Finding The Words

Sermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Easter Sunday sermon May 3, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Are you keeping a journal during your quarantine? I’ve been encouraging my students to keep a journal — your future self, I tell them, will be so grateful to have it to read. I’ve also been trying to be more faithful to my own journal and write at least a little every day. Recently the historical society of my denomination sent out a letter encouraging us all to keep an account of these days and, eventually, to have it archived in their offices so that future generations can read about what it was like to live through this time.

I hope many of you are doing the same — capturing something of what your days look like, and what they feel like during this pandemic — not only for posterity, but for yourself. Trying to find the words for what we are living through can give our sometimes formless days in quarantine more shape, can offer an anchor-point amid their flux, and cultivate a deeper attention to our moments as they pass, and to the hidden possibilities they might contain.

It’s not easy, though, to find the words to describe what we’re experiencing. When asked how I am doing, I often find myself repeating the same things, in the same way. When I try to write in my journal, I often find myself using the same words over and over, words that don’t quite reach the depths I know are there but that are hard to access.

In Valeria Luiselli’s great novel, Lost Children Archive, one of the narrators says: “I don’t keep a journal. My journals are the things I underline in books.”

I’ve recalled that sentence many times over the last two months — my journals are the things I underline in books. Because in our locked-down life, sharing bits and pieces of what we’ve been reading — or listening to, or looking at has become another way for us to give an account of our days. At MemCafe each week, Wes Conn and Lara Glass invite us to share a line or two of something that has been meaningful to us in the past week, and sometimes the verses of scripture, lines of poetry, and remembered sayings that everyone brings give us as clear a glimpse of our experience as if we had written them ourselves. When our Student Advisory Board met this past week, we each brought a little something to share — a potluck of words that we passed around from hand to hand, instead of the meals we usually share together. In my classes, students have lifted up words and phrases from our reading and listened for what they have to say in this new world.

When we were making pilgrimages together in the fall — to Walden Pond, to the Art Museum, to the Day of the Dead altars in the Peabody—one of our practices was to create a florilegium together from the experience. Florilegia are what monks in the Middle Ages called their collections of significant bits and pieces of their reading and listening. One monk called his collection Liber scintillarum, or book of sparklets — the words and sentences that had sparkled up at him from the page. When we were on pilgrimage together, we would keep an eye out for the things that sparkled at us throughout the day — in the conversations we had, the images we gazed at, the prayers we prayed, and the world around us. And at the end of our pilgrimage, we’d collect them and create an account of our journey from the bits and pieces of everyone’s experience — and that would extend our pilgrimage even further, for as we each set our sparklets down next to the sparklets of others, the significance of each fragment would expand, leading us down even more unexpected roads.

The passage from Deuteronomy that Ben read for us this morning is such a shining fragment. Moses is offering his last teachings to the people of Israel, leading them, not through the desert this time, but through their history — from the call of Abraham and Sarah to God’s delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the forty-year journey in the wilderness to the threshold of the promised land. Moses knows that he isn’t going to enter that land with them — Israel’s future will unfold without him. But before he dies, he retells their story, out of which shine these words, two short sentences that became the bedrock on which Israel’s relationship with God is built: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. This is a sparklet whose light is impossible to miss.

So significant are these two sentences that it won’t be enough to have heard them, or even to have them written into the Bible. They need to be recalled in every moment, Moses seems to say, worked into the earth of our lives. Inscribe these words on your bodies, Moses says, by writing them in your hearts, and binding them on your hands and on your foreheads. Write them on your home — on your doorposts and on your gates. Talk about them with your children. Recite them upon rising and let them be the last words you speak before you sleep.

Moses wants loving God with everything we are to be the center from which everyone’s life flows, like a stone dropped into a pool of water whose ripples keep reaching farther and farther, far beyond where we think the boundaries lie. Don’t just know where to find these words in a book, he seems to say. Fix them to your foreheads so that looking into the face of another reminds you to love God. Write them on your thresholds, so that every time you enter your house and every time you leave it, you remember to love God. Tell them to your children so that they will bear that love into the future.

One of those children whose parents taught them to love God with all their heart and soul and might was Jesus. He would have grown up with those words written on the doorpost of his house and on the gates through which he went in and out. He would have heard his parents say them when they woke and before they went to sleep. Moses’s words were a stone dropped into the pool of his life that are still rippling out.

So when he was asked during his ministry to identify the greatest commandment, it was ready on his tongue: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And next to those words, Jesus set down another sparklet from the Torah, this time from the book of Leviticus: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Side by side, these words illuminate the whole of the Bible, Jesus said, the whole life of faith — a life shaped by love, a life that flows from love. A life in which we are called to choose love over hatred, mercy over vengeance, compassion over indifference.

The philosopher Simone Weil once imagined her mind as a pool into which everything dropped — all words, all images, “all ideas without exception,” as she put it. And after a period of oscillation, she wrote, these ideas weigh themselves and some rise to the surface again. The fierce commitment to love of God and neighbor that surfaces in the Torah and in the teachings of Jesus is a demanding love — we’re called to love a God we cannot see, and to love a neighbor we might just as easily hate. The neighbor the book of Leviticus says we are to love is the one against whom we hold a grudge or on whom we want to take revenge. The neighbor in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan is the one we are told is our enemy. It can be hard to know if we are loving God, St. Teresa of Avila once wrote, but it is always possible to know if we are loving our neighbor. So use that love to navigate your life, she said — because if we’re not loving our neighbor, we might be fooling ourselves about loving God.

In these days, there are a lot of ideas dropping into the pool of our lives, competing for our allegiance. What words will we find to narrate this pandemic? Will we seek a scapegoat to bear the blame? Or will we find words to honor the sacrifices people have made for each other, all the ways people have loved their neighbors, from caring for them in hospitals, to continuing to show up for work in grocery stores and pharmacies, to staying home so that others can have a fighting chance against this virus? How will we respond to the upheaval we are experiencing? By trying to get back to the way things were, with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few? Or by facing up to the inequalities the virus has set in sharp relief and creating a society where a humane life, a life of dignity is everyone’s inheritance? Will we live as we want, without regard for the needs of others? Or will we love God with all that we are and our neighbor as ourselves?

In the passage from the book of Acts that Larry read for us, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’s followers trying to figure out how to live in the wake of his violent death and his subsequent reappearance among them. The good news of God’s love, they preached, “is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away”— a promise that gains strength through being lived, and that ripples out far beyond what we can predict or even see. The book of Acts describes how the community of Jesus’s followers tried to live this good news, through study and fellowship, through breaking bread together and praying for one another, and through pooling their resources and redistributing them. “All who believed were together,” the author of Acts says, “and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This radical vision flows from the wisdom of the Torah retold by Moses, passed down the generations from parents to children, household to household, through exile and return, in the times of war and times of peace. It has been lived by people whose names we know and many more whose names we don’t but whose own attempts to love God with all their heart and soul and strength opened the space for us to love and to keep finding new forms that that love might take, new ways of bringing it to life in our world.

What is the life of faith but a florilegium, a vision assembled from bits and pieces and reassembled again and again over the course of our lives as we place our fragments next to the fragments of others and sometimes find new wisdom revealed in the combination. Let’s keep searching for the words and images we need to stay turned toward love in these difficult days, sharing them with each other, and listening for what they say when we set them alongside each other. Even if the pages of our journals remain blank, we are writing an account of this moment every day, with our choices, with our lives. May it be an account grounded in love that flows through us and beyond us, opening space in a future we can’t yet see for more love, more compassion, more hope.