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Linus Shaw: Patriot Or Prophet?

Posted by on Jul 9, 2010 in Worship Services

Linus Shaw: Patriot and Prophet?

Our worthy fathers bled
In freedom’s cause:
That we, their offspring might
Enjoy this glorious light,
Of Liberty and right
And equal laws.

    • – The Rev. Mr. Linus Shaw, 1831


Today, I’m going to talk about the eighth minister of First Parish. His name was Linus Shaw and he served here, in this very building, during the Civil War.

In particular, we’re going to learn about what Rev. Shaw said about the Civil War in his Thanksgiving Sermon of 1861, but first, I want you all to guess some things I learned from Rev. Shaw’s record books:

1.        How much do you think the Shaw family paid for their Thanksgiving turkey in 1854?  $1.00

2.        Name some gifts Rev. Shaw got at a surprise party given by this congregation in 1860? Money, a kerosene lamp, 25 pounds of fine white sugar, four bushels of rye, a cord of wood, a table cover for the parlor, meat, lard and cake. He declared: “It was one of the pleasantest occasions that we ever knew.”


We light our chalice for those who are willing to die for peace and for those who dare to live in peace.

RESPONSIVE READING For Independence by Linus Shaw

Linus Shaw wrote this poem in 1831 when he was attending Harvard Theological School. He was 26.

For Independence

Hail to this glorious day,
Whose beams of light display
A nation’s joy:

  • Let freedom’s happy sons,
  • With heart and voice and tongue
  • In praise and raptious song
    :The hours employ.

May we, this hallowed day,
Our thanks and offerings pay
To God, most high:

  • By whose almighty aid
  • The tyrant’s arm was stayed
  • His hopes in ashes laid
    :In shame to die.

By him sustained and led
Our worthy fathers bled
In freedom’s cause:

  • That we, their offspring, might/
  • Enjoy this glorious light,
  • Of Liberty and right
    :And equal laws.

Fair science, too, is here
Her palaces we rear,
Our nation’s boast:

  • Temples to God, we raise
  • And in them pray and praise
  • And sing with heavenly lays
    :In rapture lost

Here peace and plenty dwell
Each grateful bosom swells,
With joy and love:

  • Health happiness are here;
  • Chaste mirth and modest cheer
  • Fall grateful on our ear
    :Our souls improve.

Here kinship, too, is found
Fraternal love abounds
And fills this place:

  • Here, too, dwells honesty
  • Faith, hope, and charity
  • Temperance and purity
    :And every grace.

To thee O Lord we owe
This happiness and know
That thou art kind:

  • By thee sustained, we live
  • Thy favour life can give
  • And make the dead revive
    :And glories find.

Wilt thou thy favour lend
Will thou our steps attend
This life’s dark why:

  • And when our toil is over
  • When life shall be no more
  • Conduct us by thy power
    :To another day.
      • – Linus Shaw, July 1831

READING from “The War, and its Cause” a sermon preached at Sudbury, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 21, 1861, at a Union Meeting of the Religious Societies of the Town by Linus H. Shaw, Minister of the First Parish in Sudbury.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1861, The Rev. Mr. Linus Shaw preached to the citizens of Sudbury, at a meeting of the (then) three religious societies of the town: Unitarian, Congregational, Methodist. His colleagues included the Rev. Mr. Erastus Dickinson of the Congregational Church and the Rev. Mr. Joseph Scott of the Methodist. He may have preached in this very building.

I love the coincidence. In two weeks we at First Parish will host the annual Thanksgiving Interfaith Community service again and, this time, twelve local congregations will be represented.

Given its length  Shaw’s sermon probably lasted a lot longer than an hour  I will summarize his main points, using his own words as much as possible.

He begins: We are assembled again, to engage in appropriate religious exercises, on the return of our great New England Festival….  But in one respect, especially, how different are the circumstances in which we meet to-day, from those a year ago…. [C]ircumstances altogether new and untried have risen up around us; and we are called, by a necessity which we cannot avoid,… to meet them as best we may. Within the period of the last six months, the order of things about us, and the aspect of things before us, have almost wholly changed…. The course of common industry…has been suddenly checked; and the hands which have been accustomed to the plough, the plane, or the pen, or to work the loom or the printing press, are now turned to the dreadful arts of war, and are fast becoming familiar with the rifle and the sword.

[A little familiar background:]In January of that year six southern states seceded from the Union; in February seven states created a Confederate constitution and formed a new government. In March, Abraham Lincoln said at his inauguration that he hoped to resolve the conflict without warfare. But, on April 12, 1861, confederates fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began. Shaw told his hearers that he could not persuade himself that he had done justice to the demands of the hour, or met their expectations, if he neglected to make this war the main subject of his remarks.

I know how he feels. It’s hard to be unabashedly grateful without acknowledging the pain and suffering of our world. I cannot do it either.

Shaw began by listing what he saw as the causes of the war  both alleged and assigned. First, it is boldly asserted by many, and honestly believed by some, that this trouble is all to be traced to the Abolitionists. Second, some say: the people of the North have been unfaithful to those of the South, have refused to fulfill their constitutional obligations toward them, and have denied them their mutual rights, as a portion of the nation, thus dividing the Union. Third, he says, complaints are also made about Personal Liberty Laws, which were passed by the Legislatures of some of the Northern States. He is referring to the Fugitive Slave Bill that the South complains has not been well-executed. He debunks all of these so-called causes.

Then Shaw adds what he considers to be the root cause of a nation divided. The year 1620 was distinguished by two remarkable events. In August of that year, a Dutch vessel arrived at the mouth of the James River, Virginia, bringing twenty negro slaves and landing them on the soil. In December, of the same year, another vessel, sailing also from Holland, came and arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, with a very different freight, and for a very different object. The former vessel planted Slavery on this American soil; — the latter vessel bore our honored Forefathers hither, and planted Freedom…

[As for the cause of the present state of things, he continued] I account for it all in the natural and necessary growth of the two antagonistic principles, or forces, which, for nearly two and a half centuries have been spreading and ripening on our soil. … It must be noted that everything that is planted and takes root, must have a growth… unless it is checked…. Now, the harvest-day has come  the great day of judgment and of trial of these two opposite systems which have been growing together  not in harmony, but in conflict  side by side, on this American soil…. Doubtless God sees that this is long time enough to have given the American people a fair trail of these two opposite systems.

