I first encountered the concept via poetry – where I have encountered many theological concepts and utterances. Despite spiritual and academic engagement with holy scriptures of several world religions, I continue to return to poetry as the source of unsealed revelation most accessible to me. Guess this is yet another clue that I am a modern non-theist Unitarian Universalist.The occasional poem. It’s Alfred, Lord Tenyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It’s Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” It’s written to comment on a particular event. Typically, it’s created for public reading.
I didn’t get it at first. By occasional, it wasn’t meant that every now and then (which is how I most often understand the use of that word). It means “on an occasion.” Not only is it particular and specific, more importantly it is transient. It is written for an occasion that comes, and then goes. A moment.
It’s similar to an ode (“A formal, often ceremonious lyric poem that addresses and often celebrates a person, place, thing, or idea.”), but different.
A eulogy is another example, this time of occasional prose. A piece written specifically for a specific context, in this case: someone’s death. Though it may be utterly moving or dastardly clever, brutally honest or painstakingly politic, its true moment shines bright and then is extinguished. There are rare eulogies that are reprinted in books, fine examples of the genre, or perhaps as historical documentation related to the ceremonial acknowledgement of a particular person’s death. With modern technology, our memories contract and our sense of “great” eulogies change, so that top on several online lists include Kevin Costner eulogizing Whitney Houston.
Many prayers are of the moment. These extemporaneous utterances are best when the prayer is prayed by a pray-er who is present to and with those around her. These spontaneous expressions speak to the pulse of the people in the room: their heart, their breath, their sinewy-fleshy bodies. I aspire to be a fount of fathomless such prayer and am cultivating the capacity.
I did a really good one of those once – last December, while bringing to close a Blue Christmas worship service. I had planned to speak a prayer written by the Reverend Wayne Aranson, which would have fit the moment quite well. But in the midst of various comings and goings, the sheet of paper with the prayer on it ended up in someone else’s hands while I stood in front of a gathering of souls leaning into the more painful aspects of winter holidays. Instead of reading from that prepared sheet of paper, I sensed the energy of group and named it as best I could. It worked out pretty darn well, if I do say so myself. And it is lost to the impermanence that is the essence of existence.
There are occasional prayers, but what I just described is not that. Occasional prayers are prepared ahead of time – most likely written, though I imagine there are some who compose in their heads and hearts, then speak it aloud without putting pen to paper. They are prayers that speak to a particular event, or gathering, or moment. Think of the example by Rev. Sue Phillips’ and her heart-wrenching, spot-on prayer after the Boston Marathon bombing.
I just wrote my very first occasional prayer. For a very different occasion than the tragedy I just mentioned. I was honored to be asked to deliver the benediction – the parting prayer – for the Continental Gathering of UU Seminarians (CGUUS) that took place this past weekend. I had seriously considered going the route of extemporaneous prayer, feeling that an organic approach might be more authentic. Instead, given the context, I felt that it would be more appropriate to be deliberate: to pay attention to important themes and key words throughout the gathering and then weave them in.
My guess is that this prayer has already reached its zenith, when I gave it at lunch time today as part of the departing ritual of the gathering. Perhaps in an spiritually-unsound attempt to have something live beyond its intended life, I offer it here. If for no other reason than posterity’s sake:
Listen, for this important. We, known for our talk: listen.
Pause, for this is important. We, known for our action: pause.
Give, for this is important. We, known by our withholding: give.
Pray, for this is important. We, known for our devotion to reason: pray.
Vibrate, for this is important. We, known by some as a corpse-cold religion: vibrate. Be juicy. Be alive.
In discovering and uncovering and recovering to whom we belong and where our deep spiritual coherence lies, may none be harmed and may many be lifted up.
There are generosities that generate ~ and ones that deplete. May you find the first.
There are uncertainties, edges of the unknown that excite ~ and others that leave you frozen. May you find yourself in the midst of the former.
There are colleagues who foster and nourish, whose collegiality calls out not only the best in you, but also calls you out, in humility and in love when it is dire ~ and there are those companions who fragment, whose motives are uninspired though their appearance is amiable. May you be surrounded by those of the first order. May you find the companionship you offer to others be of that nature as well.
There are distances and separations that enrich and cultivate creative tension ~ and there are those that let connection wither. May we all co-create the first in and among us, now that we have seen each others’ faces, now that we have held each others’ hands, now that we have embodied our shared path.
As the poet said of many, let us seminarians take to heart this wisdom, “every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”
May we go out making justice, fomenting peace, generating love, invoking that which is greater than ourselves… and making a helluva righteous racket!