The Empty Chalice

The Empty Chalice     

January 24th, 2016                     Rev. Fiona Heath                  

As a Unitarian Universalist at a Lutheran seminary, I was a chalice lighter in a sea of wafer eaters. I found myself continually explaining Unitarianism. I learned to dread the question – what is Unitarian Universalism anyway?

I usually gave a history lesson of the no-trinity Unitarians and the God saves everyone Universalists re-directed through the twentieth century “progress is great” humanism

and we’re into social justice and we really like coffee and some of us believe in God and some don’t and …

In those years, I don’t think I ever really answered the question to anyone’s satisfaction.

I’m better at it now.

We do have a specific shape to our religious tradition,

but we struggle with naming it clearly. 

So much so that there are lots of jokes about it.

What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s witness with a Unitarian Universalist?

Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.

In the tv show The Simpsons, there is an episode

when it is the annual church picnic.

Reverend Lovejoy is staffing the ice cream booth.

Lisa Simpson approaches the stand,

and notices that the different flavors of ice cream are

not identified in the usual fashion but

have been given the names of religious denominations.

She pauses, and then says, “I’ll try the Unitarian.”

Reverend Lovejoy hands her a bowl.

Lisa looks at it and says, “But there’s nothing in here.”

Lovejoy responds, “That’s the point.”

I’ve heard all this before.  Perhaps you have too.

Friends who once came with us to a service said

we had removed God from the centre but kept the trappings. 

A kind of throwing out the baby but keeping the protestant bathwater.

I used to be offended by this –

of course we have some key singular essence –

but I could never say what it was. 

We don’t have an essential sacred text, one that we can all refer to as our basic bottom line.  There is no singular core belief in our tradition.

And since religion is equated – wrongly in my opinion – with belief – it makes it hard for us to explain ourselves within the usual paradigm.

When religion is about belief, there is no easy way to place the UU Christians and the UU atheists  and the UU pagans and the UU humanists and UU Buddhists and so on, into the same theological statement that all would find acceptable. 

There are many people here who experience a loving God, others who have a sense of a more distant Divine presence, and there are many people here who don’t experience God at all.  Including me.

But over the years I’ve come to see that religion is not about belief. 

It is about holding a particular orientation to the world. 

It’s really a way of being in the world that is shaped by a particular set of stories, values and rituals.  These common understandings bind people into community.

When I understand religion as a way of being, a set of stories, values and rituals which shape how we are in relation to one another and the world, then belief is only one aspect of religion.

That’s why, as you know by now, I use the term mystery.

There is so much that is a mystery,

whether your religious approach is mystical or scientific.

The term mystery makes room for those who don’t experience a relationship with God, but doesn’t exclude those for whom God is a living and loving presence. 

Mystery is large enough for both,

as God is as mysterious as the universe.

It allows all of us to acknowledge that we are part of a larger whole,

however you are comfortable defining it. 

God, Goddess, the Divine, the Way or the universe. 

At the seminary, I was trying to explain UUism without saying God is not at the centre. 

Over the past century Canadian Unitarian Universalists have moved away from a focus on God.

We come from Christianity, and we are inheritors of the liberal protestant tradition,

with our emphasis on social justice and democracy.

But our religious understanding has expanded beyond a focus on God. 

We affirm humanity and the earth as much as

we look out towards the Divine.  And this is okay. 

This is a valid religious orientation. 

It is a contemporary manifestation of

the balance tradition type of religion. 

Balance traditions originate in China, with Daoism and Shintoism, but also occur throughout the world as indigenous religions. 

In a balance tradition there isn’t a single focal point

but a striving for harmony with self, society, and nature. 

Balance traditions begin from a sense of interdependence,

an awareness of being part of a whole. 

This is where we begin from.

In contrast, the middle eastern traditions like Christianity or Islam focus on the one God, the Ultimate which is beyond us all.

The religious traditions of India, such as Buddhism and Hinduism see the self as one with the Ultimate, with this world being an illusion of sorts.

As an emerging balance tradition, we see the Ultimate as “what is”, the reality of this earth at this time.

We seek to live in deep connection with the Ultimate.

I believe our orientation to the here and now, to what is, to the interconnectedness of all beings, is what the world needs. I’m proud to be part of this visionary tradition.

But it’s hard to talk about. 

All the more so when religious identity is reduced to belief.

And If God is not at the centre of Unitarian Universalism, what is?


I believe our centre is open, empty.

Not empty as in lacking in the way Lisa Simpson

was lacking ice cream but empty of dogma or creed.

We are open to the mystery, willing to be immersed it.  

One of my images for UUs is little people figures holding hands high as they stand around the circumference of the green blue earth, embraced by blue sky. 

We come freely into community

to explore belonging to the earth and the mystery.

Some of us turn more to the world,

some of us to the mystery.

We don’t place anything at the centre

because we seek to see the wholeness of life. 

