A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on March 8, 2009
For Faith Is the Gift of God: Reflection on Meeting Transylvanian Unitarians
His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.
—Edict of Turda, 1568
I’m fascinated by the various expressions of Unitarianism around the world. Of course our closest cousins are the churches in the British Isles, in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. But, there are also several different Indian churches, a couple of churches in Africa, two different Unitarian churches in the Philippines and at least two congregations in Japan. I’m especially interested, as you might imagine, in the Japanese Buddhist Unitarian encounter. But that’s for another day.
There are in fact two historically Christian cultures where Unitarianism has established itself if as a minority faith, and has sunk deep roots. We here in the English-speaking world represent one. The other is in the Hungarian-speaking world. Today the largest Unitarian churches outside of North America are, in fact, the churches in Hungary and in Transylvania, which while a Hungarian-speaking culture is now part of Romania.
I suggest it is important to know something about these communities so close to our own, although often at the same time often so different. Among my most vivid memories are the time that Jan & I and friends from the Newton congregation spent with the Unitarians of Dublin, Ireland. The great scholar Earl Morse Wilbur came to his famous analysis of what he saw as the primary spiritual currents of our movement, freedom, reason and tolerance through his examination of the history of world Unitarianism. No doubt we can get new perspectives, and, sometimes, a better sense of who we are, you and me as individuals, and our congregation and our North American tradition, what we are doing that is helpful and what we are missing, through such encounters.
We are now embarked, as you know, on our annual canvas. I believe a reflection such as this can help us clarify what it is we’re being asked to support. And in this reflection I hope you will find that as important as your financial support of what we’re about might be, that actually this is an invitation to an even deeper encounter with our tradition, which I characterize a bit differently than did Dr Wilbur. I suggest we have twin spiritual currents, a path of the mind, which is often characterized as rationalism, but I suggest has broader meanings as well, as a path of wisdom. We are also of course about a path of the heart, of intuition, a naturalistic mysticism found in closely attending to the world in which we live. Each of these paths have taken us (most of us, we do as Dr Wilbur noted, consider freedom and tolerance very important aspects of our tradition) to a fairly common belief in the preciousness and uniqueness of the individual and how we are all deeply related, woven like a web out of each other. This is a healing message and within reflecting on it, a call to action. This is a message worth exploring deeply and a message worth sharing with other people.
But the cultural context in which we have come to this path is largely North American middle class. Sometimes engaged as a bit of a hobby, more in competition with the New York Times for this Sunday morning hour, and many of us perhaps not a lot beyond that. Meeting our Hungarian-speaking cousins has been for many of us a corrective.
Which is why, I believe, when I speak with friends and colleagues describing their visits to our spiritual cousins in Hungary and Transylvania one word I keep hearing is pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual practice, a physical enactment of the journey from one place to another, spiritually from ignorance to wisdom.
Certainly you never know what you’ll learn if you go on pilgrimage. My friend and colleague Barbara Pescan tells how “I renewed my interest in petitionary prayer in Transylvania, as in, ‘Oh, God, please don’t let me die on (this) mountain road…!’” And there is much more one can learn on these journeys has we’ve heard here in the past from those among us who have visited Szentegyhaza, our partner church in Transylvania, and the recipient of today’s offering.
Barbara tells how her pilgrimage to Transylvania “sowed in me the seeds of appreciation for the Transylvanian Unitarians, those keepers of Francis David’s (message), the guardians of the liberal spirit of religion for over four hundred years.” Then she adds, “And, the more I learn about non-North American Unitarians, the more deeply I come to appreciate our legacy of liberal religion here.” Being Barbara, she doesn’t stop there. “And, I have questions, too. With Hungarian minister, Josef Kaszony, I wonder: How is it that we American Unitarians can hold our religion so far from the center of our lives?” I will return to that question.
While over most of history there have only been random points of connection between our two traditions, today we are in full-blown dialogue. For those of us who have traveled to Hungary and Transylvania, the differences have been striking and sometimes shocking.
