Saturday 28 July 2012

The Olympic Opening Ceremony and the Flower Communion: A Place for Ritual

I was deeply moved by the Olympic opening ceremony. It was beautifully constructed by Danny Boyle and his team of thousands of volunteers. I enjoyed they way that it depicted the economic and social history of Britain over the last 200 hundred years; the development of modern Britain in sound and vision. They celebrated our sporting history; they celebrated our cultural history, through music and literature and film; they also celebrated British multi-culturalism and perhaps the greatest creation of our liberal democracy, the “National Health Service”. It was also a celebration of technology, this right at the centre of all that was created was Tim Berners-Lee (the creator of the World Wide Web and of course a Unitarian). I also loved they way that they celebrated British humour too. There was just enough tongue in cheek going on and just enough self deprecating humour too, it didn’t take itself too seriously. I laughed out loud at the beginning at the use of Cricket and clips of Rugby Union, both sports that are not included in the Olympics. Was this deliberate? Who knows!

 And yet what stood out for me was one simple human voice, right in the middle of the ceremony. It began in the transitional moment just before the parade of the nations. Emeli Sande, sang beautifully and movingly the classic hymn and great sporting anthem “Abide With Me”, accompanied by a dance troop and under a beautiful orange light. This was a tribute to the victims of the London 7/7 terror attacks, which took place the day after Britain and won the 2012 Olympic bid.

While 21st century Britain appears to be increasingly secular, ritual still has a vital place in all our lives. Also while people have little time for organised religion, there is an increasing interest in spiritual connection. The last few weeks as the torch has been carried around the country and last night brought this powerfully home to me once again.

I see a thirst and hunger there, but I’m not sure how as a minister of religion I can begin feed and water this. It is my duty to seek the answers.

Tomorrow morning at Dunham Road we will be conducting our annual “Flower Communion”. This uniquely Unitarian celebration is conducted by congregations throughout the world.

It originated in Czechoslovakia in 1923 and was the creation of Dr Norbert Capek. On the last Sunday before the summer recess of the Unitarian church in Prague, all the children and adults participated in this colourful ritual, which celebrated the beauty and preciousness of life.

It is said that the ritual was created because Dr Capek had become frustrated by the plainness of the worship that he led. The community that he led was a mixture of people who had grown up in other religious traditions and therefore he felt that he needed to create something that could speak to a diversity of people.

One spring afternoon Dr Capek went for a stroll and was overcome by the natural beauty all around him. Suddenly a beautifully simple idea came to him and the very next Sunday he asked the people of his congregation to bring a flower, or budding branch or just a simple twig with them. The people asked what type they should bring and what colour it ought to be. He simply told them bring whatever spoke to them.

 The next Sunday all the people came and they filled their church with colours of every kind and every shape imaginable. Dr Capek spoke to the people and they listened intently. He told them “These flowers are like ourselves. They are different colours and different shapes, and different sizes, each needs different kinds of care and each is beautiful, each is important and each is special in its own way.”

This beautiful ritual continued until the Nazi occupation of Prague. Like so many others the Nazi’s found that Dr Capek’s gospel of the beauty, worth and dignity of everyone to be “...too dangerous to the Reich for him to be allowed to live.” He was arrested and imprisoned in Dachau where he died along with millions of others.

While this beautiful and gentle man died his message lives on today. His was a message of hope and of the sacredness and beauty of all life. Tomorrow in Altrincham we will be celebrating the worth and dignity of all life and celebrating the sacred beauty within all is eternal it always lives on.

Whenever Dr. Capek conducted his Flower Communion in Prague. he would say these words as he "consecrated" the flowers:

Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love.

May they remind us amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another's talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world.

Tomorrow as we celebrate our flower communion and over the next couple of weeks as I watch these amazingly talented young people from all the nations of the world compete in the Olympics I will offer thanks and praise for the gift that is life itself; life is the ultimate free gift, the ultimate grace.

I will recognise the uniqueness of each flower presented and that it says something of the person who presents it. Each flower symbolises the love that is within each of the congregation present, a love that is present within everyone. A love that is sometimes deeply hidden and sadly can at times seemingly be destroyed. Some of us are afraid to let this love show, but it is there within us all...we really should let it have its way.

