NOVEMBERS OF THE SOUL
A Sermon by Rev. Nadine Swahnberg, given at
Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, November 26, 2000
"November is the most disagreeable month
in the whole year," says Meg, one of the sisters in Little Women.
"That's the reason I was born in it," adds her sister Jo...moving on
from the mere feeling of bleakness to a depressing inclination to take her
November birthday "personally."
Most of us, I would venture, have had some version of one of these
feelings at this time of year. For
some lucky souls, it is merely the bleak weather that produces a momentary
pensive sigh or a day that requires an extra large espresso or a second
before-dinner drink. For others of us, "further down in the line when God
passed out the serotonin-uptake DNA,"
feelings of sadness and gloom may deepen.
We may find ourselves with something more enduring.
Grief that already existed in our hearts may deepen, sadness over a
divorce or a loss may recur. For
yet others, SADD may threaten us, ---Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is
a very real experience for many people who need bright light.
For others, it is not the darkness but the
return of the holidays that can be depressing, with all their memories of trials
and traumas from Childhood to the Present. Many of us have had losses at this
time of year. The failure of our family to live up to images in the glorified
and often sentimentalized advertisements seems poignant and unfair.
We can be offended by the tinselly insistence of every TV and radio that
we have to be having a ball, spending a lot, eating a ton, feeling young,
falling in love and absolutely partying non-stop.
The feelings that come with November are important components of the human condition......whether they actually come in November, or not. Today, as we recover from our Thanksgiving and look ahead to Hannukah, Solstice and Christmas, to the darkest time and sometimes the sweetest time of the year, I want to reflect on sadness. I am not one of those who feel we would benefit humanity by obliterating all forms of sadness. Sadness and mild depression can be, and have been for me, a powerful impetus to explore the inner landscape, to change and grow through therapy and spiritual direction, through change of career, major moves, and other life choices.
But I acknowledge that not all depression is mild, and not all of it responds to therapy or life changes. Some kinds of depression--in adults especially--seem to respond most promisingly to medication. I am grateful that we live in an age when these kinds of medications exist to benefit humanity. Nevertheless, the reflections I've brought are my offerings from my heart about the two main precious possibilities that I believe can still serve us when we experience what we do of sadness, seasonal bleakness and depression.
I've decided to draw on poetry today to talk
about these deep places in the human heart that are very real to most of us.
The poets, from generation to generation, are those sensitive souls who
speak to us about our pain and our bliss and try to interpret the meaning of
life on a day by day basis. Where theologians and philosophers tend to erect
brick houses of solid reasoning and defend their characteristic mood as A
Worldview, the poets-- more like impressionist painters, portray the passing
glimpse of life as it is when "it feels that way."
The two poems that I brought as my gift to
you today are my favorite two poems in the world about depression. As some eight
years as a pastoral counselor, I have spent a lot of time with the various
modalities of human beings suffering from bleakness, sadness, despondency and
depression. I like working with the subtle modulations of a sad person's
sadness. It interests me as much as an artist might be bewitched by the
shimmering of a dark silk dress or the inside of a flower.
Let me begin with "Dover Beach." This poem was written in 1867, by one of the last generation of English Romantics. Matthew Arnold actually was a philosopher and an art critic as well as a poet. This poem captures the feeling that so characterized the second half of the 1800's, a feeling of intense sadness. It reminds him of Sophocles' saying that this rushing sound is like the ebb and flow of human misery---a permanent part of our lot. We are doomed as long as we are mortals, to suffer certain ills and losses which deeply sadden us--as well they should.
But to Arnold, the sound also reminds him of
the sound of the faith that had departed, so that the poet can hear "its
melancholy, long withdrawing roar" like that of the sea. Christianity fell on some hard times in these countries where
it had so thrived throughout the Middle Ages and into the 1800's. The
Sea of Faith had seemed to lie like a bright girdle--by which he means one of
those loose drapey belts that medieval women wore. The poet might like to hear
the Sea of Faith mounting up like a high tide........but it isn't, and as we
would say, "ain't gonna happen."
The demise of traditional Christianity as the
1800's wore on had a number of complex reasons behind it. Some of them were the
Biblical criticism or the era with its focus on the so-called "historical
Jesus." Others were questions and doubts raised
by the methodologies of modern science about miracles and Resurrections.
Still others were sociological--- the result of the breakdown of the
feudal order and threats to the family, the rise of revolutions --including the
Industrial Revolution with its horrors such as child labor and fourteen hour
days in the mills for both men and women.
The poet acknowledges how bleak and tragic all
this feels to him. He has gotten in
touch with a picture of cosmic gloom, one that suggests that there is
"neither joy nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for
pain," in this world. The comforting nostrums of faith are not working for
him and for his generation and he sees no prospect that they will.
