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Meditation - #539 - Late October by Maya Angelou
This morning's talk attempts to talk about what it is to be rooted and uprooted, what it is to feel at home and to feel a foreigner.
By the waters of Babylon If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Let not the foreigner a house of prayer for all people besides those I've already gathered.
I want to return to what I was talking about last week, raising the question of identity, of the identity of Unitarianism, and particularly the identity of Unitarianism in relation to the identity of Christianity. And it seems appropriate this morning, in light of what is going to happen this afternoon to speak more personally about the identity of Unitarianism in relation to my understanding of my own identity. We have been thinking, have we not, for nearly a year, about whether the unusual identity of this particular church community matches or fits in some way whatever my identity is at this particular point in my life. And I've wanted for a long time, to make that subject, the subject that we've been thinking about, the subject of my talk for this morning.
For me to think about my identity is first of all to think about what it means be rooted in a particular place. I know that many Quincians know exactly what it means to feel rooted in a place. All you have to do is look through the Quincy phone book with its multiple listings of the several few old Quincy, usually almost always German names, to know that Quincy is the kind of place where families generations ago put down roots and stayed. And many of the members of this church haven't come in, like myself, as a stranger, but are deeply rooted not only in Quincy , but in the long history of this Unitarian Community. Some came to church and to Sunday School here, years before I was even born. And think of this church, both the building and the people as a home, and know themselves to be rooted here. Quincy people will know what I mean when I speak about being rooted. Of being at home in a particular place.
I couldn't speak about my identity without speaking about being rooted in a place, a place that isn't this place; neither Quincy nor this church nor even this religious tradition. I was born in a very small town called Delmont in Western Pennsylvania. One of five kids with my grandparents three houses away, and my great-aunt not much further, and my aunt next door and various other brothers and sisters and cousins of my parents and grandparents, not far away. This area in Western Pennsylvania has been home to the vaarious sides of my family for six generations. And I spent a lot of time as a kid with older relatives, listening to stories about even older relatives, and this fostered in me a deep sense of connection to that place. My sense of rootedness in the place goes beyond even my connection to the people to a rootedness in the place itself; of what might be considered the topography of the place. I don't want to sound too bizarre, but I feel a deep connection to the main street of this little town as it climbs the hill to a Lutheran church at the top; and to the 19th century architecture that lines that street; and to the hardware store and the penny candy store and to the Presbyterian Church and to the cemetery, where I worked. And most especially, I feel a deep connection to the hills around the town, and to all the gentle rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. I never feel truly at home unless I'm surrounded by these hills; by the ever-present beauty of the place. The ever-;resent beauty of the place that is constantly taking my mind; taking my eyes and my mind up to the horizon where the hills and the sky meet. It was after all, constantly having my eyes directed to the hills and to the sky that constantly made me dream as a kid about the future, about gong to school, about becoming educated, about becoming a philosopher, and a theologian, about being both of these as a professor. And also on the side, as a minister.
Now, if you look at my identity in terms of those dreams I had when I was a kid, you would have to say; my identity is marked by an absolutely boring consistency. There is, however, one fact which marks a great disruption or a rupture in the history of my identity. I did dream about going away to school and to the best schools for many years, in order to become a professor. Having done that, however, I just assumed that I would pick up my identity again at the roots, where it started. That I would live my life as a professor where I belonged, somewhere in Pennsylvania.
And though I consider myself very lucky and happy, and enjoy my academic, professional and personal life; and as a professor, they are all wrapped up into one. I enjoy my life as much as anyone, still I live my life as someone who is uprooted. Who is shorn from his roots to a much greater extent than I ever expected. I wonder how many of you feel rooted, and how many feel up-rooted. Now, places like Quincy where so many people who live here are actually rooted here should be aware that there are people here who aren't rooted here; who live here but who live an up-rooted life here. And this is also something this particular church community should understand, this unusual community which attracts so many different types of people, and especially people who come to Quincy from other places, searching for something, something that they might have found at least to some extent, somewhere else.
