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The Living Faith of the Dead – October 31, 2010

From those who came before us, we gain strength and courage, a challenge to set higher goals for ourselves, and make strong our commitment to spend our lives doing what is right. Each of us can think of caregivers and patient teachers, those who taught us what it meant to love another, or who first loved those that first loved us. Lessons from our family members, from friends, perhaps from our early faith communities; the generous legacy left to us by those who no longer inhabit the Earth. It is true for us each as individuals, with our personal stories, and also for us as Unitarian Universalists, with the shared inheritance of our faith. The lessons of those who came before shape the lives we seek to live today.

A favorite of mine has to do with Henry David Thoreau, that iconoclast of 19th-century New England, known for his strident idealism, his hermit-like habits, and his ridiculous facial hair. During the Mexican-American War, Thoreau refused to pay his poll-tax, for the reason that he was not inclined to support any war, and absolutely would not underwrite the cost of a war to extend the territory in which the slavery of human beings was legal. So one of the range of possible consequences for not paying one’s taxes befell Thoreau: he was put in jail. And his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him there. When Emerson saw the younger man, almost a protégé of his, he gave him a look of disappointment and asked pointedly, “Why are you here?” To which Thoreau responded, “Why are you not here?”[i]

The words and deeds of prophetic persons echo down the ages and offer us examples to follow and moral challenges to which we must rise. But our relationship to our spiritual ancestors, just as with our biological ancestors, is never an entirely simple and easy thing. Take the case of one of Thoreau’s most dedicated descendants, Richard Smith. Several years ago, Richard was a punk rocker living in Ohio and studying history. When he stumbled upon some of Thoreau’s writings, he found someone who spoke to both his conscience and his soul, a voice of spiritual revolution which Richard took to heart. He went beyond the man’s books and essay’s to his journals and letters and then, eleven years ago now, he moved to Concord, Massachusetts to begin work at Walden Pond, the site of Henry David’s famous hermitage. Richard dresses up in 19th-century apparel and leads tours and school groups about the pond, providing historical information and answering questions about Thoreau in the first person. This project is an enormous part of his life, a calling, I would name it, but Richard Smith is aware of a certain underlying tension.

In a recent interview, Richard told the story of a tour he led for a group of 8th graders. One of them asked him, “Mr. Thoreau, if you knew that there was a guy 150 years from now pretending to be you, what would you say?” Richard stands by the answer he gave; as near as he can determine from his study of the man, it is the one Thoreau would have given. Richard responded to the 8th grader’s question by saying, “I would tell him to get his own life and leave mine alone.”[ii]

Both as religious people, and simply as human people, we are the recipients of an inheritance which can be both a blessing and a curse. We might choose our faith, or even our families, but the legacy we inherit from the dead does not entirely of our choosing. It is more complicated than that, and in that complexity, in the challenge and the frustration and even in the grief, lies its greatest power. My eldest predecessor as your minister, Rev. John Hale, at whose home our children and youth are working this morning, lived through the madness and inhumanity of the Salem Witch Trials. Afterwards, he wrote a book declaring those deliberations and executions to have been in error. We are rightly proud of his final position on this issue. But that book was not published until after his death; it was hardly a timely confrontation with an immediate social evil. John Hale’s work is a lesson to we, his descendants, that when we see injustice in the courts and lives being taken in the name of ignorance and fear, we ought to speak up to stop it. The five year delay in that book’s publication is a lesson that we ought to speak sooner rather than later.

