Welcome to February! / A Note From Aaron

Welcome to February!

Laura K. Secor

A month ago we addressed the making of New Year’s resolutions.  I always make 10 resolutions, and most of them are doomed long before February begins.  But this year I’ve stayed with the Stoics thus far – I’m six weeks in and still going strong.  Over the last four weeks, as I promised you, I contemplated the ways in which Stoicism reminded me of Buddhism.  I had been inspired by a very thoughtful reviewer of the Stoic Handbook who described reading the two in tandem and found many parallels.  I thought – he sounds so intelligent in his review that he must be right! But the more I read about Stoicism the less I see any echo of Buddhism.  Yes, they both encourage the control of the mind, but Stoicism focuses on living a good life in the here and now, while Buddhism aspires to end the cycle of rebirth.  Buddhism seems to me to be about purifying the mind and living a life of renunciation, while Stoicism values moderation but a moderation practiced while engaged in the fullness of a civic life.

I did notice one thread common to both.  This thread is not common to either of the original practices, as well as I understand them, but to the way they are taught in twenty first century America.  Both are secular spiritualities, almost philosophies. The Stoics were, I believe, all deeply religious men, but the books I read went for a hundred pages apiece before the word “prayer” made an appearance.  Also – and this may be a controversial statement – the Western Buddhists I have read eschew anything so religious as prayer. The only Buddhist I know who talks openly about the joy of prayer is Thich Nhat Hanh.  I believe eastern Buddhists pray, but the Westerners, not so much.

What, then, is prayer?  What did it mean to the Stoics?  What does it mean to eastern Buddhists?  What does it mean to me? I’m not sure I know the answer to any of those questions, so I looked for inspiration in a collection of thoughts on prayer assembled by the UU Touchstone group.

from Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good… As soon as a man is at one with God… he will see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature.

I like this. Prayer as action. I think both the Stoics and the Buddhists would relate to this one.  Maybe this is something the two spiritualities have in common – a love of practice over theory, experiment over hypothesis.  Could we be praying as we hunch over our computers, with the stroke of the keyboard?

Then we confront the question which western Buddhists or twenty first century Stoics might raise, what is the nature of prayer when you don’t believe in a Divine Being?

On Prayer by Czeslaw Milosz

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

This is beautiful.  I relate to this better than to the idea of prayer through action.  The theory of prayer through action is appealing, but I’m not sure what actions I would perform in a prayerful way.  This poem by Milosz, though, it fires my imagination. I can feel myself stepping on the velvet bridge, the fabric yielding under my foot like moss in late spring.  It’s that gentle yielding that speaks to me, not the firmness of concrete nor yet the squish of mud or jello. Have you ever stepped in jello? I don’t recommend it.  But the sensation of prayer, of reaching out to someone whose existence is uncertain, is just like the sensation of stepping on velvet. Firm but soft, present but nebulous.  As Tomas Transtromer described it, “I wake to that unshakable PERHAPS that / carries me through the wavering world.”

A Note From Aaron

Rev. Aaron Payson

Halfway through this time of sabbatical and I find myself pondering the words of James Baldwin, whose words reflect the Touchstone Theme of Generosity for this month.

It is rare indeed that people give.
Most people guard and keep;
they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping,
whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.
One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself;
that is to say, risking oneself.
If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.

These words are particularly poignant as I prepare to offer the “Charge to the Minister” at the Ordination of Beau Rivers on March 8 in Portland, ME.  This is a joint ordination between the Allen Avenue congregation and UUCW.  It is only a hand-full of times, if any, that congregations enact the right, that is only theirs in our tradition, to affirm the ministry of one of their own in the form of ordination.  Within the free church, it is an action that can not be accomplished by any other body except the local congregation. So we are glad for this opportunity to help Beau reach this important milestone in her career and honored to be part of the body that affirms her call to ministry.  I hope that you will join me on March 8 for the trip to Portland.  CLICK HERE to find out more!

Also!  It appears that the long-awaited roadwork on Shore Drive has begun and will continue in earnest this Spring!  We will be meeting tomorrow with the construction foreman and representatives of Bancroft School and the YMCA to discuss scheduling and details of the work moving forward.  The Dogfather has taken up residence at the front corner of our parking lot for the time being.  For certain there will be some challenges moving forward into the spring as the new road is constructed and our parking lot is redone as a part of this process.  We promise to continue to provide updates to this endeavor as often as possible and to plan for as little disruption to our schedule as we can.  We have been assured already that the current road will remain open during this process.  We hope and pray that this is true

Finally, on March 8 we will begin our FY2021 Stewardship Drive. This is another important aspect of our free church tradition.  No one but the local congregation funds the congregation.  The majority of the funds necessary to operate the church come from pledges made by members and friends.  I hope that you will greet this opportunity to reflect your generosity with enthusiasm.  Given the state of the world today, it is so very important to be part of a congregation of love, hope and justice that inspires people to take on the challenges of a changing world!

I look forward to my return on April 5!