Spirituality

Consecrating the Communion

Author: 
Kat Liu

Introduction:

Please don't let the word "communion" put you off.  I'm not proposing that we be serving the blood and body of Christ in our UU congregations.  (Tho obviously if your congregation wants to do that, that's fine too.)  I'm using the word "communion" because it has the same etymological root as to commune.  Or in community.  In other words, the ritual of communion serves to reinforce a sense of shared identity.  We repeat this ritual together, mindfully recognizing that by taking part we affirm ourselves as part of UU community with each other.

But how would UUs consecrate communion?  As congregationalists, we reject spiritual hierarchy.  Even if we have ministers, we don't think of them as being "more holy" or "closer to god(s)", and many of our congregations do not have ministers.  (And many UUs don't believe in god(s).)  Yet the act of consecration is important.  It's what separates communion from, well, just sharing food. 

The answer that I am proposing came from a combination of two things. The first is one of the few genuine rituals that we UUs have and practice, the laying on of hands when we're ordaining a new minister.  I was struck by the symbolism of the new minister standing in the center of their community, with everyone else laying their hand on the minister or on the person in front of them such that everyone is ultimately connected to the minister, conferring *their* blessing.  In UUism, the community blesses the minister, not the other way around.  Thus, our community can bless the communion too. The second is an ancient practice among many different cultures, the presenting of offerings to our ancestors (and/or gods).  In some cultures, everything that is eaten is first offered to the ancestors (and/or gods) and in other cultures this is only done on special occasions.  You might or might not believe that our ancestors are still with us - that is up to each person to interpret.  Regardless, the act of invoking our ancestors - both biological and spiritual - reminds us of who we are now and what we stand for. 


The Ritual:

The actual ritual is very simple.  Invite those participating to place icons representing the ancestor they've chosen to invite/acknowledge on the raised area of the communion table(s).  Also, to place the food they've brought for the communion meal on the table, in front of the ancestors. 

When the table(s) is ready, invite folks to gather round the table, leaving room for whoever is leading communion to move.  Those who are closest to the table each place one hand above or on the table; those behind them each place one hand on the person in front of them. The communion leader makes a plate of food, taking a sampling of what has been offered by the community.  Place the plate, now with food, back in its location, next to the cup of water and the receptacle.

The communion leader lights the chalice while saying:

We know that we are not self-sufficient.  This food that we eat, the clothes we wear, we owe to the work of others. 
We know that we are not self-actualized.  All of what we do, and fail to do, impacts those who come after us. 
We know that we are not self-made. All that we are, who we are, we owe to those who have come before us. 

Participants each murmur the names of the ancestors they brought with them today, as well as whomever else they wish to acknowledge.  (Participants can now remove their hands.)

[Insert seasonal ritual here, if any.]

The commuion leader then pours some of the libation (water) from the offering cup into the receptacle, while saying:

To our ancestors, of blood and of spirit, named and unnamed, we offer our thanks. 
May our gifts of these foods and dink be pleasing and nourishing. 
May our actions as we walk this world be worthy of your memory. 

Commence with the potlucking! (Leave the offering plate in place for the duration of the meal.)


Preparations:

You will need:

  • a communion table (or tables), large enough to hold icon representing the ancestors (and/or deities), plus the food and libations. 
  • a table cloth (or cloths) to make the communion table looke nice. 
  • boxes or something to raise the icons higher than the food.  If the table is against a wall, the raised area should be against the wall too, towards the back of the table, with the food placed at the front.  If the table is in the center of the room, then the raised area should be in the center of the table with the food placed at the edges. 
  • serving utensils
  • a plate and cup for the offering, and a receptacle (cup or bowl) into which to pour the libation.  These items should be placed on the table at the front of the center, easily accessible to whomever is leading communion.  Fill the cup with water but leave the plate empty until the ritual starts.
  • a chalice (don't forget the matches).

Ask participants to bring an icon representing one of their ancestors.  The ancestor can be biological or spiritual.  They could be a grandparent or a mentor who has since passed.  Or they could be a spiritual leader or deity of personal significance.  The icon can be a photo or some other memento that reminds/represents the ancestor.  This is one of the ways in which we're making room for expression of the diversity that is in our communities.  So (unless someone is bringing a picture of Hitler or the like) there should be no judgements as to who is a valid "ancestor."  The only restriction: do not bring photos or other representations of people who are still alive.

