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Fire and Emptiness
by Patricia Gordon
One early autumn weekend the congregation, darkly dressed, pilgrimages to places of sorrow. We visit the homes of some of the threatened species in our part of the Valley: the brown snake, the water snake, and the red-shouldered hawk, whose Valley homes and lives are being blown out like candles. The children who have volunteered to recount the story of each creature help us to imagine the life, sensations, and emotions of the animals who are being cast out from our community. The congregation then stands in silence. We take time, as well, to mourn the Valley members already eliminated from their island home, among them cougars, spotted turtles, elk, and wolves.
We then pilgrimage to the places of poison: Petro Canada; of hunger: our neighborhood's Food Bank; of injustice: the City Hall; and of suffering: the Montreal Hospital. Through powerful actions and aid long a hallmark of both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions, which merged in 1961 we carry our burning desire for justice and compassion into our island community.
Returning to the congregation's sanctuary, we meditate on an extinguished chalice and the emptiness left by the vanished flame. Through art, photographs, dance, texts, and music we learn about some of the lights of joy and presence that have been extinguished from our wider Earth community. We expand our compassion to embrace some of the sorrows found across our planet: places of poison: Chernobyl; of hunger: Calcutta; of injustice: the WTO; of sickness: Botswana. We sorrow for the world's threatened peoples and species: the Siberian Shoer, the Kenyan Ogiek, the Iberian lynx, the Great Raft spider, Spix's macaw. We take time, too, to honor the memory of extinct peoples and species, those who are gone forever: the Ubykh of the Black Sea, the Assurini Indians, the sea mink, Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey, the Xerces Blue butterfly.
We emerge from our mourning together and relight the chalice. We recall that the flaming chalice as the symbol of Unitarian Universalism originated in active service on behalf of the world. During World War II, the Unitarian Service Committee was founded to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews, who were desperate to escape Nazi persecution. The fiery chalice icon was created in this time of need. At its birth, the chalice icon's burning oil was explained as a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice. Today we rededicate ourselves to that vision. Permeated with the energy that, through our food, streams into us from our Sun, the energy which is the cosmic fire of the Radiance itself, we take action.
Our sorrows for Earth, our fights for justice, our rescue efforts, as well as the suffering in our private lives, place this cosmic fire burning within us in grave danger. Brian Swimme warns, "In each moment, we face the cosmic responsibility to shape and discharge this fire in a manner worthy of its numinous origins...This is the central fire of your self, the central fire of the entire cosmos: it must not be wasted on trivialities or revenge, resentment or despair." (Swimme 1984, p. 170)
We use these words as a touchstone in the evening purifications we practice daily in our homes. In the flame of our cosmic fire each of us strives to purify ourselves, to empty ourselves of the poisons of mind and heart: partial truths, trivialities, anger, fear. The broken symmetry of our chalice icon, its movement away from the center of the circle, reminds us that imperfection and its gifts are ongoing. There will always be partial truths, and the opportunity to enlarge them. There will always be trivialities, and the opportunity to see further. There will always be anger, and the opportunity to transform. There will always be fear and hurt, and the opportunity to heal.
These private practices are especially important in the seven days between the weekend of Sorrows and the congregation's Dark Service, which deepens our purification with a liturgy of ultimate loss. The service begins with the chalice and a row of burning candles illuminating the front of the sanctuary. The chalice remains burning throughout the service, representing the continuing creativity of Mystery, but one by one the candles are snuffed out, each extinguished candle representing one of the vast losses in the cosmic unfurling: the breaking of the perfect symmetry of the void with the creation of the Universe itself; the Great Annihilation of particles and antiparticles; the Second Annihilation of galactic collisions; the death of massive stars as they explode their rich elements into the heavens; the great extinctions: the Ice Deaths, the Great Dying, the Death from the Sky, the Fire Death, the Death from Within; the future death of the Sun and Earth; the death of the Universe itself.