For what is life without love? It is nothing it is empty. It is without purpose and meaning. Whatever we may think of God, religion spirituality, none of us can deny the power of love; the power of love to transform human lives. It is the one true alchemy because it does indeed transform base metals into gold. It changes us forever, no one can deny this reality. Love is eternal, it lives on. Those people we have loved and who have loved us will always be with us in spirit even if not in body. They will always be with us here in our hearts, in our minds, their souls are imprinted on our souls, held by the one eternal soul.

Love never dies; it is energy, an ever flowing stream that moves throughout life. We have all felt it, we cannot deny its reality.

We must learn to revere one another just as much as we must learn to revere all life, to see the sacred in everything. To see the touch of the divine in all created life. Hindu’s acknowledge this when they greet one another by joining their hands together and bowing, therefore honouring the sacred mystery that they are encountering. In British culture a smile or a nod of the head is a similar acknowledgement.

I am a great believer in what I like to call “The Chaos Theory of Compassion” I firmly believe that one smile or act of love from a person in Altrincham can lead to an avalanche or tidal wave of love in some other part of the world; everything that we do and everything that we don’t do does in fact matter. Who knows what chain reactions we are all setting off with every feeling, thought, word and action; by the way who knows what chain reactions we are setting off by our lack feeling, thought, word and action too. Everything we do or don’t do has an impact on the world we live in. No one is truly passive, even if they are doing nothing.

I’m going to end this little chip of a blog with some words of prayer written by Dr Capek to accompany the flower communion...there words are worth reflecting upon every is a sacred event and every thought, word and deed can be rich in ritual and meaning...let love have its way

In the name of Providence, which implants in the seed the future of the tree and in the hearts of men and women the longing for people living in love; in the name of the highest. in whom we move and who makes the mother and father, the brother and sister what they are; in the name of sages and great religious leaders, who sacrificed their lives to hasten the coming of peace and justice--let us renew our resolution--sincerely to be real brothers and sisters regardless of any kind of bar which estranges one from another. In this holy resolution may we be strengthened, knowing that we are God's family, that one spirit, the spirit of love, unites us, and may we endeavour for a more perfect and more joyful life.


Saturday 21 July 2012

Telling the Tale

There are many elements to ministry, most of which I love. One of the greatest joys is creating worship. The Unitarian and Free Christian tradition in which I have found a home not only allows but encourages a broad scope. I truly am given the freedom of the pulpit and can explore any theme or subject I wish...I'm actually given far more freedom than I often take.

Something I have always loved is the sharing of stories from the worlds many traditions. I don't suppose I will ever exhaust all them in the years to come. In the two years that I served the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston we have had a lot of fun and some seriousness with the tales we have shared...below is a collection of some of them...

I will offer no explanation for each individual tale as I would like them to stand for themselves and for who ever reads them to make their own sense of them...hope they open you up as they have opened me up,,,

Standing on One Foot

A man came to talk with Rabbi Shamai, one of the most famous of all the rabbis, nearly as famous as Rabbi Hillel.
"I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew," said the man. "But I don't have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot."

The Torah is the most important Jewish book there is, and this crazy man wanted to learn it while standing on one foot? Why, people spent years learning the Torah; it was not something you can learn in five minutes! Rabbi Shamai grew angry with this man, and he pushed the man away using a builder's yardstick he happened to be holding in his hand.
The man hurried away, and found Rabbi Hillel. "I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew," said the man. "But I don't have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot."

"Certainly," said Rabbi Hillel. "Stand on one foot."
The man balanced on one foot.
"Repeat after me," said Rabbi Hillel. "What is hateful to you, don't do that to someone else."
The man repeated after Rabbi Hillel, "What is hateful to me, I won't do that to someone else."
"That is the whole law," said Rabbi Hillel. "All the rest of the Torah, all the rest of the oral teaching, is there to help explain this simple law. Now, go and learn it so it is a part of you."

