the order and killed the soldiers. They then fled into the mountains, and under the name of the  Maccabees, they launched a guerrilla war against King Antiochus. After seven years, they were victorious, and entered Jerusalem in triumph.

However, after the reclaimed the Temple and attempted to re-light  the eternal lamp there, they found only one small vial of holy oil-- just a few ounces  in all, hardly enough to last even a single day, much less the eight days needed for a new supply of consecrated oil to be prepared. But they lit the lamp anyway, not knowing what would happen.

Rather than going out, the holy lamp burned for eight days and nights-- long enough for all the branches of the menorah to be lighted. Believing that only a miracle could have kept the lights ablaze, Judah the Maccabee led the people in a great celebration.

This event was recorded in the year 142 of the Common Era. Every year since then, Jewish families gather in their homes to light the Hanukkah lamps. They follow the same ritual as in that original ceremony long ago: One candle burning the first night; two on the second; and another each night until, on the last night of Hanukkah, all eight candles are ablaze for all the world to see.

It is no accident, perhaps, that so many of the world’s religious traditions have festivals of light at this, the darkest season of the year. There is something in our human spirit, perhaps, that yearns to light a candle in the darkness-- that will not abandon hope, even when life seems darkest.

Through the darkness of space, the earth whirls on its miraculous journey around the sun. In the procession of equinoxes from light to dark into light, we sense the power and mystery of great, cosmic forces beyond our control. Our earth goes from its spring birth to summer growth, fall harvest, and winter stillness. This season of greatest darkness will  pass away, bringing back the life-giving sun.

There is something very powerful about lighting candles. The candles of joy and concern we kindle each Sunday symbolize our hope, our love, our caring for one another and all of those around is. From ancient times, the light has been a symbol of the Divine—the Eternal Light, the Light of the World. It is also a symbol of the Inner Light—the light of love—that shines in each of our souls.

We light our candles, especially at this special season, to remind us that the darkness, however powerful it may seem at times, does not overcome us. There always remains within the human heart a spark of hope than can be fanned into a light illuminating new pathways of caring and compassion.
Now the candles have been lighted at all the shrines of our human family, before the worshipful images of Australia , Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and North and South America .
Each man and woman and child has within the light of hope and courage, and each faith has its light, its vision, its dream of a good life, its gods and celebrations.
We would be so much poorer without these companions from other faiths. We are enriched by the myths and legends of all religions, from the dawn of human history to our own day, in every land on Earth. So we celebrate our mid-winter festival with them.
As you light candles in your own homes during this holiday season, may you remember your power to light the world with your love as well. May we always remember the power each of us has to brighten the darkness of this world,
May all the Advent candles. all the Hanukkah candles, all the Christmas candles, and all the lights kindled by men and women of all faiths the world over, not only brighten the darkness of winter, but also brighten the darkness in our hearts.
May all these lights—set ablaze by people of goodwill across the globe—assure us that:
Spring will follow winter
Hope with triumph over despair,
Peace will eclipse war,
Love will conquer evil.
And that the power of goodness in the human soul can never be extinguished.

May this be the spirit in which we share in the celebrations of all our neighbors, near and far.

Our Hope Made Flesh

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2008

Emily Dickinson wrote that:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all…

But at Christmas, our hope comes not from a bird with feathers, but from a tiny newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

From the weakest and the most vulnerable comes that which is most resilient and most powerful; out of the silence and darkness and simplicity of that first Christmas comes the hope that resounds through the ages, that lights our days and fires our nights, and that has inspired humankind’s greatest outpouring of faith and hope and love.

Now, the hope of Christmas perches in our souls, eternally—and sings the exultant alleluia of a hope that will never die, a hope made flesh and come to dwell among us, and within us—and meant to live-- live--  now in these days of ours upon the earth.

Christmas Eve is the great convergence between heaven and earth; the holy vortex between our hopes and our fears. It is that night divine—that holy moment—when God’s hand touches the stable atBethlehem , and God’s love illuminates itself fully in the heart of that great man of Nazareth . Christmas reminds us how blest we truly are to dwell upon the earth as human beings.

Every child that is born, it has been said, is evidence that God has not given up on this human race of ours. With every child that is born, our hope is born anew.

