A sermon given at First Parish Dorchester September 24, 2017 By Rev. Tricia Brennan
Here’s a story: One day Leonardo DaVinci paid a visit to his friend Michelangelo as the sculptor was at work in his studio. In silence, the artist/inventor watched as the sculptor chiseled away at a huge hunk of marble. Leonardo could see the shape of biblical David taking form, standing powerfully before him, the muscles in the arms and legs so well-defined. Finally, he spoke, with an air of amazement and a touch of envy, “How do you do it, Michelangelo?” How do you create such a marvelous being almost alive from a hunk of cold stone?”
“Ah my friend, it is not so hard,” said the Michelangelo. “David was always there in the stone. All I do is take away what is not he, and there he stands.” **
Now perhaps you, like me, have seen Michelangelo’s David and you know what a remarkable statue it is. The fact that something so grand and beautiful was once trapped, in a sense, inside a slab of stone captivates my imagination.
I think about the faith or the confidence or the vision that Michelangelo, or any sculptor, had to have – to see in his mind’s eye the work of art that lies within, and to believe that if he persists, day after day, little by little removing what does not belong, then what is sought will be revealed.
I think about the fact that the sculpture emerges over time. In the case of David, an arm, a leg, the head, the eyes and so on. The act of creating, or of becoming, is a process. Every day a little more comes forth, every day it is clearer. Nothing is born or brought forth in a flash but through effort and time.
I think about how you get the beauty only by letting go of what is not needed, what is extraneous- and how that is so contrary to our habits of more, more, more. And how it can be hard, even scary, to discard what seems superfluous. Did Michelangelo ever feel afraid as he chiseled away the marble to get to the David within, I wonder.
Letting go is a central element of a life of faith, I’ve come to realize. I didn’t know that when I was younger, it took me some time to grasp that particular nugget of truth. And I’m sure I still fight to hold on to what is familiar and safe, even if it holds me back from growing or becoming more alive.
Why is it a central element of our spiritual lives? Because life calls us on, as we sing here sometimes, and we are not meant to be locked in stones. We are meant, I think, to grow in love and wisdom and understanding, and to do that, we have to be open to being changed. To grow means movement, means transformation, means letting go of what no longer serves life. And for most of us, change is scary and we resist it, we cling to what is, for dear life at times it seems.
In early August, I was on a 9 day silent retreat in Barre, MA. It was a Buddhist retreat, the second such one I’d been on. These retreats are pretty demanding, and there were days when I thought couldn’t I have done something better with my study leave than all this meditating, but in the end, I felt it was worthwhile.
In fact, I realized when I was there, that I’ve become increasingly drawn to Buddhism over the past 5-10 years. And steeped as I was in it those 9 days, learning more and more not just about this form of meditation but also the stories of the tradition, and the teachings, the Dharma as it is called – I began to wonder, is this becoming my central spiritual path now? And if it is, does that mean I must let go of Christianity? And felt a great pang when that thought arose, for the Christian spiritual path has been the one I’ve been on all my life, and it has been very meaningful, and it’s of my family too.
Now over the years, I’ve been privileged to have many conversations with people about where their spiritual life is taking them, and I always listen as they speak for what sounds like new life, where the animation is, where the curiosity is. And sometimes when a person senses that being faithful to what is emerging means they might have to leave the congregation that they know and love, I generally encourage them to notice what direction feels life-giving and notice where the fear is, and move towards life.
Yet the truth is, it’s not always clear. It’s often not clear. But it won’t get any clearer if we only cling to what is safe, and known, and of our past. And that is true whether we are talking about our spiritual lives or our jobs or our relationships or anything where we are grapple with the changes that comes with being alive.
I come back to the image of Michelangelo chiseling away there, day after day, in his studio. He may have sounded all confident when he talked with Leonardo, when he told him it was easy what he was doing. But I don’t really believe that. I think he was working it every day, little by little chiseling his creation into existence. Not sure what he was doing sometimes, but getting clearer as he worked.
I do think Michelangelo was on to something, though, when he said “all I do is take away what is not David” What if we were to look at our lives and ask ourselves- What is not David? What is not the essence of who I am? What is not the new life we sense we are meant to create? Is there something I should take away- some habit, some possession, some person even, some thoughts or perceptions- that gets in the way of what wants to emerge in my life?
We could call this the spirituality of subtraction, taking away that which obscures new life. And like any decent spiritual task it is radical, in this case because it rejects the culture of greed and fear. The culture that says keep everything, don’t risk giving up anything, more is better. You can never have too much stuff. The culture that anesthetizes us into sleep so we can’t see or feel what is happening in our lives and our world. Yes, there is a lot at stake. Taking away what is not David in our lives allows the beauty and the truth and the new life we so need to come alive and be seen. And not practicing the spirituality of subtraction means we can never get to what matter most, the David of our life remains stuck in stone, and we grow weary for all that weighs us down.
Life can be complicated, or so it seems to me. And so it’s helpful to have simple truths to guide us. Simple truths like head towards life– like a plant orients itself toward the light to grow. Simple truths like let go when it is time to let go, like the trees drop their leaves in autumn.
Life is a grand adventure, or so it seems to me, and part of the adventure is that we don’t know where we are going. We don’t know what the new year will bring, what the new season will bring, what each day will bring. We don’t know what opportunities will open up, or what challenges will arise. We only know that things will change, and we are asked by life and what we might call the spirit of life to be receptive to what comes and open to adventure of the unknown.
I’d say adventures into the unknown are best traveled with good companions. I’d say there are some good companions in this community, and that we are blessed by the company we keep here.
In any alive healthy community, people help each other move in the direction of life. And the most common way they do that, I think, is by the example of living authentic lives. More than one person has said that they were inspired to say “yes” after listened to Chris Gray’s sermon this past summer on “just say yes.” Marcia Hubelbank shared yesterday at the “open mic” part of reception after the Lowell Kingsley’s memorial service that it was Lowell’s love for and commitment to this church, that inspired her to serve on the Board of Trustees. Authenticity, and courage, and love are contagious things. When we are able, in our own lives, to let go of whatever needs letting go, and live more and more from the real beauty of our honest true selves, we touch and animate the same in those around us.
And that can breathe new life into old institutions, and vibrant institutions can heal and strengthen communities, and healthy communities bring the power of love and the vision of justice to our world.
Let us be about that adventure.
** The quote is often attributed to Michelangelo, in a variety of setting, but I could find no specific source.