Also, ask participants to bring food for the potluck.  Ideally, the dish would be made with seasonally available ingredients and/or relevant to the culture from which the participant comes.  Here again, is an opportunity for expression of the diversity that exists within our communities. 

Ask participants to bring their own reusable cups, plates, and cutlery.  Reuseable plastic dishes are lightweight and can be used in subsequent communions. I know that this is a tall order to ask of folks, both to buy these items and remember to bring them.  But we are making a commitment as a people towards more sustainable practices.  Invite folks to think of these items as their communion plates, cups, etc.

You should also have extra plates, cups, cutlery on hand for folks who forget to bring their own, as we don't want to bar folks from participating simply because they forgot.  However, some kind of nominal fee should be charged as an incentive to remember to bring these items next time. 

Clean up should be relatively straight-forward if participants take their serving dishes and their personal communion dishes back home with them.  The food that was on the offering plate should be composted, if at all possible.

All Souls Day / Day of the Dead

By Kat Liu

Delivered at Firstt UU Church of Second Life

On  0ctober 30, 2008

Reading

"The Open Door at Samhain"

Between the heavens and the earth
The way now opens to bring forth
The Hosts of those who went on before-
Hail! We see them now come through the Open Door.
Move beyond the fiery screen, Between the seen and the unseen;
Shed your anger and your fear, Live anew in a new year!

- Unknown Author

 

Homily

"All Souls Day/The Day of the Dead"

When I was six years old, my mother took my brother and me to Taiwan to visit relatives for the first time.  Having lived my only six years of life up until then in the U.S., it was quite a culture shock.  One of the most memorable shocks for me was visiting a Buddhist temple full of spooky gods with multiple arms, eyes, and sometimes heads.  Another memorable shock was seeing the ancestral altar in my great aunt's house.  There, was a picture of my deceased great uncle, along with a tablet bearing his name, on an table with burning candles and incense and fresh flowers.  But more than that, there was food and tea and wine.  It seemed to me as if his picture was watching the family. But it was the food and drinks that got to me most, as if my granduncle were still with us, with a hearty appetite.  As a six year old, it evoked fears of ghosts. This weird culture that my mom had thrown us into was scary.

When I was nine years old, my parents sent me to a conservative Lutheran school, and one of the many things I learned there was that my family engaged in ancestral worship, idolatry.  In so many words, I was informed that my ancestors were in hell, and that my extended family members would shortly be joining them there.

When I was in high school and then college, I came to believe that both the Christian hell and Chinese ancestral worship were just the superstitions of an unenlightened past. The future, based in science, would be free of such nonsense.

Within the span of a few years, I went from fear to disdain to finally indifference. I had no use for ancestral tablets and offerings.

---

Tomorrow night is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, followed by All Saints Day on Nov 1st, and then All Souls Day on Nov 2.

As many of you know, what we have now is the result of Christian traditions being overlaid on indigenous traditions.  And so the Celtic new year of Samhain - the end of the light half of the year and the start of the dark half - became All Saints Day.  And the night before it, a time thought to be when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest, that became Halloween.  But unlike our Halloween, Samhain's eve was not a night of fear (nor crass commercialism, but I digress).

It was instead, a night of celebration.  Returning ghosts of the deceased were not terrifying; they were welcome.

When Christianity moved to Latin America, it mixed with indigenous practices there too.  And so in Mexico, there is the Day of the Dead celebrations on All Souls Day, Nov 2nd.  It used to be a whole month in August; now it's just a couple of days tied around the Christian calendar, but the idea is the same.  On Día de los Muertos, people celebrate, eat pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) and skull shaped candies, and tell joyful stories of family and friends who have passed.  In preparation, they make colorful altars upon which flowers (usually marigolds), photographs, and mementos of the deceased are placed.  And also on these altars, people served the favorite foods of the deceased.

The Chinese also have a Day of the Dead. It takes place in April and is called Ching Ming, which means "clean and just."

On Ching Ming, or Grave-Sweeping Day, people weed and clean the areas around ancestral graves, offer fresh flowers, light incense, and burn imitation paper money for afterlife spending needs.  Participants bow three times with wine cup in hand, then pour the wine onto the ground as an offering.  In addition, the favorite foods of the deceased are also laid out as an offering.

Favorite foods of the deceased...

as if they were still with us, with hearty appetites.