Through the birth of Jesus, we now know that our humanity and our divinity are intimately intertwined; that every child—every human being—can be a reflection of the divine, holy in his or her essence—“a little piece of the Lord’s undying light.” Standing before the babe in the manger—standing before the cradle of any newborn child— our hearts are pierced by the most profound sense of awe and beauty we can know. It is here that we know most clearly our connection with the God who made us, and our place in the great sweep of human and cosmic history. The birth of this child—and the hope it
engenders—provide the missing words of our lives’ prayers. We now know at last that there is meaning and purpose at the heart of human existence, however bruised and battered this fouled and confused world might leave us sometimes,  The birth of this child is “living proof” that, whatever the world might deal us, God’s mercy beats at the very heart of creation.

The shining hope of Christmas can lift the darkness from our souls—if we open our hearts to it. But it is a fragile hope—as fragile as a newborn child, and just as precious.

Often, once we leave the child’s crib, or the manger, or when the sparkling lights of Christmas are shut off, that hope lies forgotten by the side of the road.  

It is said that when God finished with Creation, He had a desire to leave something behind, just a small piece of divinity, which He named “Hope”. But God was a little bit of a trickster, too, so He didn’t want it to be too easy for human beings to find this precious gift.. “Where should I hide it?” He asked the stars and planets. “Where should I hide ‘hope’?”

“How about up in the heavens, with us?” one of the stars suggested.

God thought about it, and said finally, “No, they’re too clever for that. One day, human beings will invent rocket ships and go and explore the stars, and then, they’ll find it there.”
“Well, how about down here with us?” asked the depths of the ocean. So God thought about it, and said finally, “No, some day, they’ll explore the depths of the sea, too. So, they’ll find it there.”

Then all of a sudden, God had an epiphany: “Ah-ha!” He said. “I know where to hide ‘Hope’. I’ll hide it inside of themselves. They’ll never look for it there!”

But that is where it is, this hope of ours: it is inside of us, within us; in our heart and nerve and sinew; in our minds and in our souls. Our hope, too, must be made flesh if it is to come alive in this world.

Hope is always borne by men and women—and children, too—like us. Human beings, no more than that. But mark this, too: no less than that. No less than fully human, which means we have that spark of divinity in our souls. No less than fully human, fully open to the potentialities of the Spirit working, moving, transforming each and every moment of human history and our personal histories; transforming the often dull and turgid prose of human existence into the vibrant, dancing, singing poetry of hope.

Yea, though we walk through the darkest valleys, hope abides.

In the bleakest midwinter, hope abides. In the bleakest, gray years, hope abides. Amid our deepest disappointments, hope abides.

Deep in our souls, the lamp of hope shines; kindled by faith; kept burning through the oils of love.

Through our love, in all of its wondrous forms, hope is kept burning. Through our caring and compassion; through our sacrifice and effort; through our sharing the gifts of love as widely as we may.

Hope is a gift from God. But it is a divine gift which bears a human face. Like ours.

It is a divine gift passed down by fragile human hands. Like ours.

Hope is a gift from God. But it only comes alive if it is made flesh and blood within the living of our days.

                        The Christmas hope is an endless alleluia that reverberates from that stable at Bethlehem , down through all time. It sings the tune beyond all words, and never stops at all.

                        May that song continue to sing in your souls, as well.
                        May your days be merry and bright. And may all your Christmases and all your new years be blessed with the sacred gift of hope.

A Dickens of a Christmas

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 14, 2008

It’s a heck of a first line for a Christmas story, isn’t it?

"Marley was dead, to begin with."

Not much that’s very Christmas-y about that, is it?  “Marley was dead.”

           There is no way around it, none whatsoever. Marley was dead. Dead as a doornail. D-e-a-d. Dead.

We might hope that things will pick up from there. So did Dickens’ readers, hoping from a little holiday merriment from the page they had before them. So did Dickens’ family—facing serious debt, even poverty, as the literary career of the father of the household seemed to languish and sputter and settle in the doldrums.

Dickens had a lot riding on A Christmas Carol No publisher seemed especially interested in it, so he had published the work himself. Now, here he was, at Christmas time, writing about death.

And coldIn describing Ebenezer Scrooge the first time, Dickens says, "A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days [of summer] and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas."

             A Christmas story about death and cold—and, oh yes, ghosts and poverty and despair, all thrown in for good measure. It’s a strange piece of work, this Christmas Carol.

