A few days after telling him of my idea, he sent me an email that said his church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Santa Rosa, was delivering a message on "Love And Loss". Given what I have gone through the past year, I thought there was a little bit of destiny, serendipity, or – dare I say it? – divine inspiration behind the timing of that particular topic. I accepted Scott's invitation to join him and his fiancée, Cathy, at this past Sunday's service. Another of my friends, Donna, heard about the topic and also wanted to attend the service, so we made plans to meet. Scott also pointed out that my friend and former professor, Eric, and his wife, Ellen, were also members of the congregation and would be there as I began this spiritual quest. I hurriedly set about planning this project, creating this blog, and bracing for the start of my journey into the unknown (or is that unknowable?).
As I mentioned in my previous post, the congregation occupies the building in which the UA 5 Cinemas was housed for many years. This is significant because I worked at that theatre for my entire senior year of high school, so I wonder if there isn't a bit of serendipity to this fact, as well. The building had changed but it was interesting to see how they transformed the old, dark, atmospheric design of the theatre into this bright, open, cheerful setting for people to worship. I could feel the ghost of teenage me in the walls and in the essence of that building.
We all met about 20 minutes before the service was to get underway. Everyone wore name badges; some professionally printed, others handwritten. Donna and I were asked to write our names on a badge and wear it for the duration of the time we were in the building.
As we waited for the service to begin, I meandered around the lobby and read some of the literature they had there. There were pamphlets and posters that explained the Unitarian Universalist Principles & Values and touted support for civil rights (including LGBT rights); social justice; gay marriage; community involvement; dignity for all people; open-minded encouragement of one's search for truth, meaning, and spiritual growth; and the respect for the diversity of people and our planet, amongst other causes.
The Unitarian Universalists draw from the Judeo-Christian traditions, but use no one book from which to derive lessons. They use the Bible; it is not taught as the literal word of God but rather a book of important parables, moral teachings, and a basis of culture and history. Other religions are taught, respected, and incorporated into the UUs' vision and dogma. Their teachings and lessons are embraced, as each congregant is free to seek God, Divine Providence, or the Inner Source of Light, in his or her own way. Interestingly, the minister of this particular congregation, Rev. Christopher Bell, is a practicing Zen Buddhist!
A bell was rung, indicating that the service was about to begin and we were to make our way into the sanctuary. Above the sanctuary doors were written the words, "Enter In Peace". As we entered, we were handed programs and welcomed by name by the greeters. We all found our seats and enjoyed the prelude music performed by a wonderful pianist.
Reverend Bell greeted the congregation and made some announcements. We were then led in song, followed by opening words and the lighting of a chalice at the rear of the pulpit. The chalice burned throughout the service.
A testimonial was given by one of the congregants, after which we were led in what is called The Unison Affirmation:
"We are Unitarian Universalists, People of the open mind, the loving hearts and the helping hands."The children of the church were then called to the front of the sanctuary and we were told what they would be learning: Some would learn about John Murray, founder of the Universalist movement in the United States; an older group would learn about covenants and inner-connectedness amongst religions; the oldest group of children would be taught the first principle of Unitarian Universalism, dignity of all people and the cohesive spirit. At that point, the congregation sang to the children as they were led to their respective classes:
"How could anyone ever tell you you were anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever tell you you were less than whole? How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle? How deeply you're connected to my soul!"A short reading centered on "the conscious act of letting go with love". Following this, we were asked to sit in silence for 5 minutes to meditate or ruminate or pray. All that was required is that we be perfectly still. The choir broke the silence with a song called, "The Spirit Of Life".
After the choir's performance, a member of the congregation spoke of her loss: her son going to college on the East Coast. She talked of how part of what it means to be a parent is to realize that, at some point, you will have to let your children go. It's a loss, but that is the price one pays for loving something or someone so deeply.
Another choir performance followed: "Bridge Over Troubled Water". I choked up a bit during this due to the fact that my late wife was always my bridge over troubled water and I realize that, in many cases, I now have to navigate those rapids on my own. And it's inevitable that I will get wet and maybe even occasionally go under.
After the choir's performance, Rev. Bell began his message. He talked of loss and how we deal with it. Grief is centered around suffering, disorganization, yearning, guilt, and anger. He relayed his own story of dealing with the death of his stepfather and how, most times, it's the person who is closest to death who is most comfortable with the thought of dying. It is those of us who are facing the prospect of a life without those we love that are most vulnerable to the pitfalls of grief.
He labeled things like a child going to college, the loss of a job or home, or drifting apart from friends as "little deaths". He said if any of us were familiar with French slang, the term "little death" should cause us to chuckle a bit inside. He then explained the term to the uninitiated. Indeed, it was the first time in my life that "orgasm" was even referenced in a church, let alone uttered.
He expanded on his point by saying that pain, pleasure, sorrow and happiness all dwell in the same place within us. They are different sides of the same emotional base but it is impossible to experience all of them at once. But we cannot experience one without inevitably experiencing the others.
Other points of his message were:
- Pain is the result of love and attachment;
- All love inevitably ends in loss;
- We need to think of the Divine (in whatever form He, She or It may take) not as a manager, but as a consultant when we are faced with grief and loss;
- Grief is the price we pay for love and we mourn not only for those we've lost but for the love that we are unable to give which seemingly lies dormant and unused within us;
- And, finally, in order to find peace, we must not only strive to give the love that resides in us to others, but to also accept the infinite love that is given to us by family, friends, and the Divine Source of Light that dwells within us and all around us.
An invitation to come forward and light a candle followed, as did the offertory, or tithing. The choir sang once more and then closing words were offered. The entire congregation then sang the following benediction:
"Go Now In Peace, Go Now In Peace, May The Spirit Of Love surround you, everywhere you go!"At that point, the service ended. Postlude piano music followed, during which time some congregants left the sanctuary while others (my group included) sat and listened.
I spoke briefly with the Reverend afterward, but only to relay my personal experience and how he was able to touch on a lot of points I had been thinking about. He truly tapped into a lot of what I was feeling and I wanted to let him know how grateful I was and thanked him for allowing me to be a part of his congregation that day during such an important message. I didn't let him know my other reasons for attending, nor did I feel I needed to.
As an aside, I wanted to mention that there was little or no applause. Instead, the congregants rubbed their hands together at the conclusion of a musical piece or presentation. In no way do I mean to be disrespectful or irreverent, but it reminded me of beatniks in a coffee house who might snap their fingers to show their approval. I mean all of this in a nice way, though. However, it's something I wasn't used to and, should I decide to return, might take a little getting used to.
Overall, I had a fantastic experience. A lot of the Unitarian Universalist beliefs certainly gel with my core beliefs and world vision so I didn't feel as out of place as I would have at a church with political or dogmatic beliefs contrary to mine. The people I met were welcoming, friendly, non-judgmental and caring. There was a peaceful continence I felt the entire time I was in the building and I could really feel the sense of community, sharing, pureness of spirit and desire to do good in the world that all the members shared.
Before leaving, Donna and I returned our name badges and they were filed away so they will be available to us on subsequent visits. I don't presume to speak for Donna, but I get the feeling I will be using mine again somewhere down the road.
Many thanks to Scott, Cathy for inviting me, Eric & Ellen for helping me out and directing me during the service, and Donna for joining me as I took that first step on that proverbial journey of 1000 miles. Or in my case, 52 churches.