Discerning Our Gifts

‘Tis the cup seen, not tasted, that makes the infant moan.
For once let me press firm my lips upon the moment‟s brow,
For once let me distinctly feel I am all happy now,
And bliss shall seal a blessing upon that moment‟s brow.1

Time for All Ages
The subject of our service today is Margaret Fuller, born on this day 200 years ago. As was the case with some other prominent women of her day, including many famous Unitarians and Universalists, Margaret did not have opportunities for formal education like that available to boys and young men. So, as a young girl, she obtained a classical education at home from her father.

Later, however, she was sent to a traditional finishing school, to learn the arts taught to women of the day in preparation for being wives and mothers. This was a difficult time for Margaret, as she was torn between the wishes of her progressive father and a society that did not yet allow women to enter libraries, enroll in colleges, or speak on the lecture circuit.

So, today, I would like to lead you in a brief guided meditation. Close your eyes and imagine that you are in a large gymnasium, standing on the floor in front of a crowd of onlookers…You are a gymnast and before you stands the balance beam…As you mount the beam, your feet grip the four inch plank beneath you…The arena is silent as your arms stretch out to your sides for balance.

Imagine how women like Margaret Fuller felt in the early 19th century…pulled on one side by societal expectations and limitations defining the roles of women…pulled on the other by a well-meaning father who cultivated a love of learning and knowledge…Imagine these forces pulling you one way, then another…your feet cling tightly to the beam while your body makes constant adjustments…The pressure is intense, giving you a taste of the conflict women like Margaret Fuller experienced…outcast in one world, but not fully welcomed in another.

Now, feel within your core, at the pit of your torso, an inner strength…Something that helps you maintain your balance…This force sends tendrils of power through your arms and legs to your feet and hands, helping you to maneuver on the narrow path. As we will learn, Margaret Fuller found her core strength, her unique gift, that helped her to cope and to thrive in life. You, too, can find that gift, or if you have found it already, you can work constantly to hone that gift not only for your own benefit, but for the good of all humanity.

Margaret Fuller was born 200 years ago today, on May 23, 1810. Although an educated and intelligent person, many occupations were closed to Margaret and other women of her day. So, at the age of 29, she began holding Conversations at Elizabeth Peabody‟s bookstore in Boston. For four years, Margaret offered two conversation series for women each year on subjects like education, health, and culture that were not typically part of a young woman‟s education.

She also regularly met with transcendentalists of the day, such as her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. In that same year of 1839, Margaret was asked to serve as the editor of The Dial, a transcendentalist literary quarterly journal. As one of America‟s first literary critics, she began working on a manuscript eventually published in 1844 titled Woman in the Nineteenth Century. The work was the first book-length treatment on the equality of men and women, and spoke frankly on issues including economic and social barriers, prostitution, and homosexuality.

Hired as a journalist on Horace Greeley‟s New York Daily Tribune, Fuller became one of America‟s first foreign correspondents when she sailed to Europe, met famous authors, and wrote about the conditions of the poor and the common worker. In Rome, she met and fell in love with a nobleman named Ossoli who fathered her son Angelino. Both were active in the Italian Revolution, and were eventually forced to flee, sailing for America. In July 1850, their ship struck a sand bar during a storm off the shores of Fire Island, drowning Margaret, Ossoli, and their son. She died at the age of 40 and her manuscript on the history of the Italian Revolution was never recovered.

Sermon – Discerning Our Gifts
Imagine at the moment that you are born, you sit in a large chair at the head of a long table. This table stretches out away from you, so far that you cannot see the end in the dim shadows. Covering the table are wrapped presents of every conceivable shape and size. Some are wrapped in bright cartoonish patterns and colors. Some have elaborate ribbons and bows adorning their sides. Others sit simply in plain shades or foil.

Without lifting or unwrapping them, you can guess the contents of many of the packages. One large, irregular shape is clearly a bicycle. Another box has circular holes, perhaps providing air for a puppy or kitten. A spherical shape is almost certainly a bowling ball. And many have that distinctive shape of a folded shirt, or even worse, a row of socks.