Which is perhaps why it has held a hold on us for so many years now. Because, you know what? We’re all kind of strange pieces of work, too. So Dickens struck a chord or two within us.

There was not such a large market for Christmas stories to begin with, back in 1843, when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. He claimed later that he had gotten the idea at a Christmas Eve service at the Unitarian Chapel in London , which he had joined a short while before. (So if you need any encouragement to come to church on Christmas Eve, there it is: maybe it will inspire you to write a literary classic!)

Christmas itself was not a major holiday back in the 1840s. It wasn’t a holiday at all for many of the poor, who, unlike Bob Cratchit, did not get the day off. The wealthy used Christmas an excuse for all sorts of conspicuous consumption. For many others, it was just another day in the year. When Scrooge complains that Cratchit is robbing him of a day's pay by asking to have Christmas off, he was not alone; he spoke for many people, on both sides of the class divide, when he called Christmas a “Humbug.”

          The Industrial Revolution was at this time in full swing. The old “bottom line” was—the old bottom line. It was all about profits and returns on investment. Many thought that the epitome of progress was to accumulate as much wealth as possible. The poor had to scramble to get what they could; often, they ended up in poor houses and debtors’ prisons. In the face of all this, the religion of the day seemed well-meaning, but irrelevant, out of touch, too slow to change with the times. Philanthropists tried to help where they could, but too often they seemed like the nice old men who came to visit Scrooge in Christmas Eve, seeking a donation—only to be turned back onto the street. Attempts to change society for the better seemed ineffectual and weak; too little in the face of an economic bulldozer.

          This was the culture in which Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and if it sounds a little familiar to us, perhaps that’s another reason why the story continues to speak to our hearts and souls.

Scrooge has become a caricature, of course, the proto-typical old skinflint, the classic miser. But we know him well, don’t we? We all have known a Scrooge or two in our lives, haven’t we? The ones who refuse to acknowledge that there is any joy whatsoever in life—that the glass is always 52% empty—and you know it—that every silver lining has its cloud—and that there’s always that other shoe about to fall—and you know darn well, it’s going to fall right on you and me, and crush us to death!

We’ve all known our share of Scrooges. But even more, we’ve known the Scrooge inside each of us, too. That part of us which refuses to accept the free gifts of grace that life offers. Which refuses to stop give up the ghost without an even score. Which wants its pound of flesh, whatever it might cost. Which crushes in the bud all that is new and which, yes, sometimes, even delights in the misfortunes of others, if there’s more in it for us.

Scrooge isn’t just a miser and a skinflint; he’s the symbol of the dark side of human nature: a dark side we all share, if the truth be told.

But A Christmas Carol isn’t just about darkness—and cold—and death—and ghosts. If it was, there wouldn’t be much there to warm our hearts; it would be an even thinner gruel than the one Scrooge goes home and fixes for himself on Christmas Eve.

And A Christmas Carol isn’t just about Scrooge.  It’s about the Cratchits, too. And Scrooge’s nephew. And the guys who come to his door seeking donations. And Jacob Marley, now long dead. And the boy who goes and buys the goose for Scrooge on Christmas morning (“An intelligent boy! A remarkable boy!”)  
Dickens presents the whole panoply of human be-ing to us, and in so doing, holds up a mirror of our humanity before our eyes. How will we choose, he asks. How would we respond? What ghosts of past, present, and future haunt us?

