Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

October 30, 2005


Rev. Catherine Torpey


I am really pleased to have so many young people involved in this morning’s service. I know they are tired from staying up late last night at the Creepy Con, so I doubly appreciate their efforts.

Last night, the youth led their own worship service, as is the tradition at overnights for UU youth. The theme of the worship service was fear, and we each shared something that we are afraid of. The youth were very open and honest with one another, and many expressed fear of losing people they love in some way or another. Some spoke of being afraid of death, and the fear of being alone. I was moved by the courage they showed by being so honest.

Our Director of Religious Education, Susan Nykolak, wrote a pamphlet about why we celebrate Halloween at SNUUC. She writes that we provide our children and youth with opportunities to experience fear in a safe way, “our arms ready to catch them if they fall.” This time of year, tradition decrees that we encounter the world of ghosts and goblins. Our ancestors have handed onto us the traditions of All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Halloween and the Day of the Dead. All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, is November 1. It is the Christian holiday to remember all the saints—that is, all those who have gone to heaven. Like all Christian holidays, All Saints day is an adaptation of earlier traditions that acknowledged at this time of year those spirits who reside on “the other side”. All Souls Day was added to the Christian calendar on the day after All Saints Day. All Souls Day is dedicated to the memory of all those who have died, not just those presumed to go onto heaven. Of course, as Universalists, we affirm that all of us share the same lot after death—there is no separation of saints from sinners in any world to come. And so I, for one, will cast my lot with All Souls Day, the day which honors all those departed, regardless of moral purity.

The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1. The wall separating the living from the dead—the human world from the spirit world—that wall became thinner and more permeable on the Celtic New Year’s Eve. All these centuries later, despite Christianity’s efforts to pull us away from pagan rituals, the appeal of Halloween persists. For many people, it is a wonderful opportunity to play with what is eerie, bizarre or mutant. For others, the appeal of Halloween, as Susan Nykolak states in her pamphlet, is “the chance to be something other than what you are—perhaps your shadow self, perhaps your idealized self.” Alex Larsen showed up as a milk carton with his own face sticking out as the missing child. I am not sure what category to put that costume in.

These three days—Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day represent three different aspects of the spirit world. Halloween plays with our fears of monsters and evil spirits. All Saints Day asks us to remember those who have died as exemplars of what we value. And All Souls Day honors the rest of us: those who are neither evil nor saintly. And whether or not we have any desire to celebrate these holidays in any traditional way, the beauty of annual celebrations is that they offer us opportunities to stop for a moment to consider. They prompt me to think. What happens after a person dies? Is there nothing on the other side? Is there any way in which consciousness can continue when the brain which did the thinking has ceased to function? I know that there are some of you who believe the question itself to be absurd: our consciousness is a product of our body’s natural functions. It seems obvious to many that when our bodies cease to function, our consciousness ceases as well. But I also know that there are others of you for whom this purely scientific approach is too reductionist in its approach. The world, you might contend, is much too mysterious and wondrous a place to claim that we know that death marks the end of consciousness. And many of us have had experiences where we have felt certain that we have had some kind of contact with the spirit world. We feel certain that the spirit of someone who has departed has contacted us in some way. The signals have been too specific to be mere coincidence. Many of us have had dreams about those who have died, where we felt that the presence of the person was real—not like other dreams at all. Often I’ve heard people say that a person who died, whom they were very close to, came to them in a dream in order to encourage them to move past their grief. Such nighttime visitations can certainly be chalked up to our psychological need for closure; but I am one of those who believe that the world is too mysterious a place to dismiss the possibility that something of us lives on after we die.

A good friend of mine lost a dear friend of hers last spring. Her friend died suddenly and unexpectedly. A few days ago, my friend said to me, “How strange it is that someone I cared so much about is gone without a trace.” I asked her what would have to be present for her to feel that there was some trace of him. She said that she didn’t have anything tangible that had been his. Although she had been friends with him a long time, she didn’t even have any photographs of him. All she had was a void where he used to be. The absence of his voice on the telephone. The absence of his sense of humor. The absence of him. For others, losing someone can be hard because there are so many traces of that person left behind. Every object seems infused with the presence of that absent person.

All Souls Day was begun in order to remember the individuals who had passed on who might still be in purgatory, needing the prayers of their loved ones to move on up to heaven. And so it is in keeping with that tradition to use this time to remember individuals who have gone before. But I wish for a moment to think more broadly about what we might owe to those who have gone before us even if their death is not a personal loss to us.

Other cultures worship their ancestors. That always struck me as a very odd practice. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to like the idea better. I have begun to see some logic in it, anyway. One of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament says “Thou shalt honor thy mother and thy father.” In my younger years, I found this tradition odd. I thought that if parents care for and love their children, then the children wouldn’t need to be commanded to honor the parents. Once again, my perspective has changed a bit with age. But in large part, it was not my age as much as it was my cultural setting that made these two traditions baffle me so. My bafflement at least in part reflected the fact that I live in America and was born in the latter half of the twentieth century. Our culture is not big, it seems to me, on what we owe to those who have gone before us.

