Centering Thought: Prayer irrigates the earth and heart. – St. Francis of Assisi
First Reading “The Seal’s Skin,” traditional Icelandic tale
A traditional Icelandic folktale, retold by Jane Yolen in Favorite Folktales from Around the World
There was once a man from Myrdal in eastern Iceland who went walking among the rocks by the sea one morning before anyone else was up. He came to the mouth of a cave, and inside the cave he could hear merriment and dancing, but outside it, he saw a great many sealskins. He took one skin away with him, carried it home, and locked it away in a chest. Later in the day he went back to the mouth of the cave. There he found a young and lovely woman sitting there, stark naked, weeping bitterly.
This was the seal whose skin it was the man had taken. He gave the woman some clothes, comforted her, and took her home with him. Over time, she grew very fond of him, but did not get on so well with other people. Often, she would sit alone and stare off into the sea.
After a while, the man married her, and they several children. As for the skin, the man always kept it locked up in the chest, and kept the key on him wherever he went. But after many years, he went fishing one day, and forgot the key under the pillow where he slept.
When he came home again, the chest was open, and both wife and skin were gone. She had taken the key and examined the chest, and there she had found the skin; she had been unable to resist the temptation to say goodbye to her children, put the skin on, and fling herself into the sea.
Before she swam off, she spoke these words:
Woe is me! Ah, woe is me!
I have seven bairns on land,
And seven in the sea.
Bairns are children.
It is said that the man was broken-hearted about this. Whenever he rowed out fishing afterwards, a seal would often swim round and round his boat, and it looked as if tears were running from its eyes. People often noticed too, that when the children went walking along the seashore, a seal would show itself near the edge of the water and keep level with them as they walked along the shore, tossing them jellyfish and pretty shells.
But never did their mother return home.
The second reading is by Roger Rosenblatt, ���from his book entitles Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief and Small Boats
The news blares stories about the oil spill in the Gulf.
Reporters grill BP officials.
The company president says he wants his life back.
Fishermen say their lives are as good as gone.
Oil puddles on the water, like mercury.
Pictures of oil creeping to the shore.
Pictures of sea turtles, dead in their tracks.
Pictures of brown pelicans, blackened as if tarred.
Tarred and Feathered.
A seabird so laden with thick oil, it looks ossified, a purple-and-gray stone bird.
Its head is glazed, its eyes closed, as if in prayer.
One can barely look.
Weather people report that the oil spill could curl around the tip of Florida and worm its way up the East Coast,
Past Alabama, North Carolina, the Maryland Eastern Shore,
New Jersey, New York, into the bays below Long Island,
Then into canals and creeks.
A Cormorant alights on a rich man’s dock.
It teaches nothing.
Sermon “Prayer is a Flowing of Love,” Rev. Denis
A few weeks ago I talked about the incredible gifts that come from traveling, and how it allows me to pay attention to the world around me in a way that becomes a prayer, an element of grace from the universe, available to anyone open enough to notice. I shared some images of Nicaragua.
Nicaragua is a study in contrasts. Only part of the year there is rainy, the rest of the year, dry. The mango, banana and jocote trees get just enough water to ensure dense crops of fruit that last throughout the year, even as the rains dry up and the sun beats down. During the dry periods, from January through July, the winds pick up, blowing about a fine dust from the deeply rutted roads, dust that permeates everything in the 100-plus degree heat.
Because most people take immense pride in always looking clean and fresh, almost miraculously, school children are pristine in their bright white school uniforms, in dusty classrooms that have glassless barred openings for windows.
Though fruit is everywhere, little of it seems to get eaten. Juiced maybe, but rarely eaten. It’s as if the common wisdom is that anything that plentiful couldn’t possibly be any good. Instead, nearly every meal is beans and rice. Or rice and beans.
One day when I was visiting with a group from San Francisco, three of us piled ourselves and our host families onto buses for the two hour journey to Tipitapa, about 29 miles northeast of downtown Managua. Though none of us made much money – I was a street minister in the Tenderloin, barely capable of affording a bowl of noodles in a San Francisco restaurant – we were able to afford to treat 18 people to something that was considered a huge luxury: swimming at the hot springs resort, drinking cold To�a beer and having a late lunch of fast food chicken.
Despite the fact that Nicaragua is a small country bounded by the Atlantic and the Pacific, despite the fact that it is traversed by a healthy system of lakes and rivers, few Nicaraguans can swim. We Americans played in the huge pool that looked more like a concrete lake.
