Saturday 22 March 2014

Right Speech

Now while we do not rule the world and cannot control all that goes on around us, how we live matters. We impact on the lives of others and the lives of others impact on how we live. Everything we do and everything we do not do matters. It's the same with how we communicate with one another, how we speak to each other. One careless word can trigger off a chain reaction of destruction throughout the word, just as a one loving word can lead to a tidal wave of compassion...Right speech is so important...

I was recently sent the following story...

The old Buddhist master sat before the assembled yogis. "Tonight I would like to speak to you about wise speech," he began. "According to the Buddha, wise speech is truthful, gentle, helpful, spoken from a kind heart and timely." Then he spoke at great length about the harm that can come from words that are mean spirited, harsh or careless.

A young yogi raised his hand and said, "Venerable sir, I do not understand how this can be. A stone can bruise. Theft can deprive. Brawling can cause bleeding. But words are just sounds. They have no substance. I must disagree with you when you suggest they are so powerful."

The old man replied, "If you weren't such an idiot, you'd understand. So sit down, shut up and stop interrupting with your ignorance."

The young man dropped to his cushion and the master continued his dharma talk.

Fifteen minutes later the young yogi jumped to his feet without raising his hand and yelled, "You are a fraud! You cannot possibly be the great teacher you pretend to be." His face was red, his eyes were bulging, his fists were clenched, his body shook.

The old man turned to the yogi and said, "You seem perturbed. Your gentle disposition is shattered. What happened to you?"

"You hurtled insults I did not deserve. No man of wisdom could speak so harshly. You are a fraud."

The old man responded, "Ah. I see. It was my words that had such a transforming effect upon you. It seems you have changed your philosophy. It seems you and I agree that speech can be quite powerful."

The young man's face went blank. His angry flush subsided. A shy smile formed at the corners of his mouth. He bowed slightly, "You are certainly a wise teacher. I shall never forget this lesson. Speech can be very powerful."

Yes speech can be very powerful. We need to be wise in the way we communicate with one another.

I recently conducted the funeral of Peter Ball at Altrincham Crematorium. The funeral provided a new challenge for me as Peter’s widow Jennifer is deaf. Therefore when I was talking with her about the funeral and holding the family and guests during the service I had to ensure I paid close attention to this.

I arrived at the crematorium early and found myself chatting with the vast array of people who were in attendance. One group were Jennifer’s friends, many of whom had attended the same deaf school she had as a child. Amongst the group was David Coyle and his wife Beryl, members at Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston, one of the two congregations I serve. Beryl is also deaf and has been friends with Jennifer since childhood. I chatted with David and then marvelled at the loving and beautiful conversations the people were having with one another. I wish I could have joined in, but I do not know sign language and I cannot lip read. I noticed how I felt a little left out by this, it gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like for many people who cannot fully communicate with others for a variety of reasons.

The funeral was a beautiful occasion as we honoured the life of Peter, a man full of love and life. The next day Peter and Jennifer’s daughter Gina rang to thank me for the way I had conducted the service, particularly for ensuring that her mother could follow my words by reading my lips. I looked at Jennifer directly as I spoke throughout much of the service. She told her daughter that she understood virtually every word I had said and wanted me to know this...The language of the heart always finds a way if we pay attention to both what we say and how we say it, always taking into consideration the people we are trying to communicate with.

This experience has once again taught me that in communication you must always pay attention to who you are attempting to speak to...It’s about the other and not just the self.

It got me thinking about how we communicate with one another, about right speech and of course the language of the heart, one of my many passions.

It got we thinking about the “Three Fold Test” for right speech. According to this test there are three things that we ought to ask ourselves before speaking:

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Apparently It dates back to 1835 and a poem by Beth Day, titled “Three Gates of Gold”.

"Three Gates of Gold" by Beth Day

If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

Now no doubt this poem was influenced by an old Sufi tradition which suggests that we should only speak after our words have managed to pass through four gates.

At the first gate we should ask ourselves “Are these words true?” If so then we let them pass through; if not, then back they must go. At the second gate we ask; “Are these words necessary?” At the third we ask; “Are these words beneficial?” At the fourth gate we ask, “Are they kind?” If we answer no to any of these questions, then what we are about to say ought to be left unsaid.

