Greetings from UUEstrie, a liberal spiritual community that first gathered in the village of North Hatley back in 1886, as the First Universalist Church of North Hatley.

Join us Sundays at 10:30am for our weekly service.

Latest News

Pervasive Surveillance and other CUC Resolutions

Be it resolved…?

Two UU work groups are proposing resolutions for possible adoption at the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) AGM in Montreal in May.

Peace in Israel-Palestine. The first resolution concerns the tangled conflict in Israel-Palestine. It asks that CUC member congregations study the history of the conflict, and the present conditions in Israel. It asks that the CUC provide resource materials and persons to help in this process. And it asks that, at the 2015 AGM, member congregations be prepared to decide if Social Justice action on this matter is needed.

 We already began this study with two recent services. The most recent was on March 23, when Jerzy Przytyk presented a video by an Israeli soldier entitled “Soldier’s Diary.” Jerzy suggested the best way to intervene is to support Israeli and Palestinian groups who are working for peace. The discussion has just begun!

 For more information, visit http://cuc.ca/acm-2014/annual-meeting/

Pervasive Surveillance. The second resolution is new and urgent. It responds to information that became public in January – that the Canadian government believes that it has the right to engage in wholesale collection of “metadata” about telephone and Internet communications of Canadians. The promoters of the resolution say this is an attack on our basic freedoms, and one which should be challenged by UUs.

The resolution asks CUC member congregations to call on the government of Canada (1) to report on all pervasive surveillance programs that have been carried out by government agencies over the past five years; (2) to assign the authority to oversee surveillance activities undertaken by the government to an agency that is responsible directly to Parliament, not to the Cabinet; (3) to make it unlawful for the government to engage in pervasive surveillance, including the routine mass collection or storage of its citizens’ communications, movements, or metadata; (4) and to recommend that the individual members of CUC member congregations write their elected representatives to express concern about pervasive surveillance and their support for the changes outlined above.

 Any members of CUC congregations who support the resolution are invited to formally join the group of “proposers.” To do this, contact Jack Dodds by email <brmdamon@hushmail.com> or telephone 905-727-4097. For more information, visit http://firstunitariantoronto.org/component/content/article/97-social-justice/514-pervasive-surveillance-resolution .

New Mission and Vision Statements. The CUC board of directors also sent us a discussion paper about the CUC’s new vision and mission. Many religious denominations have seen declining numbers. This includes Unitarian Universalists, although the decline is not as sharp as for some other groups. The question is this: What would it mean for us to be a truly transformative religion for the times in which we live? For more information, visit www.cuc.ca .

CUC Board Nominations – Congratulations, Jaime!

The CUC Nominating Committee has proposed three nominees for the Board of Trustees of the CUC. For the Eastern region, our very own Jaime Dunton. For the Central region, Lorna Weigand of Don Heights. For British Columbia, Kristina Stevens of Victoria (second term). They join five other board members whose 3-year terms are in progress.

Further nominations (by April 16), questions and comments may be directed to the Chair of the Nominating Committee, Bunty Albert, at nominations@cuc.ca. Details are on the Governance page of www.cuc.ca.

Commemorating Yom Hashoah

Yom Hashoah

(A reading by the Reverend Carole Martignacco, 9 April 2013, for the Goldberg Duo concert at Plymouth Trinity United Church, Sherbrooke QC)

Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, honors the millions of lives lost in Hitler’s death camps. When one group of people or one characteristic gets defined as “not us,” “not normal” or outside the common bounds of humanity, terrible consequences can ensue.

Are there lessons for humanity in the horror of this history? (the above is a quote from the UUA Church of the Larger Fellowship DAILY COMPASS Meditation series)


Each one of us must search our hearts. Each of us must root out, with a love and compassion that is ruthless in its honesty, the source of oppression and exclusion in ourselves, asking in our own lives:


Who do we leave out or turn away? Who do we see defined by our society as “not us”? What do we do to welcome the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider into the fold?