Smaller packages abound as well. Flat and rectangular boxes for ties or scarves, long and thin boxes for bracelets and a few small cubes for earrings and, perhaps, even a ring? But, many of the contents remain mysterious, with no obvious clues to divulge their identities merely based on visual observation.

As you scan the horizon of colors and shapes, you sense that one of these packages somehow differs from all the rest. You perceive, perhaps on an instinctual, irrational level, that one of these presents contains something special and unique. You feel that there is one gift before you that no other person has on their table of life.

You have no idea what this special gift looks like, its shape or size, where it lies on the table, or what other presents surround or even cover it. Perhaps it sits in clear view, apart from other gifts. Or perhaps it lies buried beneath a mountain of other gifts of varying importance. Your special gift may be the first one on the table, right under your nose. Or it may lay far off in the unseeable future. But, somehow, you know that that gift is there, somewhere, in the world of things you will receive in your life.

“Discernment” is a very popular word among those involved in preparing candidates for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Evaluations rely very little on actual knowledge or accomplishments. Instead, committees charged with admitting aspiring ministers into fellowship place the most emphasis on the growth the person showed during the process of preparing for the ministry, the discernment process.

Sadly, we don‟t place a similar emphasis on discernment in everyone‟s life. Instead, our schools and places of work depend on memorized facts and formulae, rather than the actual course of learning itself to evaluate students and employees. In fact, I might argue that far more important than diplomas and certifications rank the development of the love of learning, the openness to new ways of thinking, and the appreciation of the unique over the mundane.

So, with the help of Margaret Fuller, let us today explore a three-pronged hypothesis: first, we must acknowledge that we have gifts to be discerned; second, that in order to discern these gifts, we must suffer as that is the natural catalyst for identification; and third, we must know that this gift is not ours alone, but belongs to all of humanity.

Margaret Fuller‟s work on women‟s rights and equality helped people understand that the possession of unique gifts was not merely the purview of men. The classical education she developed with her father equipped her to consider life options outside the realm of possibility for most women of her era. After a brief career as a teacher, Margaret realized that education was not her life‟s vocation. Her felicity with language, however – both in conversation and in writing – was her expertise. In her landmark treatise on the status of women, Fuller wrote:

Whether much or little has been done or will be done, whether women will add to the talent of narration, the power of systematizing, whether they will carve marble, as well as draw and paint, is not important. But that it should be acknowledged that they have intellect which needs developing, that they should not be considered complete, is important.
So much is said of women being better educated, that they may become better companions and mothers for men. They should be fit for such companionship. Earth knows no fairer, holier relations than that of a mother. It is one which, rightly understood, must both promote and require the highest attainments. But a being of infinite scope must not be treated with an exclusive view to any one relation.
Give the soul free course, let the organization, both of body and mind, be freely developed, and the being will be fit for any and every relation to which it may be called.2

This last part offers a spectacular wisdom from this otherwise common sense advice. If you find your unique gift and put yourself wholly into it, the result will prepare you to face every challenge of your life. The return on your investment in your gift will
far exceed any specific goals associated with its direct tasks in ways unknowable at the outset.

As we learned during our Time for All Ages, Margaret was deeply conflicted by her father‟s views on women‟s education that varied wildly from the social norms of the day. The conflict handicapped Margaret in her young adult years, leaving her feeling isolated among her friends. Unitarian Universalist religious educator Betsy Hill Williams writes that Margaret Fuller‟s life was “a constant balancing act between being part of the world in which she lived and being her own true self…She loved being a sister, daughter, wife, and mother, but she hated that many women were forced into being those things – even when they didn’t want to be.”

