I’m partial in myself. I occupy only a bit of who I am, what I know. I can’t include It All. It’s too much. I…
An Atheist Embalmer Prays for the Pope
I gladly welcome you, Pope Francis, to this video of my prayer for you.
Although I wish to speak into your eyes, I know others may tune into this if only for the provocative title, and if so, welcome! What follows is a reenactment of a sermon I presented to a mall Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Grants Pass, Oregon. I was hoping to send a video copy to the pope. However, the camera didn’t work, so I’m reconstructing it here for his and your edification. My message to him is intended for all. Though the title may seem gimmicky, the intent is sincere.
Please be advised all such sermons by UUs are unique. UU ministers are afforded the latitude to think for ourselves and say so. The pope and many viewers may be unfamiliar with this small, liberal denomination born of Christian origins, which has since also incorporated Enlightenment and Humanistic values. While I have critiqued Christian and other faith traditions, here I want to be appreciative.
I’ll explain what I mean by atheist and embalmer, and then I’ll share what the pope published, why I like it, and end by praying for him.
Loosely, an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in someone else’s God. Socrates was called an atheist for not worshipping Roman gods. Democritus, Lucretius, Mark Twain, Marlene Dietrich, Carl Sagan, and Noam Chomsky were all called atheists, so I place myself in good company.
My atheism is a muddled sort. I pray, though I don’t believe any god listens. I marvel at Creation, and I know we humans didn’t make it, but I don’t double the mystery by claiming to know who did. I’m not anti-religion or anti-god; I’m just at the further extreme from the pope. Along a Protestant spectrum, the Episcopalian church would be closer to Catholicism and Unity or the United Church of Christ would be to the far left. UUism is farther left, very individualistic, humanistic, and mostly non-dogmatic, and I’m a bit liberal for it. We welcome all – from mystics to atheists. I’m as secular as you are sectarian, yet I agree with you. Lots of secular and sectarian people agree.
I was raised Catholic by my mother. She and her sister Mary were converted to Catholicism as young girls. Because Aunt Mary was so self-assured, we called her “The Pope,” but because Mom was so constantly kind, we called her a saint.
Though I was baptized Catholic as an infant, participated in countless masses, and attended parochial schools in the 2nd and 3rd grades, and the 7th and 8th, I left the Catholic fold when I was only 14 years old. I went to the friendlier priest at Our Lady of the Lakes, asking for confession. Instead of going to the confession booth, I told him face-to-face of my sin and resolve: My sin was to keep coming to church when I no longer believed in it, and my resolve was to not return.
As the eldest of five, this was disruptive in my family. Some considered me an atheist. I was merely living up to what I felt was right to do.
Years later, as I was finishing high school, I got a job in a funeral home setting up chairs and parking cars. Then I was helping pick up dead bodies from cold morgues. Then I learned how to embalm them and went on to mortuary school. Because the hearse doubled as the community’s ambulance, in it I also encountered the stark reality of our precious and precarious bodies, from transporting those who died, to mending those who were hurt, to catching a new-born baby. Without going into the yuckier realities of it or embalming, suffice it to say I came to appreciate the wonder and worth of our precious bodies.
In college I discovered the orderly and reliable understanding of our physical universe as known by science. Physics, chemistry, biology, and microbiology all made sense of a real world and helped me to later understand and appreciate environmental science. Philosophically, I believe our bodies and our world are what theologian Tillich called “the ground of our being.”
Liking college, I went on to a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Philosophy, learning from Skinner to Jung, from Aristotle to Lao Tzu. I also found a church I liked. The Unitarian Universalist traditions, while born of Christianity, had grown wider, incorporating also humanistic appreciations. I found those without a faith in God were also good people. I went from embalming to the liberal ministry.
I went on to graduate school, to a liberal seminary then located at the University of Chicago, learning not only of the UU tradition, but of others, and saw in comparative religion the world’s wide variety of beliefs and practices. I also was enamored with the counterculture of the late 60s. Everything from rock-and-roll to psychedelics and resistance to war enthused me.
(As an aside, although I am more educated than most Americans, I make far less money than most. And although I live near the poverty level in my society, I thank God for my wealth. I have shelter, water, food, security, transportation, health, entertainment, and pleasures a plenty. Poorer people like me live like only kings did just a few generations ago. Gratitude for my abundance doesn’t get lost in greed for “ever-more,” as so many get tricked into.)
I didn’t pay much attention to the Catholic world until you came along. For the first time in many decades I found myself admiring the things a pope said.
