Monday, February 02, 2009

Groundhogs, Prairie Dogs ... and Synagogues?

I. Groundhog Day

There’s an old joke that’s been floating around for years about the public school teacher who strayed into religious matters one day when Easter was approaching. This was no doubt in the days before public schools became circumspect about such things, in deference to the constitution, or it may well have come from a rural community, where it has been easier to ignore the secular sensitivities of the national consensus about public schools as “sect-free” zones. In any event, the teacher noted that Easter was just around the corner and inquired of her students, a gaggle of bright-eyed first-graders, whether they knew what Easter was about.

One young fellow put up his hand and said, “Easter is when people dress up with funny hats and buckles on their shoes and eat turkey and pumpkin pie and stuff.” “Don’t be stupid!” called out another child, “that’s Thanksgiving.” The teacher nodded but told the child that “stupid” isn’t really a very nice word to use, while encouraging her to go on. “Easter,” this child declared, “is when we get together in the summer to shoot off fireworks and eat hot dogs and stuff.” Well, this went on for a while, each successive child making another mistaken identification and the teacher was becoming discouraged. Perhaps this interactive little piece of pedagogy hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

Finally, a young girl who attended Sunday school at the Unitarian Universalist church put up her hand. “A long time ago,” she said, “there was a good man named Jesus, who taught people that they should love their neighbors as themselves. Many people followed him and he got into trouble with the law, so he was arrested.” Well, the teacher realized that this precocious girl knew the story she wanted her pupils to learn, so she encouraged her to go on. “The rulers killed him by hanging him on a cross,” the girl continued, “but his friends came and buried him in a cave.” The teacher was getting excited by this point and she asked the child, “What happened then?” “Well,” she said, “after three days in the cave, Jesus stood up and walked out.” While this may seem like an unlikely comment by a little Unitarian Universalist, the teacher was understandably delighted—that is, until the little girl went on to say, “And if he sees his shadow, there’ll be six more weeks of winter.”

Well, you don’t need to be a first-grader to be confused about the holidays—even the important ones. Many years ago, now, I managed to show my astonishing ignorance by saying to someone “Groundhog Day falls on Candlemas this year. I think I’ll preach about it.” Unimpressed by my failed attempt to show how intelligent I imagined myself to be, my friend wryly responded, “Stefan, Groundhog Day always falls on Candlemas.” She spared me the indignity of asking, “Just who are you trying to impress?”

For centuries, the second day of February has been marked as Candlemas. Deriving its name from the custom of processing with candles, Candlemas was a feast day first associated with the purification of Mary and later with the presentation of Jesus in the temple. The weather on Candlemas has long been thought to presage the progress of winter:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if the day be shower and rain,
Winter’s gone, not to come again.

Northern European lore has attributed the ability to predict weather to a number of animals: bears, badgers and groundhogs, to cite the most common trinity. So it’s not at all surprising that Candlemas and Groundhog Day fall together. I think I prefer Groundhog Day, if only for its greater spiritual depth.

You know how the ritual is supposed to work: crowds of people with nothing better to do stalk some poor groundhog, waiting for her to emerge from a long winter’s nap. If the day is sunny and she sees her shadow, she goes back to her bed and sleeps for another six weeks. If it’s cloudy, this is thought to predict an early spring—even though the groundhog will likely still go back to sleep for six weeks!

Now if there’s anything at all to the tradition of Groundhog Day, then we Canadians are in for a better spring this year than you folks.* In Nova Scotia yesterday, Shubenacadie Sam came forth from his borrow amidst blaring bagpipe music—a clear indication that groundhogs’ hearing is not as acute as their eyesight—and failed to see his shadow, no doubt because it was pouring rain. An hour later Wiarton Willie in Ontario came out of his burrow and didn’t stop moving, which means either that he didn’t see his shadow or else that the shadow he saw scared him so badly that he high-tailed it in the opposite direction! In between these two sightings, Punxsutawney Phil poked his nose out at Gobbler’s Knob, saw his shadow and quickly retreated. Woe unto Pennsylvania!

