IT is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.
There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.
My sister! (‘tis a wish of mine)
Now that our morning meal is done, 10
Make haste, your morning task resign;
Come forth and feel the sun.
Edward will come with you;–and, pray,
Put on with speed your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar:
We from to-day, my Friend, will date
The opening of the year. 20
Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
–It is the hour of feeling.
One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.
Some silent laws our hearts will make,
Which they shall long obey: 30
We for the year to come may take
Our temper from to-day.
And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
We’ll frame the measure of our souls:
They shall be tuned to love.
Then come, my Sister! come, I pray,
With speed put on your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
Oh, I will be the gladdest thing under the sun! Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem (text of the choir’s anthem) captures that moment of rising joy when we feel so deeply connected to the world around us, to the very pulse of life moving within us.
It’s a moment when we are not observers to the beauty before us: we are of it. We can touch a hundred flowers and have no need to pick a one, for they are, as it were, extensions of ourselves – the cliffs, the clouds, the wind, the grass, all of it. In that moment, we are unutterably home.
We hear it there in Wordsworth’s poem, too. His evoking of a fine day in March, in his words, “each minute sweeter than before.” The birds, the fields, the mountains all contribute to what he calls “a blessing in the air.”
And then he carries it to another level, writing,
“and from the blessed power that rolls
about, below, above,
we’ll frame the measure of our souls:
they shall be turned to love.”
Love, he says earlier, “now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
It is the hour of feeling.”
It is the kind of passage that has gotten poets like Wordsworth dismissed as romantics who are distracted with idylls in a world beset with serious problems. But Wordsworth anticipates his critics: “one moment now,” he says, “may give us more than years of toiling reason; our minds shall drink at every pore the spirit of the season.”
Instead of distraction, he says, the blessing we get from the blithe air offers the very sustenance we most need: not just pleasure in the day but a spur to a morally centered and spiritually fulfilling life.
What does the Unitarian heritage of our tradition call us to do and to be? What does it say is required of us if we would live well, if we would live rightly, if we would live wholeheartedly and at peace?
I want to take this Easter Sunday to explore these questions, completing a conversation that I began last fall, asking the same question from the perspective of our Universalist heritage: In this tumultuous time, how do these rich heritages speak to us now?
What I want to avoid in this conversation is archaic theological debates, many of them so hot as to be subjects of front-page stories in New England newspapers 200 years ago, that now count as little more than historical curiosities. Rather, it seems to me the place to go is to explore some of what those who guided our movement were struggling with and how it speaks to us now.
So, I start with one of the most fascinating of our Unitarian forebears: William Ellery Channing. Slight and sickly as a boy, he was raised from early in his life with an eye to ministry. But Channing had an experience early in his life that turned him against the harsh Calvinism of his family. He told of traveling with his father to hear a fiery sermon on how all people were cursed by their sins to an eternity in hell. Leaving the hall, his father pronounced the words, “Sound doctrine.”
Hearing that, Channing expected that soon they would fall to their and beg repentance. Instead, on the way home his father whistled a happy tune and, when they’d arrived, had their usual family dinner, after which his father repaired to the living room where he propped up his feet and picked up the evening newspaper. It was plain to him, Channing said, that however his father praised the preacher’s doctrine, he didn’t believe it. It was for him the first of many reminders always to test with his mind and heart what the preacher proclaimed.
It was to be a hallmark of Channing later as a leading Unitarian preacher, when he argued for applying reason to religious inquiry and for centering the work of religion in cultivating what he called “character.” And it’s here that Wordsworth enters the picture.
Channing was devoted to Wordsworth’s poetry and made it one of the chief goals of a sabbatical visit to Britain early in his ministry to visit the poet. The two are said to have enjoyed each other’s company wandering along Lake Windermere, but even more they discovered that they shared a similar perspective on the source of religious awakening. At the heart of it was the conviction that the natural world, rather than depraved as the preachers said, was a premier source of insight into the nature of the good. Channing was especially taken with Wordsworth’s poem that we heard, “To My Sister,” often reading it out loud to friends, for it sums up that perspective so nicely. The wondrous beauty of the world, Wordsworth says, turns us from our contemplation of our narrow selves to an expansive sense of love – love within and love beyond – connecting us with all people and all things.
Channing envisioned this inner sense of love as bit of divinity within each of us, a spark of truth and goodness that it is our work to cultivate. Less effusive than Wordsworth, he called it our “disinterested benevolence,” something similar to what Martin Luther King Jr later called “agape.”
That is why freedom and independence of mind are so crucial in religious life, he felt. We need room to act on that sense of benevolence, to attune our lives to its call. Channing felt that we exert our true nature, what he called “our majestic sway,” when we act on behalf of this sense of benevolence. So, he said, our work is to learn the disciplines of “Self-Culture” that help us do that. And from his perspective, the “self” we should culture was not the seat of our pedestrian wants and needs but this deeper self where we were to find our true guide.
It was a philosophy that influenced many reform movements of the early 19th Century that were led by Unitarians, including universal public education, temperance laws, ministry to the poor and ultimately support for the abolition of slavery.
It is also a big part of what informs a fundamental optimism that has characterized our movement from its earliest days, a faith and trust in people to find their way and meet their needs with their own gifts.