Life Is Echo

A man and his son were walking in the forest.
Suddenly the boy trips and feeling a sharp pain he screams, “Ahhhhh.”
Surprised, he hears a voice coming from the mountain, “Ahhhhh!”
Filled with curiosity, he screams:
“Who are you?”,
but the only answer he receives is:
“Who are you?”
This makes him angry, so he screams:
“You are a coward!”,
and the voice answers:
“You are a coward!”
He looks at his father, asking,
“Dad, what is going on?”
“Son,” the man replies, “pay attention!”
Then he screams, “I admire you!”
The voice answers: “I admire you!”
The father shouts, “You are wonderful!”,
and the voice answers:
“You are wonderful!”
The boy is surprised, but still can’t understand what is going on.
Then the father explains,
“People call this ‘ECHO’,
but truly it is ‘LIFE!’ Life always gives you back what you give out!
Life is a mirror of your actions.
If you want more love, give more love!
If you want more kindness, give more kindness!
If you want understanding and respect, give understanding and respect!
If you want people to be patient and respectful to you, give patience and respect!
This rule of nature applies to every aspect of our lives.”
Life always gives you back what you give out.
Your life is not a coincidence, but a mirror of your own doings.

Six Blind Men and the Elephant

 “The Perfect Woman”

Nasrudin met an old friend whom he had not seen for twenty years. They sat down together in the cafe and talked over old times. “did you ever get married Nasruddin?” asked the friend.

“No I’m afraid I didn’t.”

“Why not? I’ve been married many years and I’ve never regretted it.”

“Well”, said Nasruddin, “I was always looking for the perfect woman. I wanted my wife to be beautiful, intelligent, and sensible.”

“And you never found her?”

“I thought I had, when I was twenty. Her name was Ablah.

She was beautiful, just the kind of woman I like, but I’m afraid she wasn’t very intelligent, and her language was atrocious! I was embarrassed to be with her! She certainly wasn’t the perfect woman.”

“Was she your only girlfriend?”

“No. When I was twenty-five I met a woman called Bahira. She was good looking and intelligent, but she wasn’t very sensible. She spent all my money on frivolous things, and she couldn’t even boil an egg! She wasn’t the perfect woman either.”

“Where there any more?”

“Only one. At thirty I met Haddiyah and she was truly a gift from God! She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, and the most intelligent. What’s more she was prudent and sensible, a good cook, and a brilliant conversationalist.”

“She sounds like the perfect woman you were looking for.”

“Then why didn’t you marry her?”

“Unfortunately, she was looking for the perfect man!”

Two Wolves

“What Price a Kingdom”

Haroun Al-Rashid was a very powerful king. In fact he was the most powerful king in the whole world, and his influence stretched over many hundreds of miles. One day he was talking about his power and his wealth to a wise man called Aman.

“I have so much power that I can make any man do what I command; I have so much wealth that I can buy anything I like. I live in the most beautiful of palaces; I eat my food from golden plates, and I wear clothes spun from the finest silk. There is no man in the whole world who can compare with me,” he boasted.
Aman listened carefully, and then he asked the king a question. “If you were dying of thirst in the middle of a desert, what would you give for a cup of water?”

Without hesitation the king answered, “I’d give half of my kingdom!”

“And if you drank the water so fast that your stomach was in danger of bursting, what would you give for the pills which would cure your condition and keep you alive?”

“I would give the other half of my kingdom!” declared the king.

“Why then, O great king, do you boast about you fantastic wealth and your great power if you would trade then both for a cup of water and a few pills?” asked Aman.

Are you an eagle living the life of a chicken?

The Miller, His Son, and Their Donkey 
Next Story
"I shall have to sell that donkey of ours," said a miller to his son. "I can not afford to keep him through the winter. I will take him to town this very morning to see if I can find a buyer. You may go with me." In a little while the miller, his son, and the donkey were on their way to town.

They had not gone far when they met some girls going to a party. They were talking and laughing as they went along. One of them said, "Look at that man and boy driving a donkey. One of them surely might ride it."
The miller heard what they said, and quickly made his son mount the donkey, while he walked along at its side.
After a while they came to a group of old men who were talking very earnestly. "There," said one, "I was just saying that boys and girls have no respect for the aged. You see it is true in this case. See that boy riding while his old father has to walk."

