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Lead Into Gold – 2/1/2015

The story goes something like this: in ancient Greece, Dionysus was the god of wine and drinking, madness and spontaneous insight, and generally having a good time. He had a whole company of magical beings who followed him around – the hangers on to his never-ending party. One of his closest attendants was a half-man/half-goat named Silenus. Being a dutiful follower of Dionysus, he was well over the legal limit most of the time, but on one particular occasion he managed to drink enough that he wandered into the garden of the king of Phrygia, and promptly passed out.

That king, King Midas, recognized Silenus as someone beloved of a god, and took good care of him. He made sure he regained his health, and then helped him find his way back to the court of Dionysus. In gratitude, Dionysus granted Midas one wish, and Midas, dreaming of wealth beyond measure, wished that anything he touched would turn to gold. Midas received exactly what he had asked for, and set about turning all manner of common things into gold: cups and bowls, tables and chairs, flowers from his garden – truly, everything he touched turned to gold.

The king was very pleased. Until he tried to eat, and found that food had no special exception to his wish, and anything he brought to his lips would still be rendered valuable, and unchanging, and completely impossible to eat. His joy quickly turned to fear, and soon Midas was beside himself. The final straw came when his daughter, whom he dearly loved, tried to comfort her father. For reaching out to him with a gentle touch, she became a statue. Overcome with grief, King Midas prayed to Dionysus and begged to have his wish – in truth, a curse – undone. Still in a generous mood, the god offered the king a way to reverse the whole affair, by bathing in the river Pactolus. Midas ran to the river and jumped into it, passing his terrible gift into its waters. His daughter, and everything else that he had touched were restored to just as they had been before, and this, the story explains, is why the river Pactolus is so rich with gold that you can sift little bits of it right out of the sand.

The moral of the fable is – and I think this is pretty unambiguous – that one cannot live by gold alone. Seeking wealth – or perhaps perfection, or immunity from change, whatever gold might represent – to the exclusion of everything else can only lead to suffering. In fact Aristotle alludes to a different version of the story in his philosophical work, Politics, in which Midas’ prayer of regret went unanswered, and he starved to death. Now, Midas’ is a pretty familiar story for most of us, I’d wager. All the names and details might not come up for us naturally, but folks probably recognize the name Midas as “that guy who turned everything he touched into gold.” What strikes me about this is that, collectively, we seem to only remember that part of the story.

The primary way we refer to Midas, in our culture, is with the saying that a person who is very successful or talented or good at whatever they do has ‘the Midas touch.’ There seems to be no sense of irony here, whenever it’s used to describe someone in business, or an artist, or whether it’s used to describe someone in the business world, or arts and entertainment, or sports. It’s particularly commonly said of the coaches of particularly successful athletic teams. A Google search for “Bill Belichik” “midas touch,” for instance, yields over 35,000 hits. And many of those are remarks from concerned sports commentators seizing on some moment of less-than-total superiority from the Patriots to wonder if this meant their coach had lost his ‘Midas touch’. Forgetting, apparently, that for Midas, being relieved of his magical touch was not his loss, but his salvation.

The ten-dollar word for transforming anything else into gold is chrysopoeia, and it’s a recurring theme in our legends and in our metaphors. Again, wealth here is the obvious meaning – gold is a relatively rare, and for that reason alone, many different human cultures have valued it and held it to be worth working for, trading for, or killing for. I have a powerful memory from my childhood about just how rare gold is. The memory is of a trip to the hall of minerals at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, which offered the fun fact that if you somehow took all of the gold in the world and melted it down into a single cube, it would only measure somewhere around 70 feet on each side. Now that’s a pretty big cube, but as this exhibit pointed out it’s less than half the width of a football field, so that if you plopped this imaginary block of all the world’s gold down in the middle of a game, it would be inconvenient, but the game could still be played around it. But gold’s meaning isn’t just its rarity and value as currency. Gold also represents success, accomplishment, an ideal or perfection. We talk about the ‘gold standard,’ the ‘golden rule,’ and the ‘golden age.’ And the other key quality of gold as a material is that it doesn’t tarnish or rust. To the ancients it symbolized something eternal, unchanging, and immune to the passage of time.

So the idea chrysopoeia, of being able to change some other material into gold by means of science or magic, is really about controlling and ultimately cheating change itself. Change is an essential quality of time and the universe. Science fiction author Octavia Butler wrote these on the subject:

“All that you touch

You change.

All that you change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is change.

God

Is change.”

It’s sometimes said that the only things that don’t change are dead, but that’s not true – even dead things change. They decay, they decompose, and eventually their forms break down, sometimes into new living things. But the inescapable reality of change is so frightening that we like to tell ourselves we can control it. In his famous poem, ‘Ozymandius,’ Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote of the brazen declaration of power and timelessness contained on an ancient pedestal,

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The civilization that wrote the inscription had long since turned to dust. It’s mighty king’s attempt at immortality might last only a few centuries more before even his name was blasted off the stone by wind and sand. To invoke another famous poet, “Nothing gold can stay.”

There’s a story which is probably mostly legend about Vladimir the Great, a Russian monarch of the 10th century. It is said that he sent members of his court to study the religions of his neighbors, looking for a new faith for his pagan nation to adopt. When he heard their reports, he rejected Judaism because it had no homeland, and he rejected Islam because it forbade alcohol, something he believed his subjects would not accept. He opted instead for Christianity, and made a political agreement to marry a Christian princess. He traveled to Byzantium for the wedding and to officially accept his new religion. Vladimir and all the soldiers travelling with him were to be baptized together and this was not going to be a little sprinkling of water. The local tradition of the time called for a full-body immersion in the Black Sea.

The whole plan was thrown into jeopardy, however, when Vladimir was told that he and his fighting men could not continue the wars of conquest – at which they had been very successful – and still be good Christians. So, according to legend, he devised a compromise. Vladimir and his men each went into the sea with their right arms raised above the water – so that their bodies were baptized but their sword-arms remained unaltered. Vladimir wanted to have all the benefits of a new religion, and the political alliances it would open to him, but pay none of the costs, accept none of the limitations. He wanted to change without changing.

Change is inevitable. So often we try to tell ourselves we can control that change, and we can – but never completely. In the folklore of Ireland and Scotland, there’s a fantastical creature called a selkie – a seal that can swim to shore, take off its skin and walk on dry land as a human woman. In one of the most common folktales about a selkie goes something like this. A young man catches sight of a selkie and becomes infatuated with her. He steals her seal skin from its hiding place and once she is trapped as a human, he convinces her to marry him. For years they live together, make a home, raise a family; the selkie appears to be a wife and a mother, while all being a prisoner. Then one day, their eldest child is rummaging through her father’s things, and opens a certain trunk, and finds a certain seal-pelt. And then her mother sees it, and takes it, and runs back to the sea, never to be seen again. We want for change to serve our ends and no others, but this is never the case. The change that is essential to life is complex, it is messy, and it is unpredictable. And if we try to dictate it completely and totally, we only end up doing harm.

The term chrysopoeia comes from the tradition of alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry. The study of alchemy dates back millennia and crosses continents and numerous cultures and religions, but its European incarnation is famous for one particular goal: transforming lead, or any other cheap metal, into gold. In the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for wealthy or learned people – anyone with time enough on their hands and access to the right books – to dabble in the so-called art of alchemy. An alchemists laboratory would have had some of the same elements as a modern high school chemistry lab: glass containers for storing, measuring, and pouring different liquids and powders, flames for heating them, tools for mixing. The princes and kings of Europe would sometimes hire alchemists to come work for them, in the hopes that they might in all their mixing and experimenting, actually turn lead into gold and thus solve all of their country’s monetary troubles. Other monarchs feared exactly the same thing happening, but for some other benefactor, and outlawed the practice of alchemy to keep their nation’s economy from being destroyed by someone with the power to effectively print their own money.

But even if there really were alchemists motivated by nothing more than the pursuit of free money, others claimed that the transmutation of lead into gold was just a metaphor for a higher purpose. That purpose was sometimes said to be medical, and the project of alchemy – as far short of the standards of the modern scientific method as it often fell – did lead to some critical advances in medicine. For instance, Paracelcus – a famous alchemist of 16th century – was a pioneer in the study of both poisons and the human mind. In this case creating gold might be a euphemism for, or a precursor to, creating a panacea – a universal cure for all wounds and ailments – or simply for an elixir of immortality.

But others said that even the goal of healing human bodies was just a sideshow on the way to the truly great work: to purify and exalt the spirit of the alchemist and reach a higher plane of consciousness. A lot of what was written and taught about alchemy in its day mixes and blurs the lines between these three goals: wealth, immortality, and enlightenment. There’s a lot of vague, obtuse poetry – “as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing” – and their equivalent to lab instruction illustrations look like the stuff of heavy metal album covers: all dragons, and firebirds, and whole mountains carved with arcane figures. Throughout all this, one of the most common themes is the combining, dividing, and recombining of seemingly conflicting forces. Seeking a union between the mental faculties sometimes symbolized by a king, or a father, or the sun in the sky, and the spiritual qualities represented by a queen, or a mother, or the face of the moon. In a strange way, this focus on mixing and testing and measuring and recombining different elements in order to achieve success and perfection has a parallel to a football coach, again. Someone who combines different players into different arrangements, tests them under extreme pressure, and seeks the ultimate goal of their profession: to win.

I’ve chosen to spend so much time with you today meditating on change and the quest for wealth for three reasons. The first is that on Super Bowl Sunday, I could not resist all the odd ways in which Midas, alchemy, and the search for gold seemed to intersect with the topic I know most of you have had on your minds throughout. The second reason is that the beginning of February marks the beginning of our canvass season, during which the members and friends of this congregation make their annual pledge of financial support. We’ll spend the next several weeks with that process bubbling and percolating away like an alchemical concoction until one month from today, in the service on March 1st, when our pledges will be received and celebrated and consecrated. So I want to remind us of the lesson I believe the story of Midas teaches: seeking wealth for its own sake never goes well. When, as a community, we turn to each other and ask ourselves to lend our treasure to support our spiritual home, it is not and should not be just for the sake of having more money – or more anything for that matter. We hold this season each year not just out of necessity to keep the lights on and the snow shoveled out, but because we find something here worth growing and sustaining. This congregation has a great deal more work to do here in Beverly, on the North Shore, and in the larger world. Whatever we accomplish, it will be because we come together to lend our will, our wisdom, and our wallets to the task.

And the final reason I wanted to talk about change this morning is that we have an important question of change to face today in the special congregational meeting following this service. One of our neighbor congregations in Salem has asked if we would like to join together with them. The question before us is whether we believe our two elements may be combined to create something more precious. Whether we are ready, willing, and able, to embrace the possibility held in this potential change.

The answer in this, as is in so many other cases in life, is going to be up to you. Change, after all, is inescapable – it’s a reality and one we have to navigate – but we have the power to decide how we meet it. Fear of change, of the new, the different, is entirely natural, even reasonable. In every change is a sort of death: the ending of the sameness of the way things were before. But it is also a birth of sorts, a doorway into something different. The end of what has been and the beginning of what may be arrives for us no matter what.

 

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First Parish Church

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Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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