When the Student Is Ready

When the Student is Ready
Rev. Anthony David
August 23, 2009

Charles Dickens—famous author, Unitarian also—once said a curious thing: that “The absence of the soul is far more terrible in a living person than in a dead one.” In other words, you can be alive but zombie-like; you can be breathing but your willpower is nil, your heart and mind are numb. This is the opposite of soulfulness. Soulfulness is richness. Soulfulness is courage, and fullness, and abundance.

But to get there, it takes … one horn to make you strong, another to make you pleasing, a third to make you wise, and a fourth to draw you out of the world. Each horn in Mitchell Chefitz’ story represents a key developmental challenge coming before us, as we learn across the lifespan and grow our souls. Let’s take a look.

Starting with the shiny horn of strength. It reminds me of a time in my own life, in the eighth grade, when the man selling horns came knocking on my door in the form of the public school teacher who led the Gifted and Talented Program I happened to be in. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name, but I will never forget what she offered: an opportunity to do some creative photography. She handed me not a horn but a camera. She said, learn how, investigate, explore. One afternoon, when everyone else at my school was in a classroom, we were outside on a field trip, just the two of us, a beautiful sunny day, visiting fascinating old buildings in the neighborhood so that I could take pictures capturing interesting angles of vision, varieties of light and shadow, stories held within silent spaces and walls. Ultimately, the pictures went into a portfolio which was to be my project for that eighth grade year, but the larger lesson was not nearly as time-bound; it has stayed with me ever since. An experience of being challenged to do something that, for me, was hard. A discovery that I was up to the task—that my “seven dollars and seven cents” was enough. And then this: a memory of a teacher who believed in me, so that I could believe in myself.

That’s the horn of strength. Developmentally speaking, it’s about establishing ego-identity and self-esteem—a sense of being a unique individual capable of willpower, mastering difficulties and making a mark upon the world. The sound this horn makes says it all. It’s a blast that rattles windows blocks away. It’s the sound of “Here I am, I am me, deal with it!”

Yet this is only the beginning of our long journey through life. “Impressive,” says the man selling horns when he hears Gabriel blast away, but he is clearly not impressed at all, and he says, “Let’s see how you do with this.” Out comes the silver trumpet, mirror bright. And Gabriel soon discovers that finesse, not force, is the way to playing this instrument. Just the slightest breath, so soft, so sweet. As for the result—completely different from that of the horn of strength: people come to hear. Friendships form. He marries and has a family. Does he play the trumpet, or does the trumpet play him?

The developmental theme here is relationship, in other words. “I am” becomes “we are.” It is no accident that Gabriel receives this horn in his adolescence, which is a time when one’s sense of individuality (won much earlier) opens up to other people. Paving the way to this is surging hormones: one moment you feel the joy of belonging, another moment you feel the pain of being an outcast. Highs and lows. And then passion, romance: does she love me, does he love me? At this time in life, the elemental power of our emotions is revealed, so no wonder that the key learning here is balance and moderation. Gabriel comes to realize, as must we, that all that’s needed to play the silver horn is the slightest breath. Too much—overkill—disrupts the delicate dance of friendship and love—and even democracy, I would add. You end up with something like the recent town hall meetings on the issue of health care reform: namecalling, ugliness. Not attractiveness. Not the dance.

With public issues that are of such momentous importance, but also private issues, relationship issues, it’s imperative that we learn how to play the silver horn. That we learn to live according to the covenants that we establish with each other. That we learn civility. That we learn how to get the work done and live with it even if we disagree.

For 30 years, Gabriel plays this horn—and then his journey through life moves into yet another developmental phase. Interestingly, it echoes something that the great psychologist Carl Jung once said: that the focus of the first half of life is establishing ourselves in the outer world: forming an ego, finding our proper vocation, creating a family, and the like. But then at mid-life comes the crisis. Perhaps we have been living someone else’s life and values and we are only now realizing it. Perhaps we have been feeling content and satisfied and yet, for unknown reasons, confusion comes upon us, disorientation, boredom, depression, disappointment in ourselves and others, or just general restlessness—and now the focus must shift to that of the inner world of meaning and spirituality. Reconnecting with ourselves and the universe at a deeper level than ever before.

Quite unexpectedly, the seller of horns returns. And this time, he offers Gabriel the golden horn of wisdom, which is strange enough to be a thing out of Alice in Wonderland. Gold on the outside, clear like glass on the inside. Light to the touch, but also heavy. Definitely a horn meant to be used, but closed at one end. Seemingly finite on the outside, but infinite on the inside. “Your task,” says the seller of horns to Gabriel and to us all, “is to paint the inside of the horn.” But the horn turns out to be endlessly capable of drinking up conventional paint. So what kind of “painting” is the seller of horns actually talking about? What kind of horn is this, anyhow?

Clearly, for Gabriel it represents a scientific puzzle. Yet it could also be an existential one, a philosophical one. In particular I’m thinking about Henry David Thoreau, a key Transcendentalist spiritual ancestor of ours, who’s been on my mind a lot lately since I’ve been preparing for this year’s First Sunday sermon series, starting in October, and he’s the focus. Did you know that for much of his life, he suffered from chronic illness, specifically, tuberculosis? This, for more than twenty years…. He was coughing up blood and having a hard time breathing when he wrote, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” He struggled with immense fatigue, and he had pain in all his joints, his muscles, everywhere, when he wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” All this constitutes its own kind of puzzle. Thoreau’s hopefulness and joy and energy and incredible productivity as a writer—in the midst of his chronic illness. Why do bad things happen to good people? How to live in a world that can be so hurtful and so cruel?

We exist within mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery. And so, the golden horn of wisdom, above all, is a challenge to our minds. If the horn of strength is about willpower, and the silver horn of attractiveness is about feeling, the golden horn of wisdom is about thinking. How to think about something that is a perfect paradox? How to relate to the mystery with all the intimacy of our thoughts?

Gabriel begins to feed his mind, to free his mind. He learns chemistry, mathematics, physics, cosmology, relativity, string theory. You and I can do that, as Unitarian Universalists, as well as draw from the wisdom of all the world’s religious traditions, in our search for truth and meaning. One thought at a time, we make our way. Yet, as the story suggests, this is not an end in itself. What this phase of our developmental journey does is open us up, ultimately, to nothing less than inspiration. Through careful, one-step-at-a-time study, we develop our minds and make them clear enough and open enough to receive all-at-once flashes of genius. Without careful preparation, though, inspiration has nothing to contain it, nothing to land on.

“With a flash and a rush he knew,” says the story about Gabriel; he sighs into the golden horn of wisdom, paints it with his soul, and the horn “proclaims much more than a sound: understanding and redemption, love and acceptance, grace and beauty.” The implication here is profound. It says that the sign of the truly educated person is not cynicism, but wonder. If you are stuck in cynicism, you are not there yet. “The most beautiful thing we can experience,” Einstein once said, “is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” Einstein, a prince of mathematical physics, used to have a sign hanging in his office at Princeton, which said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Perhaps this is why, at the end of his days, facing the circle of life and death, Gabriel was able to say with eyes wide open, “I’m ready.” “I would like to trade up.” He was full of not fear, but wonder and awe.

The old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Life offers us one horn after another, and our learnings are cumulative. “I am” leads to “we are” which leads to “we exist within mystery” which culminates in “life is a circle.” And all are to be trusted. All these great teachers of soul. These, and the many human teachers and mentors that have walked with us and supported us along the way, here in this congregation and beyond. We have cause for great gratitude and thanks. Let the congregation say amen.