SUMMER, SHAKESPEARE, AND THE SOLSTICE
ELIZABETH A. ALSTON
DELIVERED AT THE NORTH SHORE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST SOCIETY OF LA
JUNE 23, 1996

Welcome to summertime! The first day of summer, the summer solstice, was last Thursday. Some of us celebrated it here at the church in the neo-pagan fashion with a campfire, a circle, and some meditation, singing and drumming. Please watch the newsletter for postings on other rituals which will be planned for the equinoxes and the solstices, and maybe some other events in between. The song "Summertime," which Blair just sang for us, tells us that "summertime is when the living is easy." Perhaps this is true if one's life is tuned to the rhythms of the earth, if your way of living is of the earth. For those of us who make our living from activities conducted indoors, however, we can live our lives in total oblivion to the passing of the seasons. Let us now take the opportunity to contemplate the significance of summer from a planetary perspective. If we are to take care of the earth, we must recognize our place on and in relation to the earth. If we are to appreciate the earth, it is helpful to appreciate its orientation and changes during its yearly travel around the sun. What is the summer solstice? Summer is that point during the earth's rotation around the sun when the earth's axis is tilted so that one of the hemispheres comes closest to the sun. As the earth orbits the sun, the relationship of the northern and southern hemispheres to the sun are altered. In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice occurs around June 20th or 21st when the sun's rays shine directly at the tropic of Cancer. Summer solstice is the longest day, and therefore, the shortest night of the year. The summer solstice also marks the astrological turning point from Gemini to Cancer. Maybe that's why I like summer the best of all of the seasons - my astrological sign is Cancer. The Earth is special and unique in our solar system because on this planet, conditions have been fertile for the expression of the self-organizing principles of the universe. There is an overwhelming primal force, you might call it, in the universe towards the development of organization. I recommend to you the book, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. In fact, our book club plans to discuss this book sometime within the next few months. In this book, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry make the following statement:
         Though Earth's birth has dimensions of chance associated with it, we begin to
     realize that a biophysical planet is no accident for the universe.  It seems to be
     accidental that such a planet as Earth would today be revolving around our
     particular star; but it seems a probabilistic certainty that somewhere in the universe
     there would be a biophysical planet revolving around some such star.  The
     universe, when given a chance, will organize itself into complex and persistent
     patterns of activity."
You might call this self-organizing principle of the universe a primal force. You might call it the "source of all," a phrase used in our closing hymn for today. You might call it god. You might call it the higher power. As we ourselves are an expression and product of that principle, it seems to me that we are by our very nature incapable of understanding it fully. Admittedly, this is an agnostic point of view. The tendency of the universe towards more and more complex forms of being is responsible, I believe, for the development of the atom, the molecule, and the particles which eventually came together to form galaxies, stars and planets. This self-organizing principle is also responsible for the development of what we call "life" on this planet - beginning with very simple forms of life and continuing with the ongoing development of the human species. In my studies with Thomas Berry, co-author of the book The Universe Story, I have become aware of the scientific belief that natural selection no longer exists on this planet. What we have now in its place, some scientists assert, is what might be called "human selection." Humans and their behaviors now decide whether a particular species survives or becomes extinct. Humans and their behaviors dictate survival. There no longer exists the principle of "survival of the fittest" which Charles Darwin observed and described. There is only survival of those whom humans choose to survive. Is it our proper role to choose to allow which plants and animals survive? Are our criteria - which are the most convenient, the most functional for us, the tastiest, the most aesthetically pleasing -- are these criteria, which may well decide whether a living organism continues on this planet, the most appropriate? Is this phenomenon a product of the further progression of the universe's self-organizing powers? Are we as humans the self-reflective aspect of that principle, and therefore through choice allow even greater creativity in its expression? Or are we a destructive force, interfering with the unfolding of the universe and dooming our own planet by virtue of the fact that we have lost sight of our place in the universe and on this earth? I invite your responses to these rhetorical questions during the time for congregational reflections following the sermon. Thomas Berry's response is that we are now entering into an Ecozoic Era, in which humankind must become responsible caretakers of the planet earth in order for us, and the earth as we know it, to survive Getting back to the subject of summertime, as I remarked before, it is a time when one hemisphere of the earth receives the maximum expression of the sun's energy. This energy is described by scientists as a constant stream of photons from the sun to the earth. The intensity of that stream is greatest in summer. Therefore, the intensity of photosynthesis in our region is greatest during the summertime. For photosynthesis is the interaction of organic matter on the earth with the photons being delivered here from the sun. It is one of the most remarkable achievements of the self-organizing principle on the earth. Photosynthesis is a unique interaction between life forms on earth and the stream of photons emitted from the sun. Because that stream of photons is most intense in the summer, life on this part of the earth is at its peak intensity now. It is a high-energy event. And that event is a reflection of the entire universe. As Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry put it:
      When a . . . bacterium absorbs the Sun and creates food, a new intensity of
     communion in cosmological epigenesis has been attained, for so much of the
     universe comes together in that one event.  Both the bacterium and the Sun are
     composed of the elementary particles of the first Flaring Forth that took place some
     ten billion years previous to their time.  Both are composed of the hydrogen atoms
     created at the end of the fireball.  Both . . . are composed of the elements created
     by the [first] supernova . . . ."
Thus, summer represents a closeness to the sun and its vitality. The response of the earth to the sun is creativity in the form of photosynthesis. This creativity is the essence of the self-organizing powers of the universe.
The plentitude and power of the summer season gives us time, and the inclination, to frolic. And if you were wondering how I was going to tie this all in to William Shakespeare, it is by turning now to the spirit of frolic and merriment that expresses our celebration of summer.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1589 and 1595 -- we do not know the exact date. Although nowhere in the play does it specifically state that the setting is the time of the summer solstice, many people associate it with that time. The play is set in ancient Greece. The opening scene presents the mythical Theseus, the Duke of Athens. In four days, he is to marry the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, whom according to myth he has recently defeated in battle. Theseus himself addresses the irony of this set of circumstances, when he says the following in Act I, Scene I:
     Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
     And won thy love doing thee injuries;
     But I will wed thee in another key,
     With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling.
This speech sets one of the themes of the play: lovers can as easily wound one another as celebrate one another, just as humans can as easily harm the earth as celebrate it. The human condition contains the capacity for both. Before Theseus appears a citizen of Athens, one Egeus, who presents a problem for Theseus to solve. Egeus has promised the hand of his daughter, Hermia, in marriage to one Demetrius. Hermia, however, scorns Demetrius and loves Lysander. Theseus orders Hermia to make her choice before his wedding to Hippolyta, in four days. The choice to be made, however, is not between Demetrius and Lysander. Hermia is to choose between the marriage her father has commanded, spending the rest of her life as a virgin in service to the goddess Diana, or death. Lysander, who returns Hermia's love, is anguished by Theseus' order, and utters one of the most famous of all Shakespearian lines:
     Ay me!  For ought that I could ever read,
     Could ever hear by tale or history,
     The course of true love never did run smooth;
Hermia and Lysander make plans to run away from Athens to another place where they can marry outside of Athenian law. They pledge to meet the next night in the woods outside of town for this purpose. Now Hermia has a good friend, Helena, who loves Demetrius. Before Demetrius fell in love with Hermia, he professed to love Helena. Hermia tells Helena of her plan to meet Lysander in the woods the next night. Helena then tells Demetrius about this tryst. Demetrius goes to the woods on the night in question, seeking to foil the elopement. Helena follows him as his devoted lover. Thus all four - Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena, end up wandering around the same woods on the same midsummer night. As we all know, the woods in summer are populated by fairies. The fairies in our North Shore woods are in the form of fireflies. Woody Allen has a movie called A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, which is obviously inspired by the Shakespeare play. In the movie, six friends end up in all sorts of romantic escapades in the woods on a midsummer's night. At the end of the movie, the firefly fairies in the woods are depicted as the souls of those lucky men and women who have died at the peak of a sexual experience. I don't know what Shakespeare would have thought about this idea, but I have the notion that he would have approved. Anyway, in Shakespeare's play the woods are populated by fairies as well. These fairies are ruled by Oberon, the King of the fairies, and his Queen, Titania. They are served by another fairy, Robin Goodfellow, or Puck. Puck is a rascal and a knave, and the embodiment of the themes of fun and merriment. On the night which finds the mortal lovers in the woods, Oberon and Titania are fighting about the possession of a mortal boy with whom both have fallen in love. Or perhaps lust is a more accurate word. Titania chides Oberon, saying that because the Queen and King of Fairies are at odds due to their jealousy over the boy, the seasons are all out of kilter. She says:
     The spring, the summer,
     The chiding autumn, angry winter change
     Their wonted liveries, and the maz?d world
     By their increase now knows not which is which.
     And this same progeny of evils comes
     From our debate, from our dissension.
     We are their parents and original.
If the fairy world is not in harmony, then, neither are the seasons. Oberon and Puck then proceed to make a real mess of things by use of a potent flower. The juice from the flower, when crushed, is applied to the eyelids of Titania while she is sleeping, causing her to fall in love with a mortal whom she sees when she awakes. This is not just any mortal, but one whose head has been turned by Puck into the head of a jackass. Meanwhile, Oberon has taken pity on the fate of Helena, who as you might recall, loves Demetrius who loves Hermia. Oberon tells Puck to use the flower on Demetrius, so that he will fall in love with Helena and forget Hermia. Puck, however, mistakenly applies the flower juice to Lysander's eyes while he is asleep. When Lysander awakes, he falls in love with the first person he sees, who is Helena. Puck and Oberon attempt to remedy these developments. They put the flower juice on Demetrius' eyes. Then they watch to see what happens when Demetrius sees Helena, who approaches with Lysander. Lysander, having fallen in love with Helena as a result of Puck's mistaken application of the flower juice, is wooing Helena. As they watch the mortals, Puck remarks to Oberon:
     Captain of our fairy band,
     Helena is here at hand
     And the youth mistook by me,
     Pleading for a lover's fee.
     Shall we their fond pageant see?
     Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Eventually, the relationships of the lovers are brought into harmony. Titania and Oberon are reconciled, and Titania is relieved of her preposterous love for the ass-headed human. It seems that not only the mortals, but also the fairies, have all behaved foolishly. With the intervention of Puck, Hermia's love for Lysander is returned, and Helena's love for Demetrius is also requited. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, condones these developments over the objection of Egeus, Hermia's father. The play ends with the triple wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius, to take place the next day. The engaged couples are blessed by the fairies while they sleep. Summertime is the most natural setting for mischief and merriment. Summertime makes foolishness possible. If this play had been set in the wintertime, it would have had a tragic ending. Summer is an apt setting for the celebration of life and love, and to recognize with good humor that both have their aspects of absurdity. As Puck says to Oberon, in keeping with his role as mischief maker: And those things do best please me That befall prepost'rously. As mortal humans, we are indeed fortunate to be blessed with the plentitude of this planet that provides us with the luxury and ability to possess a sense of humor.
In order for us to be fully aware and present in the world in which we live, I believe that it helps to be cognizant of the location of our planet with relation to the universe: to know whether it is day or night, summer or winter, and on a greater scale, to know our place in the Milky Way galaxy and our presence and participation in the expanding, emerging universe. That is why I think it is worthwhile recognizing and celebrating the milestones of the seasons, which are a consequence of the earth's position relative to and passage around the sun. Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme say that the meaning of the universe is its celebration of itself, expressed through its ability to self-organize into greater and greater complexity. Our church covenant includes the commitment to celebrate each other. Today let us contemplate how that celebration is but another aspect of the universe's celebration of itself.