Getting To Know Us
September 24, 2023
Rev. Rita Capezzi—Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga
Somehow, some way, I don’t know how it happened but over the last 62 years I have grown old. I have grown old, can you imagine. I am grayer than I thought possible. My right hip aches all the time now. My skin sags. I am fatter than I have ever been. How did this happen? Maybe some of you ask yourself this? Maybe some of you don’t think it will happen to you. I know I thought that 50 or 30 or 5 years ago. But here it is. I have grown old. That’s something to know about me. “Life is short, and the world is at least half terrible.”
And, you know, I have mostly reconciled myself to this reality, I have. Because, really, what is the alternative? As I have grown old, I have learned how very much I like being alive. How very sweet and good life is, even when it is bitter and hard and painful. I have grown into this feeling, a feeling that I believe is also a truth—that we humans are meant for life, for living, for becoming, through time, until the apocalypse, when time runs out for each of us, whenever that is. This is our ultimate purpose, to live fulsomely and wholly. Sure, “Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, because it hurts for everybody.” And still, life has “good bones.” “This place could be beautiful,” if I try to make it so.
There is something that I don’t like, though, about growing old, something beyond the gray hair and aching hip. There are things about me, important things, that you can’t tell anymore by looking at me. There are things crucial to my identity that just don’t show anymore, because my life has become so different from what it was. I look like your average, professional white middle class, hetero lady. But, for example, you can’t tell by looking at me that I grew up poor, that my young father worked four jobs sometimes to keep us fed and to prevent our shack of a house from falling down around our ears. You can’t tell by looking at me that there were few books in my house, and certainly not the kind that I made a living with in my first career as a university English professor. You can’t tell by looking at me that higher education was never a given but always only a longed-for desire, that I am the first person in my family to go to university. You can’t tell by looking at me that I grew up in the time when Italians shifted culturally from being brown people to being white people in America. You can’t tell by looking at me that I lived and went to public school in mixed-race settings.
You can’t tell any of these things about me by looking at me, and yet all these things, and more, have challenged me, sapping my strength as well as teaching me resilience. All these things frightened me as well as motivated me to grow and become. You can’t tell any of these things about me by looking at me. Yet, all these things have significantly shaped my identity, and they continue to shape my being as I unfold through the time that I have in this world. Perhaps you will be curious about these hints of my life, perhaps not. And, I tell you all this to say that, like you, there has been pain, loss, and grief in my life. There have been trials and changes, some of it related directly to those important and now largely invisible aspects of my identity. I tell you all this to say that I am like you: “There are little ones just like you, [just like me, just like us] all over the world,” and in this community, right here and now. We may be different in many, many ways, but our hearts are alike. We are united across our meaningful differences in that we all live within grief and pain as well as within the search for joy and affirmation.
Within my identity, emerging from my life experience and history, I navigate sorrow and joy. And, I continue to say “Yes” to life. I have learned to say “Yes” to truth and to love, above all else. “Yes” to the truth and the love that is part of who I am and also so much larger, more encompassing, more lively and life giving, beyond me even as I am held in its mystery. As are all of you. I have learned, in the words of Dr. Howard Thurman, to ask myself what makes me come alive. I continue to learn how to be alive in a world crying out for liveliness—for the life-giving and life-affirming connections I trust we all crave. And it is Unitarian Universalist community that has been the place from which I continue to grow and change and become. It is in Unitarian Universalist community that I know myself within a process of transformation, transmuting fear and pain and disappointment into a worthy and necessary and loving life. A life beautiful in its sorrow and its joy, beautiful always in both. Unitarian Universalism is the context through which I woke up and through which my senses continue to wake.
I attended a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time in 2001. I became a Unitarian Universalist in 2004 when I signed the membership book and made a financial pledge of support to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, NY. And I have grown to love this faith of ours. I have grown to love this faith because it corresponds to that “Place of deep longing in my heart,” where I am finding “a way from silence to voice.” It is a faith that encourages me, encourages all of us to “not hold too tightly to one form [. . .], For we are not form but process, ever-changing and ever-renewing.” Revelation is not sealed. The future is unfolding. Transformation is the norm at all levels—in the cosmic universe, within our own bodies, through our own decisions about how we will live and connect to one another in this short and precious life.
