Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
In this time of continuing insecurity and social upheaval,
When we are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short space of time,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
At this one time.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) (words by Verona Conway).
Our worship is to the holy spirit of the universe who sustains it in love and makes it ever new each moment of time.
Our prayer is for light to see the way, truth to teach us how to walk, faith to give us the courage to keep on through all discouragements.
Our friendship is with each other as fellow-seekers after true happiness, fellow-workers in the service of the spirit.
[We light this candle that] our worship, our prayer, our friendship may be fully blessed in this hour, and we may go out stronger and wiser to work in a world that so profoundly needs strength, wisdom and compassion.
Opening Prayer Each Day by Andy Pakula
With each new day, we are offered another step in life’s sacred journey
an invitation to join in the flow of life that streams around us
Today, we may face a barren desert landscape to cross
Parched as our reserves of hope dwindle.
Some days, a lush oasis appears
Offering its succulent gifts of joy to delight our hearts.
Each day, we arrive, but not to stay
We travel on…
Pilgrims in search of the holy land that glistens in our dreams
Journeying toward a destination that we must seek
And that none ever reach.
Spirit of the journey, God of many names,
May we step out boldly
Venturing eagerly forward
Accepting all that each mile has to offer
May we know that within the journey itself lies our destination
And that the holy city waits to be discovered in every heart, Amen
Reading Retreat, from Spirit of Time and Place by Cliff Reed
Pilgrimage: In company we make our pilgrimage, to places hallowed by our journeying and by our sharing along the road. As paths meet and merge and separate, then meet again, may we be conscious that through space and time, we travel in a mighty company, the cavalcade of humankind.
Quest: The quest is to a fabled goal that few may reach, and yet the vision leads us on – through a landscape of wonders. Let us notice these wonders, open up to their message and, maybe, by unexpected routes, we’ll attain to more than we ever dreamed.
Wilderness: From wilderness to community, from solitude to company, we return. These are the poles of our existence. May we fear neither ourselves nor each other and may what we learn in our aloneness deepen our sense of being at one with our neighbour, with our true selves, and so with the divine root of being which we share.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust.
Reading To be a pilgrim by Andrew R. Parker, from With Heart and Mind
In October 2006, a group of eighteen people accompanied me on a holiday to Rome. One of the places we visited was the convent of Santi Quattro Coronati (the Four Holy Crowned Ones) on the Celian Hill. The dedication is to four Christian Roman soldiers who were martyred during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan god Asclepius.
An elderly nun, who admits visitors to the beautiful cloister, asked where we were from. When we said that we were from churches in the Manchester area, she exclaimed, “Ah! You are pilgrims!” None of us liked to tell her that we were just on holiday. She smiled, and as we began to leave, she asked us if we would like to visit the crypt and see the tombs of the four martyrs. We gratefully accepted, for the look on her face made it obvious that she was offering us something very special.
She then unlocked a great metal door and took us down a flight of ancient steps. At the bottom, she unlocked a great iron grille, and there were the marble sarcophagi of the four saints. It was very humbling to remember the circumstances of the soldiers’ deaths and to see the unshakeable faith of those who preserve their memory today.
The nun who accompanied us was clearly moved, even though she must have visited the crypt many times before. There were tears in her eyes as she invited us to pray with her before the shrine, and so we all joined together in saying the Lord’s Prayer.
At that moment, we ceased to be tourists and became pilgrims.
Prayer For a group of modern pilgrims by Andrew R. Parker, from With Heart and Mind
God of all, who walks with us all the days of our lives, even when we do not know it, we bring to you our thanks for all the blessings which your love has brought to our lives. We thank you for our homes and the communities in which we live, for our families and friends, and for all those, both known and unknown to us, whose lives and work help to support our lives.
We thank you for our church and chapel communities and for the fellowship they provide for us; the opportunities for doing your work and advancing the boundaries of your kingdom through them.
We thank you for the many wonderful and beautiful things which surround us. We thank you for the artists, sculptors, and builders of many generations, who have left behind them such a treasure store of marvels, not only for our pleasure, but for us to use as a window, through which we may catch glimpses of you and your glory.
We pray that our time spent in special and holy places may inspire us in the days ahead and that the many examples we come across of ordinary people, just like us, who were prepared to suffer and even die for their faith, may help us to stand firm and defend our faith against those who would seek to belittle it, or destroy it.
Lastly, we thank you for our own lives, especially for that spirit of enquiry and interest within us, which spurs us on to learn more about you and your creation.
Reading from A History of the Church in England by J.R.H. Moorman
The Puritans had hoped for great things from James [I], coming, as he did, from a Presbyterian country… They raised a number of objections to the Prayer Book, demanding the abolition of such things as the sign of the cross in baptism, the wearing of the surplice, the custom of bowing at the name of Jesus, and the reading of the Apocrypha in church. They also pleaded for more and better preaching…. [But they] were much disappointed with the Conference, from which they had hoped so much; but they continued to press their claims and to teach their own special doctrines….
The distress and disapproval of many of the protestant party grew to such a pitch that they found the atmosphere of their native land intolerable and fled overseas to the Calvinistic consolations afforded by the Church in Holland. A group which settled at Leiden in 1609 afterwards decided to emigrate to the New World and in 1620, returned to England, made up a party of about a hundred souls, and sailed away in The Mayflower from Plymouth on September 6th of that year. They landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts on November 11th, where they drew up a covenant to form a political and religious society under the strictest possible discipline and in conformity with the principles for which they stood.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Pilgrim’s Prayer by Rev. Cliff Reed (adapted)
Guiding Spirit, show us an open road, a pilgrim track.
The blind alleys of our folly wear a dreary look, we must break out and find a better way.
Show us the path of deliverance from the byways and cul-de-sacs in which we wander, trapped in a maze of old ideas, old hatreds, old fears; condemned to tread the same old ground we have trodden before.
We seek the bright highway to wholeness, which cuts through the walls and spans the chasms keeping us apart; which unites those who have been sundered, binds up our shadowed, fractured world like a ribbon of light.
We would join the pilgrims of the human race, search out the healing, holy shrine where souls, people and planets are made whole.
Let us ponder these things in the silence…
Show us your highway, O God, open our eyes to see that it runs just outside our door. Help us to make the first step along it. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address To Be A Pilgrim
Four hundred years ago today, a hundred and twenty Calvinist Puritans set sail for the New World, because they could not stomach living under the established Church in England. We now know them as the Pilgrim Fathers, and their memory is revered in the United States, and commemorated by the festival of Thanksgiving, in November each year.
I have always found the idea of pilgrimage romantic. When I was six or seven, my favourite hymn was He Who Would Valiant Be, not the cleaned-up version which we sing in our churches and chapels, but the original words by John Bunyan: “He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster, let him in constancy, follow the Master. There’s no discouragement, shall make him once relent, his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.” And especially the last lines of the final verse, “I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labour night and day, to be a pilgrim.” I found (and find) both words and tune rousing and longed to sail off to distant lands on a pilgrimage of my own.
At about the same time, I was introduced to the wonderful stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, who seemed to be always going off on quests. This led to a lifelong love of fantasy, which was set in stone when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at the age of thirteen.
But it was not until much later that I realised that pilgrimage can also be an internal, spiritual journey as well as, or even instead of, an actual physical one. Living a religious and spiritual life is a journey which, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road, goes ever on. All through my life, I have been open to new ideas, new insights, primarily through the books I have read, some of which have influenced me quite profoundly.
I have recently been haunted by the beautiful words of the song Pilgrim by Enya. Particularly the second and third verses:
“One way leads to diamonds, / one way leads to gold, / another leads you only / to everything you’re told. / In your heart you wonder / which of these is true / the road that leads to nowhere, / the road that leads to you. / Will you find the answer / in all you say and do? / will you find the answer / in you?”
It has resonated with me deeply, because over the years I have learned that the only place we can find true answers to the questions of “life, the universe and everything” (to quote Douglas Adams) is within ourselves. In our reactions and responses to the things our senses perceive and in our relationships with other people and with the world. Of course, each person’s journey will be different; I can only share my own.
One gorgeous thing about being Unitarian is that we never stop learning, never stop receiving new insights, from a multiplicity of sources. Until we eventually realise that God / the Divine / the Source of All Being is everywhere – in our lives, in our relationships and in the things around us. One influence that has been with me all the way through my journey is a love of, and reverence for, Nature. Founded in the fairy tales and legends of my youth, Elsie Proctor’s wonder-full book Looking at Nature, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s powerful descriptions of Middle Earth, I have always found it easiest to sense the presence of God / the Spirit in the natural world. Yet it was not until the last decade that this reverence for natural beauty became integrated into the rest of my spiritual life.