The original readers of Dickens knew the Cratchits quite well, too, of course.  They had seen hundreds of Tiny Tims live out their short and brutal lives all–too-briefly in the face of a society that didn’t seem to care. As one writer has put it: “The story was an arrow aimed straight at the conscience of Victorian England.”  It was a risky move for a literary figure to make. How would his readers respond, Dickens must have asked himself. Would they respond like Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who inquires as to the Cratchits’ welfare, and then hurries home to make plans for his own Christmas feast? Would they respond like the solicitors, who come asking for donations, doing a little something to help the poor, albeit probably not very much, not nearly enough, in the face of the unmet needs of their society. But at least, they tried to light a candle rather than curse the darkness (and lighting candles in the darkness is an important part of what Christmas is about).
Would Dickens’ readers heed Jacob Marley’s admonition: "’Business!’" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  ‘Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”
Or would they shake their heads, put down the book, and say: “Ugh! What a downer!” or “I don’t get it.” Or—“Who does that Charles Dickens think he is? I’m tired of all these go-gooder liberal guilt peddlers. Sorry, but charity begins at home (and stays there)!”
How do we respond to Scrooge’s transformation? By seeing it as a bit of Xmas nostalgia, and nothing else? By reading it as merely a charming old Christmas fable, just another story? Or do we bring the message of Dickens within—to do battle there with our own inner Scrooge?
Dickens must have wondered when he wrote his work what the reaction would be. He’d probably be wondering still, in a sense.
Such a treasure chest this little story is (to me, at least, and I’m sure many of you would agree)—on so many levels: literary, historical, spiritual, even socio-economic. Small wonder, then, that Dickens’ strange little Christmas story was such a success, even commercially. (It made Dickens a lot of money over the years.) But even more important, it transformed the way many people in Britain and in America(where the book became even more popular than in its homeland) came to see Christmas. As David Bumbaugh of the Unitarian Universalist church in SummitNew Jersey , has written:
“In…  A Christmas Carol, Dickens set the iconography of the great festival for all the subsequent generations. It is from Dickens that we derive our vision of snow falling quietly over a quaint old city, transforming its gray squalor into beauty. It is from Dickens that we derive our image of carolers, wrapped in mufflers and cloaks, wearing tall hats and bonnets, standing under softly glowing street lamps, as they sing to people hurrying hither and thither with packages under their arms. It is from Dickens that we derive our dream of a family gathered together around the hearth in perfect harmony and total accord. More than anyone else, Charles Dickens created the contemporary dream which we work so hard to incarnate every year when the great Winter festival comes around.”

Dickens went further, too. In his morality tale of the tight-fisted, grasping misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge and the poor, patient, loving, kind Tiny Tim, Dickens transformed Christmas in the popular mind from the sedate and detached religious festival it was in danger of becoming into a season of redemption and hope. As Rev. Bumbaugh goes on:

“The story of how a rich man was impotent to embrace life and love, and how a poor boy could love and hope despite life-threatening illness and want becomes a parable of promise and renewal when the magic of Christmas makes each of them the agent of the other's salvation. The life affirming cripple calls the miser back to life; the money of the miser saves the crippled boy's life. Christmas is a time of redemption for these two crippled beings who, at [that profound moment of grace], are fortunate enough to find each other. And that becomes a central part of our iconography of the season.”

Dickens didn’t only save Scrooge. He may have saved Christmas (in the modern mind, at least), as well.

Dickens reminds us of the profound interdependence that beats at the very heart of life, and that each of us has our own important role to play in the unfolding of our common human drama. The French critic Andre Maurois believed that the insistence of Dickens upon details—details—details—in writing down every aspect of a given situation in his work—all of the turkeys, sausages, stuffing—everything anyone could ever want to know about the plum pudding, the mistletoe, the holly—all of these long, detailed, descriptive passages that seem so “typically Dickensonian”, that perhaps drove us to distraction when we had to read Dickens in high school—arose from a deep sense within Dickens—a spiritual sense, really—that everything was critical to the existence of everything else.

Likewise, in the works of Dickens, people are shown to be deeply and intricately interrelated, too—and their actions are shown to reverberate in the lives of others, even more deeply than they realize. Everything—everyone—is connected and related, it seems. Sometimes, we grasp the reality of our interdependence only suddenly, violently—or in the apparent workings of providence, or fate, or grace—or when a ghost all but knocks us over the head with it.  But life is so much more than merely fate, Dickens says, and there are, truly, no mere coincidences. Life is, rather, the process of our own choices finding their consequences; seeds planted perhaps in the far distant past, finally coming to fruition, in ways never imagined possible.
Dickens also believed that most people were basically good most of the time, and that evil was perpetrated by a tiny fraction of society at the expense of all others. Looking around at the great mass of humanity, Dickens saw people who were basically decent, honest, and fair. But Dickens also allows that those with a depraved view of reality can impose their skewed sense of right and wrong upon those weaker than they are, and he would have agreed with Edmund Burke that all the forces of evil need to prosper is for enough good people to stand back and do nothing. 

But even for these worst scoundrels—even for Scrooge himself-- there was always hope. Even the most despicable, self-centered, loathsome creatures could change. A change of heart—a conversion experience—was always possible.