The minister speaks, adapting the words of Brian Swimme:All creativity has a cost. For something to be created, something else has to "dissolve." So everything in the ongoing creative event of the Universe is ultimately lost: the emptiness of the void, the fireball form, stars, species, individuals, special moments everything. Perhaps even the Universe itself is a flashing show, which will one day be required by ultimate Mystery.
We arrive here and everything is given to us. These gifts are a result of sacrifices on the part of the Universe the fireball, stars, extinct species, Sun, Earth, animals, plants, and other humans. All the gifts from these were needed and are needed for our lives. They are the cost of our existence. The Universe is an ongoing sacrificial event. What is required of us is reciprocal giving. We find ourselves in this place of exchange, this great feasting where everything is nourishing everything else. Things arrive and give themselves over for the adventure of the Universe. (Swimme 1990, p. 5)
After the last candle has been snuffed, the chalice still aflame, we sit, and speaking together, share communion. What does it mean to our lives that all will be lost, that all is slipping away into Mystery and the Great On-Flowing? How can we know which losses and fears we must fight, discount, or creatively accept? How can awareness of our inescapable death galvanize us to live nobly, to create, to feed the ongoing Story of the Universe?
"Grow wild according to thy nature." Thoreau
On an exuberant, many-colored autumn weekend, those who are able in the congregation immerse themselves in the wilderness, in self-willed land that is freely-manifesting, self-organizing, exciting, unpredictable, creative, evolving. We bring no chalices; we ourselves will each become a leaping flame, a burning leaf bearing beauty into the world. We are here to invoke creation, to call forth our gifts to the Universe. To remain continually on the unfurling edge of creation, to move with the Mystery, "to create as a spiritual discipline" is "the practice of the wild." (Swimme 1998b, p. 7; Snyder 1990, p. 10)
Under the early twilight sky, the ceremony begins. Through dance and movement, children and adults reenact the great emergences of power in the self-willed, self-organizing Universe: in the beginning, the storms of light whirling around helpless specks of matter; on early Earth, the immense material cycles and activities of water, crust, and air dashing, heaving, and swirling the first, fragile living cells; later, these gigantic, material forces and the powers of life's competition and predation intensely pressuring the vulnerable emerging human; now, the human imagination, the newest planetary shaping power, heating Earth, redirecting rivers, and deciding who among the Family shall die and who shall live, and how. We dance the sad story of the ongoing control and imprisonment of our imaginative potency by our inherited primate mind: this mind's lack of sharing with other species; its focus on the local, abrupt, and immediate; its intense desire to reproduce its own kind; and its emotional bonding limited to its own family (Swimme 1998b, p. 3). We dance hopelessness. We dance despair.
Our minister then reads the words of geologian Thomas Berry and cosmologist Brian Swimme:We are not isolated in the chill of space with the burden of the future upon us and without the aid of any other power. We are supported by that same power that spun the galaxies into space, lit the sun, and brought Earth and its living forms into being. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. We are ... situated in that very place and rooted in that very power that brought forth all the matter and energy of the Universe. With this energy we have the potential to fashion a human presence as magnificent and beautiful as an ocean or a star." (Berry 1999, pp. 174-75; Swimme 1996, p. 104; 1990, p. 1).
A child then ignites a fire, blazing in the heart of the Universe. We dancers burst forth, unfurling out of our prison, our shell, the chrysalis where we have been incubating so long. Our imaginations and torches kindled, we spiral out, carrying our radiance into the world. Now a fully human species, we are Adventurers in Imagination: Celebrators, Symbol Weavers, All-Embracing Empathizers, Sorrowers, Unconditional Lovers, Vast Minds and Hearts, Stunning Beauty, and Incredible Inventors of Gifts.
We return to the fire, gathering around the warmth to share inspiring stories of contributors to these human roles, these practices of the imagination: the O'odum, The Wildlands Project, Jane Goodall, Karl-Henrik Robert, Alan Featherstone, Wangari Maathai, Gaviotas, John Todd, Annie Dillard, Curitibia, and many more.
