16 March 2008

St. Patrick

The text that follows is adapted from the sermon I delivered at Michael Servetus UU church Sunday March 16.

To be human is to tell stories. It doesn’t matter if your stories are cloaked in the language of myth, science, psychology or religion, we tell ourselves and each other stories all the time. And most of these stories are about how the universe works, or how we should live inside it.

This brings me to one of my least favorite characters in all of western history: St Patrick. He is famous for converting Ireland to Christianity. Legend tells us he chased the snakes out of Ireland. Of course, the snake – the better word is serpent - is a symbol for pagans. The serpent is the symbol for the great goddess, and of people who see holiness in the earth, and who have divinities that take female forms.

To me the serpent is a symbol of the raw, untamable, awesome and frightening power of the life force that surges and courses through everything we see (and everything we don’t). And that energy moves not in straight lines but in pulsing waves or like lightning, in unpredictable jaggedness, or like in roots and branches (and emotions and ideas), in slithering serpentine wriggles. In springtime that energy becomes strikingly visible as it emerges out of the bleak quiet of winter and creation seems to awaken again, moving outward in writhing, tangling, unfolding patterns. For more about serpents in myth go here and here.

An old pre-Patrick Irish song to the Irish Goddess Bridget, the goddess of springtime, goes like this:
Early on Brigit’s morn
The serpent will come from the mound
I will not harm the serpent
Nor with the serpent harm me.

In these simple four lines are found a vow of a mutually fostering relationship with the wriggling life force that infuses everything.

What the tradition celebrates about St. Patrick – that he converted the pagan Irish – I reframe this way: In the 5th century, the venerable St. Patrick was able to begin the process of changing the fundamental cosmic story of the people of that Emerald Isle. He began the process where they stopped telling the story of mutually nourishing relationship with the serpentine energies of life on earth, and began telling (and living) the story of dominating and destroying those energies and eventually escaping them altogether.

This, of course, is the foundational myth of western industrial culture, the culture that poet Wendell Berry says “thrives on destruction.”St. Patrick was the bringer of amnesia, and now we celebrate him with a day devoted to drinking until we are stupefied. Matthew Fox called alcohol and all mind altering chemicals “liquid cosmos”: we, who feel alienated from the universe, imbibe to bring the awe of the universe back into our body. This is not so different from the church tradition that tells us we are fallen and then offers us the supernatural medicine to cure our falleness.

Now I don't meant to spoil a good day of drinking and celebrating the Irish. Patrick was a man and a worshipper of his time, and he truly believed he had found the keys to the mystery of why life is so difficult. We too are people of out time, and I hope all of us will take seriously what we believe and act on it.

The new story that Patrick began telling the Irish is described by theologian Thomas Berry as “the six transcendences.” [1] Transcendent means to become separate, to remove yourself from the action. According to Berry, the six transcendences are:
1. The transcendent, personal monotheistic deity. Berry says the first commandment should actually read: “Thou shalt not have an earth mother.”
2. The transcendent human spirit. The natural world is material. Humans are spiritual. We transcend the material messiness.
3. The foundational belief in redemption. Another way to say this is the world is fallen, and we need to be taken away from it to be saved.
4. The transcendence of mind. The mind is what links humans to the transcendent, male God, and it is the mind that is evidence of our own transcendence from nature. There is fallen, material nature, and there is mind. Mind and nature are of a different substance, and only humans possess mind which allows them to transcend nature. Nature is female. Mind is male.
5. Our transcendent technology: our creative discoveries and applications of technology, from fire to computer chips in our toaster, has allowed us to transcend much biological law that would otherwise limit our species’ impact on the earth.
6. The transcendence of historical identity for humans—that our destiny goes beyond earthly history, that our destiny is somewhere else. This world really does not matter.

I like to put what Berry is saying like this:Christianity is a heliumisitc religion. That’s a very complex, old theological term mixing Greek and Latin ideas. Okay not really, I made it up. It means “to be full of helium.” As soon as anyone becomes holy in the Christian tradition, the holy men come running out with the Helium taken and PFFFT! Up they go away into the sky. The tradition calls it ascension. Jesus. The saints. Mary. PFFFT! And if you believe the made for TV miniseries drawn from the mega best sellers, all believers on that glorious day of rapture. The story St. Patrick convinced the Irish to believe was that everything sacred lives above, and that nothing below matters. All float up and away, and, like my three-year old whose grocery store balloon with “free strawberries” printed on it came untied as soon as we stepped outside the store, we can only watch, aghast, as our delight vanishes into the airy expanse, and we are left behind, with strawberries that taste of vague disappointment.I believe you and I are alive at a point in human history where that fundamental story we tell ourselves about how the world works is changing. We are inside a change of seasons right now, and we are in an extended change of consciousness – one which is nourished and enlivened by our drumming I hope - one that is wishing to subvert Patrick’s six transcendences.

This emerging consciousness is telling us:
1. God – if there is a god - can certainly take any form God would want to take including earth mother, and sky father, and an uncountable array of other forms, and non-human forms. What’s more God – however you define God - is inside everything, or as the theologians say: immanent.
2. Our spiritual lives are intertwined with our physical lives, they are not separate, with one being real, and one an illusion. We are biospiritual.
3. Our pure spirit does not battle our corrupt flesh, but spirit is the unseen extension of the body: the soul is the part of the body undiscerned by the five senses as William Blake said.
4. Mind is the inheritance of all creation, though we may not perceive its entire workings. The body, the emotions, the imagination—these are also gifts of the Spirit and equal to mind.
5. Technology may make us comfortable, but it will not redeem us, it will not sanctify us and make us invulnerable to nature. Nothing can separate us from nature. Everything is nature.
6. We come from here and we return to here. And we are always intertwined with everything else.

I’d like to offer you a meditation to try. Go to the front or back door of your house, looking out at your own land – the land you live on. Call out to the spirit – that springtime spirit of life that is at this moment, waking up and beginning its gleeful twisting, cavorting, wriggling, dancing movement into our visible world. Try to see it. You might have to close your eyes in order to see it. As Ken Wilbur might say, close the eye of flesh and open the eye of spirit. Call to this spirit of life, and ask it to come into you and make itself more visible. Or ask it to heal you or make you new again. Or ask it how you can be in service to it.

I leave you with this:

How I become hyacinth
How I become daffodil
How I become hosta
How I become sedumeasily divided easily rooted
How I become the two tonewhistle chirp in that far off oak.
How I become something you never planted
How I green from brown
How I heave up your mulch and crawl to you in your winter slumber
How I spring from pruned branches
How I become again the weeds you poisoned
How I emerge out of dead vines
How the longer you know me the bigger I grow
How you think you can cultivate me
How long it takes you to see
How I become you.

©Jaime Meyer 2006

[1] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts (Sierra Club Books 2006) 25-27

1 comment:

  1. ah, Jaime ye are a man after me own soul (that's w a brogue if you couldnt tell! ;)
    Love this post! Couldnt figure out why all these pagan 'friends' on my chat sites are all excited about st. pats...I kept tellin em but you are tellin it even better!!!! Love ya!