I've been thinking about the phenomenon of being rooted and uprooted for a long time. And I've had to think of it often this summer in Lithuania; a society much more traditional than our own where people really feel rooted. Lithuania is a very small country, about half the size of Illinois. And it's not very economically advanced, so Lithuanians tend to live where or very near where they grew up. Even Lithuanians who are from the countryside and go to one of the big cities are still never more than two hours drive from where they grew up.
Lithuanians envied many aspects of life in America, and most especially our material wealth. They marveled at the fact that a lowly professor like myself, lived in my house all alone (with my animals, of course), with three bedrooms all to myself. They were also awed by the size of America. And they were struck by what this meant about our lives as Americans. They always seemed surprised and saddened to learn that my house is 700 miles away from where I grew up; that my parents and brother lived 700 miles away; that my sister and my younger brother lived 2000 miles away; that most of my close friends too, live at a great distance. I got the sense that to most Lithuanians, this was a very strange way to live, indeed. And that to have to live this way would, to them, cancel out all the benefits of being an American. And made me realize that perhaps to live in such a huge and a mobile and an economically advanced country such as ours, has its own ways of compelling us to participate in what Heidegger once called, the difficulty of life.
Of course even those who live in the place in which they are rooted, participate in this difficulty; are uprooted, because the passage of time uproots all of us; ruptures the identities of all of us. Indeed, my desire to remain rooted stems largely from a desire to somehow steal from time its ability to disrupt our identity forever, and irrevocably. Its not only when I have 50 error-ridden undergraduate papers to grade or a talk to write for the next morning, and it is 2:00 o'clock in the morning; that I wish I were 12 years old again sitting on my parents front porch with a Pepsi listening to the Pirates' game. My only concern being whether Willie Stargill will "spread some chicken on the hill." Which meant, if you're not from Western Pennsylvania, that he would hit a home run.
I know that at 35, I might seem very young to some of you, but believe me I'm old enough to feel time as what not only passes too quickly, but takes away too much. I'd love to be 12 years old again, not only to have fewer responsibilities, but more importantly, to deliver my great-aunt's newspaper, again; or walk to my grandparents' house and find them home; or talk to my sister. It's too much; it is too melancholic to say that loss is the essence of time, for this would not even begin to value sufficiently rejuvenation, resurrection, the advent of the new. Not only symbolized but incarnated and made real in our family by the lives of my four nieces; four girls who, as much as they are "ours" and a part of "our family," will never feel or understand what it means to be rooted in the place in which the older relatives are rooted.
So, in terms of my identity, mark me doubly uprooted: Once by time, once by place; or rather continually by time, continually by place. The phenomenon of being uprooted naturally raises the possibility of being transplanted; of growing roots in another place, and settling down; making oneself a home; securing an identity; avoiding, at least trying to avoid, disrupture. And isn't this what I've been doing these almost seven years in Quincy? And isn't this what I'm doing now by taking on another responsibility with this church that roots me even more firmly in this place?
This phenomenon of being transplanted is something I've had to think about a great deal these last couple of years because this is my seventh year of teaching at Quincy, which means it is my tenure year. And within a few months, barring some unforeseen tragedy, I should have tenure. Now, tenure is a good-news/bad-news situation. It means that you've been lucky enough to have actually have gotten a job in the academy. And you are even more lucky to have a reasonable expectation of keeping it for life. The bad news is that once you get tenure at one place, it is very difficult to get tenure at another institution, which means that you're likely not going anywhere else. You labor for seven years for an institution which may be more like Leah than Rachael from the Old Testament. (Laughter-I'm glad that you got that. I'm very impressed with your Biblical Literacy.) You labor for seven years for an institution which may be more like Lean rather than Rachael and after that, if you're lucky, you marry it. I'm lucky that the institution for which I've labored, though far from perfect, is much more like Rachael, the one I really want, than Leah. But does that mean that I want to be transplanted in Quincy. My association with this church has certainly deepened my life in Quincy and made it greatly more rewarding, and I am sure that this will continue and grow. But is this new part of my life opening up here, is this part and parcel of being transplanted in Quincy? Of settling down and settling in to a stable life and a solid, undisrupted identity; a solid citizen of Quincy? Who, after all is a more solid citizen than a minister?