Even if the ways of the world are evil, this is not the way they need to be. “This is what will be,” voices of despair might well point out, in their frightening vision of the world that is to come. But remember Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Future (the most frightening ghost of all) finally finishes with him: “Assure me,” Scrooge implores the spirit, “that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

Dickens says—even to Scrooge—“You betchya you can change!” Dickens gives us hope that we may wipe away the writing on the stone and redeem ourselves and our nation and our world. Whatever the darkness—without and within-- we can, through our own honest efforts, recreate that place where the light still shines and neighbors and friends abide and help each other.  We can discern for ourselves, and for our society, our reason to begin again.

What we choose is what we are, Dickens believed; and we are free—every moment of our lives-- to choose the kind of man or woman we will be.

Dickens, like Blake before him, knew that we human ones “were made for joy and woe”, and he is truly masterful in portraying the tragedy amidst the joy and the joy amidst the tragedy of these lives we lead. That is why he touches us so deeply and so timelessly, perhaps; for that, truly, is where the true essence of spirituality lies, it seems to me—in the joy amidst the pain, and the pain amidst the joy.

In a different work, Charles Dickens once wrote “The truth of life is love.” And that perhaps boils it all down to its most essential point.

We sons and daughters of a different age—a time no less conflicted, no less the best of times and the worst of times-- could do worse than heed these simple words of that great man, Charles Dickens:

“The truth of life is love.”

If we heed those words, and act to make them real, each in our own way, then God will, indeed, bless us every one. And we will bless each other, and bless the world, as well.

2 ½ Cheers for the Stoics!

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 30, 2008

            Granted, there’s nothing very sexy about the Stoics. Unlike the other two great schools of Hellenistic (or ancient Greek) philosophy—the Epicureans and the Cynics—the Stoics seem to be eternally cast in our minds in grayscale. They’re an old black and white illustration from a dusty, musty, long-unused manuscript buried deep in some old library’s stacks.

            Mention Epicureans and the image is one of Julia Child and candlelight dinners and a buffet table groaning with luscious, delectable food.

            Mention Cynics, and the reviews are more mixed—it’s not always considered a good thing to be “cynical”, after all. But at least there’s some passion there: the rage of a 1960s anti-war demonstrator urging us not to trust anyone over thirty; or the well-honed sarcasm of a W.C. Fields; or the deep wisdom of a keen observer of the world like H.L. Mencken, who refused to cower to the tyranny of public opinion.

            There’s a certain sexiness—a certain passion, at least—associated with our ancient Western ancestors, the Epicureans and the Cynics.

            Not so the Stoics.

            Mention stoicism and, almost inevitably, the picture is one of grinning and bearing it and stiff upper lips, and a dispassionate acceptance of whatever life may bring. At best, stoicism hardly stirs the soul. At worst, it seems like an awfully cold and calculating way of approaching life.

            But as is so often the case, the popular impression we’ve received down through the years of what Stoicism is, is not the same thing as what Stoicism is. (The same is true of Epicureanism and the philosophy of the original, ancient Cynics, as well, of course—but we’re not talking about them this morning, and they don’t seem to have quite the same p.r. problem.) So let’s confine ourselves here to considering the Stoics—because, even though they’re not sexy, and they might seem kind of boring, they have been an important influence upon us, philosophically. And I also honestly believe that they do have at least a couple of important insights to add to our understanding of ourselves as spiritual women and men—and to our understanding of this world and this universe in which we live.

