"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Am, Therefore I Thank (November 22, 2011)

            The poet John Greenleaf Whittier (who was a Quaker, by the way) once asked his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (a Unitarian) what he prayed for at Thanksgiving. “When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows and look out upon the beautiful world,” replied Emerson, “I thank God that I am alive-- and that I live so near Boston.”

            We know, I think, from whence Emerson spoke.  The very gift of Life Itself is that Great Gift from which all else does flow. But often, too, we are thankful for those little particulars of our lives-- our own little pages in the Great Book of Life, written in the details of our beings: Who we are; Where we are; With whom we are; Whom we love; Who it is that loves us; Whom we have there, at our sides as we continue our pilgrimages through life.

            Gratitude for being itself was one of the first religious responses to human existence. Our ancestors, ancient and not-so-ancient, lived close to the earth; their existence was marginal, at best. They were glad just to be alive. Because they knew, so intimately, the very fragility of their lives, our ancestors felt so close to their God, to the powers of life and death inherent in the universe.

            In our technological and “advanced” age, we are more removed from such primal closeness. By and large, we don’t grow the food we eat; we don’t even build our own houses or make our own clothing (most of us don’t do these things, anyway). Instead, we work; we earn money; we buy things. So, gratitude can often seem a more detached response for us, as well.

            Ayn Rand, the influential (and completely misanthropic) patron saint of American corporate culture, once said of Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form, its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers’ holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production.”

            Or as Bart Simpson’s Thanksgiving prayer, around his family’s table there in Springfield, put it so much more honestly and directly:  “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

            I think the ancient author of Deuteronomy saw this coming, when he wrote: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God…”

According to this more modern attitude (and I think that it is the attitude that dominates our culture, if the truth be told), it is as though we have done it all ourselves. There is here no appreciation for the bounty of nature; there is no sense here that there are forces greater than us at work in this universe, from which all our good fortune flows, and without which we human ones would be nothing.

But the truth is, of course, that our time here is borrowed; we did not create it. “Life is not a given, but a gift.” We give thanks not by wallowing in all of our getting and accumulating and asking and even praying for more and more, but, very simply, by giving something back to life. Thanksgiving starts with thanks, and ends with giving. “We are not born free,” wrote Emerson, “we are born with a mortgage. This mortgage is a debt-- a debt we owe to the past and to the future.” If we truly are to celebrate Thanksgiving, then we need to find ways that we can give something back to the Earth which has nourished and sustained us, and find some way that we can repay (pennies on the dollar, perhaps) something of this great debt we owe to the One who created us.  


            Now sometimes, perhaps, it might not seem like we’ve been given such a great bargain. Sometimes (maybe oftentimes) life is dreary, and cussed, and bleak.   Even at its best, life is usually a “song in one ear and a lament in the other,” as Sean O’Casey put it.

            As we grow older, we soon discover that life is not all long walks on the beach and hot fudge sundaes and carefree abandon. There are disappointments; there are losses; there is always an awful lot of letting go. We lose jobs. We lose relationships. We lose our health. We lose our grandparents and our parents and sometimes we even lose our children.

            The only way, then, to experience the full blessedness of life, is first to know its pain and its despair.

            “Gratitude emerges from the kingdom of night,” Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel once wrote. True, deep gratitude is not the result of mere good fortune, or personal happiness, or worldly success. It is, rather, our fundamental response to life itself. Our Pilgrim forbears were not on their knees thanking God because their land was the biggest or the mightiest or the strongest or the richest. No, they were giving thanks because they had simply survived that second winter in this hard land, and a new harvest promised somewhat better times ahead.

We do not give thanks for what we have. We give thanks because of who we are. We are, and therefore we thank. Gratitude, perhaps, ought to be the primary way in which we define ourselves as human beings.


We cannot control the universe. We cannot control which particular load of pain and sorrow we will be dealt in this life. We can only control what our response in the face of life will be. And “Suffering reminds us to be grateful,” a wise man has said.