Commemorating the Holocaust holds power for us today in that it calls us to confront our own ability, out of perceived difference or distance, to alienate, neglect or deny the well being of those perceived as other. It calls us to renew and expand our love and compassion, our commitment to justice, for all our siblings in the family of humankind.


The Holocaust by sheer magnitude of its cruelty is overwhelming; we can hardly imagine millions of victims. Yet for every number, a name, for every name, a living, breathing, dreaming, loving, growing, thinking, feeling human being. Like you and like me ~ each one, a unique and holy life. May they never be forgotten.


And may our prayer this year and every year be to remember ~

this must never happen again!

Historical Video – Dedication of Stoddard Hall

Drawing by Margaret Stoddard

In 1991, Stoddard Hall was dedicated. There were speeches and poems by Helen McCammon, Nancy Pacaud, Margaret Stoddard, and Keith Baxter.

Margaret talks about how she and Al attended UU events in many churches, and found basements that were finished and well used in most of them.
For several years Al, in particular, lobbied to have a full basement put under our church, which then had a dry-stone foundation, and a gloomy cellar with a stream running through it, housing only the furnace and toilet.

At last the project came about, the video includes some clips of the actual work. At the time of the dedication, the “Lower Level” housed a Waldorf school.

A tape (probably VHS)  was made of the ceremony, and now Gordon Stoddard (who appears in the video) has produced a modern mpeg-4 format.

See the video

Depending on your browser settings, this may open in your browser, in another application, or you may be asked what to do with the file.

UU Estrie hosts Rabbi Sherril Gilbert for a Sukkot Harvest Holiday event

By Gib McInnis Special to The Record

Rabbi Sherril Gilbert and Reverend Carole Martignacco together at the Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Community of North Hatley

[on September 30, ] The Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Community of North Hatley and the Jewish Community Centre of the Eastern Townships collaborated on bringing Rabbi Sherril Gilbert to North Hatley to celebrate the third High Holy Day on the Jewish calendar with the North Hatley community. Sukkot is a time of hospitality intertwined with social justice, and part of the ceremony is to “welcome the stranger, the widow and the orphan” in ones dwelling, in this case, a Sukkot or make-shift shelter.

Rabbi Gilbert of B’nai Or Montreal and the Reverend Carole Martignacco, pastor of UU Estrie, held a “Dialogue Sermon,” during the celebration ceremony. The “Reflection” or sermon was an untraditional “dialogue” between Gilbert and Martignacco, basically outlining the importance of the Sukkot (shelter) notion of the Jewish people’s biblical mandate to reach out to strangers, or to reach out to someone of different faith.

The official ceremony began by Lighting of the Chalice, and then moved on next to the Joy and Sorrow segment which involved lighting of candles between the two faiths, and this commitment was an expression of peace for each other and support for the other’s struggles in their daily lives.

Martignacco collaborated with this event because she believes this is not only the mandate for their faith but for all faiths. “It is integral to our faith that we welcome truths from all directions and all traditions, so celebrating Judaism is celebrating our tradition as well. In fact the Unitarian side celebrates the Jewish concept that God is one and can not be divided–therefore not Trinitarian but Unitarian. It is that universal welcome in the sense that we are all under the same Sukkot.”

Gilbert stated in her “dialogue” that bringing the two faiths together and accepting the other for who they are and not for what they believe is a part of her larger mandate as a follower of God. “What I like to do is take the particular and make it universal. That is what we did today. We took the particular (the Sukkot in Judaism) and we tried to make it relevant to other faith’s lives. The stranger…is our responsibility.”

During the Sukkot ceremony Gilbert told her own “stranger” story of living in Newfoundland, where the Gilbert family built their first Sukkot on their property. Their neighbours next door were of Iranian origin (and recent arrivals to Canada), and as soon as the Gilbert family completed their shelter, they immediately had visitors. To her “joy and surprise,” the Iranian couple asked if they could join in on their ceremony under the Sukkot. Gilbert and her husband Terry graciously accepted and this inspired them to continue to pursue their passion of celebrating the Sukkot with other faiths.

