Unitarian Universalist Saints

Rev. Don Beaudreault
First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist
November 1, 2015

OPENING WORDS: “Many people genuinely do not…”

Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is possible that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never had much temptation to be human beings.
-George Orwell 

MEDITATION WORDS: “Go back to Socrates…”etc.

Go back to Socrates: “Know thyself.” For Socrates, there are only two kinds of people: the wise, who know they are fools; and the fools, who think they are wise. Similarly, for Christ and all the prophets, there are only two kinds of people: saints, who know they are sinners; and sinners, who think they are saints. Which are you?”  –Peter Kreeft

I pity the village where no one is a saint, but I also pity the village where everyone is a saint!  From Saint Francis, Nikos Kazantzakis

The world is essentially bipolar: driven to extremes but defined by flux. Saints are always just a stumble away from sinners. Nothing is absolute, not even death.
From Manic: A Memoir, Terri Cheney

SERMON: “Unitarian Universalist Saints”

Today we honor Unitarian Universalist saints, although for us, such exemplars are not designated with a capital “S” before the word “saints.” This fact, in itself, is a prime example of the difference between Catholic theology and a Unitarian Universalist one.

For UUs, human beings are human beings. Not Divine, per se. That is, “Divine” spelled with a capital “D.” That would go for our understanding of the man-prophet, Jesus, too.

But again, this does not preclude that we mortals are beyond divine-like qualities.

In this regard, I relish what Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served three years as a Unitarian minister, proclaimed while using the non-inclusive language of his day:

Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.

So to answer the question: Yes, we Unitarian Universalists can have saints, too. It is just that we recognize them as superlative human beings. Not as sacred or sacrosanct – not as entities to be worshipped. But outstanding for what they have accomplished; for their good effect on others.

I suggest that we UUs would agree with Shakespeare’s estimation when he has Juliet proclaim: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Or to make it case-specific to our discussion: A saint by any other name would smell as sweet.

I mean: it’s just a word – this word “saint.” That is, if we use a small “s” to spell it.

I delight in the universalistic perspective on saints as shown by the contemporary Turkish author Elif Shafak, who wrote in her The Forty Rules of Love: 

Before passing through the gates of a town I’ve never visited, I take a minute to salute its saints – the dead and the living, the known and the hidden. Never in my life have I arrived at a new place without getting the blessing of its saints first. It makes no difference to me whether that place belongs to Muslims, Christians or Jews. I believe that the saints are beyond such trivial nominal distinctions. A Saint belongs to all humanity.

Again: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Indeed, say I!

So, let us not get caught up in the trap of linguistic nicety. It is the effect that we are going for this morning, not the word.

Which brings us to the question: Can Unitarian Universalists have saints, too?

Well, ours would be UU ones, because they would not be required to meet the Catholic criterion for achieving such a venerable designation. To wit – in the order that must be followed (according to Kevin Cotter in Focus Blog):

  1. The local bishop must investigate information about the person in question.
  1. This information is sent to a Vatican committee which considers the matter.
  1. This committee accepts or denies the application. An acceptance means that all the committee members believed that a “heroically virtuous” life occurred. This implies that the person is, indeed, in “heaven.”
  1. A miracle must have been performed by the person – usually a healing. This must be proven to be “scientifically unverifiable” by a team of “independent doctors.” Then a “panel of theologians” must approve it. And finally, the Pope must stamp his imprimatur.
  1. But one does not yet become a saint until step #4 occurs again in reference to a second miracle.

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII both were canonized last year. The latter, despite the fact that no second miracle was evidenced. But then Pope Francis had the final say.

Father Junipero Sera was canonized last month, much to the dismay of those (including myself) who viewed the priest as someone who forced Native Americans to convert to Catholicism and generally treated them poorly, including torturing them to death.

Now, I brought this to your attention to point out the differences between Catholics and Unitarian Universalists when it comes to how each of us has a process to determine who is a saint, and who isn’t.

But wait a minute, you say: “You mean Unitarian Universalists have an actual process for such a determination?”

Well, no, of course we don’t. Not until this moment – because I have created one, believing that we of the so-called “Free Faith” need to have our own “saints.”

So let us romp through history and view the present day, to point out how we might determine who our saints can be – and let us talk about some of them.

Here is my suggested process to tell who is a UU saint, and by implication who is not.

To introduce the topic, let us consider the words of Elizabeth Gilbert who said in her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love:

(Saint Anthony) said in his solitude, he sometimes encountered devils who looked like angels, and other times he found angels who looked like devils. When asked how he could tell the difference, the saint said that you can only tell which is which by the way you feel after the creature has left your company.

