Fire and Emptiness
Unitarian Universalism
and the Universe Story

by Patricia Gordon


I came to dwell in both the Universe Story community and the Unitarian Universalism community because as a participant in these I am immersed in the ever-emerging truth. The Unitarian Universalist icon, a flaming chalice within a double circle, can symbolize this open-ended, dynamic quest for truth, both in its ever-renewing flame and in its movement away from the center of the circle. However, no one interpretation for the chalice is official, a stance quintessentially Unitarian. In my tradition there is no dogma, not even around our icon. We are each free to create our own ever-evolving spiritual meaning.

The flaming chalice image is surrounded by emptiness within its double circle, and emptiness surrounds the actual chalice lit before every service in the congregation's sanctuary. This emptiness is a welcoming space. My Unitarian spiritual community in Montreal, Canada embraces atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Pagans, and others. The sanctuary and services offer a supportive empty space, a common ground free of specific religious beliefs. This ground is warmed by a community that not only nurtures our quests for individual truth and personal well-being, but also, since we are a world-centered tradition, fosters the flourishing of all the Earth community's expressions of life.

The Universe Story can deepen and enrich the Unitarian Universalist ongoing search for individual truth, its common ground for diverse spiritual beliefs, and service to the world. This possibility has been officially recognized by the Canadian Unitarian Council in its environmental policy adopted in 1999. The policy calls for an understanding of the universe and our place and purpose in it, a re-establishment of our spiritual relationship with Earth, a new story or myth essential to this quest, and integration of the values expressed in the policy into our individual and congregational religious rituals and practices. If this vision were to ignite the passion of enough Unitarian members, what kinds of individual and congregational practices would emerge?

I IMAGINE MY CONGREGATION twenty-five years from now. The word "Unitarian," whose original meaning was "one God, not a trinity," has shifted its meaning to "one common ground for all seekers." And the word "Universalist," which originally meant "all are saved; none are cast out from God," now signifies "all are part of the Universe and its ongoing Story." The spiritual practices that have emerged are those which move us toward remembering and re-membering this Whole. I imagine...

The Wonders

"The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted...There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star." — Henry David Thoreau, Unitarian

In our sanctuary the week after winter solstice, I gaze at our chalice burning on its intricately carved stand. On the walls to the right, back, and left is our long scroll of the Timeline of Light artwork depicting the 14-billion year story of the Universe from The Radiance to the Continuing Journey into the unknown future.[1]

In profound silence, we meditate on the wonders of matter, energy, life, and mind: from Mystery the fiery unfolding of The Radiance, matter and energy spiraling into galaxies; from Mystery the double star-spirals of life whose atoms are fire-birthed;[2] from Mystery the fire of the mind, spiraling upward in ever more encompassing enlightenment. What wonder will next shimmer out of Mystery? Each of us —atheist, Hindu, Pagan, Christian, Jew —may name and describe the creative ground differently, but all honor the reality of Mystery.

Continually sparking forth from Mystery are new miracles of matter, life, and mind. Elementary particles erupt into existence and quickly vanish: "even in the darkest region beyond the Great Wall of galaxies, even in the void between the superclusters, even in the gaps between the synapses of the neurons in the brain, there occurs an incessant foaming, a flashing flame, a shining-forth-from and a dissolving-back-into" (Swimme 1996, pp. 93, 101). Life dazzles into new species: the light-eating cyanobacteria, sunfish, copper butterflies, golden iguanas, ruby-throated hummingbirds, sun bears. New creations sparkle forth from the brilliant minds of fire-taming paleolithic humans, Plato, Nicolaus Copernicus, Jan Vermeer, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi.

The Universe, the Great Wild, is "devoted to surprise." Cosmologist Brian Swimme captures the wondrous history of the Universe in one sentence: "You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans" (Swimme 1990, p. 1; Bridle 2001, p. 40).

Who and what will emerge next? "From wonder to wonder existence opens" (Lao Tzu, trans. Bynner 1972, p. 31).

The Communions

"We are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us...Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations." — Henry David Thoreau

In the following weeks, I and other members of the congregation gather to celebrate communions with the Universe through the Cosmic Walk.[3] Candles are arranged in a gigantic spiral on the sanctuary floor, each one accompanied by a child's drawing, made in Religious Education classes, representing a major, creative flare in the unfolding Universe Story. Each week different creative moments in the Universe Story are illuminated. Photographs and paintings of these moments enrich the sanctuary walls with their beauty. The chalice, representing Mystery, stands at the center of the spiral.

