William Sloane Coffin was a hero with a great soul, which is one definition of a saint. His courage, hope and faith led him to risk his life as a Freedom Rider. They led him to jail in protests for justice and peace. They engaged him in one struggle after another in his “lover’s quarrel” with his nation.
This photograph shows him being a hero of another kind. It was taken in the year after his son, Alex, died in a car accident. Bill described coming into the United Church of Strafford in paralyzing grief and playing music until he had subdued the inner struggle enough to return to his outer struggles.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a similar hero with a great soul. He wrote in his book The Strength to Love, “A positive religious faith does not offer an illusion that we shall be exempt from pain and suffering, nor does it imbue us with the idea that life is a drama of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Rather, it instills us with the inner equilibrium needed to face strains, burdens, and fears that inevitably come.” (from Chapter IV)
We need that inner equilibrium today because we are living in a fearful time that asks us all to be heroes with great souls. Human greed has raged out of control while human technology has gained planet-destroying power. Social injustice, economic inequity and environmental destruction have brought us to the brink of an inevitable revolution.
On the one hand, the side of greed with its ego-driven fight for its self-interest cannot continue without a revolution against democracy and nature. On the other hand, it will take what King called “a revolution of values,” a change of cultural consciousness, in order to reverse humanity’s self-destructive direction.
It will take heroes with great souls to change our consciousness, not only because we are up against the most powerful corporate and media empires the earth has ever seen, but also because the source of the problem—the fearful, selfish ego—is in us all.
We all are tempted by self-interest. It takes a hero to win that inner struggle enough to love a neighbor as our self.
It takes a hero to follow the Golden Rule and to care for the earth as our common home.
It takes a hero with a great soul to live as an altruistic citizen of a democratic republic, which is why John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He said unregulated avarice and ambition “would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net.” As we are seeing every day.
How can we be the heroes and great souls that America and the earth require?
Bill Coffin said in a Riverside sermon, “Human unity is not something we are called on to create — only something we are called on to recognize.”
This contains the key wisdom we need. King put it this way: “The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history. He who works against community is working against the whole of creation.”
The Holy Spirit is the name we give to the impulse that moved the first single cells of life on earth to form communities with other cells. Four billion years later, that same Spirit is at work trying to overcome the ego-driven forces that divide human from human.
We do not have to create our unity with one another and with the earth, we have only to look deeply into the reality of nature and our own heart and find there the Spirit that created the universe, and align our values with its values, and take its will as our will, and use its power as our power.
This is why Mahatma Gandhi led his followers to spend two hours in meditation, prayer and the singing of hymns every day. They were emptying themselves of the ego’s control and opening to the Spirit’s guidance.
It is what made them the heroes, great souls and saints they had to be in order to change the consciousness of their culture and create a nonviolent movement that could overcome the most powerful Empire in the world.
Which is exactly what we need to do today.
We need to free ourselves from whatever paralyzes us or keeps us stuck. We need to open to the Spirit’s inner transformation so we can transform the world.
That is what the photographer Jon Gilbert Fox caught William Sloane Coffin doing at the piano in the Strafford sanctuary that summer day.
It is what we each are doing when we play music or meditate or pray or walk in nature or have a deep heart to heart conversation with a wise friend. We are listening, changing our consciousness, recognizing more clearly the sacred way, connecting more deeply to the Spirit’s guidance and power. We are becoming the heroes, great souls and saints this time requires.