Sanctuary on the page, Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

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Call to Worship and Chalice Lighting Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Welcome into this space.
This Sanctuary
This sacred and holy place
This place of refuge in times of trouble
This place of celebration in times of abundance.

It’s been a hard couple of weeks for so many women, whose memories of past trauma have been triggered by not just the recent Supreme Court confirmation process but by the calloused responses of so many.

But this….this is a place that we strive to make a place of sanctuary. A place of safety. So I want to share with you the words of one of our respectedl Unitarian Universalist leaders, Nancy McDonald Ladd:

We gather here in community every Sunday in a state of conflict for our very souls—a state both expansively hopeful and restrictively confined.

We are hopeful that we might rise to meet a new day for those who seek and who serve the spirit, hopeful that each and every one of us might encounter the sacred within, among, and beyond every human soul, and hopeful that such an encounter might work through us to topple the idolatries of our age.

And yet we also gather as a people who are not yet free—a people confined, unfree, contained.

We are confined, unfree, contained because in this culture of division built upon the pain of the people at the margins, even the decent people hold our love too tightly.

Putting it in boxes, prefacing it with qualifications: I will love you if—I will see you if—I will bear the truth of my soul alongside you if—and only if . . .

You agree with me, you look like me, you stand like me, you think like me, you act like me, you sing like me, you wear your gender on your sleeve and produce it upon demand.

I will love you and will meet you in the sanctuary of our hearts—
If and only if . . .
You give me evidence of your good liberal virtues.
If and only if . . .
You never fail to speak the language of the movement and never weep upon a street corner out of grief for your sheer inadequacy and the vastness of the struggle that you cannot even name.

We are imprisoned by these ifs and these only-ifs. We are confined by the smallness of our loving even as our souls remind us that we can only get free if we all get free together.

And so today, as we intersect in honest work, let our hopefulness mingle with our conviction.

Let our willingness to love beyond our expectations or experience break down our long-held barriers.

Let our willingness to be honest about the hardest questions open us to new truths.

May there truly be more love,
With no labels
And no binary
And no preface
And no qualification
And no arithmetic
And no limit.

May there be more love to liberate us all, and may we keep on, today and every day, until we find it, and share it, inch by precious inch, with one another and the world.

Prayer #504 i thank You

You may want to follow along in this pray by seeing it on the page. It’s number 504 in the gray hymnal.

The fourth word in is God, and God is addressed directly. I’d like to ask you to think of god expansively not necessarily as an anthropomorphic being, but as a source of creative energy that makes up every one of us, energy that we share across space and time with every other living thing.

i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and the blue true dream of sky;
and for everything which is natural
which is infinite
which is
yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;
this is the birthday of life and love and wings:
and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no of all nothing –
human-merely-being
doubt
unimaginable
You?

Portrait of an Artist
Edward Estlin Cummings was born in 1894, in Cambridge Massachusetts, 134 years ago today. It was a time of change, just a few years into the industrial revolution, and 20 years before the war to end all wars began with a single shot in Belgrade.

He was named after his father, Edward Cummings, a Unitarian Minister, and was called Estlin to differentiate the two. His mother, Rebecca Clarke Haswell, was the great granddaughter of Pitt Clarke, an early Unitarian Minister in Boston.

The family lived in Cambridge, in the shadow of Harvard University where his father attended and taught before becoming the minister of Boston’s South Congregational Church. The elder Cummings was conventional, theologically conservative, and considered to be a folksy preacher, dispensing affably dispensing wisdom from the pulpit.

His family loved spring. They practiced annual rituals that led to Estlin beginning a lifelong practice of journaling about the first crocus he would see each spring. As an adult, when he would be at his summer home called Joy Farm in Silver Lake NH, his evening rituals required everyone in the house to join in.

His parents gave Estlin every bit of encouragement he needed, and he loved them fiercely. His father was tall, rugged and athletic, while he was small , bookish and a bit fragile. His mother was known throughout Cambridge and Boston, part of the inner circle of Unitarian elites. Yes, that existed in those days, and the Cummings were entrenched in it.