And then, in a reference to a reading from the book of Matthew, he says: Now [the American people] will be ready to take the wheat and gather it safely in, and to bind the tares in bundles to be burned. But who are the appointed reapers…? They are not all of one name, or of one class, or of one purpose. He is asking will the people gather in slavery or freedom? And which will burn?

Shaw concludes that the system of Slavery was small, weak and comparatively restrained in the days of the founding fathers. But in later years, it grew and spread itself until it became powerful, bold, lordly [and] defiant; and feels itself entitled to the highest place and the highest honor, and the supreme power in the nation. He believes that people of the North have made a wiser choice (abolishing slavery voluntarily) and are appointed to nobler work: — to cherish, nourish, support and defend Freedom.

SERMON         Linus Shaw: Patriot and Prophet?

Coming to the crescendo of his sermon, Shaw notes: there is more on this Thanksgiving Day to be deplored than to make us glad… A year ago… there were men, holding the highest offices in the government next to the President, who were engaged, directly and most devotedly, in undermining and destroying this government by placing it in a condition of weakness and destitution. Our Treasury was plundered of its accumulated millions. Our National War Vessels were ordered away to distant ports so that they could not be called home at once, should they be suddenly needed. …Had this dark plotting of evil men gone further…the fate of American Liberty would have been sealed forever; and our Declaration of Independence, and our noble Constitution, would have been among the dead things of the past!… [So] let it be owed with devout thanksgiving that the power that had been so wickedly employed was taken away; and opportunity was given to those who had remained faithful to the great principles of the Fathers.

Shaw obviously did not have to worry about his congregation’s non profit status! He named names and pointed fingers.

He also paused to give thanks for the genuine patriotism and noble spirit of sacrifice which our people have shown during the crisis. I would like to pause to do the same. As we approach this Veteran’s day, I acknowledge that the sacrifices of our soldiers, of their families and friends, and of the innocent people who gave their lives in this war, cannot be measured. Nor can our grief.

Shaw saw the cause in 1861 the same as in 1776; we are only defending and maintaining what our fathers gained for us. He believed that the good old “Ship of State,” the noble Constitution, having survived the storm raised by this family quarrel, [will] resume her course onward.

Well, let us assess where we are 145 years later.

The good old “Ship of State” is still afloat, having survived many storms since.

And now, too, we are a nation at war; our defense reserves have been ordered to distant ports. There are forces  at least according to some  who would undermine our government and deplete our Treasury out of greed. Others would say those same forces are the true patriots, the ones appointed to the noble work of cherishing, nourishing, supporting and defending Freedom. How far have we come?

We are also at war with each other: conservative versus liberal, red state versus blue state, straight versus gay, white versus black (oh yes, still!), “legal” versus “illegal,” haves versus have-nots, well-educated versus poorly-educated; the list can go on and on. Pro this-or-that versus anti this-or-that. The wedge between brothers and sisters in this country is deep and wide and it feels as though it is getting deeper and wider. What happened to the idea of a common-wealth, a common good? I don’t know. It’s been lost to greed. Which is exactly what Shaw thought fueled the institution of slavery, which, in turn, is exactly what Shaw thought threatened our independence, our freedom, and our constitution.

Shaw didn’t blame southern people per se. Slavery, he reminded his listeners, was in all the states when our government was formed. But he says: “We in the north soon got rid of it, while the people of the south chose to retain it, regarding it, at first, as a necessary evil.” Looking back 145 years, reluctantly, I would have to tell my colleague the Rev. Mr. Shaw that we may have gotten rid of slavery in this country, but we certainly have not succeeded in eradicating racism or, for that matter, eliminating the injustices of poverty and class, education or even purpose. Great chasms still exist between factions in this country.

But Shaw saw it differently. He believed that slavery persisted in the South because it was convenient and, later, because it seemed necessary to sustain the rich source of labor that supported the luxury and lifestyles of the slave owners. In the South, he says, slavery grew from necessary evil to divine right in just a few generations.

I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of the North’s so-called admirable role in abolishing slavery. I fear that, had it served the North as well as it did the South, slavery would have been held up as a national institution for progress. But that is hindsight talking. Had I been sitting in the pews that Thanksgiving Day, I believe I would have shared Shaw’s patriotic fervor.

Shaw explains that the Fugitive Slave Bill was framed by several northern states to protect free citizens who were in danger of being claimed, seized, and carried off as slaves. Before it was enacted, the fear was that any slave master coming from the South, could enter any city or village in the land and, with the aid of certain officers appointed for the purpose, could take away any person he may choose to call his slave. The person seized was not allowed the privilege or the right of a free trial in the courts. Until the bill forced the slave master to prove his claims in court, the situation gave the slave master great power and placed in jeopardy the personal liberty and rights of the individual claimed as slave.

Sound familiar? Certainly the specifics are different, but still today we are still debating the conditions under which it is possible, or some say, necessary, to limit personal liberties. We are curtailing the rights of some by denying them a fair trial in our judicial system. Shaw’s youthful, optimistic poem on Independence speaks of equal laws. But he was nave in 1831. By 1861 he knew it. And we know it still. How have people stacked or attacked the courts or attempted constitutional amendments to guarantee rights as they understand them to be? Where is the power in our government today? Whose personal liberties are at stake now?  What can you point to that seemed at first like a necessary evil that has now weaseled its way into the minds of some as God-given rights?

Like Shaw, I have very strong opinions on the subject. I suspect you do too. I will not assume we agree in all cases. Except, I hope we can agree on this: our Unitarian Universalist affirmation of the value of the democratic process. Yes, it is flawed, and so are we all. But the right of free speech responsibly exercised in the public common and in the voting booth is still way at the top of my list. So, too, is the right of personal liberty and a fair trial.

Shaw quotes Justice Douglas: “Are we to resort to the sword, when we get defeated at the ballot-box?” I certainly hope not. Yet you need only to stand in the parking lot of an abortion clinic to feel the threat breathing down your neck. Today we arm ourselves with fences and ballot initiatives and signing statements and sometimes even guns. And, too often, we do it in the name of “values.” Which values are being corrupted as others are being held up as sacred?

In the hymn we sang earlier, James Russell Lowell reminds us of this: if there breathes on earth a slave, are we truly free and brave? Are we slaves who look away from others’ pain? Are we slaves, he asks, who fear to speak for the fallen and the weak? Are we slaves unwilling to be freed ourselves when we shrink in silence?

