Dancing with Fire

Every January Unitarian Universalist congregations across Canada celebrate a fire ceremony.  For many, this ritual of burning paper in flame is a New Year’s ceremony, a release of the past.  But this has never felt right to me, I see this ceremony as one which honours the power of fire.  Our symbol is the flaming chalice, a lively, ever-changing flickering flame of life. It is a symbol of the vital, sacred spark of life that resides in every living being.  And like every living being, it has the power to destroy and to create. Yet we so often light a chalice in services and meetings without thinking about that flickering flame.  The fire ceremony gives us an opportunity to meet the flame and celebrate it’s power.

The Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga will be celebrating the fire ceremony this coming Sunday, looking at how we can focus our energy in the coming months.  Where do our passions lie? What can we do to make our passions “blaze with life”?

To me, fire is one of the most beautiful elements of life on this planet. Scary, energizing, mesmerizing, gorgeous. The fire dancers in these two videos highlight fire’s living beauty.

 

Water is Life

We are celebrating our Water Ceremony this Sunday at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga. This annual in-gathering ritual begins our community year using the symbol of water. People bring water from their summer experiences and pour it into our communal bowl, honouring the community which brings us together, reminding us of our shared connections. Every day this week, I’ll post poems, stories and videos about the value and beauty of water.

While his description of humans as “blobs of water” is not poetic (!), David Suzuki in his book The Legacy of Nature reminds us of our deep ecological dependence on water.

“A visitor from another galaxy would surely call our planet Water, not Earth.  Seventy-one per cent of the planet’s surface is covered by oceans. If the globe were a perfectly smooth sphere, water would cover it to a depth of 2.7 kilometres. The air is filled with water vapour that condenses as clouds. Above the great Amazon rainforest, trees pull water from the ground and transpire it upward, where it flows in great rivers of vapour toward the Andes.

Every person in the world is at least 60 per cent water by weight. We are basically blobs of water with enough organic thickener mixed in to prevent us from dribbling away on the floor. The hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, and rain ensures that water cartwheels around the planet. We are part of the hydrologic process. Every drink we take has water molecules that evaporated from the canopies of every forest in the world, from all the oceans and plains.” (pg.76)

We are water.

Life is Water Dancing

Years ago I visited my cousin in Trewennack, Cornwall, England. She lived with her family in a farmhouse just beside a main road, but was otherwise surrounded by fields and cows. A couple of days into the visit she asked me to come with her so she could show me something. We waited for the cars to pass, scrambled over a fence, and trudged in knee high grass along the edge of a damp and muddy field.

I began to wonder what she wanted to show me. Surely it wasn’t the cows?

St. Justs, Cornwall © Copyright Chris Allen Creative Commons Licence

St. Just, Cornwall
© Copyright Chris Allen Creative Commons Licence

She walked around a small group of trees, scrambled down a bank,bent over and motioned me close.In the shadows of earth and trees was a small smooth stone enclosure, no more than five feet tall.Inside were two stone seats, across from one another. At the back was a spring, the water flowing out of the bank into a stone trench. My cousin had brought me to one of the ancient holy wells of Cornwall.

From the small stone seat, I could look out over the fields, a view, I think, not very much changed in a thousand years. The water, the stone, the grass, it all smelt fresh and tangy. It was a place of shelter and protection.

I wondered what it must have been like, living in a time when water was a gift from the ground,flowing freely. When it was carried in back breaking buckets from streams to homes,an endless, necessary, daily chore. With clean water available pretty much wherever and whenever we want it, it is easy to forget just how precious water must have been to those who had to work for a daily supply.

So precious, that the early Celtic culture of Cornwall,like other ancient cultures,expressed a deep reverence for water and its life giving properties. Water was seen as a powerful substance.The spring heads of Cornwall were venerated as places to come for blessings – or to ask for a curse on someone!

When Christianity arrived, the priests built little stone chapels or buildings around the spring heads,and insisted the blessings be asked of God instead. With that Christian transformation, the waters stayed protected over the centuries, allowing me a magical moment that day in Cornwall.

Whatever we may think of asking water, or water gods or God – for blessings – or curses – these traditions reflect a deep truth: water is a powerful substance. Life on earth would not exist had water not come into being billions of years ago. Our creation story begins in the distant oceans – our salty blood connects us to our ancient marine evolution. Water is truly the elixir of life.

We depend on the fresh water cycle of evaporation and precipitation. Water gives us body and substance – by weight we are more water than not. Water moves within our cells constantly, entering and leaving us, returning over and over to its on-going cycle. So much so that David Suzuki suggests that the whole enterprise of life might be seen simply as a vehicle for the transformation of water. Human beings, he says, might just be a way water molecules get to talk to each other (from The Sacred Balance).

Whether we are water talking or talking because of water, I don’t know. But I do know that the old religions acknowledged the vital value of water through rituals and myths. The springheads of Cornwall were kept clean and cared for because the Celtic and Christian traditions called for their protection.

