Honoring the Feminine

a sermon delivered
by the Reverend Barbara D. Morgan
on Sunday, June 14, 1998
at Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Volusia County
in Daytona Beach, Florida

STORY

A long time ago in Greece there lived a king who had three daughters. The loveliest of these was the youngest, Psyche. High above Greece, on Mount Olympus, lived many gods and goddesses. One of these was Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. She began to notice that the men and women of Greece were paying less attention to her and more attention to Psyche. She became jealous, so she asked her son, Eros, the god of love, to help her get rid of Psyche by making Psyche fall madly in love with a monster. Eros could make anyone fall in love with a slight prick with one of his magic arrows. Aphrodite commanded Psyche's father to bring Psyche to a high, rocky place and to leave her there, explaining that she had found a husband for Psyche.

Psyche's father obeyed Aphrodite without question. The procession to the mountain top was more like a funeral procession than a wedding procession. On the lonely hill top Psyche awaited her impending marriage as if she were awaiting death. The loneliness of the high peak was familiar to Psyche. Although she was extremely beautiful, she had never fallen in love, and, what is more curious, although she was much admired, no man had ever fallen in love with her. So there she waited, alone and lonely as always.

Eros, before going off to find the monster, decided to take a look at the beautiful mortal creature who had made his mother jealous. Since he was a winged god, Eros easily flew down to the mountain top where Psyche waited. He was so taken with her beauty, that as he alighted on earth he carelessly allowed his own arm to brush ever so lightly over the tip of one of his magic arrows. As the fates would have it, that slight brush was enough to cause Eros himself to fall madly in love with Psyche.

Eros arranged for Psyche to be brought from the lonely mountain top to a beautiful castle down in the valley. Psyche was excited, realizing that soon she would meet her husband. She was enchanted with the castle, however she found it deserted, with only voices murmuring to her. Disappointed, she retired to her bed chamber. That night Eros came to Psyche during the darkest hour. He warned her that she must never try to look at him, for if she were ever to see him he would be forced to leave her forever. She promised, however she asked one favor in return. She said it was too lonely for her during the day and she asked her husband to bring her sisters to her for a visit. Eros didn't think this was such a good idea, but he was so in love with Psyche that he couldn't refuse her anything. After some time passed and Psyche learned she was to have a child. Eros arranged for the sisters to visit and share Psyche's joy.

When Psyche's sisters arrived they could not believe the splendor of their little sister's castle. They were jealous, just as Aphrodite had been jealous, and they immediately began to try to make Psyche uncomfortable. They realized, as they listened to her talk on about her wonderful husband who provided all sorts of wonderful things for her, that Psyche never described this husband. The sisters began to tease Psyche, suggesting that her husband must be really a horrible monster. This made Psyche begin to wonder about her pledge never to look at her husband. She told her sisters about her promise and asked them what to do. Her sisters told her to hide a lamp and a sharp knife near her bed, and that very night, when her husband was fast asleep, to leave the bed, light the lamp, and cut off his head.

Psyche wasn't so sure about this plan, but she was now quite upset about her promise never to look at her husband and suddenly quite fearful. That night, while her husband lay sleeping, she left the bed, lit the lamp and raised it high above her head. She gasped to see that her husband was none other than the magnificent Eros, god of love. Her surprise was so great she dropped the knife, and, as she stooped to pick it up, she lightly brushed her hand on one of Eros' magic arrows and also tilted the lamp so that a tiny bit of oil dropped onto Eros' shoulder. He awoke with a start, and, seeing Psyche looking at him, he fled from her without a word. Poor Psyche now gazed at his departing figure with love filling her heart, for now she too had fallen in love,

Days and days went by and Psyche could only weep with longing. Finally she decided to ask Aphrodite to help her, without realizing that Aphrodite was the cause of much of her trouble. The goddess laughed to see Psyche so distraught, her eyes all puffy and red, and gave her four tasks to do, each one more impossible than the next. She told Psyche Eros would come back to her if she succeeded at these labors, but Aphrodite never believed that Psyche would be successful.

