A sermon preached in Dublin in July 2005
At the beginning of June 2005, we were visited by Rev. Dr. Alicia Forsey, who is Professor of Church History at the Starr King Divinity School in Berkeley, California, and a fully-fledged minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church in the U.S.A. On the Saturday night she asked me what the programme would be at church the next day, and I explained that there would be a normal service at 11 o’clock, followed by a baptism, after which we would repair to the Damer Hall for refreshments. Her eyes lit up at the mention of a baptism. ‘I’ve never been baptised,’ she said. ‘Do you think you could baptise me, too?’ At first I thought she was joking, but she explained that her parents were both Unitarians of the old school, and that baptism wasn’t a feature of their religious practice. But she had now reached a very important stage in her life and she would like to mark it with some kind of ceremony. However, she didn’t want to intrude on the christening of little Solomon, so she suggested that we do it at some other time. And this is what we did. While everybody was drinking coffee and eating cake in the Damer Hall after the service, I grabbed the first people to hand – Paul and Bridget, Diarmuid and Margaret – and we brought Alicia back into church and performed a short ceremony of baptism. I read the words of Walt Whitman which are printed on our baptism certificate, anointed her forehead, ears, eyes, mouth, and hands with oil, and poured water over her head. Alicia wept, and all of us were moved by the unexpected power and solemnity of this series of quite simple and commonplace actions. Somebody remarked that maybe more adults might like to undergo such a ceremony.
A few weeks earlier, when Pope John Paul II was dying, it was announced on the news that his body had been anointed in anticipation of his death, and my wife Morag, who is not a particularly religious person, remarked casually on the beauty and appropriateness of such a ceremony, and she expressed a wish that somebody would be around to anoint her when it was her time to go.
These two incidents, plus the fact that on five successive Sundays during May and June we have had baptism ceremonies here in the church, set me thinking about the place of symbolism in our worship – and in our lives in general – and I would like to share some of these thoughts with you this morning.
Like many of you, I come from a richly symbolic religious tradition – Roman Catholicism – and I joined a movement which can best be described, and most charitably described, as minimalist. The fact that Alicia Forsey was not baptised should not surprise us: Unitarians in the mid twentieth century concentrated on the spoken word, and very little emphasis was placed on symbolic rites of passage. This is the reason why the pulpit is such a prominent feature in nonconformist worship: we are a religion of words and ideas; symbols are at best distracting, and at worst downright misleading, so it’s best to downplay them, if not to avoid them altogether, we think. When I first came to Unitarianism I found it strange that people were arguing over whether we should light candles in our worship, an argument that was still raging when I came to Dublin in 1996. What the objection is I really am at a loss to know; perhaps some people think that candles, anointing, baptism, communion, and the like, are creeping Romanism, best eschewed by those who want to eliminate all elements of magic and hocus-pocus from their worship.
But what has become increasingly clear to me over the years is that these things are not the preserve of Rome. They are found throughout the religious traditions of the world, and Rome did not invent them, it inherited them. Virtually everything in the Catholic sacramental system can be traced to the Mystery religions of the ancient world, and in particular to Mithraism, and most religions have some kind of symbolic food sharing as part of their worship. For example, the Hindu tradition of prasad, in which food is offered to God at the beginning of worship and then eaten by the congregation at the end, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Christian Eucharist. A movement like ours, which tries to find links between the religions of the world, would do well to look at those symbolic actions which are found everywhere, because the fact of their ubiquity might be telling us something very important about our human nature and our human needs.
What it tells us, I venture to suggest, is this: that we humans are natural symbol makers; we have a propensity towards the poetic, the metaphorical. We see the tangible as an expression of the intangible, and we ascribe meanings to things and actions which transcend their ordinary prosaic description. So, for example, to say that Mr. A. shook hands with Mr. B. goes beyond the mere fact of touching limbs: it shows friendship, harmony, cooperation. Anyone who does not understand this and similar symbolic actions – people who are autistic have great difficulty with such things – find themselves on the fringes of ordinary human society, locked in a prosaic, literalist world, which can be severely debilitating. That we are natural creators and interpreters of metaphor is proved by the counter-intuitive fact that the earliest literature in any civilisation is always poetry. Writing does not begin with shopping lists, scientific descriptions, and philosophical treatises; it begins with rhythm, and metaphor, and story. Prose comes later. If we would reacquaint ourselves with the wellsprings of our human creativity, we need to rediscover our instinctive appreciation for symbolism.
An example of inability to appreciate the symbolic can be found in J.D. Salinger’s novel Frannie and Zooey. Frannie comes home from college a nervous wreck. Her well-intentioned but misguided efforts to explore the depths of religious mysticism have left her extremely tense. Bessie, her mother, is concerned and shows that concern by bringing her distressed daughter a cup of chicken soup. Even though Frannie knows her mother is trying to comfort her, the offer of the chicken soup annoys her and she lashes out at her mother.
Frannie’s brother confronts her and tells her that her approach to religion is all wrong. He says, ‘I’ll tell you one thing Frannie. If it’s religious life you want, you ought to know that you are missing out on every single religious action that’s going on in this house. You don’t have enough sense to drink when someone brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup that Mom ever brings to anybody.’
‘Consecrated chicken soup.’ Frannie’s mother is not trying to nourish her body: her offering is a sacrament, a symbolic gesture of concern, a profoundly religious act, as Frannie’s brother realises. Religion is not just about the big metaphysical ideas which occupy our minds – indeed, on one level, it is not about these at all – it is about the sanctification of ordinary things, which most of us do unconsciously. Bessie’s chicken soup is not consecrated because she has mumbled some magic words over it; it is consecrated because it has been prepared with love, and offered as a token of love. Frannie’s inability to perceive this betrays her lack of genuine religious sensitivity.
Sacraments say something very important about our attitude to the physical world; they tell us that the world is essentially good, and that objects within the world are expressions of the creative power of God. ‘Everything that lives is holy,’ says William Blake, and the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, tells us that every created thing, animate and inanimate, is an expression of God, and a poem about God. ‘If I understood even the simplest thing,’ he writes, ‘I would never need to write (or listen to!) another sermon.’ And St. Francis of Assisi, in the hymn we will sing at the end of our worship today, sees the whole of creation – sun, moon, earth, wind, water – singing its praise to God, an idea taken up by the great 20th century Jesuit mystic and geologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his celebrated work The Hymn of the Universe.
Last weekend a number of us went to Great Hucklow in Derbyshire, and became acquainted with the ancient custom, peculiar to that part of England, of well dressing, in which wells, and indeed all sources of water, are honoured. ‘Well dressing is the art of decorating wells or springs with natural objects to form pictures and designs as a thanksgiving for the gift of water, especially in times of drought,’ says the guidebook. This custom is undoubtedly pagan in origin, but we should not be disturbed by this: the pagans – who were really the country dwellers as opposed to those who lived in towns and cities – understood (and understand) the dependence of the human being on the natural world, and our intimate connection with it, in a way that we city folk do not, and we have a lot to learn from them.
So, I am in favour of more sacraments. The Catholic Church has seven, but I see no reason why we can’t have just as many, or even more. Sr. Hobday’s medicine bag (see below) seems to me a beautiful sacramental offering which we could easily accommodate in modified form into our own baptismal ceremony. And I would like us to have a sacrament which celebrates the third stage of life, which would be performed when a person attains the age of sixty, ‘the birthday of the soul’ according to some eastern traditions. I don’t know what form it would take, or what elements we would use, but I think it would help to ease the burden of ageing, by honouring it, and it would encourage and legitimise the sense of withdrawal and reflection which seems to come naturally to us at this time of life.
‘What about the dangers?’ I hear the puritans among us asking. (Remember how G. K. Chesterton defined a puritan as someone whose mind never takes a holiday, who thinks we can only worship God with our head, and not with our hands and feet!). ‘Surely it’s a short step from sacraments to magic?’ Indeed it is, but we should not avoid things simply because they can go wrong. If we adopted this attitude we would never get out of bed in the morning. We can avoid the drift into magic by constantly reminding ourselves that any effects these sacraments may have (or seem to have) are purely psychological, and are not attempts to manipulate God in any way. In addition, we can minimise the magical element by ensuring that any sacraments we may employ are conducted by as many members of the congregation as possible, and that their administration is not the preserve of some ‘special person’, an ordained minister. This is why our communion services these days are always led by a member of the congregation and not by me, and I would like to see more baptisms performed by members of the congregation: there is something profoundly beautiful about a baptism performed by a parent or grandparent, an uncle or an aunt, and I would encourage more of you to take this option.
We are in a unique position among religious groups in that we have the freedom to devise ceremonies and to discard them. We have no bishops to please or to obey. We can accommodate our own needs. What these needs may be, and how we can best satisfy them is something we Unitarians need to discuss urgently.
The Medicine Bag, by Sister Jose Hobday
When children were born in my family, they got a special birth gift. My father made us each a little leather pouch – our own little medicine bag. It was something he learned from my mother, who was a Seneca Iroquois. My mother put two things in it, and so did my dad. Then they gave the medicine bag to us, and we were to put it in a special place. If you died without your medicine bag, as some of my brothers did during the war, then it was buried separately. Otherwise the medicine bag was buried with you.
When we were old enough to understand, we were told what was in our medicine bag. One thing my mother put in mine was a pinch of land from the state of Texas. That’s because I was born there. Imagine putting Texas in a bag! She also kept a piece of umbilical cord from my birth, about two inches. She dried it in the sun. Then she put this into the bag, crumbling it into the Texas soil. These two things, the cord and the pinch of Texas, symbolized that I came out of the land and out of my parents. They were to help me remember that I didn’t start out by myself, that I was dependent upon the land and upon my family.
My father put a bird feather into each child’s medicine bag. He burned a small part of the feather and mixed it in with the things mother had put in. The reason was that birds were of the sky. They can soar to the horizon and beyond. The feather said that each of us was to soar, also, and find our own place in the world. None of us ever knew what other item dad put into our bags. It represented the unknown, the mystery in life. No matter how we tried to wheedle it out of him, he would not tell us. We had our suspicions and we guessed and guessed, but he would never even give us a hint.
To have a mystery set before me like this early in life proved a big help when I began to work with the mysteries in my life that came along later. It also helped me to understand that God is the centre of all mystery. I still have my medicine bag. It was a wonderful gift from my parents, and it has shown me the importance of making symbols that tie us to places and to people and to God.
Sr. Jose Hobday (from A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers, by William Bausch, page 240)