            As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, when we have (say) a toothache, we think of how happy we will be when the toothache finally ends. Then, when the toothache goes away, we are happy—for a little while. Then, the same complaints against life arise, and we go back to the way things were, and we are no longer happy, no longer grateful.  “We must remember our non-toothache,” says Thich Nhat Hahn—remember, and be grateful for it.

            So often, we’re like the grandmother in the story that Garrison Keillor tells. She’s walking on the beach with her 5-year old grandson, when suddenly a huge wave comes by and carries the boy out to sea. “No,” the grandmother screams. “This is not right! This is unbearable! You can’t just take my grandson away from me.”

            Then, another huge wave comes along, and deposits the child, right there at her feet. And the grandmother picks up the child, cradles him in her arms, looks up to heaven, and says: “Where’s his hat?”

            Life doesn’t meet our specifications sometimes, and we concentrate on what’s missing, rather than what’s there. That’s often the attitude we have. The neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson reminds us that the human brain is like Velcro when it comes to negative experiences, but it’s like Teflon for positive ones. All the negative stuff carves itself deep into our psyches, but the positive stuff often slips off like water off a duck’s back.

            What is the solution, then? Hanson suggest that we “train our brains” to hold onto positive emotions and take in the good. Feeling gratitude for the particulars of our lives, however simple, however imperfect, can change how we view ourselves, how we define our lives. It can change our sense of self, and deepen our sense of these lives we’re living.

            We thank, and therefore we are so much more than we could be otherwise. Or, as it has also been expressed: “What we let our minds rest upon, we become.”

            In the unspeakable cruelty of Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl tells us, frozen, exhausted, starving prisoners would rush outside every evening, just to marvel silently at the beauty of the sunset. One day, one of them finally whispered to the others, “How beautiful the world could be.”

            “What we let our minds rest upon, we become.”

Gratitude reminds us of the beauty that lies in wait at the heart of life.

            It reminds us to awaken all of our senses to behold that beauty.

            And it stirs within us wellsprings of compassion, which can empower us to do what we can to bring that beauty to birth within this kingdom of our days.

At Thanksgiving, may we as Americans, and as people of faith, with humility and with steadfastness, look to the rock from which we were hewn. Let our minds rest upon our highest ideals and our most noble aspirations. Let us seek to live our lives so that they reflect back, as best we are able, God’s love and the divine mercy which the Creator of Life holds for each one and every one of us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Holy Creativity (Sunday, November 13, 2011)

A couple of weeks ago, Liz and I went to the movies. The movie we saw was, in our opinion, just so-so;  but we enjoyed the popcorn, and the company, as always, was good. The film was Anonymous, which is basically about how Shakespeare didn’t really write all those plays attributed to him, and how they were “really” by Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, a big shot at court from one of England’s leading family’s. (Who was also, according to the film, not only Elizabeth’s illegitimate son, but also her lover, and the father of her illegitimate child. Talk about a plot thickening—or in this case, perhaps, sickening.) So it was all, shall we say, quite sensational and convoluted. (It is, after all, by the same director who also gave us Independence Day and Godzilla, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been expecting nuance.). But Anonymous  is, however, visually stunning, and the acting, overall, is excellent. Especially Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, and Rafe Spall as an absolutely lecherous and devious William Shakespeare, a man who cannot even write his own name, let alone the greatest masterworks in all of English literature.

Now, the controversy over the “true” authorship of Shakespeare’s works is nothing new, of course (though it has seldom been presented as grandly, and expensively, as it has in Anonymous). Scholars have been puzzling for years over how someone as plebeian and under-educated as Shakespeare (if educated at all)—someone of whom historians know very little—who seemed to have made very little impact upon the world in which he lived, aside from the plays he (supposedly) wrote—how he could have written works like Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet or King Lear—how he could have written anything at all of note.

So, for years some people have been saying that it just doesn’t make sense. Someone else—someone “better educated”--  someone “of better social standing”--  a more obvious choice must have done it—like DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, some say; or maybe Sir Francis Bacon; or another leading writer of the day, like Christopher Marlowe.