"Get down, my son," said his father, "and I will ride." So they went on.

They next met some women coming from town. "Why!" they cried, "your poor little boy is nearly tired out. How can you ride and make him walk?" So the miller made his son ride on the donkey behind him.

They were now in town. A man coming down the street called to the miller, "Why do you make your donkey carry such a load? You can carry him better than he can carry you."
At this the miller and his son got off the donkey. They tied the donkey's legs together, turned him over on his back; and began to carry him.

A crowd soon gathered to see the strange sight. As they were crossing a bridge the donkey became frightened at the hooting of the crowd. He broke loose, fell into the river, and was drowned.
The miller was angry and ashamed. He said, "There! I have tried to please everybody and have only made a fool of myself. After this I shall do as I think best and let people say what they will."

The difference between Heaven and Hell

What are the Neighbours like?

One Sunday afternoon an old man was leaning on his garden gate, smoking his pipe, and meditating on life, when a stranger approached him. “Excuse me, sir,” said the stranger. “I’m thinking of moving to this town, and I was wondering what people are like around here?”

The old man took the pipe from his mouth and said, “What are the people like where you live now?”
“Oh I don’t like them. They are noisy, selfish, mean, and unfriendly. I’ve lived there five years and I’ve not found a single person that I like. I’ll be glad to get away from them.”

“Well said the old man, “I expect you’ll find the people around here are like that too – selfish, mean, and unfriendly. I don’t think you’ll like it here.”

The stranger walked on. A little while later, another stranger approached the old man. “Excuse me sir,” he said, I’m thinking of moving to this town, and I was wondering what the people are like round here?”
“What are the people like where you live now?”

“Oh they are fine people. I’ve grown to love them all. They are friendly, sociable, helpful. I’ll be sorry to leave, but I’ve just been promoted and so I’ve got to move house.”

“Well,” said the old man, “I expect you’ll find that the people around here are like that too – friendly, sociable, and helpful. I think you’ll enjoy living here.”

“The Seven Wonders of the World”

“Let’s make a list of the Wonders of the World,” suggested a teacher to her students one day. “We can include both man-made structures and natural phenomena,” she added.
After much discussion and some disagreement, the class came up with the following list, which the teacher wrote on the blackboard:

The Pyramids of Egypt
The Grand Canyon in Arizona
St Peter’s Basilica in Rome
The Niagara Falls
The Taj Mahal in India
The Empire State Building in New York
The Northern Lights

The teacher continued “One day you may be lucky enough to see each of these seven wonders.”
Wouldn’t you like to see all these magnificent things?” she asked the one girl who had so far taken no part in the discussion.

“Yes I would,” replied the girl. “But I have a list of my own, and it’s very different from the one on the blackboard.”

“Would you like to share it with us?” asked the teacher.

“This is my list of the wonders of the world,” she began. Then she went on:
“To see...
to hear...
to touch...
to taste...
to smell...
to laugh...and...
to love.”

The class went quiet, as the teacher and the students realised that they didn’t have to go very far to find wonder in the world.”

Learning to Write in the Sand

A story is told of two friends who were walking through the desert. During some point of the journey, they had an argument, and one friend slapped the other one in the face.
The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, he wrote in the sand: “Today my best friend slapped me in the face.”
They kept on walking, until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but his friend saved him.
After he recovered from the near drowning, he carved on a stone: “Today my best friend saved my life.”
The friend, who had slapped and saved his best friend, asked him, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand, and now, you carve on a stone, why?”
The other friend replied: “When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand, where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away, but when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone, where no wind can ever erase it.”
Learn to write your hurts in the sand and to carve your blessings in stone!
The overflowing tea cup

Sunday 15 July 2012

How little we know


It is possible, I suppose that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what it means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another, in summer, and the
mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead

oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly
unanswered. At my feet the white-petalled daisies display
the small suns of their center piece, their -- if you don't
mind my saying so -- their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know?
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly;
for example -- I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch --
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.