Luminaries from Sai Baba to Eleanor Roosevelt have offered variations on the same theme over the years “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary”. There is also the “Triple Filter Test”, usually attributed to Socrates which asked if it is “true, good or useful.”

Right Speech is central to both Christian and Buddhist morality.

“Samma Vaca” is the third aspect of “The Noble Eightfold Path”, in Buddhism. It is basically abstinence from gossip, slander, lying, maliciousness and hate speech. So to speak wisely or rightly is to do so truthfully with kindness, purpose and meaning.

“Samma Vaca” is usually translated as “right speech”, although scholars suggest that a more accurate translation is actually “wise speech”. Buddhist morality is based on “samadhana”, which is best translated as “harmony”, “coordination” or “generosity”. “Sama vaca” is speech that promotes harmony. Buddhist morality is different to what is often seen as the dualism of western ethics, whether theistic or non-theistic, it is not really about right or wrong; what it is actually about is harmony. “Right Speech” is accompanied by the parallel practice of deep listening. It is about harmony it’s about contemplating what is going on inside both you and the person you are speaking with

There are many passage in both the Old and New Testament that refer to “Right Speech. Many preachers in the Christian tradition will offer the following words from Psalm 19 before preaching a sermon “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God. In the New Testament the book of James makes reference to how a person should use their mouth “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” the book of Ephesians, chapter four, verse 25 states “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.”

The Sufi, Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as other ancient and contemporary ones are saying similar things about how we ought to conduct ourselves with our brothers and sisters. They are saying how damaging wrong speech can be to both our neighbours and ourselves, you sense the essence of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” running through them all and teachings about right speech.

How we communicate is so important. We may not have control over what goes on in the world all around us, but how we act towards others really matters. We need to be mindful in how we speak because what we say and do and what we do not say and do not do has an impact on all around us. As the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything good to say then its best to probably keep your mouth shut.

The other evening I met with my interfaith friendship circle. It is a wonderful group who meet regularly to talk and listen about our different faith traditions. During the conversations celebrity culture came up. One figure who was discussed was Russell Brand. He seemed to divide opinion around the table. Some like the way he is, what he has to say and how he says things and others do not. During the conversations that infamous incident that involved Andrew Sachs came up. You may or may not recall but Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross had left a series of hurtful comments on Sach's answer phone primarily about his granddaughter who Brand had a sexual liaison with. The message went on for quite some time, I will not repeat what was said, but it was pretty awful. The conversation was broadcast live on radio 2 and led to a mass scale media frenzy. Now although the incident was 8 years ago it still haunts Mr Sachs and his family. His anger has been more directed towards Jonathan Ross, than Russell Brand, who he says ought to know better as he is the father of two daughters himself. In a recent interview Sachs said.

“Maybe it was fun for him, but it was excruciating for us. Privately, I was thinking of Shakespeare’s words: ‘He that filches from me my good name  /  Robs me of that which not enriches him  /  And makes me poor indeed.’

Now everyone says the wrong thing at some point or another. A recent excruciating memory came back to me this week of something I said at a meeting a few years ago. It was an unskilful ill thought out comment that wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but it caused hurt. As soon as I said it I instantly regretted it. I apologised, but it was too late, the hurt was done.

As a minister of religion I need to be very careful in my choice of words and I am not always, especially when trying to be humorous; humour that is hurtful and at the expense of others is not really humour at all. There are warnings about this in the third chapter of the book of James in the New Testament. As he points out preaching and teaching are dangerous professions and any misuses of the tongue by a teacher is judged with extra strictness. He also says that the tongue is a fire. And even a small spark, a tiny hint of a flame, can burn down a whole forest.

I need to be very careful, skilful in what I say, people listen to me.

I must be mindful not to do what they said of Lenny Bruce “He uses words as weapons to hit people over the head with”. We all need to speak our truth in love, but we need to do so mindfully.

I must never underestimate the power of words as weapons. They can be just as violent as the fist, as sticks and stones and guns and bombs even. Words have the power to cause the utmost damage. That said they also have the power to heal. A word rightly spoken can also heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love. Just another example of that chaos theory of compassion I’m always going on about.

The key is to give words their proper respect. They say a person ought to be judged by their deeds and not their words, but I see words as deeds myself. The action of our tongues can have a much bigger impact than those of our hands.

When we are about to speak we need to ask ourselves.

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

What we do and what we say matters. Everything matters.

