The Sacred Circle Of Life

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

For those of you who attended our service on November 28, entitled “We Circle Around” presented by Kathy Hull, you may feel that you are having a déjà vu experience all over again. Fear not, for you were well prepared by Kathy’s talk on circles as we complete my series of sermons on the sources of our living tradition. The sixth source reads: “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” This source was added in 1995 and you might think it was the latest and most contemporary of spiritual practices. And in a way, it is, representing the deeply expressed longings of feminism, environmental consciousness and neo-paganism as they arose during the 20th century.

There is another view that we can take, however, that honors the history of this sixth source. Long before Buddha or Confucius or the Hebrew prophets, even before we humans could write anything down, people gathered in circles around fires to worship what they sensed was most sacred. They honored life itself as expressed in the cycles of the seasons; the cycles of birth and death and rebirth. I had an experience last Tuesday that made me very aware of this cycle. After several nights of freezing temperatures, I noticed one tiny bloom on a small rose bush on the east side of our house. It had escaped the cold and reminded me of how long I would wait to see it bloom again. A bit of color amid the growing drabness of coming winter, with the solstice soon to come.

With the addition of the sixth source we have completed the history of human religious practice as we understand it. Our sources now represent the most ancient spiritualities, which we embrace for their influence in our lives today in a much too quickly paced technological society. Some of us may dismiss paganism and earth-centered religion either as primitive, or as pre-enlightenment superstition. The Dutch theologian Cornilis Miskotte wrote: “To despise the pagan is to despise the human. Paganism is everyone’s first religion.” (ACF-p. 205)

If this is so, then what is our response to this sixth source of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism? Many of us are in touch with the cycles of nature. Witness the dying rose in front of my house, the geese returning to our small lakes. We rustle through the leaves on the lawn and on our road on our morning walk. The cycles of nature are difficult to ignore for those of us living in the temperate zone. How do these cycles and our awareness of them affect our lives? What do we learn from them?

Forrest Church, in his essay “For the Beauty of the Earth” gives this answer:

“One sure proof of authentic religious experience is the combination of humility and awe. Our encounter with nature inspires both. Though earth-centered traditions range from simple to complex, from tribal to universal, each taps a power that no book or creed can begin to approximate – the power of creation. This is true even of the simplest faith – man, woman, fire, food, sun, rain, star. Early animists felt the earth and all its powers – thunder, lightening, floods, volcanoes – to be alive, even divine.”

The sixth source reminds us of our responsibility to live in harmony with the earth and all its creatures. Our caring for the earth and its creatures is reflected by the clutter in the entryway to the kitchen here at the church and a similar clutter in our kitchen at home as we attempt our best efforts at recycling. Our Green Scene Buying Club is working to reduce waste and purchase organic foods and cleaning products to improve their personal relationships with the environment. Many in our congregations practice so-called “green” ways of living, altering their lifestyles to conserve water and energy, cutting down on the use of raw materials and promoting and participating in recycling. As we continue to care for the earth and work to save the environment for our children, we can see how the sixth source affects our lives and the life of the church.

This source would not have been adopted, however, had there not been a deep need for the expression of the feminine in our movement. While we had begun to prepare women for our ministry during the 1970’s, our association had little support for the feminine in religion. The history of the pagan movement within Unitarian Universalism was largely an outcome of the work of women. It began in “… 1977, [when] the UUA General Assembly passed the Women and Religion Resolution . . . in response to a growing feminist awareness that much of the imagery of Woman in this liberal denomination was actually rather illiberal, a heritage of previously unexamined patriarchal norms. The Resolution mandated an examination of those norms.”

Paganism made its first documented presence at a UU event at a Feminist Theology Convocation in 1980. The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, or CUUPS, was founded in 1985 at the General Assembly, and a year later there was enough energy behind the group to begin seeking independent-affiliate status within the UUA, a status that CUUPS has held since 1988.

Also in 1986, the Rev. Shirley Ranck published “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,” which gave women and men an opportunity to delve into the history of women’s spiritual power and influence. That curriculum was followed in 1994 by Liz Fisher’s “Rise Up and Call Her Name.” By then, the new UU Hymnal had been published, including index entries for “Pagan” and “Goddess.” And in 1995 the General Assembly adopted the Sixth Source of …UU principles and purposes, namely, “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

Women and men alike sought the other half of divinity. At Starr King School for the Ministry, my seminary in Berkeley, California, several courses were taught in “Theaology,” with the added “a” acknowledging the feminine component of the history of religion. In addition to the ancients, there were many women of the early centuries of the religion about Jesus, who were ignored in favor of the writers whose gospels had been chosen for inclusion in the Biblical canon.

During my first year at Seminary I did a project consisting of three poems for a class called “Women, Bodies, and Sexualities in Early Christianities.” One of these poems is called HERETICS, HERESY and “HERSAY” and there is a copy in your order of service because these names are names I think we should see at least once in our lifetimes.

The ancients venerated many goddesses:
Artemis, Hera, Demeter, Venus, Bona Dea,
Mater Mamatu, Isis, Athena, Cybele of Asia Minor,
Queen of Heaven, Mother Goddess of Anatolia.

