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Sermons

Spirals

July 10, 2011

Bible Reading

In the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.

Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

(Genesis 8:13-22)


“I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

(John 16:1-11)

Reading from Swedenborg

The earthly mind, with everything in it, turns in spirals from right to left, while the spiritual mind turns in spirals from left to right. So the two minds are turning in opposite directions—a sign that evil is resident in the earthly mind and that on its own, it resists the spiritual mind. Further, turning from right to left is turning downward, toward hell, and turning from left to right moves upward, toward heaven. I have been shown this by experience, that evil spirits cannot turn their bodies from left to right, only from right to left, while good spirits find it hard to turn from right to left and easy to turn from left to right. Their turning follows the flow of the deeper levels of their minds.

(Divine Love and Wisdom 270)

Sermon

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. – Genesis 8:22

If that were all there were to it, we’d never get anywhere. It would just be the same thing over and over and over again. This would be another spring just like the last one, and all we would have to do to find out about tomorrow’s weather would be to check what the weather was like on April 27, 2008—or 2007, or 1907, or 1353, for that matter—which experience tells us is utter nonsense. Each season is a generalization that has fairly definite boundaries but includes a generous measure of variety in detail. No seedtime is exactly like any other, but they are all times for sowing seeds.

The years differ in another and more significant respect as well. One of the clearest indications of this is the growth rings of trees. Every turn of the seasons adds another ring. There is a home movie taken at the Fryeburg Assembly in 1934, and the white pine saplings along Route 302 are not all that much taller than the three-year-old who is running across the lawn. They now tower over the telephone poles, the buildings, and, of course, mere people, even very tall ones.

Here and there in mountain streams in the White Mountains there are “giants’ kettles”—fairly deep, smooth, circular hollows in solid granite formed by pebbles in whirlpools during the glacial period. I have no idea how many centuries it takes to create one, but if there are “sermons in stones,” these are eloquent sermons on the power of persistence and of an intimate relationship between constancy and change.

What we have, then, is an underlying constancy, a repetitiveness, that has two dimensions of variability. There is the variety in detail, and there is the cumulative effect of the repetition. This latter is, in a sense, what our third reading is talking about when it speaks of our minds moving in spiral patterns. They go round and round, yes, but they never come back to the same place.

Turning back to our text, it takes us one step further than the seasons when it promises that “day and night” will not cease. There are three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter of these cycles in every single cycle of the seasons. It is a pattern of cycle and epicycle, and what is true of the cycles is true of the epicycles as well. There is an underlying constancy, a repetitiveness, and there are two dimensions of variability. There is the variety in detail, and there is the cumulative effect of the repetition.

As for the constancy, most of our days begin with waking and end with going to sleep. Most of them involve eating three meals. Most of them involve tasks that we do over and over and over again. As to detail, though, they are never precisely the same. It is not always equally easy or hard to wake up. Sometimes meals are rushed or omitted. The dishes have to be done time after time, but every once in a while something has been left on the stove too long and extra elbow grease is called for. Still the basic sequences are necessarily pretty much the same. Dirty dishes get wet, clean, and dry in that order and no other.

As for the cumulative effect of repetition, dishwashing will do very well for an example. If we derive satisfaction from it, it provides a kind of constant reassurance. When everything is cleaned up and put away, it is a symbol of domestic stability. If, however, it is nothing more than an unwelcome task, it becomes increasingly tedious, and resentment builds and builds. We can develop a magnificent martyr complex that then spills over into our relationships with others. I suspect we are all familiar with the feeling that “nobody appreciates me” and the way it inclines us to blame others not for what they have said but for what they have not said. Would anyone care to make a list of things not said?

This brings us to the brink of a most essential cycle. Most simply put, we have our ups and our downs. Taking the Lord’s glorification as establishing the fundamental paradigm of our own regeneration, we read in our theology of his alternating states of “glorification” and “exinanition” or emptiness—times when he was conscious of his identity with his inner divinity and times when he felt its absence. He could say on the one hand, “The Father who dwells within me is doing the works” (John 14:10) and on the other hand, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34).

We have our times when we are effortlessly conscious of the beauty of heavenly community, times when those we love feel particularly dear to us, times when gratitude wells up within us. We have other times too, times when we feel sorry for ourselves, times of resentment or anger, times when all we can see in others is their worst. This happens over and over again, and little by little, we gravitate toward the one side or the other.