So may what we say be kind, true, and necessary.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Belonging and Spiritual Practice

“Belonging” is a word that has been growing in my heart these last few weeks and months. There is good reason for this. I have been feeling a deepening sense of belonging to all that is life. No doubt this is due, in no small part, to the extent that my internal barriers have been removed. As a result I have found myself connecting more and more to my true self, to the people around me, the life in which we all share and that eternal spirit that runs through all life, that I name God. If I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that the more open I become the more this sense of belonging grows.

Sadly “Our Allen”, my step brother, recently died and I was ask to lead the family aspect of his funeral, to hold our nearest and dearest through this painful time. I travelled down to Northamptonshire the night before the funeral and spent the evening with his ex-wife Karen and their two sons Joe and Tom. We talked for hours; it was so beautiful to connect, even in the difficult circumstances we faced together. During the conversation I made reference to “Our Mand”(our sister). At which point “Our Joe” said how much he loved this expression and how it had a real sense of openness and belonging. He said that it was not just about individual relationships but how people belonged together in a more corporate sense. During the conversation Ester, “Our Joe’s” fiancĂ©e said how much she enjoyed becoming part of our large and complicated family. There was real genuine warmth in her words. A couple of weeks later I asked “Our Joe” if he would explain exactly what he meant that evening to which he replied:

“Our Danny, as an example, invites not only your family and friends but also the person you’re speaking with, to be involved in the relationship with that person. It’s a lovely way to bring people together. As a wise man once said, all the best things come from Yorkshire!”

The wise man “Our Joe” was referring to was “Our Al”, “Our Joe and Tom’s” dad and my brother.

“Our Joe” is a wise young man. The “our” relationship is not closed, it is open. There is very much a sense of belonging within it and one that is an invitation to all.

Openness breeds belonging and belonging breeds openness. The last few weeks have revealed more deeply this truth to me. It is not always easy to live this way, especially when the storms of life come. This is why spiritual practice is so important. It has been through prayer and other spiritual practices that I have been able to stay open and develop this sense of belonging. Prayer meditation and other forms of practice are vital aspects of my life; they breed concentration and compassion within me and allow me to experience all that is life.

Spiritual practice is something I am going to be focusing on this Lenten season. Most people focus on giving things up in Lent, on a kind of physical self sacrifice. Last year I focused on encouraging the congregations I serve to see what we could give to life, rather than what we could give up. Now whether our focus is on giving things up or on giving to, to maintain it for 40 days is difficult. This is where spiritual practice comes in. It will hold us in our commitment when temptation comes in. I am certain that it is this that sustained Jesus in those forty days he spent in the wilderness fasting as it did throughout his ministry. How many times do we hear of him wandering off alone, to pray in silence, in those Gospel accounts?

In the Gospel accounts there is only one prayer that Jesus taught. This is found in “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 6 vv 9-13) This prayer has become known as “The Lord’s Prayer” or “The Prayer of Jesus”. It is perhaps the most well known prayer in this country. I am asked to include it during most of the funerals I conduct, even for people who are not “very religious”. When I say to the family of the bereaved that it would be wise to include the words in the order of service they always look at me ever so slightly perplexed and say something along the lines of “surely everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer”. My mum said the same thing to me as we were making arrangements for my grandad’s funeral recently.

I have grown to love the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Some may well ask. Well because it is very much a “we” and not an “I” prayer. It begins with the word “Our” not “My”. Later on it asks “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is a real sense of belonging in this prayer, rather like the quaint Yorkshirism of referring to people belonging to one another as, “Our so and so”. The belonging found in this prayer is not in some exclusive sense or closed sense, I find invitation in these words. It is a prayer of openness and belonging.

That said some claim that they feel excluded by the language used. That it uses sexist language as the prayer is addressed to God as “Father”. This is why many have re-written the prayer using gender neutral language or by addressing God as “Mother”. There are a variety of beautiful versions of this prayer out there, I commend them to you. Others have also had trouble with the idea of a distant God “Our Father who art in heaven.” I understand completely both these problems and see clearly why some find the prayer excluding for these reasons. Yet for me in this simple “Our” there is something embracing and holding and inviting in this prayer. In recent weeks I have discovered something beautifully open in these words as my gaze has moved beyond the limits of ancient language.

click here to find alternative versions of "The Lord's Prayer"

Throughout the Gospels when Jesus prays he usually goes off alone to commune in silence. When he does pray out loud it is usually in anguish. Except for this one time when he is asked by the disciples how they should pray and he teaches them “The Lord’s Prayer”. The prayer is a communal prayer which begins with the word “Our”. A word that as “Our Joe” said invites all into relationship. I see it as an open prayer and one of belonging.

