The Cheshire Cat
Presented April 7th, 2019
Last month I was visiting Montreal and went to an exhibit in the archeology museum entitled the Wonder Room. It was an exhibit about “cabinets of curiosities” which were popular from the 17th to 19th centuries in Europe.
Aristocrats, explorers and scholars dedicated a room in their house to extraordinary and ordinary objects. Items from bat skeletons to giant eggs to antlers would be carefully displayed – offering visitors a chance to examine the wonders of the world.
The Wonder Room at the Montreal museum did inspire curiosity – so many things to look at, and wonder about. I barely took a step before stopping to peer closely at a display.
Geodes broken open to display dazzling crystals. Flocks of gorgeous taxidermized birds. A wall of white – bones and tusks and shells.
And a whole lot of cultural appropriation – Inuit art, Japanese samurai armour, Nigerian carvings. All out of context, without explanation.
Cabinets of Curiosities leave a complicated legacy.
At their best, cabinets of curiosities were an appreciation of the wonders of the planet – an opportunity to look long and closely at the beauty of birds and animals and plants. These collections began in the time before photography, and so were the only way people could see treasures from other lands.
They helped scientists understand nature.
Our Unitarian ancestor Charles Darwin came of age in the height of the English era of cabinets of curiosities. As a young man he was an ardent collector of beetles. His curiosity about changes in finch populations – which arose from the study of a large collection of finches – led to the theory of evolution, shifting our understanding of what it means to be human.
The time of curiosity cabinets speaks to the joy of natural history, of being curious about all that is marvellously not human. They were cabinets of learning.
Curiosity is an essential part of being human, pulling us to reach out and connect to all the marvels of non-human life on this planet. But curiosity has a dark side.
Seeing all the bodies of animals and birds flung out along the walls, the pinned wings of hundreds of butterflies in drawers, all so beautiful and yet so very dead and creepy, serves as a reminder of how the west used the acquisition of knowledge in ways that dominated and destroyed.
And so I left the wonder room exhibit feeling a little uncomfortable. I wanted to appreciate the beauty of the white parrots and the purple glitter of the amethyst, but that desire was sitting beside discomfort at looking at the Inuit beadwork boots.
It was so clear that Europeans saw other cultures as there for the taking.
The curiosity on display seems to me to be a kind of selfish, dominating curiosity – one that sees what it wants and claims it – without regard for the consequences to the earth or other cultures.
It’s a curiosity that sees nature as a collection of objects.
After reading the story Pamela shared this morning, I realize it feels like the curiosity of people keeping their hearts in bottles. With a heart in a bottle, shut off, focusing only on intellectual curiosity, it is easy to take delight in the extravagant acquisition of butterflies.
Hearts out of the bottle, collectors might wince at all that death, and wonder about their impact on eco-systems, on other cultures, and begin to see the larger connections.
“The world would look less like a collection of objects, and more like a communion of subjects” (Thomas Berry).
Because that is what it is, at least in the Unitarian worldview.
We live as part of a global communion of subjects – of living beings. And that’s a challenging world to live in. One that is alive and full of other people and creatures with their own needs and wants.
As the communion of subjects, we belong to complex eco-systems we don’t fully comprehend.
It’s challenging, but it’s also far more worthy of curiosity. It’s a world of life, evolving in ways we don’t yet understand.
In the story, the little girl loses her curiosity about the world when she is so hurt by the death of her father. She places her heart in the bottle to keep it safe.
Our hearts end up in bottles for lots of reasons. Sometimes when we experience vulnerability and struggle, we get told to harden our hearts and get on with things.
So hearts get put in bottles, and get forgotten. But curiosity needs our hearts as well as our heads.
Curiosity at its best is an openness to the world, both intellectually and emotionally.
We need both our head and our heart to be curious, to let us be willing to learn from others. We need our hearts free of bottles, open to life beyond ourselves.
Curiosity leads us to ask questions instead of making statements. Curiosity leads us to listen instead of providing answers. Curiosity allows us to be surprised and delighted by the world.
Curiosity which involves both the head and the heart helps us to know and to grow.
