Water Brings Us Together, Water Keeps Us Apart

September 11, 2011

This week, my congregation like so many others will be celebrating the beginning of a new church year with a water ceremony.

This tradition is relatively new as far as religious ceremonies go. According to the UUA website, it was created in the 1980’s. Wikipedia offers further detail that the first ceremony occurred at a women’s meeting and one of the organizers was Carolyn McDade, composer of the hymn “Spirit of Life.”

The ceremony is simple, and can be incredibly moving and symbolic. Basically, all the members and friends who attend are encouraged to bring water from some place they have been over the summer. Each person then has a turn to speak briefly about where the water came from, what the place or event meant to them, and pour a bit into a common vessel.  Thus, the community is gathered together and blended with all its impurities, as well as its life-giving properties.  I’m sure over the decades and in the hundreds of congregations where this ceremony has taken place, not even the introduction given by the minister or lay leader has ever been exactly the same twice.  Water is such an open-ended metaphor, one used in many faiths. And this year in my home of Vermont, water’s power to both connect and separate people was on prominent display in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

Those who are neither a Vermonter or UU may not understand the analogy, but I feel Vermont is to the United States kind of like Unitarian-Universalism is to most religions.  Those who call it home are protective and perhaps overly proud of it.  Both are known for being more liberal than the average. Both are tiny compared to the larger population.  Both can be kind of naive about the larger issues facing the world because we are so small. Yet, I like to think that both have the ability to shine when it comes to loving our neighbors and remaining those connections to the broader world that could so easily be lost when “you can’t get there from here.”

Irene was a humbling experience for me. It was another life experience of having to admit how wrong I can be when I try to predict the future.  My husband and I thought we might even be over-preparing in days leading up to the storm.  We altered our grocery shopping to focus on shelf-stable foods and got only enough for a week to avoid having to throw away anything that might spoil without refrigeration. Since the place we rent has an electric stove, we built a little brick hearth over our wood stove in order to cook pizza the night of the storm.  We called our teants to remind them that if they were to lose power for a while the well would not be working, so they should have some extra water ready before the storm hit.

As the rain started to fall and the wind picked up, we went about our normal activities until the power went out. I then shifted from computer work to reading a book I had gotten from the library the day before, feeling happy that I had prepared myself so well.  A few hours later, after the rain was starting to subside, my husband decided to take the dog out for a walk and survey the neighborhood.  It wasn’t long before he returned to tell me that our little hill was now it’s own miniture island, cut off from the Main Street less that half a mile away.  The road around us were under water and the water was rising.  Had he not gone out, we might not have known about how much damage was occuring right around the corner from us.

Even the next day, as we tried to reach our tenants on their phones and e-mail, the news reports had not quite reached us that less than an hour from where we were happily enjoying electric lights and running water again, our tenants and neighbors in Stockbridge were being airlifted supplies by the Vermont National Guard. The town where my husband and I own a home was one of dozens that literally became islands in the mountains, unreachable when bridges and roads were washed away by cresting rivers.

Yet, over and over again we heard how it was the community that remained, even as the infrastructure and icons of Vermont towns, like our covered bridges were literally washed away only to be replaced by gaping holes. Had we still been living in our home, we might have been among the many residents who got together in the isolated Town’s center to hold an impromptu “clean out your freezer” party and offer each other moral support.

How did I eventually learn all of this?  The Internet of course.  There’s even a facebook page that was set up just for the small area of my small town that is around a small brook that cause lots of trouble.  Eventually, local papers started publishing articles about individual’s reactions to the storm.  Perhaps my favorite title was by Rob Mitchell of the Rutland Herald, who wrote: “Cut Off, But Not Alone: Stockbridge Pulls Together.”

Yet, despite being able to see pictures from newspapers and eventually, as electricity was restored, individual’s own facebook pages, my husband and I felt helpless in trying to actually reach our tenants to make sure they had what they needed.  We just had to send positive thoughts and hope the National Guard could get the roads rebuilt and the utility companies could restore some kind of normalcy to our town.

The night before Irene we thought we knew what was coming.  In the days afterward, we realized just how difficult it was for us to even find out what had happened, let alone what could be predicted for the long recovery we were facing. It’s a sentiment many of us will be reflecting on when looking at the events of ten years ago today.

