The following is a small sermon given as part of a larger worship service with three others at the Unitarian Universalist Church of The Palouse in Moscow, Idaho on Sunday, January 27th, 2013.
One of the first poets I fell in love with was Walt Whitman. At 17, I remember wandering the bookstore in search of a literary craving I could not name. I passed the discounted classics, and a leatherbound copy of Leaves of Grass caught my attention. I thumbed through its gold leafed pages, mesmerized with the words flowing on the page. The first pages of “Song of Myself” captivated me as I mouthed the words to myself, flipping from page to page. To this day, the poem continues to have that effect on me. Whitman could articulate the submersion in the natural world as clearly as he experienced it.
In his day, Whitman’s poetry was considered scandalous for its sensual qualities. Yet, often ignored by scholars today is the religious message behind his poetry. Whitman’s intention was within the spirit of his times, when new religions where sprouting all around him. Leaves of Grass was deliberately written as an inspirational spiritual text, in as far as he mimics the poetic cadence of the Bible. He laid a poetic foundation for religion and spirituality that is grounded in the sacred of the everyday and merges the mystical with the scientific, without friction or contradiction, leaving both himself and his words as controversial today as when they where freshly written.
In my personal spiritual affirmations, I have a phrase, “One breath, one flesh, one soul.” In several key passages Whitman’s words reflect the meaning I attach to this affirmation. When he writes, “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, I think about all matter being the collective physical manifestation of all creation as one flesh. Putting aside human perception, I question whether there is a distinct line where I begin and end or where the physical world around me begins and ends. I have often stopped while on a brisk walk to allow my senses to fully engage with the environment and feel lost in the landscape, feeling as though there are no barriers between me and the extended world.
Whitman continues, “My respiration and inspiration … the beating of my heart … the passing of blood and air through my lungs”. These words are filled with complete adoration for the act of breathing. From these words comes a sense of what I call “the one breath”, which is the atmosphere itself. With each breath of humans and animals and plants, the atmosphere is created and changed, being inhaled and exhaled, so that it becomes unclear where my breath ends and other’s begins. What I take inside me with each gasp of air belonged to and was inside something else. The unseen particles that float about me could have been anywhere and everywhere, and I take them in myself as a necessity of life.
When Whitman writes about God, it is not the anthropomorphic god of the Bible:
“I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty four, and each moment then,
In the face of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.”
This passage reveals a God that is all pervasive within the very fabric of creation and reality, and dwells within the narrator, the faces of those he meets, and in every aspect of the world around him. This is not much different than my own beliefs about the soul. I do not believe in individual souls or spirits that reside within people, unique to them and carrying the attributes of their personality into an afterlife. Instead, I perceive one soul that is at the core of all physical manifestations.
Whitman might relate my vision of the one soul to God. I tend to view it as life itself, an evolutionary impulse of creativity. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman mentions love as the unifying peace of creation, likening it to the support beam used to unite the keel and floorboards. He declares his love for many things and the whole of creation as a declaration of his own self love. This gives me a sense of love for self that is the one soul. The soul that is not myself is the soul that is is everything and everyone else but is still me.
Whitman’s elegant use of language describes what psychology calls a trans-personal experience, where distinction and identity of the self extend beyond the usual filters of our human perception — in layman terms, a mystical experience. As I continue reading the poem in its entirety, I get a sense for the same awe and wonderment I feel on the occasions where I allow myself to let go of preconceived perceptions and meld into the experience itself. From Whitman’s experience arises a poetry of complex theological thought that parallels my own beliefs in “one flesh, one breath, and one soul”. I could spend a lifetime exploring the nuances and subtleties in Walt Whitman’s poetry.
Glen Gordon was introduced to Paganism by friends while living overseas in Europe during the late 90′s. He underwent both Wiccan and Neodruidic training during his formative years, but had not self-identified as a Pagan when his path diverged into land-centered spiritual naturalism ten years ago. His focus has been on cultivating beneficial relationships with the natural living world surrounding him wherever he lives. During this time, he discovered Unitarian Universalism and has been active in his local congregations for many years. Since 2007, he has worked on varied projects regarding BioRegional Animism, including this 5 minute video, the words of which came from a short UU sermon he gave. He has spoken on the topic of ecology and the land on a few occasions for his local congregation and facilitated a now-disbanded group of UU Pagans and spiritual naturalists. In the past, he maintained the blog, Postpagan, and is excited to share some of that material at HumanisticPaganism. Currently, you can find Glen writing occasionally for No Unsacred Places and helping achieve Green sanctuary status for his beloved UU community, where he helps create and lead ecological aware earth- and land- focused ceremonies for the solstices and equinoxes.