Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert
This month we are exploring the theme of tradition. Now and then, over the years, I encounter someone who asks me why we Unitarians — who have liberated ourselves from the chains of rigid dogma — why would we celebrate traditions of any kind? “Do you do anything the same way from week to week or year to year?” they ask. “Do you even have worship services?”
Over the years, I’ve encountered a few people who argue that Unitarians should have no traditions, but that’s a pretty hard and rare line. Personally, I cherish our freedom of thought and the way we invite each other to responsibly search for our own truth and meaning and sense of the sacred. But I also love tradition, and I believe we humans need traditions to help us make sense of our lives.
I admire my Muslim friends who are fasting now for the month of Ramadan. They say that it’s no great hardship to refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sundown. They tell me that it’s a tradition they’ve learned since they passed puberty, that it helps them to come closer to their faith and to greater appreciate the abundance and gifts in their lives. The sacrifices we make in our lives may seem minor in comparison to an entire month of fasting through the day, but we do have our own traditions that bring us back to a place of remembering what is important to us.
Today, at the end of this service, we will share in a flower communion, a tradition begun 95 years ago today, on June 4, 1922, to be precise, in the city of Prague by the Rev. Norbert Čapek and his wife, Rev. Maja Oktavec Čapek. (Everything I’ve read in the past places the date of the first flower communion in 1923. But a recent communication from the Prague Church inviting us to celebrate a global flower communion on this Sunday corrected the misinformation many of us have had for years.)
This month marks our 175th anniversary, but I have no idea how many years we’ve been celebrating the flower communion. Certainly, nowhere near 95 years, but it’s been important here for a long time, and there are definitely people who tell me that this is their favourite service of the year.
You’ve already heard a bit of the story of the Čapeks who founded the Unitarian movement in Prague, in what was once known as part of Czechoslovakia, and is now the Czech Republic. The congregation they established became one of the largest in Unitarian history. In honour of this significant anniversary of the flower communion, I want to share with you a few more details about their lives.
Norbert Čapek was raised a Roman Catholic and became a Baptist minister when he was only 18 years old. At the beginning of World War I, he was editor of various journals and his outspoken views led him to be accused of nationalist and anti-Catholic writings. Warned that he might be arrested, he and his wife Maja fled to the United States. Norbert served a Baptist church in New Jersey for several years, but in 1919 he left the Baptist ministry. He had already been tried for heresy and acquitted by the Baptist tribunal at least once, if not twice. In his diary he wrote, "I cannot be a Baptist any more, even in compromise. The fire of new desires, new worlds, is burning inside me."
When Czechoslovakia gained its independence at the end of World War I, Norbert and Maja decided it was time to go home. In 1920, they sold their house to raise the funds they needed to return to their homeland. But their trip was delayed by a payment problem and they were forced to move out of the house and rent an apartment in East Orange, New Jersey.
For some reason, Norbert and Maja decided that in this time of limbo in their lives, as they waited to return to Prague, they would send their three school-age children off to visit several Sunday schools in the area, on their own. I suppose it wasn’t entirely uncommon in those days for parents to drop their kids off at Sunday school and then head out for coffee. (That never happens here, right?)
Each Sunday afternoon the children would return to the apartment to report on what they had discovered. They really liked the Sunday school at the local Unitarian Church, and convinced their parents to join them one Sunday. That’s all it took. Norbert and Maja finally found their theological home in the First Unitarian Church of Essex County in Orange, New Jersey. They said they had discovered a place with “not only clear heads but warm hearts, too.” That next year, they returned to Prague with their newfound Unitarianism.
It’s pretty amazing. They hadn’t been Unitarians for very long when, in February of 1922, with support and encouragement from the American Unitarian Association, Norbert and Maja organized the Prague Congregation of Liberal Religious Fellowship. They quickly drew standing room only crowds. Maja would also become ordained as a Unitarian minister. Eventually, they acquired a medieval palace that would come to house their state-recognized church. In just 20 years, they built “a vigorous nation-wide movement”. The Prague church alone had 3200 members, making it the world’s largest Unitarian congregation.
In their first year, the Čapeks came to realize that they needed to build a new tradition that would unify its diverse membership of Catholics, Protestants and Jews with something more than just talk. They needed something more spiritual. Norbert thought why not create a communion of exchanging flowers rather than bread and wine? The uniqueness and beauty of each flower was as unique and precious as each person within the community. What better gesture than to call them into the spirit of love? The congregation embraced his beautiful flower communion and it became an annual tradition, handed from generation to generation in Prague and continuing to spread to Unitarians/Universalists around the world to this very day.
In March of 1941, Maja was in the U.S. raising funds for the church, when her husband and youngest daughter Zora, age 29, were arrested by the Gestapo and convicted of listening to foreign radio broadcasts from the BBC. Norbert was found innocent of a charge of treason, and the court recommended that, given his age, time already spent in jail be counted against his one-year sentence. The Gestapo ignored the court’s recommendation and sent him to Dachau instead.
When the Nazis took control of Prague, they found Dr. Capek's gospel of the inherent worth and beauty of every human person to be— as Nazi court records show—"...too dangerous to the Reich [for Dr. Capek] to be allowed to live."
Norbert is said to have written at least 90 hymns throughout his life. Even while in prison, he wrote numerous hymns to freedom. Most were destroyed by the Nazis but some survived and are still sung with much fervour in the Czech Republic.
Biographer Richard Henry writes that Norbert Čapek had a “sun-drenched, pre-Holocaust faith.” It was a faith “that sustained thousands of his compatriots during the darkness of Nazi occupation ... .” Survivors who had known him in the concentration camp in Dachau said that Čapek’s faith enabled him to endure his own martyrdom with equanimity and courage. In their eyes, he was a hero.
In 1941, in Dresden Prison, Čapek wrote:
It is worthwhile to live
and fight courageously
for sacred ideals.
O blow ye evil winds
into my body's fire
my soul you'll never unravel.
Norbert Čapek died of poison gas on October 12, 1942, holding onto a faith that had inspired the flower communion, a simple exchange of fragile blossoms, as a ritual to unify a congregation of Catholics, Protestants and Jews in a very polarized time.
This year, as I prepare my heart for this flower communion, I wonder about the people in my life I wish I could offer a flower as if it were an olive branch. In these times of extreme global political and philosophical divisions, is it possible to reach across our differences? Could the simple exchange of flowers change a heart or open a mind? I want to have the kind of faith that Norbert and Maja had. But it isn’t easy.
Perhaps the Čapeks in their wisdom and courage knew that at the heart of this Unitarian faith we need a day each year to call ourselves back to loving each other’s uniqueness, no matter how intensely the world around us might swirl. They may have spoken of bridging theological differences, but they must have known that this was simply a guise for something deeper. Life gets complicated, not so much by big ideas, but by how we live together, how we lose our way, our clarity, our compassion and our patience, how we can let anger and insecurity fill our hearts. That’s when we need to be called back into the sun, into abundance, into appreciation and thanks.
In light of the history that followed, in light of the tragic end to Norbert Čapek’s life, it would be easy to say that he and his wife were foolish and naïve to think that they could change the world by exchanging flowers. Today it’s pretty easy to feel that the world hasn’t changed that much since then, so maybe in the end all we can really change is ourselves. For me, that has to be a good enough place to start.
Here’s to the strength of a faith that can be as fragile as a flower and still withstand the darkest despair. Here’s to the strength of life-affirming traditions that can take hold in our hearts and last across generations.
Amen. Blessed Be. Namaste.
Download The Flower Communion 95 Years Later