It is okay to be empty at the centre because it is a big empty: It is empty the way the universe is empty. 

Empty yet filled with all life. 

The universe is actually filled with all sorts of dark matter and dark energy, but we can’t see any of it. It is mostly empty spaces and yet it is not.

Life is equally as strange,

filled with all sorts of indescribable experiences and emotions:

How can you truly explain meeting your new born child for the first time? 

We are immersed in mystery,

living with it each and every day,

if only we pay attention.

And so we keep the centre open, empty the way the universe is empty.


As an emerging balance tradition,

we honour both the material and the spiritual

and see how they are intertwined. 

We are not seeking personal redemption but balance in our lives. 

Balance between our individual freedoms and

responsibility to the community,

balance between our practical needs and our dreamy desires.

We explore the tension between being

capable creatures of reason and creativity and

being very small specks in the great big universe.

But words are not enough. 

To speak of mystery can just make people think of Agatha Christie.

Images also help people enter into a religious life –

which is as much an emotional framework as an intellectual one.

The shepherd, the fish, bread, wine, water.

The cross. 

How can you not think of Jesus?

All these images have associations with Christianity.

They provide a depth of meaning, entry points into experiencing Jesus and God.

Symbols are avenues to the mystery. 

Humans are visual, sight is our primary sense,

and many of us learn better through seeing than through hearing.

The Swoosh.

The Golden Arches.

The apple with a bite out of it.

These are familiar images and you know the brands they represent.

We are also storytellers.  We use stories to share meaning.

That’s why advertising is so effective,

using visuals and stories to create an emotional shorthand.  

Unitarian Universalism is a young tradition,

as religions go, and is just beginning to develop a symbolic language.

At the seminary I didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of symbols.

A coffee mug, perhaps?

I mostly talked about the chalice,

and I began to think about the richness of the chalice image. 

The rounded sides of the bowl, filled with living, flickering flame. 

Light, oil, glass.  Full of the energy and power of combustion.

This is not about worshipping the chalice as a false idol – but symbols have power, they matter.  And the chalice is ours.

We are people of the chalice.

Each of us probably has a different understanding

of what it means to light the chalice. 

Because we have so few symbols,

a lot of meanings get placed on the chalice:

spirit, community, warmth, love, light.

It holds a lot! 

So much so, I found myself thinking of the chalice as a container,

containing flame, but also flowers and water.

For me the flaming chalice reflects the divine light within each of us, just like our winter fire ceremony.

When the chalice contains the water of our joys and sorrows, it holds our caring community.

When we share the flowers in spring, it honours the diversity and richness of life.

You may have different understandings,

but these distinctions can help us start that conversation.

The chalice as a container opens up its possibilities,

begins to separate out the many meanings by what we place within it. 

And a container can be empty. 

The empty chalice can bring us to the mystery.

Our chalice is empty the way the universe is empty

– vast but so encompassing – nothing excluded –

with far more unknown than known. 

Letting the chalice be empty is an opening up,

a breathing space.

The empty spaces - the silence - allows us to hear the music. 

It brings us back to all the quiet undercurrents that connect us and all the beings on the earth.  

The empty chalice opens us to the mystery.

By honouring the mystery with silence,

by connecting ourselves to the empty and encompassing whole,

we remind ourselves we are part of it all. 

Our meditation time in every service gives us an opportunity to ground ourselves in the mystery.

Any down time, waiting time, can be used to open ourselves up,

to remind ourselves that we belong.

We honour the mystery by coming together,

accepting the emptiness – filling it up with

what each of us happens to bring in that particular moment.  

Some of us today bring heavy burdens,

old sorrows and new ones, pain and fear and heartache. 

The empty chalice has room for all our troubles. 

Others today bring joy and laughter,

delight in sunshine and snow.

The empty chalice has room for all our ups and downs. 

Whatever you bring is welcome. 

We are accepted just as we are.


We fill the chalice with the sparks of light within each of us present,

we fill it with the welcoming waters of our beloved community,

we fill it with the amazing flowers and soil of this great planet,

and still the chalice is filled with nothing but the mystery of living.

The chalice is empty the way the universe is empty – everything is present. 

Ursula Le Guin says that “Love does not just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” 

That is true of spirituality as well. 

As UUs we come together on Sunday mornings to remake our tradition,

to renew it with the powers of our minds and hearts and spirits. 

By sitting together, by bringing our whole selves into this moment,

we create the sacred together.

We’re not missing the baby.

We’re not missing the ice cream.

We are seeing life steadily and seeing it whole.

As Unitarian Universalism grows into a strong religious tradition,

I believe the chalice offers fruitful imagery to guide us.

We live at an exciting time,

 a time to name and claim our path

through language, symbol and ritual. 

We hold the chalice gently in our hands,

knowing that it is large enough for all us. 

May we hold it with kindness,

May we bring our whole selves to it.

May we pay attention to the chalice and learn its language.

So Say We All.


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