The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister
It is difficult to think of any religious practice or of any people in the history of humankind that has not held some physical place to be holy, to be of enduring and sacrosanct value to the community. Mount Sinai in Judaism, the Deer Park in Buddhism, the River Ganges in Hinduism are places infused with a transcendent power for the faithful in those traditions. In many cases, a space that is held sacred is a building, the work of human hands. The magnificent Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, or the sky-scraping Sakyamuni Pagoda in China’s Shanxi Province, the spectacular Shri Meenakshi Amman Temple in Tamil Nadu, the grandeur and mathematical precision of the Duomo in Florence, the magnificent Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin, damaged by Nazi goons on Kristallnacht and recently restored to glory, all speak to a universal human hunger to find overarching and lasting meaning in this human journey we all share, and to give expression to that search for meaning not only in sacred spaces, but through the way we create and maintain those spaces.
We see an interesting evolution of this concept through the lens of our own heritage. It’s worth remembering that even though the substance of our religion has, by now, largely exceeded the boundaries of the strands of Christianity from which it evolved, many aspects of the style of our togetherness, particularly the manner in which we inhabit our sacred spaces, are still distinctly Protestant. We gather on Sunday mornings in spaces where we sing hymns, pass a plate around to collect money, set aside time for communal prayer, and listen to someone — not uncommonly an individual with the title “Reverend” — deliver a lengthy address (or maybe it just seems lengthy, depending on who’s talking) which can be better described by no other term than a “sermon.” The evolution of Unitarian Universalism is a very complex phenomenon, but we ought to bear in mind that among our many ancestors, we must include the Puritans, a band of English Protestants who were chiefly influenced by the teachings of the sixteenth-century French theologian John Calvin. Calvin, like a lot of Protestant leaders of that era, had a serious bone to pick with Roman Catholicism. His conscience dictated to him that the Church of Rome had strayed from the original and true message of Christianity, and so Calvin sought to create a new Christian movement that was purified. This is why, when Calvinism spread to England, the adherents of this new faith called themselves “Puritans” — they wanted to “purify” the Church of England, which, to their way of thinking, still bore too close a resemblance to the Church of Rome. One of the objections that Calvin passed on to his followers was the manner in which Roman Catholics created sacred spaces. As is the case with any religion, Roman Catholic architecture and iconography are representations of the overarching values of the faith. In the sixteenth century or the twenty-first, Roman Catholic churches characteristically have crucifixes, stations of the cross, and statues of saints. Calvin felt very strongly that the focus of the Christian religion should be the scriptures, and so he urged his followers to create sacred spaces that would focus the attention of the faithful exclusively upon the Word. Detractors of Calvin’s religiosity joked that his sacred spaces consisted of “four bare walls and a sermon.” Sanctuaries in Calvinist Geneva were indeed very austere when contrasted with Catholic worship spaces. This is part of the heritage that Unitarianism (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Universalism) are heir to.
Now, we know that Unitarian Universalist architecture is as varied as our theologies. All over North America we find a remarkable diversity of sacred spaces built by our co-religioners. In Massachusetts we find the ultramodern First Church in Boston as well as the plain white walls colored by rose-tinted windows inside the First Parish in Waltham, or the Tiffany windows and Corinthian columns of the Arlington Street Church. The Unitarian Society in East Brunswick, New Jersey has a sanctuary that bears some resemblance to the interior of a wooden ship. The First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, though a very old institution, has since the early 1990s inhabited a building which used to be a synagogue, and much of the Judaic iconography remains, including a big star of David on every pew. The Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists in Germantown, Maryland worships in a yurt, a cylindrical building with a conical roof that looks like it might be more at home in Kazakhstan than in the suburbs of D.C. The parent congregation of this church, of course, is the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street NW, a magnificent stone-and-stained-glass edifice — and, like this church, they are in the process of renovating and restoring their building.
What is it that consecrates this space? It is shared memory and heritage, but it is more than that. It is the relationships that are formed here, and the common aspirations and shared values that undergird those relationships. There are probably many physical spaces we could think of that are dear to us for the memories they embody and the deeply important values they represent in our lives. A couple might attach deep emotion to the place where they first met; any one of us can probably name some natural wonder that we love to see. But it is not sanctified in as powerful and as enduring a manner as spaces like this one, dedicated first and foremost to the sustenance of a beloved community of memory and hope guided by the polestar of the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism. What we say to one another, what we share with one another, how we treat one another is above all what makes this place holy.
We do not have holy sites in the way that some other religious peoples do: for us there is no place before which we all bow the knees of our hearts, no Kaaba, no Bodhi Tree, no Calvary or Wailing Wall. Over the generations, the trajectory of our theological development has lead us to an understanding that God is everywhere, if we only look; the whole universe becomes sacred space. Even our tradition of humanism affirms this, and I have always been in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed in the original 1933 Humanist Manifesto that “the distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.” If the separation of the sacred from the secular is an artificial and even destructive distinction, then what does it mean for us to create sacred space? It means finding the sacred in every space we inhabit; it means infusing human life with dignity and transcendence and sanctity no matter where we are or what we are doing. Even with our “four-bare-walls-and-a-sermon” heritage, we have sacred spaces, spaces in which we do sacred things, things apart from the other aspects of our life but which give those other aspects coherence and overarching meaning.
This sacred space is sanctified by courage. It is a house of challenge, a place that demands of all of us to kindle a spark within of our best selves and to fan it into brightly glowing flames of dedication and determination. It is a house where we are called to shun the life-denying pabulum of wanting religion to be comfortable. Certainly religion should be comforting, a source of strength and solace in the pain of life. But that is a very different thing from wanting our religion to be comfortable, to be non-challenging and never-changing, to politely avoid anything that might cause us to question our certitudes or to encourage us to grow, to evolve, to be more of what we can be and to overcome those habits that restrain us from being the fully human beings we yearn to be.
This sacred space is sanctified by strength, by the determination to build a strong, vibrant, confident, enduring institution dedicated to the good news of this faith. That strength emanates from the extraordinary talent and hard work of this congregation’s members and friends, it issues forth from a capable and dedicated staff, and it flows from the willingness of its people to give freely and generously of their time, their ideas, and their money.
This sacred space is sanctified by love, by the bonds of love that hold the people of this faith community together, by the love for this religious tradition of questioning and seeking and exploring, by the love for the shared memories and shared hopes of this faithful people, and yes, by the love of this sacred space, the workshop of our common endeavor.