The Language of the Soul

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
The Language of the Soul

Order of service:

If someone asked you to suggest three symbols that are important to you, what three would you name? They might be visual images, or they might take some other form, such as a melody or an object. Symbols have extraordinary power, and today we’ll use them to create a sacred space in our homes.

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Worship Associate: Jane Chronis

Special music: Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, piano

The Language of the Soul             

Amy Zucker Morgenstern

given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

April 5, 2020


“The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” — Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life 


Another Unitarian Universalist minister, Johanna Nichols, has a spiritual practice that she shared in a book called Everyday Spiritual Practices: she creates altars. She writes: “I have always been a collector of sacred objects. For many years, my rocks and feathers and cherished photos sat in various corners of homes I’ve lived in — on my dresser, on a mantle, a book shelf, and windowsills.” These objects, as she says, are more than mementos, more than pretty things. They are sacred.

When we allow ordinary things to speak to us, they speak in symbols. So Reverend Nichols writes:

When I moved from my home in Vermont to California to go to seminary, two white-veined, black rocks common to Lake Champlain traveled with me. There, I placed them on my windowsill facing the San Francisco Bay. A friend from home came to visit. After she left I discovered she had rearranged the rocks, placing the smaller of the two on the bigger one. They now looked like a seal perched on a rock. Suddenly, my whole perspective of leaving home changed: If my Vermont rocks could adapt to California, so could I. Today these two sacred black rocks sit upon my home altar.

Also on her home altar: A candle, representing “the center . . . the transcendent and immanent, Great Spirit and Mother Earth, the Goddess.”  Red New Mexico dirt in a clay pot, from a time she spent there, reflecting on how this desert earth “was once the floor of the ocean, mindful of the ancient feet that had once trod this way.” In New Mexico, she observed, “There is no mercy to this geography. To survive in the desert, you must pay attention.” There’s “a fossilized sand dollar, a river rock in water in a small ceramic bowl made by [her] daughter . . . those black Vermont rocks. “Above the altar hang photographs and paintings of special places and handmade symbols of [her] spiritual journey. Below it, [she keeps her] journal for the time [she] spend[s by her altar] in reflection. 

“As I continue on my spiritual journey,” Rev. Nichols writes, “I add new objects that are sacred to me and give away others. I tend my altar.”

What would go onto your altar? What do you want your soul to remember, and what are some reminders of it?

Explanations may go crashing and shouting through the woods, but symbols sit quietly. Our souls respond to them, are drawn to them.

Several months ago, I was reflecting on an upcoming anniversary: April 30th, the 20th anniversary of my ordination. I wanted to mark it in some special way, and decided that I would find an artist who works in fabric and commission a stole to add to my small and precious collection. The search took me to the website of Diane Savona, whose work was not only visually stunning and beautifully crafted, but engaged a lot of issues that are important to me. I felt like I had met a kindred spirit. When I got up the courage to write to her, she accepted the commission–as you can see (show stole). She began what turned out to be a very fulfilling collaboration with a simple question: “What sort of images mean the most to you?”

Wow. What a great question. Which is why I asked you the same thing. Here we are, on our own, cut off from so many of cultural repositories of symbols: museums, monuments, concert halls, libraries–and places of worship. Yet we still have ourselves, the things we wear, the things we carry, the pictures we tape to our walls and the little items we keep on our shelves . . . Like Jane, [today’s Worship Associate], you probably have things around you that are symbolic of something really important to you. They speak the language of the soul. Here, I’ll add my examples to hers. Here’s what I told Diane Savona. (pointing to symbols on stole)

Spirals: these are, essentially, my personal yin/yang, a reminder of balance, because of the way they combine two kinds of motion: forward motion (in the way they move outward, or in the case of a helix like in DNA, onward), and cyclical/repetitive motion (in the way they circle around). In a spiral, one comes around again and again to the same place, but not quite the same place. Which is how life is, I think. I try to communicate this kind of balance here, by affirming the importance of both stillness and progress, tradition and change, being and becoming.

Decay/erosion: I find erosion very beautiful for the way it reveals time and history, and there’s a tension between that beauty and the way our culture (over)values youth and novelty. A big part of my ministry is helping people perceive the beauty in the ordinary or despised.

Seeds/stones: I’m moved and intrigued by how closely many seeds resemble stones. There is so little difference between them, and all the difference in the world. And then there is the way seeds have to split open, essentially die in one form, in order to become more than a stone and actually grow. I don’t quite know what is so meaningful to me about this image of the seed in the act of sprouting, but it keeps popping up in my own artwork, as much as I cringe and worry that it is a cliché. There is something there about the way life and death are intertwined that keeps troubling and inspiring me, especially as I get older and try to come to terms with the reality that I am going to die. 

Also, an early and dear memory of mine is planting the family garden with my dad, and I always got to plant the beans, which are satisfyingly fast and visible in their process; you can often see the remnants of the seed still stuck to the first shoot as it emerges from the crack in the ground.

Burning bush: the burning bush is of course an image from my cradle religion, Judaism. Also–and this didn’t even occur to me until I wrote it down for Diane–it was actually the logo of Conservative Judaism as I was growing up, with the accompanying phrase in Hebrew and English: ” . . . and the bush was not consumed.” It became an important image for me some years ago as I was grappling with this question: How to stay present to people at the most painful, intense moments of their lives, and not just shrivel up and float away on the breeze. This is a challenge that doesn’t only face people in helping professions, but all of us as we try to be good friends, engaged citizens, self-aware people. As we try to show up for those we care about when they are going through trials by fire.  The best I have come up with, then or since, is that it is in the places of pain and risk that we find the strength and solace to withstand the brokenness of the world, and even be transformed for the better by it. We are, all of us, burning bushes. Aflame and not consumed.