Its just a bit like the story of Teig O’Kane, and the Corpse, an old ghost story from Ireland. Being as today is Halloween, I’d like to share it with you. The whole thing takes place many years ago in Ireland, in the county of Leitrim. Teig O’Kane was the rascal son of a wealthy farmer, who would never say ‘no’ to a drink, or a game of cards, or a chance spend his father’s money. And so it happened that one evening he was out by himself at midnight, and was caught by a band of little people. The little people, the fairies who are in Irish folklore the original inhabitants of Ireland, are said in the tales to have a special power over anyone who’s wasting their life.  They got a hold of Teig and they fastened something great and heavy around his neck. It was a corpse, the body of a man who had recently died, and it held onto Teig with more strength than it had ever had in life. One of the little ones said, “Isn’t it lucky that we met you, Teig O’Kane. Now listen, and do as I say, or you’ll repent it. Take this body and bury it, tonight before sunrise. Take it to the church in Teampoll-Demus, and bury it under the floor. If it can’t be there, make it the churchyard in Carrick-fhad-vic-Orus. If not that, then the burying ground in Teampoll-Ronan. If it won’t go there, you must go to Imlogue-Fada, and if you can’t manage to bury it there, then all you can do is to go to Kill-Breedya. Wherever it be, you must bury that corpse before dawn.”

Resigned to his strange errand, Teig set off into the night, to the old abandoned church in Teampoll-Demus. After walking for hours with all that weight on his back, he came to the church and found the doors locked. “The door is shut; I can’t open it,” he said to himself, and just after he did, he heard a voice in his ear, “Search for the key at the top of the door.”

“Who was that who spoke?” asked Teig, afraid.

“It’s just me, the corpse,” said the body on his back.

“You can talk?” asked Teig.

“Now and then,” said the corpse.

Teig found the key, entered the church and picked out a spot between the pews to dig up the floor for a grave. Just a little bit below the flagstones, he found another body buried there and as soon as he disturbed it, the dead man sat bolt upright and shouted that this was his grave; find another. Teig dug all over the floor of the sanctuary, but it was the same story each time: the house was already full.

Jaroslave Pelikan, a 20th-century Christian theologian, made a famous distinction between tradition and traditionalism. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he wrote. “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past…Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time.” As a motley assembly of free thinkers and heretics, we Unitarian Universalists have an inborn aversion to traditionalism. But we can sometimes forget that we do have a tradition, and that practicing it and living out its promise requires a deep, and sometimes hard conversation with the past. We have a responsibility to struggle with it, even when the demands of the dead seem at odds with the needs of the living present.

With no room under the floor at Teampoll-Demus, Teig O’Kane and the corpse went on to Carrick-fhad-vic-Orus. At the churchyard there Teig saw hundreds of ghosts gathered and waiting. As he approached, they moved to follow him. At each place where he thought to dig in his shovel they stood around, huddling together so that he couldn’t even get at the earth. He mustered just enough courage to call out to them, “Why do you stand in my way?” but the ghosts remained silent, steadfastly denying the corpse a place to be buried.

Ernest Withers was a photographer, and one of the leading documentarists of the American Civil Rights movement. His coverage of the Emmett Till murder trial provided images that brought mainstream national attention to the injustice of the segregated South. Ernest attended and photographed countless rallies and protests. He travelled with Martin Luther King and he was with him, in fact, on the day he was shot. Ernest died in 2007, a civil rights hero. A few months ago, that picture became more complicated when it was revealed that he had been, for years, a paid informant to the FBI, reporting on the movements and plans of civil rights leaders, Dr. King included.[iii] The two sides of the man Ernest Withers cannot be divided; the good he did cannot be undone, nor the betrayal. The truth of the past; messy, conflicted and maddeningly inconsistent, still needs a place to reside, even when the pieces do not seem to fit. We understand ourselves best, as a species, when recognize that the past, as well as the present, is populated not with heroes and villains, but mortal, contradiction-filled people. Somehow, despite their faults, our ancestors from time to time managed to do show love, to make peace, to work for justice. Should not we, their descendants, aspire to do at least as much, or more?

Teig was dead tired, as he came to Teampoll-Ronan; approaching the gate, he could see that it was empty, with no ghosts or bodies or fairies moving about. When he stepped over the threshold he thought he was safe, but some force, some thing he could not see picked him up and heaved him into the air. Over the wall, he flew, and landed hard, in a ditch. With just a few hours left until the dawn and as tired and aching as he was, Teig sorely doubted he could make the fairy’s deadline.

The Rev. Mary Harrington died this past week, after living with an illness for several years. She was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and during her years in Marblehead and Winchester, she was the minister to a few of us – folks who are now members of this congregation. She kept a blog of her reflections and experiences, and just a few days before the end of her life, she wrote in it these words:

“In my life as a person, I have stretched myself towards certain goals, such as the kind of spouse, mother, sibling and friend I long to be for those people in my sphere. Once in a while, I have had that particular thrill of feeling I had gotten something just right, and perhaps I did. But it only lasts such a short time… even if you could try with all your might to hold on to one of those glorious connections, it just couldn’t last. This makes leaving hard, wanting so much to find the moment when all is well in every part of my life, and with every person in it. Instead, I have to settle for knowing that at a certain point, things will simply stop where they do.”[iv]

The loose ends and unfinished business of life sit heavy with those near the end of it, and also with those who remain after they depart.

At Imolgue-Fada, there was no gate and no grave markers; just a pile of stones. As Teig O’Kane approached them, lightning struck from the dark, clear sky. A fire swept round the whole plot, all red and yellow and blue and growing brighter and higher all the time. With no way to cross the flame, that was the fourth burying place off the list.

Our love for those who have died can sometimes blind us to their imperfections, or in other cases, allow us to see past them. But then there are those we struggle even to find some positive lesson from. My great uncle Charles, my mother’s mother’s brother was one such for me. Charles was a Roman Catholic priest, and he was famously cantankerous and argumentative. I’m not trying to connect those two facts, I’m just giving them both to you: Roman Catholic priest, famously cantankerous and argumentative. I remember with a particular vividness one family dinner that he disrupted by picking a fight with me about evolution, and another time when he was deriding the Return of the Jedi. In the whole time that he and I were both alive, I cannot remember agreeing with him about even one thing. And yet, here was a man who devoted his whole adult life to religion, who spent decades serving spiritual communities. We went into the same line of work after all; it must be that we had something in common. The reports from my mother, after uncle Charles had died and she had been to his wake, bear this out. The people she met there who had the kindest memories of Charles, were all his congregants, people whose children he had baptized, whose elders he had memorialized, whose hands he had held and hearts he had comforted in trying times. Sometimes, even in death, there is a way in to appreciate and respect a person whom we have struggled to love.

With no where left to go, the corpse on Teig O’Kane’s back whispered the name of the final burying ground: Kill-Breedya. Teig did not know the way, and so the dead man reached out an arm to guide him. They came to the place just as the Eastern sky was catching light. Teig found there a flat empty field, with a grave already dug, and an empty coffin, waiting to give some weary wanderer a resting place. Seeing this, the corpse jumped down from Teig’s back and laid down in the coffin. Teig O’Kane buried the poor soul, no longer lost, and set off into the morning, free of the fairy’s orders, and ready to seek out his father, and make amends.

The struggle to make meaning from the past, to make meaning of the people and events that have shaped us, and then passed away, lasts for the whole of our lives. In her final blog post, Rev. Harrington explained her answer for when that struggle gets to be too much. She said,

“This is why I rest my eyes on the marsh… Mostly, I attune myself with what is easy, swimming, or in flight, or the way the current carries the water in and out with such deftness. My hope is that I too will sail off on a such a gentle, peaceful current as my friends the geese and ducks do, leaving behind whatever loose ends my little ducky toes didn’t have time to complete – but knowing that my people will come with me in my heart.”[v]

Friends, whatever and whoever you are remembering today; whatever the grief, whatever the joy, whatever the struggle, may the ones who have gone before continue to abide in your heart, as you rest also, in theirs. Amen.

[i] Thoreau’s incarceration, as told by his jailer, by Samuel Arthur Jones






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