Sunday, 24 May 2020

Patience obtains all things: lockdown and the wisdom of St Teresa of Avila

“Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things will pass away.
God never changes;
Patience obtains all things,
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
Amen.”
St Teresa of Avila

This prayer has become something of a mantra for me during lockdown. Today I want to share something of how it has helped me, in the hope that it may be of help to you too.

Teresa knew all about fear, impermanence, patience and reliance on God alone. She was born in 1515 in Spain. She lost her mother at the age of 11 and had a spiritual crisis in her teenage years, before entering a Carmelite convent at the age of 20. She subsequently endured a long period of serious illness and suffered persecution from members of her own order for trying to reform it. Eventually her efforts succeeded. She was given papal permission to establish several new convents and her reforms were later taken up by the Carmelite Order. Through her main work, 'The Interior Castle' she became one of the most influential and best loved Catholic saints of all time. Her inspiring story is reflected in this, her best known prayer.

Let nothing disturb you 
Let nothing frighten you 

Five hundred years later and we still live in a world that can be disturbing and frightening. There are many things about the current crisis that we may react to with fear. Over the last couple of months I have learned to allow myself to feel unsettled and afraid, but when I start to become overwhelmed by those feelings, to remember that all things are passing away, including my own fear.

All things will pass away

The impermanence of life can be one of its most difficult lessons. We often fear change and try to hold onto the way things are, but when I truly accept that all things pass away, I can start to let go of my attachment.

God never changes

And yet, underneath all the tumult and chaos, perhaps we may glimpse something constant. We may not all express it in the language of 'God never changes,' but nevertheless we may have a sense that there is something that roots and grounds and anchors us. Perhaps we might call this the Eternal Source, the Spirit of Life or simply Love. When I use the word 'God' to me it refers not to an old man in the sky, but to 'the ground of all being.'

Patience obtains all things

This has perhaps been the most important lesson of the lockdown for me – patience is the key to everything.

When I was a child, 'patience is a virtue' was something my mother would say to chide me – for example, if I ran off with a fairy cake straight from the oven and burnt my mouth, she would say, 'patience is a virtue!' So I grew up feeling quite resentful towards patience – it was something I ought to have, but didn't. I would often find myself sneaking a peak at the last page of a book, because I was impatient to know how the story ended. And I have never been happy with queueing, although I am beginning to get used to it now!

But there is more to patience than just waiting. The Cambridge English Dictionary definition of patience is, “the ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties, or to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed.”

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle conceived the idea that a virtue is the golden mean or the middle ground between two extremes or vices. For the waiting aspect of patience, patience is the ability to wait until things are right, between the extremes of apathy and impetuousness. But there is a subtler aspect to patience, which relates to endurance and acceptance, hinted at in the dictionary definition, whose extremes are indifference and anger. Hildegard of Bingen, in her work Liber Vitae Meritorium (the Book of the Rewards of Life), contrasted the virtue of patience with the vice of anger.

Viewed in this light, patience becomes an acknowledgement that everything, both good fortune and misfortune, come from the same source. As such, both can be equally valuable learning experiences. Indeed, we often we grow more through perseverance in times of discomfort and struggle than we do in times of ease.

Patience isn't something encouraged by consumer culture – we are encouraged to go after and get what we want now – buy now, pay later. We are encouraged to think that purchasing more and more things will solve all our problems. It is hard to stay with the discomfort and the difficulties, to be present to whatever is.

The coronavirus crisis is calling us all to patience – to be patient with ourselves and with others – to be kind, understanding, compassionate and forgiving to ourselves and others.

I am very grateful for the patience of others – for example, for the kindness and understanding shown in our Unitarian community as we muddle our way through new technology and new ways to keep our connections going. I am very grateful that my family and I have been able to be patient with each other as we adjust to the new realities of lockdown at different paces. I am very grateful for the patience of my college tutors and fellow students as we work out how to adjust our ministry training programme to our altered circumstances. And I grateful that I am learning to be patient with myself – to accept that my moods and my energy levels fluctuate more than ever, and that some days are down days and some days are up days.