He loved his parents. He always got a standing ovation we he spoke of Edward:

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night  

Estlin memorized the poems of Longfellow and Emerson and went on to enter Harvard. While he was there, his first five poems were published in The Dial, all romantic odes to spring. He published them under the name E. Estlin, Cummings. Later he used E. E. Cummings. It would take a couple decades for him to make those E’s both lower case in his signature.

His name evolved not so much as a way of distinguishing himself from other writers of his day. His professional name changed as his work evolved and he innovated his style of literary cubism, influenced by Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse.

Cummings’ work was prolific. He was most known for publishing almost 3,000 poems in his 40+ year career, but he also had modest success as a visual artist, and for writing screenplays, novels, essays, articles, and reviews. He even wrote a ballet that was staged for a short period.

Not all of his work was experimental. Much of it was quite conventional, including sonnets and children’s verse. He even wrote some erotic poetry whose intricate punctuation and wordplay amazingly eluded the censors of the day.

Politically, Cummings was unlike his friends and colleagues in art. He was quietly conservative. The only time he ever spoke out, oddly, was to support Senator Joseph McCarthy. Not because he approved of the Senator’s methods, but because he, too, was afraid of the global effects of communism. (Let’s be clear, I’m not condoning him. I just think it’s kind of weird, and it shows the amount of diversity we have always had among Unitarians and Universalists)

At the end of his life he made a modest living in the lecture circuit among private high schools. He never made a lot of money, but novelist John Cheever enviably described him as a man who could live elegantly on almost no money.

He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962, at the age of 67, near his home in New Hampshire. He was buried in Boston, where his funeral was officiated by the president of the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Association, Dana Greeley, the uncle of Brad Greeley who just a few years later would come here, to East Shore, to serve as its second and longest-serving minister.

Anthem Quiet Moment

Work of an Artist (see insert)
A few years after his death, an anthology of e. e. cummings’s work was published as A Miscellany Revised, which included a prose essay called “The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A),” in which he defined artists as those who unlearn what they have learned in order to know themselves.

In other words, making art is committing to constant self-reflection and self-revision, fueled by criticism from within and criticism from without. His job as a poet, he believed, was to invite readers to pick their way “toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.”

The agony of the artist, in a nutshell, is that we learn from people who are unsure of their own skill, who do what they need to do to survive with food on the table and their egos in tact, and who end up dying shortly after they’ve confidently come into their own and produced a body of work that will make them money and notoriety only posthumously.

He said we are not really studying with our teachers and mentors, we are studying through them.

The four drawings on the cover of our order of service are all from that book. If you look at them, you can see why they are called, teft to right, top to bottom:
The dog in the manger…Aesop knew;
The first robin…if the punishment fit the crime;
The spinster’s dilemma…but a parrot did; and
The helping hand….nobody is exempt.

They all seem to point to one basic idea: None of us has a chance of having our work appreciated in our lifetime.

But e. e. cummings was appreciated in his lifetime. Let’s see why.

You’ve probably already noticed that there are two inserts in this morning’s order of service, one for a very special event happening at our sibling congregation, West Shore UU in Rocky River, and one that looks like some kind of coded message in letters and parentheses.

They aren’t messages from the resistance. Well, maybe they are, but they weren’t meant to be. They are actually two cummings poems, typically untitled.

Let’s look at the first one. It’s often referred to as “the sky was candy.”

the sky was candy
luminous
edible
spry pinks
shy lemons
greens
cool chocolates
under a locomotive
spouting violets

The meanings of the words, in the form of short phrases, describe a night sky in metaphorical terms not usually used. But the words themselves, the letters on the page are arranged, spread out unexpectedly, creating constellations as if they were stars across the night sky.

It’s almost chaotic, so that the negative space between the letters becomes a kind of sanctuary, a paper and print version of the unending abyss of dark outer space viewed at night. The magic is that he created artwork using typeface and white wood pulp as his media.

On the other side of the page, you’ll find a poem called R-P-O-P-H-E-S-S-A-G-R. I, the order of service I called it, “grasshopper,” the way it’s often referred to verbally.

It’s a visual poem, intended to be seen and not necessarily read out loud. But it’s hard to talk about it without reading it.

