Empty Altars – Rev. Kristin G. Schmidt

Like a lot of families, mine celebrated our cultural and ethnic heritage in different ways. My mother lovingly made the traditional Hungarian and Slovakian foods her mother had cooked. No Christmas was complete for us without poppy seed stollen and cabbage rolls with sour cream, no family birthday conceivable without Chicken Paprikash and homemade galushkis.

My dad is Austrian, and we would go to the Baltimore Oktoberfest every year where I’d see members of our extended family dancing in lederhosen and dirndl dresses, selling beer. When I was six years old I even got to ride on top of the beer barrel they’d parade around the dance hall. 

But from the time they adopted me, my parents felt it was important to try and help me connect with my biological ethnicity. And I suppose the easiest way for them to plug me into that was to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. I’m always here for anything that includes cabbage, the comfort food of all of my people, and as a musician I loved the Irish fiddle music we’d play on my dad’s stereo. 

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the true legacy of the saint whose feast day provides an excuse for dying beer green and celebrating all things Irish. Born at the end of Roman rule in Britain, he was kidnapped at age 16 by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave. He worked as a shepherd for about six years until he was able to escape back to Britain. It wasn’t long after that when he became a priest. He wrote about seeing visions and hearing the voice of God. Whatever happened, he wound up dedicating his life to bringing Christianity to Ireland. 

He did establish several monasteries and convents, populated by women and unfree people likely relieved for the protection the Church offered them from their former lives. But Patrick also destroyed ancient sacred sites, forced people to be baptized on pain of death, and was the first in a long line of Christian clerics hell-bent on stamping out indigenous Irish religion. I can see why the Catholic Church would have lifted him up as a saint, but he hardly seems like someone I want to celebrate. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Catholic and Orthodox churches have a narrow definition of what a saint is. While Unitarian Universalists don’t canonize people as saints, there are certainly people throughout our faith who have been lifted up as heroes, saints in a general sense. And as incredible as their contributions were, most of them caused harm, too. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a great example. The Sage of Concord was central to the transcendentalist movement, and he was known as one of the most liberal democratic thinkers of his time. UUs love to love Emerson, and yet in truth he left Unitarianism, frustrated by what he felt was a worship of past tradition. But it’s his views on slavery and race that really call his hero status into question. It’s well-known that Emerson opposed slavery, but he lacked the courage to vocally advocate for abolition. He also wrote about his belief in the hierarchical nature of humanity, and that English Saxons were at the pinnacle.

And religious heroes aren’t the only ones falling from public grace. Author, historian, and public theologian, Diana Butler Bass, tells a story from a few years ago when she was speaking at a church in Richmond. Monument Avenue is mentioned in the story, and it is a road known for Confederate Army leader memorials, several of which had begun to be removed. 

The pastor, a religious leader who agreed with their removal, asked me: “Have you driven down Monument Avenue yet?”

“No,” I replied, “I haven’t been there recently.”

“It is stark, emotionally powerful in a different way than it used to be,” he said. “You look down the road and the statues are all gone. There are empty altars everywhere.”

Empty altars everywhere. Yes, indeed. There are empty altars everywhere.

This image of empty pedestals where statues once stood, empty altars where saints were once venerated, captures an important piece of the present era. Thanks to movements like #MeToo, the Truth Telling Project, supposed saints and heroes are being reconsidered with a critical eye. And some of those figures are being literally and figuratively knocked off their pedestals all over the place. In many cases this is a good thing. It’s important for long-suppressed truths to be acknowledged. But who are we putting up in their place?

Given such harmful history, some might argue that we shouldn’t put anyone up on a pedestal at all. No saints, no heroes. Unitarians in particular have a strong iconoclast heritage, so if the image of empty pedestals and altars appeals to you, you’re in good company. But, like anything else, iconoclasty brings its own dangers. After all, how many books and sacred sites and works of art might still exist today had Patrick and other saints not destroyed them? 

We live in a cynical age. My generation was disillusioned after 9/11 and the housing market crisis of 2008. Generation Z just watched the nation’s leaders place profit and political power over people’s lives during the pandemic. It should be no surprise that trust in institutions, trust in people across the board is at an all-time low. But the problem isn’t just that people and institutions mess up, fail to live up to expectations. Part of the problem is that we ever expected them not to. 

The thing about the cynical age we live in is that it doesn’t just shape the way we think about other people. It also shapes the way we think about ourselves. Because none of us is perfect, either. We all have shadow sides, secrets, ways we don’t measure up. Do our mistakes cancel out the good we do in our lives? Is it really fair for the measure of a person’s life to be the worst thing they’ve ever done? As a Universalist, I certainly don’t think so. 

One of the most universal things about humans in nearly all times and places is our tendency to identify heroes, people to look up to and imitate. As Diana Butler Bass reminded her blog readers, this is just basic human psychology; from the time we’re babies we learn through imitation. Perfect people, perfect institutions, perfect heroes don’t exist. No human or human made institution can be without fault. No person or organization will behave or operate or hold beliefs all of which will wind up on the “right” side of history. All anyone can do is our best. But this doesn’t mean we should give up on having heroes. 

In this era of empty altars, let us be grateful for the telling of long-suppressed truths. Let us also remember that even the best things humanity has ever done have been accomplished by imperfect people. 

Let us choose saints and heroes, imperfect as they may be. But let us choose our heroes and saints carefully, for as this quote attributed to our own imperfect Unitarian saint Emerson reads, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping, we are becoming.”