Absence is the essence

offcenteredDid it ever happen to you to ask to yourself: “Why am I a Unitarian Universalist?”. Honestly, it happened to me to ask questions to myself about my engagement in the U*U community several times (would I, by the way, be a Unitarian Universalist not asking questions to myself every second minute?)

The first answer that every time I’ve come up with has always been: “because I believe in that system of thought that we define Unitarian Universalist and I think it is fair to give everything you can for what you really believe in!”

End of story? No!

No, because a response of this kind might be fine for our Catholic brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters of the classical Reform, for our Muslim brothers and sisters, in short, for all those who identify with a set of ideas, of more or less consolidated and more or less fell from above formulas, with a belief in a dogmatic construction. Well, we all know that this is not the case for U*Us so that for me, for us all, in the end, the next step is to ask what this fluid matter, this faith in perpetual progress, sometimes this chaos we call Unitarian Universalist is. You know, I often even wonder if it is right to use the singular and talk about “Unitarian Universalist” or it would be more correct to speak of “Unitarians” and “Universalists”…

Why are we taking part to a U*U function? Is it because a commandment written 4000 years ago commands us to “keep the Sabbath holy”? Maybe for some of us it is so, and this kind of Unitarian Universalist focuses in a Deuteronomy invocation that our Jewish brothers repeat several times a day. And I ask to myself why to attend a U*U congregation and not a Reformed synagogue or a Christian Messianic temple if, in the end, it is just to add a “prophet more” to a long “official” list.

Or maybe it’s because we like to remember a teacher who lived 2000 years ago and who said things that no one else was saying, things about love, human dignity and the interpretation of the Law which can’t but be in perfect consonance with our ethical and social position although we believe they were not asserted directly by God but only by a great man so close to God to be a sort of spokesman of God? Ok, it’s more or less what our Transylvanian brothers have been stating for nearly 500 years, and certainly it is not a position that, personally, I could ever define wrong. But how many other teachers have before and after Jesus explored similar paths, spoken of that same love, of the same human dignity, of the same capability of the individual to interpret the divine will? Why, then, to have only one Master when you can enter into dialogue with the entire wisdom of mankind? Why to choose him and not another?

Maybe, for some, being in a U*U community is something ethical or moral, social, and even political. I defy anyone to prove to me that the Seven Principles are not the pinnacle of open-mindedness towards the others and the enrichment of ourselves in the context in which we live, I defy anyone to say that they are wrong principles, that they are immoral. But, I wonder, without a push towards transcendence, could we speak about a church or a religious group and not about a debating social club, a humanist party or a philanthropic ecumenical center? And if the thrust to transcendence, which can easily be considered inherent in the convergence of ethics and morality, if that extra push exists, isn’t it true that, finally, those same Seven Principles are the heart of almost every religion, or at least of the religious understanding of the most open and liberal wings of all religions?

Finally, for some people Unitarian Universalism can be a sort of “last resort” for those who cannot fit in so-called “official faiths”, for those who are too critical to accept impositions and hetero-imposed dogmas, for those who cannot find a suitable location to their creed and decide to build their own “personal religion”, sometimes modeled on sections of other faiths, sometimes developed in the singular meditation, in the worst cases centered on some sort of supermarket of faith from which to take elements “on demand” for their own needs and in the best cases born from the deep, even painful digging of the meanders of their soul and on the assumption of a personal morality that necessarily derives as a logical path from any “pursuit of happiness”. But, in this case, which is the meaning of a church or, even more, the sense of a community? What does a community become if not a place of exchange of pre-formed views, a ploy to consciously or unconsciously avoid solipsism or, perhaps, even loneliness? Isn’t in this case any community open to discussion equivalent to any other community with the same characteristics?

Have you recognized yourself into any of these categories? Or maybe even in more than one? Well, I recognize myself more or less in a couple of these instances.

But one question remains, heavy as a stone: if each of us could be “other tan U*U” why are we Unitarian Universalists? Why do we go Unitarian Universalist functions and not other functions? Why do we live into a U*U community and not into any other liberal community? Or, putting the question in another way, what is our deepest identity, what is the essence of our faith?

I do not hide that this question has troubled me for a long time, creeping up like a worm inside of me and making me constantly ask to myself questions about the meaning of my work and of my being within the Church.

And an answer to this question has became even more urgent attending the “ICUU European Leadership School” in Kolozsvar just a few days ago. There, I heard some of the best minds of the European and extra-European Unitarian Universalism talking of “mission”, shared dreams, common goals and listening skills and motivation: “How can we speak of mission for a religious community without a common basis in transcendence?”, I wondered, “and how can we dream together and walk together towards a goal, if there isn’t a large common path, if the spiritual goals can be so divergent that it is impossible to find an ultimate essence that unites all of us uniquely? ”

Then, suddenly, the answer was clear to me, in one of those incredible epiphanic moments that sometimes happen to all and that become so fundamental for us though born from completely random observations.

I was returning from Romania, slightly dazed by an alarm clock at 6 o’clock and by the pressurization of the aircraft but strictly in clergyman as I think befits a minister coming from an official visit to a Sunday service in the Unitarian Cathedral where Ferenc David served (I know many wouldn’t agree about the use of a collar but it’s something like an habit for us here in Italy). By chance, I started to observe my pastoral medallion with the Unitarian Universalist chalice and do you know what I happened to think? I happened to think that, within the two circles that surround the Unitarian Universalist symbol, the chalice was not in the center but displaced to one side, so to leave a blank space. I do not know why this provision, which I had seen so many times, has hit me so much and has made my mind go to another symbol that I had worn for a long time when I was still a seminarian, apparently without ever really analyzing its deep significance: the so-called “off-centered cross”. Even in that case, I realized, of course there was the Christian cross, but the cross was not the center of the circle in which it was inscribed: there was a cross on one side but the other side was empty…

Two symbols, so different yet so similar, united by that empty space, that would have existed also if there would have been a Star of David or a Crescent or a Buddhist samsara impressed on the other side.

And it is at that point that I realized what has become my answer to the quest for meaning, to the quest for our identity: the absence is the essence.

That void is the meaning of our being not Christian Unitarians, not Unitarian Universalists not U*U Humanists not Jewish or Muslims or Buddhists Unitarians, but of being also all those things and, at the same time, to belong to the same movement keeping all our differences together due to that absence, to that emptiness.

The point is that that void is not only a symbol of ethics and social tolerance, is not only a moral element of intellectual humility or availability to the other: that emptiness that can stand aside any religious symbol is a strong, meaningful, deeply theological symbol in the only way in which a theology can be given, the search for meaning in our own spirituality.

Theologically that emptiness is in itself a search for meaning, is a door to the further that does not denye the symbol that goes with it but strengthens it opening to a “sacred” which it is not a monolith, which is not engraved in stone once and forever, which is not anthropomorphism that results from human thought, which has no name and no form but has any name and any form because it is changing for every woman and man as any woman or man is different from any other woman or man. And there is no fixed essence through time and space because it is every essence of time and space and evolves with the evolution of each of us, calling us to know it knowing each other and acting in us and around us because we have known it. And this act of ours of knowing it stands precisely in our act to remain open to what is beyond us, to embark on a journey whose destination is unknown to us, knowing only that what is beyond us will always be only partially knowable and expressible but it will increasingly be perceptible only sharing and voluntary disclosing our inner spirit to ourselves, to the others, to the greatness of a mere reflection of a pale intuition, a reflection which is, however, within all of us, caressing us like a feather or scratching like a claw though always too superior to the single to be grasped entirely.

It is the intuition of that reflex of something above us, embracing us, penetrating us but, in the end, remaining elusive to any ultimate definition what unites us, what enriches us.

The name we want or do not want to give to that “beyond” will depend on our culture, our origin, our choice, our sensitivity and a thousand other variables and that will be our own way, what will be the different symbols from which each one will start his quest, that symbol that can stand next to the empty space and that can be a cross, a stylized man, a star, or even nothing.

But next to that symbol that represents us there is something more, there is a blank area that is room for more, for interaction, for communication, for the continuous discovery, for increasing the intuition, for sharing, for the other.

So, our symbol will remain, it will be our own symbol and it will support us along our own path as individuals, but it’s that void that we accept and whose existence we proclaim in our communities that will represent us all, that will not impede our singular growth in this or that way, but will identify us as a community, a congregation, a denomination or a religion, as we prefer to call us.

This is for me the Unitarian Universalism: that going also theoretically and theologically towards a possibility, a “something more”, a “something further”, together, in the only spiritual path that I know that is characterized precisely by the freedom to grow, by the respect for the human being and its evolutionary relationship with what goes beyond the human being to the point to choose not to get closed in the fullness of a unique symbol but to leave that blank space of research, growth, communication with no fear of disintegration but in the courage not to stop at one possibility.

And if a “mission” is, therefore, possible for our faith, for our Church, for our communities, this mission is to fight for a dream: nobody ever daring to fill that void for us, that void never being filled, nobody ever trying to put only one symbol in the center as the only possible way, because the paths are as numerous as the souls of men.

This is, to me, the meaning of our Unitarian Universalism: to celebrate the emptiness of an “unknown beyond” with a thousand different perspectives and to observe it together in stunned contemplation of its greatness, thanking for its existence and all the possibilities given to us. Because that void is full of life!

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