Metro New York - Annual Meeting - 1982
We have highlighted this morning the congregations making up this District and the activities which evidence their life forces.
Doug Rhodes asked me to look at those congregations from a slightly different angle, drawing on some things I said about my faith community at a retreat earlier this year. To look at them that is, from the perspective of their places of physical being, their congregational homes.
To build community without place is near to impossible. Of course, it requires sharing or interaction between people, the identification of those things held in common -- (a relationship of comity -- of unity -- of community) -- but these building blocks of any given faith community do not readily come together unless there is a place where this can happen.
Yes, it was once possible to sustain a religious community while wandering in a desert with only the promise of a home -- someday. But that was then and we are now.
The someplace of my congregation, The Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, is on a low wooded ridge -- a relic of the ice age’s casual rearrangement of our local landscape.
Our building soars upward from the ridge, with our spirit in tow. The double roof mimics western hands in prayer and the eastern sign of peaceful greeting. All-glass walls join nature and worship. The structure speaks in an architecture of the future, leaning into the barrier of time.
This is the focus for our coming together for corporate and spiritual purposes. We are tied together in that place -- by what happens there and by mystic chords of connectivity. That place we hold both necessary and holy is almost as important as the people.
“The building as important as the people? Is he suffering from some sort of edifice complex?” you ask. “What about the shared values? The worship experience? The music? The RE and adult programs? The outreach? Is he ignoring the substance of our religious experience in favor of a preoccupation with the society’s building?”
Of course, our real wealth is the people who make up our community. Without each other we would have nothing. No community. No mutual support and empowerment. No safe place. No platform from which to speak out about the agonies of our world and time. And I might add -- no paid clergy.
Any place of our communal coming together is essentially passive, but it will be suffused with our energizing involvement, sanctified by what we do and have done there -- and an ongoing source of renewed inspiration.
Louis Untermeyer, the poet, anthologist and author, was a most unusual personality. Of all unexpected combinations, he was also a successful businessman. He had many books to his credit and his work was frequently socially and politically oriented. In his early years he wrote for and helped to publish “The Masses” and other left-leaning journals, and was arrested and prosecuted during World War I by the Federal government. He was a professional intimate of poets Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay and Sara Teasdale, and political/literary figures Max Eastman, John Reed, Carl Sandburg, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Thompson and H. L. Mencken, to name just a few.
Why am I talking about Louis Untermeyer? Because he wrote a poem which has always had a tremendous spiritual quality to me -- not just because it seemed to be about my own church building, but because of its evocation of the kind of place we would want our individual houses of worship to be. The poem appeared under the title “Prayer for a New House,” in a book, “This Singing World,” published in 1923. Set to the music of Robert Quaile, it appeared in our blue hymnal under the title, “Prayer for this House.” In “Singing the Living Tradition,” it is renamed for its first line, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door.” I don’t know whether the commission laboring on the new hymnal changed the title of the hymn out of fear of prayer as a concept, or whatever.
We’re not talking “Home Sweet Home,” or “Home, Home on the Range,” which sing sweetly of places of sentimental, but not substantive recall. It’s closer to the theme from the television series “Cheers,” which goes something like, “I want to go // where ev’rybody knows my name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Cheers recalled the best of the old time neighborhood pub, the warmth, the bonhomie, the personal affection and support for each other which underlaid the sharp-edged banter. Their community featured Frasier, the sophisticated psychiatrist, short of love; Sam, the regular guy/bartender, for whom love was an every-day transitive verb; Diane, the heroine, serving up her intellectual pretensions along with the drinks; Carla, the street-smart waitress. Filling out the cast were Woody, the bartender, of no intellectual pretension at all; Cliff the pathetic postman, lacking a sense of self-worth and trying mightily to catch up with the humor which has gone over his head. Finally, there was Norm, the accountant, owner of the corner stool, and symbol of the unreality of it all. He never seemed to work, and although constantly attentive to the beer which was his steady source of nourishment and inspiration, never seemed to overindulge either.
But this isn’t about Cheers -- although we all like to go where everybody knows our name. It’s about a place most important to me, the keystone of my personal support system. it has the cast of characters, the familiarity, the warmth and mutual affecton of cheers -- but it has infinitely more -- it has meaning. it requires commitment of us, commitment to be proactive in our individual searches for the true and the holy, as we each are given to see it, commitment to building an institution by application, not contemplation.
So let’s all join in Hymn #1, to sing about the homes of our respective communities -- those places, which by our individual and collective actions we hallow.