The Truest Dream


a sermon by the Rev. Daniel Budd

7 January 2018

Jelaluddin Rumi tells the story of three travelers – a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim – who end up at the same Inn one night. The innkeeper gives them the gift of a sweet dessert, some Halvah. After a bit of bantering back and forth, they agree to save it until the morning.

After their morning devotions, they decide to share their dreams, and “whoever has had the deepest dream gets the halvah.” The Jew tells of meeting Moses and being taken up to Sinai. The Christian tells of Christ taking him to the vast reaches of heaven. The Muslim then recites his:

“Muhammad came and told me where you two had gone. ‘You wretch,’ he said, ‘you’ve been left behind! You may as well get up and eat something.”

“No!” laugh the other two.

“How could I disobey such glory? Would you not do as Moses and Jesus suggest?”

“You’re right,” they say. “Yours is the truest dream, because it had immediate effect in your waking life....

Well, full disclosure: I have never been able to remember my dreams very well. I have tried keeping a journal; kept a notebook by the bed to jot down the ones that woke me up; and tried various techniques that were supposed to enhance my ability to recall these elusive, nocturnal dramas – nothin’….

Eventually, I wrote a poem about it all, noting the great irony of being an individual who has such an affinity for the insights of Carl Jung and those who followed him – one of those insights being the deep importance of dreams to our lives. The poem is entitled “The Jungian Who Could Not Remember Dreams.”

The door closes when his eyes open,

A world now distant and dark

Remembered only for having been there.

Some mornings, though,

an image rushes around the corner of that door

like a great gust of wind suddenly swirling at his feet –

but then dissolving into daylight,

leaving a chimera of how it felt

in that distant, intimate world.

So, over the years I have compensated, compensated by doing my best to see the world around me like I would see a dream, animated with characters who have something to tell me or show me about my own being in that very world. Re-mythologizing, as James Hillman understood it – Hillman’s life’s work being based in what he called “a psychology of image,” a psychology that does not begin in the physiology of the brain, or the structure of language, or the analysis of behavior. It begins in the processes of the imagination, our dream worlds, our truest dream worlds. It is, indeed, from him that I borrow and often use the phrase, a poetic basis of mind, to remind me where the truest focus, the truest lens on life, really is.

In this sense, the world of dream is quite real if we attend to its presence in our waking lives; and to do this requires nurturing the imagination.

Imagination is the root of our thoughts and feelings. All that we think or feel is experienced most directly as an image; all that we think or feel is immediately seen or felt or understood as an image.

As much as we are Homo Sapiens, I believe, so we are also Homo Imaginus. Imagination is the essence of who we are. The real work of religion then is “imaginational thought,” what others have called “lucid dreaming.” As Hillman wrote, Imagination and its development is…a religious problem... as the imagination requires of us a certain faith. My own theology, you could say, is more psychology, more a psychological faith. My faith is not so much in the study of God (theology) as it is the study of the soul (psychology, the study of psyche, the Greek word for soul).

We have known since the days of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, that such a faith is a journey, and not a destination – an exploration, not a doctrine – a process, and not a conclusion. Heraclitus wrote, centuries ago:

You could not discover the limits of the soul, even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth of its meaning.

There is, however, at least one thing that we must first jettison – a rigid and idolatrous idea that will hold us back from this exploration, from this journey – a stone in our path that will cause us to stumble and lose our way.

It is the erroneous notion that the soul is a thing – that it is some thing that is inside us some where which we will be able to find and measure and dissect and map out, sift down into fractions, facts and certainties – some thing we will be able to understand to our complete satisfaction, that is to define it and thereby confine it within the safety of that understanding. But, as Mary Oliver has written, truly our part is not knowing, but experiencing: looking, touching, loving. In this sense, soul is the imagination we bring to things, to the world around us, to one another, to our deepest self – the imagination that gives our inner lives substance. It is nurturing a poetic basis of mind, a way of looking, touching, and loving that engages without possessing. It is a way of being aware. It is, as Rumi says, consciousness itself – that strange and elusive quality of our lives that is no where to be found within us, but is every where we are.

To see every thing with the imagination of poetry, as always being “more than” instead of “nothing but,” is to invest the dream of our lives with substance, to live with a poetic basis of mind, to live with and in the soul.

Imagination and its development is a religious issue because the dream that is poetry is the language of religion. Unfortunately, and sometimes tragically, a great deal of religion in our culture today has lost its sense of poetry. William Carlos Williams captured this loss in his short poem, “The Heart Aroused.”

