as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 17, 2019
The Trappist monk, mystic, peace activist, and scholar Thomas Merton wrote about how he decided to pursue saintliness. One spring night he and a friend were walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City. The subway was being dug. The street was torn up–there were banks of dirt “marked out with red lanterns” lining sidewalks and piled up high in front of the shops. This was the 1940s. It was before Merton became a monk, when he was still a young man. Merton and his friend, someone who went on to become a noted poet, were arguing, passionately, about something.
Suddenly, Merton’s friend turned to him and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
Merton recalls his answer, “I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English…,’ so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged.”
Then Merton tried to formulate his response. He said, “I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”
Merton’s friend was not satisfied, “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton admitted that he was confused. And so, his friend continued to press him. “What you should say,” Merton’s friend informed him, “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
“A saint!… ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’,” was Merton’s reply.
“By wanting to,” his friend said simply.
Merton was filled with self-doubt. “I can’t be a saint. I can’t be a saint,” he answered back. He recounts that in that moment, “my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities; the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that the they must reach… cowardice.”
Merton’s friend would have none of it. He told him, “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Merton described this story in his spiritual classic the Seven Storey Mountain. It was the first major work that he published. For many people, especially of the Vietnam War generation, he went on to become exactly the person who his friend was prompting him to be, a saint.
Merton’s Catholic theistic theology may not resonate with most you but his narrative touches upon the theme of our sermon this morning. This is my second sermon for you on courage. We might define courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. We exhibit courage when we acknowledge our fears, admit that there are ills which might befall us, and act anyway.
Last week I spoke with you about collective courage. Collective courage is the way that we can collectively face our fears and struggle to find new ways of being. It is the expressed in the seventeenth-century universalist phrase, “turn the world upside down.” It is the act of working together to confront social crises–great and small–and then attempting to reorder society.
This week I want to speak with you about individual courage. What I mean here is finding the courage to become the person you feel called to be. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote about finding “the courage to be.” We humans are born with the knowledge that we will die. We witness the mortality of others and realize that death will soon come for us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but each breath draws us closer to our moment of expiration. This can make us anxious. No matter what we do–no matter how carefully we eat, how much we exercise, or how many doctors we see–the threat of death cannot be overcome. “The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself,” wrote Tillich.
In the face of our individual impending extinction it takes courage to continue along with life. And it takes even greater courage to be and to attempt to become, to recognize ourselves as poised on the existential void and still strive to live a life of authenticity. For Merton, it took an extraordinary amount of courage to pursue the vision of sainthood that he found with his friend that New York City night. It meant rejecting all of anxiety that told him he could not or would not or was unable to or that his life was too insignificant. Instead, it meant somehow moving past all of that and coming to recognize, in his words, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
The courage of becoming has long been prized by our religious tradition. In the nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” Our characters might be described as the total sum of our virtues and vices. Virtues are things about us which are praiseworthy. They are the accretions of our actions. Our actions become our habits and then eventually our habits turn to virtues–or vices–and these become our characters. And we Unitarian Universalists have long taught that we are not born with our character fixed in place–born wicked as many a conservative religious tradition teaches. But rather we are born with the capacity to become, the capacity to develop our virtues and vices.
Thomas Aquinas, the twelfth century theologian, identified four principle virtues. These are wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. Over the next several months as we explore how to develop the spiritual and resources that will allow us to address the grave crises of the hour and of our lives we will be examining some of these virtues. We have started with courage because developing the courage to be is essential if we are to pursue the other virtues. Without courage it is difficult to gather the wherewithal to figure out how to be ourselves. William Ellery Channing, another nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian, wrote that the courage to become ourselves might even “be called the perfection of humanity, for it is the exercise, result, and expression of the highest attributes of our nature.” When we find it we open ourselves to the rich possibilities of life and confront the truth that we have a responsibility for forming our own characters.
Bob Schaibly used to frequently remind this congregation of this truth. During the two decades he served here he often told you some variety of, “life… [does] not have a meaning; we give life its meaning, or rather we give our lives their meanings.” Bob’s death this week prompted me to go read a number of his sermons. Reading them I found that he also often told you some variant of, “You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.” The recognition that life does not have an intrinsic meaning, the realization that we are born with what we need to pass our time on our muddy planet, it takes courage to face these truths starkly. It takes courage to admit to them and then open ourselves to becoming ourselves.
I spent a portion of this summer thinking about courage. As some of you know, Asa and I were in Europe for about five weeks with my parents. You might remember that everyone else in our family is in the arts. My father is an art historian and photographer. My mother was a ceramicist in her younger years and then, after she retired from teaching, served on a musem board. She, incidentally, makes all of my stolls. My brother is a figurative painter. His girlfriend is fashion designer. And Emma is pursuing a career in fashion photography.