I’m putting all of this into words because words are mostly how I operate. But as Diane said, she thinks in symbols, and as we wrote and talked to each other, and she researched hundreds of images and shared them and shaped them, she added so much. Mexico is in here now, and my wife and daughter, and the subtle suggestion of a rainbow, and the subtler suggestion of bees, and a water lily leaf (a.k.a. lotus–despite the fact that I never even got around to saying what was important to me about Buddhism), and roots finding their way through brick- and stonework to the sources of life. Come back next week for more about those . . . 

Jane shared a definition of a symbol with us: “a visible sign of something invisible.”

Symbols are not only visible, of course. They can use any of the senses. A symbol could be a word. It could be a tune. It could be a smell. What is that funny-tasting salad in Jane’s family cookbook? It’s not just something to eat. In fact, now, it’s not something to eat at all, since no one makes it anymore. (Thank heaven.) It’s something else . . . I won’t try to reduce it to words. Symbols can be described, but they can’t be summed up. They are bigger than the words that try to explain them.

Go around your house, or look in your bag–wherever you accumulate little things. You might know which ones are symbolic because they evoke a story. “I kept this shell because . . . ” “This picture is important to my family because of the time we . . . “

William Morris, the great designer, once advised us, “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I’d add: “or feel to be full of meaning.” Symbols are things that are not necessarily important in themselves, but that remind us of what is important to us. Like Jane’s marriage, and her engineering, and her family and the way they nourish each other.

The things you see around you, on your walls, or in your pockets, dangling from your ears or tucked into drawers, that are neither useful nor, necessarily, beautiful: maybe they are something else. Maybe they speak the language of the soul. They whisper and murmur: remember this.

Or maybe it’s the time that is sacred. Many people say special words when they sit down to dinner. They mark the time as soul-time: a moment to give thanks, or to name something they have learned, or to ask a question, or to share what happened to them. Maybe your family has a song that you could share at dinner or bedtime. Or a prayer, or a joke. Something that has arisen spontaneously out of your life together. If it hasn’t yet, just listen. It will. You can’t go crashing through the woods looking for it, but if you listen and watch, it will emerge. It will find you.

Here’s a funny story about how something found me through my conversations with Diane, and let me know that it should arrive here on my stole to remind me of some very important things. As I said, I talked to her about walls, and the walls of Oaxaca, and so when she was looking for images, one of the things she looked for online was “Oaxaca walls.” And then, when she shared the images with me, one of the walls was one I recognized. I knew it really well. I recognized it because it had a piece of graffiti on it. It’s the wall of a church, and I’m sorry to say somebody graffiti’d the church with, in Spanish, the very famous sentence by Karl Marx, “Religion is the opiate of the people”–religion puts people to sleep; it kills their pain instead of waking them up. So I knew about this because it was there when we were in Oaxaca. We rode by it all the time on the bus, but the first of us who ever saw it was Joy, and then she called our attention to it. She snapped a picture of the graffiti and brought it to us because it’s really funny. It says, in Spanish, as I said, “La religion es el opio del pueblo,” but the way it’s scrawled, at first glance, she thought maybe it said, “el apio del pueblo,” which means “religion is the celery of the people.” Not, I think, what the graffiti artist was trying to convey. So of course it became a family joke. And when Diane shared this image, I said, “It has to be on my stole.” It’s here without the graffiti, but I know the wall. The way she manipulated the images, the blue-gray of the wall came through quite strongly, and it’s the background on this back section here. So now I have something at my back. I have this reminder that in my work in a religious community, my job is not to put people to sleep but to help them be awake. And I also have a joke at my back, a moment of fun and something that has made me and my family laugh. Because I need laughter, a lot of it, every day.

So maybe after today’s service, you’ll look around your house and notice the symbols there and what they symbolize that is important to you. Maybe you’ll even put together an altar. Or maybe notice how the walls of your house are already an altar. Maybe the dinner table is.

Maybe, next Sunday, you will want to light a chalice of your own as I light this one, and blow it out when I blow out this candle. What will you choose to be the container? Where will you keep it? When will you light it, aside from our services? The symbol will let you know.

That’s why I have this backdrop (of UUCPA’s Main Hall). (It is just a backdrop. I’m at home today.) Because it isn’t just a building. It’s memory. It’s music. It’s the feelings that have split us open like a sprout splitting a seed. It’s the ideas that have whirred in our minds and spun our lives at speed in a new direction. It’s layers of meanings that, like the layers of rock over geological ages, get squeezed and folded and overlap and make new meanings . . . 

(Change image to Hogwarts)

Why Hogwarts Castle? Because here I am at home, and in my home, the wizarding world is a symbol that crops up over and over. It means a lot of things–you’ve heard about some of them in several sermons, or can catch up with them on the website if you missed them. Most of all, it reminds me that this world is full of magic. 

I think symbols make magic, themselves. They are a whispered spell, the twitch of a wand. They make things appear out of nowhere. They might be as ordinary as a gum wrapper but mean the secret of how to make love last. Because as they talk to us, and we talk to them, their deep meanings come out. They make the invisible, visible.

We know that the sacred is everywhere. It speaks to us in the language our souls know. Wherever you have to be during this time, listen for the words that are not words. Choose the songs, the objects, the photos that honor your soul. And tend your altar.