When asked after the sermon about how the outcome of the Sukkot is so different from what our society has witnessed in Israel last week, especially between Israel and Iran, Gilbert said, “I believe we need to do what we can. We can’t do much about what is happening there. We can take steps in our own communities to make things better, and I think that is the idea because if you feel you are completely helpless, or when you hear about all that horrible news over there, you sort of retreat and feel that you can’t help change the world, but in fact you can. In Judaism it is said that ‘if you help save one life you save a world,’ and so we try to encourage people to come out and take that one step.”

Taking “one step” towards collaboration is exactly what Reverend Martignacco and her congregation has done by inviting Gilbert to be a member of their spiritual family. Martignacco believes also that in order to change the situation in the world we must change “our own little corner” first. “We can’t go there and change what is happening, all we can do is change our own little corner, and the more we infuse it with love and joy, the more we tip the balance in the whole world community. If this was happening in other places (and I know it is in different ways) then I prefer to think that there is a power (that shows us) we are more than the sum of our parts.”

This writeup appeared in the Sherbrooke Record on October 2, 2012

Float in the Hatley parade

The kids in the RE program participated in the Canada Day parade in Hatley this year. It was a Sunday, but they came early to Hatley, helped decorate my old wagon, and then rode on it, holding signs with each of the seven principles.

The parade was watched by thousands — pretty remarkable for a village of 40 houses!

The float won forth prize in its category. The children voted on how to use the prize money. They decided to treat themselves to some ice cream, and make a donation tho the SPCA. In accord withe the fifth principle, “All people need a voice.”

Thanks to Gabriella Brand for these pictures.

More pictures by Heather Davis

Soulful Sundowns

Unitarian and Universalist

Soulful Sundown


Live music, live thoughts:

A little time devoted to keeping our spirits healthy and strong, through shared personal experience, discussion, readings, and live, soulful music. Enjoy meaningful conversation without doctrine or creed.

7:30-9:00 p.m.

Sunday, Jan 12 and 26

Feb 9 and 23

Mar 16 and 30

International Centre on Bishop’s Campus


Welcome to all. You will hear some good tunes and some good ideas, and build your own thinking about Life.


Conjugal Violence

Conjugal Violence: Let’s break the Silence.

Good morning, I am honored to share some of my deepest thoughts and feelings with you. On June 29th, 2007, my best friend, Rachelle Wrathmall lost her life to domestic violence. That day has changed my life and my perception of the world, and I have been deeply reflecting on women’s issues, conjugal violence, and building awareness.

It has been 4 1/2 years since Rachelle Wrathmall, left us, and I ‘m still thinking of that terrifying summer day; you could say that I’m still waiting for the hole in my soul to be filled; I’m still hoping for justice. But why does it feel like time has been standing still? It is amazing how hours turned into days; days turned into weeks; and weeks into months and now months into years! And yet there is still nothing, after 4 ½ years.

In 2003, I was following the Laci Peterson case on CNN. Laci was a 27 year- old mother to-be from Modesto, California, who was murdered by her husband, Scott Peterson. I was in disbelief: how could a husband murder his wife and unborn child? I would have never imagined that between 2006 and 2007, 3 women from the Eastern Townships would share a similar fate as Laci Peterson. And, that one of those 3 women would be my best friend, Rachelle Wrathmall.

Despite my surprise and shock, violence against women isn’t a new thing. Throughout history, women have faced many challenges and obstacles. It all began when Eve ate the apple from the forbidden tree and was expelled from Eden, starting a long history of men blaming women for what they lost. Since then, we have faced witch-hunts; we fought for our voting rights and for equal labor rights, for equal salaries, and for abortion rights; and we are still struggling against sexist images in the media. Haven’t we been through enough already? Apparently, we haven’t. Why are so many women battered, murdered, or victims of psychological violence every year? According to statistics Canada, over 17 thousand conjugal violence cases have been reported to the police; 83 % of the victims are women and 17 % are men; 45 % of the abusers are a spouse; 41 % are an ex-spouse; 14 % are a friend. The abuser is rarely a stranger in a dark alley: it is someone you trust or once trusted.