            So first, the inevitable history lesson. If the Stoics weren’t the ancient counterparts of the “stiff upper lip” Englishmen or the strong, silent Yankees, who, then, were they?
            A reading from the holy gospel according to Saint Wikipedia:
            “Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. The Stoics considered passionate emotions to be the result of errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of ‘moral and intellectual perfection,’ would not have such emotions. Stoics were concerned with the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it isvirtuous to maintain a will… that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how they behaved. Later Roman Stoics, such as Seneca and Epictetus, emphasized that because ‘virtue is sufficient for happiness,’ a sage was immune to misfortune… Stoic doctrine was a popular and durable philosophy, with a following throughout Greece and the Roman Empire, from its founding until the closing of all philosophy schools in 529 AD by order of the Emperor Justinian I, who perceived theirpagan character to be at odds with his Christian faith.”
            That was the Wikipedia version. Now, here in the Jeffapedia version are the main thrusts of Stoicism:
            1. Our passions can blind us to what’s really going on.
            2. Virtue consists in maintaining a will that is in accord with nature.
            3. The important thing isn’t what people believe, or say, but how they act—how they live their lives.
            So, the Stoics were a philosophy of reason, virtue, oneness with nature, and “deeds, not creeds”. Sounds pretty compatible with who most of us are religiously, don’t you think? The reason they were called the Stoics was because they preached their philosophy at the Stoa Pokile, or the painted porch, overlooking the marketplace in Athens . They didn’t believe that philosophy should be confined to the academy or the temple, but that it should be right out there in the market—right out there in the everyday world.
            The Stoics believed that the best and most accurate way for us to apprehend the world was through the use of reason. Through reason, truth can be distinguished from falsehood-- even if, in practice, you could never arrive at the “truth” with 100% certainty. But reason could give you a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

According to the Stoics, our senses are constantly receiving sensations: pulsations, energy, which passes from the things of the world through our senses to our mind, where they leave behind an impression (or a phantasia). The mind has the ability to judge each of these impressions, to  approve or reject it—thus  distinguishing a true representation of reality from one which is false. Some impressions can be assented to immediately (that’s verifiable data) but others can be approved only partially or hesitantly (that’s belief or opinion). Our beliefs or opinions then become clearer and firmer when we trade data with one another—when we see our experience of reality verified in the experience of others, and affirmed by  the collective judgment of humankind. Stoicism is a philosophy which (quite literally) says “Come, let us reason together.” It doesn’t say: Build up your own little kingdom of thought inside your head and cling to it for dear life. It does say: Use your mind to understand the world; but constantly test what we believe is true in the light of the new things you learn—from life, from dialogue, from what others tell you and teach you.

As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, himself a Stoic philosopher, wrote in his Meditations:

Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance… in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.”

Now, that may not be sexy—but doesn’t it offer a fresh and liberating way of looking at life? Rather than constantly bursting forth from one emotion to the next; rather than letting the whole convoluted and tangled web of our passions influence any and all of the decisions we make; rather than looking at the days of our lives as oblivious mysteries we’ll never understand—as either devilish plots against us from on high, or random, unrelated, fleeting moments without meaning and without purpose—we can, instead, take a step back, and use our minds to discern what’s going on (in our lives, in the world), how everything is connected to what came before, how it will influence what will come next, and then act in life on the basis of what we discern.

So, a great big cheer for Stoic rationality.

And another one, I think, for Stoic virtue.

This is the area where the ancient Stoics are often misunderstood. As we’ve said, the word stoic has come to mean unemotional, or feeling no pain, because the Stoics taught that the free person became free from passion by following reason. But this isn’t the same thing as saying that we should try and extinguish all of our emotions. It’s one thing to be “stoic”; it’s another thing to be emotionally dead.

Rather, the Stoics sought to transform their emotions in the light of clear judgment and inner calm. I think it’s fair to say that the ancient Stoics would have agreed that our emotions, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad. Feelings, of course, just are. We can’t control having them; we can, however, control how we act on them—and that’s a very important distinction. Through the self-discipline of logic, deep personal reflection, and even meditation and prayer, Stoicism teaches that we can attune our feelings toward inner wisdom and self-control. Our feelings give us signals about what’s going on inside ourselves. We need to listen to those signals—take them seriously, not ignore them—and then use our reason to decide how to act on them for the best of all involved. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads." It is through clear judgment that true peace of mind is achieved.

For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature — the logos, or the universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of all people (they actually used those terms, or pretty near). The four cardinal virtues of Stoic philosophy (heavily influenced by Plato) are wisdomcourage, justice and temperance:

Wisdom—a deep, inner balance between what’s going on within one’s own soul and in the universe.

Courage—a willingness to act according to what our inner reason dictates.

Justice—the recognition that all people have their particular role to play, and are thus entitled to opportunity and respect.

Temperance-- “Nothing in excess”—moderation-- an old virtue we need in our profligate culture more than ever.

Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of ignorance. If someone is unkind, it is because they are acting without the full knowledge of the impact of their actions. Likewise, if they are unhappy, it is because they have forgotten how nature actually functions; they have forgotten where they fit in the great unfolding of life.  The secret of life lies inside of each of us, the Stoics taught; and we have been given the mental and emotional tools we need to discover that great Truth—one tiny, little truth at a time.