True freedom, Lowell reminds us, is when we work in earnest to make all free  with heart, and hand, and voice and vote. Let us gather in freedom and burn slavery.

Sail on, O Ship of State! Sail on.  Friends, do not jump ship or drown in apathy.

Wake up every morning with freedom on your mind.


Our freedom is our birthright, and we must stand by it to the end.

    • -Linus H. Shaw
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A Conversation with Margaret Fuller

Posted by on May 9, 2010 in Worship Services

Margaret Fuller Bicentennial Award  winning sermon

by Rev Katie Lee Crane, delivered May 9 2010 (Mothers’ Day)

OPENING WORDS                       Rev. Katie Lee Crane

Today, we are celebrating Margaret Fuller’s birthday. She was born on May 23rd 200 years ago.

She grew up to be one of our most famous Unitarians. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were close friends. She was the first to do a lot of things girls and women had never done before.

Father wanted her to have same education as a boy. – but in 1810, there were no schools for girls (at least where girls could learn the same things as boys).

Margaret learned to read when she was three. Books were her best friends. She read so much and so long that she got headaches and eye strain, shoulders hunched.

Margaret didn’t play with other children; she had a hard time making friends. She wanted to fit in but she felt different.

For example, she loved to debate things and speak up about what was on her mind, but everyone thought she was showing off. People made fun of her.

Imagine beginning your day like this: At 15 Margaret Fuller wrote: “I rise a little before five, walk an hour, and then practice on the piano, till seven, when we breakfast. Next I read French—Sismondi’sLiterature of the South of Europe.” She ends the letter saying: “I feel [like I’m] growing every day….  I have learned [anything is possible]!” [1]

Because of people like her, lots of things ARE possible for us today. Thank you… and Happy Birthday, Margaret Fuller.


If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it.

If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.

If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it.

—  attributed to Margaret Fuller (also to Thomas Fuller, her father)

READING                                  Beverly Waring

an excerpt from the sermon, Margaret Fuller: Adieu and Love as You Can, by the Rev. Christine Hillman[2].

….Margaret Fuller was not one-dimensional! She struggled and wrestled, met the issues of the day head on and made mistakes, alienated people close to her, alienated the nation for awhile, left the country to escape the mess. She wasn’t an easy woman. But she wouldn’t have been Margaret Fuller if she had been a simple person. She wouldn’t be a model if she had been simply a woman of her time. [She was] a complex woman, a person like you and me, never simple.

…She led a remarkably intellectual life, more academic than most Americans then or now, far more academic than any other girl of her time. Her father’s challenge was the force behind the education she received. He wrote from his Senate office in Washington: “Tell Margaret I love her if she learns to read.” She did—at age three.

[But] Her father … couldn’t teach her what to do with her genius or her education. Margaret didn’t know what to do with it either. One biographer said of Fuller that she was “living a problem the more oppressive and insidious because she couldn’t name it.”[3] It was a suffering that contributed to intense and pervasive migraine headaches as well as to chronic insomnia throughout her life. Margaret Fuller was not perfect but she kept on. She suffered but didn’t surrender. Her prayer was this: “Give me truth, cheat me not by illusion.”[4]

Perhaps it was because of this prayer that she gathered young women for “Conversations.” For five winters Margaret and twenty to twenty-five young women met over tea in the parlor of a friend to discuss important philosophical questions of the day. She used her intellect and education; she handed on its importance to other young women, so that they would gain access to a life of the intellect, so that they would not be cheated by illusion. Perhaps she hoped to find in that group of women someone she could genuinely talk to. In her journal she wrote: “I must take my own path, and learn… without being paralyzed for today. We need great energy, and self-reliance to endure.”[5]

Margaret Fuller was not a perfect woman; she made mistakes. …

She struggled… and wrote in a letter:

For all the tides of life that flow within me, I am dumb and ineffectual….

With the intellect I always have, always shall, overcome; but that is not the half of the work. The life, the life! O, my God! Shall the life never be sweet?[6]

…When Margaret Fuller was twenty-six years old she met Ralph Waldo Emerson, then thirty-four. He introduced her to Transcendentalism, for her a religious affirmation of the life of the mind. For several years Fuller was editor and literary critic for the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. She absorbed Transcendentalism—and grew beyond it…. Transcendentalism, with its too often emphasis on the life of the mind, was not enough for her.

She entered the fullness of her public life in America when she wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the first American exploration of women’s lives. In the same year Horace Greeley hired her at the New York Tribune as the first woman to write for a major newspaper. She visited the famous prison at Sing Sing and the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, and wrote about the terrible conditions and what work other women were doing to make life better for the imprisoned and the mentally ill. But her book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was reviled, creating more controversy than she could tolerate, so she finally escaped to Europe.

[She convinced Greeley to send her as a foreign correspondent for the Tribune. She sent dispatches from England, Scotland, Paris and Italy, and eventually settled in Rome.]

In Milan, Margaret met radicals during a time of growing ferment in Italy that would turn that country into revolution at the end of the 1840s. And she met nobleman Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. Somewhere along the way they married. Somewhere during that time they had a baby together. Through that time they lived in the revolution. Ossoli fought as a soldier, and Margaret became

hospital director on a small island in the Tiber River. Their baby nearly starved—left with so-called friends—separated from both of them.

After the war, Margaret, her husband and their son embarked for the United States. Within yards of the Jersey shore a storm tore at their ship, and Margaret, Ossoli and their son all died.[7]

…Her last letter to Quaker friends, written June 3, 1850, ended [this way]: “with most affectionate wishes that joy and peace may continue to dwell in your house, adieu and love as you can.”[8]

READING from Margaret Fuller, 1847, a poem by Amy Clampitt[9]

[text pending permission to publish] MUSICAL INTERLUDE New Worlds Manifest

Adapted from the words of Margaret Fuller by Ed Thompson
Music composed by Laura Halfvarson Jump

We seek in nature and in art for ways to comprehend the meaning that our life enfolds, what makes us break or bend. Within each leaf and brush of paint our traits we apprehend; and in these patterns we can find a life that’s without end. A life that’s without end.

All women and all men alike may freely use the mind, and thus from thoughtless mannered ways a truer pathway find. But also freely let’s employ imagination’s part that dwells inside of every soul; and makes of life an art. And makes of life an art.