With Wordsworth, he felt that following this call, “may give us more than years of toiling reason,” as long as it fuels a sense of duty that causes us act.
So, what does our Unitarian tradition call us to be and do? Well, a strong thread that stretches to our beginnings as a movement urges us to treasure the beauty and wonder of the world, to find what is holy in it and in us and each other, to see ourselves as empowered to act for our own, our fellows’ and the world’s benefit, for freedom and equality.
It is an inspiring ethic that in time has helped accomplish much good. But we also have to acknowledge that this approach also can lead us to omit or at least downplay another kind of experience. You might call it the Easter experience: coping with failure, pain, loss, defeat, death.
It’s something that I can tell you I experienced in a small way the past couple of nights as I’ve been tossing in bed, popping Ibuprofens and attempting exercises, neither of which seem to be making much impact on pain shooting down my leg.
Beside the pain itself I wrestled with a sense of disappointment with myself and my body, a sense of isolation that has kept me out of family plans when our youngest daughter is visiting from out of town, and embarrassment at the prospect of standing before you on Easter Sunday before I leave on sabbatical clutching a cane. It’s not what I want, and, I have to admit, it put me in a pretty sour mood.
Here’s where I have to acknowledge that these are the kinds of things that historically Unitarians haven’t always given a lot of attention to. In this beautiful world, we empowered, cultured, actualized folks sometimes run out of options, bad things happen, and we’re running on empty. What then?
This brings to mind another of our forebears: Norbert Fabian Capek. Capek was born in the late 19th Century in Bohemia, trained to become a Baptist minister and converted to Unitarianism on a trip to the U.S. In the 1920s he returned to Eastern Europe, where he settled in Prague and started a Unitarian church that grew quickly, eventually becoming the largest Unitarian congregation in the world with a membership of some 3,000.
Capek was one of those sunny, indefatigable people, full of energy and optimism. His preaching drew a diverse crowd to his church – former Catholics, Protestants and Jews – which was exciting but also a potential source of conflict. Capek felt he needed to create a ritual that might help bring the worshipping community together.
So, he came up with a simple idea: one Sunday he would invite each congregant to bring a flower to the service – it could be from someone’s garden or just from the roadside – and all those flowers would be gathered in a common bouquet, each representing that person’s decision of her or his own free will to be a part of the group.
The bouquet of all those flowers would represent the gathered community and would be celebrated as such. Then, at the close of the service, each person present would take a flower home, symbolizing that those present accepted each other as belonging to the community and recognizing that for the community to endure, each must give and receive.
The ceremony was a hit and spread widely among Unitarian churches in Eastern Europe. But before long the rise of Nazi Germany put a chill on the Unitarians’ organizing. And shortly after Czechoslovakia was invaded, the Gestapo broke into Capek’s home, confiscated his books and arrested him and his daughter for treason.
In the end, it went for him as it did for so many in that time. He filed court appeals, and even won them, but it made no difference. Eventually the Gestapo sent him and his daughter to the Dachau concentration camp, where in October 1942 they were gassed to death.
It’s hard to imagine what a crushing moment that must have been for the Czechoslovak church, not to mention the wave of fear it must have sent through its members.
But here’s the interesting thing: throughout Capek’s imprisonment and death, the Unitarians kept meeting, and the flower ceremony remained a central touchstone for their communities, even when liberal churches were dangerous place to be seen. Later, Capek’s wife, Maya, who had escaped to the U.S., became a Unitarian minister here and spread the practice of the Flower Ceremony among U.S. congregations.
Capek had told his congregation that he felt that each person was born with an inner yearning for harmony, for connection. In the flower ceremony, with all the blooms gathered in a common bouquet there was a bold affirmation that each was fully accepted, whatever their flaws, their failures.
So, we have drawn an interesting circle of sorts here from Wordsworth’s fields of flowers to Capek’s bouquet, and the imagery speaks to a unified truth beneath them both – if we look, we can find a fundamental value, beauty, integrity in every living thing, in every one of us – sometimes ailing, sometimes well, sometimes grieving, sometimes bathed in gladness.
We know that there is a goodness within us that is capable of flowering, of realizing and expressing the beauty that is at its core, while we can also foresee a time when that flower will fade and die. And that’s OK: that is the way of things.
What the Flower Ceremony reminds us of is that those blossoms are not the end of the story, that it is not as individual blossoms that our beauty is best realized, but in a bouquet. And the bouquet carries us back to Wordsworth’s imagery in the fields around Grasmere, for our blossoms depend on soil and rain and pollinators and all of it, a grand interdependent web.
Capek was right to point to harmony – interdependence tuned in a way that all are served – as a goal that all living things seek. For it is not in individuals, but by being woven into a web that life has its best hope of enduring. It is in a sense the locus of the Easter miracle, how we awaken to the truth that our disappointments, our losses, our failures, even death itself is not the end of things.
We arise from and contribute to the proliferation of a vast fabric of life that carries us with it, even as we go. What is required of us is if we would live well, if we would live rightly, if we would live wholeheartedly and at peace is that we honor and acknowledge it.
It is a source of hope in trying times, a prompt to remind us of our larger connections and larger duty, reborn again and again when we roll away the stone of sorry and self-pity, of grief and disappointment and open our eyes to the grace of living and of life.