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
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
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,
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.