My heart rouses

thinking to bring you news

of something

that concerns you

and concerns many men. Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

Likewise, religion is not a news report, and scriptures are not ancient newspapers. There may be some facts there; there may be some history. But religion and its literature owe its power and its inspiration to the degree of its poetic nature, to the recognition of its dream-like nature. You will not get inspiration from reading religion like a news report. You will get it by reading religion through the despised lens of poetry, as the dream of the soul. You cannot get the news from scripture; and as we all so painfully know all too well, women and men die miserably every day because others insist upon reading their religion as news, as literal fact, a literalness that gives religion its brittleness, even its violence, and has caused so many to reject it outright.

No wonder many people (though not all, for some of those who reject religion’s literalness simply fall into other literalisms, other overly rationalistic and brittle forms of thought) – no wonder many others turn from a dry and dogmatic religion to poetry itself. Jungian analyst and author, Nor Hall, once wrote in her wonderful book, The Moon and the Virgin:

Those who have ceased to belong to a vital religious tradition endowed with images, rites and myth are guided by the poets.

This is because the poet, and the poetic – the vital poem in and of itself – speaks more surely and deeply to the human soul than any literalized and concretized myth or story. This is because it is through poetry, and in poetry itself, that the nature of religion – I would even be so bold as to say the truest nature of religion – is found. There is, as Marilynne Robinson writes, a “deep and ancient affinity” between the two.

There is one catch, though, as she points out (and, c’mon, you knew there was going to be a catch, didn’t you?). The catch is this: like poetry, like the soul, like a dream, “religion is not to be ‘understood.’”

Like poetry, like the soul, like a dream, religion (at its best) communicates and invites our deep sense of being in ourselves and in our world. It communicates and invites our experience of the connection and interconnection of the depths of our souls with and within the Soul of the World. It communicates and invites us to the experience of Wonder that permeates and points to the Mystery that is at the Heart of All That Is. As the Rev. Frederick Lucian Hosmer, minister of my former congregation in the late 19th century, once wrote as a lyric for one of his many hymns:

We pray no more, made lowly wise,

For miracle and sign;

Anoint our eyes to see within

The common, the divine....

The dreams of our soul and the poetry of religion are grounded in and known through experience, human experience. They speak from and to that experience, out of that experience, even as it offers itself to our own experience. The spiritual wisdom of our collective human experience cannot be communicated in any other way, by any other means. We can only get it through the despised, poetic voice, through the direction of the soul, through the images of dream – all of which seeks more to inspire than to be understood. To paraphrase Rumi


How is it with this love, O Spirit,

- this poetry, this faith –

that we see your world and not You?

I almost hate to say it now, but there is another catch (at least one more). Looking at things, at Life, with the psychological faith of a poetic basis of mind, with an attention to soul, does not make anything easier or simpler. It does not solve any of the Big Questions. It can provide guidance of a sort (and of a sort that will often be open to interpretation as well as misinterpretation), but it will never tell you what to believe. It can point a way to you which may feel overwhelmingly right, or it can offer several ways from which we must discern our path as best we can.

This attention, this perspective actually makes things more complex, rather than more simplified. It thickens the soup we find ourselves in, adds texture and density. As a result, poetry and religion – and religion’s poetry – adds richness to our lives, seasoning as it were. They add depth, rather than flattening everything out. They send roots down to the very Source of our lives and draw up the nourishment of courage and curiosity – the courage to live our lives, to be present in and to our own bodies, to be responsive to our world and compassionate to others; and the curiosity to explore the Life in which we live and move and have our being, to reach out in service with whatever gifts we may possess, to have an immediate effect in our waking lives, and to search out the ever-present One More Thing Than We Know.

It is not always easy, and sometimes the soup of our lives is seasoned a bit more than we would like; but I will tell you, I will take the thick and rich brew of the complex, dense, and textured life over the thin and tasteless broth of simple certainties any day.

Well, it is nice on that occasional day when I want nothing more than a bit of respite and ease and nothing more complicated than trying to spot a warbler in the branches of a nearby bush. But without the thickening blend of religion’s poetry having brought me that far, to that place, I truly believe I would not enjoy it quite as much, I would not be ready to relax quite as much, I would not be as willing to give myself to its moment quite as much. The complex will give even our ease a sense of depth, connection and – along the way and in the end – a sense of grace.

Dana McLean Greeley was the first president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, from the consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist organizations in 1961 until 1969, when he completed his second term. Dr. Greeley was a poet, also. He wrote the poem, the lyrics, for our closing hymn today – a poem that continues in the tradition of Hosmer, and echoes Rumi and so many others, a poem that sends us forth into the world again, reminding us that

Life’s music and its poetry

surround and bless us through our days.

For these we sing in harmony,

together giving thanks and praise.

And so may it forever be; amen.

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