Embracing the All | October 2, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
Our opening video was a Yom Kippur service that brought tears to my eyes. I thought to myself, what if all worship were so all-encompassing…so representative of the All as this was. The mix of generations and the genuine love shown when the worship leaders embraced the child struggling with the volume and when they embraced each other was so symbolic of our human journey…one in which we are able to “embrace the All”…one also described by one of my favorite authors, Hermann Hesse.
All birth means separation from the All, the confinement within limitation, the separation from God, the pangs of being born ever anew. The return into the All, the dissolution of painful individuation, the reunion with God means the expansion of the soul until it is able once more to embrace the All.
Hesse is describing, I think, the journey we can take in life…from the painful separation from our source and back again. These words seem to describe the stripping away the outer layers until we are standing stripped to the literal substance of ourselves before God…a place where we are God…we are one in the All of existence. This is a description, I think, of something we have to go through over and over again in our lives. We need to stop what we are doing…take a break from our busyness long enough to reflect…to remember…to restore and to renew. Throughout history, cultures have reflected this basic human need with their rituals and holidays. I was reminded of this in relation to the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur that falls only one week after the celebration of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. In Hebrew, Yom Kippur means “the day of atonement”. It is a day of fasting and prayer when religious Jews confess and atone for their shortcomings…a time before which one is meant to practice forgiveness…and a time that marks a new beginning. The word atonement comes from an early 16th century root denoting unity or reconciliation, especially between God and human beings and this is how the holiday is understood. The Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism states:
Yom Kippur is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. We are commanded to turn to those whom we have wronged first, acknowledging our sins and the pain we might have caused. At the same time, we must be willing to forgive and to let go of certain offenses and the feelings of resentment they provoked in us. On this journey we are both seekers and givers of pardon. Only then can we turn to God and ask for forgiveness: “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”
So not only are we to turn to those whom we have wronged and ask for forgiveness, but we are also meant to be willing to forgive…to let go of the offenses and the feelings of resentment that they engender. And when we take care of those feelings of resentment…when we forgive our brothers and sisters…we are ready to ask God for forgiveness…for pardon…for atonement…for unity with the Great Mystery…unity with all life.
This is a process that can be life-changing…it can mean the difference between moving forward in life, trusting in the power of the Great Mystery which birthed us and becoming stuck…stuck in addiction, regret, resentment, sickness and despair. This is something that I witness on a daily basis. Individuals who are “stuck” in their focus on the consequences of “painful individuation”…things that have happened to them in the course of separation from the All. They have forgotten their connection with this Great Mystery…the All of creation from which we have come. I have known people who have spent their entire lives in that feeling of resentment…their whole lives waiting for someone to apologize for something. It is such a waste of time…a waste of a precious life. Olive Schreiner wrote a beautiful illustration of this phenomenon. It goes like this:
A man cried up to God, and God sent down an angel to help him;
and the angel came back and said, “I cannot help that man.”
God said, “How is it with him?”
And the angel said, “He cries out continually that one has injured him;
and he would forgive him and he cannot.”
God said, “What have you done for him?”
The angel said, “All -. I took him by the hand, and I said, ‘See,
where other men speak ill of that man do you speak well of him;
secretly, in ways he shall not know, serve him;
if you have anything you value share it with him, so, serving him,
you will at last come to feel possession in him, and you will forgive.’
And he said, ‘I will do it.’ Afterwards, as I passed by in the dark of night,
I heard one crying out, ‘I have done all. It helps nothing!
If I share my heart’s blood with him, is the burning within me less?
I cannot forgive. I cannot forgive! Oh, God, I cannot forgive!’
“I said to him, ‘See here, look back on all your past. See from your childhood all smallness, all indirectness that has been yours; look well at it,
and in its light do you not see every man your brother?
Are you so sinless you have right to hate?’
“He looked, and said, ‘Yes, you are right; I too have failed,
and I forgive my fellow. Go. I am satisfied; I have forgiven’;
and he laid him down peacefully and folded his hands on his breast,
and I thought it was well with him.
But scarcely had my wings rustled and I turned to come up here,
when I heard one crying out on earth again, ‘I cannot forgive!
I cannot forgive! Oh, God, God, I cannot forgive!
It is better to die than to hate! I cannot forgive! I cannot forgive!’
And I went and stood outside his door in the dark, and I heard him cry,
‘I have not sinned so, not so! If I have torn my fellows’ flesh ever so little,
I have kneeled down and kissed the wound with my mouth till it was healed. I have not willed that any soul should be lost through hate of me.
If they have but fancied that I wronged them I have lain down on the ground before them that they might tread on me, and so, seeing my humiliation, forgive and not be lost through hating me;
they have not cared that my soul should be lost;
they have not willed to save me;
they have not tried that I should forgive them!’
“I said to him, ‘See here, be thou content; do not forgive: forget this soul
and its injury; go on your way. In the next world perhaps –‘
“He cried, ‘Go from me, you understand nothing!
What is the next world to me! I am lost now, to-day.
I cannot see the sunlight shine, the dust is in my throat,
the sand is in my eyes! Go from me, you know nothing!
Oh, once again before I die to see that the world is beautiful!
Oh God, God, I cannot live and not love. I cannot live and hate.
Oh, God, God, God!’ So I left him crying out and came back here.”
God said, “This man’s soul must be saved.”
And the angel said, “How?”
God said, “Go down you, and save it.”
The angel said, “What more shall I do?”
Then God bent down and whispered in the angel’s ear,
and the angel spread out its wings and went down to earth…
The angel went down and found the man with the bitter heart
and took him by the hand, and led him to a certain spot.
Now the man wist not where it was the angel would take him nor what he would show him there. And when they came the angel shaded the man’s eyes with his wing, and when he moved it the man saw somewhat on the earth before them. For God had given it to that angel to unclothe a human soul;
to take from it all those outward attributes of form, and colour, and age,
and sex, whereby one man is known from among his fellows and is marked off from the rest, and the soul lay before them, bare,
as a man turning his eye inwards beholds himself.
They saw its past, its childhood, the tiny life with dew upon it;
they saw its youth when the dew was melting, and the creature raised its Liliputian mouth to drink from a cup too large for it,
and they saw how the water spilt; they saw its hopes that were never realized; they saw its hours of intellectual blindness, men call sin;
they saw its hours of all-radiating insight, which men call righteousness; they saw its hour of strength, when it leaped to its feet crying,
“I am omnipotent”; its hour of weakness, when it fell to the earth and grasped dust only; they saw what it might have been, but never would be.
The man bent forward.
And the angel said, “What is it?”
He answered, “It is I! It is myself!”
And he went forward as if he would have laid his heart against it;
but the angel held him back and covered his eyes.
Now God had given power to the angel further to unclothe that soul, to take from it all those outward attributes of time and place and circumstance whereby the individual life is marked off from the life of the whole.
Again the angel uncovered the man’s eyes, and he looked.
He saw before him that which in its tiny drop reflects the whole universe;
he saw that which marks within itself the step of the furthest star,
and tells how the crystal grows under the ground where no eye
has ever seen it; that which is where the germ in the egg stirs;
which moves the outstretched fingers of the little newborn babe,
and keeps the leaves of the trees pointing upward;
which moves where the jellyfish sail alone on the sunny seas,
and is where the lichens form on the mountains’ rocks.
And the man looked.
And the angel touched him.
But the man bowed his head and shuddered. He whispered –
“It is God!”
And the angel re-covered the man’s eyes.
And when he uncovered them there was one walking
from them a little way off; - for the angel had re-clothed the soul
in its outward form and vesture – and the man knew who it was.
And the angel said, “Do you know him?”
And the man said, “I know him,” and he looked after the figure.
And the angel said, “Have you forgiven him?”
But the man said, “How beautiful my brother is!”
And the angel looked into the man’s eyes, and he shaded his own face with his wing from the light. He laughed softly and went up to God.
But the men were together on earth.
It took a lot for this angel to convince this man to forgive. He had to experience the humanity of the other…he had to travel all the way back to the origins of life and it was there that this man recognized the divine nature of the other…and even his own divine nature. This was a powerful experience…an experience that is more than just forgiveness…an experience in which we are stripped to the literal substance of ourselves…we are no longer part of a religion or cultural system…for a moment we do not even exist…and it is at this point that we are able to see our shared humanity…the divine core.
I like this story because it shows, in the form of myth what it takes to connect with God and our fellow human beings…what it takes to ‘return’ to our source. This concept of returning is also part of the Jewish High holidays. It is said that this is a time to return to the source…a time to search for the holiness inside us that has not yet reached fruition…the holiness that we have hidden within the busyness of our everyday lives. Rabbi Marcia Prager speaks of this return as t’shuvah. She says that Yom Kippur is a yearly reminder that we need to return to our connection with the divine presence within and around us. She calls it a process of re-alignment with God, our family and our community. Prager says that this is something that we must do on a regular basis and not just once a year…we need to make it a spiritual practice. She writes:
Make it a custom to spend some time in a state of t'shuvah every day,
especially before going to sleep.
Each of us, in our own private words, can do some rigorous soul-work,
without any self-righteousness or defensive posturing.
You can integrate time for soul-review and return into your daily life!
Remember that t'shuvah should not be a descent into self-degradation,
self-scorn, or destructive self-criticism.
When you pray about t'shuvah express your hopes!
Come into a state of t'shuvah in joy and expansiveness of spirit!
Not from sadness, stress and feelings of impoverishment. (Menorat Zahav)
You can remind yourself every day that the soul, that you are,
pure and good, like a holy spark.
No matter what layers of tarnish life's hurts and errors
may have layered on, your inner goodness is still shining inside,
ready to guide you.
It is this inner core…this shining goodness that the man in Olive Schreiner’s
story finally was able to see that we need to connect with. It is a spiritual practice
…let’s think for a moment about the term “practice”. It suggests that we are not
yet proficient at something…we need to continue to practice it on a regular basis…
we must return to the source…to the All, in order to embrace the awe and wonder,
along with the pain and transformation that encompasses our existence.
At this time of returning, may we each connect with our inner authority and
may that inner authority cause us to return…again and again to the land
of the soul…that place of reunion with the all-pervading presence of the Holy.
May we expand the soul in order to encompass the All, where we gain strength
and courage for the journey. May we follow the scent of justice and of peace…
the aroma of the divine to the transformation of our world.