Traveling with my parents meant immersing ourselves in the arts. We spent about a week in Arles, France at the giant international photography festival there. Rencontres d’Arles is even larger than Houston’s FotoFest. It brings close to a hundred thousand people to the ancient Roman city where Van Gough painted. It is a premier event in the arts world, a bit akin to the Cannes Film Festival.
My parents go most years. This year was very special. One of their closest friends, the Czech photographer Libuse Jarcovjakova was one of the featured artists. She was given the former Saint Anne’s church as an exhibition space. The building has been stripped of religious iconography. The stones have been washed white and a blonde wooden floor put in. The side chapels and the nave have been converted into a gallery that allowed Libuse to exhibit more than two hundred of her images.
Libuse is about the same age as my parents. This was her first major show. It would something of an understatement to say that it was a smash success. During the week that we spent together in Arles there were major articles about her work in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the Guardian. Walking around Arles with her was what I roughly imagine moving through Cannes with a well-known movie director. People stopped us in the street or came up to us and introduced themselves to Libuse while we ate in French cafes.
It would be fair to say that Libuse was in a bit of state of shock. In the space of a week she went from a complete unknown to an international art celebrity. And there are two things about Libuse and courage that I want to share with you. The first is about her art itself. And the second is about her life as an artist.
Libuse’s photography comes from straight from her life. It is her record of courageously becoming. Which is no small thing. She, as I mentioned earlier, is Czech. She came of age in Communist Czechoslovakia. She is also queer. To put it mildly, being a queer artist was not a form of authenticity that was largely tolerated by the Marxist-Leninist authorities. And yet, over the course of more than twenty years she took thousands of black and white photographs documenting her life, lives of those she loved and the lives of those she just happened to encounter. She used photography to attempt to make sense of her life. She told me, “Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.”
The images that garnered the most attention were from the T-Club, which was one of only two gay clubs in Prague during the Communist-era. Never entirely legal, Libuse describes it as a place for: “Convulsive laughter and genuine tears. Insightful conversation and superficial coquetry. One-night stands and love for life. Beautiful young men and beautiful young women. Effeminate “B´s” and respectable-looking gentlemen, who rebounded from their families. Female footballers, waiters, taxi drivers and most probably the secret police too.” In this “place of eternal carnival,” as Libuse called it, people were able to find the courage to be themselves.
And Libuse took photographs of them as they lived that courage. This Transgender Awareness Week, one image in particular stands out. It is of a young postman from North Bohemia who traveled to Prague to visit the T-Club. He wanted to be a woman and gender transition was not possible for him in that repressive society. And yet, there is Libuse’s photograph. In it, the young postman appears as the woman he longs to be. She’s wearing a blonde wig, flirting with the camera, beaming in a long fur coat, courageously, fully, being herself.
Libuse empathy for her subject pops right out of the frame. I can only imagine the courage that was necessary to both take the photograph and be its subject. It is quite possible that either act could have cost the photographer or her subject their livelihoods. For Libuse, even the attempt to be an artist took courage. You see, she came from an artistic family. Both her parents were artists. But they were not the kind of artists approved by the Communist Party. They painted modern abstract canvases. The Party wanted socialist realism, which depicted working people living an idealized life under the Marxist-Leninist regime.
When Libuse graduated from high school the Party had its revenge upon her parents. They her made undergo what was called forced proletarization. In other words, they denied her a college education and tried to make her become a factory worker. She wanted to be an artist like her parents. She did not give up the courage to become. Instead, she told the factory officials that while she worked in the factory, she wanted to document the glorious life of working people had under the Party’s leadership. So, she took her camera and made photographs of people at work. But she did not do it in service of the regime. Instead of showing workers nobly toiling away, she took photographs of them engaging in their everyday acts of resistance–goofing, napping, ignoring supervisors, or doing whatever else they did when they showed up to the factory and did not work. I particularly like the images she made of the creative ways people found to sleep at work–under desks, in giant steel tubes, behind piles of wooden crates…
It took a lot of courage for Libuse to make such defiant photographs. Finding this courage was necessary for her to be herself–to become an artist when her society told her explicitly that she could not be one. It also helped her to develop a sense that courage and beauty are found in everyday life. In conversation with me, she explained a bit of her philosophy, “Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
It takes courage to recognize the specialness of ordinary life. We probably will not become famous religious teachers like Thomas Merton. And we probably will not become internationally known artists like Libuse. But we can find the courage to be ourselves. After all, this is what both Libuse and Merton recommend to us. It is also what the virtue of courage offers us. When we cultivate it we find within ourselves the ability to shape our character. We are born not good or bad but with the ability to choose and in order to do so we must be courageous.