It all sort of reminds me of Shirley Maclaine, surveying the great ruins at Machu Picchu when they were adopting her book. Out on a Limb into a TV movie, saying that surely, surely everyday indigenous people, even those as advanced as the Incas, couldn’t have come up with something as amazingly advanced as Machu Picchu! It just wasn’t possible that native earthlings could have created anything as magnificent as that. So men from space must have done it instead! That made much more sense…

            It all sounds more than a little elitist to me. We assume that everyday, ordinary people like us—or even (perish the thought) people less educated, of  a “lower” socio-economic level than we are—could ever accomplish something truly extraordinary. No, we sometimes scoff, someone else must have done it.

I will admit that the question of “genius”, of creativity on steroids as it were, is an intriguing one. Where does genius come from? From whence does our human creativity arise? Why does it seem to flourish in certain places, certain people and circumstances, and not in others?

Those are questions I’ve asked myself often.

I’ve asked myself that as I had my photo snapped in front of a rather nondescript two-story tenement house at the corner of South and Institute streets in Freehold, New Jersey:  the house where Bruce Springsteen grew up.

Certainly, while he was growing up there at 37½ Institute Street, Springsteen didn’t seem like he was going to become something to write home about. Most of the people he grew up among, his fellow students at the St. Rose of Lima parochial school across the street, barely remember Bruce Springsteen, if they remember him at all. He was, to most of them, a kind a gray blur, sort of on the fringes of things. He certainly didn't seem to excel in any aspect of school life; he barely got by; he sort of blended into the woodwork.

Yet, all this time he was blending into the woodwork, he was sitting upstairs in that back bedroom at of this totally unremarkable tenement house, strumming his guitar and writing music and dreaming about rock and roll. And nurturing a dream and a vision of who this scrawny, unkempt adolescent with bad complexion could be someday; and fostering, as best he was able, and in an environment that wasn't always conducive, the wellsprings of his own creativity-- which would, as the years passed, explode into genius, and transform the face of his chosen field, and turn that house into a kind of semi-shrine, at least for a particular little group of us.

It's a feeling I'd had before, and have had since-- standing in front of Oscar Wilde's birthplace in Georgian Dublin or that of the great Irish tenor John McCormick in County Laoise at almost the geographic center of Ireland, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. I’ve felt it strolling in front of the house where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was born, just down the street from where we lived in Rockland, Maine; in front of the little house in Prague where Kafka was born; at the Adams birthplaces in nearby Quincy; even as we drove by the small southern cottage in Plains, Georgia where Jimmy Carter spent his boyhood (a house that reminded me so much of my grandmother's little cottage in South Carolina).

Why, in these simple places—in these  markedly unremarkable sorts of houses--  places no more architecturally significant or aesthetically pleasing-- no more intrinsically interesting, if the truth be told-- than the houses in which any of us grew up—why in these,

To find the source of human genius, let’s go back to the beginning: In the deepest and most fundamental sense, I think, our creativity arose at the Big Bang itself-- about 20 or 22  billion years ago. We are, each one of us, a Little Bang ushering forth from the Big Bang.

Creativity is something that is natural to all of us as human beings. It is part of our wiring. You can't be alive-- you can't be human-- and not be creative. Now, that certainly flies in the face of an elitist and consumerist culture which would tell us that creativity-- and genius-- and artistry--are all forces "outside of " ourselves-- beyond us-- bigger (or deeper) than we are; things that have to be produced by "superstars" and "celebrities" that the rest of us can only buy and consume.

In simpler cultures than ours, there is no great wall between everyday life and creativity, between everyday work and artistic expression. In simpler cultures (that of rural India for example), the ability to play a basic musical instrument; to sew; to tell stories; these are all but universal. Everyone just does these things, and no one judges who does it “better” than anyone else. In modern society, art and culture are too often seen as passive activities which bring us their images for us to internalize, rather than ushering forth the visions which are within us. We who live in industrial, urban societies have to make a conscious effort to develop the unconscious, mystical, right-brain aspects of who we are.

