The Three Golden Cups

April 19, 2009
Stuart Twite

My question for you this morning is one of the biggest…Have you been saved? Its probably a question that raises a hackle or two. Unitarians aren't supposed to be asking that question. After all, it implies that we need to be saved. And that even if we needed it, we couldn't do it ourselves. In fact, the question has long been at the heart of what it means to live a religious life, to take this great journey of the spirit that we are all one whether think so or not. 

When I was a young schoolteacher, I was very conservative and far too full of my own beliefs. The religion teacher at my school had a plaque on her wall that said "The truth is in the struggle." Written in lovely calligraphy and beautifully framed, the picture hung in front of her classroom. Well I took aim at it, I thought in a light-hearted manner. "The truth" I would say, "cannot be in the struggle; we may have to struggle to find the truth but the truth must be external to the struggle." The teacher was my friend and took it all in good stride for awhile. But one day, on the way to chapel, while I was probably obnoxiously going on about the struggle and the truth, she stopped, looked at me seriously and then said, "that saying is deeply important to me." That was all and I, of course, was mortified at my own sorry behavior. But even worse, it took me several more years to realize that, indeed, the truth is in the struggle and that is my subject this morning. 

Our reading today comes from the Book of Arda Viraf, a Zoroastrian scripture written in Persian. It is a classic journey text through the afterlife in search of the meaning of life. In that, it is very similar to Dante's trip through hell, purgatory and paradise in the Divine Comedy. 

Journey stories are, of course, a natural medium for religious or spiritual expression and most traditions include several of them. I think of Bunyan's allegory Pilgrims Progress which for Calvinist Christians, achieved almost the status of scripture. Or the Chinese Novel, Journey to the West, the Monkey stories. C. S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia are allegories that contain journeys, and a small cottage industry has emerged to analyze the true allegorical meaning of the Harry Potter books. 

And it is natural that allegorical journeys would be a vital form of religious expression. I think that all of us, in our more reflective moments, are aware of our own lives as a journey, with periods of forging ahead, wrong paths, vitality and exhaustion. We have a vague sense that we are not who we were and yet haven't changed at all. And journey stories have something else that most of us love…a destination. 

I believe that we all, to greater or lesser degrees desire a destination, a purpose, to know that our lives are being lived for something, and religious allegories address that need. 

So let us look closer at the Zoroastrian story of Arda Viraf and his journey through paradise and hell. Like many such stories, this one begins in Persia, in a place of paradise or purity. The scriptures, given by Zoroaster, are known and followed by all and everything, is, as a result, alright with the world. 

But along comes Alexander the Great on his own journey to conquer the word, who destroys the scriptures and seeks to Hellenize Persia, purging it of its old religion. Without the old ways, confusion and contention abound in the land.  Finally, in an effort to return to clarity, the great leader Ardashir assembled 40,000 priests and after various tests, Arda Viraf was chosen as the most pious. 

 "Then", in the words of our reading, "those teachers of religion filled three golden cups with wine and the narcotic Vishtasp; and they gave one cup to Viraf with the word ' Well thought,' and the second cup with the word ' Well said,' and the third cup with the word ' Well done.'  He makes a seven day journey into the realms of paradise and perdition, comes back from his trance and his every word describing the journey is written down by faithful scribes.

Our reading this morning describes the first part of his journey taken with footsteps of good thought, word and deed, into paradise. It describes people who, despite not having the religion of Zoroaster before them, attained happiness by their good work and pious deeds, the liberal minded, the scholars, teachers, farmers, and peacemakers, and, finally, the "pre-eminent world of the religious, which is the light, full of glory and of joy, with which no one is satiated.'"

The next part of the text, not read this morning, describes his journey into hell where the plight of various breakers of the eternal laws is graphically described. Not for the faint of heart, Virafs hell is full of visions of souls being tortured for their transgressions: One mild example:

"I also saw the soul of a man who, from head to foot, remained stretched upon a rack; and a thousand demons trampled upon him, and ever smote him with great brutality and violence. And I asked thus: 'What sin was committed by this body?' Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, said thus: 'This is the soul of that wicked man who, in the world, collected much wealth;  and he consumed it not himself, and neither gave it, nor allowed a share, to the good; but kept it in store.' 

What does this allegory say to me about the spiritual journey, the search for meaning and purpose? It is rich with symbolism, religious, cultural, political, as well as spiritual but I will concentrate today three lessons for the spirit that I find in this story.

First is the importance of vision. The Hebrew book of Proverbs includes the well known verse, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Remember poor George Bush senior who was relentlessly criticized for what he later called the "vision thing?"  We want vision in our leaders and we need a vision of what life is or could be in order to live full lives.

Now my moral this morning is decidedly not that wine, narcotics and women provide the vision that we need.  Our hero, remember, was chosen for his purity and piety.  The three cups that contained wine and a vision inducing narcotic are, for me, symbolic of our need for a new way of looking at what we look at every day.  In his purity and piety he already had what all were searching for but in raising it to the level of vision, he invested it with a richness that most of us lose as we go about the business of living. 

Vision is nothing more than a way of really seeing what we already see. People that we admire for their vision have largely just become good at articulating what is nebulous and unformed but most decidedly already present in each of us.  The same is true of the spiritual journey. What we seek in our lives is already there yet often covered with the slag heap that accumulates with living. 

The Unitarian Minister and writer Forrest Church likes to tell this story, and I repeat it now in his words:

Rabbi Issac of Cracow had a dream. If he traveled to Prague and looked under the bridge, he would find a great treasure. The first time he had this dream, he ignored it. Rabbi Issac was a practical man. He avoided extravagant gestures in order neither to be nor to appear foolish. But then he had the dream again. And again. And again. And so Rabbi Issac donned his cloak and set off for Prague in search of gold. After a long and arduous journey, he finally arrived. He found the bridge easily, but it was guarded, day and night, by soldiers. He waited for his opening, one day, then two, but the changing of the guards was too efficient. Finally he gave up, cursing himself for his credulity. Just as he turned to leave, one of the soldiers said, "Hey, Old man, you've been hanging around here for a long time. And now you're leaving? What am I missing?" Rabbi Issac sighed. "I had a silly dream. I thought God was talking to me in my sleep. He told me to come here. All the way from Cracow. I shouldn't have listened." "Silly man," the soldier replied. "I had a dream like that once, a recurring dream. God told me to go to Cracow and look up a Rabbi Issac. If I did I would find a great treasure buried behind his stove. Can you believe such a thing. I certainly didn't. I am sorry for your trouble, but you, sir, are a fool."  Rabbi Issac tipped his cap to the soldier, returned to Cracow, and found a great treasure buried behind his own stove." The treasure, salvation, is already in each of us-it just requires a vision. 

It is also true that vision can be a dangerous thing. People that hold too tight to a political or religious vision are often willing to damn others who share it not.  The old political maxim, "You can't make an omlette without breaking some eggs" comes to mind.

But vision is dangerous for another reason as well, and this is the second lesson from our story this morning. There is a haunting song by Tom Petty about a friend who once had great life and vitality and is now fading away. One line has always stuck with me. In trying to figure out the reasons for his friend's decline, he asks, "Was it something you could picture but never could quite touch? Vision never realized can be worse than vision never held. 

All of which brings me back to the three cups given to Arda Viraf as he prepared for his journey. Those three cups given with the words "Well thought, Well said, and well done"  I talked last week about our tendency as humans towards complexification; making the simple, complicated.  This is all too true when it comes to the vision thing. We think the veil between us and salvation is opaque-a mystery that cant' be penetrated and we reject it completely or become obsessed with something that we can picture but can't quite touch. 

I am reminded of the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency. In an effort to insure full secrecy, the building that first housed the CIA had a gate with the sign "Government Printing Office." Allen Dulles, instrumental in the founding of the CIA and a former director relates as how everyone knew that the building housed the intelligence service, so tour buses, cab drivers and many others would always be stopping outside the building with fascination. Finally, Dulles had the sign changed to the Central Intelligence Agency, and the gawking stopped. It had been demystified. 

In a way, the story of the journey of Arda Viraf demystifies the spiritual journey as well. And it does so by re,mystifying the common virtues of thought word and deed. When it gets right down to it, the basic element that every religion or guru, or system or doctrine share, is that our lives are comprised of thought word and deed and by these things we grow and prosper, or wither and decay. Sounds pretty basic and even a little boring doesn't it?

Well, to a degree that is just the point. Living a religious or spiritual life is just in striving after thought that is beneficial and generous, words that are helpful and unifying and deeds that are liberal and healing. To re-mystify these deeply mundane virtues is my hope today. It is salvation.

The Unitarian minister Cyrus Bartol, in explaining St. Paul's exhortation that we all must work out our own salvation said  "For it is not to be doubted, that all people have moral ideas ever in the ascendant of their actual lives...'Thou art capable of something purer, nobler, infinitely better, than thou has become.' And what are these but the Spirit that must not be quenched, -the Divinity that should not be resisted?"

The truth IS in the struggle, it is in the journey. It is within us if we but have the vision to see and the courage to take that journey with good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Have you been saved?