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[Chalice] The Great[Chalice]
Enchantment of Religion

Presented December 29, 2002, by Rev. John W. Brigham

Religion, for me, has been a lifetime of discovery. It began when my several senses first reacted or responded to sights and sounds and smells and tastes. I was not aware of my responses being related to each other or to anything beyond my single self. It was in the course of years that the world around me began to take on shape and meaning for the days and nights.

The changing seasons and the many weathers of the year, the people in my life took on shape and surrounded me with love and learning. The family and then beyond it to the several families of the neighborhood. Then came the wider world, the school, the teachers, the many children and a widening awareness of our similarities and of our differences. My world steadily expanding, my senses constantly responding, my curiosity leading me to new discoveries.

My family belonged to the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, Unitarian, and in the Sunday School I moved from kindergarten through high school classes. It was an important part of my life. We had a youth group with 15 to 20 active members and belonged to a regional and national Unitarian youth organization - the Young People's Religious Union. The circle of involvement widened. I was sixteen and was selected to do a Youth Sunday sermon. That was in 1931 - on a February morning.

You may read it in my first book, "Still Sounds the Buoy From the Sea." The world of religion was opening, tantalizing, but not commanding. So the title for that talk was "What Religion Means To Me." Now, seventy-one years later, I am speaking to the same subject. Much has changed and yet much remains the same.

The religious quest is, for me, a search for meaning. The meaning of LIFE, the single life that is me, the enveloping LIFE of which I am a part. It is the ever expanding sense of both the unity and the universality of all living things. One of my colleagues said it in these few lines:

"This is a living universe;
its meaning runs through storms and stars,
whispers through life and death,
sings through earth and sky,
and shouts in living things and things
that do not seem alive.

It speaks this day as on all days,
but will you hear?"

Raymond John Baughan - 1946

Let me tell you of my first sense or awareness of this totality.

It was in the evening of a summer day on an island seven miles off the coast of New Hampshire where I was attending a Unitarian youth conference. It had been a beautiful day; but as evening arrived, storm clouds gathered to the south and west and I went out by myself to the end of the island, alone with the sea and the wind and the lightning and thunder. It was an awesome hour. The twin lighthouses of Cape Ann, signaling with single and double flashes twenty miles away. Another lighthouse close at hand was signaling the entry to the harbor at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

On the sea I could see fishing boats, six or eight of them, all headed for harbor ahead of the approaching storm. The storm itself, both visible in heavy clouds and lightning flashing, was heard in almost continuous rolling thunder. Not a single storm but two, one to the south and one to the west, and converging into a single great outbreak of light and thunder and heavy rain.

As my eyes and ears and bodily senses absorbed the scene, I felt an identity of self with all that was before me and invading me. I was one with the boats, the fisherman, the sea, the sky, the rocks on which I stood. It was a sense of total involvement. I was at one with all that was. In that moment I was speechless. I was at a loss for words. There was a sense of meaning too great to put into words, yet it made that whole scene, before me and around me, a scene of awe.

It was later in that week at Star Island that I decided to become a minister with the hope that I could help others find a meaning of existence for their lives as I had felt. It was a peak experience. My life was in tune; it was in harmony with the universe of living things. The question before me, coming into the ministry, was that of encouraging and enabling other persons to discover and awaken their own "peak" experience.

It was obvious that everyone would not repeat my experience on Star Island. Then I began to realize that such experiences are possible in many, many situations of life. the possibility is at hand in every hour of day or night. Elizabeth Barrett Browning noted and said it in three short lines:

"Earth's crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees takes off his shoes."

So also did Whitman find this possibility on every hand. He said it simply and clearly in three lines also:

"I will take a branch of gooseberries from
the old bush in the garden, and go
and preach to the world."

I could go on in this way. It is not only the poet or preacher; it is the artist, the sculptor, the musician, the carpenter, the digger of ditches. . . people in all walks of life the mother of children, the teacher in the classroom, anyone who walks under the stars or in the rain. It is you who can discover the secret of the trees in our church yard, by stopping for a moment now and then to look in the spring, the summer, the fall and marvel at what the unseen roots below ground have given life to in the branches above ground, joining in this with the sun and the rain of all seasons. Now in winter they rest, yet live even as do you when asleep.

Let us move on.

When I first thought of our subject this morning, I also thought of what the enchantment of religion has caused the human mind and hand to create and leave as symbols of its meaning.

Seventy years ago, while a college student, I had reason to be in New York City for a short time. Still clear in memory is a walking tour through the great Cathedral of St. John the Divine, then under construction. It was an awesome sight, overwhelming to a New England boy familiar with family-centered Unitarian churches in the small towns of eastern Massachusetts.

Here in New York, rising above the Hudson River, was this huge Gothic structure competing for attention with the skyscrapers of Manhatan. Yet in that place I felt out of place. I felt shrunken; and leaving the cathedral, I returned to normal in the sun and open air.

Many, many years later Anna Louise and I were on a summer vacation in Europe. Disembarking from a German express train in Cologne, we found ourselves on a wide plaza facing the dominating structure, the Cologne Cathedral, or as it is called "The Dome." With a history dating from the Middle Ages, this historic cathedral had been massively damaged by bombing attacks in the Second World War. So, in 1972, we found reconstruction of great sections of the original building taking place. It was a tourist attraction with workmen at all levels restoring walls, sculpture, roof and windows. Off to one side a small chapel was in use, reminding wandering tourists what the cathedral was for and might become again. Not likely.

Later in the same summer we were in western Greece, driving north from Thessalonica to a small village where Anna Louise had a young stamp correspondent. At the turn off the main highway, we stopped to check directions. I noticed a wayside shrine off to one side and went to look at it. About five feet high with a slanted roof over a painted depiction of virgin and child and a narrow shelf below. On the shelf was an apple or two and a tiny pot with a wildflower in it. It was a place for worship or prayer for the passerby a distant relative to the cathedrals in New York or Cologne.

Yet in its own right the wayside shrine was a true statement of the enchantment of religion. Just as this church on the corner of Sixteenth and Hampshire is a true statement, and your presence here on any Sunday morning is your response.

What is it in the human person that leads us on, seeking answers to the mystery of life, of our own existence, of stars and planets, flowers and trees? What is it that bonds one life to another, that leads from one generation to the next? Humankind is a great community of seekers, discoverers, struggling to be at one with the universe of living things.

One of our Unitarian poets, May Sarton, speaks of her own seeking and response in a poem titled, "the Sacred Wood."

"A charm of columns crowd
the tranquil glade
No leaves to be seen
The sudden rush of green
makes the air a cloud
Above the clonnade.

The columns in a choir
Define the empty air
The leafy cloud has gone
But only to bring on
The magic more severe,
The crucial form laid bare.

On, answer to a prayer
And to an old hunger,
This ancient fertile glade,
This living colonade
Where form and content are
Not parted any longer."

"Where form and content are not parted any longer." These are the key lines, the key thought. For this is the secret of the religious response - the sense of being united, of being at one with all that our senses tell us of the world. The meaning of my life, the life of each of us, is to be found, or known, or felt within the meaning of the whole of existence.

Whether in nature or revealed in art, architecture, music, poetry or the worship service, the form and content must flow in single stream. Allow me a moment with a child's poem about a most ordinary natural thing in his life - the creek that ran by his home:

"When the early spring is here
The creek begins to run
With all its wrinkles and laughter
Under bridges to a River?

It is in the river
Then to a bigger river,
Down through the river
Meeting all the rivers
Meeting in the sea."

I pause for a moment for you to glance at the river before you in the chancel where is it coming from, where is it going? Can you imagine the many, many creeks rising in the spring to give this flow of water to the sea? Think of the harmony, the unity, the laws of nature, and think what a marvel is your mind that can grasp this total natural wonder. If so, then you are aware of the enchantment of religion.

But it is of utmost importance that we go beyond creeks and rivers to the sea. We have a planet to consider, a world of wonder and surprise to discover. How can you do it? I offer you the wisdom of the past, just past and long past.

Mao Tse Tung, leader of theCommunist Revolution in China put it in these words:

"Whoever wants to know a thing has no way of doing it except by coming into contact with it. If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience."

Two thousand four hundred years before, Aristotle said simply: "Men come to be builders by building, harp players by playing the harp; exactly so by doing the actions of temperance we come to be temperate, and by doing brave actions, brave." Today we are the living men and women who must rise, singly and together, to take part in the practice of changing reality, and by doing brave actions, become brave. Are we courageous enough, daring enough, brave enough? Not just here for an hour on Sunday morning, but in the living action of the day, at work, at play, in the school, the market place?

I close with the words spoken years ago by Gregory Vlastos when on the faculty of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University:

Religion is the conscious relationship of each life to the reality that creates, sustains and outlasts any single life and every human life. In speaking of reality, I am not using it in some cryptic sense. I mean what the average person means by it when speaking of trees and mountains and the people he knows as real things and persons. I mean by reality the world in which we live and move and have our being. Religion is our opportunity to come to terms with this reality, our oneness with it, and find through it meaning and value surpassing our highest dreams. Justice and love are the fruits of this religion."

May there come to you in some way that "peak experience" which opens the windows of your mind to the enchantment of religion.

©2002 Rev. John W. Brigham

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Brigham, John W. 2002. The Great Enchantment of Religion, (accessed July 4, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
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