as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, August 9. 2020
This week, I must confess, I have been feeling more than a little tearful. It has been 154 days since I last preached a sermon to you in person. And I have been missing you. And I have been missing my life from the before times. And my family–other than my son this has been the longest I have gone without seeing any of them. And I have found myself struggling to live in the here and now.
My balcony is very pleasant. When it is not too hot, it is quite nice to sit out on it and watch the goldfish flit and brush up against the undersides of the floating leaves of my water garden. My abundance of aquatic mint makes a refreshing and mild tea. In the window boxes, the marigolds offer soft bristling petals full of color. The small sunflowers are just coming into boom.
The garden is a nice and meditative space. I have cultivated it into the sort of space where words like those of Lorna Dee Cervantes come to me:
Be ceremony. Be a lit candle
to what blows you. Outside,
the sun gives a favorite present,
And yet, right now, this week, as the water flowed, and the sage grew, and the thyme crept towards blossom, and the mint–I mention the mint twice because there is so much of it–tried to get everywhere, I have found it almost impossible to enjoy the lit candle or the sun or my cup of perfectly bitter tea. My thoughts have been elsewhere, the present itself a fog, and my desires have been not for what is in front of me–the slow growing lemon fruit–but what is beyond my grasp. Rather than savoring a well crafted home cooked meal, I have longed for a nice quiet restaurant. Instead of enjoying a movie on my couch, I have been missing the live theater. It has been hard for me to live in the here and now.
How about you? How have you been doing? Have you been able to relish the present? Has the way that rain slicks bespeak of rainbows when the storm hits, or the dawn’s steady gradation of color captivated you? Or has food felt like so much ash in your mouth? Have you wanted to be not just somewhere else but somewhen else?
There is much religious teaching about the value, the importance, the mystical awakening, that comes from opening ourselves to the present. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would advise me to open myself fully to the tea that I drink. “When you are holding a cup of tea in your hand, do it while being 100 percent there. You know how to this–one deep in-breath, one gentle out-breath, and the body and mind come together. You are truly there, absolutely alive, fully present! …suddenly the tea reveals itself to you in all its splendor and wonder,” he instructs. And, “We must wake up to the marvelous reality of life,” he pleads.
The eighteenth-century Christian mystic Anna Katharina Emmerich would remind me that she found God she opened herself to the present. “I lived with God and all creatures in blessed peace. When I worked in the garden, the birds came to me, sat on my head and shoulders, and we sang praises to God together,” she tells us.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the difference between the secular and the sacred was simply that when we encounter the sacred when we remember, “The act of bringing the world into being is a continuous process… There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an act of creation.” And that to forget such a truth is to forget God.
In the Sufi tradition, we find the thirteenth-century Muslim mystic Mulla Nasrudin warning us of what happens when we fail to live in the present. “Nasrudin ran to an appointment in a nearby town, stark naked,” the story goes. “People asked him why,” it continues. “I was in such a hurry to get dressed that I forgot my clothes,” he replied.
In these times of pestilence and plague, when my heart aches because the virus’s death count steadily climbs–over 165,000 dead in the United States–it is hard to heed such advice. I do not like being told to “wake… to the marvelous reality of life,” instructed to sing praises to God, or directed to remember the “act of creation” in every moment. I do not like such words when the inactions of an irresponsible Congress, President, and Governor have so many to facing eviction, struggling with food insecurity–prices are steadily increasing at the grocery store–and wondering when they will be able to work again. And I do not like being told, in the words of the poet, “to care in the moment, / carve day into light,” when my social circle has been reduced to a number less than I can count on one hand and I must wear a mask and keep my distance whenever I step out of my house in order to slow the spread of the virus.
I long not for the present–not for the reality that is, beautiful as my unfolding sunflowers might be–but other moments and other realities. The situation has had me thinking of Miguel de Cervantes’s great novel Don Quixote. Do you know it? It has been recast as the musical “The Man of La Mancha”–there’s a passable movie version of it available online starring Peter O’Toole. The Alley Theater somewhat recently staged a version, set right here in Texas, called “Quixote Nuevo.”
