open book on a table

“Cultivating Our Center”

A sermon preached at the First Unitarian Universalist church, Louisville, Kentucky

I come from a tradition that understands sermons as commentaries on texts … so here is a text, a recent Unitarian one, from the pen of the Rev. Dr. Michael A. Schuler, parish minister of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, and author of the book Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living. He writes this prayer:

Let us pause now to look inward, exploring, if we dare, the secret places where motives are made and intentions live.

Beneath appearances, what kind of persons are we? Is the inner self congruent with the one that rejoices with friends, assists the infirm, comforts the crying child.

No. As we take inventory and remember mistakes we have made, impure thoughts we have had, schemes we have hatched, we know that all is not right within. We are born to inconsistency, not purity, and conscience is a dubious guide that leads us stumbling along the path of virtue.

We are all fallen, all self-condemned – for time after time we have succumbed to temptation and chosen a lesser good, betraying the truth of ourselves – the truth etched indelibly on our essential being.

This, then, is our estate and our inescapable humanness. Let us recognize and not deny our imperfections, forgive and not condemn ourselves. May growing awareness of our mixed motives and morals increase our humility and make possible lives of greater sensitivity, sincerity, and serenity. Amen.

This reading came from the UUA worshipweb, and it seemed speak to the theme of “finding our center.” As I understand it, that theme has guided spiritual reflection throughout the month of January, and is about to give way to the theme of Love for the month of February. So today we’ve got our feet planted on the ground of “finding our center” and are looking forward to love.

And spoiler alert, I’m about to suggest that this ground of “finding our center” might be a little shakier than we’d like it to be – but that we can do something about that. Because we can cultivate the center we want to find, and want to continue to find, when we pause to look inward, and when we try to express it in our behavior.

In reality, I don’t think I’m saying anything entirely at odds with what Rev. Dr. Schuler is saying … because as I understand it, he’s saying we need to be honest with ourselves, about who we are, inside and out. And unless we can expect forgiveness, for our failures to live up to our highest ideals, and for our conflicting impulses and our mixed motives, we’ll probably be afraid or unwilling to be as honest as we need to be.

As Friedrich Nietzsche said, in Beyond Good and Evil, “Memory says ‘I have done that …’ Pride says ‘I could not have done that …’ and remains adamant. Finally, Memory gives way.”

I think Schuler wants to encourage us not to find our center in that kind of denial. Wants us instead to bring ourselves into congruency and consistency, difficult as that may be, through a practice of honest self-examination, along with the forbearance that makes learning from our mistakes possible. That will lead us to those “lives of greater sensitivity, sincerity, and serenity.”

Still, what struck me first, before all that, was how Augustinian this reading sounded, how Calvinist it sounded, what with his use of the word “fallen,” and his awareness of … he doesn’t actually use the word “sin” but he does use the words “temptation,” and “succumb” … and he commends an outlook that would have seemed very congenial to those famously pessimistic Christian thinkers: … that consciousness of a painful distance between a pristine well-intentioned human nature and a messy real-life reality that seems to prevail, inevitably … that all sounds much more Presbyterian than Unitarian …

So, I didn’t expect that from the UUA worshipweb. But then, what also struck me was his faith in what he called “the truth of ourselves – the truth etched indelibly on our essential being.”

I think we have to call that faith, because he’d just finished pointing out, or asserting, that all of us have “mixed motives” … and are “born to inconsistency” … and that when conscience is at the wheel it’s liable to be stopped for a sobriety check. None of that sounds, if he won’t mind my saying so, like particularly great empirical evidence for us humans having an inner, essential truth of ourselves! Certainly not one that’s both positive and reliably operational.

Schuler is describing something that sounds more like the internet service at our house in the wilds of southern Indiana … I hope it’s going to be there when I want to check my email, but there are lots of days I have to go reset the modem first …

What’s even more striking about that faith in our inner selves is that he’s holding on to it in the face of serious challenges, ancient and modern. Some big names, as distant from one another as the Buddha in the 5th century Before the Common Era and the postmodernists of our own day, have insisted that, when it comes to the Inner Self, in the immortal words of Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.

