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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reading: The Dragon Princess by Rainer Maria Rilke

(This passage by Rainer Maria Rilke is often called The Dragon Princess. It is part of one of the ten letters Rilke wrote to the so called young poet, a young man named Franz Kappus, who first wrote to Rilke asking for advice about writing and life. The letter from which the Dragon Princess passage comes was written on August 12, 1904. This is Stephen Mitchell’s translation from the German.)

We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry, we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us.

We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

(The full copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s letters is available online.)

Waiting to See Us Once Beautiful and Brave

(Audio of this sermon)

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

This is the time of year when we are invited to consider shadows. As I am sure you know, Feb. 2 was Groundhog Day. The tradition is that if a groundhog peeks out of the burrow on this day and sees its shadow it will return to the burrow for six more weeks of hibernation, which means six more weeks of winter weather. If it doesn’t see its shadow, the groundhog will emerge from its winter sleep because spring weather is coming sooon. The word from the official groundhog of Punxatawney, Pennsylvania where Groundhog day originated, is that we are having six more weeks of winter weather. Though I have to wonder if a Massachusetts groundhog would even have bothered checking for a few more weeks.

Groundhog Day mostly likely comes from the Catholic festival of Candlemas, which also falls on February 2 and is the day for blessing all of the church candles to be used in the coming year. Old traditions say that the weather on Candlemas predicted how much winter was left. And both Groundhog Day and Candlemas developed from the even older celebration of Imbolc. In the ancient Celtic calendar, Imbolc, which is still celebrated by some earth based religious traditions, is celebrated at the very end of January or the first of February, at the time midway between winter solstice and spring equinox. The word Imbolc literally means “in the belly,” a reference to the female sheep or ewes who would be pregnant at this time of year. Imbolc falls in the dead of winter, the heart of winter in the northern hemisphere and it is a reminder that spring is coming. It is a reminder that the earth is preparing itself for new life even though we may not be able to see the signs yet. Spring is in the shadows but it is there, waiting to emerge into the light.

This is also the time of year of the Chinese New Year. The Chinese calendar is a cyclical, lunar calendar so the first day of the New Year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. This year the Chinese New Year begins on February 14, when we enter The Year of the Tiger. The Chinese New Year is celebrated with new clothes and lots of housecleaning. People give gifts of money wrapped in red paper envelopes. In traditional Chinese culture, the New Year is the time when everyone adds a year to their age rather than celebrating individual birthdays throughout the year. Some of the most important rituals of the Chinese New Year are about scaring off the dying season of winter in order to make way for the new season to begin, scaring away the shadows in order to make room for the light of spring.

There is an ancient Chinese story about a monster named Nian — in Chinese the word Nian means “year.” But in some primordial time before time, it was the name of a monster would prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year. Once a wise man appeared and claimed he could tame the monster. He convinced the monster to kill only beasts of prey — animals more powerful than humans. He also managed to convince the monster that humans were weak and unworthy opponents. Eventually, the monster and the wise man rode away into the distance together. But before they left, the wise man told the people to hang up red things in their windows and set off firecrackers to scare off the monster in case he returned, because Nian hated loud noises and the color red.

At the New Year, huge, beautiful dragon puppets dance in the streets to the noise of thousands of firecrackers, probably as a continuation of the old legend to drive away Nian or scare whatever evil spirits or shadows maybe lurking, or perhaps to help wake up the earth from its long winter sleep. The dragon is an important symbol of the new year. The word Dragon comes from a Greek word which means serpent. But the root of the word, drak, means “to see clearly.” A dragon is one who sees. Although dragons show up in legends around the world, different cultures perceive them very differently. In Chinese culture dragons are revered. They are associated with wisdom and longevity and are symbols of independence, strength and good luck, thus their importance for the new year.

In fairly stark contrast, in Christianity, especially in medieval times, dragons were symbols of evil and sin, associated with the serpent who beguiled Eve in the Garden of Eden, thus causing the downfall of humankind. In the Christian church, dragons became a sign of Satan, and heroes of the church like St. George were celebrated for slaying them. So it is a time of year for shadows and for dragons. The Christian church does not like dragons and some say the church doesn’t like shadows either. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, believes that Christianity has never dealt well with shadows. Instead, he believes the Christian church has historically envisioned a God with no shadow side, a God with no darkness, which makes for a somewhat flat or limited understanding of the divine. If we think of the authors of the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as people who were struggling to understand the nature of their God, it does seem that the God of the Hebrew Bible has many dimensions in contrast to the God of the New Testament. The God of the Hebrew Bible is portrayed as jealous and capricious and outraged and sometimes even mistaken and remorseful. It is a very human God in some ways, full of shadows and feelings. The God portrayed in the New Testament is quite different. In the New Testament God is conceived of as purely good, all forgiving and all compassionate. The evil part, or what some might say are simply the more human parts, like rage, jealousy, the capacity to be vengeful and to make mistakes, are seen as distinct from God and are attributed much more clearly to a separate entity named Satan.

The shadow side of human nature is the basis for one of the theological pillars of Christianity — the belief that God and human beings have become separated, alienated from one another because of human evil. So there is this foundational belief in Christianity that God became distanced from human beings because of our shadows and so sent Jesus to reconcile humanity and God, to bridge the distance that had come between God and humanity, to bridge our shadows so to speak.

Steindl-Rast suggests something interesting and powerful about Christianity’s perspective on shadows. He thinks that if we envision a God who is without a shadow side, then there is no room for our shadow side either. So if our faith tradition tells us to strive to be like a God, who is conceived of as purely good, then we who certainly are not purely good end up burying or suppressing certain parts of ourselves, or at least believing that is what we are supposed to do in order to be people of faith — that faith requires us to abandon parts of ourselves. And these suppressed parts, our rage and hungers and selfishness, become our shadow. We create, out of a need to be acceptable, to be seen as faithful and moral and good, a shadow self, which remains hidden and silenced much of the time. (Steindl-Rast, David, “The Shadow in Christianity,” in Meeting the Shadow, ed. Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, 1991.)

The writer Robert Bly believes that the creation of a shadow self happens to most human beings regardless of religion. He believes it is one of the difficult parts of coming of age in our particular culture — that religion doesn’t create this shadow side, only reinforces it and even blesses it. He writes about how people develop a shadow side from a very early age. He imagines it as a process of stuffing some of our human qualities into a metaphorical bag, which we then have to carry around with us. Bly writes:

When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.” Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota, we were known as “the nice Bly boys.” Our bags were already a mile long.

(Bly, Robert, “The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us,” in Meeting the Shadow.)

According to Bly, one of the main tasks of adulthood is to unpack the bag of our shadows, to open it up and take things out and ultimately set them free. I know some of you might not consider this good news. But our shadow sides don’t just disappear. The murderous rage or envy or greed or deep sadness we have stuffed in our bags doesn’t just go away. The bag just gets heavier and we become exhausted trying to drag it around with us. And if we ignore our shadow selves long enough, our shadows can take on a life of their own. We may end up feeling inauthentic, false, deceptive, perhaps believing that if others knew how we really felt, what we really thought, they would find us fundamentally unacceptable. And the really bad news is this: our shadows long for freedom and they will struggle to be free. They escape despite our best efforts to keep them contained. I have noticed they tend to come out of hiding when we are stressed or feeling particularly vulnerable, surprising even us with the depth of our fury or jealousy or whatever it is. This can do harm, often to the people we care about the most. If we don’t unpack our bag of shadows, it can come to control us in ways we may not even understand. And if we don’t unpack our bag of shadows, we may be limited in our compassion for others because we may despise in others the very qualities that we cannot bear to face in ourselves. (I am indebted to Rev. Wendy Bell’s sermon Seeing Our Shadow, Jan. 29, 2006 for the reference to Zweig and Abrams book, Meeting the Shadow.)

There is some evidence that Jesus understood something about shadows. The Gospel of Thomas is one of the writings from a sect of early Christians called Gnostics who came to be considered heretics by the church. A number of important Gnostic texts were found in Egypt in 1947, the Gospel of Thomas among them. This Gospel is comprised entirely of sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which would sound familiar and some of which are very different, radically so. One of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas is this:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

There is also evidence that one of the most revered saints of the Christian church, St. Francis, understood about shadows as well. One of my favorite legends about St. Francis comes from the very colorful and creative account of his life written in the 14th century and titled Little Flowers of St. Francis. This story is from the time when Francis was supposedly visiting the Italian village of Gubbio and a fierce wolf began attacking the livestock in the village. As the story goes on, the wolf soon graduated to direct assaults on humans, and not long after, began to dine upon the human villagers exclusively. The wolf was known for lingering just outside of the village gates in wait for anyone who was foolish enough to venture beyond the gates alone. No weapon was capable of injuring the wolf and all brave attempts to kill it ended with someone getting eaten. The people of the village soon refused to go outside and it was at this point that Francis arrived, took stock of the situation and announced he was going to go meet with the wolf. He was advised against this more than once but ventured beyond the gates with a group of villagers in tow, but staying back at a safe distance.

The wolf, having seen Francis approach, rushed at him with jaws open. But Francis simply commanded the wolf to stop in the name of God at which point the wolf trotted up to Francis and lay down at Francis’ feet, putting its great head on its great paws. And Francis spoke gently to the wolf, basically telling him, Brother wolf, you have done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God. Is it because you are hungry? And the wolf nodded its huge shaggy head. And Francis said, Then if you are willing to make peace with the creatures of this village, I will see that you are fed every day by the good people of Gubbio as it is hunger which has made you do this evil. Do you promise never again to attack any animal or human being? And the wolf placed its forepaw in Francis’ outstretched hand, the oath was made and Francis and wolf returned to the village, the wolf trotting by Francis’ side, as the dumbstruck onlookers followed behind.

(This is a paraphrase of the story told in Little Flowers of St. Francis, of which there are many versions.)

This story has traditionally been told as a way to demonstrate the amazing powers of St. Francis, given to him through his great faith in God, but I believe the story has another message. The other message is about what happens when we feed our wolf instead of trying to destroy it. The other message is about what happens when we leave the safety of the village in order to find our wolf and talk to it and maybe even befriend it. The other message is about what happens when we make peace with the parts of ourselves we are most afraid of or appalled by, the parts we consider ruthless, untamable, unacceptable.

In the end, there is another reason to unpack our bag of shadows and this is perhaps the most important reason of all. We need to unpack the bag because there are hidden treasures in there. Inside the bag there are aspects of ourselves waiting to be claimed and used. And often our shadows are transformed when we show those aspects of ourselves some compassion, when we give them a little light and air and understanding. I think this is what Rilke means when he writes to his young poet acquaintance, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are really princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Our wounds and sorrows, our secret fears and desires, all that which we seek to deny or ignore in ourselves, can actually be a source of strength and liberation if we meet them with courage and gentleness.

The poet David Whyte writes about the aspects of ourselves which must not be diminished and how striving for pure goodness, striving for perfection does not turn us into, in his words, “the lit angel we desire.” Striving to be purely good, striving to be perfect instead cuts us off from our wholeness, our strength, our passion. Our shadows contain the seeds of our light. These words are from his poem, The Winter of Listening:

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,

what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.
All those years forgetting
How easily you can belong to everything
Simply by listening

And the slow
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous

Silence and winter
has led me to that

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

(David Whyte, The House of Belonging)

So let us welcome the dragon who comes to tell us that everything is born from an opposite and miraculous otherness, who tells us that light comes forth from shadow and that even in the cold of winter, spring is waiting to be born.


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Most recently updated 2013-03-09