When you think of Transylvania, who do you think of? (Dracula.) So then if I tell you that I went on pilgrimage to Transylvania in 2009, would you be worried that you may have gotten mixed up with a weird, vampiric cult or something?
We Unitarian Universalists have deep roots in Transylvania. Let me tell you a story-
Once upon a time, in a land which we call Transylvania, but which its own people call “Erdely” (pronounce: airr-day-yee) meaning woodland, an old king named John Zapolya married a young Polish princess named Isabella. Princess Isabella had been raised in a very liberal and dynamic court filled with many intellectuals and radicals, including a Unitarian heretic from Italy called Giorgio Biandrata.
Now, our story is set in wake of the reformation, and if you remember your European history, those were pretty bloody times across Europe. But not in Poland, so it became a refuge for free thinkers. Isabella was formed and shaped in this liberal environment, and not only did she advocate for religious tolerance herself, but when she became pregnant, she sent to her mother and asked for Biandrata to come, as he also happened to be a physician.
King John Zapolya died fairly soon after his son was born, and there was tremendous pressure on Isabella to choose a religion for their child, John Sigismund. But of course, if she were to choose to raise him Catholic, the Protestant nobles would rebel, and if she were to raise him Protestant, the Catholics would. So Queen Isabella simply refused to choose. She gave her son a broad education and let people know that he would be choosing for himself when he reached adulthood.
By the time Prince John Sigismund was old enough to be crowned, Biandrata had influenced the foremost preacher in the land, Francis David, to become a Unitarian. David served the royal family as preacher, spiritual advisor, and tutor, and had a significant influence on Prince John. And as David was already in a position to proclaim Unitarianism widely, no one would have been surprised if, upon his coronation, the king pronounced himself, and therefore the whole kingdom, to be Unitarian.
Instead, he signed into law the Edict of Torda which granted his people the freedom to choose for themselves. This is the first time in the history of the world that people had religious freedom, and the language in the Edict was familiar to our founding fathers, which is why there are echoes in our own Bill of rights. The Edict read, in part:
…In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore… no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone…and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God…
Unfortunately, King John Sigismund died young, and the counter- Reformation swept into Transylvania, reclaiming the nation for the Catholic faith again. And yet…the people had a taste of freedom, and they weren’t about to give it up. In the end, the Catholic Church compromised: As long as the religious groups prayed and baptized in the name of Jesus, celebrated communion four times a year, ordered their religious life under the supervision of a bishop, and agreed to add no new teachings to their doctrine, they could practice their faith in freedom.
Francis David was named the first Unitarian bishop, but he had trouble with that last provision- no new teachings. He wound up being imprisoned in Deva, where he died. His cell looks a lot like a tomb. It’s carved into a hillside, and is a one of the big destinations for pilgrimages, along with the cathedral where the Edict of Torda was signed and the church in Kolosvar where David used to preach, both of which are now Catholic.
Transylvanian Unitarians have had a very hard time of it in the years since King John Sigismund died, and an even hard time of it since 1683, when Transylvania ceased to exist as an independent state. They are both a religious and an ethnic minority. Their land been traded back and forth between the major world powers that surround them. The people who used to live in Transylvania call themselves the Szekely, and the Szekely Unitarians have clustered together in small villages, where they mostly practice subsistence agriculture.
There have been informal connections between Unitarians in the U.S. and Transylvanian or Szekely Unitarians since way back in the 1830’s, but in the past twenty years or so, a national organization called the UU Partner Church Council has helped support local, grassroots connections between the two countries. The church I served in Bremerton had a partner church relationship with a church in a village called Recsenyéd, which is a village in Northeast Romania. That’s where I spent the bulk of my time.
Here in the US, we have the separation of church and state. In Romania and Hungary, there’s no separation, and the minister has a number of civic duties as well as religious ones. The young minister in Recsenyed, Adel, who became a dear friend, was working her tail off trying to find ways to keep the young people from leaving to go work in the cities so that her little parish wouldn’t die. Everyone in the town was Unitarian, and part of the congregation, whether they came to church or not. So she knew literally every person who lived there, and took responsibility for the most vulnerable among them.
Szekely Unitarians are very much Christians. They still have a bishop and celebrate communion at least four times a year. The symbol for their faith is a snake, circled around a rock, with a dove standing on it. A crown rests above the snake representing King John Sigismund and often a forest of trees is underneath, symbolizing Erdely, which means woodland, as you remember. The The Rev. Kinga-Réka-Székely explains this way:
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is equipping his friends for ministry. He is commissioning them to go out on their first solo mission to spread the Good News of God’s love and acceptance. “I am sending you out,” Jesus says, “like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” For us Unitarians, this has been our reality, and our formula for survival. So, in our symbol you will find the serpent, curved to form a circle. This symbolizes the whole, the perfect, and suggests that we encourage a whole and complete knowledge of God and the world. No branch of learning, no advances of science are out of bounds for our exploration.