No one had any idea when they woke up September 11, 2001 the jumble of emotions that individuals and communities would be wrestling with later that day, or even ten years later.  Shortly after the terroist attacks, my small congregation got together in a way that turned out to be similar to the water gathering service.  A few days after we all witnessed the planes hitting the trade center over and over again on TV, we stepped out of our homes and gathered in the small stone church and took turns saying how we felt, what we feared, and what we hoped.  I was surprised that day to learn that one of my friends at the church had a son who worked at the WTC.  Luckily his son was one of the fortunate who escaped physically unscathed, relatively. But it understandably shook him deeply.  It shook all of us in that small Vermont town to realize there was someone with such a close connection to ground zero among us.

We gather waters and tell stories about where we’ve been to remind ourselves that we have many paths that lead us to our Unitarian-Universalist churches on the first Sunday of a new year. If we’re lucky, we may bring water from some far off place that opens our eyes to a different kind of people, a different way of living. In the ten years since we watch the Twin Towers fall, there have been many people who decided to learn more about the Islamic faith.  There was a hope that the grief that united us would cause us to try harder to understand that despite being a country of many different religions, we could live up to the slogan repeated in the PR campaign: e pluribus unum- out of many, one.

If I were going to a water ceremony this morning, here is what I would say:  “We’ve seen how water can keep us isolated through the destruction of our roads and bridges.  Water is neither inherently gentle or destructive, but it can be both.  When we try to tame it, water and nature remind us that they are powers beyond human control.  We may also remember how the water of our tears can blind us, temporarily. But, just as bridges can be rebuilt over treacherous bodies of water, if you have the strength, the intelligence, the materials, and the time to do it right, we can continue the hard work of keeping our eyes open to see the connections that run through all of us.  We just have to remember that those bridges from my mind and heart to connect to yours take cooperation, strength, intelligence, sweat, and lots of time.”

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Saying Grace over a Twinkie

August 7, 2011

It was senior year of high school and my friend was in a panic.  This time the cause for stress was that she had been asked to lead the blessing at our National Honor Society dinner.  I can’t remember whether she herself was a church-goer, but she was deeply aware of the fact that the group she was expected to say something like a prayer over was an extremely diverse mix of many or no faiths.  What could she say that wouldn’t offend someone?

No problem, said I.  I was a Unitarian, and I was sure there was something in our hymnal that could either be used verbatim or adapted for this occasion.  We specialized in blessings designed for those from all walks of religious life after all. It didn’t seem particularly worrisome to me that my family and I had never said any such blessing from Singing the Living Tradition or any other source.  There had to be something!

All I needed to do was call or stop by my church and either pick a book up or copy a few blessings for my friend to choose from. And so my cockiness and less than careful word-choice doomed me for yet another frustrating UU conversation when someone picked up the phone at my church.

“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.

“I just need something to use at a high school dinner blessing,” I replied, a little taken aback by her instant shut-down.

“We’re Unitarians,” she replied, “We don’t pray.”

Uh-oh.  But the seventeen-year-old me pressed on. “It really doesn’t need to be a prayer,” I said. “I just need something that could apply to many religions for this event.”

“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.

Yes we do, I thought to myself.  I had spent plenty of time before services reading the various benedictions, offerings, or readings or whatever they were called in that book in my pew.  If only I could remember the name on the cover perhaps I could get this conversation going in the right direction.  But, I just couldn’t remember it.

“I just want to borrow the book to look for something,” I said.

“We can’t help you.” she replied.

“But, I’m a member of the youth group,” I cried. “My mom does the catering for all the big events like the craft fair every year.”

“Oh,” said the woman.  “You can stop by and grab a copy of our hymnal if you want.”  Hymnal, that’s the word I should have used.

I need to put aside the wish that any member or friend would have been a little more friendly and helpful to anyone in need, even if an unforgivable word of prayer came into the conversation.  What I want to get to is the idea of saying grace over a meal, or any food for that matter.

It turns out that there was the perfect blessing in the back of our hymnal: #515 “We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks” by Richard M. Fewkes.  It was spiritual in that it gave thanks for all the things that are truly beyond human power, but never made it feel like you had to be thanking a particular deity.  My friend was grateful, and I was proud that UU’s had saved the day.

I was also a little regretful for the fact that my family had never used this, or any other blessing before a meal at home.  But, my family never practiced that particular ritual.  Even for the big holiday meals like Thanksgiving.  Even when I asked my still very Catholic grandmother if we could say grace, she treated it more as another silly play I wanted to put on for my own amusement, rather than something that our family should do together to bring us closer to the god she claimed to believe in.