I say this a little apologetically, knowing that some folks find that notion of our “our inner essence,” that “truth of ourselves,” encouraging and hopeful. Some of us like that line in Anne Frank’s diary, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Many of us want to believe that along with her. In spite of what we know empirically about the Holocaust raging around her. In spite of knowing the murders, including Anne Frank’s, numbered in the millions. In spite of sensing that, if those horrors were perpetrated by people who were really good at heart, being good at heart does not seem good enough.

The Buddha would – as skillfully and compassionately as possible, certainly – would try to get us to see how hanging on to that “I” who is a “good person” is actually a set up for suffering. The Buddha’s own enlightenment happened when he saw through the illusion of that persistent, core self, with its essential, unchanging reality – and the egoism and craving and grasping that went along with it.

The Buddha would not encourage us to think that once we get down to that “truth of ourselves” we can expect to find a permanent, stable, essential anchor … virtuous or otherwise. Even less an immortal Absolute, that transcends our individual life histories.

Instead, the Buddha’s disciplined observation had shown him that what “we” really are is a shifting collection of … let’s say, bits and pieces of past experience, including … sensations … perceptions … thoughts of all kinds – our conditioning, for instance … and consciousness, including consciousness of all those bits and pieces, with its tendency to label all that “me myself and I” and then to get attached to it … or to a particular story about it … The Buddha teaches that, if we could just see all that labeling and story-telling and all the craving based on it for the ignorance it is, we could skip all the suffering it causes us when things don’t go “our” way, or we come face to face with “our” own impermanence.

For the Buddha, when we pause to look inward, we’d be better off trying to look through and past any “essential being” that seems solid to us …

Much more recently, the Buddha has been joined by a pack of western thinkers, people who’ve been tagged with the name of “postmodernists,” who share that perception that the inner human essence, the Self, the “center” we may be hoping to find, is more apparent than real.

For that matter, it’s only even apparent … sometimes. Like when we’re busy telling ourselves an uplifting story about our inner essential self. Because at other times, we may be telling ourselves some different story. We seem to switch our stories and play different parts all day long: one minute we’re the “Kind Mother,” a bit later the “Efficient Multi-tasker” or the “Careful Researcher” or the “Wronged Innocent” [I tell that story myself a lot in traffic] … So on and So forth – as we respond to one or another of our ever-changing moods and shifting desires – one minute the “me” that wants to lose weight before spring shows up, only to be replaced by the “me” that says “the heck with that, I just want ice cream!” Is there an inner essence behind all those surface appearances?

The project of trying to find a stable, coherent center like that, one that unifies all of our disparate “Me’s Myselves and I’s,” doesn’t look promising to the postmodernists.

And if it does succeed, they suggest, it’s only because some story-telling part of ourselves has maneuvered itself into a power position, from which it blocks us acknowledging the existence of the other parts. That brings us back to Nietzsche’s comment about Pride, maybe … and no coincidence, perhaps, Nietzsche looks to the postmodernists like a particularly clear-sighted and honest observer of the human condition.

Nietzsche also looked like a particularly clear-sighted and honest observer of the human condition to some people who, unlike the postmodernists, were deeply committed to the idea that people have an inner essence. Also, deeply committed to the idea that different groups, different races of people had different inner essences, and to the idea that some of those essences were better and more valuable than others, and deserved to live … And if that sounds dangerous and repellent, it’s because it is.

I’m thinking about the Holocaust again, of course, and of the National Socialists in Germany in the 1920s and 30s and 40s – the Nazis – who were committed to the idea that superior people, Übermenschen – among whom they counted themselves – were strong and tough and bold and needed to be uncompromising and unmoved by anything as debilitating as compassion for the weak or vulnerable. They cultivated those commitments. They intentionally taught and encouraged themselves and their approved others to choose those ideas and values, and to act in accordance with them … with the horrific consequences we know all too well.

This past Friday, January 27, was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. Almost 20 years ago, the United Nations designated that anniversary International Holocaust Remembrance Day. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is meant to be a day to honor the victims of the acts we have come to call the Holocaust, by reminding ourselves both of who they were, and of who we are. To pause, to look around, and within. Because – for the industrialized, bureaucratized, routinized, normalized mass murder of the death camps not to happen again requires something of the living – requires something of us.

