Behind the Clouds – A Flower Communion Service

Opening Words
from “The Rainy Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the moldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall…

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Time for All Ages

Following World War I and the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia, Norbert Ĉapek founded a Unitarian congregation in Prague called the Liberal Religious Fellowship. He introduced the Flower Festival service on June 4, 1923 as a symbolic ritual to unite people in the new congregation. The traditional Christian communion service was unacceptable to many who had joined the new fellowship after leaving the Catholic church. Ĉapek decided to utilize the native beauty of the land to create a ritual unique to the new religious body.

People were asked to bring a flower of their choice to church and to place them in large vases at the entrance. During the worship service, Ĉapek consecrated the collected flowers. Afterwards, people returned to the vases and took a different flower home with them. It was such a success that it was held yearly just before the summer recess of the church. His fellowship grew into the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with a membership of almost 3,400 by 1932.

With the outbreak of World War II, Ĉapek chose to remain in Europe, despite invitations to come to America. He delivered a series of sermons on the topic of freedom and justice that got the attention of Nazi authorities. In March 1941, the Gestapo broke into Ĉapek’s apartment, confiscated his books and sermons, and arrested him and his 29-year-old daughter, Zora. Ĉapek was charged with listening to BBC broadcasts (a capital offense) and with treason. The Nazis cited several of his sermons as evidence. A year later, he and his daughter were found guilty.

The court found Ĉapek innocent of the treason charge and recommended that, given his age, the year served in prison be counted toward his jail time. The Gestapo, however, ignored the court’s recommendation, sending Ĉapek to Dachau and Zora to forced labor in Germany. Ĉapek’s name appears among a list of prisoners sent on an invalid transport on October 12, 1942 to Hartheim Castle, near Linz, Austria, where he died from poison gas.

Reflection Reading
from Norbert Ĉapek’s 1927 sermon “Salvation”

This relying on help from outside instead of upon ourselves flows from the doctrine of salvation which various churches still impose on us…The Catholic Church…and many varieties of…evangelical churches teach us to look for salvation from some supernatural source and think it blasphemous when someone feels he must seek salvation through his own moral effort.

Jesus did not have the superstitious belief that an angry God required a sacrifice to reconcile himself with mankind because of Adam’s sin. We owe [that belief] to the apostle Paul, whereas Jesus’ teaching about salvation is expressed in the parable of the prodigal son…

Christian people were much harmed by the notion of the necessity of pacifying God’s anger through the blood sacrifice of Jesus…Jesus’ gospel was meant for the poor, the oppressed, the unjustly handicapped, and all other unfortunate people.

The German reformers, Luther and Calvin, tore the heart out of Jesus’ gospel and instead inserted the dogma about Jesus’ sacrifice for the atonement of sins…The[ir] religion…was suitable for a feudal social system, but how much did it do for the oppressed, the poor, and the enslaved people?

Salvation cannot come from something or someone outside ourselves… Salvation comes only through what a person achieves through his own effort and ability.

Sermon – Behind the Clouds

Once upon a time, in a not-so-magical kingdom, there was an ogre who owned a factory. Now, as befitted his natural demeanor, the ogre was very cruel to the factory workers. He would beat them regularly, and if a worker ever gave him cause for displeasure, the ogre would cast him out of the factory forever. In fact, it sometimes seemed that the ogre enjoyed mistreating his workers more than actually running the factory effectively.

There was a man who worked for the ogre. The man worked behind a tiny desk helping the ogre keep track of production in the factory and utilizing resources most efficiently. The ogre was terrible at counting, and so needed the man’s skills. But, that did not stop the ogre from tormenting him mercilessly. And the man could not complain because he needed the work to support his family. Over time, the man learned ways to please the ogre and to keep the ogre from getting too mad at him.

The workers in the factory toiled for years under the cloud of the ogre’s wrath. The workers were talented and committed to their craft, but the ogre took any joy they might have felt out of the work. It seemed that the factory always lay in darkness – not the black of night, but the murkiness of a sunless day.

