I’ve been sorting books, even bought a little dust mask so I could get serious about it instead of just sneezing. The ceremony below fell out of one of the books. I wrote it for Christmas 1983, the second year of the Unitarian Universalist Montana Ministry during which I was a circuit-rider around the state.
This is an example of using poetry to claim back the universality of a specific and particular tradition which conflates the theological birth of Jesus the Christ with the many global festivals of the Solstice. This other way, choosing and exploring an aspect of human experience, avoids the jumble of throwing a lot of ritual elements from assorted places into a big slumgullion of festivity. I was reading a lot of Thomas Moore and James Hillman at the time, but was also influenced by Kathy Fuson, my classmate at Meadville, who used the alchemy metaphor.
THE VESSEL OF LIFE
Over twenty years ago [since this was 1984, add 22 more years!] about this time of year, I was spending my first winter in Montana, up in Browning where the high prairie meets the Rockies. One night, unable to sleep long after everyone had been in bed for hours, I walked out under the stars. I was young and restless and looking for a life path.
It had snowed -- and blown -- and snowed again, with a few brief Chinook winds in between, until now there was a padding over the land of several feet with a crust on top strong enough to walk across. I went toward the mountains into the large open space that in summer is the Indian Days tipi campground. Only the tips of a few wild rosebushes broke the undulating white. There was no moon; it was a starlit night. City lights were weak and few back then and didn’t carry outside of town.
Under the high galaxies of stars, I walked across the crust and felt that deeply religious sensation of losing one’s boundaries and dissolving into the universe, but there was no warm, comforting, oceanic lulling as there sometimes is. Instead I was aware of the immeasurable frozen surging implacability of those distant whorls of light and my infinite tinyness in the midst of them. It was the classical religious experience called the Mysterium Tremendum and Fascinans. I didn’t want to turn away -- in site of the despair and pain of knowing my own insignificance and lack of boundaries. I wanted to find some way to understand, for to understand is to participate.
Today for understanding I choose the Jungian metaphor of the vessel. For Jungians this refers to a special kind of vessel, the alchemist’s crucible, used to refine the cruder elements into gold. The crucible must have special capacities: it must protect what it holds from what is outside the desired event: the impurities and irrelevancies that could spoil the results. And it must prevent the escape of the elements from the time and place of the transformation, for if they dissipate into the surrounding air, then the reaction one is trying to cause cannot happen.
The crucible must be strong enough to contain elements that are molten, volatile, even explosive -- and yet it must not be so rigid and confining that the fire is snuffed and the expansion that is necessary cannot take place.
In the years I lived in Browning, I grew to know a lot about crucibles because I was a foundry hand in the Scriver Bighorn Foundry from its very beginning in an old coal shed. Very few moments are intense or as filled with potential as the firing of a bronze-melting crucible, mixing air and fuel until a green tornado of flame whirls over the furnace.
To the Jungians human life is just as full of intense moments. Much of the problem of how to develop these into growth and insight instead of leaden waste and destruction is answered by the art of developing proper vessels for our internal tornadoes of flame so we may create our own inner gold.
Christmas is such a vessel. Metaphor, festival, reunion, tradition -- it offers a place and a time for reactions to happen, transformations of people, not all bright and happy. Christmas can be a time of darkness, a need for hope, a time of suspense, with considerable potential for depression and disappointment.
Our fellowship is a vessel. We form for each other a psychic embrace for warmth, support, new relationship -- and yet the potential exists for snuffing out, turning away, deepened loneliness.
Such great importance demands that we give it attention. We want to be skillful alchemists, providing the right vessel for our love and enabling the creation of new life. For this is a time for kindling, opening up, blossoming in the most world-shaking way.
It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to all
From heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
No vessel is so important to human life as the home, and none is so closely linked to Christmas in our culture. Christmas is a time to go home, to be received into the bosom of the family, to share wonderful secrets with those who have loved you and known you for a long time. A home is in large part a family.
But also, home is a PLACE that is deeply known. It may be a house or a series of houses. It may be town or ranch or a certain spot along a river. But it is a place deepy linked with hopes and fears, a place that has received dreams, a scene etched forever in all its smells, sounds, tastes, textures and temperatures so that it cannot be lost. In difficult times we dream of these places: our old creaky beds, patterns on the wallpaper, a special possession, wind in the eaves, the noises of traffic.
And at Christmas we decorate our homes, we share symbols, we invite others into our homes to feel our intimacy and caring. We look for those who may have been turned away from the Inn and try to find them a place to at least make a camp.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
No vessel is so precious as that of the embrace of a loved one’s arms. It is there that our deepest transformations take place, held against the hearts of those who love us best, whether parent, lover or child. For them our privacy is breached, but safely. Perhaps some other person who respects our necessary boundaries is nevertheless allowed to ignore them and come into our deepest being.