The people of the chalice are a curious people.
Our ancestors like Charles Darwin, have wondered aloud why the world is the way it is, why society is the way it is. We have always asked questions.
Sometimes that curiosity has taken us places it would have been better not to go, such as in the 1930s when eugenics – breeding for moral and physical health – was in style. Several prominent Unitarians advocated for this kind of social control. That feels like curiosity with the heart in the bottle.
But our curiosity has also led us into working towards expanding the rights of people.
American universalist Judith Murray was curious about the role of women in society. So she published a statement “on the equality of the sexes.” In 1790. More then 50 years before women began organizing!
Curiosity helps us evolve, points us to new ways of being.
Curiosity based in the head and the heart means our intellect and our compassion work together to explore the world.
To know and to grow.
We seek to learn, not just about things, but about each other. This curiosity sees the self as part of a communion of subjects. This kind of curiosity keeps us open to the world, willing to be changed by that world, by other people.
Curiosity these days is easily satisfied. It doesn’t even seem that necessary. Just ask google.
But google can’t explain why your co-worker is so sad. Or how to fix climate change. Or how to bridge the growing ideological divides between people.
Growing differences in society make it harder to be curious about others. Listening to people who are shut down and not open is really hard. It certainly makes curiosity more of a challenge.
Being curious about others is a sign of our willingness to learn, to understand, to know and to grow. And someone has to do it.
Some people have to be the ones creating the bridges, reaching out across painful difference, asking questions, opening their hearts.
People learn through connection, they shut down from disconnection.
I want to share one of the legends about one of the knights of the Holy Grail. This version has been adapted by the Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach, who is also Unitarian.
Parsifal is a young knight on the quest for the Grail. He journeys into a parched and devastated kingdom, it’s a wasteland. Wondering what has happened, he arrives at the capital, and finds the townspeople are behaving as though everything is normal.
They are doing their daily duties, but they seem to be in a trance, not really present and aware. No one is talking about the wasteland around them, no one seems to notice the parched devastation of the land.
Parsifal goes to the castle and finds the King. The King is sitting on his throne, but he is gaunt and clearly suffering, he looks like he is dying.
But his attendants say nothing about the King’s health, going about their work in a kind of trance just like the townspeople.
Parsifal is full of questions about the kingdom, the land, the King, but he has always been taught that knights of his rank don’t ask questions. It’s improper to ask questions of others. And the King is always supposed to speak first and the King is too ill to speak.
So Parsifal keeps quiet and says nothing. He spends the night at the castle, but leaves the next morning. As he travels out of the parched, desolate kingdom, he encounters a wise woman, Kundry.
Parsifal tells her about his visit with the King. When Kundry hears that Parsifal asked no questions of the King, she is furious, astonished by his choice.
Facing Kundry, Parisfal understands what he has done, or rather not done. He quickly turns around and journeys back through the wasteland to the capital, to the castle, to the King.
Parsifal walks up to the throne, drops down on his knees, looks up at the king, and says with great gentleness, “Oh my King, what ails thee?”
The King looks down at Parsifal, and truly sees him. The King smiles, colour returns to his cheeks, and he sits up straight. The King is restored to life.
And so are the people, they wake up from their trances and look around, astonished. A green blush emerges from the soil as the land comes back to life.
Life is restored into vitality and presence because Parsifal cared enough to be curious, to extend himself towards the King.
Compassionate curiosity helps us all.
People learn through connection, they shut down from disconnection.
We need people to create bridges, reaching out, asking questions, opening their hearts, trying to know and to grow.
And it seems to me, that as the people of the chalice, our faith formed by curiosity, we are called to ask the compassionate questions, not just of those suffering, but people across the divides. Those with whom the differences cause division. Who may not even be able to listen.
I don’t guarantee it will work, but someone has to try to keep conversations open across widening chasms. To find the way forward together.
Compassionate curiosity may not seem like much, but it can restore kingdoms. Being genuinely curious – the curiosity that engages the head and the heart – creates connections.
May we, as people of the chalice, people of curiosity, seek to ask questions with an open heart.
Let us seek to know and to grow.
So Say We All.