Sadly, this all-too-real fairy tale is one with which each of us can likely identify. In school, at work, even at home, it sometimes seems that there are people whose sole purpose in life is to cause others suffering. We endure this suffering out of love, or duty, or obligation, or simply out of habit. And we pay a toll for our efforts, whether we realize it or not.

Thankfully, few of us will ever know the hardship possible under the fist of a tyrant. Oh, we may complain about our taxes, incompetent legislators, or soulless government bureaucracies. If you are non-White, a woman, gay, or a member of other oppressed minorities in our country, you probably have experienced abridgements of your rights, or prejudice at the hands and from the lips of bigots with the ability to affect your life and livelihood.

But, few Americans can even begin to comprehend genocide – police and soldiers dragging our neighbors into trucks and trains. Most of us will never experience living under the cloud of a dictator, where the sun is blocked not only by repressive rule, but by the ashes of people targeted as threats to those in control.

And yet, that is what Norbert Ĉapek faced when his beloved Czechoslovakia was consumed by Hitler’s power play with the Allies. At the global poker table, we blinked and in September 1938, the Nazis raked in the pot – more than one-third of Czechoslovakia. Seven months later, the Nazis occupied the remainder of the country.

As a Unitarian minister, Ĉapek would have been unquestionably suspect in their eyes. The Gestapo regularly attended his Sunday morning and Tuesday evening worship services. But, Ĉapek carefully measured his message and tone to one that might irritate, but not inflame the German authorities. In June 1940, Ĉapek was summoned to Gestapo headquarters, interviewed, and released. Like the man in our fairy tale, Ĉapek learned the craft of survival under the ogre.

In the ensuing months, Nazi rule over Czechoslovakia worsened. Jews were spirited away; school children were photographed and their racial characteristics measured. Ĉapek maintained his ministry and his church continued to grow.

Then, on March 28, 1941, five men in plain clothes burst into his apartment. Over four hours, they ransacked his belongings, taking hundreds of sermons and lectures, manuscripts and letters, his typewriter, and the radio given to him on his 70th birthday by his congregation. They arrested Ĉapek and his youngest daughter, and led them away from the home they would never see again.

Now, often in stories like the one I told earlier, a shining knight comes along. He slays the ogre, brings light to the factory, and frees the workers. But, in our all-too-real world, ogres are much too smart and cunning to fall victim of the knight’s lance. They convince the knight that fighting will entail a terrible cost and that the outcome may be worse than allowing the status quo to continue.

Even more often, the ogre persuades the knight that keeping his armor shiny requires lots of money and that new weapons are constantly needed to maintain the knight’s power. In time, the knight comes to rely on the ogre and ceases to hear the cries of the workers in the factory. The armor tarnishes and the clouds thicken.

Other times in our stories of fantasy, a fairy godmother flits down, wand in hand, to grant us our fondest desires by taking us from the drudgery of the factory to the magnificent castle. With a simple wave of her hand, she promises immediate gratification. With no effort on our part, she offers us the winning lottery ticket of life. But, in the world of non-fiction, the person promising to fulfill your wishes is a con artist at best, and at worst a predator poised to rob you of your very soul.

Am I recommending that we banish fairy tales from our children’s bedside? Would I relegate Cinderella to her ash heap and leave Camelot unimagined? No. Dreams are healthy things and the sign of an imaginative and optimistic mind. Envisioning a better future beyond today and tomorrow, or even beyond our own lives sets us apart from other species on this planet. Dreaming may sometimes lead us down frivolous paths, but dreams plant the seeds of great accomplishment and happiness.

There exist many people out there, however, who prey on our dreams to turn a profit without any real concern for our well being. Others pollute the air with their clouds of fear and despair to keep us sedated and inactive. The clouds we live under obscure from us the worlds of the possible, the lands of growth and change, the vistas of our dreams.