No matter what our circumstance, our nature is to grow and in that growth we may discern the gifts we can bestow. Whatever be your calling do! Sincerely, and with zest; and in that work may we then find the holy manifest. The holy manifest.

And on this journey share the thoughts that beckon, old or new; surpassing challenge, strive beyond: our lives will be renewed. With courage then, may we reach out to aid the oppressed and weak. And in that struggle manifest the justice that we seek. The justice that we seek.

SERMON A Conversation with Margaret Fuller Rev. Katie Lee Crane

Happy Mother’s Day, Margaret. So few people remember you as a mother. But today, I wonder how it was for you – to find love and have a child when, frankly, no one expected either of you – including you yourself.

I can’t get this image out of my mind – you, sitting there on the deck of the ship, almost certainly knowing what was likely to happen. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare. Henry David Thoreau described the scene in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson less than a week after you died.

The ship struck at ten minutes after four am, and all hands, being mostly in their nightclothes, made haste to the forecastle, the water coming in at once. There they remained; the passengers in the forecastle, the crew above it, doing what they could. Every wave lifted the forecastle roof and washed over those within. The first man got ashore at nine; many from nine to noon. At flood-tide, about half past three o’clock, when the ship broke up entirely, they came out of the forecastle, and Margaret sat with her back to the foremast, with her hands on her knees, her husband … already drowned. A great wave came and washed her aft. The steward had just before taken her child and started for shore. Both were drowned.

I cannot fathom how you must have felt in those final minutes. You were only 40. You were coming home with a husband and a son. Your manuscript of the Italian Revolution was complete. You’d never been so happy, or so you wrote to your mother. And you lost everything within sight of the shore.

You were not the same person who left four years earlier. Ironically, you had found yourself in the middle of a war zone. Finally, you belonged. Finally the powerful hunger of your intellect was no longer at war with your imagination and emotions; they seemed to be living in harmony. Or so I’d like to believe.

But I wonder if that’s true? I read somewhere that you were afraid to come home to America, afraid to return to the cultural constraints of your “bluestocking” world. Living in Europe – especially Rome – had allowed the rigid walls of stuffy New England to crumble and enabled you to explore the parts of you that had been muffled your entire life.

American poet Amy Clampitt described how she imagined you just before you sailed.

“What would Carlyle [who’d called you an old maid], what would straightlaced

Horace Greeley, what would fastidious

Nathaniel Hawthorne, what would all of Concord,

all New England, and her own mother

say now?”

Would you ever fit in back home? With an Italian husband 10 years your junior and a child? But you had no choice. You needed help and stability and an education for your little Nino.

I can’t imagine what it was like to hand him over to that steward and the stormy sea. What went through your mind those last minutes – did you see your life pass before you? Did you lament the inevitable loss? Or was there some poetic justice that you and the ones you most loved would die together before life’s realities interfered with your happiness? We will never know. But I sit there with you now… and wonder.

I met you in 1966, in Dr. Dean’s American Literature class. “Write about one of the Transcendentalists,” he said, “choose one from this list.” By the time the list made its way to me, there was no one left whose name I recognized. No Emerson. No Thoreau. But, there was a woman – you. Off I went to the library to do my research only to discover nothing – absolutely nothing – about you. You were occasionally mentioned in tomes about the others, but there was nothing specifically about you. I discovered that your papers were at Houghton Library at Harvard University inCambridge – where you’d grown up. But I was from the Midwest, that wasn’t accessible to me. Frankly, I didn’t even know where it was.

Still I learned enough to be fascinated. Some years later, I discovered a biography by Mason Wade, published in 1941.[10] A friend found it for me in a used bookstore. I devoured it. I related to you in so many ways. The child who was smart – for a girl. The overweight girl who had more books than friends; the same girl, who, when she spoke up, people said she was “showing off.”

Your intellect dominated and yet you yearned for emotional release. You seemed incapable – then – to imagine that they might both be important. You had this drive to grow, this desire to know life as fully as possible.

I thought of you as a teacher. Someone whose experience was more like mine than most others I knew. You were to me what Georges Sand[11] was to you – what we call a role model. It was more than a hundred years since you launched your famous Conversations for women, yet women of my generation were stirring again, trying to break out of the mold we had been forced into. Like you, we were preoccupied about our identity. Like you, we were driven to convince others that it was possible to be a woman while engaging in the kinds of intellectual pursuits thought to belong only to men. And, yes, like you, we believed women had the right to choose motherhood and marriage instead of having it be the expectation.

I wonder now what it was like for you to be courted by Ossoli? At home they say you had literally driven off suitors. You declared you had no expectation of marrying. What made you open your heart to him? He was neither your age nor your intellectual equal. What made it impossible to remain “unconscionably chaste?” I have to believe that the mores of Europe – or maybe a war – enabled you to let down the barriers that Puritan New England had built around you.

But that’s jumping ahead. In 1836 you met Ralph Waldo Emerson and he invited you into the Transcendentalist circle. There you found a religious movement that affirmed the mind – but was so much more than that. It introduced intuition into the mix. It suggested that truth could be revealed through one’s own experiences – literally by seeing or hearing or touching something that moved you to a kind of knowing that was not of the intellect. You’d had such an experience at 21. You knew first hand what it meant.

This new perspective invited you to seek meanings in nature, in art, in imagination. Like Emerson, you’d read Goethe; you were drawn to the mystical. Transcendentalism seemed to offer you a new freedom. It was adventurous. It gave you space to explore who you were.

It was so different from the Unitarianism of your childhood, where scripture was considered the only authoritative source of inspiration. This new religious movement was so expansive.

Learning about Transcendentalism and about you in 1966 were surely my first steps toward discovering a new religious home in Unitarian Universalism. As I learned more and eventually joined this religious community, I remember saying “This is a religion big enough to hold me!” It sounds self-aggrandizing now, but it was so liberating. To me, there is so much that is holy. One doesn’t just find it in a church, or a holy book, or even an ancient ritual re-enacted everyday. I see holiness everywhere, often in some very unlikely places. Discovering Unitarian Universalism was, for me, the bridge that connects intellect and intuition. It’s been opening my mind and heart ever since.