In the first Cosmic Walk service, children and adults joyfully and continuously loop through the spiral, enveloped by inspiring music, while the minister tells the story of the numinous transformations of matter: fireball particles, hydrogen atoms, star-studded galaxies, elements forged in stars, solid planets, life, humans. We sit, and speaking together, share communion. What does it mean to our lives that we are transformed stardust? that, in human form, we are the Universe?

In the second Cosmic Walk service, the minister recounts the numinous transformations of energy: fireball, hydrogen atoms, Sun, plants, humans. We sit, and speaking together, share communion. What does it mean to our lives that we are sunlight? that we are cosmic fire?

In the third Cosmic Walk, the minister stories the numinous transformations of life, celebrating our direct ancestors: the first ancestral cell, sea worms, lobe-finned fish, warm-blooded reptiles, tree-dwelling mammals, humans. We sit, and speaking together, share communion. What does it mean to us that we are part of life's immense journey? that we are one Family?

In the final Cosmic Walk, the minister recounts the numinous transformations of human awareness and care, ever more embracing, still to be completed: from individual family, tribe, empire, and nation to Earth's human family; from local wild kin, national ecosystems, and the whole Earth community to the Universe's galactic neighborhoods; from regional and planetary cyclical patterns to the Universe's laws and evolutionary dynamics; from an individual culture's Mystery to the many-named Mystery. We sit, and speaking together, share communion. What does it mean to our lives that we are all-encompassing awareness and care? that our embrace is still to be completed?

The Gratitudes

The Solitary Gratitudes

"It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it." — Henry David Thoreau

Every morning each of us in the congregation either steps outdoors, sits indoors in front of a small lit chalice, or, elsewhere, withdraws for a quiet moment, and imagines all the planets in the embrace of the Sun and the slow rolling of the great Earth beneath our feet as our home turns toward and then away from our sustaining star (Swimme 1996, pp. 26-27). We reflect with gratitude on the delights of the duet played by Sun and Earth: golden pears, brass fanfares, silken shirts, scented herbs, wild kin, wind spin, mist.

At the midday meal, each of us extends our mind to imagine the daily lives of other species and other humans in our St. Lawrence River Valley home and in our larger planetary home. In gratitude we then reflect on our intimate sharing of Earth's water and air as they are passed unendingly from one Family member to another. In gratitude we reflect on the sharing of life, as the matter and energy of all lives is eventually taken into that of others. We are one body, ever transforming. We are one tide, ebbing and flowing. We are one breath, together inspiring. We are one fire from the beginning, empowering.[4]

In the evening, holding in mind once more our whole planetary home with its edge of dawn and shadow forever sweeping, we contemplate our own and Earth's dark losses that day: death by fang and fire; the ripping of homes; the black cape slowly suffocating the bright flame of mind and body. We reflect with gratitude on the gifts that may come from ordeal, for we know that from the beginning of the Universe's evolution, heroic, undreamed of new capacities, creations, beauty, and life have emerged from destruction and pain, time and time again.

The Communal Gratitudes

"Let the night overtake thee everywhere at home." — Henry David Thoreau

On a weekend in the late spring, the congregation as a whole makes a pilgrimage of gratitude to chosen places and inhabitants, both wild and human, in the St. Lawrence River Valley life community. Every year, we visit different sites, human cultures and professions, and wild kin, thank them for the splendor of their gifts to the community, and give them something they need in return. The recipients of our gratefulness range from the rare forest of Pointe-aux-Trembles to the bird sanctuary of Senneville, from Mohawks to musicians, from earthworms to fiddlehead ferns. Also, there are two places that are honored every year. The congregation journeys to the St. Lawrence River itself, or its tributaries, and Mont Royal, the mountain in the middle of the city. Both the mighty river and the serene mountain pour blessings and a unique identity upon the Montreal island community and receive our generous gifts in return, from picking up litter to taking action against developers and polluters.

The following week, in a special service in the church sanctuary, members meditate on the chalice's doublet of rings encompassing the flame of life, just as the circles within circles of natural communities and their cycles hold within them the flame of all our lives. We know we are sustained and enriched not only by the embrace of the communities and cycles of our part of the St. Lawrence Valley, but also by the circles of interdependence that ripple out to the entire Great Lakes watershed and beyond to the whole planet. Color slides projected on a gigantic screen, songs, stories, and symbolic dance, inspire our gratitude for the bright gifts of landscapes, beings, and cycles around Earth, from the bluegreen algae to the Mindo Nambillo Cloudforest, to the carbon cycle, to the citizens of Porto Alegre, to the Adelie penguin. We close the circle of the continuing stream of offerings by giving back something in turn.