Our patience may be put to the test in the days to come. We don't know how long our lives are going to be disturbed and disrupted by coronavirus. Some organisations are already making plans to stay 'virtual' in the long term. For example, the University of Cambridge is planning for all its lectures to be delivered online for the whole of the 2020/21 academic year.

I read recently that the UUA (Unitarians Universalist Association, in the US) are advising their member congregations to prepare for another year of gathering online rather than face-to-face. Now our situation in the UK may not be exactly the same, but it is becoming clear that the virus isn't going to go away any time soon.

The following day I read that the UK government had announced a 'Places of Worship taskforce', including leading representatives of our major faiths, to develop guidelines for COVID-19 secure use of our buildings for worship. Places of worship will be part of the 'phase 3' reopening of public gathering places, which will not before 4 July at the very earliest.

We do not know what will happen here between now and then, but it may well be much later than July before any place of worship is fully open again and before we feel it is safe to start gathering in person in our church building. A return to worship is likely to be phased, and subject to vigorous risk assessments, and social distancing and hygiene measures. Even social distanced singing spreads the virus so we won't be able to sing hymns in the way we were used to for some time.

And even when we are in a position to hold services in the building again, there will be some people who will not be able to join us as they need to keep shielding until such time as a vaccine is available, and we will need to consider carefully how to include those people in the services we offer.

And so we will need to continue cultivating patience in all its forms in the days to come as we wait to see what shape our lives will take after lockdown. Luckily, like all virtues, patience can be cultivated with practice – all it takes is patience!

Even writing this has been an exercise in patience for me – it took a long time for it to reveal itself in its final form to me. Which brings me to the next aspects of patience – trust and faith.

Sometimes we may feel that God, or Fate or the Meaning of Life, is capricious and elusive. We don't often understand the lesson we are learning until it is over. But if we let dark be dark, then the light will be revealed to us in the fullness of time.

Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.

We may translate 'God alone suffices' as 'Good' or 'Love' alone suffices. It is our faith in whatever we consider sacred, of ultimate concern, that sustains us. Our spiritual treasures are worth more than all the material things we may accumulate. A big lesson for me during this crisis has been how few of the material things I own I actually need. It is my faith in the ultimate goodness of God / Eternal Source /  Ground of all Being, and the Love that holds us together, that sustains me.

St Hildegard of Bingen's character, Patience, from her musical play, Ordo Virtuum (Order of the Virtues) says,
“I am the pillar that can never be made to yield, as my foundation is in God.”


Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Our World is One World: A Reflection for Earth Day

“Our world is one world:
what touches one affects us all –
the seas that wash us round about,
the clouds that cover us,
the rains that fall....
Our world is one world,
just like a ship that bears us all –
where fear and greed make many holes,
but where our hearts can hear
a different call.”
Words of Cecily Taylor from one of our most loved hymns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how true it is that our world is one world. Facilitated by global air travel, since it first appeared in Wuhan in China in December 2019, the disease has spread to over 180 countries and 200 territories, with over 2 million confirmed cases worldwide. I have a natural inclination to look for the positives in a situation. There is immense suffering as a result of this disease – there are deaths, job losses, food shortages, poverty, mental health consequences. I believe we are also being given the opportunity to make positive changes. Our interconnection and interdependence have enabled the disease to spread far and wide in a short space of time, but they have also enabled communities to respond to the crisis with compassion and care for each other, and they are key to building a healthy future for our world.

Last week, the key note speech at the UK Unitarians online gathering, Being Together, was given by writer and activist Alastair McIntosh. He identified our excessive consumption as a major component in the adverse effect that humans have on our environment. As a result of lockdown measures, many of us have had to make substantial changes to the way we live. Most of us are travelling less and consuming less. Food waste has reduced and air quality has improved.

Carbon emissions have dropped dramatically with the reduction of industrial activity and engine-driven transport. Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50%. The proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide emissions fading away over Italy, Spain and the UK.

Of course, when restrictions are lifted, and industrial activity and air travel resume, emissions will rise, but I do hold out hope that we will not just go back to the way things were. Social science research shows that behavioural changes that are imposed upon us by external interventions can turn into lasting habits.

A 2018 study at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland found that when people were unable to drive and given free e-bike access instead, they drove much less when they eventually got their car back. A study in 2001 led by at Kyoto University in Japan found that when a motorway closed, forcing drivers to use public transport, the same thing happened – when the road reopened, people who had formerly been committed drivers travelled by public transport more frequently.