~ Mary Oliver ~

(Why I Wake Early)

I recently attended the valedictory service at Unitarian College Manchester, where I trained for ministry. I only left two years ago, it seems like a lifetime. So much has happened since. I have learnt so much and this has taught me just how little I know.

The valedictory address was delivered by the recently retired minister of the Unitarian church in Dublin, the Revered Bill Darlison. It was compelling, moving and thought provoking and it has held me in its grip for weeks. I keep on being fed by it, truly soul food. Now I’m not going to discuss the address here. I just mention it because Bill is one of my heroes and I look forward to next year when he will serve our denomination as president, it will be an interesting time.

Bill is the author of several book. He has also published two fine collections  of short stories, from around the world, which I and many others often use in worship. They are titled“Concentration & Compassion” and “The Shortest Distance” The following story is from one of them. It originates from China and is titled “Rescuing the Moon”

“One evening a clever man called Huojia went to fetch some water, but when he looked into the well he saw the moon shining in the water. ‘O, my goodness! That’s a shame!’ he said. ‘The beautiful moon has fallen into the well!’

He ran back to the house to get a hook, which he tied to the well-rope and lowered it down into the water in an attempt to rescue the moon.

After a few minutes he was pleased to find that the hook had caught on something. He pulled hard on the rope, but whatever he had caught was very heavy and the rope broke. Huojia fell flat on his back. Looking up into the sky he saw the moon once again. ‘Ah, I was successful!’ he said to himself. ‘The rope may have broken, but my pulling has obviously freed the moon, and it’s finally back in the sky where it belongs.’ He was overjoyed at his efforts and told everyone he met how he had rescued the moon.”

Bill describes this as “a cautionary tale about human intellectual arrogance.” He continues “For all our undoubted scientific advances, we are still no nearer solving the big questions of existence than we were thousands of years ago, and much that we think we know about the world today will no doubt turn out to be false in the future.”

Now of course every single generation begs to differ on this, but seemingly it is true. The quest for knowledge goes on and on. How little we actually know.

I am a great fan of modern media. It is wonderful how we can gain access to information instantly today that in the past may have taken years to discover. That said I’m far less of a fan of celebrity culture, it seems everyone is a celebrity theses days. Increasingly we hear the opinions of people who have skills and talents in certain areas of their life but who seem to be of the opinion that they ought to be commenting and telling the world what they think about everything, of things that they often know little about. We are also increasingly inundated with radio and television phone- ins that encourage us to express our view on every subject under the sun. This freedom to speak freely and publicly has been hard fought for over the centuries and is precious and I’m certainly not advocating that it should be policed. That would be horrific!That said this proliferation of often ungrounded opinion does lead to the question, do we actually know what we are talking about? How many of us express our views about a myriad of things we know little about?  It is easy to gain superficial access to many things, but not so easy to gain real understanding.

Hey maybe I do it every week with this blog. Oh yes a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.

The pursuit of knowledge is a wonderful thing, it grows from our unknowing, from our need to know. This searching and seeking is one of our greatest attributes. This is not the problem. No the problems stem from our belief that the little knowledge that we have gained somehow makes us experts in every field. There’s a further problem too and this stems from our need to cling to what we think we know. This actually stultifies the pursuit of further knowledge. It limits our ability to gain greater understanding and often divides us against one another. 


Well because truth is always subjective and personal knowledge is always limited. We don’t all see things the same way and we don’t all experience life in the same way. It is so easy for us to become enslaved by what we think we know, more than what we don’t know. Ignorance is not so much the problem as arrogance. Seemingly our troubles are caused by the little that we do know, rather than immensity of what we do not know. Perhaps what we need is a little bit of the humility that Socrates professed. Socrates once said “I am the most ignorant man in Athens.” This was not false pride by the way. He knew that he knew more than anyone else and yet recognised how little he actually knew. By pointing out his own ignorance he was informing his neighbours how little they actually knew. And what did they do to Socrates? Well they killed him.

Yes a little bit of knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing.

