Practice Reverence by Rev. Anthony D. Makar
Listen to two stories that illustrate how ancient cultures prized reverence as one of the highest virtues.
The first comes from the Pygmy people of the Central African nation of the Congo Republic. Once upon a time, a young boy heard the most beautiful song coming from the forest. The song was so beautiful, he had to go and see who was singing. Deep in the forest he found the bird, and he brought it all the way back to the camp to feed it. This deeply annoyed his father; he didn’t want to give any of their food to the bird. But the boy pleaded and pleaded with him, and the bird was fed. The next day the bird sang again; it sang the most beautiful song, and again the boy went deep into the forest to find it, and again he brought it all the way back to feed it. This time the father was even more angered, but once again he gave in and fed the bird. The third day the same thing happened. But this time the father took the bird from the son and told his son to go away. When his son had left, the father killed the bird, the bird with the most beautiful song, and with the bird he killed the song, and with the song he killed himself and he dropped dead, completely dead, dead forever.
This is what happens when reverence is lacking.
But now the second story, which comes from a very different part of the world: Greece. The ancient epic is called The Iliad, and it tells the tale of the war between a coalition of Greek city-states and the city of Troy, with Greece ultimately victorious. Our second story is but a small piece of this grand tale, and it has to do with an interaction between the Trojan champion, Hector, and the Greek champion, Achilles, before they duel. Hector wants to make a deal with Achilles. He says, “Whoever kills the other, they will respect tradition and treat the body with kindness and turn it over to his parents for proper burial.” But how does Achilles reply? He says, “Does the wolf make bargains with the lamb? I will kill you and I will leave your body to the dogs and the vultures.” Then they fight. Achilles wins, and he treats Hector’s body as he said he would. But soon enough, he finds that he can’t go through with it. Memories of his own father keep coming upon him, and he imagines what it would have been like if Hector had won and treated his body as he’d treated Hector’s. Achilles remembers his own father, and in remembering this, he feels a shared humanity with Hector, and that’s what leads him to do the right thing, and uphold tradition.
Reverence here is recovered; but it’s a very close call.
So what is this virtue we are talking about this morning?
What are the stories saying?
First: there are things in this world to be humble before, and to go in awe of. Birds with the most beautiful song exist. Traditions you never want to violate exist.
The transcendent is all this and more. Things that are ever beyond our reach though we strive to chase after, like justice, truth, and beauty. Or living in peace, building Beloved Community grounded in Covenant.
These are transcendent things, larger than us.
So are the things that possess power we cannot ultimately control, like nature, like love, like suffering, like death.
So are the things that unite human beings in a shared common humanity despite the forces of war and greed and fear and ignorance. How we are all heroes in our births and how we will all die; how everyone is fighting some kind of battle in their lives; how we are all people, responsible for the choices we make because that’s what freedom entails.
Transcendence is also in the present moment, in the sense that it is pregnant with unimagined possibility. It does not matter what you are doing. You could be shoveling snow—but can you shovel with all the mindfulness and joy that the Buddha would shovel with?
There are transcendent things, and there are also transcendent questions, perennial questions people have been asking from the beginnings of human consciousness, and will always ask. Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of life? Is there a God? What happens after a person dies, if anything?
What the two stories spotlight is the reality of the transcendent, and second of all, they spotlight what is being transcended.
Why does the father resent his son and the bird with the beautiful song? Because he doesn’t want to give it any food. He’s greedy. Or maybe his intentions are better than that; maybe he wants to make sure that there’s enough food to go around for his family, and his family only. But, as the story suggests, our souls hunger for beauty too, and when beauty dies, it does not matter how much food’s in the fridge.
We die too.
Then there is the smallness of Achilles. Caught up in his blood lust, all that exists for him are wolves and lambs. You are either a wolf or a lamb to him.
When we find ourselves looking upon another like this, and we are convinced that they are all bad and all wrong, and we treat them accordingly, we can be sure our hearts have gotten as small and as Grinchy as Achilles’.
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, for nations and for congregations.
Again and again, when we lack reverence, the result is some kind of violence, to the world, to others, or to ourselves.
But there is yet another kind of smallness that hounds the human condition. It’s not so much about greed or warlust (and other human failings) as it is about fundamental limits. Philosopher Bryan Magee tries to articulate this by talking about dogs and their “dogness.” “We see,” he writes,” that each [living being] is enclosed in a world of possibility that its own nature makes available to it. A dog is enclosed in its dogness, its doggitude, and cannot get outside of that. The cleverest dog that ever existed can do and understand only what it is possible for a dog to do and understand.”
