"The Guru's Cat" from Anthony De Mello, The Song of the Bird (adapted)
When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshippers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship.And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru's disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.
from "The Conversion of the Jews" Philip Roth
It was a Friday night in November and already dark, and when Mrs. Freedman came through the door she tossed off her coat, kissed Ozzie quickly on the face, and went to the kitchen table to light the three yellow candles, two for the Sabbath and one for Ozzie's father. When his mother lit the candles she would move her two arms slowly towards her, dragging them through the air, as though persuading people whose minds were half made up. And her eyes would get glassy with tears. Even when his father was alive Ozzie remembered that her eyes had gone glassy; so it didn't have anything to do with his dying. It had something to do with lighting the candles.
As she touched the flaming match to the unlit wick of a Sabbath candle, the phone rang, and Ozzie, standing only a foot from it, plucked it off the receiver and held it muffled to his chest.
When his mother lit candles Ozzie felt there should be no noise; even breathing, if you could manage it, should be softened. Ozzie pressed the phone to his breast and watched his mother dragging whatever she was dragging, and he felt his own eyes get glassy. His mother was a round, tired, gray-haired penguin of a woman whose gray skin had begun to feel the tug of gravity and the weight of her own history. Even when she was dressed up she didn't look like a chosen person. But when she lit candles she looked like something better; like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything.
The Sermon - Tradition Held Fast
A friend of mine made a kind of joking observation about Unitarian Universalism the other day. "I can see why UU parish ministers get so tired by June," he said. "After all, you have to make up your religion from scratch every week." I don't think he meant it unkindly and I did not take offense. Okay, maybe a little, but only because it was partially true. But only partially. It's true that, unlike orthodox churches we do not have a fixed liturgy that provides us with words and rituals that guide us through the calendar year, with the hymns and the sermon being the only aspect of worship that parishioners can expect to change week to week. Our funeral services and weddings are also generally not conducted in the "open book, insert name" manner that characterizes more orthodox or conservative traditions. Most Unitarian Universalist religious services are, as my friend suggests, "made up from scratch" for each person or each couple - crafted from a wealth of readings both religious and secular, prayers, poems, and personal experience that all Unitarian Universalist worship leaders must keep on hand, and regularly add to, for such "sacred moments of life's passage". And that's why we call ours a "living tradition."
See that hymnal in your pews? It is called Singing the Living Tradition, and it should help you respond to those people who wonder aloud whether or not Unitarian Universalists could be properly said to have a tradition at all, or in fact, a religious life. We do. We have both. The living tradition is the essence of liberal religion: it means that while we might agree to honor our past understanding of human and divine nature, and to honor past forms of worship (and we do), we are also open to fresh revelations and innovation. It means that yes, what we do in here is freshly considered every week: not just the sermon but the opening words, chalice lighting, prayers, benedictions, words for the offering, and children's stories. To have a living tradition means to try to have a fresh relationship with your worship practices, to be willing to regularly evaluate whether or not they help the worshipping community reach the place of spiritual reflection and ethical imperative together.
There are times, of course, when I do envy those colleagues in the preaching ministry who have their readings provided for them by tradition, and who have only to open a Book of Prayer to what their worship or funeral or wedding service will look like. I am envious not so much because I imagine their preparation for worship is easier, but because I know that there can be great spiritual power in repetition, a comfort in it, and an ability to enter into a deeper contemplative place that comes when we know the liturgy by heart. Ah, the grass is always greener. I have always been a Unitarian Universalist, so I have never known the religious life that my grandparents knew, with so many of the prayers committed to memory and all of the elements familiar and unchanging over time.
One of the reasons I try to choose our simpler hymns and sometimes exhort you to put down your hymnals! is because I believe that there are some things we should be able to do together by rote. There are some songs and prayers or readings that we should be able to sing spontaneously and have everyone know the words and the tune. For those who are uncomfortable with this notion, I would encourage you to consider such memorization as an opportunity for unity, rather than a call to conformity. It gives me such joy to see our children reciting our congregational covenant from memory.
After the giving of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, God teaches the people the "Shema" prayer* and the commandment, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Inscribe these words upon your heart. Impress them upon your children Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your home and on your gates".
One of the unfortunate consequences of our extremely individualistic approach to religion has been to deprive us over past decades of the joy of singing and saying together prayers or songs that we all feel belong to us. I am glad I learned the 23rd Psalm and the Lord's Prayer and the Sh'ma Israel as an adult. Not only do they ring with ancient power, they are portable bits of comfort inscribed on my heart that put me in touch with millions of other devotional hearts all over the world at any given time. I would like to commit to memory some invocations from every world tradition. I have a terrible memory at this point in my life, and I so wish I had started this project with I had more hard drive left.
Traditions are properly defined as "the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially a body of unwritten religious precepts that become time-honored practices." (American Heritage Dictionary, adap.) The key component, then, is that traditions are transmitted, usually through oral communication, from the past to the present and the future. This means, as we know from playing the good old game of Telephone Operator, that those customs and rituals that make up traditions are liable to become warped and perverted over time. It's only human. As the parable of the guru's cat shows us, a ritual that began as an effort to preserve reverence may become a slightly ridiculous or even abusive tradition. So why do we honor traditions at all? Because traditions help people belong to each other.
Traditions more often have strange origins than not. Some of them begin in solemn ritual - actions designed in ancient days to bring about the favor of this or that deity, for instance, or to send a human soul to a happy afterlife, or to assure fertility for the new bride, or for a good harvest. Every culture has its customs and traditions, and those traditions often are often an interesting hybrid of religious practices, folk magic and superstition.
