"To learn, one must be humble. But life is the great teacher" A quote from James Joyce's book Ulysses, a tale that takes place over a single day - the 16th June - celebrated as 'Bloomsday'. Our Service today reflected on Fathers' Day, Ulysses, our rebellious streaks as teenagers, disobeying our fathers and, perhaps, our God. The text of our reflection is below, or click the link at the top of the post for a SoundCloud recording of it.
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To learn, one must be humble,
But life is the great teacher
It is a quote from James Joyce’s book, Ulysses. Ulysses is a long book, a novel, which supposedly takes place over a single day, the 16th June 1904. The story chronicles a day in Dublin as the main character, Leopold Bloom, goes about his business.
It is not an easy book. Joyce himself claimed to have deliberately placed numerous puzzles and enigmas in the book to ensure professors debated and argued over it for decades to come. And they do.
It contains numerous styles. It is sometimes a pastiche of contemporary pot-boiler romantic novels. It has passages that are streams of consciousness; one chapter manages just seven sentences, over 35 pages. It has sections, or episodes, that are plays. It is funny, it is sad, it is controversial. It has been placed in the top 10 of many, many best book lists.
And, despite all this, hardly anyone I have met has actually read it.
It is the book to talk about reading. It sells numerous copies. Many, I suspect, remain unread.
I have a copy. In fact, I think I have two copies. I have never read it all the way through. I’ve read most of it, I think, in stages and out of sequence. But I cannot really claim to have read it all.
And I was left puzzling and exasperated after many parts of it.
Writing this sermon, and reflecting on the importance of the book, has inspired me to try again.
But don’t hold your breath.
When I was growing up, Ulysses was seen as a bit of a status symbol. The cool kids had read it (well, the kids I saw as cool anyway). They liked independent bands, the boys wore long woollen overcoats, the girls had berets. They had read Ulysses.
I now wonder how many had really read it after all. Although I suspect some did.
Yet to be thought of as one who had read Ulysses was to be unapproachable by mere mortals such as I. Such people were truly wise to the world. In my eyes.
My father has not, I think I can safely say, read Ulysses. But further than that, I’m fairly sure he doesn’t necessarily wish he had either. The status symbol of the intellectual bookist is not something my father has spent time pursuing.
I doubt many fathers do. Fathers have other things to do. They have children to care for and feed. They have houses and gardens to maintain. They have jobs to do, cars to wash, ceilings to paint, fences to mend, plugs to wire, shelves to balance, lawns to cut.
I know some of you are now thinking, “well, mothers and non-parents do those things to”
Yes, you’re right. But it’s father’s day, and that’s where my focus lies for now.
There are stereotypical images of fatherhood, that may or may not coincide with your own experience, with which we understand the term ‘father’.
Fathers are cool until you reach your teens. Then they stop being cool. And do not recover that position for many years hence. If at all.
Just as we all have mothers, we all have fathers. We cannot all be fathers. But we all had one.
And I would be foolish to suggest that we all have perfectly wonderful memories or knowledge of our fathers. That can never be the case. Fathers are human beings; fathers are as fragile and likely to do wrong as any other person in the world. Fathers make mistakes. Fathers can be bad, they can be good. They can be rich, they can be poor. Yet they are all fathers.
Yet, in religious terms, certainly for those coming from the Christian tradition, the notion of ‘Father’ is the way that God has been described. How can this be? Are we claiming our God is like our real father? Or is our real father seen as a God-like figure?
I wonder if it isn’t a bit of both at times.
In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, we are told that God made humans in his own image. Now, whilst it is not factually true, and ignoring the male-dominated religious story-telling aspect, I see this as a positive approach to trying to understand our relationship with our God.
We are made in God’s image. So, logically, we are like God, and God is like us.
A bit like our fathers really. We are also made by them, in their own image.
And perhaps the way we treat our fathers bears some resemblance to the way we treat our Gods, however that God might be to you. Is this perhaps the message the writer of the myths of Creation was trying to express.