For her first labor Psyche had to sort an enormous mountain of seeds. There were seeds of every size and description, and Psyche despaired of ever completing the task. She was almost to the point of suicide when unexpected help arrived. As Psyche wept, hundreds of ants appeared and began swiftly and surely, in their ant-like way, sorting the seeds into separate piles - all the sesame seeds in one pile, the millet in another, and so forth. When Aphrodite returned at the appointed hour, she was very surprised to find that the huge mountain of seeds had all been sorted.

Aphrodite was not discouraged, however, for she knew the second trial she had set for Psyche would be impossible for one as naïve and passive as Psyche. She told Psyche to gather golden fleece from the sun rams. Psyche watched the rams and knew that if she were ever to set foot in the meadow where the rams snorted and butted each other she would be trampled and killed. She sat by the riverbank by the rams' meadow weeping with despair, but as she paused between sobs she heard a reed growing in the river speak to her. The reed advised her to wait until after the sun had set. Once the rams had lain down to sleep she could then gather their golden fleece from the bushes against which the rams brushed during their active daytime cavorting. This Psyche did and once again Aphrodite was surprised to find the task completed when she returned at the appointed hour.

The third task was designed to finish off poor Psyche. She was to fill a crystal flask with water from the river Styx, which cascaded in a torrent down a steep mountain, into the Underworld. Again Psyche despaired of the venture, knowing the rocks near the river were far too slippery, and that if she even tried to get near the water she would be swept away in its mighty current. But once again, in the midst of despair, she was befriended, this time by an eagle, who took the crystal flask in its beak and flew high above the raging river and then swooped down to fill the flask. When Aphrodite saw that Psyche had completed this third task, Aphrodite was aghast.

She set Psyche to her fourth and final task. Psyche was to go to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and then return to the surface of the earth with Persephone's beauty box. This time Psyche had help from a tower, which told her exactly what to do to complete her journey into the Underworld.

She was to take two coins in her mouth and two pieces of barley bread in her hands. She was to refuse to assist a lame donkey driver who would ask her to pick up some sticks. She was to pay the ferry man over the river Styx with one of the coins. She was to refuse the groping hand of a dying man as he reached up out of the water. She was to refuse to assist three women who were weaving the threads of fate. She was to toss one of the pieces of barley bread to Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld, and while the three heads were quarreling over the bread, she was to go in. She was to refuse to eat anything but the simplest food while there. And then she was to repeat the whole process in reverse on her way out.

Psyche followed these instructions, and she was successful. She returned from her journey carrying the box Persephone gave her, only she was overcome with an urge to look inside the box before delivering it to Aphrodite. As she lifted the lid a deep sleep overcame Psyche. Poor Psyche.

High up on Olympus, Eros was watching Psyche's every move, and, seeing her in danger, he flew to her, wiped the sleep from her, and put it back into the box and carried her off to Olympus.

Zeus, the mightiest god of them all, welcomed Psyche to Olympus and made her a goddess. Eros and Psyche were formally married, and soon their daughter, Pleasure was born.

So, the story has a happy ending. Even though she despaired, Psyche completed the impossible tasks set before her and was united with Eros, not as a mortal, but as a goddess. Need I add they lived happily ever after.

 

SERMON

 

When Jean Shinoda Bolen writes about the myth of Psyche and Eros in her book, Goddesses in Everywoman she reminds us that myths are both exterior and interior. The exterior story is about two individuals, one a god, the other a mortal. The other story is interior. As with any myth or dream, it is about different aspects of our being.

This myth tells us how to nurture the feminine part of ourselves by letting our interior ants, reed, eagle and tower help us to grow and mature. The myth is important for both men and women, because every man also has a feminine aspect.