So let us consider the process for determining who is saint – and we really don’t need to form a committee to accomplish this. And since the Catholics have five suggestions on the topic, let me have five as well. Here they are:

  1. Some in this room are, indeed, saints, because you make the rest of us feel good – even after you have left the room. Even after you have died. We could consider this your “aura” – whether your particular “halo” is visible. To paraphrase the poet Wordsworth, you do, indeed, come “trailing clouds of glory… from God, who is our home.”
  1. Still, UU saints are not perfect – being human is not about being perfect, but about being aware of how imperfect you are, and yet doing the best you can – intentionally. You UU saints know that life is not about winning or losing – it is, rather, about being engaged with life. Being filled with wonder and curiosity and possibility.
  1. A saint of our particular stripe is often a revolutionary. This could mean that you are creative – you see things the way they could or even should be, rather than how they are. An experimenter, if you will, you are someone who is ready to try new things: in the creative arts, in social justice, in human relationships, in politics, and in organizations.
  1. You UU saints are determined. You have a vision, and although you might or might not welcome others into your particular visioning process, you never lose sight of your objective – whatever it is – as long as it is one which speaks of love, not hate; of freedom, not imprisonment; of improvement, not destruction.
  1. A UU saint is tough. Not hardened of personality, but generously unflinching. On the exterior you might appear to be gentle or even genteel, but inside you, there is a fierceness, a flame that impassions you to be yourself and to act upon your fervent hopes and expectations. So although critics might flock around you, you glean only their helpful suggestions.

So over the years, I have met many UU saints, and at this point, so many of them have joined that greater celestial congregation of UU saints wherever such a congregation might be.

Although I dare say that many of those grandly remembered by me and others would agree with the musician Billy Joel who proclaimed in his song “Only the Good Die Young”:

I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.

But indeed, all these wonderful people who never performed even one, little miracle, would rank in my particular list of saints.

Then there were the famous UUs, including some who lived during our own lifetime or who are still living.

Unlike the Catholics, our saints don´t have to be dead.

It’s not all about Ralph Waldo Emerson! Or Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Paul Revere, George Pullman, Joseph Priestley, James Pierpont (composer of  ¨Jingle Bells¨),  Beatrix Potter, John Murray, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Benjamin Rush,  Dorothea Dix, Julia Ward Howe, Theodore Parker, William Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Adams Family (the political ones, not the vampires), Thomas Jefferson, Louisa May Alcott, Edward Everett Hale, Horatio Alger (who served this very congregation and who was fired by it), P. T. Barnum, Henry Bergh (founder of the SPCA), Catherine Helen Spence (the Australian suffragette who achieved the right for women to vote before the women in the US had it), Phebe Ann Coffin Hannaford (born in 1829 – first openly lesbian minister).

There were and are some modern ones:

Sophia Lyon Fahs (the prototype for all UU Religious Educators), Henry Steel Commager, Buckminster Fuller, Bela Bartok, Norman Cousins, Ray Bradbury, William Howard Taft, Millard Fillmore, Adlai Stevenson, Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world-wide web), Conrad Aiken, Laurel Clark (the NASA astronaut who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia), May Sarton, e. e. cummings, Morris Dees (founder of Southern Poverty Law Center), Rod Serling of “Twilight Zone” fame, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Christopher Reeve (Superman), Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Frank Lloyd Wright, Whitney Young, Arthur Schlesinger, Albert Schweitzer, Malvina Reynolds, Linus Pauling, Ashley Montagu, Viola Liuzzo (Civil Rights martyr), James Reeb (Civil Rights martyr).

All these greats – each in their way. To be honest, not all of them would match my list of 5 requirements to be sainted. But they were (and are) notable Unitarian Universalists. Exemplars for all of us.

One of these that we mentioned was someone I never met, but with whom I connected in a way because I became the minister for his widow and their three children.

He was Professor Randy Pausch, known for what he called: “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

Pausch, professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told he had a short time to live in 2006. In response he wrote the now famous lecture which became a #1 selling book.

Faced with the question that he created for himself about what advice to give to others knowing that he was dying, he said such things as:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won´t make us happier.

The key question to keep asking is: Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.

Time is all you have and you may find one day that you have less than you think.

Randy Pausch, UU saint, died on July 25, 2008. He was 47 years old.

So many UU saints, and so many of them in this room at this moment.

CLOSING WORDS: “Saints and martyrs…”

Saints and martyrs had never interested Maggie so much as sages and poets.

 From The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot