Tuesday, 21 February 2012

More lessons from Transylvania: Symbols

Transylvanian Unitarian Symbol
During my recent visit to Transylvania I was invited to preach at the anniversary service of our sister congregation of Maros St George. While preparing I was asked to wear a badge depicting the symbol of the Transylvania Unitarians. Tamas, the minister explained to meaning of the images  on the badge. They are deeply symbolic it would seem.

There are four distinct features to the symbol: a dove, a serpent, a mountain and a golden crown. The dove symbolises peace; the serpent symbolises wisdom; the mountain symbolises height; the crown symbolises kingship. It is inspired by a passage from Matthew's Gospel chapter 10 v 16 “Behold I am sending you forward as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be therefore wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In this passage Jesus is warning his disciples of the dangers that they will face in carrying their message of radical love, to a wounded world. He is saying that they will be no safer than lambs amongst wolves; he is saying that they must employ wisdom in the way they impart this message, in a hostile world.

The Transylvania Unitarians have adopted this symbol because they have needed to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Throughout their history they have always been a minority group and have faced persecution, from both religious and secular sources because of this. During the sixteenth century the threat came from many sides. Other none trinitarian thinkers of the time, such as Michael Servetus, were burned at the stake for proclaiming their heresy. Somehow the Unitarians in Transylvania survived, some might say miraculously. How did they survive? Well probably because they took head of this simple message, they were as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. A message that they still need to take heed of today.

At the centre of their symbol is a dove, an important image in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It makes its first appearance in the story of Noah’s Arc. Noah sends out a dove to find land, eventually it returns with an olive branch. This symbolises the re-birth of life, something very important to Transylvanian Unitarians. They are very much tied to the ground, to the soil and the cycles of life.

The dove of course is the symbol of peace. A dove is gentle, but only when it is free, when it can fly as it is meant to. A dove can become aggressive if enclosed in a cage. The dove symbolises the soul, our essence, our being. The dove symbolises our soul's need to remain open to all that life offers. We all need the openness of innocence in order to live peaceful, harmless and gentle lives. The dove is standing on a mountain, on solid rock. This symbolises the ethical heights that we need to reach in order fulfil our human potential and appreciate the earth on which we all stand. The rock is also symbolic of stability. To reach our potential we need to stand on solid ground.




I see parallels between the soaring of the dove to the top of the solid mountain and the chalice symbol, that identifies Unitarians globally. The flames of the chalice reach out beyond the cup of love in which the fire is set. This reminds me of the words from that beautiful Unitarian hymn "Spirit of Life"

The serpent symbolises wisdom. In the bible it first appears in the story of Adam and Eve. It reveals the forbidden knowledge of life and death. For this the serpent is cursed to sneak around on its belly near to the rocks. The wise serpent lives close to the water, the source of life and for this it is respected by people of desert cultures. They consider the serpent to be very wise indeed.


When we think of serpents or snakes we think of danger. Some can be venomous and can kill, but their venom can also heal. The serpent is indeed a source of life and death; it does carry the knowledge of life and death and it is of course the gaining of this knowledge that leads to the loss of innocence.

In the Transylvanian symbol the serpent is in a cirlce, a ring. This symbolises eternity, and the continual rebirth of life. As they say in Transylvania “life is eternal and the soul is invincible, we can be reborn every day” The dove stands within the circle. The wisdom of the circle protects the innocence of the dove. The message is to remain wise and innocent in order to live a full life.

There is a golden crown at the top of the Transylvanian symbol. This is the crown of the only Unitarian king in history John Sigismund, who by signing “The Edit of Toleration” in Torda in 1568, gave Unitarians protection. This meant that they were not wiped out as they were in other parts of Europe.

The crown is no ordinary crown, it is golden, it symbolises the God or Goddess, the creator of the universe. It also carries the message of infinite and perfect happiness, a goal worth striving for; it is a source of aspiration for the Transylvanian Unitarians. They believe that we can all be kings and queens, that we can all wear the crowns.

What a powerful image this Transylvanian Unitarian symbol is. It teaches that we can all reach the summit of the mountain and wear the crown of happiness. A difficult journey no doubt, but one worthy of taking. It also teaches that we can attain this if we are wise enough to remain innocent and aspire to that perfect happiness.

I learnt a lot in Transylvania
.
Our lives are surrounded by symbols. Symbols are far more than pictures; they carry a story within them that is bursting to be let out. The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich talked extensively about symbols. He believed that they were more than simply signs pointing somewhere; they also possessed, within them, an element of qualities that they were pointing to. The purpose of the symbol is to open us up to deeper levels of reality that cannot be grasped by other forms of communication. They therefore reach the parts that words alone cannot. They enable us to connect to an ultimate reality (his name for what religions call God). They are seen as a window to a transcendent reality, rarely touched. The symbols are of course not the reality itself, just as the word describing it is not the reality either. They do though reveal something of this greater reality, that is called God.

The Transylvanian Unitarian symbol describes almost perfectly the soul of those beautiful people that I spent a short time with, last Autumn.

As a student minister I spent a year at the Unitarian Chapel and One World Centre in Oldham. Outside the chapel is a sign. It reads, “open to all who wish to worship with an open mind, in a spirit of freedom, reason and tolerance. We do not hold the same beliefs; rather each person is encouraged to develop his or her faith in a continuing search for truth.” I believe that this speaks powerfully and coherently to the Unitarian tradition that I am a part of.
The Unitarian faith is ever evolving, as all life is evolving. It has its roots in the Liberal Christian Tradition, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. Our symbol, the chalice exemplifies this perfectly. It is a kind of cross, but an evolving one, with the flames reaching out much further to a place way beyond our imaginations. So while we are rooted in the Liberal Christian tradition we have evolved beyond this starting point and embrace truth from a myriad of sources. 


A flame burning in the cup of love is deeply symbolic of the roots from which we were formed, but the flames seem to indicate something more, something eternal, something way beyond the limits of human vision. I see parallels with both the dove and the serpent and that golden crown of the Transylvanian symbol here. There is freedom in the flames, there is wisdom yet to be unearthed in those flames and there is that crown that we can all aspire to. I also see the rock on which all this stands; the solid base that sustains us as we reach further, to who knows where.


This is religion in its truest sense, this searching together, this working together, and this giving together. Each individual Unitarian adds to that flame and also takes from it. It is this continual communal search and struggle that is the rock, or the cup on which the Unitarian free religious faith is built. Where this leads, no one can know, certainly not I.



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