A TRANSYLVANIAN PILGRIMAGE

December 5, 1999
A Sermon by Dr. Judit Gellérd, at Norwell, MA


Reading:

Thank you for honoring me with your invitation to this prestigious pulpit. I don't think there is another church in the area where I have so many friends as in Norwell. Thanks to Dick and Ellie Fewkes, I did a few pilgrimages from California to Norwell in the past. But now I came as a brand new "New Englander." I am a proud first year graduate student at Boston University, School of Theology. This is my third career after medicine and music and the new challenge of academia feels glorious. I consider a great privilege being a recipient of the highest merit scholarship of this famous school. My decade-long volunteer work on behalf of Unitarian Universalists is now rewarded by the Methodists—quite a working ecumenism.

I am, indeed, a pilgrim to your house of worship on this Sunday of Advent and of Hanukkah. For me, being a pilgrim means being always half way in between the old and the new. There is no arriving and getting comfortable, there is no leaving and forgetting. It is the journeying, the bringing together, the mutually nurturing. I love pilgrimage because it is a state of high intensity of being. Pilgrimage builds bridges between people, between religions--between worlds. Walls of prejudice fall. The common will, the inner preparation, the joining in the journey, facing its difficulties and the magnificent catharsis of praying together, will reshape our mind, recharge our spirit.

Often we go on a journey, which we might call an expedition, and we come back as pilgrims. On an expedition one is a tourist, a collector of unusual experiences and things, souvenirs. Becoming a pilgrim is a divine gift, a spiritually transforming experience. Transylvania has this awakening power--some of you have experienced it--it is a magical mirror that reflects the depth of our own spirit and tradition. One of my most powerful pilgrimages was that to Nepal, when I lived among the Tibetan refugees for weeks. One of the great Buddhist temples of Asia is the stupa at Boudanath in Kathmandu. I was strongly attracted to this place of the Tibetans, because I realized the analogy between Tibet within China and Transylvania within Romania.

There, at Boudanath I saw the Tibetan refugees circumambulating the temple all the time. Babies in their mothers' arms, old people who can barely walk, some prostrating at each step. First I thought this was an exotic religious practice of an ancient culture. The real meaning was hidden to me as an outsider, until I joined them. Then the meaning revealed itself: these people were praying for their homeland--day and night; hundreds, and thousands of people in an unceasing ritual of prayer. As a Transylvanian, I saw ourselves in those people. I had to join them and I did circumambulate the temple a hundred times, walking for 7 hours, praying for Tibet and for Transylvania. And of course, I had been a pilgrim at home, at Csiksomlyo, the Lourdes of Transylvania at that first memorable pilgrimage following the fall of Communism. After forty years of restriction and persecution by the Secret Police, finally three hundred thousand of us, people of the oppressed Hungarian minority—Catholics and Calvinists, Unitarians and atheists--gathered on that sacred place for the first free worship service. According to the tradition of centuries, people of each village were expected to walk at least a full day and night, dressed in ethnic costumes and singing our forbidden hymns and ancient songs. On that mount, we prayed as never before--for our future. I have never before felt that kind of depth of our faith and vitality: God has intended life and future for us.

Today I invite you, join your sisters and brothers in faith in Transylvania. Let us be pilgrims together in a real sense. At this very hour in Transylvania the bells of your partner church, Kadács, are tolling in celebration. It is evening there now, but we synchronized our special worship services. If we listen carefully, we might hear the congregation singing gloriously the same hymns as we do here today. I can hear Rev. József Biró’s inspired words: "May God bless our sacred friendship between Kadács and Norwell." And we respond: "May God bless your congregation, your family, and our journeying together as pilgrims of a common faith."

Why is the simple faith of the Transylvanian Unitarians so compelling for the sophisticated educated American Unitarian Universalists? --one often asks. Why does the encounter seem to fill a spiritual void on a large scale? A Transylvanian visiting minister intuitively answered it: "You Americans hold your faith far from your core." For us, in Transylvania religious and cultural identities are our core value. Ours is an active faith, an active existence against odds, against persecutions of all kinds. We have always been aware that our faith would keep us. It did. I am not talking about a Unitarian denominational membership. I am talking about faith. We are born into our religion, yet it never came cheap to practice it. Each generation had to fight for this basic right throughout the four centuries. Some died for our faith. My father was one of them. A brilliant scholar, Unitarian minister was sentenced to seven years of political prison at age 35, in Romania's Gulag. Physically broken by torture and deprivation, he continued writing even after prison--and the Secret Police continued persecuting him. Facing a new arrest, he chose active martyrdom, he ended his own life on his sixtieth birthday. But I was able to carry on his broken dreams and through you and the other almost 200 UU partner churches we have saved Transylvania's Unitarian Church. I have translated and just published his life scholarship, the only intellectual history of Unitarianism's four centuries in Transylvania.

