Reading from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
“This is what life is about: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and things, the split and burr of it all, the fizz into particulars.”
It was my junior year in high school, and I had transferred to a private school after mixed experience in public schools. I remember feeling a bit like a fish out of water, not sure how or where I fit in. Somehow it came up in my youth group at the Unitarian Universalist church where my family belonged that there were small, silver flaming chalice necklaces available for sale – a silver oval with the flame in the cup on a simple silver chain. I bought one.
I wasn’t particularly given to wearing jewelry, but somehow this necklace didn’t seem like jewelry. Instead, it felt like a declaration of identity, a way of representing what was important to me and the community I stood with.
I remember being comforted by the new feeling of the medallion bouncing around on my chest during phys ed classes, almost wishing that others would see it and ask me about it.
Our tradition takes pride in what we consider our thoughtful approach to religion, our commitment to a reasoned search for meaning that helps us articulate beliefs we can defend with intellectual integrity. And it’s good, it’s freeing, it’s refreshing. We’re not given a catechism to memorize or confession of faith to affirm. We weigh for ourselves what seems true, and we accept, even welcome, the broad diversity of faith stances that this exercise carries us to, knowing that those stances will shift and evolve as we change and grow. It is liberating to be part of such a community, and I am proud to be both a member and leader in our movement.
But here’s the thing: our attention to words and ideas, the products of the head, can lead us to neglect the role of the physical, the body in our spiritual lives.
The religion professor S. Brent Plate argues that it’s easy to mistake what religion is about. “Too often,” he says, “religion is explained as ‘a set of beliefs,’ which primarily exist in the thought processes of the brain.”
Look, for example, at that forbidding word “orthodoxy,” which translates from the Latin as “right thinking.” The notion, Plate says, is that the answers to religion are “guarded behind the fortress of the forehead.” Having sorted the options, we make our decisions about, say, theism or atheism, and then, in his words, “The quest is over, we’re all cleaned up, and life goes on.”
Yes, there are symbols and rituals and all the other ways that we dress things up, but those are seen to be “secondary expressions of some primary intellectual order.” In fact, though, this move reverses the actual order of things.
As Plate writes in his book, The History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, “there is no thinking without first sensing, no minds without their entanglement in bodies, no intellectual religion without felt religion as it is lived in streets and homes, temples and theaters.”
Now, that we might miss this is not especially surprising, given our history. Our Unitarian heritage, after all, emerged out of the Puritan churches of New England, where worship consisted largely in listening to hours-long sermons in unheated meetinghouses.
When the camp meetings of the Great Awakening with their shouting and weeping were spreading across New England in the 18th century, our forebears took pride in their more sober and reasoned approach to religion.
It wasn’t until later that Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists challenged that approach to religion in a significant way. We don’t find religion, a sense of faith from studying texts, they said, but from our experience of the world.
Religion, he suggested, responds to the joy to being alive, the sense of wonder that comes simply from being. We don’t need to seek it out from some supernatural source. We only need to make ourselves available to it as we engage each other and our surroundings. From it arises a consciousness that guides us in community and in the larger world.
But this connection beyond ourselves can be hard to find, Brent Plate says, and that is what sacred objects can do. As he puts it, they help us “bring the spiritual to its senses.” There are many ways to approach this, but today I want to argue that it is one of the things that our flaming chalice can do for us – connect us to larger truth, to deeper understanding, to both our wholeness and our neediness, and to each other.
To tell this story I need to step back about three-quarters of a century. As central as the chalice has become to contemporary Unitarian Universalism, it is in fact a fairly recent innovation for us, born in Europe in the midst the conflicts of World War II.
We begin in Czechoslovakia, a nation that at the time had the largest concentration of Unitarians outside of the U.S., including a central church in Prague, Unitaria, with a membership of some 3,000. The Czechs had been in close contact with the leadership of the then-American Unitarian Association, and in 1938 as Nazi troops were invading the Americans began a fund-raising campaign to support them.
In 1939, they sent the minister of a Boston-area church, Waitstill Sharp, and his wife, Martha, to Prague to help. They brought funds, provided meals and helped several hundred refugees escape to neutral countries. It was not long, though, before their activities were noticed by the occupying Nazis. So, they fled to Lisbon, in neutral Portugal.
It was there in May 1940 that they helped set up a new organization, the Unitarian Service Committee, to help coordinate relief efforts. Over the next several years they and the USC helped thousands of refugees escape the Nazis.
In the shadowy world of espionage during the war, the USC was unknown. So, its director, Charles Joy, decided it needed to adopt a symbol to give it some kind of dignity and importance. He turned to his assistant, Hans Deutsch, for help. Deutsch was a Czech national and artist who had recently moved to Lisbon from Paris after getting in trouble drawing anti-Nazi cartoons. It was his pen that in 1941 gave us the first flaming chalice.
Deutsch drew the chalice without ever having entered a Unitarian church or having experienced a Unitarian worship service, but he told Joy that he admired the denomination’s spirit. “I am not what you may actually call a believer,” he said, “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.”
The director, Charles Joy, told the USC board in Boston that Deutsch’s thought was the symbol was “the kind of chalice the Greeks and Romans put on their altars as a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.” But he added that he felt it also connected to Christian theme of sacrificial love.