Water is the source of life.

Our Unitarian Universalist water in-gathering ceremony echoes this deep knowledge. We share this whole and holy liquid to renew our community each September. May it help us remember our connections not just to one another but to all life on this wondrous planet.

Musings from the water in-gathering service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham.

Information about the ancient wells of Cornwall came from Terri Wilding’s blog, Myth & Moor.

Spaciousness and Spirit

crane-bird-flying

As a society, we tend to be impressed by people who sleep little, as if it is a sign of accomplishment; not taking vacation is seen as a good work ethic, instead of a poor life choice. We need, I believe, to participate in what might be described as a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly”.  How do we give ourselves that space to fly?  (from World Enough & Time by Christian McEwan.)

In the Tao Te Ching (translation by Ursula Le Guin), a book of wisdom first written down almost 2,500 years ago, chapter 11 discusses the importance of creating space for living:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t is where it is useful.

Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it is useful.

Cut doors and windows make a room.
where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.

Where the pot is not is where it is useful. I love this kind of backwards revelation, this reminder that it is the space itself that is useful. Where the room isn’t, there is room for you.

I believe the text is reminding us of the importance of emptiness. The absolute necessity for room to simply live, that spaciousness is a meaningful necessity to humanity. It is the unused space in a room that makes it habitable.This space might be physical but its effect is metaphysical,it allows our spirits to stretch and  unfurl, helps us to find calmness and focus.

In the Unitarian tradition, our chalice, while it can be filled with fire, with water, and with flowers, can also be empty.  Each service we sit together in silence, opening to the quiet silence.  It is these moments that free us to be ourselves. It is in the empty spaces that we can re-connect to the awesome, unnameable sense of the immensity of being.

How do you make space for your spirit to unfurl and fly?

 

excerpt from Finding Stillness, a reflection given at the UU Congregation of Durham on June 9, 2013.

Fire and Dreams

fire
fire (Photo credit: matthewvenn)

Light.  Paper sparking into flame.  Every year at this time many Unitarian Universalist congregations hold a Fire Communion service.  Using the neo-pagan ritual of writing on paper, then burning the paper to release the words, UUs use the light of our chalice to help us move into the new year.  It’s a beautiful ceremony – using flash paper (available at magic stores) which bursts into flame and leaves no ash – the room is filled with brief explosions of light as each person steps forward to cast their paper into the flame. This service is typically held close to the new year and often focuses on letting go of past regrets and sorrows;  I prefer to look forward, to focus on hopes and dreams for the upcoming year. I see the fire service as marking the transition into the upcoming season of creativity and beginnings.

The following is an excerpt from a fire communion service I led a few years ago which focused on dreams. Continue reading

School Prayer

the guardians. painting by ann altman. words by diane ackerman. from syracruse cultural workers.com

I love this poem “School Prayer” by Diane Ackerman. The second verse speaks to me of what it means to be a Unitarian minister.

In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,

I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.

From I Praise My Destroyer (Vintage Books, 2000)

The Ocean Refuses No River

This past Sunday was the Water Ingathering Ceremony, or water communion, for most Unitarian congregations in Canada.  Unitarian Universalists don’t have many rituals and I cherish the times when our services go beyond words to being.  The water ingathering, with people bringing water from their backyards and their trips around the world, is a welcoming way to begin the congregational year.  Each person pours their small cup of water into the great bowl of our common life so that it brims to overflowing with all the gifts we bring.  I love that fluid and flowing sense of return, of beginning again together in community.  I think of the folksong which points out that the ocean refuses no river, that we try to accept all people who seek to join our chalice community.  The offerings of everyone come together to create the whole; the whole that we depend on for sustenance.

The water ceremony is a relatively recent tradition, evolving from a ritual created by Carolyn McDade and Lucile Shuck Longview for the 1980 Women and Religion Conference in East Lansing, Michigan.  They wanted their service to speak to the worship needs of women, which some felt had not been widely included in UU life.  They wanted to focus on a sense of nature and of community. This “celebration of connectedness,” as McDade called it, was intended to empower women instead of offering the traditional religious notion that women should serve others. The water symbolized the birth waters, the cycles of moon, tides and women, and all the waters of this small blue planet.  Since 1980, the water communion, with evolving meaning, has become the fall welcoming ritual and spread across most North American congregations.  Most keep some water back from the ritual – well boiled – and use it to begin next year’s ritual.

Given that we Unitarians like to talk, I love the rituals that allow us to move, share and simply be together in moments that are beyond words.  This past Sunday I got to be at my home congregation for the first time in a few years, to share in the water ingathering.  Lively music, beautiful images, seeing old friends, it was good to be welcomed home.  I’ve had the image of a canoe in my head these last couple of weeks, as I paddle towards the final step in my ministry journey (the interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in Boston).  It’s good to know that even in stormy times, there is a safe harbour nearby.