Sometimes I wonder if Rachelle just a statistic? If Rachelle isn’t just a statistic, she is just another domestic violence case? But to me she was the girl who smiled and befriended me, the one who made me feel like I belonged. She was the friend who laughed and cried with me; she’s a part of my history; she’s like a limb/arm that has been cut off. No, to me she’s not just a faceless statistic! She was the tall, good-looking woman that made heads turn, the one who had it going on. How could this have happened to Rachelle? She was an intelligent woman; a competent co-worker; a loving daughter, sister, and aunt. To us, she was all that and even more. But, why does it feel like she is just another murder case, piled up on some detective’s desk?

Suddenly we, Rachelle’s family and friends, have become victims too. How could this have happened to us? How could we possibly heal after such a terrible, horrific loss? I am still baffled by this surreal fact and I have struggled to accept and understand. Who is to blame? Of course, it is her killer who is to blame, but at the same time, sense of guilt soars through my heart. If I could turn back time, I’d convince her to run, or I’d snatch her away like a superhero. I would tell her AGAIN that she deserves better, that love doesn’t have to hurt, and that love doesn’t imprison you, but I couldn’t be a superhero. There came a time when I had to turn my back on her in order to protect my self and my family from his threats; however, I am here today, so that we can break the silence in order to prevent other tragedies.

What else could we have done to save Rachelle? We tried so hard to help her escape. But was it enough? How can I prevent this from happening in the future? What is my role as a woman? What is my role as a teacher? These are all questions that I often ask myself, and I am not sure to have all the answers.
I think that the most important thing is to TALK. Conjugal violence is taboo in our society: it’s a topic that makes us feel very uncomfortable, but turning our head the other way on a situation won’t make it disappear. Family and friends play a crucial role in a victim’s life: they must listen without judging because victims often feel ashamed of the violence or ashamed of their choices to return to violent partner over and over again. This is like an addiction that is difficult to kick. The victim will isolate themselves because of their shame, but also because their controlling partner will not allow them to contact their friends & family. Despite this, let the victim know that you are there for them; offer to go with them to a women’s centre, to see a social worker or a health care professional. Let the victim know that there are shelters, and many other resources for them. BUT, before you tell the victim what to do, just LISTEN to them.
Education and organization are just as important as communication.
If you are in an abusive relationship, you must know what to do. In other words, have a plan to escape. Be ready to execute it. According to experts, you must follow certain steps:
1) Have a suitcase ready; have double sets of keys; have cash and change ready in case you need to take a taxi or call someone.
2) Make sure that all your important documents, such as identity papers or cards, keys, cheque books, your address book (etc), are easy to access in case you need to leave urgently.
3) Open a separate bank account to your name. Keep it a secret and have the bank statements sent to a friend’s home or a member of the family, or do your banking online (remember to never give any of your passwords). All your financial documents must also be organized, so you can take them with you.
4) Your children should know the police’s number by heart and be trained to call in case of emergency.
5) For identification purposes, have a picture of your spouse or ex-spouse on you for the police.
6) Revise your plan regularly as if you were practicing for a fire drill. Take it seriously for it can save your life.

Furthermore, we must learn to trust our instincts and run when a relationship doesn’t feel right. Run fast and never go back! One of the first things we teach children is to listen to their inner voice because it will tell them what to do, so don’t ignore that voice! Each time you go back to an abusive partner, you are putting your life as well as your children’s lives at risk, and you are giving up your power. Breaking up and making up in a violent relationship is a dangerous game. We must learn to choose to put our selves first before the relationship, & we must teach this to our sons and daughters. But how do we teach them?