And what it requires of us is almost certainly more than relying on our own propensity to be “good at heart.” Certainly it requires more than relying on our own “mixed motives and morals.” Because the “good Germans” of the 1930s and 40s have something to teach us. They teach us that resisting inhumanity, especially in the face of determined brutality, is hard. Going along with it is easier. Hoping for the best, or at least hoping for not the worst … breathing a sigh of relief when we and those closest to us are spared … keeping our heads down and staying out of trouble … all that is easier.

Resistance under circumstances like those of Nazi Germany in the 30s and occupied Europe in the 40s requires extraordinary character and courage. And extraordinary is … extraordinary.

We’ve seen movies about the heroic French Resistance – but very few people participated in it – maybe 2 in every 100 French people.

Yes, there were “righteous Gentiles,” like the Schindler of Schindler’s List, and the friend who sheltered Anne Frank and her family as long as possible, people who rescued Jews from the Nazis. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum of the state of Israel, maintains a list of them – 30,000 names long. Of a population of Europe of around 300 million. That is, 0.01%.

Ordinary is ordinary. People did not have to be extraordinarily “bad people” to go along with the Nazis.

People only needed not to be, consistently, heroically, extraordinarily, compassionate and courageous people.

We may not know who has described the ultimate metaphysical reality of the inner essence accurately, whether the Christians or the humanists or the Buddhists or the postmodernists or no one yet.

But we do seem to know this: the “truth of ourselves” we are most likely to find at our own centers, whoever we are, … the “truth of ourselves” we are most likely to run in to … is our common, vulnerable, fallible humanity, easily swayed by self-interest, susceptible to the perfectly rational calculus of costs and benefits, risk and reward, the call of self-preservation, even – if the circumstances are right, and if we have no other, competing center … – fully set to embrace the ideas that come along, that make us feel good about ourselves, even if they dehumanize others and inure us to the harm we bring on them.

And that vulnerability of our humanity is truly universal. We tend to make saints or heroes of people who experience undeserved suffering. But Primo Levi, in his memoir of Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, urged his readers not to do that to victims of the Holocaust. Their fates were undeserved, yes, not because they were saints or heroes, but because they were ordinary people, like anyone else, like everyone else … like us.

What this means for us, ordinary people, is that if we want to find within ourselves the kind of center that will hold, when required, when times are at their worst, we need to put it there ourselves. We need to construct and maintain that center, before times are at their worst. We need to choose our values with care – opting for compassion; we need to practice engagement over avoidance; we need to exercise our courage in defense of those values; we need to make first a practice and then, over time, a habit of choosing compassion and courageous engagement, over and over and over, constructing and cultivating a center that can be, over time, “congruent with the one that rejoices with friends, assists the infirm, comforts the crying child” – and which, in extreme circumstances, which we hope never to need to face, will not let us and others down.

The Buddha may not have believed we “have” an inner essence, but he did think our choices matter; for he also said this:

Do not make light of your failings, saying “What are they to me?” A jug fills drop by drop. So the fool becomes brimful of folly.

Do not belittle your virtues, saying “They are nothing.” A jug fills drop by drop. So the wise man becomes brimful of virtue.

The Dhammapada (121-122)

Do not belittle your virtues, saying “They are nothing.” A jug fills drop by drop. So the wise man becomes brimful of virtue”

In other words, every time we choose compassion, we become more compassionate; every time we choose courage, we become more courageous; every time we resist cruelty, we reduce the cruelty in the world; drop by drop, we can cultivate a center that, when we pause to look inward, we will find, holding us in place, shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with our fellow human beings.

Because the center we will find is the center we have cultivated. Moment by moment, drop by drop, the choice is ours.

Image - water on offer, Buddhist temple

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Image of free water, By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Free Drinking Water – Buddhist Temple, Thailand) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to ““Cultivating Our Center””

  1. Your work here brings to mind Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, especially his line, “the center cannot hold.” I’ve been reading Richard Rohr quite a lot these past years and I hear in your words here an important critique of the idea of Original Good vs. Original Sin. We are what we eat, I suppose, and that applies to more than just our bodies. Anyway, another very well-written and thought-provoking piece and worthy of much reflection, especially in light of this week’s Gospel text in which Jesus calls us to be salt and light.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Steve! Yes, I love that poem – so I’m sure I assumed everyone else would know it, too 😉 And, indeed about the salt and light … I DO think that is, at least in part, a call to be a contrast with the bland, dark, surrounding environment … a contrast for the better …


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