THE FLOWER COMMUNION: A Story of Our Faith
June 3, 2012
SUNFLOWER SUTRA (excerpted)
I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed,
surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves
rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
….Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a
flower? when did you look at your skin and
decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?
the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
This day, June 3, in 1870, Norbet Capek was born in Bohemia. Capek is known to Unitarians world-wide as the one who introduced the flower communion to us and the composer of over 90 hymns, as well as the founder of the Unitarian movement in Czechoslovakia, a movement the numbered over 8,000 members in his day!
How did he do it? Through LOVE & TRUTH.
After all these years of leading one of our own Unitarian rituals, the Flower Communion, I discovered I’ve been doing it wrong. We’ve been doing it wrong, and I’m guessing 99.9 % of UU congregations have been too.
Actually, it was in about 2000 that a letter, written by Norbert Capek’s widow, was circulated among UU clergy, a letter that stressed the importance of making the Flower Communion replace Easter traditions.
"Delighted to hear that there are intentions of releasing a pamphlet on the Flower Communion. While I do not care what and how the individual churches perform this service, as I told before, I was a bit dismayed recently over the fact that some churches (the San Francisco one included) use it as a substitute for Easter or any other myth. Norbert never meant it to be this nor was it ever and is not to this day held at Easter. Čapek's only motivation was to stress and bring about BROTHERHOOD. As a symbol he used flowers because in the name of a floweror flowers no wars were waged as was the case with the Cross or the Chalice. The flowers are used as symbols of the gifts which each person can make to the church and through the church to other persons. Because of the large variety each person is able to express his individuality. The exchange of flowers means that I shall walk, without reservation, with anyone - regardless of his social status, or his former religious affiliation, as long as he is ready and willing to go along in search of truth and service to man."
When I heard about this letter, I encouraged this church to move our Flower Communion to the early weeks of summer ~~ even though our church does not disband for the summer, we do take a breath from the relentless pace of church year activity~~ and the church agreed!
But I didn’t read far enough. Capek, who introduced the Flower Communion in 1923, in his congregation in Prague, was the founder and promulgator of the Unitarian Church in what was called Bohemia when he was born, then Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic. He wanted the ex-Catholics and former Jews in his congregation to have a ritual which would give them everything ritual does: symbolism, hope, a larger purpose, but would not remind them too closely of those former rituals, like bread and wine, with which they had grown uncomfortable.
But Capek also encouraged the members of the congregation to choose any flower as they left, "just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and whom it represents, to confess that we accept each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is human and wants to be good."
This is a Humanist ritual.
Today I suggest we shift our ritual a bit to incorporate that part, perhaps the most important part of all. What I see too often is that we do the first part well: celebrating the bouquet of diversity, but we are way too picky and discriminating about which “flowers” we take home, eschewing those who aren’t like us: poor people, working class people, uneducated (but not necessarily unintelligent) people, Hillbilles, rednecks, the gypsies among us, Republicans.
It is the great challenge of this faith to practice, over and over, the flower communion in our hearts and minds. To challenge ourselves to accept and walk beside all of our fellow humans, with one small exception.
We don’t have to accept without question Nazis, KKK members, God Hates Fags sign holders, or any stripe of people who abuse, or perpetrate injustice upon the weak and innocent, especially children. As Capek even said,
"...as long as he is ready and willing to go along in search of truth and service to man
· who is human and wants to be good..."
It is written that Capek’s faith was a “sun-drenched, pre-Holocaust faith…” There is evidence that even when he was arrested after preaching one Sunday in Prague in spite of Nazis standing in the back of his congregation, then tried and sent to Dachau as an invalid age 72, he led church services among his fellow victims, sand and composed hymns, and kept alive some vestige of faith and hope even in that most evil and despicable of environments.
What he said that Sunday in 1942 was this:
We all know that this is the worst winter in our history and the ground is terribly frozen. We also know that the Spring must come, and the seeds now buried will sprout and bloom again.
The Nazis saw through the symbolism … it was not winter, after all, but early Spring…. And the next morning at 6AM he was arrested at his home. His death was a horrible one in the gas chambers and he was, furthermore, a victim of the dreadful medical experiments performed at Dachau.
It is said by liberal Christians that you cannot have the resurrection without the crucifixion. What that means is that a faith not tempered and earned by devotion in spite of hardships is no true faith. It is no more significant than a belief in fairies or a Pollyanna –ish optimism that denies the very real presence of evil and violence and despair. You can’t have LOVE without TRUTH.
A shallow faith is Mac Donald’s compared with the slow food meal of organic produced cultivated locally. It is a bouquet of plastic flowers or roses grown on mega-farms in Columbia by workers paid $39 a month, compared with locally grown seasonal wildflowers. It has no roots and it will not make any difference in the world or in your own soul.
Our movement (NOT our faith) has two major weaknesses. It is, like much liberal thought, too complacent and somewhat too optimistic. It does not call evil when it sees it. It practices a sham of love, a love without discernment or truth.
At the same time, liberal movements are too insular. We can be self-congratulatory and and elitist, and in our isolation, fail to see our true interconnectedness. That’s truth without love.
symbol of the Prague church
Subscribing to no theological system, Norbert Capek celebrated the "hidden cry for harmony with the Infinite" in every soul. "Every person," he wrote, "is an embodiment of God and in every one of us God struggles for higher expression." "Religion," he said, "can never die because human beings. . . cannot but be religious regardless of the form of [their] religion." Religion should, before all else, provide that "inner harmony which is the precondition of strong character, good health, joyful moods and victorious, creative life."
"It is my ideal," he wrote, "that unitarian religion in our country should mean a higher culture. . . new attitudes toward life and practically a new race. . . . In short, unitarian religion should mean the next advanced cultural level of a certain people." The church's task, he felt,"must be to place truth above any tradition, spirit above any scripture, freedom above authority, and progress above all reaction."
Capek himself points to both of these challenges we face, as a congregation, as a movement, as liberal people in an increasingly fear-driven world.
The first: to continue to celebrate all that IS good in humanity and the world. That’s LOVE.
The second: to face and speak the truth, fearlessly, freely, and sometimes forcibly. That’s TRUTH.
The flower that symbolized the Unitarian Church in Prague was the sunflower. Of course, Capek did not survive to read Ginsburg’s poem, The Sunflower Sutra, written in 1955. But especially given what we must call a post-Holocaust, post-September 11th, faith, I think he might have approved. For Ginsburg names in his poem, literally and symbolically, all of the things that dirty the sunflower: greed, exploitation, inhumanity, waste and destruction. Still he sees with delight that the sunflower stood its ground through all of these. A kind of victory.
The motto of the church was Veritas Vincit. Truth is victorious. It was changed to Latin from Czech to fool the Nazis, but it has been the deep core of our religion since Servetus was burned at the stake, and even today when we stand for immigrants, against bullying, when this church hosts a WomanPriest ordination or the first Gay Pride prom, and whenever we act with clarity and love TEMPERED with TRUTH.
This is our challenge.. may we meet it, individually and collectively, with joy and hope.