Now, with maybe a little bit of wisdom under my belt, I believe that we do owe something to previous generations. One of the beauties of congregations like ours is the opportunity for young people to have a chance to know older people who are not relatives. It gives the young people a chance to appreciate the contributions and sacrifices of earlier generations.
This week, our office manager (Lisa) and I were pondering what we should do with the foyer, since it will be another week before the next art installation goes up. Lisa and I had the brilliant idea to hang the painting of the old religious education building that used to be on the property, up on the wall near the fireplace. Then we hung next to it the photo of this congregation’s first minister, Lon Ray Call. I am told that one of my predecessors as minister here didn’t like having the photo of Reverend Call hanging because she felt that she was supposed to genuflect in front of it. While at the time, she might have been right that it needed to come down, I like having his picture up. In fact, I’d like to try to get photos of all the former ministers. For me, as a new minister here, I feel that I owe it to my predecessors to know what their hopes and dreams for SNUUC were. It doesn’t mean that I will or even should agree with all their ideas. I don’t think we owe it to those who have gone before that we should simply accept what they have told us. But I believe that we owe it to them to take their dreams seriously. I think it gives greater meaning to the things we do if we can put ourselves in the context of history. It is for that reason that I am teaching the adult education course Our American Roots. It gives a historical overview of the foundations of Unitarian Universalism. We can move away from those roots if we want to, but we should know the historical context of the moves that we make.

It is for that reason, too, that I love the Bible. Our conservative brothers and sisters in synagogues and churches revere the Bible as the word of God. Unitarians and Universalists have historically seen the Bible, rather, as the words of people—people who tried to understand their purpose here on earth, people who tried to see the good and the bad events of their lives in the context of a grand plan. People who felt fear and joy and confusion and clarity.

I believe that we owe it to our ancestors not to see the world as they saw it, but to take their visions seriously. We owe it to them, but we owe it to ourselves as well. Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists asks us to speak honestly and lovingly to one another and to listen honestly and lovingly to one another. This discipline, this covenant, is not only the generous way to live, but it is the means by which we will receive wisdom. We cannot be both arrogant and wise. We must hear the perspectives of others in order to approach wisdom. In the same way, it is important for us to listen to the perspectives of those who lived in earlier times. Just as the perspectives of our contemporaries can give breadth to our understanding, the perspectives of those gone before can give depth to our understanding.

In looking back to our forebears, it is important to acknowledge that those who have gone before us were just as mixed a bunch as we are. Our past is full of people who made selfish choices. Taken as a whole, our ancestors could be cruel and small-minded, just as they could be selfless and liberal minded. And it makes life difficult for us when those whom we feel obligated to honor have behaved in ways that don’t deserve honoring. Thomas Jefferson comes to mind. He was a great man in many ways whom we Unitarian Universalists love to claim as one of our own. And yet he was not only a slave owner, but he kept one of his slaves as a mistress and fathered children by her whom he did not treat as true children.
Lucien Price, in one of this morning’s readings, said that “we, the living [are] the springtime sowing of those whose autumn harvest was death... Those who have gone before have bequeathed to us their sacred flame, and we shall do the same for others.”

It isn’t always obvious what the sacred flame bequeathed to us is. It may take years before we recognize it, but it is there.
I will end with a story from the book My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen. Rachel’s grandfather told her a story that has been told for thousands of years, and the sacred flame hidden in this ancient story helped Rachel through a difficult time in her life.

“Almost the last story that my grandfather told me,” Rachel writes, “was about a man called Jacob who had been attacked in the night as he slept alone by the bank of a river…. He awakened to find himself gripped by muscular arms and pinned to the ground. It was so dark that he could not see his enemy, but he could feel his power. Gathering all his strength, he began to struggle to be free.”

Rachel asked her grandfather, “Was it a nightmare, Grandpa?”

No, her grandfather told her, it was not a nightmare. “Jacob could hear his attacker’s breath. He could feel the cloth of his garments. He could even smell him…. Even using all his strength, he could not free himself and he could not pin his enemy down…. They struggled fiercely.”

Rachel asked her grandfather, “How long did they struggle?”

“A long, long time,” her grandfather answered her. “But the darkness does not last forever. Eventually it was dawn and as the light came, Jacob saw that he had been wrestling with an angel.”

“A real angel—with wings?” Rachel wanted to know.

Her grandfather answered, “I don’t know if he had wings, but he was definitely an angel.” When the angel tried to leave, Jacob held him fast. ‘Let me go,’ the angel told Jacob, ‘for the light has come.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ The angel struggled hard, for he wanted badly to escape, but Jacob held him close. And so the angel gave Jacob his blessing.”

Rachel was relieved. “Is that the end, Grandpa?” she asked.

“Yes,” answered the grandfather. “But,” he added, “Jacob’s leg was hurt in the struggle. Before the angel left, he touched Jacob on the place where he was hurt.”

Rachel asked, “Was that to help it get better, Grandpa?”

Grandfather shook his head, “I don’t think so. The angel touched it to remind Jacob of it. Jacob carried it all the rest of his life. It was his place of remembering.”

Rachel was puzzled by this story. How could it be that one might confuse an angel with an enemy? But Rachel’s Grandfather said this was the sort of thing that happened all the time. Grandfather said, “The most important part of the story is that everything has its blessing.”

Rachel writes that when she had a massive internal hemorrhage and landed in the hospital in a coma, her own struggle in the darkness lasted not just one night but many years.

“Looking back on it,” Rachel says, “I have wondered if my grandfather, who was old and close to death, had not left me with this story as a compass. It is a puzzling story, a story about the nature of blessings and the nature of enemies. How tempting to let the enemy go and flee. To put the struggle behind you as quickly as possible and get on with your life. Life might be easier then, but far less genuine. Perhaps the wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.”

We have many blessings from those who have gone before. Some of those blessings were given to us as blessings, but some have been given to us as wounds. But the past does bless us. May we never stop seeking the wisdom of those who speak to us through the years, through the centuries, through institutions like libraries, universities and SNUUC, through sacred literature and ancient stories, through traditions like Halloween and All Souls Day. May we honor their dreams, even as we ourselves dream.