No vessel can be so confining as an embrace meant to be a restraint. Nothing can be so destructive as the someone who comes into our hearts through deception, abusing their access to the midst of our secrecy.
And yet, not to open the crucible of our selves into the embrace of another is to prevent the real growth that can lead us into the future, a whole new vision of what life can be.
At Christmas our hearts must be strengthened and purified. Our openings to the world must be newly innocent, for only in this way can the truly sacred be made part of us.
I’ll be home for Christmas.
You can count on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams.
I’ll be home for Christmas,
If only in my dreams.
A manger is a strange vessel to convert into a cradle, rather like using a bowl for a bed. For a manger (the very word means “to eat”) is something to hold what is consumed and a cradle is something to hold what is protected, reserved. The paradox continues to deepen.
To be born is to begin to die; to exist is to be consumed; for to embalm real existence is to be dead anyway. The baby to be nurtured is put into a place that holds sustenance, because a baby IS sustenance and as we nourish ourselves with the hope the newborn carry, the baby itself is nourished. The paradox is in fact a reciprocity and we are stupid to believe that to take nourishment into ourselves is to destroy it. For if we are nourished, then we grow and are reborn ourselves and have far greater capacity to nourish and accept and protect all that is newborn in the world.
A strange generosity to allow a birth in a stable and offer a manger for a cradle, and yet the vessel is exactly right. The process is -- after all -- one of transformation. We are not starting with gold, but making gold from what is ordinary and crude as straw.
Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The most abstract of vessels, a moment of time can hold enough meaning to last lifetimes. Christianity is an historical religion, based on the transcendent moment that exists both in real history and in the most unreal kind of poetry, so that it has an intensity and an unfolding meaning that renders categories of real and unreal irrelevant.
In our own lives are just such moments. Sometimes they are at Christmas and we make special preparations so that they maybe called to us at Christmas, but they cannot be forced and will arrive in their own time. A moment is the most transparent kind of vessel, the most dependent on risk and self-forgetfulness. It comes to gently enfold us when we are most open to possibility and most willing to give up our own definition of reality.
The special kind of transformation a moment holds is a new reality, a new insight and participation in what we think we know. But it requires courage and sacrifice, because we will never be able to go back. Again, it is a giving away that is met by a reciprocal generosity in growth and deepening. It is access to a deep well of Eternity.
The first Noel the shepherds did say
Was to certain poor shepherds
In fields as they lay.
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.
And when we are exposed to the whistling and icy wind of Eternity, we most long for our first vessel, the womb, where we folded upon ourself comfortably in the protection of our mother’s life-processes, the homely work of pumping blood and digesting food. We may have come to resent the confinement, but never again will we be so effortlessly supported and fed.
Some of us become very good at reconstructing wombs, with water beds and down comforters and headphones that pipe us music. And it is a legitimate need, for sometimes all of us must be as infants and take a rest from all the striving. Sometimes growth happens quietly without our noticing while we think we’re only dreaming, or just indulging ourselves.
We mustn’t forget gentleness and quiet and the vessel that allows us to recollect ourselves into serenity and peace. For we can have confidence that if the womb is well-chosen, it will at the proper time begin to be too small and we will be pushed back into the world without much effort unless we resist.
The point of a good alchemist’s vessel is to keep the process happening, to allow the withdrawal but also to make the rebirth necessary, when it is time -- neither too soon nor too late.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing; and heaven and nature sing.
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the world! The Savior reigns!
Let us our songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy;
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy!
We have come to understand that the earth is a blue-and-white vessel of life that allows an amazing, intricate, crucial series of processes to interweave in a way that supports and confines the continuing transformation that is human beings. Our understanding of this vessel is growing, along with our realization that if it is broken, we are spilled into destruction along with it.
The pressure mounts among us. Whether it ends in an exploding darkness that means death, or in a creative transformation that means golden life, it will at least continue to change, forcing us to change along with it.
At Christmas we speak of peace, an element that eludes all the alchemists at times. Yet peace itself is a vessel, just as Christmas is a vessel.
At Christmas we feel the need to make our own hearts and lives into vessels of peace. The key to doing that is in homely ingredients: a cookie, a phone call, a Christmas card, a moment of listening, a quick hug, a starry night, a fleeting memory, a whiff of nutmeg, a snatch of melody.
Let your heart be a kitchen, making warmth and food. Let your heart be a bed, making safety and rest. Let your heart be a cradle, an embrace, and this planet will be a home for us all, a vessel of life gleaming in the starry darkness of eternal sky.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace! Sleep in heavenly peace.