The great Indian philosopher Coomeraswamy once spoke of his mother, who was a gifted craftswoman, who created truly remarkable embroidery. But he said that she always insisted that her art be used as some part of everyday life, and not as something to be set aside, looked at, and merely admired. "I'm giving you this as a gift," she'd say. "But don't put it on the wall-- it's for you. I made it for you to wear. The day you start to put beautiful things on the wall, you will start to put ugly things on your body."

If we always see creativity as "outside ourselves", we'll neglect the wonderful creative aspects of our day in/day out living.

In a beautiful book called Painted Prayers, an art scholar named Stephen Hyler presents examples of the glorious artwork done by "ordinary" women in "ordinary" villages throughout southern India. Every day, Hyler writes, millions of women in India begin the day by sprinkling rice flour in a design in front of their homes, a visual prayer to the goddess Lakshimi, inviting her to bring prosperity to the people who dwell there. Of course, this painting is quickly scuffed away as people walk by and life passes over it. But the daily ritual honors the creative force within all of us; it reminds us that creativity is mostly about process, and not product; that it points us toward the great bridge that creativity creates between body and soul, between humanity and the divine.

We are each called to be artists of that sort, to engage the creative gift that lies within.

 None of us here may be a Shakespeare or a Beethoven -- or even a Bruce Springsteen. But we all have precious gifts. We all have talents; we can all be creative in some way. Creativity is not linked only to certain spheres of living-- to the fine arts (say), or to writing literature or scientific or technological discovery. The psychologist Howard Gardner says that there is more than just one single kind of human intelligence; there are seven, Gardner says:  linguistic, musical, logical, visual, bodily, intropersonal (that is, within a person), or interpersonal (or, between people).

Gardner says that we tend to think of creativity as existing in only certain kinds of intelligence, but there is the potential for creativity in all these kinds of activities—and that all of us are intelligent—above the norm, even gifted--  in at least one of these seven ways.  

Great discoveries—great flowerings of genius -- are possible in all areas of human intelligence. We are all creative and can be ever more creative—maybe even especially in the so-called “routine” parts of our lives (that's where we spend most of our time, after all): We can shine the human-divine radiance of our creativity on how we cook meals for our families; how we encourage our children; how we negotiate disagreements at work; how we'll spend our leisure time.  There are numberless ways for us to be creative, even geniuses.

If we value being alive, we will nurture those possibilities of genius within ourselves. But that means making some really important spiritual choices about how we're going to live our lives. It means not allowing ourselves to be so busy in just getting through the day that we won’t have any time or energy or spirit left to be open to those deeper things which are within us.

The Indian scholar Satish Kumar once wrote that "the artist's role is... to somehow be the bridge, or the instigator, for developing a sense of reverence and beauty [in the world]."  As Kerry Mueller has written: "It doesn't matter if you're storytelling or dancing or painting or making music or planting a garden or preparing a meal for special friends or knitting a sweater.” We are constantly called upon to create those bridges of beauty and creativity in this world.

The psychologist Rollo May says that "Creativity is our yearning for immortality,’ and arises from our knowledge that we’re all going to die some day,  It is our rage against death-- our insistence that our lives, as bordered and limited as they are, will have some deeper meaning, will reverberate further in the life of creation.

We can make our everyday lives works of art that touch others, that serve life, that bless the world in ways too numerous to count:

Lives of great [ones] all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
and departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time...

That means being aware of the world we live in-- open to the currents of life that are flowing within us and through us and among us.

It means being focused, disciplined, and passionate about those aspects of life we truly value.

It means letting go of our fear of making a mistake-- and daring to do something different-- daring to listen to one's own inner voice, even if that means the rest of the world be damned.

            It means questioning our own assumptions, and looking at life from a new perspective from time to time, or looking from the same perspective, but more deeply, more discerningly, and more daringly.

Look deeper. Take risks. Do something different. Look at things a whole new way.

And enjoy— en-joy-- let joy in—while you’re doing it.