For each of us, God is different. You may not even know your God by that name. Yet almost all of us will have a notion of something bigger than all of us. A supernatural God of some form, or the unexplainable idea of and Eternal Spirit, or the unifying spirit of humanity, or love, or the Universe. Whichever or whatever you might experience and express your God, there will I am sure be times when you are overawed, and other time where you forget to remember you God, and you start to feel, intentionally or not, that you know better than your God. Your decisions and actions are determined by yourself, even if you know deep down that they are not the most worthy actions you might take.
The influence of your father has waned. You are now the teenager, rebelling against all you have been told is right and true in this world.
This rebellion against our God can take many directions. Yet I suspect we are all aware of our own failings at times. Those moments when we have acted in a way that we know, deep down, is wrong. It may have been in response to another person’s actions. It may have been against someone – perhaps even speaking badly to them.
Or it may have been different. We can all be guilty of trying to balance in our minds the often reckless pursuit of the latest consumer gadget or must-have, desperately pushing aside that nagging voice that tells us to think a little more deeply about whether we really need it, or perhaps whether we should put up with the inconvenience of a ten-minute walk to the station rather than drive somewhere.
We all do it. Well, I certainly do.
In our first reading, Mr Patton’s Message, by Kaaren Solveig Anderson, we heard of the wonderful music teacher that finally loses his rag and explains some cold, hard facts of peaceful living to the assembled children. Despite having tried to lead them carefully and through the medium of proper band conducting, he finally gives in to his anger and tells the seventh grade band a few home truths about life.
Mr Patton is, to my mind, the exasperated father figure. The one we know is there, we sort of respect, but we think we can ignore when it suits us.
A father-like figure.
Perhaps a God-like figure.
Mr Patton is there to be ignored. The children all know better. They are of course learning, but they each of them know themselves to be slightly better than their peers. And certainly better than Mr Patton. After all, he’s just got a baton. A stick. The children have real instruments and can make a beautiful noise.
Except they can’t really.
They are so engrossed in the personal story they fail to see the importance of the guide to life. They are so engrossed, they fail to see their friends. They fail to understand that the better approach to life is to be open to those around, and to look for leadership from the places we know, in our hearts, to be true.
I wonder whether the secret to a truly successful religious life is to follow this notion of moving beyond our teenage years.
By this I mean to listen again to the lessons our fathers taught us, or the lessons that those we see as father-figures in our lives have taught us.
In my teenage years, the fact my father was able to husband chickens, could cut a hedge 20 feet tall, was able to wire outside lights, knew how to erect a fence, and was an expert on butterflies was not impressive enough.
He hadn’t, after all, read Ulysses.
But now, now I am so grateful for those snippets of teaching and life lessons that seem to bubble up when I least expect it. Feeling my self acting as my father did when trying to clear roots from a new vegetable patch.
And, I am very lucky that, for now, he’s still around to give me further advice. He still grows things. He still creates.
Your fathers, or those you saw as truly father-figures in your life, will bring these or perhaps other memories and skills. Maybe your father read Ulysses whilst you wished he would help you with gardening. And it is his love of books and discourse that you now find so valuable in your life.
We are all different.
Yet we must also see this in our approach to the world, to the life spirit that binds us all together. To that breath of life called Love, to your God.
We must listen. Like the seventh grade musicians, we may have to put aside our ideas that we know best. We may have to listen instead to the honest truths we know to be right.
It is never easy to do this. We are, after all, grown-ups. We surely know things ourselves. We do not need to be told what to do.
Yet, if we search our heads and our hearts, I wonder if we also know that, as grown-ups, we need to draw on the depths of experience that other grown-ups have been trying to pass on to us. That experience of life that has been passed through the generations.
We must listen.
In our second reading, Mary Wellemeyer’s ‘Trees’, we are reminded that the ‘ancient ones who watched our growing slowly go back to the earth, leaving us to take their places’.
We have much to learn if we are truly to take the place of the ancient ones.
We may just have to put aside our attempts to be the loudest tuba on the block, or the most erudite intellectual.
No matter our age, we always have more to learn. To learn from others, from our fathers, from our father-figures, from our friends. From the ancients.
As James Joyce put it so well,
To learn, one must be humble,
But life is the great teacher