Archive for November, 2010


Danse Russe

Well, the past week there wasn’t much practice in my religious practice, and today, a day largely devoted to the visit from consultant Peter Steinke, I haven’t done much either.  Unfortunately, when it comes to discipline, I”m often quite lazy.  In a question on my questionnaire (we all got to fill out different questionnaires) there was some question about what I thought a healthy congregation would look like. I wasn’t sure I could answer that, but it did make me think of what I want in a religion — and I thought of William Carlos Williams‘ poem, “Danse Russe,” whose words are as follows:

IF when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,–
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,– 

 Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

I’ve always loved this poem, for two reasons — the image of the somewhat portly Dr. Williams dancing to his own music in his north room (the room in the attic where he did his poetry work) has always amused me.  There is something wild and uninhibited and joyous about that image.  And joy, or some sort of celebration that is uninhibited, that somehow tricks the censor, seems something I want in a religious experience.

I also love his statement within the poem that he is lonely, born to be lonely and best so.  After all, this is a guy who had friends and had family, but still felt very much apart, and for him, that apartness is something to be valued and cherished.  Our culture does not value loneliness and its importance for our soulfulness.  We want to deny loneliness, rather than live in that existential apartness.   And, for now, I”m getting my fair share of loneliness when I take time to devote to it, and I rather like it.  It does seem to me that when I am back in community, I’ll have to find some way to foster that alone time, even when I”m with other, for at some level, I too am lonely, was born to be lonely, and am best so. 



Once more, with feeling…

Yesterday, Carla and I visited Shawnee Mission UU Church (SMUUCH) — the service, led by Rev. Thom Belote was on hospitality and welcoming.  I was impressed by the following on our visit to the church — 1) the membership and welcoming committee were on top of their game; in fact, I think that everyone there is on the lookout for anyone with a Visitor name-tag.  It felt like they had rehearsed what they were supposed to do when a visitor came, just as we used to rehearse fire drills until we got it right.  Even Rev. Thom was on top of this — as he walked about the sanctuary before the service started, he looked for the name tags and took a moment to introduce himself to visitors.   2) I liked very much how sunny the sanctuary area was.  It was nice to be able to look out the window at points during the service and see trees moving in the breezes.  During the meditation, I know we were supposed to close our eyes and meditate, but I found myself using the time to just look out on the trees — very restful.   3) I like the idea of “radical hospitality” mentioned by Rev. Thom during his sermon — he spoke of a friend of his who is an Episcopal minister.  On leaving divinity school, this friend’s first job was as an assistant minister in a large Episcopal church, and the job title was something like “Minister of Radical Hospitality.”  The idea that we should be hospitable is itself a welcome idea.  Though not openly hostile myself, I’m not sure that I’m particularly good at making people feel welcome — get me started on some way to help an individual and I think I do that as we work on our common project, but not first thing as people come in the door. 

It is unclear where Carla and I will end up following our semi-retirement from the hurley-burley at All Souls.  Perhaps, after the dust has settled, we’ll rejoin All Souls (we haven’t left yet — it’s more of a trial separation than a divorce).  It is possible that we’ll end up at SMUUCH, which is just about 1/2 mile further from our house than ASUUC.  I’m rather enjoying not having to be somewhere, and using the time to do some thinking and feeling.  Sometimes crowds of people confuse me.


All Souls, ooops!

Here it is and I missed All Souls Day (November 2) without posting.  I had intended to post, but was fairly busy for half of the day yesterday (Election Day), a day I was dreading, and then spending most of my time doing other things to stay busy and not think about the likely awful outcome of the day.  It might be taken as a sign that I didn’t post on All Souls’ Day, given the troubles at All Souls Church — perhaps it is a sign, though I hadn’t intended it so.

A word on the significance of All Souls’ Day for me.  Growing up Catholic and attending parochial schools, I got off all holy days of obligation (days other than Sundays when one was required to attend Mass).  All Saints Day (November 1) is one such day, so as a Catholic boy, I didn’t have to go to school the day following Halloween.  The purpose of the day off from school was to allow us all to go to Mass with our families, but my friends and I looked on it as a holiday, one in which we could recover from the sugar-induced hangover we found ourselves in.  Having the day off, while all the public school kids had to struggle through their day in school, still reeling from the night before, made the day even more special. 

