Holding Fast

The world is a slippery sort of thing. It can be hard, very hard, to hold on to all the many pieces of life. In our days on this earth, we may try new ideas, new plans, new relationships, careers or places to live. No matter how many or how few sorts of things we devote our living to, we can be assured that not all of them will last. There is plenty of trial and error to life; what was familiar and sustaining will sometimes pass away, and what is exciting and new and untested does not always transform into a well-established part of our deeper selves.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and finest intentions, some piece of the world proves too slippery for us to hold onto. In his unpublished essay Why I Gave Up Zen [1], contemporary science journalist John Horgan tells the story of his ill-fated attempt to take a course in Zen Buddhist meditation. Coming with hopes of developing a spiritual practice that would contribute to his over-all wellbeing, he found himself constantly distracted by frustrations that his internal critic could neither ignore nor forgive. Chief among these frustrations, he admits, were some of his classmates. He writes:

"The worst was Cell-phone Man, so-called because the first time he came to [our] class his cell-phone beeper kept going off. During [seated meditation] he also infuriated me by yawning, sighing, and twisting his head with a crunching noise. When [our instructor] at the end of our sessions asked if anyone had any questions or comments, Cell-phone Man invariably piped up, loudly...

Once he told us that something amazing had happened to him the previous weekend. All the thoughts in his head began spontaneously turning into songs, and he realized that creation is nothing more than God turning silence into song, which is really just vibrations, and, you know, energy."

Eventually, John Horgan took his frustrations and mental conflict about the class out into the snow with him, attempting to practice mindfulness while cross-country skiing. But even the cold simplicity of fresh snow and white sky could not save him from his wandering mind, and all the sights and thoughts that intruded on him as he tried desperately to "be here now". After berating himself repeatedly for stray thoughts as varied as his daughter’s cold, his wife’s social activism and his curiosity about the animal tracks crossing his path through the woods, Horgan finally gave up on the spiritual practice he was cultivating.

It can be a very hard thing to acknowledge, to others and to ourselves, that some goal, some challenge, some want of ours is beyond our grasp. Even when the job just wasn’t right for us, or the marriage just wasn’t good for either of us, or that dream that we were following took us down a path we could not follow – even if we know in our minds that letting go is the right thing to do, it can be so hard, and so painful to let go with our hearts. Yet our lives are shaped not only by what we carry with us, but also by what we have left behind.

Unitarian Universalism, the religion to which I was born, deeply values search, ongoing growth and the discovery of new ideas, thoughts and perspectives. Often, we find that our free and responsible search for truth and meaning requires us to leave behind what is familiar, inherited, or traditional. No less a prophet of this movement than William Ellergy Channing expressed some of this sentiment when he wrote:

"I call that mind free, which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically repeat itself and copy the past, which does not live on old virtue, which does not enslave itself to precise rules, but forgets what is behind, listens for new and higher monitions of conscience, and rejoices to pour in fresh and higher exertions." [2]

These are brave words, ones that match the brave work of going out, of finding what is new and unfamiliar and of questing for the truth, wherever it may lead. There are times when leaving where we are, and letting go of what has been is necessary for growth, or for justice, or for peace, or for survival. Many of us, I know, have come to be Unitarian Universalists by coming out of some other religious tradition, and perhaps leaving it behind. Our faith urges us to seek so far and so wide for meaning that we reach beyond the bounds of what is known and familiar to us. This is the calling that founds new nations and religions, one cherished by Unitarian Universalists and our theological ancestors. But just as there is reason to celebrate letting go, there is also reason to honor holding fast: living with a persistent commitment to something larger than oneself.

Unitarian Universalism is today a faith of joiners. If it were not for the more than half of us who have come in by choice made later in life, rather than entering by birth or upbringing, we could not be what we are. But it is not only the bravery to join that sustains this or any other religion: it is also the courage to stay. In our congregations, and amongst ourselves, it is somewhat common to exchange tales of the faith that we left behind in order to become Unitarian Universalists. For some of us, this is an opportunity to reveal, and perhaps to heal wounds from our previous religious lives. What I wish for, and would one day hope to see, are spaces made for those Unitarian Universalists, both "joiners" and "lifers" who have had their hearts broken by this faith and who, despite those wounds, are still here.

The poet Robert Frost describes steadfast and abiding commitment with these brief words:

"The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to the ocean—
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition." [3]

What things, in life, require this persistence? The practice of religion, the exercise of citizenship, the construction and maintenance of an institution, such as a partnership, a family or an Association of Congregations; all these things, and many more, need lasting and abiding effort in order to endure. The institutions and identities by which we define ourselves are only so strong and so permanent as the human commitments out of which they are made.