As a species, adaptability has been key to our evolutionary success. We have had to adapt quickly and extensively to our new circumstances. Some climate scientists are heartened by the ways communities have pulled together to look out for each other – we have taken collective action at local, national and international levels in response to this health crisis – so surely we should be able to take substantive collective action in response to climate change?

Over the next few days, I invite you to consider what recent changes to the way you live would you like to continue in the future?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is connection. This crisis has brought home to me just how precious are my connections - to friends, to family, to the Unitarian community, to the wider human community, to the rest of nature.

For me, one of the gifts of lockdown has been being able to really be present to the great greening of springtime, especially in the last week or so, when the leaves have all unfurled on the trees and the blossom has exploded in a riot of colour. I have realised that most years I am too busy scurrying about to see much further than the end of my nose. As a result of the reduction in the level of noise from machinery and traffic, birdsong is much clearer. A pair of nuthatches have taken up residence in a tree on the street opposite our house, something that has not happened in the 8 years we have lived there. This week has seen a multitude of birds, bees and butterflies visiting our garden. In future years things will be different and probably noisier again, but I would like to continue being present, appreciating being part of nature, taking notice of the sights and sounds of the seasons.

Other changes I have had to make include shopping within a very small local geographic area. As a result of this, I am getting to know the owners of my local health food store and zero waste shop, and I am supporting local businesses. This change in my consumption habits has led me to ask myself, what is enough? Am I doing enough?  Am I consuming too much? I am considering all of my personal consumption, not just food, but other purchases, and less tangible things, but things that are just as influential to our well-being, such as news and social media.  A word we are hearing a lot is “essential”. We are told only to leave our homes for essential purposes. Only essential businesses are to remain open. So I ask myself, what is essential for me?

A lesson for me in all this is that we do a lot of unnecessary things.
“Times are urgent, let us slow down,” says the activist Bayo Akomolafe.
Let us slow down and ask ourselves,
What is enough?
What is essential for the well-being of the Earth?


Saturday, 11 April 2020

Holy Saturday – reflections on despair and hope in lock-down

"It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath day they rested according to the commandment." The Gospel According to Luke, 23:54-56

In the Christian tradition, today is Holy Saturday, when Jesus lay dead in the tomb. The women who cared for him rested, and sat with their grief, their despair, their confusion. It was a day of silence, a day of darkness, a day of stillness.

In the Gospels, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus happen during the Jewish festival of Passover, a festival commemorating the Exodus, the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.

Recorded not in the canonical gospels, but in some apocryphal texts such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, there is a tradition in Christianity, known as the harrowing of hell, that in between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended to the underworld to liberate the souls there from the bonds of death.

Holy Saturday is thus also a day of transformation. When Jesus rises from the dead on Easter Sunday he has not just been resuscitated and restored to the life he once had, he has been transformed. In John's Gospel he appears in a locked room. In Luke's Gospel he is not recognised by his followers when he travels with them and he then vanishes.

In the Acts of the Apostles, after Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples (followers) are transformed into apostles (messengers) at Pentecost - “and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”

The Apostles are inspired to continue Christ's transformative work of love - radical inclusivity, the liberation of the poor and oppressed – “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

The pandemic has brought the inequalities of our world into sharp focus. Millions live and die in poverty and squalor. If our living conditions are such that we have access to clean running water to be able to practice good hygiene and enough space to practice physical distancing, then we are privileged. Even in our privileged country, the UK, the rich and powerful have access to early testing and superior medical care, while the poor are sickening and dying in their thousands. Those most at risk of the disease, such as care workers, refuse collectors, hospital porters, shelf-stackers, are among the most poorly paid members of society. The demand for food banks has rocketed.

The followers of Jesus were not expecting the resurrection. With the death of their leader, all their hopes had been dashed. They were scared and disappointed. When the women returned to the tomb on Sunday morning with the spices and ointments they had prepared, they fully expected to find Jesus' body there and to anoint it. They were amazed when angels appeared and told them that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, but risen from the dead.