Don Quixote is the story of an old country gentleman in Spain who was “addicted himself to reading books of chivalry” and “lost his senses, in poring over, and attempting to discover the meaning of” the texts. He lost his senses so much that he became convinced that he was a knight errant–the sort of individual who wandered the Spanish countryside seeking to rescue damsels in distress, slay giants, and defeat evil sorcerers–rather than an old man who could barely “afford a dish of hodge-podge,” possessed “the skeleton of a horse,” and was accompanied by “a sort of starved greyhound.”
Much like life, Don Quixote is a novel of ambiguities. Quixote’s loss of connection to the present is so convincing, that he manages to bring into the world that he imagines his friend Sancho Panza. Quixote sets out in search of adventure and Panza takes up as his squire. Or does he? Maybe Panza is fully aware of his friend’s delusions, and is there in attempt to bring Quixote back to what is supposed to be reality.
Quixote sees giants, tilts his lance, and tells Panza that his going to charge his ancient stead at them in an effort to expunge “such a wicked race from the face of the earth.” “What giants do you mean?” queries Panza in response. “I would your worship would take notice… that those you see yonder are no giants, but wind-mills, and what seem arms to you, are sails.”
Quixote attacks the windmills. His imagination crashes rather abruptly into the stony reality of rotating wooden blade. He finds himself caught up in them–suspended temporarily in the air. Friend Panza helps him untangle himself, tends his to injuries, and adjures him, “did I not tell your worship to consider well what you were about?”
I will not attempt to summarize the entire novel. It runs over a thousand riotous pages. Overall, it rests on the questions: “What is real?” “Are we better off living in the present or imagining ourselves someplace else?” “Who are the people in touch with reality, those who live in it or those who dream of a better world?”
It is an essence a story that calls into question the experience of living in the here and now–not the least because all of the characters who are fully present to the present that Quixote encounters seem to be significantly more miserable than he is. They see themselves only as they are–Spanish peasants, struggling innkeepers, unfortunate barmaids, and poor country gentlemen–while Quixote sees them as they might be–generous patrons, beautiful princesses, and noble knights.
I have read Don Quixote twice in my life–each time on a pilgrimage of sorts. I am telling you this because pilgrimage experience rests upon trying to reconcile opening ourselves to the present and longing the future. And that, I suspect, is the situation most of us are in today. I, and I imagine we, struggle with being in the here and now. I long for a vaccine. I long for a time when enough people wear masks, wash their hands following the CDC guidelines, listen to epidemiologists and other health experts, and practice social distancing so that the virus abates, and we can resume something that resembled life before. That day will come but for right now I am struggling to put one metaphorical foot in front of another, to live in the present.
The first time I read Don Quixote I was in Chiapas, Mexico, staying in a rural village way up in the mountains and way out in the jungle. It was the sort of place that it took more than a day to travel to and that the only way to get there was in the back of a cattle truck. I was there doing human rights observation, sleeping in a small thatch roof hut, and subsisting off of tortillas and black beans. I was with a group of about three other observers. It was a big deal when eggs or a bit of cheese or some vegetables came our way.
The people who lived in the village were part of the Zapatista movement–a revolutionary indigenous group that was trying to reclaim their traditional forms of democratic self-governance and live autonomously from the Mexican government. The movement had briefly taken up arms against the government in 1994 and the communities that were part of it were, to say the least, not popular with the Mexican military. They were under constant threat of massacre from both government forces and governmentally aligned paramilitaries.
The point of being a peace observer was to prevent such massacres. The Mexican government cared enough about international opinion that it did not want to be perceived as the kind of brutal regime that either killed or encouraged the killing of its own civilians. And so, at the invitation of the Zapatistas, people like me went on pilgrimages to remote villages, way up in the mountains and way out in the jungle, in the hopes that our act of witness would prevent us from actually witnessing anything.
A good day was a day when absolutely nothing happened. And most days there was nothing to do but pass through the present–talk with the Zapatistas and my fellow human rights observers, endlessly stoke a fire so that we could boil beans, and read.