The purpose of All Saints’ Day was two fold — it was to celebrate all the saints in heaven, who were quite a bit more than could fit in the 365 days of the calendar year.  The various feast days through the year were for the big saints (though there are some obscure saints in the calendar), saints who were honored as the patron of various groups, cities of countries.  Some of those days, St. Patrick’s Day, for instance, have become secular holidays.  As all of us are potentially saints, and all those who had died, but had been good people, and had made it to heaven, were saints. The other purpose of the day was to take the fire and thunder out of the pagan holiday, Samhain, aka Halloween.  We could now remember our blessed dead in a Catholic context.  The Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker (May 1) is supposed to do the same thing for May Day.  No need to be a member of the Communist Party — St. Joseph (the patron saint of St. Joseph, MO) was himself a working man fighting for the rights of all with a hammer in his hand. 

I was probably in 3rd or 4th grade when I learned about All Souls Day.  Back in school following our holiday, I’m sure that our teacher mentioned that the day was All Souls, and may have given us some instruction about it.  My first reaction was that we got All Saints’ Day off, and we should get All Souls’ Day off, too.  For the way All Saints’ had been explained to me — it was so we could celebrate all those who were in heaven (our blessed dead).  All Souls’, though, was for us to think on and pray for all those (our not quite blessed yet dead) who were in purgatory.  There was no All Damned Day for gloating over those who were dancing in the fiery pit.  In other words, All Souls’ was something of an after-thought.  And I felt bad and sorry for those who needed the day off.  The Saints didn’t need our acknowledgement — they made it — they were happy, no matter how much we thought of them or not.  The Souls I always imagined as feeling lost and alone — even though they were on the road to heaven, they weren’t there yet, and must have felt lost.  From that point on, though I still would have liked the day off, I would spend some of each All Souls’ Day thinking of those in purgatory.  And the day, for me, at least, remains something of a holy day.  Even though I no longer find myself believing in an afterlife (no afterlife — no purgatory or souls, for that matter), the day remains important to me.

When I came to Kansas City, I found out that the Unitarian Church in the city was called All Souls, and I felt at home.  I know that All Souls is a pretty common name for Unitarian Churches — that name and Church of the Messiah were the two most common name for Unitarian Churches that didn’t go the number route.  There are still a few Churches of the Messiah about, but not many.  Still, I took it as a sign when I came out here to interview for a job.  And when I moved to Kansas City, the first opportunity I had to sign the book was on November 2 which fell on a Sunday that year.  It very much seemed an instance of synchronicity. 

And now, I’m somewhat on the outside.  The past couple of years have been extremely trying at the Church.  I’ve always felt somewhat an oddball at the church (which is o.k. — I don’t mind oddball status) as I still envision my secular ideas through the lens of my Catholic upbringing.  My own religious path calls me to acknowledge wonder and is largely celebratory, and serves for me as a counter to the judgmental nature of some religious people.  At All Souls, over these past years, we’ve had hurt people who largely changed the mission of the church to get the minister — I feel sorry for their pain, but I’m not sure that the sacrifice of any scapegoat can really heal a community.  In the political sphere it always angers me that the Democratic party is too timid in espousing its own great message, and, as a result, we have others in the political arena who are good at pushing a message of fear and distrust which doesn’t bring us together.  It only keeps us apart.  I think that All Souls has a lot of hard work ahead of it, possibly harder work than they’ve had before.  I don’t think that good will alone, or tolerance, will bring the church back as a force in the community.  And so, I’ll celebrate this All Souls on the outside (still a member, but not attending) with the same sort of melancholy hope I felt for all the souls in Purgatory.

speaking my truth in love,



Make Haste Slowly

Yesterday, while I was at a mass in Visitation Church here in Kansas City, I noticed that the organ prelude that had been performed at the 9 a.m. Mass was the Largo from Bach’s Double Violin Concerto.  It got me thinking.  First of all, I love this movement, especially in the version performed by Salvatore Accardo and Anna-Sophie Mutter and the English Chamber Orchestra.  The second movement of the Concerto has the time given as Largo ma non tanto — “Slowly, but not too much.”  Well, Accardo and Mutter stretch that “but not too much” as far as they can.  It is the most langorously slow movement I think I’ve ever heard, but it works — not only slow, the performance by Mutter and Accardo is perhaps also the most sensual reading I’ve ever heard of this piece.  I remember the first time I heard it and I was amazed.  I love Bach’s music, but most of the time I like it for its grandeur.  Bach’s rendition of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott always makes me want to run out and become a Lutheran (a serious old-time Lutheran) — the feeling doesn’t last, but it’s pretty powerful stuff.  And so, when I heard this piece the first time, I thought how much the old guy surprised me — this was not some majestic work for the glory of God, but more like an intimate conversation between lovers — very beautiful and sensual and so tantalizingly slow.  I’m sure that the organist was not able to capture that — the organ for all its power does not have the subtlety of a well played violin, and a single player on an organ cannot, Bergin and McCarthy-like, speak the two parts so convincingly. 

