"Brilliant Silence" by Spencer Holst, excerpted from Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories
Two Alaskan Kodiak bears joined a small circus where the pair appeared in a nightly parade pulling a covered wagon. The two were taught to somersault, to spin, to stand on their heads, and to dance on their hind legs, paw in paw, stepping in unison. Under a spotlight the dancing bears, a male and a female, soon became favorites of the crowd. The circus went south on a west coast tour through Canada to California and on down into Mexico, through Panama into South America, down the Andes the length of Chile to the southernmost isles of Tierra del Fuego.
There a jaguar jumped the juggler, and afterwards, mortally mauled the animal trainer, and the shocked showpeople disbanded in dismay and horror. In the confusion the bears went on their own way. Without a master, they wandered off by themselves into the wilderness on those densely wooded, wildly windy subantarctic islands. Utterly away from people, on an out-of-the way uninhabited island, and in a climate they found ideal, the bears mated, thrived, multiplied, and after a number of generations populated the entire island. Indeed, after some years, descendants of the two moved out onto half a dozen adjacent islands, and seventy years later, when scientists finally found and enthusiastically studied the bears, it was discovered that all of them, to a bear, were performing splendid circus tricks.
On nights when the sky is bright and the moon is fully, they gather to dance. They gather the cubs and juveniles in a circle around them. They gather together out of the wind at the center of a sparkling, circular crater left by a meteorite which had fallen in a bed of chalk. Its glassy walls are chalk white, its flat floor is covered with white gravel, and it is well-drained, and dry. No vegetation grows within. When the moon rises above it, the light reflecting off the walls fills the crater with a pool of moonlight, so that it is twice as bright on the crater floor as anywhere else in that vicinity. Scientists speculate the originally the full moon had reminded the two bears of the circus spotlight, and for that reason, they danced. Yet, it might be asked, what music do the descendants dance to?
Paw in paw, stepping in unison, what music can they possibly hear inside their heads as they dance under the full moon and the Aurora Australis, as they dance in brilliant silence?
Perhaps only a Unitarian Universalist minister would read Spencer Holst’s short story “Brilliant Silence” and think it an apt parable for liberal religion in general and Unitarian Universalism more specifically. But when I first read Holst’s story, that is indeed what I thought.
What could I possibly mean?
When I imagine the scientists in Holst’s story first seeing the dancing bears, I can imagine them asking, “What’s this all about? What’s going on? How can those bears be dancing without any music? Why are they dancing at all?”
I know that some folks sometimes ask similar questions about Unitarian Universalism. For many people outside of Unitarian Universalism, we are a bit of a mystery and something seems to be missing here.
Our sign out front says we are a church. And we do most of the things that most churches do. On the other hand, some of the symbols, beliefs, and rituals of more traditional religion seem to be missing. We don’t have a cross on our roof. We don’t talk about the Bible as much as other churches. We don’t’ talk about God as much. We don’t talk about Jesus as much. We don’t about the afterlife as much. We don’t recite a creed about any of those things either.
Just as I imagine those scientists asking, “How can those bears be dancing without any music?” I know that some people ask, “How can Unitarian Universalism be a religion at all?”
For some people, I know that Unitarian Universalism seems like an Oreo cookie without the cream. Something essential seems to be missing.
Back to the bears.
Perhaps the bears, the descendants of the original circus bears, are dancing because they are mindlessly carrying on the behavior they learned from their parents and grandparents. Perhaps they are just going through the motions without giving those motions much thought.
Back to us.
Perhaps we’re similar. Most of us here grew up going to more traditional churches, and perhaps even though we’ve rejected the teachings of more traditional churches - - or those churches have rejected us - - we just can’t get out of the habit of getting up and going to church on Sunday mornings.
Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, was a Unitarian, and he called Unitarianism a “featherbed for fallen Christians,” meaning - - I suspect - - a soft place to land after having let go of traditional beliefs, a kind of halfway house to secularity.
Perhaps religion for us is like our appendix, something we’ve inherited from our ancestors but is in truth a vestigial artifact of a bygone era.
Back to the bears.
Perhaps, though, the bears aren’t just going through the motions, or to be more exact, perhaps they’ve found some value in going through the motions, in dancing together without any music. I can imagine they rather enjoy it.
When Hiromi and I once took dancing lessons, we often danced together without music, mostly because I had too much trouble dancing to the music without stepping on my wife’s feet. Even without music, dancing was enjoyable and easier on Hiromi’s feet.
Perhaps, in some way, their silent dancing helps the bears lead deeper, fuller, richer, more abundant bear lives. Perhaps there is even some evolutionary adaptive value in their silent dancing.
Back to us.
Perhaps, like the bears, even though we’re missing some of the things you find in a more traditional religious community, we’ve found value in going through the motions of religious community.
As a religious community, we welcome newcomers among us, offering them hospitality and telling them that we believe they are worthy of love just as they are.
As a religious community, we worship together. One of you asked me the other week, “How can we worship together if some of us don’t believe in a supreme being.” My answer then, which I’ll repeat now, is that the word “worship” comes from old English words meaning “to shape what is of worth.”
Worship isn’t necessary to glorify God. It’s not necessary because we’re sinful, though we certainly sometimes are. It’s necessary because we become forgetful of those ideals we hold highest for our lives, get distracted by competing cultural narratives, and get disconnected from what inspires us.