The visual image on the page is striking, all horizontal lines and angles, giving the impression of legs and grass, earth and sky, sudden movement and anticipation. The punctuation is unexpected. Confusing. It has more to do with the effect it has on the reader than with the syntax of the composition.

The way I understand the use of parentheses is that they can be interpreted as a way of manifesting on the page the speaker’s reaction to the grasshopper, all of it happening simultaneously, and instantly. To describe it all in narrative prose, or even using previous conventions of poetry would have taken a huge amount of time. The way he did it, Cummings illustrated the point he wanted to make. His goal was to get the reader to slow the rush of their lives and notice the details that give life its magic.

The methods Cummings used here take a bit of time to understand. One poetry analyst – that’s what she calls herself—named Julieta Abella, describes the parentheses as “the description of the lyrical voice’s impression” of the grasshopper. 

While the poem isn’t really meant to be read, I’d read it this way:

R-P-O-P-H-E-S-S-A-G-R,
who
as we look
up now gath ering
P-P-E-G-O-R-H-R-A-S-S
into the
leaps
arriving to
become rearrangingly,
Grasshopper

This is one of cummings’ later poems. After decades of innovative writing he learned to use the poems to teach people how to read them. And the readers had learned. That’s the amazing part! Whether he was aware of it or not, his work was the embodiment of Process Theology: the poet and the reader mutually taugh and learned, in an act of co-creation that remains timeless.

Sermon “sanctuary on the page” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Do you remember the first time you saw an e. e. cummings poem?

I remember encountering in first or second grade some of his more youthful poems, intended for children. They were accessible. Fun. They stuck with me for a long time.

In fact, they stuck with many of us so long that back in January, when we had a Sunday worship service in which we shared some of our favorite poems, which became the white and black base for the art panels that convey our mission statement, Diana Packer chose an e. e. Cummings poem:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Like all good poems, I find something new in it every time I encounter it. After spending a pretty intimate couple of weeks with the work of Cummings, what really stands out in this poem this time for me is the line “as small as a world and as large as alone.” He seems to be holding the constriction, and even the loneliness of being in community in perfect tension with the potential…the massiveness, of solitude.

It’s one more thing that brings me back to our seven principles, and the way they hold the worth and dignity of every individual in tension with responsibility to the interconnected web of all existence, making balance our ultimate goal.

Maggie and milly and molly and may still have something to say to me as they play one day.

The poems of Cummings that I encountered later, in my junior high and high school years, were more challenging. They forced me to see things in a new way.

Honestly, I thought I knew it all. I looked at the words and letters arranged on the page and thought “how gimmicky. Anyone can do that.”

Kind of like the first time I saw a Jackson Pollack painting. Splatters of paint. I could do that with my eyes closed!

But have you ever tried? It’s not easy. Just ask the poor soul who tried to do a Pollack effect on the walls of the smallest bedroom in my house. Even through several layers of thick white paint, which made the whole effect look like slobbery goo, I could tell it was a disaster. That effect needs a lot of paint. A lot of commitment. And a horizontal surface for application.

I only know that because I’ve tried it.

And I’ve tried writing poems like R-P-O-P-H-E-S-S-A-G-R and failed.
Nobody will be reading those poems in a service any time soon. I think that’s why early in his career, so many critics hated Cummings. They never tried writing a poem the way he did, they never tried putting the rules aside for a moment in order to try something completely different, to create a new way of experiencing the old institution of poetry. The literary establishment saw him as an attention-seeking dilettante.

But he wasn’t. He knew quite well what he was doing, and he knew quite well the long tradition of poetry he came from.

His greatest mentor/teacher was someone he never met, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, another Unitarian who died twelve years before Cummings was born. Longfellow was perhaps the most beloved poet of his day, and his popularity continued for decades after his death.

Both Longfellow and Cummings attended Harvard, excelled in their programs, and gained notoriety early on. Both weren’t just Unitarian, they were entrenched Unitarians. attended Harvard. Both were Unitarian, entrenched by family history. Both are still beloved and studied, not just among Unitarian Universalists and people with blogs about Poetry Analysis.

They had in common was that their live were influenced by war, social unrest, and a nation that was radically changing during the courses of their own lifetimes. They were artists in times of war, replete with turmoil, corruption, greed, dissention and mistrust. Times like these.