I knew she prayed because my family often shared how many miracles had occurred when she said a novena.  However, I had never actually seen her do it, and she had never encouraged me to kneel and say a prayer by my bed before going to sleep.  I was left with the impression that prayer, if done at all, was something private and perhaps even a little shameful.

So I was a little uncomfortable years later in college, when a man I worked with clasped his hands together and bowed his head over the plastic tray full of over-processed line food.  What was I supposed to do? Look away? Run away?  Join in?  He looked like he was having a private conversation, so I decided to just wait it out, if I could without breaking into nervous laughter.  Luckily, he took very little time before raising his head and asking me what I thought about a problem we were having with the computers.

It wasn’t the first time since that high school dinner that I had been wistful about saying a blessing over my food.  But, I still felt rather powerless to say any such blessing myself.  After all, who or what should I ask to bless it?  What should I say? Who was I to ask? I didn’t overcome these obstacles until years after that.

Today, there is a little index card in the drawer of the living room coffee table where my husband and I eat most of our meals.  It has two short, non-godtalk blessings on it.  Occasionally we read them aloud.  But, more often, I just think about them when we are eating.  If I catch myself not noticing what I’m eating, or feeling only negativity when I eat, I stop.  I reflect on the good fortune that I have food, even if it’s not exactly what I would have wanted, or I’m stressed that we needed to put this weeks groceries on the ever-growing credit card balance.

I try to think about only the food, not only how it tastes, but all the miracles that needed to occur for me to be able to eat it.

If I’m really stuck, I remember a wonderful fantasy novel called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  The protagonist of that story was cursed with a supernatural gift to taste the emotions of whoever made her food. Through food, she learns her mother is deeply unhappy.  She tastes the anger and frustration or whatever other negative emotion was in someone’s heart when they made what she tastes.  She finds it nearly impossible to eat, and seeks overly-processed packaged food like twinkies that have the diluted tastes of many individuals and machinery.  She is deeply grateful for those options that she can stand to eat. In other words, she says her own kind of heartfelt grace over the foods that we may give the least amount of thought or blessings.

Then on a particularly horrible day, she has a bowl of soup in a restaurant that is “warm, kind, fused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking.”

I like to reflect on that story whenever I am cooking or eating. First, I feel lucky to not have that particular power to taste emotion in food, for all the trouble it caused Bender’s protagonist.  But, I also try to imagine that I could taste all those people and plants and animals as separate entities that are working together to fuel my body and soul. It reminds me of all the separate miracles that make up every bite I take.  That’s a little embarrassing too, so I do it silently while chewing, rather than bowing my head.

Of the many attempts I’ve heard to define religion, without getting into separating definitions of Unitarian and Universalism, or Islam, or Christianity or Pagan, the best are these simple words: gratitude and connection.  Food is something to be grateful for, and something that should remind us of all the ways we are connected to the global village of human and the ecosystem.  Even if it’s just a twinkie.


In Search of a Little Human Touch – Pass the Peace

April 17, 2011

So, I started this blog to help me remember my spiritual side.  As a substitute for the experience of actually going to church, I decided to send my words out into the abyss of cyberspace because I know I need something, though I’m still not sure what that is.

This week, I asked myself when I felt I had “it.”  I tried to bring back one memory of feeling spiritual, or connected, or whole.  I tried to come up with a memory of when I felt religion worked.  Oddly enough, I kept coming back to one of my earliest religious memories.  It is a memory of another faith I have almost written off completely: ritual in the Catholic church.  I remembered being a little girl and attending Mass with my grandparents.

Catholics can do somethings right.

Like most children, I saw attending Mass as a tedious exercises that one suffered through in order to be rewarded.  Usually the reward was a trip to the family’s favorite restaurant for Saturday night dinner.  So, I would sit as still as I could while the priest’s words went over my head – literally and figuratively, since at the time I could barely see over the wooden pew in front of me.  I would sit through what seemed like hours of talking, broken up by times where you had to stand, or kneel.  I would do my best not to fidget when the adults that accompanied me took turns getting in line to take communion.