I live in Boston now, and have found that there my audiences need no instruction in the virtues of remaining true to a cause. Steadfast institutional loyalty is hardly a foreign concept in that town, particularly in the face of great disappointment and a Greek chorus of naysayers and false friends. Novelist, lawyer and newspaper writer George V. Higgins offered the observation some years ago that "The Red Sox are a religion." If so, I see no reason not to hold my own religious movement to the standards of Massachusetts Bay’s largest indigenous faith. When I can climb aboard a trolley car on Sunday morning and see that more than half the train is filled with families and couples and single people, all wearing chalices on their caps and t-shirts and all on their way to worship; then, perhaps, I will be satisfied.

When I first mentioned the title of this sermon to a friend of mine who is long a veteran of the United States Navy, he reminded me of a traditional naval tattoo. Two words, eight letters, inked across the fingers of both hands to read the instruction: HOLD FAST. The safe journey of a ship often depends upon the strength and dedication of its crew in holding down or hauling in this line or that. The message is a reminder, it seems to me, that the common good of the boat relies on the embodied commitment of all those aboard.

I received poignant instruction in what it means to hold fast to something beloved while on a trip this past year to New Orleans. Fifteen of us from Boston’s Arlington Street Church spent a week in the Crescent City, slinging paint and joint compound, hauling dirt, planting garden beds and bearing witness. It is my sad duty to tell everyone I meet that nearly two years later, the body of New Orleans still retains the terrible wounds of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I did not have the opportunity to visit New Orleans before the storm; seeing the city when I did, as I did was full of mixed emotion and images of both beauty and anger to carry back to my home.

One late afternoon, our group took a solemn tour of the lower 9th Ward, a section of the city that was ignored by the national imagination until the storms, their aftermath, and the American media turned that neighborhood into a spectacle of desolation. The 9th Ward has been the heart of the working class black population of New Orleans for generations. Hit by the very worst of the catastrophic flooding that New Orleans experienced in the late summer of 2005, the lower 9th was almost uniformly flattened. Staring out at what used to be several acres of well-loved homes, I saw whole blocks of houses reduced to vacant lots, their contents spilled out on rubble and grass with little sets of concrete steps leading up to front doorways that were no longer there.

It is the sort of view that makes the soul grow coarse, to survey the consequences of a broken canal, wrought by human hands, ordered by human minds uncaring of the risk it posed to the human lives beside its walls. Seeing all those broken houses stirred in me feelings of both anger and grief: carrying those feelings with me still, is one of the costs, and one of the gifts, of that journey south. But here is the lesson I offer from it today: amidst the ruin and the rot, there stood a dirty-white trailer. It was the sort furnished by FEMA or rented from a private company and used by pre-Katrina residents who have returned to the Gulf Coast to rebuild their broken homes. In a neighborhood that was all but completely empty, largely devoid of standing houses let alone of people to live in them, this trailer made a bold statement. "I am here," it seemed to say. "I will hold to this place, my home. I will not be moved."

In his speech to the divinity students of Manchester College, Oxford in the fall of 1896, Claude Montefiore spoke of the commonalities he observed between his own Liberal Judaism and the faith of the Unitarian audience he was addressing. He affirmed that the seeking, searching spirit need not be viewed as incompatible with persistence and loyalty; that, in fact, each requires the other if either is to have meaning or purpose at all. As he put it:

"We are not less fervent believers in the reality of truth because we are more conscious of its infinite complexity…a love which realizes imperfection in the beloved object may be more fruitful than a blind affection which, because it sees no weakness or blemish, can strive for no improvement and attempt no purification." [4]

It is not a question as to whether we will, in our lives, leave things which are familiar and well-known to us behind. That much is a sure consequence of living. Likewise, we need to trust in things outside ourselves in order to sustain our being. A tree needs roots; it also needs branches. These, then, are the questions before us: How much courage will we show, in our holding on and in our letting go? How much wisdom will we find to guide us in choosing between the one and the other? And how much space will we make for both demands, in ourselves and in others? Will there be honors for the immigrant, the convert, the refugee, as well as for the loyal holdout, the born member and the internal agitator? What are you holding on to, that you need to let go of? What have you let go of, that you need desperately to pick up again?


[1] Unpublished, but still available on his website

[2] From his sermon, "Spiritual Freedom"

[3] Robert Frost, "Devotion", from the collection West-Running Brook

[4] C.G. Montefiore, "Unitarianism and Judaism In Their Relations To Each Other", address to the students of Manchester College, Oxford on October 20, 1896