Gunpowder, treason and plot - again


Gratitude Circle, by Jane E Mauldin

“Today,” said I one evening, trying to model appropriate behavior (usually a ludicrous pursuit),

“I am thankful for the wonderful rain we had this afternoon, which watered all the trees and grass and flowers so they can grow.”

“Today,” said Daughter #1, “I am grateful for the rain and the trees and the flowers. And I am grateful for Mom and Dad and Sister and Brother and Dog.” (A not-so-subtle attempt at ingratiating herself, as her sly smile implied, but spoken with heartfelt emotion, nonetheless.)

“Today,” said Daughter #2, “I am grateful for Mom and Dad and Brother and Dog.” A smirk.

‘What?” Dad and Mom were stunned. “What about your sister?” Daughter #1 immediately recognized the implications of Daughter #2’s statement, which pointedly left her out. She burst into tears and ran from the table.

We continue to work on gratitude circles at our house. Some of us find it hard to be thankful when we would rather be angry. Sometimes even I (who like to consider myself closer to perfect than many) would rather give my husband a swift verbal kick than words of appreciation.

Yet, there is something sacred about our gratitude circles. Gratitude has a healing power at our table that is more tangible than forgiveness or even ice cream. We can’t honestly nourish a grudge at the same time that we nourish gratitude.

So we try. Daughter #1 came back to the table and we talked about forgiveness as well as gratitude, and we wondered aloud about pain and healing in words a child might be able to fathom.

And we grown-ups gave a silent sigh of gratitude for yet one more chance to do our job again and go on.

Welcome Morning, by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.

Message, by Andy Pakula

I remember my first November in London. It was 10 years ago.

What was going on outside? From the end of October, there were explosions every night and flashes of light. Fireworks of every size and description.

Is it Diwali? Chinese New Year? Is it a different way of celebrating Halloween?

And then came the 5th of November and just like last night the sky was full of lights. Explosions were everywhere, and every stupid car alarm was set of over and over again!

Guy Fawkes? Something about a treasonous plot to blow up Parliament… and now we have bonfires and huge fireworks displays. It was certainly curious as someone who had recently moved her from the colonies.

But you don’t really care about Guy Fawkes, do you?

I doubt you take very seriously the store of explosives he was found with under the House of Lords in 1605. And you’re probably not particularly interested in the conflict between Protestants and Catholics that was at the heart of the Gunpowder Plot.

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempted terrorist attack 311 years ago. It was planned and put into action by members of a religious group that was harshly suppressed and outlawed, the Catholics. Incidentally, proto-Unitarians were being suppressed too, so we might have had some sympathy for the plotters!

But last night’s celebrations seem to have very little remaining of that original story.

Initially, soon after the plot was foiled, there were public bonfires in thanks that the plot was foiled and that King James 1 and parliament were unharmed The celebrations were not without considerable anti-Catholic sentiment - the repeated action helped keep hatred for the Catholics alive.

The celebrations recurred year after year - at first with a strong focus on the original events, and then with new political events in their place and then perhaps it has ceased to have any meaning at all.

At the time of the plot and years after, many words were spoken - words of gratitude and words of hate toward the Pope and Catholics in general.

But those words had nothing like the power that the bonfires and public demonstrations did. 

Because words are not enough.

Our current theme is ‘mystery’ and we’re looking at the unknown, at belief and faith and how we deal with what is out of our control.

One of the ways we do that is with symbolic action. The bonfires and other celebrations of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot started that way. These symbolic actions could keep both gratitude and hate alive and active far better than words alone could do.

One name for symbolic action is ‘ritual.’ I know that this word has all kinds of connotations - many of them negative - and I’ll come back to that. 

The important thing, though, it that words are not enough.

When I think about Sunday mornings I've attended elsewhere and the ones we do here and look at what I remember - what really stuck with me - I realise that it is never just words that have touched me.  It's never just words that change me.

Almost always, those transformative moments are accompanied by something more - there is story and song and image and touch and taste. Adding action and the impacts of the senses turns ‘just words’ into something much much more. 

And usually - that something comes from participation and symbolic action. 

Participation and symbolic action is ritual. 

I found a really unappealing definition of ritual that I think encapsulates some of our worst associations with the term. 

“A ritual "is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.... Rituals are characterized by formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.”

Almost nothing in this definition needs to be true - at least not true for us. Sequestered? Formalism? Traditionalism? Rule-governance?  No…  Not for us, anyway.

Ritual is powerful though, and like anything powerful, ritual needs to be handled with some care.

Ritual can change our minds and our hearts without our knowing it. Bonfires can stoke anti-Catholic hatred and play into the hands of oppressors.  A ritual gratitude circle might change the life of a family. Ritual can build compassion and love and gratitude and generosity.

Ritual can lead to superstition. If I just do this or say that, everything will be OK. That can be a problem if rituals become more like compulsions. But sometimes doing or saying this or that changes us enough to make things better. 

And ritual - once potent and meaningful - can descend into habit that is empty of meaning. Ritual can lose meaning if it's done without thought or intention. I think of the ritual of air-kiss greetings. What could be a more meaningful action than a kiss?  But do it enough without meaning it and it becomes empty.

So, the ritual we’re talking about is only powerful ritual if it includes some kind of action and has symbolic meaning. That meaning needs to tended carefully - if it fades, it needs to be refreshed or the ritual discarded entirely.

Rituals need not happen over and over - there can be one-off rituals, although many rituals grow in power over time.

What rituals do we have or have we had at New Unity? 

Which ones have touched you the most?

Rituals don’t need to be complicated. And rituals don’t need to be created by experts.

In the Sunday Gatherings Team, we sometimes create impromptu rituals. We might grab whatever is around us - a ball, a glass, an orange - and in just a few minutes, we’ve created rituals that speak much more powerfully than words alone could ever do. 

Now, today, I want to invite you to participate in a partially improvised ritual. You can participate by coming up and doing something or participate from where you are as an observer. 

The basics of this ritual are this:

Two people will participate at a time. The first will say to the second: ‘I wish you happiness. I wish you peace.’ The second simply says thank you.

And then the 1st goes and sits down and the second becomes the first for the next person.

And there are some miscellaneous ritual supplies here. Use them however you like!

[Congregation partakes in ritual]