If anyone had bothered to explain to me why the adults squeezed past me to stand before the man in the long white robes and take those little white things with their hands or open mouths, I would have thought it was ridiculous, even then.  Why would anyone want to eat God?  Eating the cheese pizza or spaghetti at the Chateau made a lot more spiritual sense, even then.

But there was one part of the Mass that I could participate in.  Years after I left Catholicism, it was something that I still found joy in when I would occasionally accompany my grandmother to church so that she wouldn’t have to be alone.  It was that magical time when the fourth wall was broken.  All of a sudden the church wasn’t just numerous congregants facing the priest, who was himself not really supposed to be looking at us, but looking toward God for us.  It would start when he would bestow his best blessing on all of us: “peace be with you.”

And then the real magic would begin.  My grandmother who for the rest of the mass was focused on making me sit still and do nothing would take my hand in her iron grip and bend down to kiss me, saying “Peace be with you,” and I would response with I my line: “And also with you.” And the game would start, the bubble of voices would raise up to the great ceiling as those two simple phrases were repeated over and over from every corner of the congregation.

I used to challenge myself to see how much peace I could gather.  First, with each member of my family that were within the same row, then turning backward to as many strangers as I could reach in the pew behind me.  They would keep to shaking hands, of course, but somehow my grandmothers kiss seemed to flow from my lips as I said either the passwords or counter sign.  “Peace be with you,” “And also with you.” again and again.  Sometimes when I turned back toward the front of the church I would find others still sharing peace with my grandparents, and they would shake my little hand and bend down to say the magic words to me, as if I couldn’t hear, or if it mattered whether they heard my little girl’s voice giving peace to them. And if you got through those people within reach and there were still the sound of peace sharing in the air, you could participate in the beautiful dance of sharing peace through eye contact and reading lips and head nodding across the pews. The cacophony of all those simple blessings were at once dischordant and perfect harmony.

It was the best three minutes of the week.

Is there still some magic to be gathered from those memories?  Or is there a lesson in that experience that I might still apply to my spiritual life today?

On the one hand, the fact that this is my happiest memory from my Catholic past tells me that I really was a Universalist all along.  It was when we the lowly sinners blessed ourselves that I felt holy, not when the authority figure in the pulpit told us what we should think and what we should feel.  And, perhaps I would not have had such an emotional reaction if the words were different.  We were promising each other peace, not holiness or forgiveness, or some special status of being god’s chosen people.

Though there are a million different definitions for peace, the one that always seemed to be in play during those moments was simply this:  acceptance of who you are and every other being in the world.  Peace be with you didn’t mean some foreign substance entering your soul, or that your life be free of violence or strife.  It meant innerpeace.  That even when things went horribly wrong, you may be able to access that inner spark in yourself that would give you hope.  And when you don’t have the strength to find that on your own, perhaps the best way is to long into another human’s eyes and have them tell you that it is still with you.

I miss that experience.  And, through all my wanderings of UU churches, I have not found anything quite like it.  Occasionally you may share a conversation with someone at coffee hour that connects you to a particular individual.  Or, your congregation may be blessed with a particularly special person who can serve as greeter and make you feel truly welcome as you pass through the vestibule before services.  I’ve never felt peace pass through me and rebounding from every corner of a UU sanctuary.

Perhaps it is a symptom of our first principle.  We focus so much on the individual that we have lost the ability to lose ourselves in a communal ritual like that.  Or, we’re too intellectualized to offer peace to one another without dissecting it to analyze the meaning of the word.  Like tearing apart a poem or dissecting a frog: we’ve lost the ability to just let peace be.  Or we’re just too diverse, with too many different ways of showing our desire to bestow peace upon each other.  It’s not the same if person a wants to share her peace via modern dance and person b would rather say the Lord’s prayer.  Maybe we do need to rely on a formulaic script to create real art of our religion.

Or, perhaps, Catholics can offer peace and forgiveness to each other in a way that Unitarian-Universalists can’t because they still believe in sin.  That religion has no problem telling people that there is evil, that we aren’t all just inherently good.  They believe there are things you must do in order to be closer to God.    On the other hand, most UU’s say that all people are good.  Does that give us too little incentive to be better?  Does that make us hesitant to bestow peace or blessing upon each other because we are afraid to offend others with the implication that they do not already have peace?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.  But I do know there is not enough peace in the world.  I know that even a young girl can bestow a small bit of peace on a stranger.  And I know passing peace on is a worthy activity.

Peace be with you.