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Living in Clip – 4/3/2011

She wanted to find God. That’s how she explained her decision to her family. They were perplexed, and concerned – it wasn’t a choice that made much sense to them. They were Catholics, yes, and had raised her in the church, but they were not a particularly pious family. And now this shy, bookish daughter of theirs, who rarely disagreed with her parents, or went against their will, made it clear to them that she was adamant. Teenagers are notoriously willful, but this was no passing whim for the young woman. Her mind was set, and seeing this, her parents decided that the best thing they could do, was to get out of her way. So it was, that in the fall of 1962, Karen Armstrong entered a convent of the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus, embarking on a spiritual quest to become a nun.

You may recognize the name Karen Armstrong; she is a contemporary scholar of comparative religion. Her books on Islam and its relationship to Judaism and Christianity have been quite successful and she is a sought after public lecturer and television and radio interviewee. But just as she was entering adulthood, Karen chose for herself a path with rather a different destination in mind, as she put it to “lose my adolescent self in the infinite and ultimately satisfying mystery that we call God.”[i] For the next seven years of her life, Karen Armstrong would work and study and pray, in pursuit of a holy life and a spiritual communion with God. She advanced from postulant to novice to professed nun. She made the walls of the convent and the strict order of its rules and expectations into her world, following their rhythm and flow. She walked the path for as long as she could, but try as she might, she couldn’t find God there.

So Karen left the Society; not in anger, or bitterness, but with frustration at herself, and a great deal of uncertainty about her future. Outside the boundaries of religious life, strange new challenges awaited her. In the first years in the convent, she had been almost completely cut off from the outside world. When the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out soon after she joined the Society, her superiors told her and their other charges that the world was teetering on the brink of nuclear war. They neglected to inform them when the crisis had passed, however, so Karen and the other young women lived through several weeks of terrifying uncertainty before the mistake was corrected. When she became a full-fledged nun, Karen’s work required her to study and teach which took her outside the convent walls. But she remained set apart, and aloof from the wider world. Then she left her order, and the world seemed to come rushing in.

From 1962 to 1969 she had missed 7 years of politics, art and culture. Almost nothing made sense to her in this new secular world; newspapers were a confusing jumble of unfamiliar names and problems. No longer a nun, Karen was now just a University student, trying to find a place for herself in an alien environment. At her first college party she tried to fit in and adjust the strange world she had decided to rejoin. The lights seemed too low, the music too loud, the young men and women too comfortable with each others’ bodies – and their own. Trying to make polite conversation, Karen asked another guest what band was playing on the stereo. “The Beatles, of course!” her friend shot back. And then, under the dawn of a terrible realization she asked, “You have heard of the Beatles, haven’t you?”

Now it may be that some of you are so tuned-in to the music world that you’ve never had this exact experience; you’ve never been the only person at the party whose never heard the band on the stereo before. But all of us can find some empathy for what that feels like, that sense of being so completely out of our element. Karen Armstrong had left the strict rigor and discipline of the religious life behind for the social and political upheaval of the spring of 1969. She found herself a stranger in her own country, a place where she spoke the language, but no longer understood the idiom. Learning to live in this new and different world could not happen over night; it would take many long hours, much hard work, and much, so much, discomfort and uncertainty.

In the field of acoustics, there is a concept called clipping, which you can get from overdriving an amplifier. When the device gets more voltage for a guitar or other instrument than it was designed to handle, the sound becomes distorted. The edges of the sound waves, if you could see them with your eyes, would appear to be clipped; instead of moving back and forth smoothly, the edges are all flattened out, the valleys and peaks becoming blunt. The new sound is considered “dirtier” and more “gritty.” It can only be reached by using the amplifier in a way not quite intended by the manufacturer, but its an effect sought out by some artists. In Karen Armstrong’s near perfect innocence of the popular culture of 1969, she was almost certainly unaware of Jimi Hendrix. One of the great masters of the electric guitar, Hendrix made a name for himself in part through his pioneering work with clipping and other forms of musical distortion.

The singer, songwriter and guitarist Ani DiFranco titled one of her albums Living In Clip, in reference to an overdriven amplifier. Because of the songs she was playing and the way that she was playing them, her amp was spending most of every show handling too much volume and putting out intentionally distorted sound. The plight of the overdriven amplifier, though, was also a metaphor for living life outside of our comfort zones, past the margins of the manufacturer’s warrantee. Living in clip means living in uncertain places, beyond the limits of what we already know we can do. It is far from the easiest sort of way to go through life, and in the case of amplifiers and other such things, it probably has a negative impact on the lifespan of the appliance. Its not easy on us humans either; it can be frustrating, and it can even be dangerous. But its also the only way we learn.

Joshua Foer published a book recently about his quest to become a world-class player in the field of competitive memory. There are, in case you didn’t know, multiple tournaments each year at the national and international level in which people compete in various contests to prove the speed and accuracy with which they can memorize things like random lists of names or numbers, or the order of a deck of playing cards. Joshua started out with a journalistic interest in the sport, and became obsessed with developing his abilities to a competitive level. In the course of his training he learned a lot about how to learn. One of the key insights was staying out of his comfort zone. When we first start to develop a new skill, we fumble and make mistakes, and even that usually takes a lot of focus. Over time we become more effective and efficient at the task, until finally we reach a level at which we can cruise: we’ve become as good at the skill as we need to be, at least for whatever we’re doing with it just then, and we can keep that performance up more or less automatically.

The key to actually learning and growing, in areas that have already become automatic for us, is to push past the point where our autopilot breaks down. As Foer puts it, “Amateur musicians…tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail.”[ii]

It is not easy to push ourselves past what is easy, in order to become more and more the people that we wish to be. To step, willingly, into the unknown and uncomfortable is an act of courage. There are many places that such courage can come from. Hunger will give you all the courage you need to steal a loaf of bread. Anger can make you brave enough to strike back against your tormentor. Even fear can make you bold enough to propel yourself in the opposite direction. But among the many possible sources of courage and will, there is one which is particularly versatile, which will, if you permit it, challenge you again and again to step boldly into new and unfamiliar places. This source of motivation is faith.

When I was just starting Divinity school in California, there was a group of students from the gaggle of seminaries clustered at the top of what’s known as ‘holy hill.’ This group of idealistic folks gathered together to defend the rights of workers in and around our city. I was supportive of their cause, and so I attended one of their meetings. When I got there, I met a small group of Pentecostals, Jews, Catholics and Unitarian Universalists wearing matching blue t-shirts. I heard about a certain high end hotel in Berkeley that was trying to stop some of its employees from joining a union: firing some of the spa workers who had led the effort to organize, and harassing the waiters and cleaning staff who had helped them do it. The story made me mad. “Something ought to be done about it!” I thought.

“We’re gonna do something about it!” someone said. A delegation of these rabbis, priests and ministers to-be planned to go down the hill to the hotel, find someone in charge, and tell them that as people of faith and members of the community we supported the right of all workers to organize and to do so without coercion or fear of reprisal. Someone handed me one of those blue shirts: I was coming with them, wasn’t I? Up until this point I’d written letters and carried signs, but I’d never really gotten face-to-face with the folks on the opposite side of the line from me. The purpose of our delegation was to find the highest ranking person foolish enough to talk to us, and tell them that we thought what they were doing was wrong, and we wanted them to stop doing it.

It was new territory for me, setting out, from the beginning, to have a confrontation – a polite, measured, peaceful confrontation, but a confrontation nonetheless. Still, anger at the injustice of the situation might have carried me along. Anger, or peer pressure from the others in the group, or simple momentum after I’d already shown up to the meeting anyway. Any of these could have been enough to get down from my comfortable place at the top of the hill and into that hotel. But a little while later, at another meeting, we heard about another group of workers, another hotel, the same frustrating, angry-making story. We agreed we ought to do the same thing as we’d done before: go down there in person, show the management that we cared how they did business, and show the workers that they weren’t alone.

Going along with that second delegation was no particular challenge. I’d already done it once before, and if it made my hands sweaty and my throat dry, well, I could live with that for a little while. But when it came time to decide who would lead the group, who would look that manager in the eye and ask, “Will you stop what you’re doing, will you reinstate these workers and let them have a free and fair vote to form a union?” In the silent pause, I looked to my left, and to my right and realized that in just a few months, with all the turnover and chaos of a free association of overcommitted graduate students, I had become one of the senior members of the group. There are many things that could have made me go once, and having gone once, to go again would have been easier than before. But the decision to put up my hand, and volunteer to lead – I cannot credit that to my anger, or my desire to fit in. The willingness to take that risk, I have to credit to my faith.

Because as Unitarian Universalists, we are not waiting on redemption from outside time. We do not look to a God who intervenes in history to save us from the mess that we and other human beings have made. Our individual understandings of the source of hope and salvation vary – some of us know it as God, some as the human spirit, and some do not claim to know any name for it at all. But if we disagree on this one small point, we enjoy a blessed and uncharacteristic agreement on the much greater point of how exactly, the world is made whole. Things get better – tears get dried, mouths get fed, chains get broken – by the work of human hands, by the individual and collective action of human beings. So our faith demands from us that we work for justice because justice isn’t coming any other way. It falls to us to repair the world, just as it did to those who came before us, just as it will to those who come after us, just as it does to everyone else on Earth now.

As individuals, and as a congregation, we must continually ask ourselves: what comfortable ruts do we need to drag ourselves out of? What vital form of justice-making do we need to challenge ourselves to undertake? This congregation has made welcoming and including Bisexual, Transgender, Lesbian and Gay people a part of its mission and purpose – will we take the next logical step and advocate for these groups as a community in the public square? We have a longstanding commitment to the people of El Salvador and from that nation and many others in Latin America people now arrive in this country by any means necessary, seeking freedom from want and freedom from fear. Will we make their plight, and the struggle for a fair and compassionate immigration policy, our mission as well? Every Tuesday we host a meal in our social hall to feed the hungry in Beverly – would we dare to open our temple for a few weeks a year, in addition to those few nights a month, in order to give the homeless a home? These may be my versions of the questions, but they are ours to ask and answer together.

Karen Armstrong spent a long time living in clip. It took her most of a decade to make sense of her life, after she stopped being a nun. There were failed studies, failed relationships, a failed career. A long while spent trying to adjust from the world she’d left behind to the new world in which she lived. But one chance meeting led to another strange opportunity until, after many years and disappointments, Karen found herself wrapped up in the study of God and religion, as a scholar of many faiths, this time, rather than a woman religious of the Roman Catholic church. In that work, the work she is still doing, Karen found some echo of the wholeness she had been searching for. In the course of studying and trying to teach what she found in the wisdom of human religion, Karen found God; not the God she had set out originally to find, but a source of meaning and purpose in her life, nonetheless.


[i] Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase, 2004

 

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