Wednesday, January 27, 2021

When Words are Not Enough

What does it mean to you when we light our chalice each Sunday? 
 We heard the story about where it comes from, and what it was meant to mean at the very start- “we are here to help”. It has been a beacon of hope. A symbol of our commitment for working for justice. If you were to pull out our hymnal right now and search under chalice lightings, you would see that authors have compared it to:
  • the light of truth, 
  • the warmth of community, 
  • the fire of commitment,
  • The lamp of our heritage
  • Spark of the universe that warmed our ancestral hearth
  • The flame of ongoing life in our time of grief
Did any of those jump out at you as “Yes, that’s it”? Did any seem strange or wrong?

When I was a little girl sitting in the sanctuary of my childhood Unitarian Universalist church next to my family, I wondered “but what does the chalice REALLY mean?”
Here’s the thing about symbols, it means all of those things at the same time, and more besides.
To me, since we have been meeting by Zoom, I love seeing folks light their own chalice in their own homes- the UU Diaspora. It is a strong symbol that we are connected in purpose, in community even when we are apart.

With shared symbols, like a chalice, there are public meanings. When the chalice logo was first created, it had a shared public meaning of help to refugees. When you and I see it on a website or email from the UUA we know “this is from the UUA” As simple as that. Back when we used to go to General Assembly in person, we would wear our chalice pins and t-shirts as we traveled, and as we got closer and closer to our destination, we could pick out our fellow UUs and greet each other like old friends.

But a symbol also has private and personal meanings. For me, the lighting of a chalice means something important and sacred is about to happen. One new UU who was a retired Episcopalian priest, thought of the communion chalice when he first attended a UU worship, and was blown away by the symbol of drinking the flame.

A really good symbol has room for many meanings and grows in meaning over time. Our chalice holds within it every time we’ve ever lit a chalice. It connects us to UUs who come before us and after us, it also touches other kinds of candles we’ve lit, even the campfires we’ve gazed into.

Sometime when there are intangible, abstract things we want to talk about, to communicate with others or just to make sense of our own reality, a symbol can help. As UUs we don’t have a lot of symbols, but the world is full of symbols that can support us in our meaning making.

Since the start of this pandemic, there has been a kind of waiting, a kind of in-between time as we hope for a future when Covid doesn’t constrain our lives. People talk about going back to what it was like before, but I suspect that our future will feel quite different. Take a moment now, and think what this time has been like for you… are there words or images that you use to describe it? That help you make meaning of this time?

If a word or image doesn’t come to you, don’t worry about it, (sometimes it takes me days to come up with a good image) but as you hear other people’s words and images, try them on- do any seem right to you?

One word for an in-between waiting time is a “liminal” time; the word liminal comes from a Latin word for threshold, for the cross piece in the bottom of a door way. A liminal time is like hovering one foot over the threshold, crossing between one space and the next. [i]

Let’s play with that image for a moment- try it on. Imagine a closed door, locked. Where are the places in our lives when we come up to a locked door and batter ourselves against it? A door that opens, we peek through, wondering at what’s on the other side? Are there moments in your life that have felt like an open door? Or crossing through that threshold, leaving one space and entering another?

Today I’m not being too picky about the difference between a metaphor and a symbol. But I liked this description of a symbol: “a symbol is used as a stand-in for a much more complex, and generally more abstract, idea.”[ii] Like a liminal space-- that’s pretty complex and abstract. And when we use a symbol like “threshold”, it reminds us that our specific experience right now, is like something tangible and concrete – we all have a lot of experience of doors from our daily life. That symbol also helps us feel connected to every other person, every other in-between time anyone’s ever experienced. It’s like a node, a point of connection that could help me look at my situation, at our situation in a bigger way, from many different directions. When I read Jan Richardson’s poem Blessing the Door, it showed me something that helped me make meaning of my own experience- not one door that you go through but many doors. I felt a sense of “aha” when I read that- it feels real to me that we don’t just step through one door and everything changes. It gave me a new way of looking at things.

The idea liminal space feels right to me for this time, but the door symbol doesn’t capture all of it, because we’ve been in it SO LONG, and the way forward is so unclear. Let me offer a poem by our UU poet Lyn Ungar that she wrote early in the pandemic called Twilight.

When I read that poem I felt “aha- yes, I know what that’s like”- feeling turned around, and not knowing if things are getting better or things are getting worse- wandering in the half light. And I think it must be how other people have been feeling too, because I noticed in the inauguration ceremony and festivities how many artists used images of sunrise, of dawn. Bon Jovi sang “Here comes the sun” on a pier in Florida, as the sun rose behind him. John Legend sang Nina Simone’s lyrics in front of the Lincoln memorial: “It's a new dawn/ It's a new day / It's a new life for me, / And I'm feeling good.”

And when our poet laureate Amanda Gormin ended her inaugural poem with these words:
“when the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
I know I was not the only person whose eyes filled with tears imagining dawn blooming, “if only.”

Dawn seems a universal symbol for us humans- it speaks of a fresh start, of new life, of hope. If you’ve ever been up all night worrying or ill, a night that feels like it will never end, there’s a kind of relief that comes when the sun finally begins to rise. When I was on sabbatical last year I committed to the practice of waking up before dawn and watching the sunrise. I can tell you that not all dawns are the same, but if the weather is mild, the birds are there too, in gathering number, and a growing chorus of song. Some birds are up getting breakfast or doing whatever work birds do in that crepuscular time, but I swear to you there are always birds that are just sitting still on a branch, for what seems to be the sole purpose of witnessing the sunrise. Dawn is a powerful symbol for humans of something intangible and complex -- what it feels like to make it through a hard night, and the relief, and hope and awe that comes with the return of the sun.

I heard a lot of words this week amid the pomp and circumstance, words that people worked hard on, and most of them I forgot immediately. But my spirit responds to the idea that “the new dawn blooms”, it gives my soul something to hold on to. I encourage you as our service comes to a close, to choose a symbol that feels helpful to you- one that names where you are right now, or where you’d like to go. Keep it by you in the coming week, in a physical way if possible. Light a chalice, get up early for sunrise, pause as you cross through a doorway, find a picture of your chosen symbol online and make it your wallpaper on your phone or computer …whatever feels interesting to you. (Of course as UUs you can always pass- you can choose no symbols of all if that feels most authentic). Even symbols we share with others are highly personal- you get to decide what is meaningful to you. Like a light on the horizon, symbols give us light to navigate by in unmapped times. Today I’m imagining a new dawn, and go out hopefully to meet the day.
End Notes
[i] liminal (adj.)- "of or pertaining to a threshold," 1870, from Latin limen "threshold, cross-piece, sill" (see limit (n.)) + -al (1). Related: Liminality.


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