Summer solstice is marked by the outdoor Feast of Elements,[5] a congregational picnic paying homage to our Ancestral Stars, which gifted our part of the Milky Way galaxy with the elements, the stardust, that eventually formed Earth and ourselves. Surrounded by wilderness, far from city lights, we celebrate these early generations of massive stars that forged all the complex elements in their fiery bellies and then poured their creations into the heavens as they exploded in blazes of light. After the feast, when Earth finally rolls into darkness, we revel in the stars. "We are immersed in stars, we eat stars, we walk on stars, we breathe stars, we swim through stars." (Rogers 1997, pp. 52-53)

One July or August night, our congregation's members again journey far from the city, and, with small telescopes, gaze intensely toward Sagittarius and the radiant center of the Milky Way. The children sing a song about the mammoths who roamed our continent 30,000 years ago, when the light now reaching our eyes began its journey from this starry heart. From our place within one of the luminous spiral arms of our galactic home, we cast our vision into the splendors of the Small Sagittarius Starcloud and the Lagoon, Trifid, Star-Queen, and Swan nebulae. We recall the glorious photographs of other gems of our galaxy: the Dust Clouds of the Eagle Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, the globular star cluster in the constellation Hercules.

Joyously, we begin spinning, some of us slow and graceful and some sizzling, happily twirling alone, swinging in duos, eddying in small clouds, or swirling in spirals, wobbling, laughing, falling over backwards, reeling into beauty. As we lie on the ground facing the heavens, the minister asks us to imagine our Milky Way and its partner, the Andromeda Galaxy, in their immense, blazing pinwheel around one another, each accompanied by a revolving entourage of small satellite galaxies. These two spirals of fire circling in emptiness are, in turn, with hundreds of other distant galactic clusters, swinging around the Virgo Cluster of a thousand burning galaxies. We know that the Virgo Cluster itself is part of an even greater Virgo Supercluster, and that this cluster of clusters is only one of countless superclusters in our expanding Universe. The minister pauses in silence, as we meditate on our Deep Home: fireworks cascading through Mystery.

As I reflect, gratitude and awe kindles within me for the exquisite fine-tuning of the Universe's forces and values that make galaxies, stars, planets, life, and mind possible. My spine tingles when I consider the degree of this fine-tuning. Had the gravitational force been a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of one percent stronger or weaker, it would have either crushed the newborn Universe into a black hole or failed to gather matter into stars (Bridle 2001, p. 40). If the Radiance in the beginning had not poured forth 101 million particles for every 100 million antiparticles, the Universe would have winked out when particles and antiparticles were annihilating each other in the first minutes of its existence (Swimme 1998a, p. 14). If the force that binds together subatomic particles in the nuclei of atoms were weaker by a minute fraction, then the universe would never have forged anything more complex than hydrogen atoms. Yet, if that same force had been stronger by a minute fraction, "then all the hydrogen in the early universe would have fused into helium —with the consequence of no water, stars, or life" (Rue 2000, p. 63). The list of cosmic improbabilities continues, stunning my mind. I remember the scientists who have made this knowledge possible. I shine with gratitude.

Click here for the second half of this essay.



1 The original Timeline of Light is an artistic depiction of part of the story of the Universe, created in scroll form by Montessori educator John Fowler. His email address is

2 The phrase "from Mystery the double star-spirals of life whose atoms are fire-birthed" refers to the fact that the double helix of our DNA is made up of atoms created in the burning and explosions of stars that self-destructed as supernovae in our area of the galaxy.

3 The original Cosmic Walk was created by Sister Miriam McGillis of Genesis Farm, New Jersey. A version of the Cosmic Walk may be found at

4 The last four lines are from Marriage to Earth (Gordon 2001a, p. 1), part of a Universe Story-inspired marriage ceremony created for the wedding of Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. The videotape of this ceremony is available through The line "We are one tide, ebbing and flowing" is from Piercy 1980, p. 134.

5 This is a variation on the Feast of Elements created by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd for the December-January holiday season. See Feastofelements.html

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