II. Groundhogs and Prairie Dogs

Groundhogs are solitary creatures, for the most part. Better known as woodchucks where I come from, they keep company with a few close relations, become rotund and stocky during the foraging months and then diet through hibernation. They’re quiet and conservative, as far as animals go, so they make rather good neighbours, unless you happen to be a vegetable gardener—you see, groundhogs are by their very nature “cereal killers.”

Groundhogs are the most introverted species of the marmot family, yet their burrows are sometimes inhabited by several individuals. They retreat to their burrows when threatened, if they can, and will defend their burrows when necessary, which leaves me feeling grateful that they are armed only with teeth and claws. Outside their burrows, groundhogs are alert to danger, often standing on their hind feet to survey the terrain. And when alarmed, groundhogs let out a high-pitched whistle.

They mostly dwell at the forest edge, or in open country, and are not inclined to stray too far from the entrance to their burrows. While it’s reported that groundhogs can be sociable creatures when raised in captivity, they nevertheless remain prone to aggressiveness owing to their nature. (See the Wikipedia.) They typically hibernate for between three and six months, depending on the climate of the area in which they live.

Now, just in case it’s not already obvious to you, I see the groundhog as an apt metaphor for a certain type of person, found both in our congregations and in society at large—but only barely visible at times, since groundhogs shy away from society, whatever the weather may be. In the land of metaphor, there are spiritual groundhogs and political ones, temperamental groundhogs and intellectual ones. Henry David Thoreau was something of a groundhog, it seems to me, dwelling along the shore of Walden Pond in his squared log burrow. “I love to be alone,” he once observed. “I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

And poets are often inclined to be groundhogs, such as the reclusive Emily Dickinson or perhaps Mary Oliver. Although groundhogs are, in fact, much shyer than the curious little chipmunk, Ogden Nash was moved to write:
My friends all know that I am shy,
But the chipmunk is twice as shy as I.
He moves with flickering indecision
Like stripes across the television.
He's like the shadow of a cloud,
Or Emily Dickinson read aloud.

Back home on the northern plains, where I live, any groundhog foolish enough to bare its nose yesterday would have quickly frozen to death. I suppose that’s why we don’t have many groundhogs there, and then only in isolated places. In their place, we have their odd cousins, prairie dogs. Prairie dogs do not hibernate but remain active throughout the winter, living in complex underground burrows. These burrows are interconnected, forming something akin to a human “borough,” which can cover hundreds of acres. They are social animals, relying on one another to make it through the long winters. According to one source, “their cohesiveness is maintained by the cooperative activities of raising young, constructing burrows, grooming, playing and defending the coterie territory.” In 1901, scientists in Texas identified a single prairie dog settlement that covered 25,000 square miles and included upwards of 400 million residents! “Prairie-dogs are abundant,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt—himself something of a prairie dog—“they are in shape like little woodchucks, and are the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable. They are never found singly, but always in towns of several hundred inhabitants.”

Groundhogs are spiritual libertarians, whereas prairie dogs are spiritual communitarians; groundhogs are introspective, while prairie dogs are extroverted; groundhogs are temperamentally shy, while prairie dogs are gregarious. And just as most human beings are a curious blend of both tendencies, I suppose that a vibrant religious community needs both its groundhogs and its prairie dogs—and the qualities they represent—among its members. Both sets of qualities, in a delicately-woven balance, are necessary to the health and wholeness of any congregation. As James Russell Lowell rightly observed, “Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character.”

III. And Synagogues?

Groundhogs and prairie dogs. But “why synagogues?” you may be wondering. Well, what I really wanted to talk to you about this morning was the value of religious community and “church” doesn’t rhyme with the names of those critters, while synagogue does. So you might think this poetic licence is simply gratuitous. Well, not quite.