Within the circle is the rock, symbolizing the wise person who built a house on the rock; again Matthew’s gospel tells us: “The rains fell, the floods came and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on a rock.” We have built our faith on the solid rock of the teachings of Jesus—not a Jesus who is a deity beyond comprehension and credulity—but on the teachings of a very human Jesus, a friend who walks with us, a sage who offers us sound advice.
Standing upon the rock, inside the circle made by the snake, is a dove. It is the symbol of peace, innocence, new life. To us, it means that we must be a gentle people, hurting no one, working always for peace and cooperation.
In my pilgrimage group, there were people who were incredibly uncomfortable with the Christian liturgies and theologies. They balked at taking communion, and were offended by traditions that separated people by gender in worship.
But I can’t tell you how moved I was to see this very different expression of Unitarianism. I had a sense of being grounded in history, of being connected to deep roots. I could see our core values expressed in a very particular way shaped by this particular context. It was wonderful!
“Isten Aldjo.” is the traditional Unitarian greeting, used as both a greeting and on leave taking. It means, “God blesses you.” I actually attended mass at the church where David used to preach. Since they were speaking Hungarian, I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, but I kept hearing, “Isten Aldjo.” And indeed, I felt blessed, in the presence of a love that had been holding and transforming these poor beleaguered people for centuries, a love that hasn’t let them go.
Today, on the other side of the planet, our siblings in faith are taking communion, and reading Christian scripture, and speaking Hungarian. They are being held by the same love that holds us, and led by the same spirit as we are, toward peace and unity. It gives me goosebumps.
Meanwhile, in Burundi, there is a small fellowship of people who discovered our faith on the internet. They are also subject to horrible persecution. Their minister was unjustly arrested and badly beaten just a few months ago.
All of the Unitarians have joined the stream of refugees trying to escape the violence. The minister, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana is free now, and is living in a rented shelter and “organizing relief efforts and looking after the spiritual needs of both Unitarians and non-Unitarians.” He has shared the words he uses to light the chalice:
When strangers meet, endless possibilities emerge: new experiences, new ways of understanding, and new ways of taking action. When strangers meet, each pays special attention to the other. Each is called to serve something larger than the self. Today, let’s light this chalice: for openness, for willingness to grow, for rich curiosity and for common purpose.
Let me say that again: “for openness, for willingness to grow, for rich curiosity and for common purpose.” The Burundi Unitarians are, without a doubt, celebrating Easter today. I imagine the Easter story of unfair arrest and persecution rings especially true for them.
They aren’t afraid to take courage from this ancient story. They model their lives on Jesus’ teachings, and in doing so, they are able to provide solace and spiritual support to all. It’s simply lovely. They, too, are held in that same love and led by the same spirit.
I share these stories in a week when the anti-LGBT law in North Carolina, our own legislature’s failure to “close the gap,” and yet more terrorist attacks might leave us feeling under siege. My hope is that we will be inspired by our Szekeley and Burundi siblings in faith to keep on keeping on. Just as Jesus’ followers had to find the strength to go on, following a tragedy of the worst sort, so we must find the strength to keep spreading Jesus’ message of radical love and nonviolent resistance.
And so, I invite you to reconnect with the story, to hear it in a way that isn’t colored by the old concepts of redemptive suffering, original sin, and child sacrifice, (none of which, by the way, are an important part of the biblical narrative.) A man named Jesus came to this world and taught a gospel of radical, inclusive love. He preached in parables and stories, acknowledging the complexity and paradox inherent in being human. He urged his followers to choose a new way of resistance to empire- a non-violent path toward unity, peace, and justice.
His teachings threatened the ruling powers, and so they captured him, tortured him, and killed him. Yet three days later, when those who loved him most went to tend the body, the tomb was empty. An angel came down to say to them, “fear not,”…love is stronger than empire, stronger than injustice, stronger, even, than death.
His followers picked themselves up, pulled themselves together, and dedicated their lives to spreading those radical teachings. They knew themselves held by a deep and transformative love. They were led by the spirit to keep teaching justice, radical inclusion and nonviolent resistance.
Easter, ultimately, is about a leap of faith. In spite of much evidence to the contrary, we set our feet again to the path laid before us by Jesus: we choose to love our enemy, turn the other cheek, and hold onto our principles, even unto death. We choose to believe that a better way is possible, that a better world is in the works.
Our roots are sunk into the rich soil of this story that affirms love in the face of fear, hope in the face of despair, and nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice. We, too, are held by a deep and transformative love. We are called into action, led by the spirit to face the ugliness and violence in our world, and to keep teaching justice, radical inclusion, and peace.