Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 20 November 2016
Listen more often to things than to beings,
‘tis the ancestor’s breath when the fire’s voice is heard,
‘tis the ancestor’s breath in the voice of the waters…
Words adapted from a poem by Birago Diop
from the song “Breaths” by Ysaye Barnwell
Birago Diop was a poet and storyteller from Senegal. His poem, Souffles, or Breaths, draws from something beautiful that is found in many of the spiritual traditions of Africa: Things have power because they have been touched and experienced by the ancestors.
A friend from Ghana, who grew up in the Akan tradition, explained it to me this way: The ancestors are the most direct and immediate link between the living and the spirit world. What happens in one world affects the other. “Whether you are a believer or not,” he said, “if you neglect to venerate the ancestors through daily ritual, you risk unraveling the very fabric of the cosmos.”
Many years ago, I saw this incredibly moving exhibit at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City. It was called Objets blessés, la réparation en Afrique (Wounded Artifacts: Repair Work in Africa). Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly where the artifacts in the exhibit came from, but the power of the experience has remained with me as if it were yesterday.
Many of the objects seemed surprisingly ordinary, but when you looked closely, you could see that each object had been repaired in some way. What I remember striking me the most were the large and small vessels made out of gourds. When these vessels were first created, the gourds were cut open, their insides scooped out, to be made into bowls or pitcher-like containers.
Some of these vessels were used in religious ceremonies to offer ritual libations to the gods. Others were used as serving bowls and utensils in daily life. Yet look closely and you could see where the skins of the gourds had broken and cracked and then had been carefully and lovingly sewn back together with thread or wire. The beauty of the objects was not in their original designs but in the way that they had been repaired again and again over the years.
These were sacred objects to be revered, preserved and repaired, because they held the spirits of those who had created them and once used them. To repair these objects was a sacred act, a sacred art form, in and of itself.
Standing there in the exhibit hall, I overheard a museum guide say to a group, “It’s so hard to explain to Westerners the significance of these objects.” She then shared a story. The previous week, at the end of her last tour of the day, a woman had come to offer the guide thanks.
“You know,” the woman told the guide, “I understand exactly what you were trying to tell us about these objects. When my mother died, my siblings and I had a very short time to choose from the few possessions my mother had left behind.”
“Of all the possibilities, I chose a small, plain mixing bowl. I picked up that bowl, and I held it in my hands. It was the same bowl my mother had used every day to make my eggs for my father. I could see my mother’s hand holding the fork and beating the eggs. I could feel her there in the room with me. Now each day, I do what my mother did. I prepare an egg and my hands are her hands.”
As the guide stood there and told the woman’s story, tears began to spill down her cheeks. Tears filled my eyes. I could see the objects that belonged to my mother, that I use each day, that keep her present in my life. I could see what it meant for a simple object to have sacred power and why it would have to be repaired no matter how worn or damaged it might become.
I think of that story as I stand here and look at some of the treasures from this congregation’s past. These are objects that came from the old church on Sherbrooke and Simpson Streets that burned down in 1987. Some of these treasures are a hundred years old or even more — 175 years old. Throughout our building, we have these beautiful artifacts that were rescued from the ashes. There are the doors you enter and the stained-glass windows that hang in this sanctuary. There is the burned angel in the memorial corner and the angel who overlooks the stairwell to the children’s levels. There is the door to the Thomas Room and the boxes and boxes of archives. Some of our treasures managed to survive without a scratch or a burn, others have been lovingly restored.
I’m thinking of the power these treasures have because they were touched and experienced by our ancestors. The Bible that our first minister, John Cordner brought with him from Ireland in 1843. The box that held his silver communion set. A fragment from one of the stained-glass windows. A wing from one of the angels that perched above the pulpit in the old sanctuary. These are things that our ancestors held and contemplated. My friend from Ghana and Birago Diop would say that these are our strongest connections between the world of the living and the world of the spirit.
If we listen to these sacred objects, I wonder what they could tell us. Close your eyes for a moment to see if you can hear the voices of our ancestors...
Here’s what I hear:
These are challenging times. I know that many of us are feeling anxious and worried about the future. The results of the US election weigh heavily upon us. We know that a difficult road may lie ahead of us. We know that we will be called to stand up against hatred and bigotry in ways that will require all our strength. We know we will need to fight for the survival of this planet with an urgency that is accelerating. We will need to take many deep, collective breaths, and we will need to find courage. We will need to remind ourselves that our Unitarian Universalist tradition calls us to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and we know that will not be easy. We will have to constantly remind ourselves to stand on the side of love.
These treasures from our past are the physical connection to the spirit of our ancestors and all that they survived:
They faced a cholera epidemic that wiped-out thousands of people just years before the church was founded, and also took the life of the very first minister they hoped would lead them;
They watched their dreams of forming a church be derailed by the Patriots’ Rebellion that divided them in 1837, with some members serving as Loyalists to the British Crown, and others fighting for independence;
They then faced a hostile city which found Unitarian religious beliefs threatening, but still, our ancestors managed to build a congregation, a ‘society’ of Unitarians, as they called themselves in those days;
They survived disagreements over war and peace and watched church members march off to serve in two world wars. Many of those men and women never returned.
They survived three church fires; each time rising out of the ashes to build something new.
So if you are worried about the future, take heart. Listen more often to things than to beings. With courage, we will keep moving forward. We need this sanctuary, this place that is home to all of us, now more than ever. We need community that can lift us out of the anger and fear that is dominating so much of the world. We need moments of hope.
Yesterday, eight volunteers came together to finish painting the apartment we have rented for the first Syrian refugee family we are sponsoring. I scrubbed the floor (my Cinderella job, the group told me). Another team of six volunteers had started the work on Wednesday. Several of our volunteers found us by chance. Inspired by what we’re doing, they showed up to paint. There are so many things to prepare and so many people who have been working on the preparations, finding the apartment, gathering and moving furniture, preparing an orientation, fund raising, health care, education, job training, the list goes on. How wonderful it is to be reminded that there are many generous people out there who want to do good in this world.
Seeing the transformed apartment fills my heart with such hope. Omar, Salwa and their seven children have spent four harrowing years fleeing the devastating crisis in Syria. Now, in just a week, we will be welcoming them to their new home. I know it’s a small drop in an ocean of pain, but it’s a place to start. It wouldn’t have been possible without all of us working together.
Someday, as time makes history out of all us, we will leave behind our own artifacts to be discovered, recovered, repaired and restored. Each moment we share, each challenge we overcome, each dream we live together, becomes a treasure for our future.
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