It is important to recognise the limits of our knowledge, just as it is vital that we do not become slaves to the little that we do know. I’m always amused by my observations of friends on social media expressing to the world all their likes and dislikes. I do it myself; I amuse myself and no doubt my friends too.

The Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi believed that when we cling to our beliefs, what we like and dislike about life, we alienate ourselves from the ‘great transformation’ of “the way”.  Karen Armstrong has highlighted how he observed that everything was continually in flux, nothing ever stayed the same, everything moved from one state to another. He observed that an un-enlightened person was no different to a frog in a well who mistakes the tiny patch of sky he can see for the whole. He observed that such a person cannot gain greater knowledge because he is held back by what he thinks he knows. That said once this very same person has seen the immensity of the sky then his perspective is changed forever. When a person looks up at the sky above them, how can they not be humbled? When a person realises the immensity of the universe or the multi-verses that are out there how can they not stand in awe?

Karen Armstrong says that,

“Socrates used to describe himself as a gadfly, stinging people to question every single one of their ideas, especially those about which they felt certainty, so that they could wake up to a more accurate perception of themselves. Even though he was conversing with Socrates and others, each participant was also engaged in a dialogue with himself, subjecting his own deeply held opinions to rigorous scrutiny before finally, as a result of the ruthless logic of Socrates’ questioning, relinquishing them. You entered into a Socratic dialogue in order to change; the object of the exercise was to create a new, more authentic self. After they had realised that some of their deepest convictions were based on faulty foundations, Socrates’ disciples could begin to live in a philosophical manner. But if they did not interrogate their most fundamental beliefs, they would live superficial, expedient lives, ‘because the unexamined life is not worth living.’”

So much of life is cloaked in mystery and I suspect that it always will be. Yes like most people I was interested by the news from CERN last week and the discovery of the Higgs-Boson. That said it did not dominate my thoughts. I am actually more concerned by the people around me and the state of their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. That shouldn't surprise folk though should it. I am a minister and not a scientist. There is a lot of truth in Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "Nonoverlapping Magisteria".

From what I understand of it this discovery has proven theories about particle physics that explain how things come into being. So we have an explanation as to how the part of the universe, that we able to witness, came into being. As for the other apparent 86%, the so called “dark matter”, the explanation is still pending. Further while we may well have an answer to the question as to how life comes into being from nothing, we still cannot answer why? While we may have discovered the direct agent that brings about the creation of matter, we have not discovered the ‘ultimate cause’, there is no answer to the purpose and meaning behind the how.

We all ask those questions how and why at some point or another. I’ve yet to find anyone who can answer those questions perfectly whether through religion or the secular world. Maybe this is beyond our human understanding. I’m ok with this these days. It keeps me humble and as a result it opens me up to seek and to search and to experience. Humility reminds me of my smallness. No matter what we learn about life, death, God, and the universe at the end of our lives we will still know next to nothing. This to me is a good thing, because it opens me up and protects me from becoming a slave to the little knowledge that I do possess.

The openness that humility breeds can lead to possibilities way beyond my imagination. For the heart there is no limit on how much we can learn, how much we can change and how much we can love. Yes we need knowledge gained from honest experience; but we also need to accept that our rational minds, whether informed by religion or science, can never fully resolve the mystery and miracle of life. I believe it is beyond out human capacity to ever make complete sense of this mystery that creates life from nothing. That said I do thank God for those who keep on searching and unearthing how material life came into being. I also thank life for those who help us come to terms with our humanity and teach us how to live better lives; to come to terms with our own imperfections while teaching us how to be more tolerant and loving of one another. 