I am a liberal person and like the word liberal, so hearing you are a liberal pope increased your stature for me. You’ve reached respectfully out to the Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and Mormon faiths towards mutual understanding. Good.
I understand you see God as redeeming all of us, even atheists, when we stay true to our consciences. This fits with our Universalism. We are all worthy and loved.
I’m not gay, but I like gay people, and I hate to see them marginalized. When I heard you say, regarding gays, “Who am I to judge?” I perked up. Most popes and religious types do just that – judge – and judge condescendingly and punitively. What a reassuring relief to see a pope who is humane instead of haughty!
Researching you for this talk, I also delightfully discovered you liked to dance the tango, once were a bouncer at a night club, and had a Harley. (I found reference to your once being married and having a child but were widowed before you became a priest in Argentina. Checking on that proved elusive.)
Nothing impressed me more than you 2015 papal letter on our common home, dwelling especially on the accumulating harm done to the world’s poor and our environment. Many religious leaders get or keep support from the world’s political leaders by protecting them, leading their flocks to tend to their beliefs and the afterlife instead of fixing and fulfilling this earthly one. You rightly and boldly stand up to the formidable political and economic powers of our world.
Your lovely, long letter, “Laudito si’, On Care for our Common Home,” loves this common home we all must share. Your blessing is on the splendid beauty and worth of natural creation, with all its interrelated life, and on the poorer humans who seek their dignity and freedoms with it. Your laudito (praise) is on the poor and life as interrelated expressions of God Itself.
Although my Unitarian Universalism is the farthest outlier in the Protestant spectrum, affirming individual liberty and connection, and eschewing dogmatic stances, we happen to embody in our principles the very points in your letter: the inherent worth and dignity of everyone; justice, equity and compassion in our relations; a goal of world community; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence. Though distinct on some theological points, on these we agree.
I have long lamented on how little gratitude is in the attitude of most religions of the world, western and eastern, towards our physical body and the natural, living cosmos we must live in and share. Both get shown as merely temporary, a stage for going on to new lives or other realms. It irks me to see them regarded as irrelevant, as if spirituality is better or beyond them. It pleased and impressed me to see you reach out on behalf of our poor bodies and injured environment with godly concern and practical hope.
Back in the 60s the Doors asked, “What have you do to the earth? What have you done to our fair sister?” You revive this dire question. The extraction unto exhaustion of resources, the tossing of trash, the spreading of toxins, the abandonment of the growing poor, depleted of their strength and spirit, the waste and mayhem of war – all these are sin. “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” you write. But the outer and inner worlds are interconnected. “Violence in us, wounded by sin, reflects in the sickness of the soil, water, air, and life.”
Much of this gets rationalized as if condoned in Genesis One where we humans, males and females, are given “dominion.” But the dominion assumed is that of a greedy, callous king, not the “sovereignty” of freeborn, smart, caring humans who steward a good-and-getting-better creation. Further, those who claim an arrogant dominion often forget the other half of that instruction – to “replenish” the earth. We take a lot from the ocean; just how do we replenish it?
I read your letter in close detail, paraphrasing it to get your intent. (My shorter version of your longer letter is available at my website www.earthlyreligion.) I also have researched reactions to it, learning of the ominous efforts to bring you down. The same sort of people that caused your father to flee Italy are after you. Mussolini was the devil of that era; we’ve new Mussolini’s on the rise lately. A smug, haughty, jutting jaw impresses some, but it creeps me and others out.
Arrogant autocrats committing blatant murders of journalists and the poor are all the red-tie-rage these days. Fear and hate feed their populist bases. The actual murders of thousands in the Philippines gets bragged about by their president. There is no external court or power to restrain them. The media which would expose them has been coopted to lie for them or get dismissed as “fake news.”
This familiar formula of stealthily steering the media to rouse up all sorts of wild fears, stirring up resentment and anger, has been inflicted quite skillfully in many more places than here in our 2016 election. Our current alleged president was ushered into office with Russian help, no doubt, but more by his friend Steve Bannon.
Bannon helped found Cambridge Analytica (which helped decipher social media trends and create targeted ads and wild, riling posts), went on to easily sway Brittan away from the EU, rouse up right-wing populist anger in Europe, advise the Bolsonaro family in Brazil, and buy an old monastery near Rome to hound you. His Dignitatis Humanae Institute is funded by right-wingers, some of whom want the former pope back, not you. Bannon will likely pick the volatile sex abuse scandals, adding in homophobic fears, to bark and bite at you. Unease over sex issues takes attention away from the poor and our environment. But, probably, behind that are transnational corporations wanting to go on creating global warming and wage slavery.