Although it is totally reasonable to think than hopefully having tenure soon and my association with the church, root me more firmly in Quincy; render me more completely as a transplanted being. I have to say that this is not how I see myself. And for myself, I resist the metaphor of being transplanted. Having a solid and a stable life and having a consistent identity that is not constantly ruptured are things I don't even strive for, anymore. I always thought of my life in terms of arrival and stability and goals. I would go to college. I'd study really hard and after four years, I'd arrive as an educated person. And that's what I did. I studied a lot. I learned and changed a great deal when I was in college. When I was a senior, I was arrogant enough, and I was very arrogant, to think that I had things mostly figured out; and that I had already gone through most of my changing; and that I had arrived at a stable identity. Well, of course that was just stupidity.
I changed as much in the first two years of graduate school as I did in the four years of college. Of course when I was finishing up graduate school, getting my doctorate, I figured that then I had finally arrived at a stable identity and had things figured out, after all I had a doctorate. When I arrived in Quincy six years ago, I figured that I was definitely done with most of my changing. And now I realize that I've changed as much these six Quincy years as I did in my graduate school years. And I'm definitely not the same person now as the person who first came here.
So, fool me once, fool me twice; but I've learned. That's why I've given up settling in and settling down and arriving. And I've learned to embrace rather than to fend off experiences that challenge me to question my identity and to change. Life infused with other people who are really very different from me; and with ideas and insights coming from all avenues of the life of the mind; from philosophy, from the great religions, from feminist theory, from literature and literary theory, from social thought, from politics; life infused with all this and with rich relations with other people is constant disrupture, is a constant changing and adding on of one's identity. There is no way around that fact except by falling into a certain rigidity which closes off the life of the mind and causes the spirit to atrophy and die.
So, to be honest, I'm not looking to be transplanted; I'm not looking for the solidity and the stability of an identity arrived at. I'm not interested in settling in and settling down, and I'm probably an unlikely candidate, even as a minister in this community, for the position of solid citizen of Quincy. Instead, knowing that this new aspect of my life as the minister of this community, and my deeper involvement with the people of the church will change me in ways that I cannot now anticipate, I open myself to that change, and to this opportunity to have my identity ruptured once again, over and over again.
I'd like to relate this to what I was talking about last Sunday. Last time I was talking about the identity of Unitarianism as the opening to the spirit, the opening to questioning. So, this is exactly what I'm saying about myself and how I see myself as that opening. This is ithink fundamentally for me what Unitarianism is. It is the resistance to the closure of questioning, and a resistance to the notion that there can ever be a complete identity.
And the last thing that I want to say is then how does Unitarianism relate to Christianity. It is obviously some form of heresy. It seems like every intelligent religion is heresy to some extent. I think it comes down to a question of picking your poisons, or trying to understand how Unitarianism is at the boundary of heresy because it is a mixture of philosophy and religion. My favorite way to think about the heretical nature of Unitarianism is to think about the first heretic. Maybe everybody has their favorite heretic. My favorite heretic is a person named Montenous. Montenous lived about 150 a.d. We don't know much about Montenous. Except that around 150 he claimed to be the holy spirit. We don't know if he had psychological traumas. We don't know much about him, except that he claimed to be the holy spirit, or that the holy spirit spoke through him. He became a heretic because the phenomenon of Montenous and people like Montenous forced the church to say that the holy spirit doesn't work like that; it doesn't go anywhere, it works through the church. When the church came down on Montenous, the church concretized its identity as a settled thing as something once and for all decided, as something that would not be ruptured by the life of the spirit.
Unitarianism is the original heresy. It is the resistance to closure. It is the life of the spirit continually opening itself up to an ever expanded identity. Which is I think, exactly how I see myself right now. My identity as a certain non-identity or a certain constant disrupture of identity. Which is why I think, in the past year or so, this community and I have come to a certain mutual agreement and have been happily met and happily associated with each other, which I fully expect to continue.
But then again, one never knows.
" Go your ways, knowing not the answers to all things, yet seeking always the answer to one more thing than you know." ---John Brigham
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.