From the time of the wilderness to early Christianities,
Women were called to meet the challenges of the spiritual:
Miriam, Rufina of Smyrna, Mary of Magdala, Prisca, Junia,
Helena, Priscilla, Maximilla, Lucilla, Agape, Galla,
Blandina, Thecla of Iconium, Ammion, Perpetua,
Felicitas, Quintilla, Phoebe, Sophia, Domna, Leta.

Men oppressed these sisters, calling them heretics under:
The Oppian Law, Platonic Dualism, the writings of Cicero,
Philo, Jerome, Epiphanius, John Chrystostom,
The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Tertullian’s The Veiling of Virgins, Teachings of the Apostles.

As we read of the silencing of women’s preaching,
the forbidding of their holy acts, we asked
How can we honor those who suffered deprivation
Of their blessed bodies, who welcomed hunger and isolation
To gain forgiveness for bringing sin to the world.

We will preach the “hersay” of our innocence,
and the beauty of our bodies.
We will preach the importance of feeding our souls at the
tables of the harvest of the land.
We will preach love of self and love of others, and practice new
communities of acceptance.
We will preach the new “hersay,” the message of the
blessed gifts of our sacred, rich and healing

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, I recommend the book “Her Share of the Blessings” by Ms. Ross Shepard-Kraemer. She refers to “The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles” which were not written by the apostles. This document contains “regulations for Christian worship and for the appropriate behavior of widows, among others.” She writes:

“So, in the Constitutions, not only are women enjoined from teaching and baptizing, but widows are explicitly told to be meek, quiet, passive, obedient, and so forth. They are to remain at home, singing and praying, fasting, spinning and weaving for the poor, and reading….” p. 173 HSOTB

She goes on to say that the subject of women’s religious leadership never comes up in pagan literature. It was never questioned.

Earth centered traditions in Asia Minor went underground thereafter, and became identified as Wicca, as Witchcraft. During the 14th to 18th century, some report that 8 million women and men were executed after being tried for witchcraft. I have read that this number is higher than historical evidence reflects but the fact remains that enough evidence exists to show us how well any hint of feminine power and influence in religion was stamped out.

Recapturing the balance of male and female in our ideas of spirituality helps all of us begin recovery from some of the negative effects of patriarchy. Neo-paganism, as it is being called, is attractive to many men and women because it honors the feminine, the Goddess. Margot Adler, the NPR reporter and pagan, wrote a landmark study, Bringing Down the Moon. In it she says there are at least six reasons why people are choosing to call themselves Neo-pagans.

Fred Muir summarizes these reasons as follows:

When I read (red) all of these reasons, what did I hear? I heard that there is a religious and spiritual search by a growing number of people who have felt disenfranchised and let down by traditionally accepted religious faith. And I saw that the timing is right for an interest in a religion that supports mythological insight and satisfaction as well as ecological concern and interest. These appear to be high among the priorities of the Neo-pagan movement; they are needs that many are experiencing, needs currently being unfulfilled elsewhere.” [HF-147]

Earth centered traditions include many other influences besides Neo-paganism. We include the writings of the Transcendentalists, Unitarians who in the middle of the nineteenth century returned to nature and found a direct connection with the holy through their first hand experiences. We include the wisdom of the ancients, ranging from Native American elders to Wiccans to Druids to creation-centered Christians, earth-based sacred traditions, most often from Pre-Christian, tribal Europe and the Middle East, but including all tribal, more indigenous practices. Indigenous peoples of the world have understood the necessity for having right relationship with the earth for eons. As western civilization developed, our relationship became one of power over the earth rather than living with the earth. We are paying for our mistakes. Each hour many species become extinct. Precious forests and deserts are destroyed in the interests of progress. We continue the rush to pave America.

This sermon concludes our series on the six sources of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism. The sources will be printed on our order of service each week for ready reference. The paragraph after the listing of the sources reads “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” Next Sunday I will talk about our vision as a congregation. As we look towards the future, we might want to keep in mind the importance of keeping our liberal religion alive and well to promote the sharing of all that we hold dear. From our direct experience of mystery and wonder, to humanist teachings that heed us to the use of reason and science, to the teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life, we have much to offer any seeker of truth and meaning.

I close with words attributed to Chief Seattle:
Teach your children
What we have taught our children-
that the earth is our mother.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
If men spit upon the ground,
They spit upon themselves.

This we know
The earth does not belong to us;
We belong to the earth.
This we know
All things are connected
Like the blood which unites one family.
All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life,
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web,
We do to ourselves.

A song of the earth spirit, from the Navajo tradition.

It is lovely indeed, it is lovely indeed.
I, I am the spirit within the earth,
The feet of the earth are my feet,
The legs of the earth are my legs.
The strength of the earth is my strength,
The thoughts of the earth are my thoughts,
The voice of the earth is my voice.
The feather of the earth is my feather,
All that belongs to the earth belongs to me,
All that surrounds the earth surrounds me.
I, I am the sacred works of the earth.
It is lovely indeed, it is lovely indeed.