So, what happened to the man in the factory? Over the years, he learned not just survival under the ogre’s reign, but how to find joy in other parts of his life beyond the factory. He found love in his children and family. He found fulfillment serving his community and causes that helped other workers. And, he found peace and even moments of ecstasy in his house of worship. He began to realize that the factory, while a significant part of his life, did not define him as a person. Most important, he began to imagine what lie behind the clouds surrounding the factory.

These were not the passive dreams of one waiting to be rescued, or the unfulfilled wishes of one wiling away free time on idle pursuits. His dreams were not the wispy stuff of sleep or the intangible unreality of wonder. His dreams were solid things, built brick-by-brick through hard work and commitment. His dreams became a stairway of sacrifice, cutting through the clouds of the factory and extending beyond the reach of the ogre’s fickle anger.

And when the man ascended the structure he had built and climbed through the clouds, what did he find? He found what Norbert Ĉapek found. He saw in the bright light of day countless flowers of every conceivable color decorating the countryside. He saw the marvelous diversity of living things and the remarkable individuality we share that makes life interesting.

He felt an enormous burden lifted from his body. Gone was the pressure of the constant criticism and deriding doubt. But, also missing were the shame and the guilt from within; the resentment and even hatred that had festered and grown against the ogre. Vanished were those debilitating emotions that had distracted the man with their false hopes of self-satisfaction and their sugar-coated rationalizations of self-righteousness.

Behind the clouds, the man heard the calling of his life. Gone were the allure of salary and financial security. Banished were the accolades of double talk and the bromides of bureaucracy. He heard clearly his calling to become the person life had prepared him to be.
Twelve years before his arrest and imprisonment, Capek had prepared himself spiritually, oddly predicting the hardships he now faced, when he wrote:

How can a person be ready to undergo difficult trials? He must ask himself: “What is mine and what is not mine?” Suppose I am to be imprisoned; must I also then lament and be discouraged? Suppose I am to be exiled; is there anyone able to prevent my going peacefully with a smile, good humor, and my head held high? “We will put you in chains!” “Ah, dear friends, the chains you mean to put upon my legs may restrain me but no chains can restrain my will or my spirit.”…The result is a will that is very disciplined; no force on earth can make it do what it doesn’t want to do. Cleanse your own heart and put out of your mind pain and envy, ill will and passions you can’t control; then no one will be able to force you to do their will. You will be free as the west wind.

Throughout Ĉapek’s incarceration, he continued writing hymns. In Dachau, he was assigned to the “clergy hut” and ministered to other prisoners. A Catholic priest wrote to Ĉapek’s daughter: “Your papa…always was in a good mood and was able to encourage all the people around him, to bring them out of their bad situations…I cannot understand it in any other way than there was in it a higher power. “ Another prisoner told Ĉapek’s biographer, “If it hadn’t been for Ĉapek, I probably wouldn’t be alive now, nor would others who survived.”

No, thankfully we are unlikely to face the experience of Norbert Ĉapek. But, we can learn from his life and find inspiration in his work. The flowers we celebrate today represent not simply life, but the life that lifts us behind the clouds to the land of light. We can pull from his example the energy to strive, the commitment to sacrifice, and the courage to endure. Ĉapek saw these fragile representatives of nature as the heart of his congregation’s communion. And, while flowers may sometimes be crushed by the ogres of the world, flowers will always endure; flowers will always reach through the clouds until they find the light; the light of dreams, the light of love.

Closing Words

Norbert Ĉapek wrote these words just before his death:

It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals. Oh, blow, you evil winds, into my body’s fire. My soul, you’ll never unravel. Even though disappointed a thousand times or fallen in the fight, and everything worthless seem, I have lived amidst eternity. Be grateful, my soul. My life was worth living. The one who was pressed from all sides but remained victorious in spirit is welcomed into the choir of heroes.