Finally, I think the Stoics deserve at least another half cheer for their radical acceptance of life. For here, too, I think they offer us important lessons about how to live—and how to die.

As my colleague Rev. Scott Alexander writes: “Life is an eternally flawed and difficult gift.” He goes on:

“No matter how lucky or blessed we are, we end up limping in this life. We fall down. We face all kinds of loss, sorrow, and limitation, including—in the end—our own death… Because this is the way life eternally and intractably is (here on this mortal and imperfect planet), the most valuable spiritual possession any human being can have is a stoical and supple heart.”

“What the ancient Stoics knew was the truth that life… is not here to devote itself to our ease and happiness. Life is here simply to be what it is, to be what it must be, naturally, chaotically, randomly [even].” We can’t ask life to be something it is not. It is we who must learn to change in the face of life, not life in the face of us.

Stoicism teaches that if we put ourselves—our own little, prone-to-error selves—at the center of the universe, we create a very fragile and uncertain universe. But when we accept that we are part of life’s mysterious unfolding, and learn bravely to remain open to what life will deal us, and move with the actual flow of life (and not with that we might fantasize for ourselves), then life blesses us with wondrous, momentary miracles too numerous ever to tell.

There is both great joy and great pain in any of our lives. Once we have accepted, deep within our souls, that the pain is part of the deal, then we are free to experience fully the joy when it comes our way, and to live in eternity’s sunrise at last. “Life is difficult,” wrote M. Scott Peck in the opening lines of The Road Less Traveled:

“This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult--once we truly understand and accept it--then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Once we know that life is life, then we are free to know the full array of experiences this wondrous life will offer us: in the full spectrum of its reality.

When we glimpse that full spectrum, then we can face life with hope and with courage; with cool heads and warm hearts and open arms. Then we can know the preciousness of life—and its glories and its depths—more deeply than we ever imagined possible.

Thanksgiving in a Tough Year

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 23, 2008

            Not too long ago, I was looking through some old issues of a magazine called The Christian Leader, which was one of the precursors of the UU World, our denominational magazine back in the days before the merger of Unitarians and Universalists.

            Among the articles that caught my interest was one by someone named John Clarence Petrie, of whom I had never heard, and who, I later found out, was a Universalist minister. In the November 21, 1931 issue of the Christian Leader—that would be all of 77 years ago now—Rev. Petrie had an article called “Thanksgiving in a Gray Year”—a title which caught my interest, given the particular situation our nation (indeed, our world) finds itself in these days.

            Listen to Rev. Petrie’s opening sentences, if you will:

            “If we compare the America of today with the America of [just a few] years ago, we find bread lines, men on park benches, millions out of work, and charity organizations stampeded, the nation trying clumsily to work out relief measures—all in a land that was then the most prosperous under the sun. All around us is anguish, misery, even though our lives may be so protected as to not see it. Uneasiness disturbs the mind of those who are not directly hit. ‘Will America come out of it?’ we ask. And now Thanksgiving Day comes once more, and we wonder what we can find to be grateful for.”

            Then, Rev. Petrie implores us to look to our roots.

            Thanksgiving Day, he reminds us, was invented by our Pilgrim forbears “after a year in which everything bad that could happen, happened.” He enumerates the trials they faced: “Persecuted out of England, a number of leaders killed, a frightful voyage in a terrible ship with terrible food, landing in the wrong place on an icy shore with no food or shelter, half their number dying, sometimes not enough men or women were well enough [even] to bury the dead.”

            Yet, they did not despair. They celebrated instead. They declared that those who had survived had done so with the help and grace of God. At the end of all this travail, Rev. Petrie goes on, “they were so grateful that half their number survived that they invited their Indian friends for a celebration. Incredible.”

            Now, we have it very easy compared to the Pilgrims, of course.

It is also fair to say that the situation our nation faces today is no way nearly as severe as that at the time of the Great Depression. Times are tough; they may even get tougher. A headline in this morning’sBoston Globe reminds us that the Federal deficit could rise to $ 1 trillion by the end of the year. The unemployment rate now hovers somewhere just below seven percent. There are predictions that there will be 6.5 million foreclosures in the United States by 2012.