Longfellow wrote, "ambition is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied." 

Cummings wrote, "America makes prodigious mistakes, America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move. She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn't standing still. "

I think the same things could still be said with accuracy. And that’s why they feels so relevant today.

As I look at the news, he reminds me that young people of every tumultuous time – including this one, are reform minded. They have vision and energy, creativity and tenacity that will get us through. Eventually. They remind me that across the history of this country, we’ve gotten off track, and no matter how bad it’s been, we’ve always had a way of self correcting, of getting back in line with our core values, those values that hold make space for the individual, in covenant with the whole.

Most of all, though, Longfellow and Cummings give me hope … hope that sustains me, makes me feel more resilient, stronger in the face of the unending barrage of insult and injury coming through my newsfeed every day.

Cummings especially helps me with the daily challenges in my life, and in the life of this congregation.

Let’s look back at the grasshopper.

The poem is all about deconstruction. On the surface, it’s taing the letters that make up the word grasshopper and deconstructing them, along with the other words of the verses, and creating something new, something visually stimulating that conveys the idea of the movement in the grasshopper and the feeling of being startled as the reader/viewer is temporarily discombobulated by the unexpected.

In its time, the poem itself had the same effect. For anyone reading Cummings cubist literature for the first time, it was discombobulating, discomforting. For anyone who had been paying attention to the evolution of his poetry up until that point, he’d been giving them all the clues, all the tools they needed to change along with him. Poet and reader were evolving together, and thereby changing the face of literature forever.

And it all happened on pages with an amazing amount of white space. Cummings created a kind of sanctuary on the page where revolutionary change could happen, leaving a sense of calmness and wonder in the process.

The lesson I take away from “grasshopper” is this:

The idea of belonging to a faith community is changing radically. The vast majority of Americans feel like they don’t need it. They find worship, especially worship in community with other people, to be irrelevant.

Our congregation is changing rapidly. I don’t think that’s a surprise to you. Just look around. It’s time for dramatic, radical change if we’re to survive.

Maybe what we need to do is deconstruct it. Break it down to its essential elements, figure out what it is that

Lke Cummings, I don’t think we need to throw everything away. We can still work in all the old tried and true familiar motifs that bring joy and comfort to so many. We can still engage in the liturgical equivalents of sonnets and odes to spring and children’s limericks. (I’d like to avoid the erotica, please, even if it uses language so sparingly it never crosses over into the pornographic. I’d like to not have #MeToo associated with East Shore, thank you.)

I think you know what I mean. We can keep elements that bring comfort and support a sense of continuity. Choir and hymns. Readings from our global scripture. Sharing personal reflections. Study and work, prayer and play. Rituals like lighting candles, and communions of water, bread, flames and flowers to mark our holy days.

We can keep those elements, and maybe even bring back some other elements from our history, like Sunday morning sermon reflections, or … I don’t know. You tell me.

But we also need new things, like drumming and

We need to break things down and look at it all from a new perspective with new energy, creativity and tenacity that will get us through all this change.

Cummings made sanctuary on the page by having all this space around the words and letters. We have this space. This sanctuary. And while the seats are not as full as those generous and ambitious folks were when they built it twenty plus years ago had hoped they would be by now, the reality is that it’s a good space. The fact that it isn’t crowded gives us the opportunity to think and dream and pray and work and challenge each other to create something new.

Sanctuary isn’t just about the space we occupy, on the page in or in the three dimensional world, it’s also about the relationships we make within the most intimate places in our lives, the places where we seek refuge from all the tumult and strife of our times.

Sanctuary is the relationship between generations, the way we pass our most sacred practices and understandings through the decades and centuries.

As I look around, I don’t think so much of the people who aren’t here, the youth of grown up and moved away or the elders that have passed on. I see you who are here, committed to this place, to each other. Committed to Unitarian Universalism and the values that made this country and this faith great.

What matters to me is that those of us who are here are like maggie and milly and molly and may. Whatever we lose of ourselves, we find it again … in this sanctuary. Because we are willing to look. Together. Teaching and learning with the tools and space we’re making, as we’re making them.

May it be so.

Event type
Worship Service
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