Perhaps then we call all become geniuses in our own way: builders of bridges between the human and the divine; instigators of reverence and beauty in the world; creative beasts; bards of our own inspired epics; singers of the blessed song of this remarkable human spirit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Happiness ? Or Joy? (Sunday, November 6, 2011)

            Once upon a time, there was a man who seemed completely despondent, utterly unhappy. And he said to his friend, “I am so unhappy that I could just die.”

            “Why are you so unhappy?” asked the friend.

            The distressed man replied, “Well, you see, two weeks ago, an elderly uncle of mine, whom I really didn’t know at all, passed away and left me a hundred thousand dollars in his will.”

            “Well,” replied the friend, “I’m sorry about your uncle, but a hundred thousand dollars doesn’t sound like something to be so unhappy about.”

            “But wait, listen,” the unhappy man went on. “Last week, another elderly uncle of mine (who I’d never even met) passed away—and he left me two hundred thousand dollars.”

            “Well then,” the friend replied, “what do you have to complain about ?”

            “Well,” the sad man replied, “this week, so far, nothing.”

            Happiness-- or unhappiness-- is sometimes, is just matter of perspective.

            “Say that you are happy,” one of the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot says to the other.

            “I am happy,” the other responds dutifully. But then there is a pause, and he stares out vacantly and asks, “What am I to do now, now that I am happy?”

Happiness (in its shallowest form) can be sort of an addictive drug, like eating too many sugary bonbons. There’s that nice sweet taste at first, maybe even the surge of a little sugar fix of energy—then, bam, as quickly as it came, the energy dissipates, and disappears; we’re still hungry; we want more sugar; we need more sweets to fill the void.  

I’m afraid that if we focus merely on being happy, or on simply the feeling of being happy, and not on the wider picture of what our lives represent (the deeper meanings inherent in them) then we’re going to be like that sad sack in the story I told at the beginning.

Now, we all have been around this world long enough to know, as my friend Hilda Dube in Vermont used to say, that life is not a bowl of cherries on the table with whipped cream. Sooner or later, there will come a week when the inheritance check won’t arrive, and things will not turn out as we might like.

We cannot hope, any of us, to experience only happiness in this life. To think that we can, of course, is to live a sham, an illusion. To worship at the altar of narrow personal happiness alone—to pursue a sort of shallow, superficial pleasure as the chief deity of our lives—is to worship at the altar of a false god. It is to delude ourselves, and set ourselves up for disillusionment and disappointment.

Yet how incessantly some seem to clamor for that sugar fix! We know that eating the whole bag of gum drops is just going to give us a belly ache (and probably a headache, too) in the end—but how often we do it anyway. As one observer has put it, “We place our happiness in things beyond ourselves, and more often than not, we place our happiness simply in things, more and more things, or in success, or beauty, or popularity…”

We place our faith in all kinds of stuff that can be weighed and measured and somehow verified as (somehow) “real” out there, in the world at large. “The accumulation of capital, of wealth, is the driving motor of our culture,” Bruce Southworth points out. All too often, I’m afraid, it is the driving motor of how we define “happiness” as well. Why is it that the picture we have inside of our heads of the “good life” is always defined in material terms alone? Especially when we tell ourselves as well, as we do, that “Money can’t buy happiness” and we know darn well that human experience is absolutely full of examples of people who had more money than God (as the expression goes) but who were absolutely miserable, and profoundly unhappy.

The chief problem, I think, is that we see the source of our happiness as something beyond ourselves, something outside of ourselves. If only we get that new car, that bigger house, that long-awaited promotion— then—then—we’ll be happy. Then, we tell ourselves, we will have arrived at that place where we want to be. Then, we will be happy at last. Then, we’ll be able to really start living our lives.

But, as the Buddha taught, clinging to things outside ourselves—clinging to anything, really—brings only suffering, and not happiness. That’s because all things change, and pass away, and any idea of permanence in this world is merely an illusion. When we get that new car, the new house, the big job (or, in this economy, any job) we’ll have a momentary sense of happiness: that surge of pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, accomplishment. But it seldom lasts for long.

