Sunday, November 18, 2012


This is a Sunday post.  Let’s go to the metaphor of the chalice that holds the flame.  To remind you, it began as a symbol for the UU Service Committee, the “do-it” wing of the UUA.  Hans Deutsch, an Austrian artist, first brought together the chalice and the flame as a Unitarian symbol during his resistance and rescue work with the Unitarian Service Committee during World War II.  Unitarian Universalists today have many different interpretations of the image.  The one I like is that it honors Jan Hus, Czech priest and forerunner of the Reformation, who was burned at the stake for being stubborn about communion belonging to the people.  

But for “The Bone Chalice” I’m being simpler: fire in a goblet.  The fire is the brain and the goblet is the skull.  Life contained in death, if you like.  With more than a decade of experience in a foundry, I know the importance of a crucible if you are going to produce molten metal for casting.  A weak crucible means a break that lets the molten contents spill and chill into a shapeless mass of no meaning.  The strong crucible carries the metal in a “cradle” to the mold where it can be shaped into something of beauty and meaning.

The container for a congregational worship service in the Western world developed in the circum-Mediterranean countries, several thousand years ago.  We could begin with Jewish services after the time of sacrifices and at the beginning of written words.  The people came together in a safe place, prayed, read their scrolls, discussed them (brain fire), prayed again, and went home.  This is still our order of service both in Catholic mass and Protestant services:  Call to worship, Confession of Sins, Assurance of Pardon, Scripture, Reflection, Prayer of Blessing -- and Communion, which is not in Jewish services because it is a commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice added to the end.

What is the container for an individual’s religious fire?  Prayer.  Meditation. Walking.  Sometimes starvation, thirsting, lack-of-sleep, self-whipping, cutting, long solitude, possibly drugs, sex, pain.  These latter practices are strongly tabooed and stigmatized by institutions in most cultures because they turn people away from institutions and because they can destroy individuals.  They change the body’s operations in ways that interfere with the body’s homeostasis and, because that self-regulation is disrupted, the individual can act (sensations in > processing > actions out) in ways that endanger the person and the society around him or her.

But people do this list (repeat:  starvation, thirsting, lack-of-sleep, self-whipping, cutting, long solitude, possibly drugs, sex, pain) because they work, quickly and intensely.  The trouble is that they are short-term, sometimes they are not reversible (suicide), and (if you survive) they can cause craving for repetition.

So what else is there?  When life is intolerable and no options seem to be on the table -- or bar?  There have been several suicides in the paper this past week, young men with families and jobs, good-looking, high school grads.   What was the problem?  Was it drugs or alcoholism?  That only pushes the question down the line -- what made them become users?  I’m willing to bet it was lack of meaning.  Their ravenous hunger was not met.  Their yearning for a lost life of hunting and gathering (oh, forget gathering -- that’s for girls, in the opinion of Montana boys) was not satisfied even if they actually were hunters and fishermen.  I suspect they were not and I doubt they were hikers or photographers, either.  Life ended with high school.  It had turned into a treadmill, going nowhere.  The homeostatic had become the humdrum.

You might scoff, but part of what I like about Valier and the whole Blackfeet rez is the number of dignified and constructive old men.  They are ordinarily quiet and peaceful, but they are protective.  Their chalices are whole.  The last of the WWII soldiers have gone on, but the Korean, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraqi veterans are still around.  We won’t run out of veterans very soon, unless we continue to leave many starving jobless in the streets.  Those men’s chalices have cracked.  Their fire -- the one in their brain -- burns too hot and consumes their hope.  Jon Hus was not a metaphor: he was a real living man who poured out his life into a mold of conviction, a sculpture of courage.  He didn’t die for nothing.

Veterans organize.  They help each other.  They reclaim the bonding of their shared service.  They distribute surplus clothing and blankets.  They sit together and talk in a verbal communion.  Salvation is often a do-it-yourself project.  AA, NA, ALNON, WW -- you know.  

So what I’m saying is that these sharing circles are chalices that contain shared human fire that has meaning, even the kind of deep meaning we call spirituality or liminal or ritual or bonding or something corny like love.  But as Alvina Krause the acting teacher, was CONSTANTLY saying, character is a matter of action.  It doesn’t matter how much emotion there is unless there is action.  A flaming chalice that won’t light a torch is not worth much.  It will not feed a ravenous hunger for pattern and meaning.

Today’s scripture may not be in words, but rather in images.  Not just poetic metaphorical images but also images from our many glass screens, big and little, moving and still.  By now many of them are cliches -- the little green sprout with the drop of water, someone silhouetted against a flaming sunset in Monument Valley, baby polar bears, and mountains mountains mountains until all the meaning is drained out of them.  Yet our hungry eyes search for the fire in the chalice.

When I was traveling for the Montana UU Extension Ministry (1982 -85) I carried a little chalice with me.  It was only a glass compote, but it was graceful and it held a candle.  I was serving small scattered fellowships, the kind I like best, full of stubborn people and often proud old men, in those days WWII veterans.  That was before another volcanic eruption of hubris swept the country.  These days I don’t light a chalice.  I smudge: sweetgrass on the kitchen stove burner after I’ve made coffee in the morning.  It is a displacement of the senses from sight to smell, a more primitive way to contact the universe.  Sometimes, even now, we hunt and gather.

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