Service. Brighton Unitarian Church 21. 4. 96
Today has been widely designated as Earth Healing Day. When Margaret and Felix kindly invited me to lead today's service I had no idea of its particular significance. So it is wonderful for me that it melds so completely with my theme. This is to do with the sacredness of nature who in the past was widely perceived not only as female but as divinity. Many believe her to have been the over- arching divine figure in the ancient world, and represented in the bible by Lady Wisdom - Hochma in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek. Today I would like to remind you of some of this understanding that our earlier foreparents showed and later generations discarded, in the hope that it will contribute to our own perceptions of how we can take part in the earth healing process.
From the Book of Wisdom of Solomon, one of the biblical texts found in the Apocrypha, we learn of Wisdom (7:23-8:1)
In her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible,
Beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.
For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.
For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.
For she is reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God and an image of his goodness.
Though she is but one, she can do all things; and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
For God loves nothing so much as the [one] who lives with wisdom.
For she is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior;
For it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other and she orders all things well.
(Revised Standard Version of the Bible)
from the Greek, c 300BCE.
(translated by Asphodel)
O Nature, Mother of all, fertile inventive mother,
Now I will ask you to join me in a meditation journey, described in a hymn to Wisdom, this time not from a biblical source but said to be written by the Queen of Sheba. It comes from the Kebra Nagrast, an ancient Abyssinian Chronicle of Ethiopia.
Translation © Jane Hirshfield 1994, after a prose version by E. A. Wallis Budge. From her book Women in Praise of the Sacred.
I danced in the morning
When the world was begun
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun
I danced in the water
And I danced on the earth
In darkest night
I had my birth
Dance, then, wherever you may be
For I am the Lady of the Dance, said she
And I'll love you all wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said she.
I danced in the evening
When the sky turned black
And the moon turned red
And the sea came rushing back
They buried my body
And they thought I'd gone
But I am the dance
And I still go on
I dance in the night
When the moon rides high
And I dance for my joy
That the dance will never die
I dance the maze
On the deep green earth
And I dance for death
And I dance for birth
Dance then, wherever you may be
For I created your dance, says she
And I'll give you life, wherever you may be
And we'll all join hands in my dance, says she
I dance in the morning
In a lake of light
And I dance for the grass
And the flowers of delight
My body is the hills
And I steer the sun
For I laugh as I dance
And the dance goes on
© 1977 Diana (Miriam) Scott and Kate Ness (after Sidney Carter's song Lord of the Dance. His song and this one are to the tune of the Shaker hymn The Gift to be Simple.)
"For in her there is a spirit..." we have heard the words and the twenty-one descriptions - intelligent, holy, unique, manifold and so on. We have heard too that She alongside He was the teacher of humankind. We have heard that Wisdom was the architect or fashioner of all things, and that She wants to make her knowledge available to human beings. In the text, Her identification with God is clear. God He and Wisdom She are creator and the source of all knowledge, She is His spirit, He Hers. The writer in the first century BCE was trying to meld together the different strands in the religious tradition of those times.
We have heard too from the Lady Makeda, Queen of Sheba, who visited King Solomon something like 800 years before the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon was authored although the date of her written poem must at least have been in the Iron Age. It may well share a common oral narrative source with parts of the biblical Book of Proverbs: we can compare Proverbs 3:18 where Wisdom is 'a tree of life to all who lay hold on her' with Makeda's grasping the star of wisdom in her womb, bringing it up to the sun, saying: 'I laid hold on it, I will not let it go.'
So we are introduced to a heritage that has been hidden from us for so long: the heritage of divinity addressed as female and the female celebrated as divine. I see this as an act of justice, and also an act of healing, indeed the two are combined: without justice we can have no healing. If anyone is beginning to feel uncomfortable, and wanting to say for instance, that god is without gender, above gender, and altogether mysterious I would not disagree. But I am pointing out that god for two thousand or more years has been addressed in religions that stand as foundation of Western culture only in the masculine gender: Lord, Father, King, and so on; the Christian faith demands belief that God fathered an only child, a son who was consubstantial with himself. The masculine gender is inescapable, there, just as it is in Jewish prayers to Lord God, King of the Universe and God of our fathers, Abraham Isaac and Jacob.
The result has been a polarisation: because god was perceived as masculine, man was believed to be superior to woman; he was thought to be aligned with spirit, while woman was nearer nature and the earth and thus inferior to him; there were other concepts that derived from these: above - heaven - is superior to below, earth; spirit which appears to have its provenance from above, heaven, is superior to body which is connected with earth; light, to do with heaven, was better than darkness to do with earth, and thus white was better than black. Such polarities have led to immense and continuing injustices and disharmonies and eventually to the major injustice of all - to Nature and the planet.
So I go back to the words She and Her, used in conjunction with the Divine, and in hearing them, particularly in public and in a church, I feel there is a righting of wrongs and a sense of healing. We have hardly heard them before in these circumstances. But our far foreparents heard them regularly, and theirs was a different concept of Nature, from which we may learn today. Philo, the first century Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, speaks of magical beliefs and practices of the Babylonians, as being based on "harmony between things on earth and things on high, between heavenly things and things earthly. Following as it were the laws of musical proportion they have exhibited the universe as affinity between its parts separated in space but housemates in kinship."
This has been encapsulated in "as above so below"; heaven is not better than earth, nor spirit than the universe of nature; man is not superior to woman, nor light superior to dark, nor white superior to black, nor above superior to below.
Now these are very controversial statements, I know and so I would like to spend a little time on each. Of course anything I can say in this short time might be the subject of arguments at much greater length!