This started in early 2009, when I did a module on my second Open University course, called Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. I was particularly fascinated by contemporary Celtic spirituality. I was introduced to the concept of the Wheel of the Year, and to the notion that we (and all living things) move through life in a cyclical rather than linear manner, in which the dark side is to be welcomed as an important part of the process. The module also covered modern Paganism, and I was so interested in what I read that I decided to find out more. So of course I bought a book … Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions by Joyce and River Higginbotham.
To my surprise, I found many elements in common with my own Unitarianism. For example, the first three Principles of Paganism, as explained by the Higginbothams, are as follows: “1. You are responsible for the beliefs you choose to adopt. 2. You are responsible for your own actions and your spiritual and personal development. 3. You are responsible for deciding who or what Deity is for you and forming a relationship with that Deity.” In this approach, there is no religious hierarchy or tradition, telling the individual which spiritual path they “ought” to follow; it is up to the individual to work it out for themselves. They explain: “Any resource, teacher, practice, or holy writing that helps you move toward your goal of spiritual maturity can and should be used. [But they] cannot be substituted for the effort each person must give to his or her own growth. … Spiritual muscles don’t get strong by letting other people do your work for you. Pagans strive to become spiritually mature and to take responsibility for their beliefs, actions, and spiritual growth.”
At around the same time, I also came across a book by John Macquarrie, a Christian writer, who reinforced my belief that the whole of the universe could be sacramental. In his book A Guide to the Sacraments, he explained that rather than God’s presence being limited to either two or seven sacraments, God has so arranged things that the material world can “become a door or channel of communication through which he comes to us and we may go to him.” For this reason, “man’s spiritual wellbeing demands that he should recognise and cherish the visible things of the world as things that are made by God and that provide access to God.”
This way of perceiving the world demands that we believe that God, the Divine, is not only transcendent, the one-time creator of the universe, but also immanent – being in the world and acting through it. In other words, we are always in the presence of the Divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. Macquarrie also writes about material things such as stars, mountains and cities as ‘doors to the sacred’. He argues that “[God] is in all these things as the mysterious source and energy that has given to each of them its being and sustains them in being. These things … have the potentiality of lighting up for us the mystery of God himself.” For this reason, everything has the potential to become a sacrament.
Then I discovered the Celtic mystic, poet and theologian John O’Donohue, whose love for the Irish landscape of his birth flows richly through all his writings. One of his books in particular, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, helped me to appreciate with my heart, not just my head, how deeply God is present in the earth, in the sky, in the landscape. And in humankind.
So, having come to Unitarianism at the age of 18 because there were aspects of mainstream Christianity with which I was not comfortable, my journey since then has been somewhat of a pilgrimage, visiting various religious and spiritual viewpoints, and taking from each the sustenance I needed to continue on my way. Sources of revelation have been many and varied, including the basic morals and ethics of childhood tales and fantasy, the inclusive liberal Judaism of Lionel Blue, the radical and challenging simplicity of the Quakers, the sound advice for the journey from authors like the Brussats, Bill Adams and Brené Brown, insights about other faith traditions from my Open University studies, and the mystical, insightful Christianity of John O’Donohue and Richard Rohr. Not to mention the massive influence of various Unitarian authors, particularly Alfred Hall, Cliff Reed, and Forrest Church.
I have been helped along my Road, not only by the authors of the books I have read, but also by friends and mentors in real life. A process of change and growth, which really started when I began the Worship Studies Course in 2006, has led me in unexpected directions, not least of which was becoming a Unitarian minister, and I am sure that the pilgrimage has not finished yet. How could it be? I am a Unitarian, and so revelation can never be sealed. I don’t expect that I will ever finish my journey, and that is fine. So long as I continue to be nourished and fed by what I am encountering, even the dark stuff. For I have discovered that the Spirit is there too.
Each person’s spiritual journey is different, and it is here, in our Unitarian communities, that we find the support we need to step out boldly like Bunyan’s pilgrim, and the Pilgrim Fathers, four hundred years ago.
I cannot resist concluding with the words of that wisest of Hobbits, Bilbo Baggins:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
May your journeys be rich and insightful and rewarding.
Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we appreciate the beauty all around us,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
May we find the courage and companionship we need
To continue our spiritual journeys,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley