Rev. John P. Gaffney
February 6, 2000
I don't know about you but every Groundhog Day I'm eager to turn on the "Today" show to find out what the groundhog has done. It has become a religious ritual. Several men in their vestment-like long black coats and big top hats stand by a hole in the ground waiting, in reverent, prayer-like anticipation, to see the groundhog emerging from the hole after a long winter hibernation. If he sees his shadow and is frightened by it, he will run back to the hole and there will be six more weeks of winter. Encyclopedia Brittanica says curtly: "Convincing statistical evidence does not support this tradition." Yet each year we repeat this religious service and put our faith in what this bewildered animal will do. Isn't it strange what we of this high-tech society will sometimes do? A frightened groundhog is our prophet, a seer who will predict the future. Will he see his shadow and hide? A better question that we ask today is: What shadows in your life do you fear and how long have you been hiding?
Yes, we all have shadows in our lives. They are hidden, buried deep. We sometimes hardly know what they are. There's just a persistent anxiety. Something will go wrong. There is something important, something expected that we won't be able to do. Then comes embarrassment at best and disaster at worst. It's that nightmare we have, that running away from something that we can't escape, that exam where we find ourselves totally unprepared, that falling from a bridge. We all have these horrid dreams, at least this is what the experts tell us. Psychiatrists have made a fortune in this cottage industry in which they explore our unconscious. If these shadows, these fears are deep enough, they are called phobias and if they last long enough they are called depressions.
What shadows do you fear? As I prepared this sermon I wondered how I would make it a religious experience and not a lecture in psychology. There is a very thin line between psychology and religion but there is a difference. As a religious congregation,we draw together in a prayerful mood, in this sacred space drawing upon the power of this "interdependent web of which we are a part." It is something hard to define but there is a spiritual power and so many unknown but blessed forces that strengthen and nurture us. This is religion in the best sense, something that binds us together and distinguishes us from students at a lecture on philosophy in the hall of some University. I want my remarks to stir the soul and well as to inform the mind and I would suggest that the answer we will find is spiritual and not merely psychological.
Indeed, this is a religious subject and for many of us there is a primal connection between our shadows of fear and religion. Many of our fears come from our religious background, those earliest experiences that came before memory. I can speak personally of this and in so doing I think I speak for many of you. I was taught from my earliest years that God loved me but he was also a judge who didn't fail to note any bad thing I did. I remember so clearly a picture in our first grade classroom. It was on that ledge that holds the chalk and erasers and was leaning against the blackboard in the front of the room. The picture was that of a large triangle, which represented the Trinity, and in the middle was a huge eye. Underneath the triangle were the words, "God is watching you". I can describe it so graphically these many years later because its image is imprinted on my brain. For one whole year that eye was watching me and in some ways still watches me today. In second grade, at age seven, we prepared to make our first confession. The nuns would review for hours the many sins we probably committed. What guilt that produced!
The catechism was another instrument which cast a fearful shadow. The Baltimore catechism was a small, thin, blue book but it was loaded with frightening, guilt-producing suggestions. The first chapter was about God -- the fact that He created us and the purpose in life was to "know, love, and serve Him." The second lesson was about the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. The next 20 chapters were about the Ten Commandments and the many diverse sins that could be pulled out of them. Much of the material concentrated on the sins of sex, which one could commit by "thought, word, or deed" and every sin of sex was a mortal sin, which would sent one to hell forever unless you could get to a priest to absolve them. This was my introduction to religion. These things were taught not only in elementary school but throughout high school, college, and seminary and in sermons from the pulpit. Many Catholics are still tormented by this concept of sin.
Your religious youth may not have been as intense but I am sure that all of you grew up with the shadow of guilt, whether you picked it up from your parents, your teachers, your boss, your culture, or your environment. No one escapes these shadows, these fears that we do not measure up and that we will be punished sooner or later.
My wife, Beverly, sees things differently. She grew up Southern Baptist and then switched rather early to the Methodist church but I think the independence of the Southwest, where she grew up, had more of an influence on her than religion did. She said she never pictured God as someone to be feared by rather kindly, viewed with awe and respect. When it came to wrongdoing, she would use the word "concern" rather than guilt. She is really on the right track when it comes to religion. Isn't it true that religion should make us feel free rather than guilty? Didn't all the great prophets -- Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus speak of living life and living it more abundantly? This "guilt" thing is an aberration, a fabrication of the institution but it is what is taught and most people believe. I'm of the opinion today that the Roman poet, Lucretius, was correct when he said, "Fear was the thing on earth to make gods." One of my great heroes, Gandhi, said something that I would expect of him, "Where there is fear, there is no religion." So true but this is not the way of Western religion today, nor is it the religion we grew up in.