This makes rational folks crazy, of course. If something doesn't make sense, don't do it! Don't sing it! Don't recite it! Unitarian Universalists are good at being the ones who question why the cat has to be tied up. Yet I notice with no small sense of amusement that the same Unitarian scientist who fidgets at our tradition of lighting the chalice (too high church, too symbolic!) will go to great lengths to see that her daughter is wearing something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue for her wedding day. Sophisticated, rational 21st century parents of a new baby boy, for another example, arrange for a circumcision at his birth, never questioning that their decision is the result of a ritual that developed thousands of years ago as a sign of one nomadic tribe's loyalty to their God. Many never question whether or not the procedure is medically necessary or advisable - some do, but many don't - it's Tradition!
When you hear the word tradition you may think about the wonderful musical "Fiddler on the Roof", which begins with an opening number called "Tradition". In this powerful number, all of residents of the little Jewish shtetl of Anatevka introduce themselves and sing about their roles in life and how tradition orders absolutely everything they are and do together. "Without our traditions", proclaims Tevye the Milkman, "our lives would be a shaky as a fiddler on the roof!"
I love the moment in the song when Tevye explains that the men wear little prayer shawls to show their constant devotion to God. "How did this tradition start?" he asks. "I'll tell you… I don't know! But it's a tradition!" Later in the show, this cheerful acceptance of tradition takes on a heart-wrenching dimension when Tevye's youngest daughter Chava runs off with a gentile, a Russian Christian. Tevye, who has already agreed - after much struggle with his wife, his God and himself - to let his eldest two daughters marry for love, simply cannot bend tradition this far.
In the production I was in, in 1983, all of the villagers entered for the opening number dancing hand to hand around the perimeter of a circular stage. They formed a powerful boundary, a circle that keeps safety and meaning in, and the threatening strangers out. The gentiles always walked outside of the circle. At the moment when Tevye's youngest daughter came to her father begging for acceptance, begging to be allowed to rejoin the circle with her husband Fyedka, she stood on the very edge of the circle. When Tevye, after painful deliberation, turned on her and yelled "No, Chava! No! No!" she was literally shouted out of the circle and fell off it into the darkness, screaming for her Papa as she was cast out of her community. It is this kind of excruciating rejection and breaking of people and communities that makes many of wary of traditions, and so should we be.
Those who question the wisdom of tradition stand in an ancient tradition of criticism themselves! Old Testament prophets like Amos complained about them thousands of years ago, and he sounds like some folks I know today: "I hate, I despise your religious feasts: I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them… I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!" (Amos 5:21)
You've met people like Amos. This is the person who says he wouldn't waste his time with a bunch of church nonsense, just set him up at a soup kitchen and that's his religion. "Doing good is my religion," you'll hear the Amos person say. And while I have no argument with this commitment to good works as the chief expression of faith, I do think Amos' works would be greatly enriched by participation in tradition. Why? Because I still believe that ethical life has its best foundation in religious community, even with all religious life's potential hurts and disappointments
Albert Schweitzer says that "ethics are responsibility without limit towards all that lives." Our religious traditions keep us oriented to the eternal and keeping us accountable to the community that came before us and the one that shall after us. Ethical religion done well in community becomes a set of commitments and practices that may help us keep our hearts on the right path.
Worship, of course, is the central tradition of religious life. A Quaker author wrote that "Worship requires self-control and the ability to concentrate on the highest". So here's another important point: life in the living tradition, can help us keep a check on too much ego infecting our ethics. If we trust that our tradition is the best distillation we have of the wisdom of our forebears, it can provide a very strong foundation for ethical living within a community of accountability. I don't know about you, but I am made a little nervous by people who develop and live out their ethical convictions entirely outside of a community of accountability, discernment and frequent taking of each other's counsel.
Part of our hardest learning as religious people is deciding which traditions contribute to our sense of meaning and belonging to each other as a human community, and which ones hold us back from achieving greater spiritual growth and understanding. Sometimes, like that moment from "Fiddler on the Roof", it is obvious to see where traditions and essential human needs (and even rights) are clashing in damaging ways. When that happens, it is time to carefully consider altering or adapting a tradition.
We should frequently evaluate our traditions. Do traditions help us connect, do they make meaning? Do they nurture the capacity to love and forgive, and do they illuminate the transcendent reality in which we live and move and have our being? Do they keep us too comfortable? Do they humiliate or exclude? Do they keep cats tied up and frustrated, or humans tied up and frustrated? Or do they liberate, sending us forth to love and to serve, as best as we are able and in all the ways in which we are called?
Our church celebrates its 371st birthday in a few weeks. I ask you to reflect with me on our congregation's traditions between now and then.
Using your imagination and the promptings of the holy within you, what can you imagine this congregation observing once a year, and at what season, to the greater good of this community and the world? What would such a tradition look like? An all-family Teddy Bear picnic on the town green? A yearly all-church trip into Roxbury to beautify the grounds of the UU Urban Ministry? A mid-winter or holiday season healing service? An open invitation to all couples to come and renew their wedding vows on one May afternoon closest to the anniversary of the passage of legislation of Marriage Equality in the Commonwealth? Let's be in conversation about this in the coming weeks and plan a February gathering to share our thoughts and ideas.
At their best, when they are working to bring about joy and connection between the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the world that belongs to those who have yet to be born, traditions transform people like Ozzie's mother in Philip Roth's story "The Conversion of the Jews." When Ozzie's tired little mother lights the Sabbath candles, Roth writes, "she looked like something better; like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything." And this is the evidence we seek, as we share our own living tradition together, that our traditions beautify each one, that they illuminate possibility and hope and grace, that they bless and strengthen us and make us belong more deeply to each other. So may it be. Amen.