Beyond this conflict of spirit, Fuller also suffered from chronic migraines and insomnia for much of her life. The notion of the centrality of suffering in our lives would have been one of common discussion among Margaret‟s transcendentalist friends. The recent influx of the writings of Asian philosophers and religions would have exposed her circle to Buddhist thought on the subject.
The four Noble Truths of Buddhism center on the knowledge that Life is suffering. The source of suffering is our attachment to transient things, things that lack permanence. The core of Buddhist teaching consists of instruction in how to cease the suffering in one‟s life. In her Memoirs, she indicated an awareness of this philosophy when she wrote:

When disappointed, I do not ask or wish consolation – I wish to know and feel my pain, to investigate its nature and its source; I will not have my thoughts diverted, or my feelings soothed; ‘tis therefore that my young life is so singularly barren of illusions. I know, I feel the time must come when this proud and impatient heart shall be stilled, and turn from the ardors of Search and Action, to lean on something above. But – shall I say it? – the thought of that calmer era is to me a thought of deepest sadness; so remote from my present being is that future existence, which still the mind may conceive.3

Therefore, while no Buddhist herself, Fuller acknowledged the relationship of Life to suffering. Rather than simply ignore pain, she sought out ways to better understand how pain arose in her life. And, rather than avoid pain, she inquired into its revelatory possibilities.

The study of religion, and beyond to the nature of the human spirit, was a subject of deep interest to Margaret Fuller. Throughout her adult years, she identified increasingly with mysticism and that the “real church was the inward life of solitary spiritual illumination, not the building…whose very steeple pointed beyond itself.”4 Again, from her seminal work on women:

Mysticism, which may be defined as the brooding soul of the world, cannot fail of its oracular promise as to Woman. “The mothers,” “The mother of all things,” are expressions of thought which lead the mind towards this side of universal growth…if it be true, as the legend says, that Humanity withers through a fault committed by and a curse laid upon Woman, through her pure child, or influence, shall the new Adam, the redemption, arise. Innocence is to be replaced by virtue, dependence by a willing submission, in the heart of the Virgin-Mother of the new race.

Fuller and the other Transcendentalists saw mysticism as an intuitive quest for spiritual emancipation. Margaret especially saw mysticism as critical to defining the democratic individuality at the heart of this world view for women. And yet, she also possessed a Taoist appreciation for the cosmic implications of mysticism – what would today be a very modern quantum approach to a Universalist theology. Once more from her Memoirs:

I remember how, as a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space and human nature; but I saw, also, that it MUST do it – that it must make all this false true – and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God before it could return again. I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine.5

So, our conversation with Margaret Fuller today explored the notion that we must acknowledge that each of us has a unique gift to be discerned; that in order to discern these gifts, we must suffer as that is the natural catalyst for identification; and that we must know that this gift is not ours alone, but belongs to all of humanity. In a sense, we check this gift out of the cosmic library and may use of it throughout our lifetimes. Margaret Fuller‟s gift was her ability to see women as complete souls, deserving of the same rights and privileges of men, and able to contribute equally not only in the home, but in the community and the world. And, her gift included possessing the voice and the hand to speak and write that vision for others to heed. We have Margaret Fuller to thank for an unknown number of women and men influenced by her words.

The tragedy of our modern world is that, perhaps for the first time in human existence, every person has the capacity to discern their truly unique gift, their purpose in life. And yet, greed and ignorance, lingering tribalism, and ever present courage-sapping fear keep us from achieving this marvelous transformation of society. For if every person were free to discern and to act upon their gift, our reliance on systems of ownership and control would shrink into insignificance; our worship of celebrity would dwindle into the quaint purview of nostalgia; and our culture of violence would fade into a pseudo-history of myth and legend whose only remaining purpose would be to frighten small children and provide us with amusing anecdotes.

Have you sought out and identified your unique gift? What forces push and pull you as you walk the balance beam of life? And, once you find your gift, how will you utilize it to better not only your own life, but the lives of those around you?

Closing Words
Let me but gather from the earth one full-grown fragrant flower;
Within my bosom let it bloom through its one blooming hour;
Within my bosom let it die, and to its latest breath
My own shall answer, “Having lived, I shrink not now from death.”6

1 From Memoirs, (cited in The Wit and Wisdom of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, ed. by Laurie James, p. 1)
2 From Woman in the Nineteenth Century, (cited in James, p. 29)
3 From Memoirs, (cited in James, p. 17)
4 Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, p. 48.
5 From Memoirs, (cited in James, p. 16)
6 From Memoirs, (cited in James, p. 1)