The C19 pandemic has caused fear, confusion, despair and grief. Unlike the followers of Jesus, may we dare to hope for resurrection – not for life to return to exactly as it was before, but to be transformed by love.

Let us not turn away from our fear, confusion, despair and grief. Let us use this time in lock-down to rest with all of it, to sit in silence, to deepen into darkness, to stay with stillness. Let this also be a time of transformation. Let us dare to hope for the resurrection of love in our world. Let us commit to the spiritual life, in the definition of Alastair McIntosh, “life as love made manifest.” Let us commit to doing whatever we can to help build a better world in which all people are free, fed, watered and cared for. Amen.



Sunday, 29 March 2020

Grounded - a personal reflection on the Spring Equinox and the COVID-19 pandemic

In the last week in the UK, we have all been grounded. Our government has told us not to leave home, except for essentials. The other meaning of the word grounded is being fully present in our body and connected to the earth. I'd like to share with you some of my journey over the last few weeks from a place of fear and panic to being grounded in being grounded!

Just over two weeks ago, a few days after my husband started to suffer with a fever, a headache, and dizziness, I started to feel unwell with similar symptoms. One minute I was burning up, the next shivering. My head pounded and I felt as if I was floating, like my head wasn't really connected to my body. These symptoms continued intermittently for about ten days. Whether or not they were symptoms of the coronavirus, we do not know.

In the middle of my illness, we had to take the decision to close the church building and stop gatherings on the premises. I worried about the safety and well-being of all those who come to church, and I was also concerned about members of my family who are in their seventies and who didn't seem to be taking on board what social distancing and self-isolating mean in practice, although I am pleased to say that they are doing so now.

I started to experience panic attacks – they were short-lived, mercifully, but very intense. I was gripped by what I can only describe as existential terror – my heart felt like it was being squeezed and it was difficult to catch my breath. Whether these were part of the symptoms of my illness or just related to the stress of the unfolding situation, I don't know. Perhaps both.

During my illness, my personal, individual spiritual practice went right out of the window. I knew it would help, but I couldn't summon the motivation. It is my custom to start my day with a period of spiritual practice. I usually start with a short body prayer, with actions that mirror the words, and then I might do some kundalini yoga or I might simply sing and dance for a few minutes. These are all practices that help me feel grounded and set me up for the day.

While I was ill, I wasn't doing my morning practice, and I wasn't feeling grounded in my body and connected to the earth. I was able to find some comfort in reading poetry. My favourite poem is 'The peace of wild things' by Wendell Berry. Two lines from this poem in particular became particularly poignant for me, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water.”

I realised that the existential terror, which had gripped my heart during the panic attacks, was 'forethought of grief' – the terror of losing loved ones. And, as Wendell Berry says, wild things, wild creatures do not do this, they are fully present with the still water. They are fully present in their bodies and fully connected to the earth.

The turning point for me, when I was able to rediscover my presence in my body and my connection to the earth, came at the Spring Equinox. The themes of Spring Equinox are balance, with the brief equilibrium of night and day, and blossoming, the Spring flowers blooming with the surge of energy as the earth reawakens from winter rest. I didn't connect with either of those things – I felt completely off balance, and I certainly didn't feel like I was blooming and blossoming.

I am part of a Druid Grove, who have been holding rituals to celebrate the wheel of the year festivals in Heaton Park for the last decade. The Spring Equinox is known as Alban Eilir, the Light of the Earth, in the Druid tradition. On Saturday 21st March a very small group of Druids gathered for their ritual, maintaining appropriate physical distancing throughout I am assured. Those of us who were unable to join the gathering were invited to perform a solo ritual in our own spaces at the same time, so that we were energetically connected with the grove.

I performed the solo ritual in my garden. I set up my markers for the quarters – a stone for earth in the north, a stick of incense for air in the east, a lantern for fire in the south, and a shell full of water for water in the west. I cast my circle and called the quarters, feeling the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, sprinkling some of the water on my head and feeling the earth beneath my feet. I sat in the centre of the circle visualising the grove and my friends. By the end of the ritual I felt fully grounded. I felt the peace of wild things and the presence of still water.