But by 1933, at the height of the Depression, unemployment had risen to 25% of the nation’s workforce. Wages for those who still had jobs fell 42%. Gross Domestic Product was cut in half. By 1933, world trade plummeted by 65%.

But nonetheless, this has certainly been, a pretty tough year, too. Skies looked pretty gray, at least until recent days.

Perhaps, in some ways, there is something in times like these that bring us a little closer to the real roots of our American Thanksgiving. It reminds us that Thanksgiving originated long before America ’s material wealth and economic potential had been made manifest. The Pilgrims weren’t on their knees thanking God because they had won Mother Nature’s lottery, as far as natural abundance, and resources, and a hospitable climate was concerned. They didn’t know that yet.

No, the Pilgrims were thankful because they had been allowed to survive another year in a cold and rather inhospitable New World , and a new harvest promised (somewhat) better times ahead.

The historical essence of Thanksgiving—the most important thing about it, I think—is that it originated in the bleakest and darkest of years, in the very infancy of our national experience. Not at a time when we as a people were strong, but when we were weak. Not at a time of material abundance and wealth, but at a time when we were very, very poor—and largely reliant upon the kindness of strangers for our very survival.

Thanksgiving should be an objective reminder to us, then, carved deep in our national soul, that but for the grace of providence, and the hard work of those who have come before, the American experience might not have been one of material prosperity or unrivaled wealth. Our history’s tough years—those times when things do not go so well-- are reminders to us of how fleeting those forces are which exalt one nation over another, or one group of people over another.

As John Clarence Petrie wrote more than 75 years ago:

“Is it all lost that America must be knocked into a little humility?... The myth of innate American superiority is gone. We show no more ability than the rest of the world to abolish poverty, to keep our people at work, to stabilize industry [and commerce]. An America afflicted with some of the ills common to the rest of the world and made more humble thereby may be a wiser America , in time. For that we can heartily thank God.”

The bottom line is this: It is easy to be thankful when things are going well, when the refrigerator is full, and the sense of accomplishment and progress is ripe, and we can have all we want with no great effort. But such Thanksgiving for the things we have, rather than for who we are (and that we are at all) moves all too quickly and all too often to pride and arrogance and a feeling of being somehow “better” than others. Thanksgiving should be a time for us as a people—and as individual people—to be profoundly humble, and to remember the ultimate reality that we did not weave the web of life, but are only strands in it.

True Thanksgiving is not for the things we have; it is, rather, a celebration of the gift of life itself. Our European ancestors in the New World lived for a time on the ragged edge of deprivation and extinction. We, their heirs, have lived too long on the ragged edge of profligacy and excess.

In looking out at the history of past civilizations, the great historian Arnold Toynbee noted one basic truth about them all: each seemed at it best, he said, when it was struggling and building and bringing something to fruition. But when each civilization arrived—when each one “made it” to greatness, and rested on its laurels, and became self-satisfied and wealthy, then its cycle inevitably turned downward, toward decline.

It is tough times like these that serve to remind us that we’re nothing without the gift of life itself, and without those deeper values which give life its meaning. It is in struggling to achieve those deeper values—in working together for a common purpose; in building up that which has been broken; in comforting those who mourn and providing aid and assistance to those in need—that our salvation and our redemption lies, as a nation and as individuals.

Our thanks to the Spirit of Life for the gift of life must be manifested within our lives. We offer our true thanksgiving not through pious observations or just singing hymns of praise. We truly sing now together our true song of thanksgiving in how we live our lives—as parents, as children, as spouses and partners, and thinkers and doers and doubters and dreamers, as citizens of this land and children of this planet Earth.

It’s all very simple: there is no thanks-giving without thanks-living; there is no gift of life unless we share the gift; there is no real wealth unless we spread it around.

So, on this special day of Thanksgiving, rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought:

Let us be thankful for the food we have on our tables, and remember those who have no food;

Let us be thankful for the good health we enjoy, and find ways to heal all of those stricken with disease;

Let us thank God for our friends and our loved ones, and seek to widen that circle of love and compassion in any way we can;
Let us thank God for our freedom, and use it wisely, and remember all of those the world over who are yet persecuted, and oppressed, and enslaved.

May our nation once more come to measure her true wealth, her true greatness, by the content of the character and the depth of the souls of her dear people.