I was asked the other day by one of my congregants where I go to for support. My simple answer is that I have people who I can talk with, but the truth is it is prayer and other spiritual practices that hold me and sustain me in difficult times. Well actually prayer is at the core of all that I do, whatever the physical circumstances of my life, as vital as food and water. I pray a lot. Prayer for me is primarily about opening up and connecting to my true self, to life and to God, that loving essence that binds all life together. I don’t prayer to some kind of “Uber Person” in some distant realm, well not literally at least. My prayer is an extension beyond myself that invites myself into relationship with everything and everything into relationship with me. Prayer for me is both an opening and a connecting experience. Prayer somehow helps me to belong to everything; prayer enables me to become “Our Danny” in every single sense.

Prayer of course is not the only spiritual practice. There are many and varied ways to connect with ourselves, with others, with everything and with the Divine. Every religious tradition whether theistic or non-theistic has at its core a contemplative practice, whether that be prayer or a form of meditation or the development of wonder. Gazing at the stars and the sea is a prayer to me. Spiritual Practice need not be static or solemn either. They can be physical too, such as walking and or dancing mindfully. I myself love “Singing Meditation”, a practice that is all about joy and connection.

A spiritual practice is something that needs to be engage with regularly and whose purpose is to develop individual spiritually, beyond the merely material and to challenge us to open our minds, our hearts and our souls. One common metaphor used by the spiritual traditions is that they move us along a path towards a goal. The goal for me is to move us beyond the confines of ourselves so that we welcome all to us and us to all.

Spiritual practice is both personal and universal. Its purpose is personal spiritual development and yet it breeds so much more than that. It opens us up to true belonging. As we belong we invite others to come and join in relationship with themselves, all life and whatever it is that they understand is at the core of it all. Spiritual Practice is at the core of all that I am and all that I do these days. It is something I will be attempting to develop in the coming weeks so as to give up and let go of the things that keep me from all that is, all that has been and all that will be and all that stops me from giving all that I can to life.

This Lent I will continue to practice belonging and to become “Our Danny” in all aspects of life. I invite you join with me.

Saturday 1 March 2014

It's A Mystery To Me

Pilar and Daniel Weinberg’s son was baptized on the coast. The baptism taught him what was sacred.

They gave him a sea shell: “So you’ll learn to love the water.”

They opened a cage and let a bird go free: “So you’ll learn to love the air.”

They gave him a geranium: “So you’ll learn to love the earth.”

And they gave him a little bottle sealed up tight: “Don’t ever, ever open it. So you’ll learn to love mystery.”

by Eduardo Galeano taken from "Walking Words"

I find this idea so beautiful. As they blessed their child they gave him these gifts; gifts that reminded him to love the elements that make up life. The final gift that they gave him was the sealed bottle, which they asked him not to open. They wanted their child to learn to love mystery; to learn to love the unknown.

Now a friend of mine asked why they didn’t give him a gift that signified “fire”? To which I answered well that’s a mystery to me. I then thought again and said maybe the fire is the mystery. Maybe you who read this can answer that mystery for us? Maybe, maybe not?

Life offers so many gifts, perhaps the greatest of them all being the mystery, the unknown. Yes we can learn about things about everything. One of humanity’s greatest attributes is this thirst for knowledge and understanding and yet I reckon we still know so little about anything and everything. I celebrate this. The more we know the more we realise how little we know. It’s also worth noting that the search for knowledge does have negative aspects. Sometimes this search for knowledge leads to us failing to simply appreciate the gift and beauty of being alive. If we are constantly looking for what is new and exciting we may fail to appreciate the beauty, the people, the love we are surrounded by.

We need to learn to love life but we must also learn to love the mystery too. For if we do not we may not really love life at all, only the component parts. If I have learnt anything about life and love I have learnt it is far more than the sum of its parts.

Life is a total mystery to me. Now I’m not talking about the component parts that make up life, I have a decent understanding of them. What I mean is life as we actually live it; the experience of life of human life and love of course. I am a total mystery to myself by the way. Although I have gained a great deal of self knowledge and know myself fairly well, I am aware that I am a total mystery to myself. I’m sure I’m a mystery to most of the people who know me, well they certainly tell me so. The last few days have revealed much of this mystery to me. Oh my ever changing moods.

Last Friday I took a full day off and relaxed and rested and took time to take stock. It was fascinating to me how exhausted I felt as I allowed my soul to truly catch up with my body. Last Friday truly was a Sabbath. Over the last few weeks and months so much has happened and I have experienced an incredible amount of emotion. There has been much pain and suffering, but also a seemingly infinite experience of love. I have never known so much love; I have never allowed myself to know so much before. There has been no despair. The last few weeks and months have been some of the most meaningful and loving I have ever known.

There has also been a deepening sense of connection to that mystery that runs through all of life; that mystery that binds it all together. I have noticed as I have been opened up in grief and pain that this sense of connection has intensified and I have felt held, strengthened, guided and certainly loved. I cannot explain this; all I can talk of is what I have experienced. It has brought a deeper sense of belonging, which has led to a deeper freedom. I feel closer to life and the people I share and have shared my life with as a result.

I also feel energised and re-invigorated. Last Saturday and Sunday I felt so energised so filled up with love and life and I know that it showed. By the way please do not misunderstand me I would do anything to take away the pain that my loved ones have experienced but I know I cannot. I would do anything to bring my grandad and our Allen back, but I cannot. All I can do is accept what has happened and to not let it en-shadow the joy of living, which I sing every day and by doing so I know that the greatest mystery of all will enter and grow in my life, the Love that is God. That which Rudolph Otto named “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” – the tremendous and fearful, powerful, fascinating mystery.

“We sing the joy of living, we sing the mystery."

Please though don’t ask me to explain it; it’s a mystery to me.

These last few days I’ve found myself singing a song I loved from my childhood “She’s a Mystery Girl” by Roy Orbison...

“She’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery girl, she’s a mystery to me. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery girl. She’s a mystery to me.

I woke up early, as always, on Tuesday morning to prepare for my meditation group. The sun was rising, the birds were singing and as I stepped out onto the grove I could see the most beautiful new crescent moon just peeping out from the side of the chapel. It was a beautiful sight. I also noticed that the spring flowers were just coming through the earth too. It got me thinking of the cherry blossom that will come soon and the beautiful pink snow that falls from it. My mind, my heart, my soul were just filled with beautiful thoughts of the great gifts of life, the simple gifts of life. It’s been a difficult winter, but spring is here, new life is coming born from winter’s death.

The following poem "To Music" by Rainer Maria Rilke has been in my heart, my mind, my soul this winter

“To Music” Rainer Maria Rilke

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The quiet of images. You, language where
languages end. You, time
standing straight from the direction
of transpiring hearts.

Feelings, for whom? O, you of the feelings
changing into what?— into an audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You chamber of our heart
which has outgrown us. Our inner most self,
transcending, squeezed out,—
holy farewell:
now that the interior surrounds us
the most practiced of distances, as the other
side of the air:
no longer habitable.

I love this poem particularly those seven simple words “as the other side of the air”; they have been with me much this winter, those seven simple words that have grown in meaning of late. I suppose it’s where I understand those I have loved now dwell. Not some distant place, nor nowhere at all, merely the other side of the air. No longer physically present in this life, but on the other side of the air, the other side of the breath of life.

Rilke was influenced by the Sufi mystical tradition. The Sufi’s saw the universe divided between a physical world experienced in the immediate and a spiritual world beyond. Rilke saw art as a kind of portal between these worlds, if only a fleeting one. For Rilke art had a transcendental function; for Rilke art created something akin to Celtic idea of “thin places”. Art created “Spots of Time” moments that linked all time and space. You can see these elements in the poem. It begins by describing music as a “language where languages end”, music is a universal language that speaks directly to the ears of our hearts. It also suggests that the usual rules of the physical world are suspended by great art, the poem describes statues that breathe. It also suggests that the normal perception of time is altered by art. In this case that music becomes a portal if we know how to listen to it, “with the ears of our hearts”. Music and art for Rilke have the capacity to carry us to a place of deeper understanding, to a richer and more mature perception. Art therefore bridges the gap between head and heart and transcend the limits of pure reason. That said it can also be dangerous as it breaks the security of our perceived knowledge. We need this to happen; we need to be cautious about our safety, for it is this that liberates us from the shackles of what we think we know.