I was also able to recognise, that, although this is an unusual Spring Equinox, the themes of balancing and blossoming are indeed playing out in the world. What is happening now, with this crisis, is a global rebalancing, and a blossoming of kindness and creativity. As Lynn Ungar says in her poem, 'Imagine', the opportunity of this calamity is a great awakening. Everyone I speak to has stories to share of kindness among friends, neighbours and strangers. Those of us whose work centres on people gathering together face to face have had to get creative quickly to continue gathering in different ways. There has been a blossoming of art, poetry, music, within our Unitarian community and everywhere.

I do not want to gloss over the difficulties of the pandemic; there are very real pains, losses and sorrows. For my part, I am now able to see it as an invitation to live a simpler life. Over the next week I invite you to find the things that ground you – that help you to feel fully present in your body and connected to the earth - and to do them every day.


Sunday, 8 March 2020

Mary Magdalene and the Red Egg of Courage

What do you think of when you think of Mary Magdalene? She has been maligned and mistreated by the Church over the centuries. In medieval Western Christianity, Mary Magdalene was erroneously labelled as a repentant prostitute. In the late 6th century Pope Gregory I conflated her with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed 'sinful woman' who anoints Jesus' feet in the Gospel of Luke. In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church admitted quietly that it had been mistaken in this matter, but the slur stuck and this misunderstanding has persisted into modern times.

If we search beyond the church doctrine and look again at the early Christian writings we may find that a different picture begins to emerge. To me, Mary Magdalene, like her namesake, Mary Mother of Jesus, exemplifies courage.

The poet Mark Nepo says, “The word courage comes from the Latin, cor, which literally means heart. The original use of the word courage means to stand by one’s core. This is a striking concept that reinforces the belief found in almost all traditions that living from the Center is what enables us to face whatever life has to offer.”

The canonical Gospels tell us that the while the disciples fled when Jesus was convicted and sentenced to crucifixion, Mary his Mother and Mary Magdalene had the courage to stay by his side until the end. Mary Magdalene was the first person to witness the resurrection of Jesus Christ and tell the other disciples, who did not believe her story. For this reason, she is known as the Apostle to the Apostles.

After the resurrection, Mary Magdalene disappeared from the official Christian story. She is not mentioned in Paul's Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles. Yet over the centuries, many legends about Mary Magdalene have developed. The truth of a legend is not dependent on historical fact, but the internal truth of the story. In a legend of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Mary Magdalene, a woman of independent means and influence, procured an invitation to dine at the court of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome soon after the crucifixion of Jesus. She went to Rome on a mission to protest against Pilate’s miscarriage of justice and to announce the resurrection, bringing with her an egg as a symbol of new life. The emperor scoffed at her words, "Christ is Risen!", saying, “Christ rose from the dead as surely as that egg in your hand will turn red!” The egg immediately turned red - the colour of blood, the colour of the heart, the colour of courage. The Emperor was astonished and agreed to remove Pilate from office.

In the mid twentieth century, gnostic writings were discovered, books that had been excluded from the canon of the New Testament. In some of these works, Mary Magdalene is shown as a visionary leader whom Jesus loved more than the other disciples.

There is even a Gospel devoted to her, The Gospel of Mary, which portrays Magdalene as being so close to Jesus that she receives secret teachings from him, teachings that he did not share with his other disciples because only Mary Magdalene was spiritually mature enough to understand them. We only have fragments from this Gospel, which is dated to the second century. It includes the following passage,
“Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather, let us praise His greatness, for He has prepared us and made us into Men. When Mary said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior. Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them. Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you. And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me, Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the mind is there is the treasure.”

At the end of the Gospel, after Mary has told the disciples of Jesus' secret teachings, which describes the soul's progress through various spiritual levels, her authority is questioned by Andrew and Peter, who find it difficult to believe that Jesus preferred a woman to them.

Sadly, such misogyny is alive and well in our world today. Despite progress made in women's rights, women are still routinely disadvantaged and stereotyped. Worse, women are disproportionately exploited and abused, all around the world. May the courage of Mary Magdalene inspire us to stand up against these forces of patriarchal oppression, to call out injustice and work towards equality and freedom for all. May we encourage each other, for this is our work, as a religious community – to give each other the strength of heart to stand by our core and live from the centre.



Sunday, 2 February 2020

Kindling our sacred flame: reflections on Imbolc, Candlemas and the Unitarian chalice

“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” William Blake

At this time of year, we start to notice the lengthening daylight. The return of the light to the land has been celebrated for thousands of years in the northern hemisphere. As January turns to February the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, which translates as ‘in the belly’ or ‘ewe’s milk', a festival honouring the Earth Goddess as she starts her transformation from the Crone aspect of winter to the Maiden aspect of spring. 

In the Catholic Church in Ireland 1 February is the Feast of St Bridget, who is thought to be based on the Celtic goddess Brighid, who tends the triple fires of smith-craft, healing and poetry.  In Roman times, candles were carried in the streets to celebrate the Goddess Februa, the mother of Mars, and in the Eleusinian mysteries, the carrying of torches celebrated the return of Persephone to the light.  Catholic and Anglican Christians celebrate 2 February as Candlemas, commemorating the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the Temple, when candles representing Christ as the Light of the World are blessed in church.

Throughout human history, fire has been regarded as sacred. The great fire in the sky, the sun, brought warmth and light. Humans learnt to use fire to cook food and to keep them safe from predators. People gathered around communal fires to tell stories, and hold ceremonies and celebrations. We still do this – if only on bonfire night. In my family, my cousin has a big party on the solstices, centred around a bonfire.

Fire can be tamed, but by its nature it is wild. It is both wonderful and terrible. It must be respected, because it burns. It has the power to create and to destroy. Some cultures honoured fire as a deity. Some saw fire as a sign of the presence of the divine.

Fire is often a symbol for the presence of the divine in the Bible. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus' disciples at Pentecost in the form of tongues of fire. In Exodus, Yahweh speaks to Moses from the burning bush and counsels him on leading the people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land of Canaan. Yahweh says to Moses, “take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”

Sacred fire became an important part of many religious traditions. The ancient tribes of Northern Europe lit sacred bonfires as part of their festival celebrations. In Zoroastrianism, the temple fire is kept burning in perpetuity, representing purity and the light of the wisdom of the supreme God, Ahura Mazda. During the eight days of Hanukkah, Jews light the eight candles of the menorah. At Diwali, Hindus set small lamps all around the house. Candles representing Jesus Christ as the light of the world are part of several Christian rituals, such as Christingle and Candlemas services. In modern Druid rituals, the sacred circle is consecrated and blessed with fire and water at the start of the ceremony. Even if we do not practice any of these traditions, we may light candles to represent prayers and in memory of the dead. When Unitarians gather, we light our chalice. This is our sacred fire.

Flame is among the oldest of religious symbols, and the chalice has been associated with communion since the early centuries of Christianity. The chalice and the flame were brought together as a Unitarian symbol by an Austrian artist, Hans Deutsch, in 1941.

Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he fled to Portugal, where he met Reverend Charles Joy, director of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), newly founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans who needed to escape Nazi persecution.

Lisbon was the only open port in Europe in the early 1940s and was thus the preferred destination for millions of refugees. The USC helped artists, intellectuals, and dissidents escape the Nazis, many of whom fled without identification papers. The Lisbon office concentrated on helping them obtain replacement papers. Deutsch began working for the USC. He later wrote to Joy:

“There is something that urges me to tell you…how much I admire your utter self denial and readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help, help... I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of life is the profession of your faith—as it is, I feel sure—then religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy and—what is more –to active, really useful social work. And this religion— with or without a heading—is one to which even a `godless’ fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes!”

From his Lisbon headquarters, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents. The USC was an unknown organization in 1941 and Joy felt that it needed some visual image to represent Unitarianism to the world, especially when dealing with government agencies abroad. Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for their papers “to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work…. When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Hans Deutsch thus made his lasting contribution to Unitarianism. In pencil and ink he drew a chalice with a flame. Joy described it to the USC board in Boston as “a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…. This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

The flaming chalice design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom. In time it became a symbol of Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism all around the world. When Deutsch designed the flaming chalice, he had never been to a Unitarian church, but he had encountered faith in action, people who were willing to risk their lives to save others.