At first light the following day, we gather to greet the Sun and express gratitude to Earth for carrying us once more into our star's exciting, self-willed presence, its surprising flares, relentless fusions, and abundant streams of gifts. Then I, as this morning's leader, face the congregation and launch forth our species' challenge: "The Wild is both law-abiding and unpredictable. Shall we bring the laws and spontaneities of our imagination into alignment with the laws and spontaneities of life, matter, and energy? Shall we rewild ourselves and become native to the Great Wilderness that is the Universe?"
All cry "Yes!" and then we sink deeply into play. Through carefully chosen games, theater, songs, and sports, we immerse ourselves in the laws of life, matter, and energy. We learn and relearn that nothing disappears, everything spreads, waste equals food, all wholes are parts, all parts are wholes, diversity survives, resistance enhances, synergy prospers, and creativity costs. All day, we name the laws, we move with the laws, we embody the laws. As Earth sweeps further into light, we are flooded with illumination.
As Earth wheels into the abundant night lavished with stars, we in our sleeping bags plunge into Wilderness Dreaming. All night we open ourselves to the upwelling of gifts, the visions of new creations, individual and communal, we can pour into the Universe.
Emerging once again into the rolling edge of light, glowing in the morning Sun, we unfurl our night's surprises and, together, day Dream them onward. Ideas flash and burgeon. Excitement and delight lure us to move with our inspirations, to embody our visions. At peak moments we shout, "The dream drives the action!" (Berry 1999, p. 201).
Enthused, freely manifesting, law-abiding, transformed, we go wild and turn our burning beauty loose in the world.
"Be it life or death, we crave only reality." Thoreau
The yearly cycle of ceremonies woven into our pattern of regular Sunday services is drawing to a close. On the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, the congregation's members atheists and those from traditions East and West temporarily withdraw from the world and enter the bare-walled sanctuary, the space kept empty of specific beliefs that is welcoming to all. As with the emptiness surrounding our sanctuary's flaming chalice, the absence of doctrine allows our individual flickers of truth to freely stretch and find their way. Our minister recounts how the Unitarian tradition of respect for differing spiritual beliefs began. Taking us back to the heretic-burning times of the sixteenth century, she weaves the tale of Sebastian Castellion, a university professor in Basel who, questioning the execution of a Unitarian precursor, Spanish theologian Servetus, wrote the first extended, principled statement on religious freedom of the mind. And she recounts the story of the first edict of religious toleration in history, declared in Transylvania in 1568 by the Unitarian king John Sigismund.
Reading in unison from our Living Tradition, we remind ourselves that we have drawn together to support each other's unique spiritual indwelling, the "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."
In the service's clearing for mind and spirit, each person silently reflects, contemplates, prays, or meditates, dwelling in reality and naming mystery in their own way. I name reality, the forms of fire and the empty mystery, "Spirit." What does it mean to my life that I am Spirit? I am continually stretching to embody more of that Reality through the practices of imagination and the practices of meditation. I open my heart, mind, and soul to re-member, to remember the Whole. The whole Universe is Chalice, Mystery, a Flame of Emptiness.
Patricia Gordon teaches literature at John Abbott College in Montreal, Canada. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org / 514-457-6610, ext. 5947.
Editor's Note: This essay was written in May 2002. The quotations by Henry David Thoreau that appear as epigraphs are all drawn from his Walden. Using the 1962 edition of Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch (New York: Bantam), epigraph quotations are drawn from the following pages: "The Wonders" pp. 168, 131; "The Communions" pp. 177, 232; "The Solitary Gratitudes" p. 118; "The Communal Gratitudes" p. 259; "The Creations" 259; "Emptiness" p. 178.
6 Details on these losses can be found in Gordon 2001b.
7 Details on the human imagination and roles can be found in the Third Wonder section of Gordon 2001b.
8 The title Living Tradition is a modification of the title of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) hymnal Singing the Living Tradition. In addition to hymns, the book contains readings supportive of individual freedom in spiritual practices and beliefs and a list of UU spiritual sources and traditions. The quotation is taken from the latter. See http://www.uua.org/aboutuua/principles.html .
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