February 28 2021

Felix Culpa

Ash Wednesday was only just over a week ago, and the faithful will, I know, have all been thinking in terms of past faults, asking forgiveness and resolving to do better in future.

Mea Culpa is the Latin tag by which such petitions are often known, it means the fault is mine own. But there is another Latin tag which expresses another side of the coin, Felix Culpa, which broadly means a happy accident, or that it is sometimes the case that good can directly arise out of misfortune.

This is a point I would like to remind anyone of who has been literally or metaphorically beating themselves up over past failings or disasters. It is always completely beyond human foresight to be able to say how events are going to unfold, particularly following upon some catastrophe or other. It is how the world is made and how we are made.

We’ve bad dreams
so dreams can come true,
we have hearts
for heartbreak,
we have anger and hate,
we have love
to make lovers rue.

We have hope
to make us despair,
and our souls prophecy,
and tears are for eyes,
we are human
in order to err.

The ancient Greeks liked to personify their experience of existence in terms of the gods, in order to understand it. They created a pantheon to explain the otherwise chaotic and random nature of events.

The inevitable possibility of failure in all aspects of our experience was eloquently expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote,
“There is a crack in everything God has made. Always, it would seem, there is this vindictive circumstance stealing in unawares,… this kick of the gun… That is the ancient doctrine of Nemesis, who keeps watch in the universe, and lets no offence go unchastened. The Furies, they said, are attendants upon Justice, and if the sun in heaven should transgress his path, they would punish him. The poets related that stone walls and iron swords… had an occult sympathy with the wrongs of their owners… They recorded that when Thasians erected a statue to Theogenes, one of his rivals went to it by night, and endeavoured to throw it down by repeated blows, until at last he moved it from its pedestal, and was crushed to death beneath its fall…”

Perverse and foolish, oft going astray, and in our prayers we describe ourselves similarly as frail, flawed, and far from perfection. We are imperfect people, trying hard to live according to our values, but failing in both big and small ways.

Here is a short poem by Philip Larkin called Bad As A Mile, in which he describes himself trying to throw an apple core into a wastebasket

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

His miss-throw is as bad as a mile, and more than that, it is endemic to our condition: failure spreading back, earlier and earlier.

How then might the wounds be healed, and the imperfections adjusted sufficiently, to enable us to move on virtuously? What does our religion have to offer us by way of advice, where is there comfort for the afflicted, how does one heal oneself?

We gather today bearing within ourselves many different theologies. This Unitarian faith of ours recognises the presence of ambiguity, of uncertainty, of differences of opinion about religious principle and beliefs. Easy answers are, however, not easily forthcoming, especially when we seem to need them most.

There is a great haiku by the Japanese poet Issa which (if I remember it correctly) reads:

Tiny ant,
climb Mount Fujiyama,
but slowly,

Good advice. And I think I have previously mentioned another aesthetic in Japanese art, which deliberately runs counter to the grain of perfection, and which we, who have Mount Fujiyama to climb, can take comfort in.

In Japanese pottery a simple bowl will have one irregular curve. The glaze on a pot, fired long ago, will seem to drip down a bit on one side. An ancient vase holds a crack which is seen to only add to its beauty.

In Islamic culture I understand that the Persian carpet- weaver will incorporate a deliberate flaw in their work, because only Allah can create perfection.

Somehow such imperfections make these works more true. Like the patina of age on the antique which gives it authenticity, also adds to its value. It is an appreciation of what has been, its history and its use, something real beyond the ideal.

The author Richard Powell writes, “there are three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is prefect.”

The frailties we lament in ourselves, our lack of perfection, is what makes us human, and real, and lovable. And the same lack of perfection in other people is what makes them understandable and forgivable.

The crack in everything God has made is what makes it so beautiful, so valuable, and so true.
[remind ourselves of Leonard Cohen’s words…]

A prayer to end, by Vivian Pomeroy:

O God we thank thee for the stirring of thy spirit within us;
For the courage which is equal to every new day;
For the hopes which rise out of the failures of yesterday;
For the resolve which lifts its head above wrong and woe, and affirms its right to repent and begin again;
for the life which cannot be held by death; for the healing which comes to wounded hearts through time;
For the sunrise which is greater than our fires and ashes;
For the joy which breaks in, we know not how or when;
For the goodness which is at the heart of the world;
For all whom we love, and for the longing of this our prayer, we thank thee.


Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period