How do you identify an abusive or violent relationship? There is a pattern, which is called the cycle of violence and there are 4 stages to the cycle. I will explain each stage with the specific behaviors & reactions:

1) Tension: the abuser is excessively angry, s/he threatens, gives intimidating looks, or could be giving the silent treatment. The victim feels worried and tries to improve the atmosphere, and is careful about what s/he says or does (walking on pins & needles).
2) Violence incident: the abuser lashes out and attacks. The attacks may be verbal, psychological, physical, sexual or even financial. The victim feels humiliated, sad, and feels a sense of injustice, like s/he doesn’t deserve this.
3) Justification: the abuser makes excuses to justify his/her behavior. The victim attempts to understand; helps him/her to change; and doubts her/his own perceptions; s/he feels responsible for the violence, as if they provoked the anger.
4) Reconciliation/honeymoon: the abuser asks for forgiveness (s/he will never do it again). S/he makes promises: s/he will go to therapy, s/he will change. The abuser becomes charming once more and tries to win the victim back even by buying a gift or sending flowers to show how sorry s/he is. He may even threaten to commit suicide, if their partner ends the relationship. The victim gives a chance by offering her/his help; acknowledges his/her efforts; even changes his/her behavior to please or avoid another situation. Things go back to “normal” for a while, until the victim makes a false move to trigger the abuser’s anger.

It is through this cycle that the abuser manages to control the victim. Eventually, the victim is broken down and feelings of helplessness grow; self- esteem and confidence are shattered. The victim will begin to feel emotionally and financially trapped and fear and insecurity will invade them.
AND it is thus that the VICIOUS CYCLE CONTINUES on and on, until someone gets hurt badly, or even dies. Victims often go back to the abusive relationship because they have hope; they wish to return to the good times (to the ideal honeymoon phase). For example, two weeks before Rachelle died, she confessed me that she would go back to him again, despite all the pain that he had caused her. I asked her, “why?” She answered, “When things were bad they were really bad; but when things were good they were so great!” These relationships are often dramatic and extreme. As I said earlier, some people are addicted to drama and find it difficult to leave the relationship, or they believe that a “normal”, “stable”, calm partner will bore them. If that is the case, inner work or therapy is recommended.

Everybody should know this information and take it seriously. I recommend that schools become more involved, because the cycle of violence starts before the kids get into a serious relationships; Think about the 15 year old girl, Marjorie Raymond, who committed suicide on November 28th to escape her tormentors at school (it seems that every 2 weeks we hear about a teen suicide case, which is triggered by violence they face everyday at school). Educators often, maybe superficially, discuss bullying and sex education. BUT, why aren’t high schools teaching lessons about dating violence? Why don’t we wear white ribbons at school on December 6th? We should discuss the cycle of violence and the types of violence that exist in order to be able to identify violence when it happens. Parents should teach their sons and daughters respect, gender equality, self- esteem and self-worth.
We need to tell our children that they must love themselves enough to be able to walk away when it doesn’t feel right, but we also must teach them about healthy relationships. Romance isn’t everything in their life: you shouldn’t lose your friends and family for romance; you shouldn’t give up your hobbies and interests; you shouldn’t die for love. Real life shouldn’t be like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. Life isn’t a dramatic movie, or at least it shouldn’t be one!
Most importantly, I think that it is time for people to realize that violence against women isn’t just a domestic issue, not just a private matter between spouses. You see, when thousands of women die, it is called mass murder; therefore, it is a public matter; it’s everyone’s problem. Everyone should do their part to prevent tragedies.
Despite all the knowledge that I have acquired through my personal experience, I am still looking for answers and at times I feel powerless…I am waiting for a miracle and I wish someone somewhere would do something! Would Mr. Harper, the politicians and law- makers create stricter laws; give harsher punishments; have extradition treaties with as many countries as possible! Why should Raphiou Oumar Alpha Sow be living his life freely somewhere overseas, while Rachelle Wrathmall is 6 feet under? Why should he still be considered an “important witness” instead of a prime suspect? Yes, we are disillusioned with the Canadian justice system.
We, Rachelle’s friends and family, are still struggling with our loss, and we are left left in the dark: without any sense of closure. I realize how deeply Rachelle’s death has affected us, and we will always miss her and justice or a punishment will not bring her back or erase what happened. Because of my experience, I have also realized that these things don’t only happen in the movies, on the news, or to Laci Petterson in Modesto, California—they happen in our community. Violence happens in our own backyards.
The healing process is long and difficult, but I find comfort in the fact that we are meeting today to remember and acknowledge the women of the Polytechnique, Isabelle Bolduc, Julie Boisvenu, Rachelle Wrathmall, Faye Gareghty, and Nathalie Dupont, as well as ALL the other female victims in the world. Unfortunately, they are too many to name.
I will always think of Rachelle and keep her close to my heart, and I now speak on her behalf. Violence towards women is something we can fight TOGETHER by breaking the silence and building awareness. History has shown us that we have overcome so many obstacles already, so violence towards women is another battle we can win! I believe that we can find the paradise within ourselves. TOGETHER, let’s return to Eden and reclaim our power and find our voices!