The myth of Eros and Psyche tells us that to have the relationship we want we must toughen our feminine sides - be successful at what seem masculine tasks, but in feminine ways, and that we must overcome the feminine desire to help everyone - even the fates!

Psyche's first task is to sort the seeds. Feminine awareness is usually considered a diffuse awareness. It's the kind of awareness that makes it possible to know without searching the home or the office who's in and who's not. It's the kind of awareness that knows where the blue socks are and the dates of everyone's birthdays. It's the kind of awareness that accumulates lots and lots of bits of information so that soon there is a mountain of seeds.

Sorting seeds is an analytical task calling for selecting, sifting, correlating and evaluating - functions thought to require focused awareness, which is usually considered masculine awareness. Sorting seeds is the interior task of separating a jumble of conflicted feelings and competing loyalties to identify what is truly important from what is insignificant.

Some years back I was driven to examine my life by a feeling of emptiness. I was experiencing something like Psyche's feeling of grief over the loss of Eros. In fact, that's exactly how I was feeling - unloved. I went into therapy, looking for some magic potion to swallow to make it all better and what I got was a pile of seeds! I sat with that pile of seeds for a long, long time. I despaired of ever sorting it all out. And then, one day, I noticed that while I had been sitting despairing, my internal sorting ants had been at work. Over there was a little mound of millet. Over there was a small hill of sesame seeds. It had all been happening so gradually, so slowly I hadn't noticed. With the help of my internal ants I began to see what is truly important in my life.

Having sorted the seeds, having decided what is important to her, Psyche begins her second task - gathering golden fleece - which is about becoming empowered. This is a transition for Psyche from passivity to activity. We usually think of activity as being a masculine trait, but during her second task, Psyche uses her own feminine courage, that of the slender reed growing from the liquid depths of the unconscious. She gathers her power at night, in stillness. It hangs on branches in strands. She needs only a small amount to feel powerful. Like the woman who had only to touch the fringe of Jesus' garment to be healed, she needs only a single strand of golden wool to be whole.

I'm reminded here of the endless number of meeting I've attended and how differently each of us wields power in meetings. The people from whom I have the most to learn are the ones who sit through the whole discussion without saying a word, and then, when it seems that the group is powerless to reach consensus, one of these silent ones enters the discussion. By waiting, by observing the process they acquire the power to help the group achieve its goal - a resolution everyone can support.

This last weekend Pat and I visited some friends who have three teen age children and five dogs at their cabin on Lake Okeechobee. One of the goals for the weekend was to paint the exterior of the cabin. So in addition to managing the meandering of three children in almost adult bodies, they also had to manage the ins and outs of five canines, feed 12 creatures, entertain two visitors from up north - and parcel out the prep and painting tasks. During the weekend various crises developed: a scare about an alligator, spilled paint, miffed feelings, garlic bread that developed a hard as nails crust while its interior remained frozen, and countless other major and minor events. Some of you smile. You are familiar with this kind of regular, everyday busy-ness.

In the story, Psyche's third task is to transcend this kind of busy-ness. Her task is to avoid being swept away in a torrent of activities and appointments and commitments and demands - to choose only as much from life as she herself can comfortably contain. Eagle-like, she must circle high above the raging river of life, learn to recognize the bends, backwaters and bruising white torrents, and choose just enough water to fill her flask - no more.

It feels wonderful to have sorted seeds - to know what's important and what's not. It feels wonderful to have gathered golden fleece - to feel empowered. However, to face all the possibilities life has to offer can often feel awful - a crashing cacophony of confusion. That's the way I felt when at 50 I realized I could do anything I wanted with the rest of my life. Anything?! Yes, anything. Wow! I wasn't used to deciding the direction of my own life. That is what men do, I thought. We women just go along for the ride. Or we fill the number two position, making the number one person look good. It was overwhelming to think I could do anything I wanted to do. But one day I changed into an eagle and took off to soar over the river of life. What I discovered was a lovely stretch of the river called ministry! It had quite a bit of variety - in fact it flowed throughout the entire North American continent from Florida to Alaska and to Hawaii as well. There were part of it that looked lonely, and there were parts that looked friendly. At the time I wasn't sure I had the skills to navigate a white water section called "Preaching". I thought I might be able to handle it if I got some good instruction and had a chance to practice! So down I swooped and filled my flask with just as much life as I could comfortably contain.