Even as I write this, the UN panel of scientists warn we humans are creating a 6th extinction event, only tens to hundreds of times faster than any for millions of years. Our natural ecosystems are down by half and a fourth of all plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, not just the big animals we know, but the little crucial ones, like pollinator insects and bees.
Yet this same week, my country’s Secretary of State announced with glee how profitable it will be (primarily, he didn’t admit, to the industrialists of America, Canada, and Russia) to go take the oil, gas, gold, and diamonds of the formerly frozen Arctic. At the same time, our president’s key advisors proudly pounded the drums of war against two distant states, Iran and Venezuela, both, coincidently, oil producers. We know the burning of coal, oil, and gas is creating havoc worldwide now and will continue to for hundreds of years, yet they’re inured to any criticism and uninterested in doing it differently. Instead of some practical Green New Deal that would create, not only jobs, but ongoing free, clean, renewable energy, we get the same old bad deal of tragic wars waged to keep the waste going. Old money rules.
Yours is a bright light in a dark time. Yet many won’t see it, distracted by the glitz of cheap consumerism, roused racism, and riled nationalism. Yet again, others such as I will appreciate your efforts. You’ve given rationales of care, not just for Catholics, but for all. You grounded your letter in your tradition, drawing on recent popes and ancient scripture, but you put it more bluntly and effectively.
Your tenderness and prophetic passion arise from the Christ you serve. Odd how the Christian world has often wandered into imitating the lacky judges who condemned Jesus, or the soldiers who drove the spikes, instead of being like the kind and inclusive person he was. Belief substitutes for behavior. Your prayers at the end of your letter said it well, “Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction,” and, “Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live.”
The only slight difference I have with your letter is the false dichotomy between those of faith and those secular workers in the scientific and technocratic realms.
In fact, hope and help resides there. As Peter Diamandis revealed at the Vatican’s conference on extended life-span, the Plague killed 200 million 700 years ago, and Influenza killed 16 million a mere 100 years ago. Fixing such diseases and advancing our human abilities has progressed exponentially. Not only in computers and communications, but in transport, housing, energy, diet, and health, we humans could not only live longer, but better. Such practical advances mostly come from secular scientists and entrepreneurs, pursuing their particular “massively transformative purpose,” such as Elon Musk has with electric cars. They may not go to Mass, but they care about humanity and earth’s life much as you do. Just as John Dewey once praised the “common faith” of ordinary workers, you help buoy the inner goodness of any who tend the poor and earth.
While we must fix the huge economic and technological problems besetting our civilization and planet, we need also the profound but possible visions of a whole, healed, healthy, and happy world. Humanity needs better visions and leaders.
Your letter helps launch such possible visions. May we all help, religious and secular alike. In this dangerously fallen era when utter scoundrels rile and rule, you have skillfully used your position to bring us to our common home. We need not be in the last days of an apocalyptic tragedy; we could be at the dawn of a rescue and revival of Eden and our flourishing with it. The future could last longer and be better than we’ve been assuming, better than ever. Your inspired and brave leadership will help us live into it. Thank you.
A Prayer for His Holiness Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.
Dear God, you who I doubt yet call upon, hear my sincere prayer for our pope, even as the good souls here and watching also similarly pray. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a good man. Like Jesus, he cares for the ignored, forgotten, and abused. He loves the manifold forms of life on earth and cares to see them exalted rather than exhausted. He confronts the powerful, calling on them to veer our economy and technologies to serve and fulfill all humanity and all earth’s life. He unites his theological tradition with a practical vision of a single humanity sharing a common, precarious, and precious home.
Awaken praise and faith for our simple and elegant leader. Let his intent and words touch the hearts of those who can help, from peasants to presidents. Protect this vulnerable man, Lord. Keep him safe from those who would undermine his purpose or attack his person. Help us all, Lord, believers and non-believers alike, to awaken to the glory of our incarnations, giving back this gift we are given to the culture and ecosystem that supports us. May our gratitude grow to ingenuity, making our common home better than we have ever envisioned. Bless our pope with a long life fulfilling the higher purpose he takes from you. We each in our way pray this for him, each other, and our common home. Amen.
Reverend Byron Bradley Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass, Oregon
May 19th, 2019
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