(This talk was written by Paraskevi Mazarakiotis, who delivered it at UUEstrie on Dec. 4, 2011.)

Christmas pageant – Home Sweet Home

The Unitarian Universalist Meeting House (UUEstrie) in North Hatley was bursting at the seams on Sunday evening, December 4,  for a pageant/play, “Dulce Domum – Home Sweet Home,” featuring the children of UUEstrie community. The play, starring Rat and Mole and the Spirit of Christmas, was taken from the book, The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Lindsay-Jane Gowman narrated the story. The photo shows Mole and Rat surrounded by a choir of field mice, in Mole’s Home Sweet Home. Glorious music rounded out the evening, starring Les Chants de la Terre, an a capella choir that specializes in Christmas songs, led by Françoise Miousse. The festive wood-panelled sanctuary was filled with people of all ages. The event ended with a turkey potluck supper (turkey provided), an annual tradition at UUEstrie.

Harvey White – Negative Theology

On April 17, Dr. Harvey White, professor of religion at Bishop’s University, gave this talk, which we titled “All About God.” He has kindly provided this text of his talk.

He writes, “I enjoyed the occasion. You are a group of wonderful people there.”

In Book 9 of his Confessions, Augustine describes an experience that climaxed his search for God:

She [Monica, Augustine’s mother] and I stood alone, leaning in a window, which looked inwards towards the garden within the house where we were staying”

he continued:

while we were talking of God’s wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant touch it”.

There’s a well known Augustinian injunction: “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand; since, unless you believe, you shall not understand. I believe in order to understand.” [Tractate 29 on the Gospel of John]. Augustine had no doubt about that he had touched that which had called him.

But now, reflecting on that pilgrimage, he sought to understand it: “How did I get here?”, “What am I now?” and most importantly, “What is it that I love when I love you?” [10.6]. In fact, for Augustine, all three questions are virtually asking the same thing/

A bit later in the text Augustine put it as: “What is it that I love when I love my God?” [10.11] It’s certainly not on a par with loving another person. It’s easier to understand what you love when you love another person. But loving God — loving this ultimate being that had so radically called him?

Augustine’s narrative in the final books of the Confessions concerns his attempts to answer that question. Through a whole series of twists and turns through space – especially the space of his own mind – and some intriguing questions and explorations concerning the appprehension of time, the best he can come up with is a vague sense that his – Augustine’s — knowledge of space and time only barely touches a glimpse of God’s infinity and eternity. It’s more like time and space themselves — and indeed he himself in a proximate way – were surrounded by and partook of the infinite and the eternal. But, as he said, there were no words to capture the moment, or capture that which he and Monica had “touched”.