Have you noticed that each of Psyche's tasks so far relate to processes we often think of as masculine? Sorting, empowering, deciding. The paradox is that as Psyche is completing her tasks her masculine dimension is growing. Psyche will need to remember what is important, feel empowered, and make decisions during her fourth task in order to achieve what she wants - a reunion with Eros - Love!

Psyche's fourth task is her most challenging. She must refuse to help a lame donkey driver pick up sticks which have fallen off his donkey's back; she must refuse to grasp the groping hand of a dying man as it rises up out of the River Styx; she must refrain from advising the women who weave the threads of fate; and she must eat only the simplest food on her journey into the Underworld, because if she eats too well she might never come back. Aphrodite really knows how to make things difficult. Poor Psyche. How is she ever going to get that box from Persephone with all these temptations. She is not to assist, not to rescue, not to advise, AND not to gorge herself with guilt! How does she ever do it?! She follows directions - given by a tower. She prays for guidance and she gets it, right down to when to flip the coins and when to flip the barley bread.

An ancient song of praise from the Jewish Bible reminds us we must have faith if we are to accomplish anything in life:

I love thee, O Creator, my strength. The Creator is my stronghold, my fortress and my champion, my God, my rock where I find safety, my shield, my mountain refuge, my strong tower.

The feminine wants so much to be in relationship - relationship is everything. Yet if our feminine part gives and gives and gives we will become empty. What's more, we may do irreparable damage to others in the process.

It takes faith to say no. Faith to understand that if we say no we enhance our chances of relationship because we become separate. Psyche cannot be in relationship with Eros until she has defined herself, until she knows where she ends and Eros begins. The magic word "no" is our passport to wholeness, our relationship with ourselves, the bonding of our interior feminine and masculine to make a whole person. By having faith in the process we succeed.

For the feminine it is a very difficult lesson. What daughter hasn't wept when she's walked away from her alcoholic father knowing he won't get the help he needs as long as she continues to cover up his drinking. What nurturing father hasn't grieved as he's sought medical attention and counseling for his anorexic daughter.

Many years ago, when my son Jesse told me he was dropping out of college mid-quarter, I told him I would not support his decision, that he couldn't come home. Saying "no" to him was difficult. It was also difficult to refrain from advising him what to do, to let him make his own decisions. But having said no and let go, I found I didn't feel too badly about my decision. What's more, I felt only about 20% of the guilt I expected to feel! Well, okay, 30%. Our relationship has not only survived, it has strengthened.

The fourth task in growing the feminine, for which all the rest is preparation, is for the feminine to value her own journey, to say no when others would keep her from it, to have faith that others will find their own destinies without her, and to ingest only slight portions of guilt in the process.

Psyche completes her last task. She heads out of the Underworld. She carries with her Persephone's beauty box, which she is to give to Aphrodite. She is home free, except she opens the box and she is overcome with a deathlike sleep. On the verge of success, on the cusp of reunion with Eros, Psyche falters - she is overcome with a powerful urge to regress to total passivity, to become the innocent maiden once more. But Eros swoops down from Olympus and saves her!

I used to hate this part of the myth. It reminded me too much of Sleeping Beauty - of the part where after the wicked witch has cast a spell on Beauty, the prince comes riding in on his white horse and kisses Beauty, and she awakes and they live happily ever after. I hated it because it never turned out that way in real life. Either the prince wasn't really a prince or Beauty a true Beauty or the "happily" ended. But having lived with the Eros and Psyche myth for several weeks now, and remembering that the myth is about an interior process, I realize the ending is different from what I thought it was.