That is what we might call the mechanism of our freedom to choose between heaven and hell. The only way we can get into either heaven or hell is by choice, and the only eternally significant thing we are ultimately compelled to do is to choose. It is essential that we be presented with genuine alternatives. In his discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus put it this way: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is expedient for you that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). We need to experience the absence of God. We need to discover what it is like to feel alone.

Object relations theory is built on a very similar premise. It holds that what we would call our spiritual growth is fueled by the tension between our need for autonomy and our need to belong. We need both company and solitude. We enjoy company until we feel engulfed by it and need some solo time, some time to reflect and discover who we are, so to speak. We enjoy solitude until we begin to feel lonely, and then we go in search of companionship.

This cycle, like those of the seasons and the days, is not a circle but a spiral. We sort things out in solitude and come back into company with a clearer sense of our identity. In company we discover what we have to give and to receive, and we depart into solitude with more experience of ourselves and others to process.

There is no fixed proportion between these two states that can be prescribed for everyone. Some of us need more solo time than others, some more constant companionship. There are strong indications that women in general are more at home in relational situations and men more at ease in solitude, but both genders need both states, and there is wide variety within each gender.

To digress for just a moment, it is vital to recognize that the only use of any such generalizations is to aid in understanding. As soon as they are used to prescribe, they become destructive. “I see that you are more comfortable in solitude, and I can understand that because you are male” is one thing. “You ought to be more comfortable in solitude because you are male” is quite another.

In this discussion of the interaction between differentiation and integration, we are talking about a process that gets somewhere; and obviously it would help if we had some idea of where it is supposed to get. There is a quite extraordinarily pertinent definition of the goal in Divine Providence 4.4, a definition that most of you have heard more than once already. It reads as follows: “A form makes a unity more perfectly as its constituents are distinguishably different and yet united. Put in more human terms, a community makes a unity more perfectly as its members are distinguishably different and yet united.”

We can add to this the following image from Last Judgment 12:

Heaven’s perfection increases with numbers. This follows from its form, which determines the patterns in which people associate and the ways communication flows there.

“This is the most perfect form of all, and in the most perfect form the more constituents there are the more people are involved in attention and agreement and the more intimate and unanimous is the union. The agreement and consequent union increase with numbers because each individual there comes in as a congenial intermediary between two or more others, and whatever comes in strengthens and unites.”

It appears that love is what unites and wisdom is what distinguishes, but this is an oversimplification. Love is acutely sensitive to differences, and wisdom can see how they complement each other. At times we do find our hearts pulling us in one direction and our heads pointing us in another, but these are times of instability, times when things are being rearranged. When we are at our best, when we are most completely ourselves, we are wholly absorbed in what we are doing. We can see from experience what needs to be said or done, we spontaneously want to do or say it as well as we can. This is different from doing something good because we believe we should. It is doing something good because it just feels right, and because that feeling is accompanied by a particular clarity of mind. There is an unspoken sense of being the right person in the right place at the right time, and there is nothing else quite like it.

Such moments do not last forever because we are never standing still. They bring us a little further along the path, to a point where we can see a little further ahead. Whether that point is in the direction of companionship or in the direction of solitude, the effect is a sense of instability. In some small sense, “it is expedient for us” that our contentment go away, because we need to move to the place where it is waiting for us. Amen.

Prayer

O Holy Spirit, whose presence is liberty, grant us that freedom of the spirit which will not fear to tread in unknown ways, nor be held back by misgivings of ourselves and fear of others. Ever beckon us forward to the place of thy will which is also the place of thy power, O ever-leading, ever-loving Lord.
- G. A.


Fire of the Spirit, life of the lives of creatures,
spiral of sanctity, bond of all natures,
glow of charity, light of clarity, taste
of sweetness to sinners, be with us and hear us . . .
Composer of all things, light of all the risen,
key of salvation, release from the dark prison,
hope of all unions, scope of chastities, joy
in the glory, strong honor, be with us and hear us.
- St. Hildegarde of Bingen, 12th century
freely translated by Charles Williams, 1886-1945


Lord, let me be yours. Let me not draw back, neither from heaven, nor from your divinity, nor your cross. Let me be yours, you to whom I owe both my creation and my redemption. Touch my heart and sanctify it, and consecrate me in your service forever.
- Lucy Herbert (1669-1744)

Rev. Dr. George Dole