That said what do I know? After all I am one of the most ignorant men in Altrincham.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Did the tortoise really beat the hare? St Batholomew & 1662

The Hare and the Tortoise
Once upon a time there was a hare and a tortoise. The hare liked to run and jump and roll in the flowers. The tortoise stuck to the ground looking always to the front, never to the left, never to the right.
One day the tortoise began to argue with the hare.
"You have no direction. You are aimless. You are wasting your life," the tortoise said. The hare chewed on a dandelion to see what it was like.
"Whereas I on the other claw," the tortoise continued, "have purpose. I have drive. I have ambition." The hare began doing backward somersaults.
"And I can prove it!" the tortoise shouted, getting angry. "We will race through the wood to the river. The first one onto the bridge is the winner!"
And so that's how the race began. All the other animals gathered to watch and the crow, who was a bird and could fly, agreed to be the invigilator. When all was ready the squirrel opened a nut as a starting signal.
"Crack!" The race was on! The hare was into the wood in a couple of bounds. The tortoise moved slowly forward looking always to the front, never to the left, never to the right.
The hare ran halfway through the wood. Then the hare stopped to watch a cobweb dancing in a patch of sunlight. The sound of music drifted by on the breeze. The hare hopped off to investigate. The hare loved music. Music always reminded the hare of food. The hare began looking for some baby grass shoots to nibble. The tortoise continued, always looking to the front, never to the left, never to the right.
The hare found an old, hollow log covered in toadstools. It made a great hide away and for a while the hare hid in it imagining the fox was outside. After that it felt good to jump and stretch, stretch and jump, and jump some more.
The tortoise plodded on looking straight ahead. To the left there was a wild raspberry bush so heavy with fruit that its top was brushing the ground. To the right a fledgling fell from its nest to lie helpless caught in some undergrowth. The tortoise noticed neither.
After the jumping and stretching the hare felt hot and thirsty. So the hare ran to the river and had a drink. Then finding a shady spot the hare settled down for a nap.
The tortoise left the wood and neared the bridge, looking never to the left and never to the right. The tortoise reached the bridge, looking never to the left and never to the right. The hare woke up. The tortoise crawled onto the bridge, triumphant. The crow reported to the animals at the starting line that the tortoise had won. Some of them cheered and then they all went about their business.
When it got dark and there was no one to see the hare as he climbed up carefully from under the bridge and went home. The moon was very beautiful.

Now while it is certainly true that the tortoise won the race did he gain the most from the experience? Did he give most to the experience? Sometimes it’s nice to turn truth upside down and to look at things from an entirely different angle. I'm a great believer in uncommon sense as opposed to common sense. I'm a great believer in seeking truth rather than just accepting what I am told is true, without question...
I recently enjoyed a trip to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. It is an incredible place, full of the fineries of life. In the middle of my meanderings around the vast rooms I entered the chapel area. Towards the back of the chapel and just in front of the alter stood a dark looking figure, a statue. In one hand it seemed to be holding what looked like some kind of blanket or cloth and a in the other some scissors. The figure intrigued me, so I looked a little more closely and searched for some information about it. I soon found it.

The sculpture is called “Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain” it is a bronze figure standing two and half metres tall and is the creation of the controversial Turner prize winning artist Damian Hirst. He says that the inspiration for the piece “comes from memories I have of woodcuts and etchings I remember seeing when I was younger. As Saint Batholomew was a martyr who was skinned alive, he was often used by artists and doctors to show the anatomy of the human body and this is also what I’ve done. He holds his own skin over his arm and he holds a scalpel and a pair of scissors in his hands so that his exposure and pain are seemingly self-inflicted. It’s beautiful yet tragic and like Saint Sebastian his face shows no pain. I added the scissors because I thought Edward Scissorhands was in a similar tragic yet difficult position – it has a feel of the rape of the innocents about it.”

The 24th of August is St Batholomew’s Day. On this day in 1572 there was a terrible massacre of defenceless Protestants in France. This became known as “Black Batholomew’s Day”. The Great ejection of 1662 is also sometimes referred to by the same name. Unitarians and other “dissenters” are currently commemorating the 350th anniversary of this event. It was really the starting point of denominational non-conformity in England, from which the Unitarian and Free Christian tradition, to which I have chosen to belong, has developed. Next Saturday in Knutsford we Unitarians, from the Manchester District Association, will be re-enacting the events of 1662.

On St Bartholomew’s day 1662 The Church of England was reconstituted under the Act of Uniformity. This meant that every clergyman in the land would be expelled from his charge if he did not declare assent to everything contained in the revised Book of Common Prayer. Also anyone who had not obtained Episcopal ordination during the period of the Commonwealth was commanded to obtain an oath of canonical obedience. Many refused and as a result 2000 clergy were expelled from the church.