What can be done? Having just denied that there is any love, he still puts an erotic undertone in his poem. "Come to the window/ sweet is the night air" is an invitation. "Ah, love, let us be true to one another!" is a paradoxical invitation to fidelity. It isn't---this is essential--a fidelity formed by divine command, by Christian teaching about marriage. Instead it is a fidelity that two lovers choose because they choose to create a haven in a cruel world. It is a pure decision, a moral commitment of two selves who have no reason to believe that God, or Reality, supports their moral choice. It is a choice to embrace and to savor the sweetness of whatever it is that there is between us---the ambiguous love, perhaps, of the middle-aged!
For those who are into Existentialism, this
is a foretaste of it. I think of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir--a by
no means simple or idyllic pair. The Existentialists denied that there is any
given meaning to life, any God or any truth. The only thing we can do is choose
a meaning, such as social action for the betterment of our human race. Reality
doesn't support this, but humans can choose to do what they can in the face of
all the bitterness of life. And the image of "ignorant armies clashing by
night" is almost prescient of what that 20th century was like in many
places! We all know the horrors
that transpired in war in that century just--or almost--behind us.
This poignant philosophical position is not
my own last word, but I love this poem deeply. It speaks to me about the way it
really feels when faith deserts us, when war is all around us, when none of it
makes sense. Even love has to be chosen and constructed out of ---what shall we
call them? Less than promising materials. This is a poem of disillusionment, of maturity, of sadness.
Yet it is not, for me anyway, a depressing poem, because it affirms that one
thing we can do with our moral choices--if only in the family--is to create a
love and a fidelity despite the world's misery.
I would also hope that such commitment could extend beyond the family to
church and community, if not, in every life, to the public world.
This poem "Dover Beach" is actually my second favorite poem about sadness. "The Darkling Thrush" is my prize winner. It says it all. The grim external countenance of nature is portrayed. All around Hardy, nature looks like the corpse of the century just ending--- this poem was written in December of 1900. The century, especially for the British, ended on a sad note, a note of despair and gloom. Hardy sees no reason for hope--"So little cause for carolings....." Have you never felt that way at holiday time when carols interrupted your melancholy dinner?
amazingly, a bird cries out with a song that to the poet---almost despite
himself--sounds hopeful. It isn't just any bird, but a visible thrush that is
"aged" and "frail, gaunt, and small."
This thrush is not calling with hope because it is so fortunate,
well-fed, or even in the throes of passion. It is just singing because it is
alive, and singing is its thing. To Hardy the beauty of the song evokes a
Earlier poets would have told you exactly what that hope was about. They would have clobbered you with their Christian faith or their pagan Greek or Roman analogies or just poetic nonsense about "small bird, the poet of the night," etc. etc.
To me the lines at the end say it all. The beauty of the poem is the absence of any theology or philosophy that is hung around the poor bird. The poet describes his own experience of the birdsong, and----shuts up about it. He admits he is unaware of what the source of this "Hope" is.
This poem, unlike "Dover Beach," suggests that there MAY be something in nature to hang our hats on. It is not an assertion blind to age, pain, famine or fear. It relies on emotion, and implication, and suggestion, rather than on metaphysics or assertion. The Hope may be entirely subjective. Who knows why Hardy hears Hope in the song of the bird? But what Hardy hopes, as he clearly says, is that the hope of the thrush is grounded in some structures of reality. He does not know this. That fragment of hope, however, is more than a mere human choice made in the great pit of doom, like the fidelity in "Dover Beach"---it is a hope discerned, heard, remarked upon, and perhaps, at the end of the poem, shared.
Both these poems seem to me to offer us paradigms for being depressed and acknowledging it in a truly human, dignified way. Unlike some brands of faith that seem to indulge in the happy-face myth, we UU's can admit that much of life is depressing, sad, tragic and unfair. Here are two ways to respond to it: two ways that I have seen my clients find, that I have seen friends find. For some, the moral commitment to making life better for whomever we touch can constitute the life preserver of hope that keeps us afloat. For others, and I count myself among these, we find hope and a secret promise in the natural world, in animals and sunsets and snowy days with their blue beauty.
Whether this hope actually springs forth from a deep presence within reality that sympathizes with us and offers us sustenance despite our plight, is an open question. Those of you who find it so--I invite you at this time of year, and at the close of this century with all its tragedy, ----however frail, gaunt and small you may be, to sing about it. May you, if you do, sing sweetly, politely, and without forcing your theology on anyone else. You never know who may be listening. You never know who may be near to hear your song.
Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church
6724 South Webster Street
Littleton, Colorado 80128