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Follow the Drinking Gourd

The Old Man is Waiting to Carry You to Freedom.

I entered a Benedictine monastery in 1987. I recall most vividly the walk from my room to the chapel each morning at five o'clock. In winter's months, when the sky was clear, I stopped along the path to take in the stars: Arcturus, Vega, Leo, and the ever familiar Big Dipper - the Drinking Gourd of which we sang as children. "Follow the Drinking Gourd. Follow the Drinking Gourd. The old man is waiting there to carry you to freedom. Follow the Drinking Gourd." How many men and women trod this very road on their way to freedom? For this north-running track almost certainly lay along the Underground Railroad.


That moment under the stars provided perfect preparation for the ritual of prayer and song that lay ahead in the candle-lit chapel. Everything put into its proper perspective. A universe beautiful in its immensity, we as small and insignificant as can be compared to it. A world of pain and joy calling us to reach out in love, and take great risks on behalf of others.

As I envisioned the monastic life ahead of me, I hoped I could convince the brothers to invest in a small observatory, capable of reasonably good astrophotography. I would create views of the heavens and display them in the gallery shop with the other goods the brothers sell to make their living. Galaxies and planets, comets and eclipses, seemed to me a useful addition to statues of St. Francis, pottery and weavings, and books on contemplative prayer and Liberation Theology.

For the encounter with the beauty and mystery of the universe was for me a nearly perfect parallel to the ineffable encounter with God. Enduring long periods of disciplined watchfulness; bumping up against the limits - real or imagined - of the mind's ability to comprehend something utterly new; feeling naked wonder and surprise, childlike in its intensity; growing ever more curious about the true nature of these great things we call "life" and "the universe": these were common to my experience as an amateur astronomer and as a monk in God's service.

"Follow the Drinking Gourd. The old man is waiting to carry you to freedom. Follow the Drinking Gourd."

I hesitate to use the word "God" because it is so loaded with historical and individual connotations that I do not wish to invoke. The God I speak of is not an old man in the sky who will one day scoop us up and carry us to heaven. I am not interested in that kind of god, for I have seen no evidence of him. The God I know is not a He or a She, but a creative and regenerative force that transforms lives, that leads people to reach out in love, that sets people on the road to freedom from fear and self-deception, that motivates people to cross lines of division, to challenge social structures of domination and control, to look carefully and honestly at Life (by which I mean the complex process which includes birth, death and regeneration; as opposed to "life" with a little "l", which ends in death).

This God, the God of Life, is bound up in the very fabric of existence. When we encounter this God, we recognize that we are intimately related to all that is. Thus Francis called the Sun "brother," and the Moon "sister." We are not at the center or the pinnacle of creation, but neither are we alienated from it. We are very, very small on the cosmic scale, but physical scale is not the final measure of being. Because we are intimately entangled with all that is, existence matters to us. Life matters. Caring for each other, and for all of creation, matters. We are minor players, but players all the same, in a universe that is not merely a collection of disassociated things, but a dance, both formal and passionate (J.S. Bach's Chaconne comes to mind). We and the stars and the planets and the atoms and the plants and the animals, we are the dancers. And God is the Dance.

We are often reminded by science writers that the universe, or an atom, or a table; is mostly empty space. Yet what a feast can be served thereon! So much from so little! The universe is vast, and ruled by randomness; yet deeply imbued with meaning. Cold and empty; yet loving, amusing, and pregnant with possibility. Reworked on a massive scale by black holes, galactic collisions and cometary impacts; yet renewed by the processes of Life, and by the vision of those who risk their lives seeking freedom for each other. Who is to say which is more real - more essential to the very nature of existence? Both are real. Both reveal something about this amazing universe that brought us into being, in which we make our home.

In 1888, astronomer Samuel Langley, a bit of a monk himself, tried to bridge the growing gulf between science and religion by introducing a note of humility into his popular book The New Astronomy :

Can we not bring ourselves to admit that there may be something higher than man and more enduring than frail humanity, in some sphere in which our universe, conditioned as it is in space and time, is itself embraced? May we not receive the teachings of science with the constant memory that all we know... depends on our very limited sensations, our very limited experience, and our still more limited power of conceiving anything for which this experience has not prepared us?

Can we not admit that there may be more than one way of creatively engaging the world, that neither the mind's rationality, nor the heart's sensitivity, nor the gut's passion can alone give us a complete comprehension of Reality? Let Science and Religion argue over whose story of creation is True. Their argument is meaningless. The truth is not an idea, but a lived reality, found only by those who dare to immerse themselves in Life's multifaceted, wild glory.

Follow the Drinking Gourd. Drink deeply of Life. Know it. Feel it. Love it. Let your self be carried away by it. Freedom is waiting.


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