---

In high school, college and then graduate school, I tried to dismiss such "superstitions" of the past.  But try as I may, I have not been able to dismiss death.  Some people think superstitions arose about ghosts and afterlives because people are afraid of their own dying.  I think that's a rather ungracious interpretation.  I'm not afraid of my own death.  But I am aware of the palpable absence of my loved ones.  Both friends and family have died, some way too soon.  I can no longer talk with my grandparents. Soon I will no longer be able to talk with my parents.  I think people developed the concept of afterlives to remain connected to those they love and have gone.  And to feel connected to something bigger than just ourselves.

A world view that says that life is nothing but a complex set of biochemical reactions, and death but the cessation of those reactions does not provide much comfort for the loss of a friend or loved one.  If we're just individual bodies that pop into existence for 70 some odd years, give or take a couple of decades, and then pop out again, what is the point?

There is a song that was introduced in the new hymnal supplement. The words go:

Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?

Age old existential questions.  The questions of religion.

For me, the daughter of immigrants, who has never known any of my ancestors beyond my grandparents, I have felt cut-off at the roots. "Free" to be anything I want in this land of opportunity, but unanchored. Rootless.  I have learned that a lot of Americans feel this way, whether they are the children of immigrants or not.  Once in a while, I think, it would be nice to believe that my deceased ancestors are keeping me company.

And recently, I've come to realize that they are. 

My paternal grandmother died when I was thirteen.  I have not seen her face since, except in photographs, nor heard her voice, except in memory. But she is with me every day.  I am especially aware of her omnipresence during the winter holiday season, which is fast approaching.  Every year, I amaze my colleagues by cutting paper snowflakes in perfect six-fold symmetry.  It was Nai Nai (or grandma) who taught me how to do that.

When I look in the mirror, I see my mother's face, which is my grandfather's face.

And even tho I've never met my great-grandparents, I know that my Dad's morning sneezing fits, which my brother has inherited, must have come from one of them, and from a great-great grandparent before that.

And that my Dad's deep sense of duty to country, even at one's own expense, comes from teachings handed down for generations.

Through the study of Buddhism, the religion with the many armed gods that had scared me witless as a child, as well as science, as well as personal reflection, I've come to understand interdependency.  Not interdependency as an ecological concept - protect the earth, etc - but all pervasive metaphysical interdependency.  EVERYTHING arises out of other things. We do not, it turns out, just pop into existence and back out. We are because of those who came before. Connected with them in one web of interbeing.

----

All Souls Day is preceded by All Saints Day.  The latter is just for those who are seen as worthy enough to get into heaven.  The former is for everyone ALL Souls.  I think it's fitting that Día de los Muertos, that "pagan" holiday of ancestral "idolatry" is on All Souls Day.

Last week I asked my father to take out his old calligraphy brushes and write the names of all four of my grandparents.  You see, I'm going to take digital pictures of the writing and turn them into ancestral tablets in Second Life for my little Chinese temple.  Then I will light virtual candles and incense and place virtual food for them to partake.  And when I do it, it won't be because I believe their virtual ghosts are hungry.  It will be to honor that part of them that has made me, my brother, and cousins who we are.

Amen. Ashay. Blessed be. and Namaste.

When Death Comes

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes like the measles-pox;

when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea,and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

-- Mary Oliver

I don't know Who -- or what -- put the question

I don't know Who -- or what -- put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone --or Something --and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

- Dag Hammarskjold

My Symphony

To live content with small means.
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion.
To be worthy not respectable,
and wealthy not rich.
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently,
act frankly, to listen to stars, birds, babes,
and sages with open heart, to bear all cheerfully,
do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual,
unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.

-Wiliam Henry Channing

Spiritual Window-Shoppers

These spiritual window-shoppers,
who idly ask, 'How much is that?' Oh, I'm just looking.
They handle a hundred items and put them down,
shadows with no capital.

What is spent is love and two eyes wet with weeping.
But these walk into a shop,
and their whole lives pass suddenly in that moment,
in that shop.

Where did you go? "Nowhere."
What did you have to eat? "Nothing much."

Even if you don't know what you want,
buy something, to be part of the exchanging flow.

Start a huge, foolish project,
like Noah.

It makes absolutely no difference
what people think of you.

- Jalaluddin Rumi 

 

Not a Believer

My father said something today that hurt deeply, despite the fact that it was meant to be a compliment. He said "Katharine is a religion researcher, not a believer."