Yes, we have shadows that we fear and we can't seem to shake them even as we grow older and wiser. Katherine Patterson in her novel "Bridge to Terabithia" spoke the truth when she said, "It's like the smarter you are, the more things can scare you." Some try to ignore these shadows, deny them, run away from them but they still are always by our side. There's a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, called "My Shadow." I've always loved this poem and Beverly and I read it often to our daughters. Stevenson speaks of his shadow in a whimsical sort of way but we can learn from the words that he speaks. The poem goes like this:
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with
But what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head.
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
The funniest thing about him is the way he likes
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow,
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball
And he sometimes gets so little that there's none of him at all.
He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he's a coward you can see,
I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me.
One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup,
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.
Would that we could speak so lightly about this "shadow" part of ourself! Robert Louis Stevenson is correct that our shadow "goes in and out with (us)." It is always there. It is not only there in the sunlight but perhaps is even more present in the dark. It is not like the shadow of Stevenson who when he gets up before the dawn "(his) lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head, had stayed at home behind (him) and was fast asleep in bed." Our shadow is omnipresent.
What shadows do you fear? Do you feel failure? Do you fear success? Do you fear the unknown? Do you fear that you may not be able to pay the bills? Do you fear that you don't do the job well enough? Do you fear you have wasted too much time? Do you fear you have not used your talents well? Do you just fear that you are inadequate? What is your fear? This is the shadow part of our lives. We can either hide from them as the frightened groundhog or we can stay in the sunlight, expose them, and begin to conquer them.
This shadowy fear is not all negative. In many ways it might be a gift, a very valuable gift. Author Marilyn Ferguson ("The Aquarian Conspiracy") writes: "Fear is a question: What are you afraid of, and why? Just as the seed of health is in illness, because illness contains information. Our fears are a treasurehouse of self knowledge if we explore them". A treasure house of self knowledge. What better gift is there? This shadow of fear is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to dread, nothing to run from. We can learn as much from our fears as from our strengths. This same thought is expressed in slightly different words by the author Jean George ("Julie of the Wolves"): "When fear seizes, change what you are doing. You are doing something wrong." Don't ignore, don't hide, don't regret but change. These shadowy fears should not paralyze us but prompt us to spring into action. This is not a time to retreat but to advance.
So the shadows of fear are a gift, a unique opportunity to grow in self knowledge but what can I do about these shadows that have been so much a part of my life for so many years? The Christian answer which has served so many people for so long is simply this: "put your trust in the Lord." Actually the Christian would say what is written on a plaque on my kitchen wall which depicts two fishermen in their boat on stormy waters: "Pray to God but row toward shore." They believe firmly that the power of the Almighty, who loves them deeply, will care for them. What are we UUs to do? Many of us do not believe in a personal God who intervenes in our lives. I believe our answer is found in the words of the chalice lighting: "In our times of trouble we light a flame of sharing." It is true that, in the fine tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other UUs, we do believe in "self reliance," using all the resources within us and not expecting any miraculous intervention of a supernatural power. Yet there is something more. In the place of a nurturing, transcendent God, we have the nurturing community. We have one another. The closing words that we use so often in our services are all so true:
"Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear and the stakes are very high. Take courage for deep down there is another truth. You are not alone."
This is our answer. We should share our fears with one another. I can't think of a more appropriate thing to do in a spiritual community. There is too much suffering alone. Too much pain endured in isolation. This was not meant to be. Indeed "our fears are a treasure house of self knowledge if we explore them" but they are best explored with others.
We do not outgrow these shadowy fears. So true are the words we heard
before: "It's like the smarter you are, the more things can scare you."
One fear can lead to another. There are also wise words spoken in the Talmud:
"He who has been bitten by a snake is frightened by a rope." Will our fears
continue to multiply? Unlike the groundhog we can't go underground until
the winter of our distress passes. In the full sunlight let us walk arm
in arm, sharing our pain and our fears, and the shadows will turn to light.