A. Powell Davies, a Unitarian minister, once wrote:
Let me tell you why I come to church. I come to church - - and would whether I was a preacher or not - - because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. I am afraid of becoming selfish and indulgent, and my church - - my church of the free spirit - - brings me back to what I want to be. I could easily despair; doubt and dismay could overwhelm me. My church renews my courage and my hope. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened, sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe to the others. I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do. I am brought toward my best, in every way toward my best.
As a religious community, we learn together, trying to answer that question of all questions, “How shall we live our lives?”
As a religious community, we care for one another, sharing the joys and sorrows of our life together, which is important. We live in a nation that is more socially isolated than ever before. According to a 2006 American Sociological Review study, the number of people with whom we can talk to about a personal problem is declining. On average, most Americans say there are only two people in their lives with whom they can talk to about something personal. But for about 50 percent of Americans, there is only one person, which is our spouse. For 25 percent of Americans, there is nobody, nobody at all.
Just imagine that. One out of every four people in this country has nobody to talk to about their joys, their sorrows, their hopes, and their worries. Is it any wonder that the number one reason that people say they come to this church or any other church is to find community?
As a religious community, we work together to make our world a more compassionate and more just place and feel our own lives are more meaningful as a result.
For folks who think religion is all about believing the right things and saying the right prayers in the right order, this probably all still sounds like something is missing, like we’re just going through the motions.
But for those of us who believe that religion not about getting us into heaven, but getting heaven into us; for those of us who believe that religion is about living in a way that is satisfying to our souls, for those of us who believe that religion is all about living with more connection and meaning; for those of us who believe that religion is about learning to live with more compassion, gratitude, acceptance, and hope, it is more than enough.
Back to the bears.
Perhaps something more is going on with those bears, something else not immediately obvious to the eye. Perhaps there is some other way of understanding what is going on.
What do I mean?
This summer my family and I drove across the northern part of Washington State along Route 20, from I-5 over to Winthrop. On the way, we visited North Cascade National Park. Before taking a hike up Thunder Knob Trail, we stopped at the visitor center and watched the short film that featured the park’s spectacular scenery. Like most films of this kind, there was a lot of soaring music and pithy quotations from John Muir. This film also used a quotation attributed to Shakespeare - - ““The earth has music for those who listen.”
As soon as I got home, I googled this quotation to see which play or sonnet it was from. This quotation shows up all over the Internet, always attributed to Shakespeare, but it turns out it’s a misattribution. An internet search of Shakespeare’s complete works turns up no such quotation. I’m not sure who first said it. Maybe somebody made it up and decided to attribute it to Shakespeare, thinking to himself that if Shakespeare had been given the opportunity to write such words he would have. I understand this kind of thing happened a lot to Jesus too.
Despite its lack of historical authenticity, I like the quotation’s sentiment. “The earth has music for those who listen.” And perhaps not only the earth, but the universe too. Perhaps all of creation has music for those who listen.
Perhaps those bears are listening and dancing to the sounds of the natural world around them - - the sound of winds in the trees, the sounds of insects chirping and humming, the sounds of waves on a nearby beach - - but also in step with something larger, some deeper unnamed rhythm and hidden harmony that is part of the cosmic symphony of creation itself, pulsating and pervading every bit of being.
Back to us.
I wonder if we as Unitarian Universalists are so different. As Unitarian Universalists, we often look to the natural world for inspiration. As William Ellery Channing, one of the founders of Unitarianism in this country, once said:
He who studies nothing but the Bible, does not study that book aright. For were it rightly read, it would send him for instruction to every creature that God hath made, and to every event wherein God is acting. That reader has not read aright the Sermon on the Mount, who has not learned to read sermons in the changes of the seasons and in the changes of human history…
I mean something more than this, though.
Within Unitarian Universalism, there has always been a critical, rational, skeptical strand. This is a part of our tradition. Yet there has always been the mystical strand as well, a strand which affirms the possibility of connection between the individual soul and the ultimate reality, a strand which says that it’s possible to hear and dance to the music of the universe.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us…Every moment when the individual feel invaded by it is memorable.”
William Wordsworth said, “And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man. A motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all though, and rolls through all things.”
Rabindranath Tagore spoke of a “stream of life” that “runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures” which we can feel too because it is the “same stream of life than runs through [our] veins night and day.”
There are times in my own life that I feel the rhythmic measure of this stream of life, times when I can feel it in my body, the same way you can feel the music in your body when you’re too close to the speakers at a rock concert or even sitting in front of the bass drum playing in an orchestra.
And it feels good. And like music you can hear, it lifts me, energizes me, helps me to keep going, even more so than the music I listen to when I jog.
When I am in-sync with it, my life feels right. When I am out-of-sync with it, I feel unsettled. When it has faded to the degree, I can no longer feel it, I feel lost and aimless.
I suspect some of you, at this point, have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and think I have waded too far into the deep end of the pool of inspiration this morning, but I suspect more than a few of you do (or at least I hope it’s more than a few).
I know there is a hesitancy among us, or at least there is for me, to name this of which I speak. Do we call it God, the divine, the sacred, the holy, the numinous or something else? Not only do all of these words have baggage, both personal and historical, but at times, all language seems inadequate to describe certain kind of experiences. As the Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be told Is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”
Our silence, our lack of language, may lead some to exclaim, “Hey, look at those Unitarian Universalists! They’re dancing without any music!”
Perhaps. Or perhaps, like the bears, we are dancing in brilliant silence with reverence, awe, and gratitude to the unnamed mystery and miracle of the cosmic symphony in which we live and move and have our being.