In 1839 you introduced your famous Conversations. You invited women intellectuals and activists to meet together. In 1966, we had consciousness-raising groups. Same thing. We brought women together to learn and to share their experiences. Let’s face it: you started those Conversations because the men wouldn’t invite you to join theirs. You wanted friends and intellectual stimulation. And you needed money (part of that time you were homeless). A woman wasn’t allowed to lecture in public so you called your gatherings “conversations,” arguing: “There’s no law about women having a conversation!

Frankly, you were self-centered. Emerson quoted you as saying: “I know now all the people worth knowing in America and I find no intellect comparable to my own.”[12]

You were intense and complicated. They called you idiosyncratic, mercurial, inspiring, alienating, and tormented. Those who knew you acknowledge you to be brutally honest both about yourself and others. One of your biographers[13] claimed you had an uncanny ability to learn from mistakes and misfortune. She admired your skill and courage in naming your feelings and speaking your mind. You could unblinkingly acknowledge pain.

I wonder about the pain you felt on the deck of that ship. Or how you felt when you found yourself inItaly pregnant and unmarried. What drove you to leave your infant son to run a hospital in the war zone? Was it tortuous to leave? Or did you feel driven to follow a different hunger – the one that craved recognition for your bold pursuits. Maybe you had no choice. Or maybe that was your choice.

You learned and changed so much even before you set sail for Europe. Your work editing The Dialgave voice to Transcendentalism.(I’ve always suspected you were Emerson’s ghost writer.) I think it helped you find your own voice, as did your work with Horace Greeley on the New York Tribune. Meeting the prostitutes at Sing Sing and hearing their stories introduced you to injustices that you’d never imagined. Some of them were likely mothers too.

You began to understand how everyone was equal – the women in prison, the women in your circle of friends. African Americans. Native Americans. You dared to speak out publicly for education for all and loudly against slavery. Earlier, you’d insisted that abolition be off the table in your Conversations. Now it was a cause célèbre. Justice, for you, meant equal rights and equal opportunities. I can’t imagine how you’d feel if you knew we’re still fighting for the some of the same things.

You wrote your book – Women in the Nineteenth Century. But you weren’t prepared for the response.  A few said it was bold. Most said things like indelicate, horrendous. It certainly got a response. Much of it negative.

Your own response was to feel even less at home in the United States. Then it all happened so fast, really. You left for Europe in 1846. You traveled to England, Scotland and Paris. You met George Sand – Mme Dudevant! You went to Italy, settled in a room, met Ossoli in 1847. You found yourself pregnant, the two of you secretly marry, and your little Nino – Angelo Eugene Phillip Ossoli, was born on September 5, 1848. That same year you return to Rome (without Nino).You were writing, you were an activist, you become director of a field hospital. Most of this time you were away from your child.  But in 1849 – fearing for your safety and struggling financially (you were alwaysstruggling financially) – you settle briefly in Florence and live for the first time as a family.

The next year, you died.

As we celebrate the bicentennial of your birth, I want to say “thank you.” Dr. Dean was my Emerson and you, my mentor. Both of you showed me possibilities I had never before imagined. I think back to how radical it was for Transcendentalism to suggest that one might be inspired by something other than scripture. Ironically, it was still radical for me in 1966. When I read that my own experiences could also be a source of inspiration – I felt affirmed. The walls of my traditional religious upbringing crumbled and I began to build myself a new temple as big as the earth and the universe itself.

Today, we Unitarian Universalists list many sources of inspiration. One, direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, comes right out of Transcendentalism. But it is another where I lovingly inscribe your name: words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. It is your story that helped me to find my way.

We don’t have saints in our religion. Though I admit, in those very early years you were a bit of a saint for me. Now, you are all the more important to me because you were so human. You loved and you suffered. You were a truth-teller and justice-seeker in the public sphere; you were sometimes lost and lonely in your private world. You were quirky and smart and frightened, not because you were perfect, but because you weren’t. It is all of who you were – and weren’t – that is inspiring to me. You were determined to learn and grow and seize life. And you did. I want no more or less than that for myself.

Thank you, Margaret. Happy Mother’s Day… and Happy Birthday.


The Fuller family erected a monument to Margaret’s memory at Mount Auburn Cemetery. It reads: “Born a child of New England, By adoption a citizen of Rome, By genius belonging to the World.”

[1] Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, (Old Westbury, CT: The Feminist Press, 1976) p.55.

[2] The full text of Rev. Hillman’s sermon may be found at the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 108.

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Margaret Fuller and her family died in the shipwreck, July 19, 1850.

[8] Ibid., 497

[9] Amy Clampitt, “Margaret Fuller, 1847,” Archaic Figure, New York: Knopf, 1987.

[10] Mason Wade, Margaret Fuller: Whetstone of Genius(New York: Viking, 1941).

[11] Aurore Lucile Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant (1805-1876), a French novelist who used the pseudonym George Sand.

[12] Reported by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1884) Vol. 1, Pt. 4.

[13] Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, (Old Westbury, CT: The Feminist Press, 1976).


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We Are All Heretics

Posted by on Feb 11, 2007 in Worship Services

We Are All Heretics; The Gnostic Gospels

Sunday Worship, Feb. 11, 2007
Ms. Alorie Parkhill and Rev. Katie Lee Crane

  • Truth is as mysterious as God,
    • and as sacred.
  • It sustains and kills.
  • It is always dangerous.
      • Source unknown


There are a lot of stories about Jesus  stories about what he said, what he believed, stories about his teaching and preaching and healing. Some of those stories are in the Christian Bible. And, some, are not. Some might not be there because they were very similar to the stories that ARE in the Bible. Perhaps some were lost before they made the Bible. But some stories are not in the Bible because they described things that Jesus supposedly thought and taught that certain early Christians didn’t believe. In fact, after Jesus died, his followers argued a lot among themselves about which stories should be included in the Bible and which ones should not. Everyone wanted the stories they believed to be the ones that defined the Church they were starting in Jesus’ name. They had a meeting. Everyone argued for what they believed. But only some stories were chosen. Others were destroyed. Some were lost forever. A few have recently been found. Reading the stories that weren’t chosen for the bible causes us to wonder: which stories are true?

We light this chalice to rekindle our flame of truth.
We light this chalice to replenish our spirit of love.
We light this chalice to rededicate our energy of action.
May the light which is before us
nurture and sustain the light which is within us.

      • Rev. Makanah Morris

READING  Meet Some of My Favorite Heretics, Rev. Katie Lee Crane

I know some Unitarian Universalists who revel in the idea that we are heretics. But I’m here to tell you that my spine used to bristle when I heard that word. You see, like some of you, I grew up in a religious tradition where questions and dissent were discouraged. We were taught doctrine and dogma and practices that had been codified long ago and then refined over centuries by scholars and other leaders seeking to make those ideas and practices easier for the rest of us to understand and follow. Heresy, as I understood it, was an opinion contrary to the truth.

So imagine my surprise when I learned  not too long ago  that the word “heresy” derives from the late Greek, hairesis, meaning “to choose” or the “act of choosing.” Originally, the word we know as “heresy” was a neutral term indicating a point of view.

One might say that the intense debating among Christian believers in the first several centuries following Jesus’ death, was a struggle to determine which point of view would be chosen as the “official” or orthodox point of view. It was a free-for-all, everybody trying to define their own socio-political borders and seeking to create secure in-group identities.  Dozens argued, for example, about the nature of Jesus. Was he God? Was he merely an exemplary human? Was he part of a three-in-one God in which all aspects of God were equal? Was he “made” by God and not “of one substance with the father?”

Let me introduce three of the early Christians whose points of view didn’t make the official cut.

Valentinus was an early Christian theologian who became famous for his Gnostic point of view. Alorie will tell you more about this later this morning. Born in 100 C.E. and educated in Alexandria, Egypt, Valentinus later went to Rome to preach and teach. His ideas, influenced by Platonic concepts, were briefly the mainstream Christian point of view. Born as soon as he was following Jesus’ death, Valentinus believed himself to have a special apostolic sanction through Theudas, a disciple and initiate of Paul of Taursus. He claimed that he was among those entrusted with certain esoteric truths and was, in fact, called to be a custodian of doctrines and rituals which, he believed, should become foundational to Christianity. He is credited with writing the Gospel of Truth, one of the non-canonical texts that have only recently come to our attention.

Eighty-five years after Valentinus’ birth, Origen was born, also in Alexandria. His was one of the first intellectual attempts to define Christianity. In an effort to refute what he saw as Gnosticism’s determinism, Origen argued for free will, that is, the full freedom of individual minds to turn to or from God’s word.

One of his most famous documents, “On First Principles,” outlined his doctrine of the “restoration of all souls.” Borrowing from the Greek Stoics, Origen argued that, eventually, all souls would be restored to a state of dynamic perfection and dwell with God. This point of view, called apokatastasis [a pock a tas ta sis] most likely evolved from Origen’s intellectual heritage that included the Greek cosmology, plus Jewish and early Christian teachings.

While Gnosticism flourished, Origen’s systematic theology was debunked by those who claimed they did not need reasoned and intellectual “proofs;” they relied on their own unmediated experience of the divine. There was a time, however, when Origen’s point of view  and certainly his scholarship  was in such favor that he was named “Father of the Church.” He fell from favor  ironically not over a point of theology, but over a power struggle  and he was banished from Alexandria. He settled in Caesarea in Palestine but later came under fire there, too. He was eventually imprisoned and tortured. He died soon thereafter, probably as a result of his treatment in prison.

Origen’s heresies included an understanding of free will, and a denial of an eternal hell where some souls could never be restored to God’s love. Origen’s idea about restoration of souls has surfaced again and again throughout history: with the Renaissance Humanists, for example, later with existentialist Christians and, still later, with our own Universalist forebears who believed in universal salvation  that a gracious God would not condemn souls to eternal damnation; all souls would eventually be saved.

Alexandria was clearly a hotbed because it was there, too, that Arius was born sometime around 250 C.E. He struggled with the emerging view of the trinity and argued that, there were three but the three were not equal. Jesus and the Holy Spirit were both different in essence from and subordinate to the Father. Jesus was a human creature, related to God as one elevated through obedience to God’s will. It was, at its core, a question of whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, or not. Heady stuff. But to the adherents of various perspectives, critical to an understanding of Christianity as they perceived it.

All three of these now-called “heretics” lived during a time of great ferment in the early Christian Church. Bitter battles. Years of theological debates and personal power struggles. Arius lived to argue his point of view at the famous Council of Nicea in 325 which adopted the Nicene Creed which is the foundational creedal statement of Christians today. During the great debate when the Church Fathers attempted to create this creedal statement, one option on the table favored the Arian point of view. It was rejected, however, in favor of the part of the Nicene Creed that many of us know by heart:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, lig
ht from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.

Only three voted against this version of the creed; Arius was one of them. All three were exiled.

Today’s Unitarian traditions which grow from 16th century Transylvanian Unitarianism and began to flourish in this country in the 19th century are actually rooted in the much earlier “heresy” of Arius whose point of view was the loser at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.

READING selections from The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel According to Thomas consists of 114 sayings of Jesus, some familiar, some not. Here are just a few excerpts :

Jesus said: If those who lead you say to you, “See the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty. (3)

Jesus said to his disciples: “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.”
Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous angel.”
Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom
you are like.”
Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated
from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.”
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things.
When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus tell you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up
stones and throw them at me, a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.” (13)

Jesus said, “It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries. Do not let your left (hand) know what your right (hand) is doing.” (62)

Of the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, we have only a fragment, and that, not the original, but a Coptic translation of the original. One scholar, Karen King, claims this gospel is radical in at least two ways: first, it presents Mary of Magdala as one of the early leaders among Jesus’ followers and second, it suggests an interpretation of Jesus’ teachings that is radically different from the one that is most familiar. She claims Jesus teaches a way to inner spiritual knowledge. She appears to rejects Jesus’ suffering and death as the path to eternal life.

The first six pages are lost, so the gospel begins with a scene, set after the resurrection, in which Jesus and his disciples are in the midst of a discussion about the end of the world and the nature of sin. Jesus concludes the teaching with a warning against those who would delude the disciples into following one particular leader or one set of rules and laws. Instead, he says, they are to seek the child of true Humanity within themselves and gain inward peace. Then he commissions them to preach his gospel and leaves.

This is where I pick up a bit of the narrative of the Gospel of Mary of Magdala:

But they were distressed and wept greatly. “How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the Realm of the child of true Humanity?” they said. “If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.”

When Mary had said these things, she turned their heart [to]ward the Good, and they began to deba[t]e about the wor[d]s of [the Savior].

Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t because we haven’t heard them.”

Mary responded, “I will teach you about what is hidden from you.”

And she began to teach them what she knew.

Later in the gospel, however, things are not as harmonious. Andrew complains about Mary’s teachings.

“Say what you will about the things she has said, but I do not believe the S[a]vior said these things, f[or] indeed these teachings are strange ideas.”

Peter responded, bringing up similar concerns. …”Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what are you imagining? Do you think that I have thought up these things by myself in my heart or that I am telling lies about the Savior?

Levi answered, speaking to Peter, “Peter, you have always been a wrathful person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the Adversaries. For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior’s knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.”

SERMON         We Are All Heretics, Alorie Parkhill

When I first heard about the Gnostic Gospels, I was fascinated; they sounded like a kind of forbidden fruit in early Christianity. Evidently, these writings had been suppressed as heretical by the church fathers. To me, a fifth generation UU on the maternal side, and a devout skeptic, that made these potential revolutionaries worthy of investigation.

In my youth, I had relished arguing with my Methodist and Episcopalian friends, and especially their earnest youth group leaders, about such things as whether Jesus was actually “God” (as I looked up at the unlikely blond, blue-eyed images of him all around). Such discourse has always intrigued me, though I didn’t necessarily know much about the subject at the time. I did love to argue. Maybe, I thought, in my adult incarnation, the Gnostics (loosely meaning wisdom or insight in Greek) possessed some special truth so hereticaland dangerous— that it had to be suppressed by the early official Christian church. How utterly delicious!

So I explored further. After reading Elaine Pagels, the most popularly known scholar on the Gnostics, I was more intrigued. Pagels writes that these splinter sects were first investigated by their orthodox contemporaries who were “attempting to prove that Gnosticism was essentially non-Christian. They traced its origins to Greek philosophy, astrology, mystery religions, magic and even Indian sources.” Those Eastern thinkers must have seemed especially dangerous in their acceptance of multiple gods and the oneness of all divinity, a bizarre notion evidently.

We all know that history is written by the winners, and it seems that one of the many splinter groups who followed Jesus eventually came to preeminence. Pagels points out that “orthodox Christians, by the late second century, had begun to establish ‘objective criteria’ for church membership. Whoever confessed the creed, accepted the ritual of baptism [by the correct bishop], participated in worship, and obeyed the clergy was accepted as a fellow Christian.” (p. 104). The official church was the hierarchy, and the accepted gospels of the New Testament reflected the only truth. All other groups, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, said were “false persons, evil seducers and hypocrites.”

As a feminist, I was also intrigued by what seemed like a more accepting Gnostic attitude toward wom
en than that presented in the patriarchal Old and New Testaments. In her chapter, “God the Father/God the Mother,” Pagels suggests that some of the texts “speak of God as a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements.” (p. 49)   We know that many of the older religions described virgin births as a reflection of a particular kind of female spirituality, not necessarily sexual purity. Perhaps these small, multi-faceted, and now condemned groups of Gnostics had merged elements of both the old and new religions? Certainly the Christian authorities would have none of this extremism and managed to eliminate most feminine imagery from their texts. Nonetheless, “the virgin” Mary still achieved a kind of mother goddess stature among the folk, despite the self-proclaimed authorities. In statues, this new goddess, Mary, even looked remarkably like the Egyptian goddess Isis, holding her baby, Horus.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdelene), there is a brief suggestion that Jesus and Mary had been exceptionally closehe kissed her on the lips, and who knows what else happened? In the Gospel of Thomas the apostles expressed jealousy of her relationship with Jesus. After the crucifixion, the apostles ask Mary what Jesus had told her in secret. Peter rages, saying “Did he prefer her to us?” leading to a profound argument about whether women had any authority at all. In a previous context, Jesus had said “whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.” Did Jesus impart some kind of esoteric knowledge to Mary? We are reminded of the dangerous forbidden knowledge of good and evil that so threatened the god who walked in the Garden of Eden, especially knowledge in the hands of a woman!

The Christian degradation of women has much to do with the power of sexuality. Ancient epics, such as the Sumerian Gilgamesh and the Celtic Cuchulainn, affirm and accept female sexuality, despite their profoundly patriarchal cultures. With the writing of the second version of Adam and Eve in Genesis, however, negative attitudes became codified. And we are still living today with a Judeo-Christian Puritanism that shapes every aspect of our culture.

The more I read, however, the more criticism of Pagels emerged. A Christian herself, she was accused of sympathizing with the Gnostics against the early church authorities. Did contemporary theologians consider this a kind of heresy too? Her critics claim that she over-emphasized the equality of women with men since one gospel stated: “Every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” What a generous offer! John Dart in The Laughing Savior counters with the idea that “to become a male is standard (albeit chauvinistic) language of the Hellenistic world for becoming pure, spiritual.”

According to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said to his disciples, “There is light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is in darkness.”  Ah! Is there a suggestion of god within us perhaps, not external and other? (p. 120). That could certainly be considered heretical in the face of the dominant monotheistic otherness.

We actually know more about the Gnostics from its detractors than from the people who practiced their faith. Bishop Irenaeus had much to say about their heresies. He seemed absolutely certain about the Truth with a capital T. (121) There was to be no salvation outside the church, period. John Dart writes that “Christianity tended to drive toward doctrinal unity while Gnostic thinkers apparently preferred their independent ways. They seemed to seek and incorporate into their systems any bit of ‘truth’ or ‘knowledge’ they found, regardless of the source.” Pagels writes that some of the Gnostics believed that “truth had to be clothed in symbols.” Who interpreted these symbols was always at issue. Was it the “true” Christian fathers or the individual exploring human experience? We know who won. Eventually, many people suffered for their unbelief or their difference of belief once the canon was established. Undoubtedly, many of us would have been burned at the stake in those days.

Well, maybe the Gnostics weren’t that important in the great scheme of things, just small groups of individuals seeking the light. Some scholars believe that there was actually no unified Gnosticism at all. Michael Williams in Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’ suggests it “has been seen variously as a protest movement that overturned traditional values and textual interpretations; a religion of innovators who adopted and adapted ideas from other religions; a religion of spiritualists who despised the body and the life of the body; and a movement of ethical extremists who opted for either an ascetic or a libertine way of life.” Take your pick. But these small groups of religious folk had their own perspective on Jesus and on spirituality. Were their writings any less valid than the now canonized gospels? Haven’t all religious movements actually been protests against the previously established “truths,” including early Christianity?

