For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the worlds confessed,
Thy name, Most Holy, be forever blessed:
Yes, it’s a traditional hymn.
Yes, we did change some of the words.
Yes, it has been going through my head and heart this last week of intensives, as I drink from the fire-hose of Unitarian Universalist History and Polity in one semester (week). I don’t know how much of this material I am absorbing – I can only soak it up so fast – but at least I am learning where to go look this stuff up.
I am a storyteller, not so good with dates and names and institutions as I am with stories. We are learning to tell our stories and to look for the story of the telling of our stories – history is not only what gets told but what does not get told. I am not repeating anyone else’s stories here (or anywhere else) – stories that are not mine to tell. There is a tenderness and beauty sometimes in the receiving of stories that are not meant to spread wider, at least not exactly now or exactly in this way.
Thou wast their rock, their shelter and their might,
Their strength and solace in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness deep their one true Light:
And yet in the telling of our stories – the ones we tell proudly, the ones we whisper or tell silently in our hearts – we shape a thing larger than ourselves. Each of these stories is a thread in a tapestry, a block in a patchwork quilt, a pixel in a digital image that can only be discerned from a distance, seeing the whole thing greater than its aggregate parts, or one note in a complex harmony whose themes and chords repeat in intricate variation yet always returning home.
History, like mathematics, is the study of patterns, yet another way to try to understand the world.
And so we go back to the parts of our story that come from the Protestant traditions, even though these are often expressed in language that many of us find unsettling today. This is also part of our story.
And thus, the old hymns. With the serial numbers filed off and the uncomfortable words altered.
O blessed communion of the saints divine!
We live in struggle, they in glory shine –
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine:
Our stories are human stories – individually, collectively – stories of persons and congregations and institutions and communities. Our stories do not happen in isolation, threads snipped free of the contextual tapestry in which they happen or that in which they are re-told. We choose and re-choose which parts of our story to tell, which parts to put forward and which to hold back.
Who are our saints? I was at Third Unitarian of Chicago last Sunday, whose building houses a series of tile murals depicting a selection of “saints” – or “wise people that we admire” as their literature puts it. Love the art; it is very fitting for this intensely humanist (and wonderfully friendly) congregation. At the same time I wonder what it means to name them saints who are no less human than those of us walking the simple ground today. Who will tell our stories? Whose of our stories will be told?
Does it matter, in the end, whether our stories are remembered? Or is what matters the work we do now and going forward, the heart and effort we put in and the future we leave when our stories are done, regardless of whether our names are attached to that legacy?
I don’t know. I am in Chicago for one more day, and then I start trying to get home to Maine, to continue the work that will never, ever be done. Because what else is there to do?
And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song;
Then hearts are brave again, and arms are strong!