It did make me think, though, how much the senses matter to me in my appreciation of a service.  And so often a service can come across as little more than a poorly done radio address — you’re getting the audio, but it’s not particularly scintillating, and the other senses are left in the lurch.  And so often we’re led to attend and think about the words we hear, but there is so much more to be gained by something we feel as well as understand.  I think I probably want more of the reason beyond reason that Pascal speaks of, at least in my religion.

speaking my truth in love,



Peace, Aunt Fran…

My Aunt Frances (Rose Frances Norcott), aka Sr. Michelle of the Congregation of the Divine Spirit of Erie, PA died last week.  She was the youngest of my father’s siblings (he was the eldest) and had been a nun since the 1950s.  She spent most of her adult life teaching in a grammar school in Erie, PA (St. Andrew’s) and spent the last few years working at a nursing home run by her order in Canton, OH.  It was there that she fell ill a few months ago, and her big heart finally gave out.

I remember the first time I met my Aunt Fran.  She was the last of my father’s siblings I got to meet.  The order to which she belonged had very strict rules regarding the nuns outside their community.  After she had been a nun for a while, she was allowed to visit her mother in Boston every few years for a week in the summer.  The first time I met her, she had come up to visit her mom, one of her sisters, my Aunt Mary, came from California with her two sons to spend about six weeks in Boston.  In going over to visit my grandmother, have some play time with my cousins, I was also going to see, for the first time, my Aunt Fran.  My mom reminded me, though I already knew it, that she was a nun.  I knew nuns from my own grammar school experience (I would have been in the 3rd or 4th grade at this point at St. Peter’s School) and figured that there’d be nothing new in seeing my Aunt Frances as a nun.  I had another aunt who was a nun, my mother’s Aunt Marion (aka Sr. Marion Anthony).  I remember being shocked by my Aunt Fran’s appearance.  All the nuns I knew were Sisters of Charity of Halifax, and they all had the full nun outfit — the floor length black gown, the veil and the wimple.  The habit for the Sisters of the Divine Spirit was something that looked like what an airline attendant might wear — rather prim airline attendants, but airline attendants nevertheless.  It was a gray dress that stopped about a foot above the foot.  There was no veil, no wimple, but rather a traveling hat that looked like the foldable Garrison caps soldiers (and airline attendants) wear. 

At some point in our visit, my brother Neill went out with our cousins Michael and Richard to play.  For some reason I didn’t go with them.  My Aunt Frances cornered me and began to ask me questions about school and all.  She had an easy manner and was agreeable to talk to.  And I recall that she got me to talk about what we were singing in our music class at school, and then convinced me to join her in a duet of “Froggy Goes a-Courtin’.”  This duet ended abruptly with the return of Richard, Michael and my brother.  The shame of being “teacher’s pet” even with my aunt (and their aunt) was greater than any joy I was getting from the song.  I was a very self-conscious youngster, and very worried about what my cousins might say. 

I remember every time I met my Aunt Frances — there weren’t many times, probably no more than a dozen and a half in the 45 years or so following our first visit.  Her order was very strict, and she didn’t get to visit people — no one outisde her immediate family.  I mainly saw her at funerals.  What struck me always about her was her gentleness.  I’m not sure that I could live in an order like hers — lots of rules and lots of restrictions.  But the few times that I visited the order’s home in Erie, PA, it seemed a very positive place, with lots of positive energy. 

Of course, these days, I don’t hold many of the beliefs I professed when I was a  youngster, or which I tried to profess as an adult.  I don’t really believe in an afterlife — it seems to me you get one chance and that’s it.  My Aunt Frances most definitely believed in an afterlife.   If she is right, I”m sure she is receiving the reward for a life well-lived.  If I am right in my belief, she lived a life she loved, and lived a life of love, and, if she had only the one chance, I think she made a lot of it. 

I was unable to make it to her funeral in Canton, OH, but was happy that my brother and his family could get there.  And a cousin from Pittsburgh was also able to be there, as well as to be in Erie for the internment.  She was very much in my mind all of yesterday and today.  And, though I don’t do traditional prayer, as I understand prayer, I’d like to think that my thoughts these past couple of days were prayerful.  Thank you, Aunt Fran, for you life well-lived.

speaking my truth in love, and in special affection for my aunt,