In this case, it begins when the boy is about six years old on a seaside holiday with his parents. A handsome man rides by on a horse and stops to talk to the awe-struck child. "Would you like to pet him" the man asks, and the speechless child reaches way up to pet the soft muzzle of the beautiful steed. The man asks if he would like to ride the horse, and he sweeps the boy up onto the powerful, broad back of the animal and they ride along the waves together. The child is transported; something in him awakens for the first time. It is like falling in love. It is like falling into the arms of God. It is like a dream of paradise come true. It is fulfillment. It is everything he needs. The world is a totally enchanted place.
For some reason who knows why the boy' s love for horses and his natural instinct for religion and reverence collide, and he makes an idol of horses. He begins to literally worship them. He designs rituals of adoration and subjugation borrowed from his own church, and puts Equus the horse god in the place of God or Christ. In the end, he commits an act of terrible violence against this God, who sees too much, and who he believes demands his obedience to an extent he cannot meet. He blinds his God. He cannot meet the accusation of those eyes.
We hear this story and we have to sadly agree that from society' s viewpoint, this kid is crazy. What he does is crazy; the religion he concocts is crazy. And yet. Alan Strang is crazy but as the psychiatrist Dr. Dysart suggests, he may also be somehow more wildly alive than most of us will ever be. In his own outrageous way, Alan represents the human instinct toward reverence, and the universal childhood ability to see the world as being full of magic and wonder. You may remember a time before you were wedded to things making sense, you probably lived in a world populated by fairies and ghosts, and leprechauns and Santa Claus. Maybe you still do. I hope you haven' t lost all of it. I hope you haven' t become too sane.
The question is not, do we or do we not live in an enchanted world. Anyone who has ever felt his breast fill with beauty and wonder knows that we do. The question is, how much will we allow the world to enchant us, and what will we do with that sense of magic? Will it lead us to violence, superstition and madness, or will it lead us to joy, reverence and a sense of awe at the hidden connectedness of all things?
Do you remember the first time you felt a sense of worship? Many of us would identify a moment connected with nature: we saw a sunset that almost brought us to our knees in awe, or we watched a bird in flight for so long that it was as though the ground dropped out from beneath our feet and we ourselves were flying. We saw a boat slice through the water with such beauty that the image never failed to thrill us forever after, or perhaps it happened when we stood before a great work of art for the first time, and gasped with a kind of primal recognition that someone had captured the essence of our souls on canvass. Maybe it was the sound of the orchestra striking up an overture, and the thrilling symmetry of a kick-line in the second act that made us weep and cheer with a holy fervor.
What is that causes this first flowering of the worshipful heart? No one has any idea. In the play "Equus," the horse confronts the psychiatrist and says, "Account for me. Why me?" Why a horse? Why, for that matter, orchids, why art, why anything? Is religious reverence nothing but a fetish with a little touch of spirituality mixed in? I don' t know. I don' t think so. Maybe the urge to worship itself is genetic, biologically hard-wired. Many researchers nowadays think it is. Psychiatrist Ana-Maria Rizzuto, who wrote a wonderful book called Birth of a Living God, says "there is no such thing as a person without a God representation." According to Dr. Rizzuto, "that is simply a fact about the brain, and about social anthropology." (Rev. Barbara Merritt, April 10, 2005). In other words, our gods are a far more personal reality, and far more idiosyncratic and individualized, than most world religions would care to know, or to admit.
And so it is we incorporate these private, deeply personal objects of veneration into our spiritual and practical lives, and for most of us it happens in a non-traumatic way. We put our hands to the service of what we most revere. We join clubs or religious societies that allow us to share that worship with others. With our own hands, we craft a boat that will slice through the water in just that way that brought on that first mystique for the sea, or we study the mechanism of flight with a special reverence that comes from watching the birds, or we save money to buy property on the water that gives us a chance to see that sunset every night, filling us with that original awe. We join the kick line, we compose our own symphony, we become patrons of the arts, we go on archeological digs and hold bones in our hands and feel the fear of the local gods of ancient civilizations. We worship sanely, safely. We keep our wits about us.
But sometimes, as in Alan' s case, the enchantment goes terribly wrong. It moves from devotion to possession. And when that happens, the enchantment needs to be broken and the possessed restored to sanity, or normalcy. Of course none of us really knows how to define "normal." What is normal? Whatever society currently decides it is. And when it comes to religious passion, we most certainly do not agree on a definition of normal! For some, normal is to speak in tongues and to "get the Holy Ghost" and writhe on the floor. For others, normal in religious terms is to regard every theological idea with a detached, amused smirk and an aura of suspicion. I like to think that for us in this church, who covenant to "cultivate reverence," normal would fall somewhere between those two extremes.
Extreme is a good word for what we most fear in other people' s worship. We' ve seen where it can lead. Extremism is what causes people to fly planes into buildings or strap explosives to their own bodies before they walk into a crowded café. We should fear such extremism. But I think there is a difference between extremist religious movements that seek to manipulate and exploit human beings' instinct for worship, and individuals who are devoutly religious and maybe even extreme by yours or my standards. Not in the way Alan Strang is, of course. Not so devout as to go over the edge into insanity. But perhaps devout in the manner of Francis of Assisi, who saw God in all of creation, or in the manner of the woman known only as Peace Pilgrim, who walked over 25,000 miles between 1953 and 1981 as a silent witness for peace.
What most haunts me about "Equus" is what most haunts Dr. Dysart, whose responsibility it is to restore Alan to sanity. Dysart understands what he has to do. He has to break this terrible enchantment that Alan has with horses. But there will be a high price for the disenchantment, for as Dysart says, "Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created."
"You won' t gallop anymore, Alan. Horses will be quite safe You will, however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain. [You will graduate from horses to cars, as is appropriate for a boy of your age and time.] You will trot on your metal pony tamely through the concrete evening."
So Alan at last, will be more normal. He will be cured, the way a piece of meat is cured; dried out, toughened. But will he be healed? There is a difference.
The psyche is a delicate thing. It is a mysterious thing; a dark forest of genetics and hormones and sensory input and memories and dreams and society and parents and some inexplicable thing called the soul. We will never understand why it finds some object of desire in this world and falls in love with it; sometimes quite madly in love. We only know that it does. And whether we regard that fact only with fear, or with a measure of appreciation, is an important decision to make as citizens of an enchanted world.
Please pray with me:
We hold a silence together in this moment
to respect the mysterious ways that reverence moves in us
and brings us to awe and wonder.
May all our objects of worship be worthy of our devotion.
and may they cause us to love, and never to harm.
In the name of all the gods, known by many,
or known only to us,
we say Amen.
Many thanks to Paul Valante and Michael Hammond for playing roles in our pulpit drama of Peter Shaffer' s "Equus" this morning