Although the leading texts of Christianity, the Bible, seem to speak about God, Augustine is uncertain as to how one should understand those texts. Thus his own interpretation of the Genesis creation story is allegorical, and he was aware that there were many ways of interpreting that narrative. He enveighed against anyone who would say that their understanding of the Biblical text was the only correct one, even if including his own. He allowed that there can be any number of differing interpretations – and, he said, they can all legitimately be right! He actually says they can all be true. He illustrates this with an analogy of a number of streams which all emanate from a common source. But here – with the sacred text – the source is not susceptible to investigation. One can’t successfully ask God “What do you mean by ‘In the beginning’”. God is not a person who can be so interrogated.

Indeed, one can’t even ask the person who wrote the text – that person is long gone. But Augustine ups the ante even further – even if the writer was right before you, and you could quiz that person, there is no way you could – as it were – get inside that person’s head to find out the exact meaning he or she intended by the spoken or written words. And thus it is the height of arrogance to presume that one can claim to completely understand what the writer wrote in the way the writer intended. Much less find out what God might have intended.

Augustine wrote a commentary on Genesis – “De Genesi ad Litteram”. The title is commonly translated as “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” – a misleading translation if there ever was one. In the first place the word for “meaning” is simply not there! In the second place, the word “literal” today has the sense of “strictly factual” or “descriptively accurate of what is the case”, but the Latin word litteram is more accurately translated as “text” or “what is written”. A more accurate translation is “About Genesis, regarding what is written”.

And that is the point. All there is is a written text, and as such, it is open to a number of ways of understanding it. Had he entitled it “About Genesis, regarding exactly what God meant to say”…. Arrogance. That, I might add, is the arrogance of dogmatic Fundamentalism.

Of course the point is that there is – as the theologian Karl Barth put it – quoting Sören Kierkegaard – “an infinite qualitative distinction between time and eternity”. To put it in other words, God is not accessible to us in regard to what God is. Indeed, not only was this point a cornerstone of Medieval thought, but is basic to much modern religious thought (excluding fundamentalists) as well.

In the late 5th century CE a Christian writer known as Dionysius the Areopagite produced short works that became immensely influential in the middle ages – Thomas Aquinas, for example, refers to him and quotes him almost as extensively as he does Augustine and Aristotle. It was Dionysius who influentially – although controversially – formulated the notion of “negative theology” – the theological language of “God is not”.

For Aquinas, following Dionysius, the only proper way of speaking about God involves the use of affirmations and negations; thus:

God is good” – “God is not-good”. They are simultaneously expressed.

The first “God is good” attributes goodness to God in the common sense of goodness: Mary is good, the poem is good. Then the “not-good” denies that God’s goodness is like the human sense of goodness. What the right hand gives, the left hand takes away. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas, thinking of Dionysius wrote “For what He is not is clearer to us than what He is”. (Pt1Q1A9 Rsp.ob3)

And we’re apparently left hanging onto very little, if anything. It would seem that we can really say nothing of God. And one wonders – is there any difference between a God of whom we can say nothing and no God at all? A kind of theistic atheism?

Bruce Gilbert, chair of the Department of Liberal Arts at Bishop’s, is giving a course this semester entitled “The Divine and Ultimate Concern”. There are 40 or 50 students registered. The lectures are given by a number of faculty members. I did one on Augustine, Jamie Crooks of the Philosophy Department spoke on the Book of Job, and Dale Stout, in Psychology, spoke about Moby Dick. Jack Eby, from the Music Department, will lecture on the Gregorian Chant. Dr. Gilbert will speak on a text from the East. And there are others. They all have to do with the encounter with a transcendent Voice. With being touched by – or as Augustine puts it – touching something ultimate, something radically other that transforms the mundane and prosaic. That “spiritual experience”.

Of course these are what Augustine and Dionysius and Aquinas and a multitude of others wrote about. In our own time perhaps the best known of such persons is Bishop John Shelby Spong, of whom you may have heard.