Among other things there are major distinctions in style. Our much later English-speaking movement was birthed in the Enlightenment, bringing many gifts because of that and, of course, with some shadows. Hungarian-speaking Unitarianism is a reformation church, and because of that it brings many gifts and, naturally, some shadows. But different gifts and different shadows. The most obvious difference is how we situate ourselves in relation to the world’s faith traditions. The latest surveys suggest about fifteen percent of Unitarian Universalists call ourselves Christian. While Hungarian-speaking Unitarians resist mightily any suggestion they are not Christian.
Also, while our English and North American institutions have suffered some abuse and bruising, we have for the most part been part of the cultural establishment. Indeed our North American religious current through its theological flowering as Transcendentalism significantly marked the culture of our country. Our Hungarian-speaking co-religionists have on the other hand suffered persecution pretty much from the beginning. And under the communist dictatorships that dominated the later half of the twentieth century particularly endured hardships we can only imagine.
UU minister John Robinson describes his friend Varga Sandor who served the Unitarian congregation in Nyaradszentmarton, in Transylvania. “In the early 1980's (please note we’re talking only twenty years ago. Ronald Regan was president. Do you recall where you were twenty years ago? What you were doing? Well, there) …(D)ictator Nicolae Ceausescu was in power. Foreigners, strangers from another country, came through Sandor's village. He invited them into his home. Among those Transylvanian Unitarians, the Biblical admonishment to be hospitable to strangers is taken as an imperative: ‘for thereby,’ in the words of the Good Book, ‘some have entertained angels unawares.’ (However) The Communists had made contact with foreigners illegal.
“For his generosity Varga Sandor was (viciously) beaten by the (secret police) and fined one-year’s salary. (They) offered to drop the fine if he would inform on his friends, neighbors, and parishioners. When Sandor would not, the (police) called at his home regularly, in an attempt to cause others to think, by their presence, that he was an informant anyway.”
Of course this was nothing new for Hungarian-speaking Unitarians. John Robinson tells us” In 1648 persecution of the Unitarians became particularly intense. In 1663 an Ottoman Turkish invading army burned Sandor Varga’s church along with the whole village. One hundred and fifty women, children, and old people, hiding in the church crypt, were incinerated, out of a village of about 550. (When they have communion today, they stand above the spot where their ancestors were burned to death...)”
The Reverend Noemi Szeredai writes, “I was eighteen in 1989 when the Revolution started and the Ceusescu dictatorship collapsed in Romania. I was part of the Youth group in my parish since I was fifteen... It was forbidden to go to church, I was afraid, but I was going.” (I read this and felt ashamed. How many of us find it a hardship to come here when it’s snowing?) “We were meeting talking about lots of things, but freedom and God were the most important topics in our discussions.
“We also had religious program(s) with songs and poems and we went (to) different churches to perform and to keep the faith and hope in people.” She goes on to describe the beginnings of the revolution centered around the Reformed minister Laszlo Tokes. When the turning moment came, she put on her Hungarian folk costume and told her mother she was going to her church, her Unitarian church. “I said to my mother" Mom, I am not sure I will came home after church, perhaps I will (end up in) prison, but I must to go!" She was just one person who stood up to the dictatorship and brought it down. But she and so many others were sustained in that effort by their Unitarian faith.
Of course modernity has come to Transylvania with a vengeance. My colleague Jane Dwinell tells of a trip to Transylvania two years ago and the disappointments of visiting a small struggling church where so many of their young people are most concerned with getting out of their village and the church is sometimes seen as quaint and part of a bygone era. But, we’re not just talking about declining rural churches and noble happenings of the past, even if recent past. Things are happening. Our sister congregation is only forty years old, old enough to have suffered the old persecutions, and the contemporary ones, as well. But it also stands out as an example of how our shared liberal faith, our sense of the great one that binds us all together continues to inform lives and becomes both safe harbor, a place of respite, and a place to be challenged to be better, to be more.
Barbara Pescan tells us, “As an Episcopal priest put it, speaking about his congregation’s partner church in St. Petersburg, Russia: ‘They have experienced the power of hell and they have not been overcome.’” I repeat, we offer a message of hope, for ourselves, for our children, for the world. We too often miss that message in our own lives. We too often fall short.
But if we look to our cousins and see what it is that they have suffered, and how they do endure, and in new ways as well as old, flourish; perhaps we can look back home, and think a little about what it is we are up to, what it is that we stand for, and what it is that we have found in our lives that is worth our time, our effort, and, certainly, our money.