Unbeknownst to Deutsch, his symbol had also made a strong connection to an ancient Czech symbol of religious freedom. In the late 1300s a reformist Bohemian Catholic priest named Jan Hus had made a practice of reading the Bible in the vernacular and offering them the cup of communion wine as well as the bread. The church at the time insisted that the Bible could only be read in Latin and that only the priest, facing the altar, could receive the cup. For turning to face the congregation and sharing the cup, Hus was declared a heretic and burned at the stake.
His followers, the Hussites, rebelled, calling themselves “people of the chalice” and were said to have combined the fire of Hus’s pyre with the cup to create a flaming chalice that endured as a symbol for hundreds of years.
When the Unitarian and Universalist churches joined in 1961, the flaming chalice was adopted as the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Since then the chalice has been artistically re-imagined many times, and its role in our congregations has evolved.
Growing up in the church of my childhood in Princeton, New Jersey, even when I had the chalice on a chain around my neck, I don’t remember us ever having a physical chalice in the sanctuary or lighting it as part of worship. It is a practice that appears to have grown slowly and steadily, and not surprisingly seems to have spread first in children’s and youth worship. Children, after all, engage more directly with something concrete rather than lofty ideas, but are they really so different from adults in that way?
I wonder if there may yet reside in us some of that old Puritan suspicion of all the ways that we can be tickled, tricked or distracted by the concrete, by the sensual from those great ideals that we take religion to be about. But if Brent Plate is right – and I think he is – that “there is no intellectual religion without felt religion,” then it is worth our getting in touch with the felt experience that goads us to gather in religious community. And perhaps the chalice could be the tool that opens that for us.
I am struck that our symbol begins with a gesture of both hospitality and safe harbor. As Hans Deutsch intuited, the cup of the chalice has served for many years in many cultures as a vessel that is used to hold something precious that may be widely shared.
It celebrates a sense of abundance that underlies our liberal faith, a broad welcome to all and a community that cherishes diversity and offers compassion. At the same time, we recognize that none of us enters this community fully formed, having figured it all out. We will change and grow and sometimes suffer hardships and ill fortune. So, our chalice also offers us a crucible – contained space where we can be supported in our struggles, where we can bring our full and true selves without fear of judgment, and a place that offers loving arms amidst our difficulties.
A similar sentiment guides us as we extend our reach into the larger community. It is not through abstract reasoning that we are drawn to the work of freedom, justice and love, but as a visceral response to the hardship and pain that we see.
The sense of joy and wonder in being alive that we feel is not an experience exclusive to us. It is a heritage, a right of all human beings. We don’t have to figure this out. We know it simply by what our gut tells us when we experience the world otherwise. The abundance of our cup, then, calls us to share what we have and the vision of beloved human community that it implies as widely as we can.
I am struck by the image in David’s story of first man who finds his purpose by creating the world from what he draws out of his heart. It is, in a sense, a task that we all face: finding the joy, the heart-centered passion that drives us and building a life that serves it.
And so, we look to the flame, that symbol of warmth and light that casts out fear, that heats our dwelling places, that illuminates the world, that gives us the power of discernment. The chalice that we offer to the world is not empty; it is afire: afire with compassion, afire with hope, afire with love. . .
Afire, even, with impassioned reason.
A contradiction? Not at all. Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame notwithstanding, let’s not fool ourselves that there is no passion driving the well-reasoned argument. Rather, it is the energy of a refining fire that strips away foolish dross and takes us to the essential nugget of truth.
And that, in the end, is what we are left with: not our fantasies or all the things we conjure out of our fears, but what Annie Dillard called “the fizz of particulars”: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and the world around us.
So, into this space that we have created together we bring this symbol that gathers our community. As at other congregations it has evolved over the years here in different manifestations. Our newest, as you heard Lisa introduce it in September, is a design created by the late 1980s by Mordecai Roth, a UU artist who lived in Arizona and who died about two years ago: the bowl decorated as with branches from a tree holding lamp oil and a plate over it holding a wick, with interlocking brass rings representing the two religious traditions of our heritage.
I make the lighting of this chalice a ceremonial element early in our services and invite our worship associates to write words to accompany the lighting that invite us into worship. It is for me a moment of grounding and centering, a reminder of the context in which we gather, this tradition of memory and hope that we raise up each week. Later, then, we carry this flame to our joys and concerns table where we pass it to you in the hope that it might ease your sorrows and illuminate your joys, both of which we hold in community with love.
It is a way, as Brent Plate put it, that we bring our spiritual life to its senses. We connect with each other and with those who each week and for dozens of years have lit chalices in Unitarian Universalist congregations and meeting places around the world. And it can’t help but bring to mind beloved friends who are no longer with us.
We connect also with the fire within us, the passion that calls us beyond the narrow window of our lives to a covenant with all people, with all life.
It was a growing awareness of that covenant, I think, that occurred to me in high school with that little silver medallion dangling from my neck. I think what I wanted to tell my classmates in hoping they would ask about it was that I was linked to something larger than myself, to a community that carried a vision of compassion, integrity, service and joy – a fire that lives within me still.