The power of the Partner Church movement lies in the discovery of historic roots and of a faith that heals the "pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will." Gary Smith, minister of First Parish Concord, Massachusetts, puts in this way: "We need each other, more than emotionally, more than psychologically, more than socially. We need each other spiritually, which has to do with the divine flame within each of us; with our spiritual mentors in Transylvania who had to fight for our faith, not in the time of the Council of Nicea, not in the Middle Ages, not at the time of the Reformation, but in our own time, in our own generation. Even if they lost everything to wars and dictatorships, but they kept their faith. They had the courage to stand up for something, to live a life far simpler than ours materially but richer in the spirit, a shared faith. We have spiritual cousins to die for." The small Transylvanian Unitarian church of 80,000 members has become the clear spring where spiritually thirsty American Unitarians make group pilgrimages, and they come back transformed. Peter Raible Unitarian Universalist minister confessed:

I was not prepared for how holy the trip [to Transylvania] would prove to be. What is so transforming, I found in no detached examination of our Transylvania movement, but in direct experience. To hear parishioners sing their long banned national anthem as tears stream down their faces is before long to feel wetness on one’s own cheeks. To sit in a worship service, not a word of which one can understand, and feel the depth of the spirit flowing. To encounter the talented young people who are studying for our ministry there is to feel the "soul’s invincible surmise" that our small, fragile, precious faith in Transylvania has a future as well as a past.

My pilgrimage, as I suspect for most of Unitarians, did not strive to create a religious experience, but I found it again and again. The experience, simply put, was transformative. Whatever North Americans may have done on behalf for their peers in Transylvania is more than repaid by the religious experience that have come to us by visiting there. We return, I think, more deeply grounded in our own faith, more consecrated to seeing our Unitarian Universalist cause continue in this continent, and more assured that our religion has much to give in the hard times of life.

The joy for life of those who are rich is spirit, though poor in material things will teach affluent Westerners to give up what Rev. David Bumbaugh, professor at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago calls "the rigid culture of scarcity, always asking ‘can we afford it?’ rather than asking what are we called to be and to do, and, then, how can we make that dream come true.". . . "An unexpected lesson we have learned through the years of our partnership is this: People give because they need to give for their own spiritual welfare; people give to a vision, to a dream, and they give not out of guilt but out of an expanded sense of what is possible and out of their own sense of abundance and blessing and gratitude. And the more they give, the greater is the blessing they receive." Post-traditional American Unitarian churches need a focus that is grounded in deeper theological understanding to bring a heterogeneous congregation together. The Transylvania project, through its inspiring and humbling experiences, provided precisely this focus to release American churches from a captivity of stagnation, financial worry, and to help them discover their own full potentials. The benefits of a new focus sometimes are hard to measure "objectively" for they are intangible. However, in most churches the impact of the partnership dramatically changed the way congregations think and behave as religious community. A church which has a vision and a focus of meaningful actions, which stems from a deeper understanding of faith, is worth attending.

In his last sermon, the day before he died, my father wrote these words: "God does not expect from you to save the world, your mandate is limited to one single human being, which could be just yourself. God never expects more from us than we are capable of doing. Each word of comfort, each act of compassion is a small bonfire during dark nights. But these tiny flickering flames, the simple gestures of loving hearts will add up and will eventually save the world. Salvation is not something we have to wait for, but as good Unitarians, we should do something about it. Because we can. Because we can, therefore we must."

The eighty thousand Transylvanian sisters and brothers in faith are dreaming the renewal into being with every day. As it has been true for centuries, this renewal comes from within. God has intended a brighter future for us. And you are instruments of this divine intention. The commitment to witness and care for this faithful and suffering people are your testimony of how freedom and tolerance, "grafted to the root, now find their blossoming in all of us: in how we pray, in what we do, in who we are."

You are one of the most generous, caring partner churches and I thank you for it. Thank you for recognizing the needs and the worth of a small and agonizing Transylvanian village and restored their dignity and prosperity. Thank you for helping a minister and his family in their struggle for survival. You have made a great difference in that community. Thank you, Judy Campbell and Helen Casoli for your leadership to the student sponsorship program. You have enabled talented children of poor parents to realize their dream of having good education. This is an appropriate moment to thank Rev. Dick and Ellie Fewkes for your passionate and extraordinary leadership not only in this church but in the entire national Partner Church movement, from the very moment of its inception. We sing praises to you - and Happy Birthday! Amen.