There are many reasons I chose Unitarian Universalism as a context for my own transformation. A healthy Unitarian Universalist community encourages spiritual discovery and exploration. A healthy Unitarian Universalist community interrogates its own norms and premises. A healthy Unitarian Universalist community makes room for the new—new people and the differences they bring with them. A healthy Unitarian Universalist community operates with full appreciation for the interconnected web of all existence. A healthy Unitarian Universalist community recognizes its own role and that of its members within systems of oppression and works to dismantle those systems. We are not a bunch of self-involved and self-congratulating do-gooders. At least we shouldn’t be. We are not communities of dour self-aggrandizement and finger wagging and self-righteousness. At least we shouldn’t be. And we are imperfect humans always in the process of becoming, trying to do our best, holding each other gently to account, encouraging each other in compassion. At least, that is what we should be. That is what we aspire to. That is what a Unitarian Universalist community can be at its best. Engagement, gratitude, curiosity, courage, growth. This is what the Unitarian Universalist faith respects and promotes. And these are worthy and fulfilling aspirations.
But let’s face it. Engagement, gratitude, curiosity, courage, growth—this is not an easy path. It is much easier to refuse the transformation that will result when pursuing such aspirations. One cannot really be a Unitarian Universalist without accepting the possibility of transformation—of being other and different from what we were before. Let’s face it, life is terrible at least fifty percent of the time. We can wallow there quite easily. And miss out on all the joyful, outrageous, poignant beauty of living. Living this journey of the terrible and the beautiful as a Unitarian Universalist has taught me that I am never alone and that community is the best way to personal becoming. I have learned that my being cannot exist in isolation. There is no such thing, I have come to understand, as a separate, isolated individual. Because I have awakened as Unitarian Universalist, I answer the call of community, communion even, with the mysterious and inviting “more” that I can barely name. I answer the call to relationship with the earth, with the web of all existence, with the people of this religious community.
Living in a communal relationship of exploration and transformation. This is why I am here, now part of your Unitarian community. I am not here as a placeholder until you get your real minister. I am not here as substitute Fiona, or Fiona lite or maybe Fiona heavy. I’m not here to be tolerated so as to give your hardworking congregants a break from creating worship. I am not here to give you a hard time. What I have seen of you so far has been astounding all across the spectrum. I have been told, sometimes loudly and with little apparent self-awareness what people want and that I should do it, as if I am hired help. I have witnessed staff members’ professionalism be actively undermined. I have encountered leaders of amazing grace, reflection, dedication, and persistence. I have been privileged to learn of deep, abiding heartache. I have witnessed fear, frustration, and a frenzy to survive. And, I am here to hold up a mirror for you in this time of change. I come as an outsider to reflect back to you what you are as a community and what you might be. I come with my own unique skills and shortcomings. And I always have an eye toward, with attention to, the congregation that is and as well as to the congregation that might be.
Mirrors are interesting objects, with strange physics. They are always distortions of one kind or another, though we rely on them and believe what they say about us. They tell us some kind of truth, though perhaps not the truth. We all know about funhouse mirrors, stretching us out or squashing us together, duplicating us in corridors so we find ourselves disoriented. All good fun, but instructive too. We are familiar with the words on our automobile side mirrors: “Objects are closer than they appear.” That is the optics of mirror distortion. Even the normal mirrors we rely on for shaving or making up our faces or showing us who we are in the morning. They distort. Get your bathroom mirror nice and steamed up and stand in front of it. Then, draw your outline with your fingers through the mist. Your outline, your reflection, is about half of your true size.
Mirrors diminish. We have to begin from that knowledge. I can’t tell everything about you from looking at you, anymore than you can tell everything about me by looking at me. So, in this interim time, deliberately limited and purposeful, how can we make the most of our relationship? I suggest it’s best to get curious, to ask questions of each other. I suggest we do this curious questioning in a spirit of discovery and of connection. Then, we might together forge a way through fear and defensiveness, through pain and suspicion. Then, together we might break through the sense that everything is wonderful and change is irrelevant or that everything is terrible and we need to start all over. Then, together we might reflect fully and wisely and compassionately and make this place beautiful in new ways.
May we together awaken to the possibilities that emerge when our differences are heard. May we face with courage and compassion our limitations and shortcomings. May we show our children what it looks like to engage in the terrible realities of life, in faith that the good bones of the beautiful are always there, waiting for us to see, calling us to gratitude and the work of transformation of ourselves and our hurting world. May it be so, and Amen.
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