We light our chalice at the beginning of every service to signify that we are creating sacred space. The act of lighting our chalice connects us with other Unitarians all over the world who start worship in the same way. The chalice cup signifies the cup of community that holds us together. Its use in symbolic acts of sharing in community goes back to an early Czech dissenter, Jan Hus, who, in the early 1400s, offered the communion chalice cup of wine to his congregation at a time when it was reserved for priests alone.

The chalice flame also symbolises our community. A flame is dynamic and changing. A flame needs three elements:
Fuel – material things such as a building, chairs, our sound system, money – all the physical things that we need to sustain our community.
Heat – the spark of intelligence, the warmth of human connection, even the friction of honest disagreement – all the thought-provoking and moving moments that contribute to the energy and vitality of the life of our community as we support each other on our spiritual journeys.
Air – the element of air is associated with the Spirit, the same word – ruach – means both breath and spirit in Hebrew. Inspiration, the breathing in of that invisible element of Spirit – deep moments of sacred connection in meditation, in prayer, and in listening to each other. With the element of air, we also give people the space to develop their own spiritual path, free from the restrictions of dogma, whilst being held in the warmth of human community.

The chalice flame can also symbolise hands lifted in prayer, the light of the truth we seek, and the divine spark in all of us – the inner light of conscience, reason and  experience.

There is another set of three fiery things that I think represent the vitality of our community – the triple fires of Brighid, Irish Saint and Goddess. Brighid tends the fires of smithcraft, poetry and healing:
The forge is the fire of passion and transformation.
The cauldron of poetry is lit by the fire of illumination and inspiration.
The hearth is the healing fire of nurture and compassion.

It is this last one, the community hearth fire, which is key. We may not be inspired or challenged at every Unitarian gathering, but I hope that we will always experience the warmth of human community. Our sacred fire is a living flame, lit with intention. Like the first Unitarian chalice symbol, it signifies our intention to care for everyone who passes through our doors, regardless of their beliefs or background.

John O'Donohue, in his book The Four Elements, says,
“The hearth is the place of warmth, belonging and intimacy.  This is a powerful metaphor for the spiritual quest, for the hearth is the place where the heart is at home.  This is the longing in all spirituality: to come in out of the winter of alienation, self-division and exile and into the hearth of warmth and at-one-ment.”

May the chalice flame of this beloved community be a hearth of warmth and at-one-ment for all. Amen.


Sunday, 5 January 2020

Epiphany: A Meditation on the Gifts of the Magi

The Gospel of Matthew tells us the magi brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus. Gold represented Christ's kingship, his sovereignty; frankincense represented his divinity; myrrh represented his humanity, his mortality.

Let us consider how these gifts have manifested in our own lives over the past year. We're going to take them in reverse order to the order they are given in the gospel story. 

We start with myrrh – the gift of humanity, of mortality.
How have the gifts of myrrh manifested in your life in the past year?
Perhaps you have had a brush with mortality yourself or have lost loved ones.
How have experienced your own physicality?
Perhaps your physical health has been poor or perhaps you have been filled with vitality and strength. How have you experienced the world through your senses in the past year – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch?
How have you experienced the physical closeness of others?
Perhaps you have given warm hugs or felt the comforting touch of a hand on your shoulder.
How have the gifts of myrrh manifested in your life in the past year?

We move on to frankincense – the gift of divinity.
How have the gifts of frankincense manifested in your life in the past year?
How have you experienced the divine or the sacred within and outside yourself?
Perhaps there have been times when you have felt particularly close to Spirit or Source, experienced awe and wonder, felt at one with the universe.
How have you experienced divinity or the sacred reflected in others?
How have the gifts of frankincense manifested in your life in the past year?

Lastly, we consider gold – the gift of sovereignty.
How have the gifts of gold manifested in your life in the past year?
Have you felt in charge of your own destiny or have you felt that outside influences have controlled what has happened in your life?
Have you been free to make your own choices and to live your life to its full potential?
Have you owned your own mistakes and successes, taken full responsibility for your actions?
How have you experienced sovereignty in others?
How have the gifts of gold manifested in your life in the past year?

May we continue to experience the rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh throughout this year.


Patience obtains all things: lockdown and the wisdom of St Teresa of Avila

“Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things will pass away. God never changes; Patience obtains all things, Whoever ...