And therein lies the fundamental question, of courseWhat IS the truth? Can we know it for sure? Who has the authority to tell me or you what to believe?
All of these issues led me back to one of my favorite topicsmythology. I have read it and taught it for many years, and what I teach centers around the truth within the stories, not so much the stories themselves. The details of who did what, when, or which god or goddess held sway matter so much less than what the ancient tales from everywhere on earth reveal to us about our universal humanity. We are all born, we experience joy, loss, beauty, painand we all die. These are human truths which every great myth portrays. Why then? Who is responsible? As my five-year-old granddaughter once asked me, where was I before I was me? She hasn’t yet asked what will I be when I’m not me anymore, but I can see that one coming. I don’t have answers for her. I just know that we ARE, at least for now, and that there is something innately divine in each of us that lasts well beyond these fragile bodies. Perhaps this is a Gnostic way of knowing, deeply personal and experiential, as well as a Unitarian-Universalist way.

John Dart writes of Nietzsche who “chafed” under the monotheistic ideal of Western civilization Judeo-Christian heritage and ridiculed the hold it had on creative thinking.” He said. “‘Monotheism, the rigid consequence of the doctrine of one normal human beingconsequently  the belief in a normal God, beside whom there are only false, spurious Gods—has perhaps been the greatest danger of mankind in the past. In polytheism man’s free-thinking and many-sided thinking has a prototype set up: the power to create for himself in new and individual ways, always newer and more individualized.” Joseph Campbell demonstrated this idea in The Power of Myth. He said: “One problem with Yahweh, as they used to say in the old Christian Gnostic texts, is that he forgot he was a metaphor. He thought he was a fact. And when he said,’ I am God,’ a voice was heard to say, ‘You are mistaken, Samael.’ Samael means blind god: blind to the infinite Light of which he is a local historical manifestation. This is known as the blasphemy of Jehovah—that he thought he was God.”

Monotheistic or polytheistic or non-theistic, it’s all in the metaphor. Jesus taught in parables. Ancient cultures taught in stories and rituals. Did Gilgamesh actually go to a Sumerian Noah to find the secret of immortality? Did Demeter lose her daughter to the underworld for six months of the year? Did the Norse Sigurd slay a dragon and eat its heart to learn the secrets only the animals knew? Were the floods, deaths and rebirths, hero monomyths in every culture, literal? I don’t think so, and I don’t believe that’s what matters. Campbell says “Every religion is true one
way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.

Then what of the heretical Gnostics?  I appreciate that these groups existed and struggled with the same human questions we all wrestle with. Who can say for certain what Jesus meant, but some of his teachings make sense to me, certainly not all. I delight in his apparent acceptance of women beyond what his culture found tenable.  Another teaching, simply put, to love yourself so that you are actually able to love others, is far from an anemic concept. It’s a truly difficult and essential challenge for all of us, like forgiving the unforgivable. In Matthew, verse 34, he is quoted as saying, “Be not anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for today.” Many great sages have spoken similarly. I honor and wish to emulate them, difficult as that is. Again, Jesus taught, don’t criticize others when you are equally vulnerable. Take care of children. I can’t argue with that one. Do not kill or bear false witness. He was a fine teller of stories, like the bards, the skalds and the scops before him.

Death and resurrection (or rebirth), which seems so central to Christian belief, feel very much to me like the old dying and reviving gods. Our Pagan ancestors speak to us of fertility, and the cycle of the seasons. As I watch the light return, and as I work the earth each new growing season, that image of dying and renewing becomes truth eternal, with a capital T. I miss the ancient respect for the earth in the teachings of Jesus, but I find it in other spiritual traditions, unfortunately not so much in our times. I believe, as every culture before us has, that we are all heroes and heroines on a road of trials from birth to death. We need help along the way, and we all have something to give back to the world. I don’t think this requires a belief in a god, especially a distant authority, though I do seek a godly (goddessly?) spirit in each of us, and in the natural world.
If I am a heretic because I pick and choose among spiritualities, then I join a venerable crowd, as do you. We UUs are often criticized for having no beliefs because we lack a creed. I am deeply grateful that we eschew absolutes, but that we do keep struggling to find common ground in all our differences. We are seekers, not an easy path, and we don’t take things on faith. It is much simpler to be given directions by a higher authority. Certainty comforts. Our way is to choose our way— to question things, to probe, to doubt, to wrestle with the unanswerable. When Gilgamesh finally recognized that he could not achieve immortality, no matter how ferociously he attacked the challenge, he went back to his people to lead them wisely until his death. As devout heretics, we try to listen to the metaphors in all the great stories and seek the kernels of truth. That may seem a dangerous path because mostly we cannot know truth with a capital T, except in the Gnostic way of knowing. If to choose is heresy, then we are united in our heresy.

What are your stories then? What poetic language whispers in your ear of the greatest stories ever toldour human stories? Truth then, I believe, is being able to hear the idea behind the image and then living our lives in accord with what we learn, both from words and from this precious world.

As Iris Murdoch’s character Father Bernard, in The Philosopher’s Pupil says:

For what is real and true look at these stones, this bread, the spring of water, those sea waves, this horizon with its pure untroubled line. Only perceive purely and the spiritual and the material world vibrate as one. The power that saves is infinitely simple and infinitely close at hand. (The Spiritual Journey, by Anne Bancroft)

CLOSING WORDS Blessed Are the Pure In Heart by Rosalie Dunlap Boyle (from Lower Than the Angels)

There are no answers, yet some have known
Of incommunicable certainties.
A sudden angel rolled away the stone,
And they were beaten speechless to their knees.
They went thereafter up and down the land
With words like poniards, deadly bright and keen,
To dazzle hearts and straightway pierce them through.
Those who were stricken came to understand
A portion of the truth they had not seen,
Sternly believing what their prophets knew.

Others deal in questions and there are
No certain answers, although some have seen
The dustmotes whirl on every dimming star,
And the black winds of chaos blow between.
Unarmoured by their brief mortality,
They are the blessed wise who to the end
Behold no visions in their holy place,
And yet believe what they will never see.
Only the pure in heart can apprehend
The light—the light behind their God’s dark face.

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