To The Old Churchyard
Symeon was your typical kid in the Eastern Roman Empire in the late 4th and early 5th century. He was the son of shepherd. He lived in what is now the Turkish town of Kozan, then called Sis.
If you’re familiar with that part of Turkey, it is a stone’s throw from both the Mediterranean and Syria – and it is full of lush mountains and plateaus, perfect for shepherding. He surely tended the flocks with his father and brothers and other family members.
When he entered what was then considered early adulthood, that of being 13 years old, he developed a fascination with this fairly new, as far as world history is concerned, religious tradition sweeping the area. Christianity. His family was fairly lucky, being shepherds and mountain people in the 5th century.
He learned to read and came upon a curious piece of parchment from one of his teachers – a copy of the beatitudes. If the name beatitudes doesn’t ring a bell, I merely need to say “the meek shall inherit the earth” and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
It is the most famous passage from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, a passage that many say contains the heart of Christianity. Upon reading this at age 13, Symeon was an immediate convert. And three years later, at 16 years old, he entered the monastery.
So great was his conversion and so intense was his zeal, he took upon himself the most extreme practices in the monastery. His fasting bordered on near starvation, his devotion put the other brothers to shame, and it was determined early on that his conviction was unsuitable for living in a monastery.
He was asked to leave. As the story goes, he was distraught and built a hut in the Sheik Barat mountain. It was isolated, rocky, barren, and no one was nearby. The hut he lived in was tiny, simple, sparse. He brought the monastic way of life with him to the mountain.
And he would fast for weeks, months, at a time. Word got out that there was this monk living in the nearby mountain, not eating a thing, and spending his days praying uninterrupted. So they started to visit him. And soon more would visit him. And they would ask for prayers and blessings and hope for miracles.
But this interrupted his desire to spend all day fasting and praying. Symeon needed to get away from these people, they wouldn’t leave him alone. He wasn’t a saint. He just wanted to pray to God. So he left his hut in the mountain and wandered and wandered until he discovered a nine foot high pillar.
Symeon had an idea. He built a platform atop this nine foot tall pillar and climbed up it. This would be his new home. Boys in the village in which this pillar stood would climb up and bring him food, but still, people started flocking to him and watching him pray.
It was too much, again, for him. So he moved to another pillar. And again, the people came. And he moved to another pillar. He moved again. Another pillar, another crowd, rinse repeat. Finally, he came upon what is now modern day Aleppo in Syria and discovered what would become his last pillar.
He climbed up it and built a platform just over 3 feet squared. And for the next 37 years, he lived on a 50 foot tall pillar, never once climbing down. To put this into perspective, most regulation flagpoles outside of smaller government buildings are 50 ft tall. 37 years.
He would wake, pray, sometimes bless the people below – the crowds followed him but he was high enough above them now – and he’s go to bed on his 3×3 platform. I will let your imaginations fill in any of the other realities of being human and staying alive on such a small space high above everyone else.
One morning, a disciple ascended a ladder to bring food to Symeon and found him stooped over in prayer and no longer breathing. Symeon was about 70 years old. 37 years. Can you imagine? Later on, he became known as Symeon the Stylite – the pillars were called Stylites.
And eventually, the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches would come to recognize him as a saint. St. Simeon the Stylite, the man that lived atop a pillar for most of his life. Now, rumor has it that to this day, St. Symeon still holds the Guinness World Record for longest pole sitting – which I did not know was even a possible category until I learned about Symeon. Do we have any takers that want to dethrone him and overtake his record?
I love the saints. I have a special fondness for Christian saints, but I love saints of any faith tradition. The living Hindu saints that are teaching in this very moment, the ones of ages past that transformed Indian culture with their teachings, the great sages of Islam, the rabbis of past and present generations that illumine what it means to be of the tribe of Israel, and all those religious figures that are set aside as especially noteworthy models of how to live a faith.
We even have them in Unitarian Universalism – we mention them often and with great reverence, though we likely don’t call them saints. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Olympia Brown, James Reeb, James Freeman Clarke.
Pick a religious tradition and there is certainly some concept of sainthood – whether it’s extraordinary lives that change the world or small, albeit often bizarre, blips of lives that are remembered for ages – such as that of St. Symeon the Stylite. The saints are a fascinating thing to me across the religious spectrum.
And here we are on this Sunday after Christianity has paused to remember celebrations and remembrances of All Saints Day and All Souls. Our Latin American siblings have also let Dia De Los Muertos come and go and all of the folk religious traditions that are celebrated in the Caribbean as well.
In these grand celebrations and often humble stories of the lives of the saints, I find myself swept away by the power of religion. Oftentimes it is a power that changes lives or, perhaps, the world, but more often than not it’s the power of story
– that of creating, recreating, and reinventing myths to be told and passed down from generation to generation – that raw power of mythmaking that serves one purpose and one purpose alone – to transmit key components of the faith to all who hear the story.