Our hosts clung to the edges or dipped their toes timidly into the end that looked like a painted cement beach. Over the course of hours, more families arrived, and we Gringos looked more and more out of place at the deep end where no-one else dared go.
We were laughing and splashing when suddenly I heard screaming from the concrete beach. As I squinted to make out what was happening, I could see a melee in the water, arms flailing and splashing as a woman ran in screaming. Then a man went in after her. Then another. As I ran toward them, a boy jumped in from the side, and another man, and a woman and two more teenagers. An island of black hair expanded on the glared canvas of water.
I dove in and swam to the group. Underwater, I could see lots of heads bobbing above limbs that grabbed and kicked. The whole time I was saying “oh god, oh god, oh god,” but the real prayer was in the fierceness of my body, as my muscles remembered high school lifesaving class and went into autonomic response mode.
The lesson came back to me clearly, in a fraction of a second. Never approach a drowning person from the front….they’ll panic and wrap themselves around you so that you both drown. Always from behind, take them by the neck with your forearm, or firmly grab their hair at the roots….they’ll automatically grab your hand with both of theirs.
I reached as deep as possible into the crowd, and grabbed handful of thick black hair. Within a second, dozens of hands reached for my arm, as I dragged the entire flotilla back to the shallows. One of my traveling companions counted 22 people coming out of the water, choking and coughing. In the center of it all was a little girl, about 4 years old in a purple two-piece bathing suit, wailing. She had slipped down the concrete, and even though her parents didn’t know how to save her, they selflessly tried, setting off a chain reaction of panic response.
As everyone calmed down, the chasm between us was huge.
I wanted to say something, but I wouldn’t have known what to say, even if I had the language skills. Everyone outside of our group avoided my presence and my eyes for the rest of the day. Maybe they were embarrassed by their inability to keep a little girl safe. Maybe they resented being helped by a white man. After all, white men always seem to be there to either take advantage or to fix things without much regards for the needs of the people they purported to help.
All I knew was that as my heart stopped pumping adrenaline through my body, it was replaced by profound gratitude everyone was safe. And I started shaking.
38 years earlier and 4,000 miles to the north, my brother and I sunned ourselves on the rocks as we dipped our feet in the icy cold river near Coaticook, Qu�bec. The day was hot and humid. Birds sang in the trees, insects made the air vibrate with energy. Our grandparents, Ida and Lorenzo, bickered a few feet away in the shade. With a laugh, he jumped into the water and let out a yelp.
Everyone called our grandfather called P’tit Blanc, and considered him a world-class cheapskate. He and our grandmother had separate finances: he paid for his car, she paid for the children and they shared housing and food expenses. But whenever they would go out to eat, P’tit Blanc would disappear when the check arrived and Ida would get stuck paying.
I’m sure they were fighting about money that day on the river, when he jumped into the water. They always fought about money.
When I was young, I thought P’tit Blanc was afraid… afraid of parting with money, afraid of having to do without, a fear that I understood to be common among the depression survivors of his generation. Why else would he hold so close to himself everything that he had, unwilling to share any of it? He seemed unwilling to share it.
Over time though, I came to realize that his job provided just enough money to support himself in the modest life he enjoyed, camping, playing baseball, and gardening. He was satisfied with all that he had, and the proof is that he was always happy and smiling. That morning he whistled as he floated down the river, leaving us with our agitated grandmother.
But Ida did live in fear. She was constantly afraid that they would run out…run out of money, run out of food, run out of love. Life was one huge effort to have more, just in case, and as soon as she had a little extra, she’d buy something extravagant, like a fur stole or a gold ring. Money. Jewelry. She hid it all away, and tended to it as if it were some other family she had to care for. There was strain on their marriage, a cat and mouse game made of big and small secrets that they kept locked away from one another.
Perhaps they never found the keys to those secrets. Perhaps they did find the keys, but had nowhere to run to, no children at sea to rejoin, so they stayed with each other.
A few years ago, my other grandmother, died in Montreal. My two grandmothers never liked each other, so I was surprised to see Ida at the cemetery.
P’tit Blanc had been dead ten years, but she’d found a friend to drive her all the way there, where she waited for us from a distance, knowing that she might be seen as hypocritical, mourning the death of someone she never pretended to care for.
As I approached Ida I could see the fierceness in her eyes, and the strength in the hands that clutched the rosary beads, equal to the determination she felt to connect with her family, if only for a few minutes.
There was that chasm of language again.
My French skills are barely better now than they were when I was three and my parents stopped speaking French at home. I feel unable to express much more than the basic needs of hunger, thirst and rest. I lack the skills for sensible syntax. So I just stood with Ida. I told her she was beautiful, as she clutched my hand, even though the beads were digging into the knuckle of my thumb like a thorn. She didn’t seem to feel any pain.
After 89 years of living in fear, Ida seemed suddenly tired of trudging through the bitterness and loneliness of her life, and rose up like a beast from the grave of an enemy to claim her family. Between us, there was the silence of a prayer, manifest in those beads.
That’s the amazing thing about prayer, it can be unspoken when language fails. Prayer can be holding hands silently, or moving with your body when your brain is too panicked to make a sensible plan. Prayer is getting past fear to something that resembles courage, tapping into the wellspring of love for all life, love for humanity, love for people you’ve never even met and will likely never see again.
But prayer can also be just seeing devastation: Pictures of oil creeping to the shore. Pictures of sea turtles, dead in their tracks. Pictures of brown pelicans, blackened as if tarred. Connecting to the devastation as it moves across a continent.
Prayer is remaining present to the waxing and waning of love, committed to the struggle to remain connected, even when it feels like it would be so much easier to be apart.
That’s prayer. And maybe not what most of us think of as prayer most of the time.
Erik Walker Wikstrom for a few years was the Worship and Resources Director for our Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. His charge was to make available to congregations across the continent not only music to enrich our Sunday services, but also the other elements that make our time together sacred, various kinds of prayers like invocations, meditations, embracing prayers that might be used for joys and sorrows, and celebratory prayers for the monumental moments of our individual and collective lives.
Wikstrom started working for us in this capacity after he wrote a book about Unitarian Universalist prayer called Simply Pray. In it he described the four major kinds of prayer, universally found across cultures and faiths, which he describes as Naming, Knowing, Listening and Loving.
The Naming prayer can be a litany of all the things we can think of to express gratitude for, or it can be a meditation on one particular gift that feels especially important in the moment. For many, it can be a list of the names or characteristics of that which they call God.
The Knowing prayer is a reflection on life, simply paying honest attention to our thoughts and actions and their outcomes, and a goal of not judging ourselves, but rather setting an intention for the future, learning from our lessons.
The Listening prayer is simply paying attention to our thoughts but letting them go immediately. The hope in the listening prayer, as difficult as it may be, is to not swell in the chatter of our minds in order to make space for the important thoughts, the revelations that could transform us.
And the Loving prayer is a lot like the naming prayer. It can be a litany of all the people we love and want to remember, or it can be an intense focus on the people who need all the love and support they can get, through times of celebration or sorrow.
Wikstrom even came up with a prayer bead practice, which has one large bead for each of the four types of prayer. It’s a practice that Unitarian Universalists across the globe have adopted as a part of their daily routine. At our annual General Assembly, there are vendors who sell sets of prayer beads…something that didn’t even exist ten years ago. And every year, more people are using them. This kind of discovery is one of the things that makes General Assembly so meaningful.
I spoke with one woman at our last General Assembly who told me how the practice had transformed her life. She started using the prayer beads as a way of feeling more connected with Unitarian Universalists during the week between services at her congregation, but found they helped her develop a stillness in her life she had never known in her 70 years of life before that. The practice, aided by the beads, helped her make peace with herself and express love in a way that no words could ever do justice to.
The practice of prayer, of intentionally naming, knowing, listening and loving each day, helped her begin to better navigate the ebbing and flowing of the seas of love in her life, to take less personally the little injustices and insults of the day to day grind, and to just sit with her loved ones as they struggled, without needing to fix their problems for them.
She could just be with them.
I guess that’s the thing about living with people. Through all the ups and downs, all the unreasonable expectations and broken promises, bad behavior and accusations, manipulation and thoughtlessness, there is still love that has to be tended to, that demands to be tended to. We have to live into our suffering, bear witness to the longing and pain of others, in order to answer that demand, and reap the rewards.
We have to notice the tangle of arms and legs and black hair in the splashing and allow our bodies to respond. We have to take the time to see the degradation waste, in order to respond. If we do that, I know that when the take the time to see, when the cormorant alights on a rich man’s dock, it will teach something. It has taught something, and will continue to.
If we tend to our lives carefully, naming our gratitude, knowing what we’ve done, listening to the voice of inspiration, and loving as much as we can in the process – whether we name it prayer or presence or anything else – then as a matter of course, we will have made of our lives a prayer. If we can tend to the flowing of our lives, we change ourselves, our families, and our world.