Because, very simply, the things that really last, that truly abide, are not those things outside of ourselves, but those that lie within. As Helen Keller put it, “Carry a vision of happiness in your hearts. Make your home and your world conform to that vision. External conditions are the accidents of life, its outer trappings. The great enduring realities of life are love and service. Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow. Resolve to keep happy, and you shall form an invincible host against any difficulties.”

The “deep” part is first of all, striving to know ourselves, as best we are able. We need to know both our strengths and to be honest about our weaknesses. We need to discern within ourselves those gifts of the spirit—our own unique and particular array of talents, insights, and possibilities—with which a joyful life can be built.

Knowing who we are is basic to a deep sense of personal happiness. But in and of itself, it is not enough. We need breadth as well as depth. Just as important as knowing who we are is knowing how we contribute to the world beyond ourselves. The person who constantly dwells only upon himself or herself can find a hundred thousand reasons, at least, to be unhappy. Indeed, I would bet that self-absorption and self-indulgence are at the root of most of the unhappiness we see in our modern world.

But the person who lives for something beyond himself or herself—for country, for faith, for world peace, to feed the hungry, to uphold the rights of the oppressed—can place the petty concerns and anxieties of life in proper perspective. A person who has something to live for is a person who can face tomorrow joyfully and expectantly and without fear.

People who understand  how they are repaying their debt to the world radiate a sense of trust and benediction back to the world. They also radiate a profound sense of joy and contentment within themselves, as well. When we give our real selves to something greater than we are, the “real world” outside can grow into harmony with the “real world” inside. And in that sense of  balance, joy can be born.

“I do not condemn the pleasures of this world,” the French philosopher Diderot once wrote.

Nor do I. Nor do I suggest that we feed ourselves all our days merely on a thin gruel of severity and abstinence and self-denial. No, the pleasures of this world—the physical pleasures, no less than the spiritual ones-- are gifts of our Creator. They are given to us to experience, and enjoy, and savor.

But—Diderot continued—there’s something more to life than pleasure alone, and he went on:

“I do not condemn the pleasures of this world.

But it seems to be infinitely sweeter

To have helped the unfortunate,

To have given salutary counsel,

To have read an agreeable book,

To take a walk with a man or woman dear to me,

To have given some worthwhile instruction to my children,

To have written a good page,

To have fulfilled the duties of my place…”

True happiness is never an end in itself, but rather a byproduct of our commitment to those things greater than ourselves.

It is when we commit ourselves to the dream of spring in spite of the winter all around us that we feel the joy of spring finally arriving, and that we can feel the happiness of waiting for the spring to arrive.

It is when we commit ourselves to a love of life in spite of its inevitable pain and sadness that we feel the surge of joy when life’s loveliness does break through, and that we can know, too, the happiness of waiting for the loveliness to come.

It is when we commit ourselves to others, especially at those times when it might seem easier to live for ourselves alone, that we will know the joy of love taking root and coming to flower.

True happiness is not about adding up how much we’re getting from life. No, it’s probably sensed more clearly in knowing how much we’re really living our lives, and that often means knowing how much we’re giving to life. 

An ancient Chinese poet once wrote:

“The clouds above us join and separate,

The breezes in the courtyard leave and return.

Life is like that, so why not relax?

Who can keep us from celebrating?”

There is much suffering in life, and we will all have our fair share of pain and sorrow.  Yet, we human ones were not created in an image of despair. We are made, rather, with all that we need to pursue—and find—the joy that awaits us.

            But we do not live these lives we have for ourselves alone. As Anne Sexton reminds us, “The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.”

Nothing on this Earth compares to the human communion of lives shared. I believe it is the closest we come on Earth to knowing the kingdom of heaven. It is the closest we approach to that illimitable joy, to the heart of love that beats at the very center of all creation.

For All the Saints (Sunday, October 30, 2011)

            Sometimes in UU circles, we make a big deal out of what is called our individual “spiritual odysseys” or “religious autobiographies” or even “faith journeys”. That is, because we are each responsible for our own personal theologies, and for the religious roads we choose, the history of where each of us came from to get where we are, religiously speaking, is very important. That’s  because we are each on a different journey, each our own ultimate authority when it comes to matters religious. We would agree that we are each one of us our own Pope when it comes to religious matters—something that drives our more orthodox friends and neighbors and relatives bonkers, perhaps; but something with which most of us (probably all of us, actually) are really pretty comfortable. It’s important, then, on this “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (as our UU Principles puts it) to be able to trace the road that got us where we are today, religiously speaking.

            So a time honored ritual in UU study circles of various sorts from time immemorial (or at least the past 25 or 30 years) is for participants to share their “religious autobiographies”—that is, how they came to be Unitarian Universalists. At these times, people will speak of how they were Episcopalians, and didn’t like the “smells and bells” and so they became UUs. Or that they were Baptists, and one day decided to let their fire insurance policy against the conflagration of Hell lapse, and eventually found the UU church. Or some people were Catholics—and there were then, perhaps, a dozen reasons for them to become something else.

            (Now, of course, if truth be told, there may, perhaps at this very hour, be study circles or classes going on in Episcopalian or Baptist or Roman Catholic churches somewhere from coast to coast, where former Unitarians or Universalists or Unitarian Universalists are sharing why they have chosen to leave our fold and have gone in search of spiritual succor somewhere else. If we’re honest, and humble, we need to admit that the religious front door swings both in and out, in our churches no less than any others,  and thus is the way it should be. One size in religion does not fit everyone; even our UU size).

            Now, I’ve sometimes felt a little inadequate during these sharing of religious journeys because, you see, I have no Episcopal or Baptist or Lutheran “skeletons” rattling around in my closet. Because, you see, except for a (very brief) period in the early 1970s when I was a Maoist, I have always been in this denomination; I have always been either a Universalist or (after the Great Merger of 1961) a Unitarian Universalist. So far, that has been the full extent of my religious affiliation. (I think that our church in Stoughton here is somewhat unusual in the regard, as well, in that a pretty good number of you share that particular religious demographic with me. Not the Maoist part, of course; but the fact that a number of us were “birthright” Universalists, and we’re still here. Overall, nationally, about 80 or 90 percent of Unitarian Universalists come out of some other religious group.)

            But on deeper consideration, my sense of inadequacy fades, and I realize that just because I have been in the UU fold pretty much all my life, that doesn’t mean that my religious faith hasn’t changed during that time. Not at all. Many things about it have changed, and will change as the days go on. I would wager that, all in all, there has probably been as much change in my way of looking at matters religious, as there has been in the religious lives of most people who have moved from denomination to denomination.

            Over the years, I’ve changed my mind about many things, religiously speaking. And if we are on religious journeys, all of us, perhaps that’s the way it is supposed to be.

            One of the (numerous) things I’ve changed my mind about over the years is the traditional Christian idea of the “communion of the saints”.

            This coming Tuesday (November 1) is All Saints Day, which will be followed on Wednesday (November 2) by All Souls Day, which is officially called the “commemoration of all the faithful departed”. Now, it is possible that both of these observances were instituted by the early Church to give their adherents an  excuse for celebrating the more ancient pagan festival of samhain, or All Hallows Eve—Halloween.

            That’s the way I looked at it for a long time, at least. I used to have no place at all in my own religious schemata for the traditional Christian doctrine of the “communion of the saints”. The very sound of the word “saint” conjured up in my mind medieval notions of miracles and Gothic cathedrals and saints’ bones and relics and the heavy smell of incense hanging in the air.

            Indeed, within the Western Christian tradition, sainthood is an institution largely confined to Catholicism, with its long and involved history. Protestantism generally has always looked more than a little askance at the idea of saints and sainthood. There is a basic egalitarianism in Protestantism that had little place for considering some believers holier than the rest of us art. Some, most notably Protestantism’s grand-daddy Martin Luther felt that saints did little more than get in the way between each individual believer and his or her God. “The papists took the invocation of saints from the heathen,” Luther intoned, “who divided God into numberless images and idols, and ordained to each his particular office and worth.”