Are you ready for a surprise twist? What do you suppose has been happening to Eros all this time? When Psyche shines that lamp on him and lets a little drop of oil burn his shoulder, he goes home to Olympus. He sits up there in the home of the gods, wondering what he's gotten himself into, falling in love with a mere mortal. However, as he watchs Psyche meet her challenges he begins to realize what wisdom she has. As she sorts out the elements of her life, as she gathers power, as she soars over the river Styx, swoops down and fills her flask, as she completes her Underworld journey, he watches her incorporate more and more of Earth's energy into her own life, becoming ever more enlivened and he realizes that he, too, has been maturing. He has developed what are often considered feminine characteristics - patience, observation, admiration and helpfulness. A miracle! The gods change as humans change. As we honor the feminine in us we also honor the masculine. As a stronger god, more certain of his desires, Eros is able to come to Psyche's rescue when she needs him.

It's important to remember that all this growing and changing is going on inside. It's our interior Psyche and our interior Eros who unite in this dramatic sequence. Wholeness comes not from someone or something outside us, but from our own growth.

Honoring the feminine is the story of Psyche and Eros. May we learn to honor the feminine, the myth of Psyche and Eros as our own story.

I invite you into a time of meditation. If you are holding anything in your hands or on your lap, you may wish to put it down. If your legs are crossed, you may wish to put both of your feet on the floor, to ground your being. As you sit in your chair, comfortably, with your eyes closed or focused on some object of interest in the room, perhaps the chalice flame, be aware of your breathing. Let yourself feel the breath enter your body and fill your torso. Let your self feel it leave your body. Feel your body take another breath, all on its own, without your willing it. Now let it leave your body again, gently, the breath creating a small breeze in the room as it leaves your nostrils to join the breath of others here today. Be aware that the molecules of your breath mingle with those of your neighbor, with those of the plants in the room.

As you sit quietly, breathing, imagine yourself ascending a hill. You have been summoned to the top of this hill. As you climb you feel the sun on you, warming you. At the same time, you feel your pores open and moisture dampen your skin and your clothes. You become aware of the coolness of this moisture, regulating the temperature of your body, warm and cool at the same time.

You come to the top of the hill, to discover a comfortable resting place. You lower your body to its resting state, aware of your heart beat, which is regular and strong. You feel the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the moisture on your skin. You are comfortable, warm and comfortable. Cool and comfortable.

As you rest, you allow yourself to focus on the warmth. You feel your blood move in your body, your blood vessels expanding to absorb the warmth of the air, the sun. You feel the place of passion, of energy, of creativity within your body swell. It feels like a flower bud, expanding with each breath in the radiating warmth of your body. As this bud continues to swell, you find your focus expanding to include both the warmth and the moisture on your skin, the blessed wetness soothing your skin, collecting in crevices and folds. You begin to weep, tears running from your eyes involuntarily. Their moisture covers your cheeks, dampens the skin of your face and neck, drips onto your chest. As you weep, you feel the bud within flower gently. It is so beautiful, the colors exquisite, beautiful, vivid - the texture soft, soothing, yet stimulating - the fragrance inviting, enlivening. You smile, grateful for the gift of life, the summons that brought you to this experience.

You rise from your resting place, ready to descend from the top of the hill, to take up your day's occupation. As you travel downhill you feel other buds of creativity swelling and blooming within you, energizing your body, filling you with gladness. Reaching the place where you started, you take a moment to thank the Universe for this journey, for the life you feel within, for the life you sense about you.

Happily you return to this place, to this time, opening your eyes, changing your focus, becoming aware of the room, the sounds you hear about you, feeling relaxed yet present in this time and in this place, ready to hear the morning's offertory, ready to make your offering for our ministry as Unitarian Universalists in Volusia County, Florida, North America, Earth, our beloved Universe, and beyond.