When I was in high school, our concert choir sang a piece that really moved me deeply. Every time we sang it, when we got to this one particular part, I would find myself tearing up. And not just whenever I was singing it, whenever I’ve listened to it since I’ve teared up at that same spot. And I’ve heard it a lot. I asked the choir at First Parish in Concord to learn it so that they could sing it at my ordination. I asked the choirs at our congregations in Yarmouth, Maine and Brewster, Massachusetts to sing it at my installations there. And our choir sang it here, when we held our ceremony to install me as the newly settled Lead Minister, and all of us as ministers of equal value to this congregation and to the world. The piece is Randall Thompson’s setting of the Robert Frost poem, “Choose Something Like a Star.”
The music’s beautiful, as I’ve said, (I dare say especially the tenor part!) yet the words of the poem have moved me, too. And the last few lines, specifically, have been rattling around in my head over the past several months. The past year or so, actually. Here’s the poem:
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to the wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
“So when at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far …” Seen any “mob mentality” lately? Seen people taking “praise” or “blame” too far? During the Presidential campaign, whenever I’d see video of a Trump rally, I’d think of these lines. And, to be fair, in a lot of the exchanges among my good, liberal friends on Facebook I’ve seen there too that attitude that “my person can” do no wrong; “their person” can do no right. Wherever we get our news, and whatever click-bait a person follows, we’re all being swayed these days, this way and that.
I’ve found myself also thinking about the words of another poem and another poet, William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The mob is swayed, my friends, and these days just about everything seems to be being carried too far.
Or maybe it’s just me … but I don’t think so. Since the election — since the campaign, actually — the world we’ve known, the world we’ve thought we’ve been living in, seems to have been turned on its head. To be clear, that “we” there — the “we” that’s been so shocked and disoriented — is largely a “we” who identify as white. You pretty much already know that the world is upside down when, for centuries, your humanity has not only been questioned, but vehemently and violently denied; when you’re 5 times as likely to be sent to jail than if you were seen as white; when you are roughly 3 times more likely to be shot by police; when here, even here in “blissful, liberal Charlottesville,” you’re 9 times more likely to be stopped on the street by police for no discernible reason. If you’re a Person of Color you’ve never not known that this world we all live in is distorted and twisted. But many of us are only just begun to see it, and in our seeing it, we’re seeing a changed world.
Lately I’ve been re-reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. In the afterword for what she apparently thought was going to be the last of her stories set in Earthsea — she has since written another — she said that not only was her fictional Earthsea undergoing tremendous, fundamental, utterly disconcerting change, but so was the real world we inhabit. She wrote,
“All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.”
“What everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.” “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The mob has been swayed, my friends, is being swayed, and just about everything seems to be being carried too far.
So the question I asked our children on a personal level is a question for us, too — on a personal level as well, of course, but on this larger scale: when everything appears to be falling apart, when “the center cannot hold,” when everything you knew to be true turns out to be “just what some people used to think,” what can you hold on to? What can we turn to to help keep ourselves steady in decidedly unsteady times?
Some would answer this as easily as Moses did — we’d say, “God.” God is what we can hold on to, and what will hold on to us, when our lives, when our country, when our world seems to be in free-fall. Of course, that’s not an answer that works for all of us. For many here the word “God” is a meaningless word, denoting nothing more real than a “flying spaghetti monster,” or a “purple unicorn with a really nice singing voice,” and neither of those will be of any help in the times we’re talking about this morning. And, honestly, even those of us who would say that they’d turn to God for a sense of solidity are as likely as not to not know entirely what that means in practice. So what can we hold on to?
Frost’s poem offers an answer. It says that in times like this, “when the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far,” then “we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be staid.”
Why a star? What is it about stars?
Well, they’re lofty, the poem’s narrator tells us — lofty and shrouded by an “obscurity of cloud” and surrounded by an air of “mystery.” They are awe inspiring. Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented that our relationship to the stars, to our lives, would be radically different if the stars came out only once every thousand years. The environmentalist Paul Hawken picks up that idea and adds, “Instead, the stars come out every night, and we watch television.”
The poem’s narrator first tries to understand the star with religious, or poetic, language (which, to my mind, are ultimately the same thing.) “Say something we can learn by heart and when alone repeat.” Like the character of the blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, repeating calmly, over and over as he walks through the raging Battle of Scarif, “I am one with the Force. The Force is with me. I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.” The poem’s narrator asks the star for something like that, something “we can learn by heart and when alone repeat.”
Yet the star won’t give the narrator what she or he wants. All it will say about itself is a simple, descriptive truth: “I burn.” So the narrator turns immediately from the religious voice to the scientific one, demanding: “[So] say with what degree of heat. Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade. Use language we can comprehend.” Language we can make sense out of, that we can wrap our heads around. Not all this mystery; not all this magic. Facts. Figures. Functions. And although the narrator admits that such things “give us strangely little aid,” they affirm that it “does tell something in the end.”
Yet in the end neither the scientific approach nor the religious approach proves ultimately satisfying. Or, perhaps, neither is necessary. Because whatever the star might inspire in our spirits or arouse in our minds, there is another facet to the star that just is — it is “steadfast.” Night after night the star is there, and this predictable dependability, this constancy, is something which poets, and romantics, and all kinds of seekers have long noticed. And this poet says that this “steadfastness” is like “Keats’ erimite.”
An erimite is a religious recluse or hermit, and the poet John Keats usee the analogy in a poem he wrote about a star:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
For Frost, the star doesn’t have to deign to fulfill our desire for spiritual answers, or scientific ones to inspire. It knows itself, it is itself, and without “stooping from its sphere, it asks a little of us here. It asks of us a certain height.” The star doesn’t come down to our level, doesn’t lower itself so as to be comprehendible to our mortal minds. No. We can’t make demands of it, yet through its sheer solidity it demands of us that when things fall apart, that when the center will hold no longer, that when the mob is swayed as it surely is today, the star demands of us that we remain solid, strong – ironically, that we’ll remain grounded.
I don’t know what it is that grounds you. It may be God, or this faith community, or working with your hands, or walking in the woods, feeling the sun on your face, music (listening to it or making it), your family. I asked this question the other night during the Spiritual Circle I facilitate with congregational leaders each month that has a fifth Wednesday in it, and one of the people said that she wasn’t really sure what it was that got her through hard times, that maybe it was simply the deeply held conviction that she would get through the hard times.
I don’t know what it is for you, but these are hard times. Things certainly seem to be falling apart, and it sure seems that the center will not hold. Daily there are new indications that “mere anarchy” has been, and is being, loosed upon the world. The mobs are growing larger, and ever more entrenched in the directions of their swaying. I beg of you, of myself, of us not to be complacent, not to let ourselves be simply overwhelmed, and not to become part of the mob itself. We must, each and all, look for, if we don’t already know, strive to find our “star,” whatever it may be, to “stay our minds on and be stayed.”