St Batholomew’s Day 1662 is regarded as the “Genesis” of English descent and it is from this refusal to subscribe to the book of common prayer that the seeds for the Unitarian denomination were sown. I believe that this principle of non-subscription is the central characteristic of the free religious tradition to which I have chosen to belong. To use advertising speak, it is our unique selling point. There is no requirement to subscribe to any pre-determined beliefs and practices to be a member of a Unitarian congregation. Each individual follows the dictates of their conscience in matters of faith.

Now I’m not here give a history lecture, this is not the purpose of this blog. That said it is important to understand the “rock from which we were hewn”. The key to the Unitarian religious path is freedom, freedom to believe as one's conscience dictates, but to do so in community with others who may see things differently. The seat of authority, in terms of religious belief lies within the individual’s conscience and not from other human created authorities. It is always worth remembering that all religions, just as all nation states, are human created. No one set of people are chosen above any others, although many have claimed to be.

I love the re-telling of the famous hare and tortoise tale by Aesop. Now the original moral of the story is “Slow and steady wins the race”. Of course in this re-telling the tortoise obviously still wins the race. He never once takes his eye off the goal he just keeps on taking one step after another without once looking to the left and the right. He reaches his destination well before the Hare does. Actually we are not told if the hare ever reached his destination. He receives a little applause and then everyone just gets on with their business. As somebody once said “Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”.

Now while I believe that there is great wisdom in Aesop’s original fable, there is also some wonderful truth to be revealed in this re-telling. The tortoise never once wavers from what he knows to be true; his gaze never deviates; he sees nothing but the finishing line, he keeps his eyes firmly set on his goal on the final destination. Is this the only way to live? Surely by always looking straight ahead we miss out on so much of the beauty and wisdom that is on offer.

It’s the same with truth I believe. How many folk are absolutely fixated on what they believe is true. So much so that they never look to the left or the right and take in what they are surrounded by, for the fear that it might deviate them from their path. I am always wary of absolutist truth claims, mainly because they lack humility. Sadly absolutism seems to be on the increase. We see it amongst the religious and we see it amongst the secular. The voices of intolerance do seem to be getting louder and louder.
The religiously inclined who believe that they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for them is, but also what it is for anyone else appear to me to be suffering from arrogance, from hubris. Who has the right to say that they are chosen above anyone else, come off it?

Sceptics are no better. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is disrespectful. It certainly does not honour their humanity. No one can ever truly know what it is to have walked in another’s shoes, to have lived their life, to have experienced what they have experienced, or to have seen what they have seen. It seems to me that the absolutists whether secular or religious are like the tortoise and are too fixated on their truth, so much so that they cannot appreciate the beauty of the truth that so many others are uncovering and experiencing, while they just stare, half blindly, ahead.

The question I need to keep on asking myself and I think everyone needs to keep on asking themselves is “are we tortoises or are we hares?”

I believe that the faith tradition that I serve is more like the hare. It is a faith that is open and is therefore fed by all the senses, including the sixth one. It is an ever evolving tradition. It is rooted in Liberal Christianity, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. The chalice symbol exemplifies this perfectly. It is a kind of cross, but an evolving one with the flames reaching out much further to a place way beyond any human imagination. So while it is rooted in the Liberal Christian tradition it has evolved beyond this starting point to embrace truth from a myriad of sources. That flame burning in the cup of love, the cup of sacrifice is deeply symbolic of the roots from which it has grown or from the rock from which it was hewn. The flames seem to symbolise something more too, something eternal, something way beyond human created earth bound limits, religious or secular.

It is said that we shall know the truth and that the truth will set us free. If this is true then surely it is everyone's task to seek that truth and to share that truth and set one another free. Our vision should never be limited by what is directly in front of us. Why you may well ask? Well because we will miss out on so much if it is. We will not see the whole truth, so how on earth could we then hope to be free?

Did the tortoise really win that race?