Sometimes that key component is a warning, sometimes it is an example of great devotion as with St. Symeon, and other times it is a basic lesson in what it means to be human, as with Dia De Muertos. Families will spend all day in odl church yards, decorating gravestones, having a picnic, lighting incense, eating the bread of the dead, kindling flames, telling stories, and celebrating life and death and our place in it.
These grand or humble stories impart upon us lessons that continue in a tradition that is as primordial as it gets. Our earliest ancestors would tell fanciful stories, often with great truth behind them, to pass along nuggets of wisdom to the next generation would benefit. Perhaps that is why I like these stories, they strike at a primordial hunger for myth and story.
On this Sunday after these celebrations, most Unitarian Universalists need to be reminded they happen. I know I do. We don’t often pause to lift them up and remember. But they are celebrations that are a part of our DNA as UUs.
You need only look at the congregational directory on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Association and take notice of the dozens of Unitarian churches named All Souls Unitarian. Our largest congregation is All Souls in Tulsa OK, there’s an All Souls in DC, one in New York, there used to be one in Chicago, and there are many others across the country.
It is safe to say that there is a very good reason for these churches being named as such. One is so very clear, especially now that we are Unitarian Universalists. All Souls means everyone. All are saved, all have a second chance, all have the opportunity to become their best selves in our congregations.
The other reason, perhaps, is just my interpretation. All Saints Day focuses squarely on celebrating exemplary lives only to be followed by All Souls, where we celebrate the lives of all who’ve died. I find it noticeable that there are no Unitarian churches named All Saints Unitarian.
In this religious tradition we do have our great sages and prophets, but at the end of the day, we remember that all lives have inherent worth and dignity – yes – but also that we affirm the prophethood of all. Everyone has a voice within them that is waiting to transform the world. It might be a small transformation.
But yes, there might be some grand transformation as well. But what matters is that we know such transformations are possible – and be they large or small – they are important and needed and good. Some of you might doubt your own worth and your contribution to the world, but I can guarantee that you have had an impact on someone, I pray it is for the better.
You may not get a plaque or a statue or a preacher talking about how you lived on top of a pillar for your whole life, but still, you become part of that cloud of witnesses, the saints of yesteryear and this moment. Some of you have had an impact on the world and you don’t even know it.
Today we welcome into our church community those who have said yes to this religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism. You’ve said yes or many reasons. You’ve said yes because you want a community, you’ve said yes because you love Unitarian Universalism, you’ve said yes because of xyz, you’ve said yes for reasons that are perhaps only for your heart to know.
Still you’ve said yes. You are joining that great cloud of witnesses, the community of all souls, all people, that have said yes to Unitarian Universalism in their lives. People have fought for this faith. They’ve been martyred. They’ve suffered and some are suffering in this moment to push to ever brighter moments in our history.
I will not ask you to suffer or be martyred for this faith. But I will ask you to discern what your contribution will be. And this goes for everyone in the room today. What stories will we tell future generations about the people that loved and lived and volunteered and gave and committed and struggled and reconciled and cherished this church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington.
What will our pillar stories be from this moment onward – what odd things will people hear about us generations from now. What memories of love and hope will be shared, what promises will we pass on to those who are yet to come through our doors.
That is our greatest charge as Unitarian Universalists – to be a part of that community of all souls – to contribute to the story of this church community. For in these stories we find our immortality and in so doing we impart upon those yet to come wisdom and hope and a flickering flame when life is at its darkest.
We have, outside of this church, what can best be described as an old church yard. There are no head stones, no coffins buried in the ground, but there are stones of remembrance with the names of people who were in our midst and have died. Many of those names bring about a flood of stories.
There’s even a cat out there in our church yard – the memorial garden – a cat of great legend and lore. But there are also stones with names on them that people do not necessarily remember anymore. Or the stories are becoming just bits and pieces of memory.
Some stones are no longer visited and the earth is retaking them slowly. But in our religious tradition, it isn’t just those names that bring about the flood of stories that we hold dear. It’s all of them. It’s the movers and shakers, and the quiet behind the scenes people, too.
Unitarian Universalist communities are truly churches of all souls – all people. Every single name in any church yard or memorial garden, any name inscribed on a wall, written in our membership books, our visitor logs, our pledge cards, our emails, our cards and notes and scraps of paper – they are just as much a part of our story as the greatest of saints.
Yes, this is a romanticized viewpoint, but when has that stopped a good Unitarian Universalist from continuing to romanticize. All souls means everyone. Past. Present. Future. It includes not just the saints, but the sinners, the devils, the lukewarm, the mediocre.
What remains for us, the living, is to learn what we can of these people who’ve come before us, their stories, even if it is just seeing their name and knowing such a person ever existed here in this church – and to claim our own place in that ever unfolding story of this place.
To those who have just joined us and those who’ve been with us for a while – the task before us is no small thing. It is the weaving of a tapestry whose end we will never see. What will our threads say about us? What wisdom will we impart? How shall we remember and be remembered? What will those yet to come say when they stroll through that old church yard and dust off the earth and see our names one day?