Reading: C. P. Cavafy “Ithaka”
Note: This poem refers to The Odyssey in which Odysseus, who has offended the god Poseidon, seeks to return to his home ofIthacafollowing the Trojan War.
The Laistrygonians were a race of giant cannibals; the Cyclops was a one eyed giant and Poseidon was the god of the sea.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Columbus Day, which we celebrate this weekend, is also marked by many as Indigenous People’s day. It is important for us to note that our celebration is rightly a day of morning by the indigenous people of theAmerica’s and to recognize that in his search for gold and wealth,Columbusenslaved the people he met and killed many of them.
This past summer, the UUA General Assembly passed a resolution which was a refutation of the Doctrine Of Discovery—Declarations by Popes in the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered”, claimed, and exploited. If the “pagan” inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed. How civilized.
Stories, whether historical stories like the journey ofColumbus, or mythical stories in the sense of truth in the guise of stories like the story of Odysseus, can be read as straightforward adventure stories, and that is how I read the Odyssey the first time I read it.
But they can also have very different meanings.
Forrest Church, the Minister of All Soul’s Church in New York City until he died in 2009, described our spiritual lives as connecting on three axes: connecting on the upward vertical plane to ultimate truth whatever that may be for us individually: God, the Cosmos, Life, etc; connecting on the horizontal plane to the immediate world around us, to other living beings, to community, family and friends; and connecting on the inward vertical plane to ourselves.
For me the most spiritual moments in life have been those rare moments when all of those when all of those axes are in synch and I feel fully connected to the universe to the world and to all aspects of myself.
The stories and myths of travel can be read as metaphors or allegories that describe those three realms.
Liberation Theology, for example, focuses on the horizontal axis. It reads Bible stories and asks, “How do events in our life mirror the stories in the Bible? How can this be used to end oppression and to expand justice?”
My approach today, as is usually the case, is to look at the inner world that all of these stories can be used to describe.
Travel to other countries exposes to other cultures; just as travel within US or even to the town or neighborhood next door can result in exposure to other cultures and other ways of doing things.
How we view these cultures and what we learn from them depends upon our own attitude.
Colonial powers went to other parts of the world and judged other people to be savages in need of control and development.
There are things in every culture that are savage.
And so the colonialists were correct that there were things about these other cultures that were savage. But they failed to recognize that there were things within their own cultures that were savage: witness what they did to the people they colonized.
Travel with the right attitude allows us to see our own culture in a new way. It helps us to recognize that the way in which our own culture has organized things is only one possible set of human structures and values.
And so if we take the right attitude we are able, in a sense, to stand partially outside our own culture and to see it in a way that allows us to view and think about and question and challenge things we would otherwise just accept as “the way it is”
And that allows us to see ourselves in a new way. When we stand partially outside our culture we stand partially outside of ourselves, so that in a real sense our new view of our culture is a deepening of our knowledge of who we are; we as individuals.
Our religious education class called Neighboring Faiths not only goes to religious services of other traditions, they also go to other Unitarian Universalist congregations to explore other ways of doing and being Unitarian Universalist.
Each of these explorations, each of these journeys, whether travel to other cultures or travel to other congregations, each of these can be a self-exploration if we enter into them with an attitude that is open.
I don’t always manage to do that, but I strive to.
Spiritual exploration of other traditions allows me to experience my own faith more deeply—but only if I approach other faiths with an open attitude.
Much of my personal spiritual journey involves reading the sacred texts of the world. That is not just for intellectual curiosity; it is also for my personal spiritual growth. Other people may have other ways of exploration and that is just fine but I find truth in those texts. The truth I find is not outer truth—truth about Gods or powers; it is inner truth—truth about the human spirit about the human way of being. I apply the stories most readily to my personal life. That is not the only way to do it; it is how I do it.
So, for example, in the story ofColumbusand his journey to theAmericas, there is no question but thatColumbuswas a hero in the sense that he faced great obstacles and great dangers with courage and conviction. But it is also true that he was a great villain in that his lust for gold led him to enslave and kill the people of the territory he had stumbled across. We tend to leave out that part of the story in our school history books.
As I read this story, the story of great triumph and tragedy, I seek to locate the various parts ofColumbuswithin me. Where isColumbusthe hero within me? Where within me is the person who has the will to overcome obstacles and stumbling blocks in order to achieve greatness? But also: Where isColumbusthe greedy within me? Where within me is the person willing to so abuse others in order to fulfill my selfish desires and goals. I know that person is there because both Columbus and I are human beings. As a human being I have within me all of the potential to do good or evil that every other person has.
I take that same approach to any story of exploration. I read it not only as a story of exploring the word, but also as a story of exploring one’s self.
The Cavafy poem about Odysseus or Ulysses, the involuntary explorer, I also read as a story of the internal journey. And like Cavafy I believe that we bring our own Cyclops, our own demons, our own selves into our journeys.
And so a major part of our spiritual journey is facing the inner demons that we have brought with us. It is learning about the savage nature of our own culture and our own selves.
So when I go within, if I do so fully, I will face both the angels of glory and the demons of evil within me. Not real angels and demons, but those lusts and greeds and even the potential to enjoy the pleasures of imposing pain that live within every person.
Columbusthought he had landed inIndia, that he had found a new route toIndia; in fact he had found something quite different.
When we enter into the internal search, the search of our own selves, we may find quite different things than we expected to. And we may not realize it for a while.
I have within me a demon called “the lust for things”. For years I thought that I did not. I used to rail against the acquisitive nature of our society. And I thought that my sense of justice and equity were stronger than my desire for personal ownership of things. I was wrong. I like things.
A few years ago the idea of living a life of intentional simplicity became quite popular. And I knew I would never be happy in that life. My desire for things is too strong. How many things does it take to live a good life, how many things would it take to satisfy my lust for things?
There is no amount that would satisfy; in fact, the more I have the more I want. And the focus of my desire for things shifts. At one point it might be clothing; at another point it might be collectibles like stamps; at still another point it might be tropical fish. Whatever the particular object of desire might be, whenever I feed the desire it grows. There is no sating it.
That demon is always there. I can fight it, I can push it away, I can weaken it, but I can never destroy it. It may even go to sleep for a while, but it is always still there.
What I can do is tame it and use it to recognize and relate to the same demon in others so that I treat them with understanding and do not become too judgmental of others and their desire for things.
My demons and yours may be a bit different in that the ones that are strong within me may be different than the ones that are strong within you; but I do believe they all live within us.
But so do our angels, the angels of our better selves. They, too, are always within me. And I can feed or starve them as well.
When given the choice–and I am given this choice regularly–let me feed the angel of compassion and not the demons of anger or vengeance.
Let me feed the angel of understanding and not the demon of condemnation.
Let me feed the angel of love and connection and not the demon of hatred and division.
So let it be.