The Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism has a geography. At certain places on this earth, the finest things it stands for—and the incidents and people that embodied what was best in it—are made visible. We can touch and see and even smell them.
One of these places is most certainly New England—Boston and its environs—which was the cradle of American Unitarianism and Universalism. Another is the deep South where the Civil Rights movement began and so many of our leaders joined in the struggle, hand-in-hand-with others, and some even became martyrs.
And then there is Transylvania, a word that literally means “the land beyond the forests.” Before the French settled Canada in 1604; before the English established a colony in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607; before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620; before all of these, the Unitarians in Transylvania had already been proclaiming a Jesus who was not a God but a great teacher who affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of not some but all. They had already been proclaiming the political right to religious toleration, so that they could affirm Egy Az Isten (God is one) in security and in peace and others could affirm their own vision of the Divine in security and in peace as well. They had already been doing this for over half a century, before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth!
Don’t let visions of “I vaaant to suuuck your blooood” cloud over the amazing thing about our spiritual roots in Transylvania. It’s much, much more than that. I know it hits a funny bone. The Dracula connection is kind of funny, and folks in Transylvania tolerate it or even benefit from the T-shirt sales. But the historical truth is sobering: everywhere else in Europe in the 16th century, our ancestors were hunted down and killed mercilessly. Transylvania was the only place our people were safe. Poland too, but that’s another story.
It was the only safe place. And even that proved fragile….
It’s 1568. The brilliant Francis David has just returned to Kolozsvar (which is the Rome of Unitarian Universalism) after winning a debate with the leading Calvinist scholar of the time, and the townsfolk meet him at the gates. Today, that would happen to a sports team. But back then, the heroes were the religious leaders. They meet him at the gates and beg to know what happened. Francis David starts to go through the debate but you know what? The brilliant and charismatic man was also a short man. So they have him stand on a boulder so more people can hear him. He goes into impassioned oratory and inspires his countrymen and, that day, the town of Kolozsvar becomes Unitarian. The boulder marks the occasion.
We saw that boulder. It was in a room of the First Unitarian Church of Kolozsvar, and our pilgrimage guides ushered us there and we stood before it feeling a bit stunned because the great Francis David had been there. He had stood on that rock. We are face to face with history! I also loved it because I never knew that Francis David was short. He was just a mere mortal, proclaiming Love. It made me care for him even more. It reminded me of all our mere mortal limitations and failures, and yet our task today is to stand tall, no matter what.
A time like this is when you know you are on a pilgrimage. This is not mere tourism, where it’s all about entertainment. Pilgrimage is about understanding where your basic values come from; connecting with the stories of your faith tradition in direct ways; and even being transforming in who you are, reaching new depths of knowing….
One of those transforming moments was in the Homorod Valley. There, the communities are all small villages of farming families, and these families have been Unitarian for almost 500 years. They got the message from Francis David, and the message stuck.
So UUCA’s little band of nine pilgrims found their way to one the Homorod Valley villages called Homorodkaracsonyfalva. The evening we were there, dinner was at the parish house, and it consisted of a slug of polenka, sour cherry soup, mashed potatoes with meatballs, and dessert. During our walk back to the bed and breakfast, we saw cows returning home for the evening. Water buffalo also. Enormous moos. Excrement everywhere on the street, and the sour/rich smell blending in with everything. Clop-clop-clop of horses carrying wagons filled with hay. Sun-weathered farmers who could not possibly read William Ellery Channing or Ralph Waldo Emerson, never mind the scientists or postmodernists of current day. And I thought: who are we to say that only smart people or cultured people can “get” Unitarianism? Who are we to limit the forms it can take? A people almost 500 years old are proving all our preconceptions to be lies.
The next morning, we had a conversation with the minister’s wife Enikö Benedik. In this ancient village of 500 people, in an area more rural than you can imagine, she spoke about Match.com and how several village marriages had come out of it, but nevertheless there seemed in it to be a cheapening of the mystery of two people coming together. She spoke about email and Facebook and smart phones and the Internet but what does that do to family time together? What does that do to relationships?
What I heard in all this was the echo of our own worries 6000 miles away. We are so far apart but we are also right together in some of our concerns. More unites us than divides us.
It was crystallized in a T-shirt I saw someone wearing, while walking down a street in Kolozsvar: “Be with someone who makes you happy” but the word “with” was crossed out. The message was that no one else can make you happy. That’s for you to do yourself. “Be someone who makes you happy.”
More unites us than divides us.
It was a pilgrimage we were on. I wish it for you. I wish it for all of us.
And I will never forget. The sounds of place names:
I will never forget:
The smells that only thousand-year-old places can have.
Egg yolks that are the color of Orange Crush.
The sharp taste of palenka, and the burning that goes all the way down.
The richness of the Hungarian language, as when to say “welcome” is literally to say, “God brought you.”
The weight of the robe that Rev. Kedei lent me, to wear during worship.
And also this: Utterly unexpected moments of grace, as when the father of my host family explained why his family didn’t eat out very much, and he didn’t speak English very well at all but the limitations of language didn’t matter. The message was heart-to-heart. There are more hungers at stake than just for food. There is a hunger for belonging, there is a hunger for the feeling of being together, there is hunger for family. Home cooking has far more nutritional value, on more levels, than anything from a restaurant….
All of this. All of this and more.
There is only one way to end my message today.
From your sister congregation 6000 miles away, there in Transylvania, I bring you greetings. Despite the distance, we are at one in heart:
Where there is faith, there is love;
Where there is love, there is peace;
Where there is peace, there is blessing;
Where there is blessing, there is God.
Where there is God, there is no need.