If I am certain of anything in life, it is the danger of certainty. Of all the dangers present in life, it is this that I need to watch out for the most. Certainty seems to shut down the heart and the mind; certainty seems to always build barriers and close shutters. We need more bridges and or portals in life. We need them between each other and within ourselves, between our hearts and our minds. We also need to live as openly as possible. The problem with certainty is that it often lacks true humility. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about humility is that it breeds openness.

I was recently interviewed about the 200th anniversary of Unitarians in Altrincham. During the interview I talked about the history of our free religious faith. I also described the circumstances that led me to it and eventually to ministry, which are still somewhat of a mystery to me. All those meaningful coincidences that conspired to bring me through the door of Cross Street Chapel some 10 years ago and then brought me to not only ministry, but to serving the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston. I recently remembered a conversation I had a with a friend in Altrincham just weeks before I began training for the ministry. This dear friend who is not a Unitarian told me that I would be minister to the Unitarians in Altrincham when my training ended. How he knew that I do not know, but I remember him saying so. He said it in such a matter of fact way too. Another mystery I suppose and I always say I’m wary of soothsayers. There has been much suffering in my journey to ministry, but never despair. Meaning, mainly in the guise of love and service, has always emerged from the pyre of pain.

During the interviewer I described the Unitarian tradition as an “open faith”. It really is the best description I can think of. We are not tied or constrained and yet we are definitely rooted, but open a bit like those spring buds, that are currently appearing, will soon be. The openness comes from what I see as the humility of the tradition, or at least the tradition at its best. "Unitarianism" is about searching for understanding and meaning and experiences that will carry us beyond what we think we already know and understand. That said it is also about love and service as well as an appreciation of what is beautiful and meaningful in life. The tradition is about using our mental faculties our reason, but it’s not about being slaves to it. Reason, the thinking mind, has its limits. Reason without imagination, without mystery is pretty worthless and certainly meaningless.

Life is a mystery, but a beautiful one at that. Yes there is much suffering, but there is also so much joy if we would but stay open to it.

"Let’s sing the joy of living, let’s sing the mystery."

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with an extract from a sermon delivered by Forrest Church in the year 2000, at the beginning on a new Millenium. Here he is reflecting on a cruise he took with his mother.

From “The Angel and the Deep Blue Sea” by Forrest Church

"...In any event, with a clear conscience I devoted an entire week, as every son occasionally should, to caring for my poor creaky mother. Because she had the entire ship as an audience, I even managed to reread four Saul Bellow novels. In all, it was a noble expenditure of time and my soul is clearly the better for it.

There was also the sea. I grew up in the mountains of Idaho, but the sea has always captured my imagination more than even the mightiest peaks. Not only in contemplating the horizon which beckons one's mind to thoughts of eternity, but in pondering the hidden depths and mysteries beneath the surface, whenever I look out over the ocean, if I am paying attention, I experience humility and awe: humility in reflecting on how tiny we are in the whole scope of things; awe ­ a wonder tinged at times with a hint of terror ­ at the unfathomable depths and unsearchable breadth of creation. As it is written in the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Proverbs,

Three things are too wonderful for me;

Four I do not understand:

The way of an eagle in the sky,

The way of a snake on a rock,

The way of a ship on the high seas,

And the way of a man with a woman.

Physics, anatomy, biology, and psychology can begin to decode such mysteries, but knowledge has its limits. Quoting an academic study, my newly rediscovered old guide, Saul Bellow, recently observed "that on an average weekday the New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime." That includes Shakespeare himself. The Times is a fine paper. I read it every day. But for all its information, it only hints, and then only occasionally, at what Shakespeare knew so very well: that the beauty of the bird, the symbol of the snake, the courage of the pilot, and the power of human love will always be touched by mystery.

We don't need something unnatural ­ like a virgin birth or the stopping of the sun ­ to prove our faith. Neither do we need a gigabyte of data to disprove it. Beyond all proof or disproof, we need only reverence for life itself. Contemplate our awe-inspiring connection, over millennia, to thousands of human ancestors, and ultimately to everything that lives."