Celebrating the Goddess Fortuna

Rev. Don Beaudreault
First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist
May 8, 2016

OPENING READING: from “Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter”

Lady of the seasons’ laughter, in the summer’s warmth be near; when the winter follows after, teach our spirits not to fear. Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning year. Sister of the evening starlight, in the falling shadows stay here among us till the far light of tomorrow’s dawning ray. Hold us in your steady meryh, Lady of the turning day.
Kendyl Gibbons

Meditation: from Chances Are

Coincidences are happening all around us all the time. Whether we notice them or not is a measure of our sensitivity to the all-pervasive force of Fortuna. Each time we pull a box of breakfast cereal off the grocery store shelf, a part of our mind should stand in wonder at the marvellous web of accidental circumstances which put this particular box into our hands. It takes practice to see the world this way. We need only lift off the veils put over our eyes by the old-fashioned world-view of determinism. When unusual and interesting coincidences occur these are gifts from Fortuna as she demonstrates vividly her presence and reminds us forcefully, “Don’t ignore me!”
Catherine Lilly and Daniel R. Martin

SERMON: “Celebrating the Goddess Fortuna” (Mother’s Day)

Centuries ago there was Fortuna in her first incarnation. As Catherine Lilly and Daniel R. Martin explain in their book Chances Are (p.2): Originating in the East in ancient legends of a Great Mother goddess, the personality of Fortuna, the entity who is responsible for bringing all accidental things into our lives, from prosperity and wars to birth and death, was first clearly delineated in ancient Greece and the idea of Fortuna has been revived whenever times have been uncertain and fearful.”

For me, Fortuna is the most intriguing of all the deities existing in the pantheons of gods and goddess throughout centuries and cultures. The goddess of chance, mistakes, coincidence, opportunity, luck, randomness, accident is a powerful, playful deity. She is a deus ex machina without rival. A goddess of surprises.

Fortuna was very popular at the height of the Roman Empire – the emperors carried statues of her wherever they went. She was the original good luck charm; the St. Christopher medal; the rabbit’s foot! At one time there were 18 temples in Rome devoted to her. One of these still exists today, although it has been converted into a Catholic Church. In other words, where once the goddess Fortuna stood, stands the Virgin Mary – who might be thought of as a direct descendent, since both were “prayed” to for good luck.

Whereas the image of Fortuna for the ancients was by and large propitious and “fortunate,” for the medievalists, Fortuna was recreated into a nasty, vile, and forbidding creature. She became a way by which the church of the Middle Ages was able to control the masses. Just listen to this description of the “wheel of fortune”:

In front of the abbey at Fecamp, France, a monk in the twelfth century built a wooden wheel. It was a rather large contraption which was activated by a moving mechanism…The monk nailed a dummy to the rim of the wheel and, as he activated the crank that moved the wheel with one hand, he would use his other hand to point at the dummy with a stick. As the monk made the wheel turn, the crowd of faithful gathered there could watch how the dummy was going up on the wheel, and as everybody could clearly see, the dummy would inevitably fall head down in the mud as the wheel kept turning…The audience…of illiterate peasants and serfs would experience a curious feeling of fear mixed with pity not unlike the one experienced by the ancient spectators of a Greek tragedy. Their fear was further enhanced by their sense of awe toward princes and kings. (Chances Are, p.100)

John Stuart Mills’ line which proclaimed: “That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time” would have been anathema, because no one (except a powerful cleric or ruler) dared to be an eccentric, i.e., distinctly and wonderfully him/herself.

So along comes the Renaissance, thank goddess. And Fortuna is given a facelift. Gone her worry lines. She smiles on one and all, proclaiming individualism; cheering us on as we question authority; allowing us the opportunity to take advantage of what life might offer us; permitting us to seize the moment and not have the moment and all the moments of our entire lives dictated by fate in the guise of a monk or monarch. And never mind our past failures, because the Renaissance was the beginning of our encouragement to be distinctly ourselves – to learn, to improve our lot in life (ever aware, however, that fate does have SOME say, but not the TOTAL say in what happens to us).

I guess what I am talking about is the classic subject: the debate between Free Will and Fate. The eras following the Dark Ages certainly brought this dialogue into sharp relief.

In some ways I believe that we Unitarian Universalists have erred a bit much in proclaiming Free Will. Such a term for me implies a person’s choice, based upon a degree of reason in determining the events of one’s existence. I believe that the left brain needs balancing – with the more intuitive right side. Perhaps we can look at the archetypal figure of the goddess Fortuna as the partner of Free Will. Perhaps Apollo would be her logical compliment (or adversary): the structured, controlled male figure.

Maybe what Fortuna in all her possible aspects a la the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – but also a la the Post Modern Era in which we discover ourselves – maybe what she represents for us is the need many today have for “deep spirituality”: that which calls us beyond the predictable, the scientifically verifiable, and the purely rational.

Certainly, Fortuna is a playful deity. Think about her in full force when we consider one of her aspects as illustrated in the following story synopses from ancient Persia:

Three young noblemen from Ceylon decided to travel the world to seek treasures. But an amazing thing happened to them: they were constantly finding treasures they had not sought: a bounty of gifts equal or surpassing what they originally desired. Seeking one thing, they discovered something else. It was one surprise after another. Every moment became a thrilling possibility. What they came to realize is that for them there was an unseen source of gifts: a power guiding them to these new discoveries. To put this story into perspective, realize that the ancient name for Ceylon was Serendip, and that the story is called “The Three Princes of Serendip” from which we get our word “serendipity.”

But here comes the philosophical question which all of us can pose: Are fortune, fate, grace, merely GIVEN to us, or do we play a part in it?

Of course we can say that we play a part in it merely because we are alive and chance has its way with us.

Specifically, however, consider the fact that if the princes had not decided to travel the world, they would not have made such a fantastic discovery. And it can be said that the Buddha found Enlightenment only when he stopped seeking for it – when he sat down under the Bodhi tree and let it come to him. But realize, too, that he had devoted sixteen years of his life to finding Enlightenment!

Think, as well, of W.C. Fields who liked to play around with the concept of Fortune and realized that he had some control over it. Said the man who would have preferred (under dire circumstances) to have been in Philadelphia, when he was asked if his card playing was merely a game of chance: “Not the way I play it!”

Disregarding Fields’ hint that he might just be cheating here and there, let me ask you about serendipity in your own life. Where in your personal history have fate and fortune come into play in relationship to free will and effort? And has the goddess always smiled on you as she has turned your particular wheel of fortune?

Free Will and Grace; self-determinism and fate; Apollo and Fortuna. Perhaps it’s the dance between them which is best, allowing us to live in the multiple dimensions of our humanity.

I like what Scott Peck says in this regard: “The paradox that we both choose grace and are chosen by grace is the essence of the phenomenon of serendipity. Serendipity…defined as `the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.’ (The Road Not Travelled, Scott Peck, p. 308)

Carl Jung says it best when he considers our topic de jour. He coins the word “synchronicity.” This was his way of explaining that coincidences of events within the human framework are more than merely indicative of mere chance. Said Jung: “(there is) a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective state of the observer.”

What I think Jung was saying was close to our Unitarian Universalist principle, which speaks of the “interdependent web of which we are all a part.”

This means that who we are, what we think, feel, imagine, react to, are interrelated with the things going on around us in our environment. Who and what we are, how we appear to be to others and how, who, and what they are and how they appear to us CONVERGE.

And in saying this, I hope you hear me saying to you: that life is ever wondrous; life with its blending of knowns and unknowns; of fact and fancy. So, may we never lose our sense of awe about the mystery of human existence even as we explore life within the disciplines of pure science and reason; may we seek to discover the fullness of our being on this planet; may we, like Einstein, never lose our “holy curiosity.”

Blessed be, oh Goddess of Fortune!

CLOSING WORDS: from Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter

Mother of the generations, in whose love all life is worth everlasting celebrations, bring our labors safe to birth. Hold us in your turning mercy, Lady of the turning earth. Goddess of all times’ progression, stand with us when we engage hands and hearts to end oppression, writing history’s fairer page. Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning age.