I know this was meant to be reassuring, both to my mother and himself.  Ever since I got involved in Unitarian Universalism they've been worried that their daughter has joined a cult. They've waited patiently for me to get over this phase, like my vegetarianism in college and a brief flirtation with evangelical Christianity in high school. (They don't know about the even briefer look into Satanism that followed.) As I did not simply get over it and have gotten even more deeply involved, they started asking questions about what Unitarian Universalism is. This is hard enough to explain under the best of circumstances. It is all the more difficult through the barrier of language. After trying quite a while to reassure my father that UU members are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves and that there was in fact a great deal of theological diversity within UU, my father's face lit up in relief. "Oh, I see," he said. "You're not really a religion; you're more like a social club." "No, no!" I protested.  But ultimately it was easier to let him believe we are a social club than to have him worry about my being brain-washed.

That was over two years ago. Since then it's been an uneasy truce, where every "strange" thing I do, like giving up pork and beef, is met with concern. This time around, my announcement that I was going to church on Sunday renewed their fears. I could hear them thinking, "Are you so deeply involved that you can't skip this thing for a week?" The truth is that I can easily skip church for a week, or weeks.  I just didn't want to. So another round of probing questions ensued.  "What do you really believe?"  "What do UUs think of non-Unitarian Universalists?" "Do you talk with people of other faiths?" After asking several questions along these lines my father proclaimed, to reassure himself and my mother, that "Katharine is a religion researcher, not a believer."

I indignantly wanted to protest. But then I thought, once again, it would just be easier to let this be the diagnosis.

The truth is, the reason why my father's statement bothers me so is because part of me is afraid that it's true. And unlike my parents, I don't want it to be true. I want to be a believer. I think I am a believer. And yet I know there is almost always some part of me that holds back, analyzing the situation instead of simply living it. There is always some part of me that is skeptical instead of faithful.

Not that I think faith and reason are incompatible. Certainly not. But there is a difference between faith and reason. Thinking about God is not the same as having faith in God. Researching religion is not the same as believing. The delicate balance that I want to maintain is to be a believer, a person of faith, but not so much so that one eschews reason and doubt.  The delicate balance between heart and mind.  Faith based only on the heart and not mind is either maudlin or zealous, or both. And yet faith based only on the mind and not the heart is... not faith.

Sometimes, when a UU sermon sounds more like a college lecture than a sermon, or when our rituals don't ring true, I think we are maybe just playing at this religion thing, that we are going through the motions of faith for whatever reason but don't feel it. Certainly in some UU congregations, my father's description would be fine with them. I want more than that. I don't want to just study religion; I want to live faith. I want to feel every day that same feeling I've briefly had at moments - of being in relationship with God and with existence, and feeling immense gratitude and love.  I want to be a believer.

Living Spirituality

For our interfaith dialogue discussion topic last night, the question was "How does your spirituality affect your life?"

That immediately begs the question, what is spirituality?  Is it the beliefs of our religions?  Is it the ritual/spiritual practice?  Is it simply that mystical feeling of connectedness with the divine?  Often times, I hear people use "spirituality" to refer to the stuff they like and "religion" to mean the stuff they don't like.  But even if we reject that simplistic dichotomy, which I do, it seems there is a real difference between "religion" and "spirituality."

How does your spirituality affect your life?

As a Unitarian Universalist, the most obvious way that spirituality affects my life is in the commitment to social justice.  Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, or to put it in Christian terms as did William Ellery Channing, believing that we are made in the likeness or image of God, it means that every person must be respected.  But more than just freedom from oppression, our theology calls for society to provide a nurturing environment for everyone. If we, like God, have the capacity to discern the good, the right, the just, then every person has potential to blossom to his or her full capacity if given the right environment. To withhold that nurturance would be to limit Godliness.

Another way in which spirituality affects my life is in the practice of reflection upon our actions. Spirituality for me means the practice of reflection, action, reflection, action. Praxis. And this is particularly important for those of us who work for justice because we are so often interacting with people who are opposed to us.  It would be easy to slip into an "us versus them" mentality, to forget what you are for and be merely about what you are against. Spiritual reflection helps keep us in the "for."  It reminds us that whatever we choose to do, how we get to the goal is as important as getting there - maintaining right relations.

I've heard some people say that they really like the openness of Unitarian Universalism, but do not see the need to join any type of (semi)organized religion. For me, being part of a community is an integral part of spirituality, as is the spiritual practice of praxis that communal UU encourages.  Spirituality is not the beliefs or rituals, or even the "feeling of connectedness;" it is living compassion, purpose and meaning.   One doesn't have to be a UU to live spiritually, of course, but being part of the UU community does affect my life, every day.

Anyway

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you.
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building someone could destroy overnight.
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them, anyway.

- Mother Theresa

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