I had initially thought to end our sermon there, but the events of the week require further observations about the courage of being. I speak, of course, of the week’s impeachment hearings. They have demonstrated extraordinary instances of the courage to be by civil servants. The women and men who have testified in front of the nation have offered case studies in how we can shape our own characters. They each have decided upon a profession and then performed its actions, cultivated its habits, and, ultimately, found them embodying its virtues.
It is clear that one of the virtues of their profession is courage. In the face of intimidation by the most powerful man on Earth, the President of the United States, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to the Ukraine, testified on national television. In a telephone call, the President of the United States had said to the President of the Ukraine that he was displeased with Yovanovitch and that she would “go through some things,” words that for me recall mafia movies. Yet there she was, in front of the world, offering information that may well lead to the impeachment of the President.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed, to “be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” And in her testimony, Yovanovitch demonstrated that whomever the President might be she can be relied upon to perform her professional duties. It was a demonstration of how she had cultivated the virtue of courage. It was a demonstration of the courage of being–of embracing the role, the profession, she had chosen for herself.
Her testimony reminded me of words by the civil rights organizer, Ella Baker. Baker said, “I am here and so are you. And we matter. We can change things.” Baker’s words are an invocation of the courage of being. They remind us that we are here and that what we do matters. It takes courage to accept this, courage to admit, as Bob Schaibly taught, that we make the meaning we find in life. Yovanovitch was reminding the world that civil servants play a significant role in government. However much the President of the United States might slight her and her State Department colleagues, they remain actively involved in shaping the destiny of the federal government. And their professional virtues, of which courage is but one, are a significant reason as to why.
Not all of us are civil servants, just as not all of us are artists or great religious teachers. And yet, there is something about the courage to be that it is found in the lives of each person I have talked with you about this morning that recommends itself to each of us. It takes courage to recognize that we have within us the potential to be something and then courage to search for that something. It is the ordinary courage of life, not something extraordinary, and it is something we can find within us.
That is what Libuse tries to communicate with her photography. Her work is not of important religious leaders like Thomas Merton or successful government officials like Marie Yovanovitch. It is of regular working people like the woman from Bohemia dressed in her furs outside the T-Club, finding a space to courageously be the woman she knew she was despite having to live as a postman. It is of regular working people discovering the courage to be their human selves amid a brutal Marxist-Leninist regime–to goof off at work, to sleep on the job.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Such courage might mean admitting that you are uncertain of who you are supposed to be and living with that ambiguity. That is certainly something of what Bob Schaibly suggested in his sermons. Before we find the courage to be we must first discover the courage to recognize that it is we who make the meaning of our lives. In some times and places this is much easier to recognize that in others. Living in New York, the child of relative wealth and privilege, it was no doubt easier for Thomas Merton to accept that he could become who he wanted to be than it was for Libuse in 1970s Prague. Finding the courage to be a queer dissident artist under the Soviets and refusing to let the officials of a totalitarian regime be the people who made meaning from her life was extraordinarily difficult. It meant creating in secrecy, without recognition, for decades. And yet, she found the courage to be.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Have you found it? Can you accept that we make meaning in our lives? It is a significant responsibility. And it means accepting that our ordinary lives–yours and mine–can contain the meaning we give them. We might be hemmed in on many sides. We might not come from lives of privilege or have the advantages of a fine education or struggle with poverty. But we can find the courage to be and discover within ourselves the resources to make meaning in our lives. And to accept that such meaning will change over time. It is like Bob Schaibly said, “at different times the meaning of your life may have been to do God’s will, or to do justice, or to love mercy, or to enjoy the fruits of creation, to complete your education, to raise your children, to get these kids through college, and so forth.” Your meaning is your own if you can cultivate the courage to make it.
This belies the universe having cosmic meaning. And it takes courage to face that, as the poet Cristina Peri Rossi wrote:
“Se necesita mucho valor
para tanta muerte inútil.”
“One needs a lot of courage
for so much useless death.”
Death, like life, is only given the meaning we provide it. It takes courage to face that and to give our lives, and ultimately, our deaths meaning. And so, let me give the last words to Bob Schaibly who gave his life, and his death, meaning in part by serving this congregation, Unitarian Universalism, and our human world:
You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.
May we each, as members of this religious community and as members of the great family of all souls, cultivate within us the courage to find what we need within Bob Schaibly’s words.
Let the congregation say Amen.