The Greek word for the church, ecclesia, was simply the Greek variation of the word for synagogue. And everything the early church became—and which we have inherited through force of history, if not habit—was modeled after the synagogue. But that’s an aside and I don’t want to stray too far from my main point, other than to justify my apparently gratuitous employment of the word synagogue. Suffice it to say that both words mean simply “assembly” or “house of assembly” … and that’s as good a preliminary description of church as any.

When it comes to religious community, I would observe that, over the past generation or two, Unitarian Universalists have leaned in the direction of playing the groundhog. So I come down on the side of the prairie dog. We would do well, I think, to come out of our burrows—and on more than just one day a year—or at least get back in touch with our inner prairie dogs. Groundhogs have their day, that’s for sure, but we prairie dogs have the rest of the year to flourish.

Eliot Chapel is a simple but elegantly appointed room on the second floor of the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. The chapel is decorated with portraits of such figures as Samuel Eliot, busts of William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as Channing’s pulpit from the old Federal Street Church. Through the windows, one has a splendid view of the Massachusetts State House and Boston Common. But for many years, the most interesting element of its decor was cleverly hidden from view. At one end of the room, beyond four French doors, is a storage closet. Behind the tables and chairs and paraphernalia found there, was a portrait of Jozsef Ferencz, former Bishop of the Unitarian Churches in Hungary. It is an impressive image of Bishop Ferencz, stretching from floor to ceiling. It is unfortunate that such a committed, public figure from our past should be found hidden behind a door.

A few years ago, several of our churches periodically ran newspaper ads asking the question, “Are you a closet Unitarian Universalist?” The inspiration for these ads came from the often-heard cliché, “I was a Unitarian Universalist for years without knowing it!” Like all such utterances, this statement contains a kernel of truth, but it neglects an important aspect of what it means to be Unitarian Universalists –fellowship. If you’re a Unitarian Universalist in the fullest sense, then you will most certainly know it. Far too many of us, it seems to me, have the mistaken notion that Unitarian Universalists are only to be found lingering by themselves around the shores of New England ponds, frolicking in the waves along California beaches, scribbling in poets’ garrets, or it seems, hiding in suburban closets. But our faith is not a solitary pursuit. So, unless you find yourself in Eliot Chapel, closets are not the best places to look for Unitarian Universalists.

It is true that many people in the world share our ideas, our values, our aspirations, without belonging to one of our churches. They may be kindred spirits, but they lack the companionship and stimulation to be found in one of our congregations. One becomes a Unitarian Universalist only when one somehow becomes connected with our larger religious community—even if that community consists of little more than a handful of the faithful gathered in an awkward meeting place. Only when people come together in a religious cooperative do we find faith incarnate, for the religious life must bring together both contemplation and community. We would fashion for ourselves a communal burrow wherein both our groundhog nature and our prairie dog nature find sustenance. For Unitarian Universalists, religious community is not only desirable, it is essential. We are not found in closets, or isolated burrows, but in community halls!

“Those who accept the Unitarian belief,” claimed James Freeman Clarke, who was writing a full century before the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist traditions, “should openly profess it and should unite in Unitarian churches. ... Wherever Unitarian churches are established, they become centers of movements in behalf of education, philanthropy, and social reforms.” Clarke understood the importance of religious institutions. We too must come to appreciate that religious faith is made real when we come out of our closets, or poke our noses out of our burrows in the wintertimes of the spirit, to share it; when it is the possession not only of an individual, but the integrating spirit of a community of memory and hope. When it comes to religious community, I am with the prairie dogs! As Frederick May Eliot observed, “the whole point of religion is that it takes [people out of themselves] and reveals to [them] the vast network of human and cosmic relationships which alone give meaning to individual lives. Religion can never be a matter of private concern, because by its very nature it is social in the fullest sense of that word.” So let us come out of our closets, out of our burrows, to share the blessings of religious community amongst ourselves and with others. And if you must cling to your groundhog ways and February gets you down this year, like poor Punxsutawney Phil, may you at least find comfort in the fact that, even in leap year, it’s still the shortest month!

* The contents of this blog post were originally delivered as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana on Sunday, February 3, 2008.