            Trinitarian confreres had no problem with dividing the One, Indivisible Godhead into Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost--  from the get-go. But I guess, for them, that was a different issue.)

Perhaps Luther, his heart hardened by too much theological struggle, could not glimpse the beautiful garden of the Spirit that the Communion of Saints offered, in his time, and in ours.

For sainthood can be so much more to us than merely a relic from the medieval age. It can, I think, be a viable and vital institution for us, men and women in these postmodern times, which can help us strive toward that goal of the blessed community of which we dream.

There are saints all around us, and all around the world. They are found within our church, and within every church, temple, shrine, and mosque—and among those who belong to none of these. They are people who do great things the world will long remember, and they are people who seem to do no more than go to work, earn a living, and pass away unknown to all except their immediate circles.

As much as we need to remember those who were truly great, let us never ignore or forget the great ones among us, who often to us as saints unaware, often in simplest garb, free of all grand or ostentatious bearing: The elderly living full, triumphant lives, in spite of great pain. The destitute who maintain their human dignity in spite of untold hardships. Those who cling to their hope and faith in spite of the torments of mental anguish. So great a cloud of witnesses that accompanies us each day! The procession of saints goes on and on. These are the saints among us; they are the great ones to whom we bear witness every day, if we but open our eyes.  

As Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, a good and humble Servant of God (and one of my personal choices for sainthood) once wrote:

Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness. The Pope canonizes, it’s true, only genuine saints… [But] if we here on earth make a kind of selection, God doesn’t do so in Heaven; coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth.”

What, then, makes someone a “saint”?

One important attribute is their sense of connectedness. So often, it seems that our lives are made up of brief, separate incidents, unrelated to those which came before, and to those which will come after. There seem, constantly, to be so many demands being made upon us. Our only choice often seems to be to spread ourselves (all too thinly) over the whole mass, and hope for the best.

What we desperately lack, oftentimes, is that all-abiding sense of continuity: a sense that we are moving toward our goals; moving toward the wider Horizon of Being; a sense that our little paths are joined, somehow, to the great sweep of history and life.

The saints we choose to speak to us in our souls can remind us that life can have some sense of meaning and purpose. But to achieve this sense, we need a goal, a vision, a dream, a cause. We need to live for something greater than ourselves, something more than our career, our family, our little plot of earth. We have to awaken to the call of our own revelation, and behold our own apparitions of the holy, standing before us. We have to find our “bliss”, as Joseph Campbell said. Each of us has to discern for ourselves why we are on this Earth, and how we are going to repay the debt we owe to Life itself.

Then, we have to act. We have to integrate our dream with our being; integrate who we are with who we aspire to become. The saints we choose are paradigms—models—for how this can be done. Their lives can be inspiring examples of just what greatness the individual human being can accomplish when we let go of our little selves and connect with a Spirit greater than we are. They remind us that individual men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit and profound humility are as much a spiritual force to be reckoned with as all the power and principalities and impersonal corporations and mass media and government bureaucracies that the ways of this world can muster.

The lives of saints, living and dead, can be models for us—not to be copied blindly or worshipped obediently and then forgotten—but rather, models the essence of which can be grasped, savored, and made to live anew in our own lives. We can commune with the great spirits of all ages, and armed with this new spirit, we can continue along our journeys here and now, alive with spirits of faith, hope, expectancy, and joy.

As Sister Joan Chichester has said, saints give us “a glimpse of the face of God in the context of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness within ourselves.”

When we behold the magnificent communion of saints— shining, immemorial examples of this glorious full flowering of our humanity which history presents to us—then we can know, at last, that greater truth of life “that caring is sharing; that living is giving; that life is eternal—and that Love [our love for one another, and our love for all creatures of the world] is its crown.”

In their holy simplicity,

The saints of God

Remember what we forget

Too easily—

That having found the sun

The sources of life,

Just once.

All other light,

However strong,

Will never be enough.