I had chosen Don Quixote because he was one of the movements quasi-patron saints. Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, one of the Zapatistas’ principal spokespeople, had recast Don Quixote as Don Durito de la Lacandon–the little hard gentleman of the jungle. Don Durito was “a little smoking beetle, very well read and an even better talker” who, astride his beetle charger, had given himself the task of accompanying Marcos as he went about his own quixotic task of participating in a movement for justice.
In Marcos’s stories Don Durito is always encouraging him on and encouraging him not to step on beetles. Which is to say, that Durito wanted Marcos to look to the future–the moment when peace might break out–and live in the present. “You are going to win,” Durito tells Marcos and “We beetles need to make sure that you do not squash us with your big boots.”
The journey towards peace, like waiting for the end to the pandemic, is this way: we live in the present and do what we can to create the world we want to see. We wait patiently in a village knowing that our presence might prevent gunfire. We wear masks knowing that the small actions we take might prevent the spread of the virus. The present becomes the future we want. And yet, at the same time, we wait for the future to arrive.
The second time I read Don Quixote I was on an actual pilgrimage in Spain. I had gotten a grant to walk the Camino de Santiago with a small group of clergy. The Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St. James, is a network of trails that lead to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It is there that, according to legend, the remains of James–supposed to be the first disciple of Jesus–are buried.
We only walked the pilgrim trail for five days–doing about twenty miles a day. It was a brutal and exhausting experience, traveling through small Galician towns and endless countryside. The scenery was beautiful. It was hard not to let your feet go to blister. And after awhile everything just sort of went numb–numb to the present, numb to the future, numb to the past. All there was the act of putting one foot in front of the other. My body lost any hope of the pilgrimage ending, of arriving Compostela, or enduring anything else other than the walk itself.
The walk was not pleasant. The walk was not easy. But the walk was all there was. Every once and awhile something would interrupt the monotony of one foot in front another. We would arrive in a village with a small inn serving rustic, but sustaining, fare. We would stop for the night someplace where we might buy a bottle of red wine. A dozen butterflies would swarm across our path in their blue white glory. There would be an ancient unexpected ruin. But, mostly, it was just step by step by step by seeming endless step, fifty thousand or more steps a day.
At night, I would read Cervantes–the tale of the mad knight errant who had tilted at windmills across the same landscape centuries before. Don Quixote dreamed of escaping his reality while he traveled in search of adventure. Sancho Panza was always urging him, “in my small judgment, the best and wholesomest thing we can do, will be to jog back again to our habitation, now while the harvest is going on, to take care of our crops.” And yet for close to a thousand pages they more or less continued.
Quixote and Panza never really arrive at their destination. They never actually have any of the adventures that they seek. They fight giants, evil knights, and wicked sorcerers–but only in Quixote’s imagination. They turn out to be perpetually stuck in the present. And they still manage to have adventures.
I suppose that in strange way Cervantes advice to us is the same as Thich Nhat Hahn’s or Anna Katharina Emmerich’s or Abraham Joshua Heschel’s or Mulla Nasrudin’s. We should embrace what is, avoid stepping on beetles, even as we hope for, dream of, what might be. The two need not live entirely in tension. Quixote can go on adventures and dream of a better world while savoring–as he appears to–parts of this one. We can wait for the arrival of a vaccine or for the advent of a good government but we must make the most of the present moment. It is all we have and the only instance in time we might encounter an awakening or the divine or God or whatever it is we want to call the whatever it is we are fully part of and can never actually name.
And now, I confess, that I am going to end with a confession. There are occasions when I offer a word that I myself need to hear–the urging on that I need in my own life. And this appears to be one of them. I am not sure if the same has been true for you but for me the journey of this sermon, the putting of one word in front of the other, has brought me back to a place where I can open myself to the present. Instead of longing for what might be, I will leave this place and brew a bitter cup of green tea and let the steam and scent wash over me. I will enjoy the marigolds in my garden and watch the sunflowers unfold. And I will simply be. I wish the same for you, in this time of plague and pandemic, wherever you are. Open yourself to the what is for there is much wisdom and being to be found there.
That is the end of my pilgrimage of words.
Let them rest upon an Amen
and a Blessed Be.