Heaven and earth: Philo referred to harmony between heavenly things and things earthly. The reading from the Orphic hymns addressed nature as almighty, presiding over earth and sea; she was also called Father/Mother of all; Wisdom was said to be the architect of nature. In all cases, and many others from the ancient world, the earth was venerated as sacred, as divine, as a great mother feeding her children, and of her own will being a source and resource for humans who in turn must revere her and learn from her.
In the course of Western culture, this understanding was overturned. Attention was directed to the individual's salvation of the soul, and the life to come. This was to take place either in heaven - above, which was good; or in hell, under the earth, which was bad. The sacredness of the earth herself and the lessons she can teach were disregarded; in time she became a resource to be exploited. The 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote: "We can if need be ransack the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the earth, descend to the bottom of the deep, travel to the furthest regions of this world to acquire wealth to increase our knowledge or even only to please our eye and fancy". This is indeed what we have done, we the patriarchally dominated Western culture, with the result that we have almost managed to destroy our planet and have caused huge amounts of suffering to indigenous peoples, sometimes amounting to genocide.
Heaven was taken to be the place where God lives, and where the souls of the saved would go after death; it was not amenable to exploitation by man's technology, although I well remember that when Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space some forty odd years ago, a number of people commented that he hadn't seemed to catch sight of God nor glimpsed the heavenly city.
So if we take another view of all this, and go back to the earlier beliefs, we will find heaven on earth, and earth in heaven; we will not treat earth as a resource to be exploited, nor will we think that heaven will come to us if we are "good". We will live in that earthly paradise that we are so privileged to inhabit - especially as we see the blossom and the spring, the new life after the cold, the round of the seasons blessing us; and we will treat it as if it were heaven and we will tread the ground softly and modestly. As for our individual salvation, I am prepared to let that take care of itself.
But is not spirit better than nature, better than the earth? Have we not been brought up to believe there is a holy spirit which many say is the third person of the Trinity? Certainly we have heard much of the Holy Spirit of God. Yet again, in all the traditional religions, this holy spirit is also to be found in the world. It is the Holy Spirit that comes into the world, and does the work of the world. And in Wisdom we are introduced to that spirit which is holy, intelligent, manifold, pure, loving the good and so on; and it is that very same spirit that we are adjured to welcome into ourselves. We are part of it and it is part of us. We are introduced to the spirit in the first verses of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew bible; there, she is called ruach, and the Hebrew tells us that she stretches her wings like a bird over the deep and the void (which may in themselves be goddesses, but that is a separate story). Ruach also, like its counterparts in Greek and Latin, pneuma in Greek, anima in Latin means wind, or air. The mighty wind or rushes of air, in this world, within Nature may also be the spirit of the divine.
So that the idea that the male person is aligned with the spirit and is superior to and must control the female person aligned with the inferior earth falls into nothingness. Women can come forward as exemplars of the divine, as men can; men sometimes feel uncomfortable and even rather hostile to these ideas. Possibly they feel that somehow women are taking something from them, or even want revenge for past hurts. Some men honestly don't know where they stand: if they are not the dominant human, what are they?
I would say to such men; fear not; no one is after revenge. All that is being asked is that you lose a false necessity of establishing dominance and superiority, and take your place as ordinary human beings as women do. Wisdom calls to you, she calls to everyone, there is no gender or class or colour or national category. She calls all to her table, to be her friend and live in kinship with her.
The same kind of thoughts is valid for the light and the dark, and black and white dualities. The Orphic Nature hymn which we heard talks of the Mother bringing light from the night, from the diurnal round, just as Genesis called a day the sum of the morning and the evening. We need the darkness of the night for refreshing sleep, the darkness of the womb for the unborn child to grow, of the earth for the seeds to germinate. A form of torture is to deny darkness to the captive. Of course I am aware of particular religious uses of the theme of light as against darkness, but I feel these are among the concepts that need to be re-thought and replaced in the context I am setting out.
It is hardly necessary for me to point out how much pain has come from the white superior to black notion; I recently visited the Art of Africa exhibition in the Royal Academy London. There, in the foyer, was a picture of the earliest human being ever discovered, an African woman. The caption to the picture told us that every person entering the building was a descendant of this woman. I feel I need say no more on this point.
Finally I would like to mention the above/below duality. We have talked about heaven and earth; but this is more physical. Is the head superior to the feet, and more particularly, to the genitals? The spirituality/sexuality stand off suggests that sexuality is certainly inferior to spirituality; and the phrase "down below" has a special significance not usually associated with the sacred. But why not? Has the time not come for us to bring our sexuality into the sacred area: to reject the exploitation and objectivisation implicit in the belief that sexuality is inferior to spirit, and is not part of the sacred? For women to discard feelings of guilt and shame about their bodies whatever their shape or size; and for men cease perceiving women and possibly children as sexual objects? Has not the time come for all of us, in sexual relationships, whether with the same sex, or with the opposite sex, to take up our feelings, physical and emotional, and like Greek philosopher Heraclitus with his life's work, place them on the altar of the goddess. There they will be blessed, be she Wisdom or Aphrodite or other; there we may be as one with the divine.
We have travelled a long journey, through indeed mind body and spirit. May we, in contemplating the healing of the earth remember that to heal her we must also heal ourselves.
Here is a part of a poem from the Gaelic (from Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael's collection of Gaelic hymns and incantations and his translations), called the Blessing of Woman.
Thine is the skill of the Fairy Woman
Thou art the joy of all joyous things
A well art thou in the desert
© Asphodel P. Long 1996