Let’s not pick on dogs here. Let’s talk about Anthony Makarness. Let’s talk about Taryn Strauss-icity, Donald Milton-itude, Bill Kramer-ocity. Each and every one of us is enclosed in our own small worlds of possibility, defined by the limitations of our personal genetics, life experiences, and the stories we tell ourselves. Our small worlds enable us to have a life, but the lives are puny compared to all that is possible, all that is Life with a capital L. “The human situation,” says Bryan Magee, “is as if we were given some but not all of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and left to make a complete picture of them. Whatever we ended up with could not be the true picture.”
Look at the person beside you. Your experience of them, via your special version of “dogness,” results in possessing just some of the puzzle pieces and never all.
And now hold the mirror up to yourself. Same thing again. Your version of “dogness,” directed inward towards self-knowledge, limits things profoundly. You will never get to all the puzzle pieces, even though you are the nearest thing to yourself in all the world.
I am reminded of something that a person I know likes to say to themselves. She’s suffered a lot. Her mother tried to commit suicide and she walked in on that, cleaned up after that. Her daughter was murdered by the daughter’s husband. She’s suffered a lot. And so she likes to say, “I must have been Attila the Hun in a past life.” That’s how she’s putting together the puzzle pieces of her life, to help her understand why she’s suffering so in this life. She deserves it, in other words. I called her on it, and she laughed, she denied that she was trying to explain anything, and besides, she didn’t even believe in reincarnation. I said, fine, but your story is still casting a curse upon you. What if you told a different story that perhaps is not true but is still kinder? Namely: you chose to suffer all these horrible things in this life because you wanted to fast-track your evolution as a compassionate and loving being. There’s no faster track than to experience suffering first-hand. What about this story, I asked her. Nope. Didn’t matter that both stories were equally playful and equally untrue (perhaps). She resisted. She wanted to stay with the negativity towards herself.
She was not sufficiently in awe of the Mystery of her life, and her suffering.
We must make space for awe, which means backing the heck up from thinking we know, or feeling guilty until proven innocent.
Irreverence is for Anthony Makar to pretend that Anthony Makarness is the route to certainty.
Reverence is for Anthony Makar to honor the parts of the puzzle that are in hand, but also to honor the gaps. To be in awe of the Mystery of his life.
To stay curious, because every moment the Mystery unfolds.
And you too, in your Taryn Strauss-icity, Donald Milton-itude, Bill Kramer-ocity, and on and on.
And now, we move into the last part of my message today. So far, we’ve explored what reverence is, and what a lack of reverence leads to.
By now I hope you see why ancient cultures prized it so highly, and feared its absence.
So should we.
And so, the practical question: how can we be more reverential in our lives here and now?
Lots to say, but I will hone in on one thing here: a certain Buddhist spiritual practice, which can take us far.
It’s called “tonglen” [T-O-N-G-L-E-N]. Tonglen is when you take on the suffering of someone who is hurting and you wish to help. You might not even like this person, or what they stand for. Maybe they are all for moving this congregation to Kensington, and you think that would be disastrous. Or maybe you are all for Kensington and you feel very critical towards folks who aren’t. But you will take on this other person’s anxiety and anger and fear because you have reverence towards our shared human condition of vulnerability in the face of change and of sadness in the face of loss. You have reverence towards that. And so you take on the suffering of the person bugging you. You breathe in the wish to take away the anxiety and anger and fear, and then, as you breathe out, you send the person happiness, or joy, or whatever might relieve them of their pain. “This is the core of the practice,” says Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron: “breathing in the other’s pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”
It is a scary time of change and lots is happening. But the center can absolutely hold when we go in awe of something that transcends our personal emotions. The center can hold when we go in awe of our promises to treat each other kindly despite our differences.
Why else do we come together as a spiritual community anyhow? Because we go in awe of the possibility and power of Beloved Community.
Practice tonglen for each other. Especially people who share a different point of view that’s really bugging you.
But Pema Chodron is clear that often this is very hard to do. She says, “we often cannot do [tonglen] because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.” So this is what she recommends: “At that point you can change the focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at that very moment of time are feeling exactly the same stuckness and misery. Maybe you are able to name your pain,” she says. “You recognize it clearly as terror or revulsion or anger or wanting to get revenge. So you breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion and you send out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those countless others.”
Right now, summon up a hard feeling. Summon up the feelings of the father who kills the bird with the most beautiful song. Summon up the feelings of terrible Achilles, who divides the world into wolves and lambs. Summon up the feelings of the woman who said she must have been Attila the Hun in a past life. Breathe in for all the people in this world caught up in the same feelings—your heart is big enough for this—and then breathe out kindness and relief to everyone and to yourself.
You are not alone. Despite the intensity of the pain—whatever your version of “dogness” happens to be—which makes you feel like you live on your own island in isolation from all.
No. Humanity is with you. There is no island. There is only endless common ground.
Go in awe of that.
Some people say that your mind can be so open that your brains fall out.
But I pray that it can be so open that something transcendent and worthy of awe falls in.
I pray that for all of us today.