What is striking is the wide range of eras and cultures represented. That certainly must give pause to those who question the legitimacy of such experiences – or at least the legitimacy of the belief that these experiences are encounters with something beyond the mere empirical world we inhabit, or are simply no more than some mere psychological aberration. Even that well known opponent of Religion, Christopher Hitchens, at the end of his debate about religion with Tony Blair in Toronto recently, and in an interview in Vanity Fair magazine, admitted that he believes in some transcendence! To quote: “Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”

And so Augustine’s question “What is it that I love when I love my God?” seems to have a number of answers. Of course that’s no surprise. Given, at least, that any attempt to definitively circumscribe that God is doomed to failure. Given that the best one can do is speak of what it is not. Ironically, perhaps, Hitchens put his finger on it – more to life than just matter. Augustine and Aquinas would certainly agree! And they agree that because our lives and our words have their meanings from our experiences in this material world, by definition we cannot say what God is. As Aquinas put it – we know that God is, but not what God is.

And, writing about the Bible he said,

The Holy Writing puts before us spiritual and divine things under the comparison of corporeal things….. Dionysius also says (Div. Nom. i), speaking of God: “Neither is there sense, nor image, nor opinion, nor reason, nor knowledge of Him.” Pt.1,Q12.a.1, rsp obj.1)

Here’s the conundrum: People have experiences of the Divine that transcends – the touching and being touched. They can be dismissed as aberrations, or they can be deeply and undeniably felt as genuine encounters. And there is an undeniable quality about them of being touched by a kind of wisdom, and a kind of care and love. The world is not, as Richard Dawkins once described it, “indifferent to human preoccupations” (Unweaving the Rainbow), and “neither kind nor cruel, but indifferent”. (The Devil’s Chaplain).

Like something “out there” that is “right here” and that cares to touch me. A Voice that calls me and invokes a response that makes everything different, ultimately meaningful.

That’s the one side of the coin. The other is that we don’t – can’t – say what that “something” is. We give it a name: “God”, “Jahweh”, “Allah”, whatever.

But the strongly felt impression that that “something” cares and gives meaning to a life seems to demand that we say something about it. Or, to put it another way, we need some language for it — not merely for our subjectively felt experience, but for what it is that is experienced. We need a language to express our response, and,to get some sort of handel on it – to enable us to think about it, consider it, and to at least try and understand it and what it means to us. We cannot remain mute, so we need a language, and this is the language of worship, of prayer, of recognition and response. It’s not simply words, but music and art and liturgy and sacrament.

Indeed, even the awareness that it is not comprehensible, that there are no adequate words for it, seems to presuppose that we try to find words for it. In fact, that is just what Augustine did following the moment when he touched it at Ostia, when he tried to answer the question of what he loved when he loved God. So he tried to think about where God could be found, as though there was a place. The place he looked was inside his mind – his memory, the place where all he knew was stored. But his search was fruitless, concluding that there is no place where God can be found – or rather, that there is no place that could contain God. Beginning with the question “In what place” he concluded “In no place” – that is, in all places – and more. He began with “place” and ended up with “No place” – a negation.

Similarly with time. Does God have a “when”? Once again he tried to get a handle on divine time, and finally had to conclude “In no time” – that is, timeless, eternal. It’s as though we try to burst the bounds of our human understanding, of the meanings of our ordinary words and experience, knowing full well that we cannot succeed – or, perhaps, if we should succeed, nothing would make sense any more. Success becomes failure. Even success would negate itself.

So space and time are negated when one thinks or speaks or writes of God. Nonetheless, time and space are where we live – so we think time and space – and then negate them. The pairs of affirmation and negation.

The twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the language of religion has its own rules, different from those of the language of science and business and the rest of the mundane world. It was, in his phrases, a particular “language game” that was part of a particular “form of life”. I suggest that the peculiarity of religious language is that it ascribes to God what is inascribable. It says “God is love” and “God is not-love” – both at the same time. Or better, perhaps, that the statement “God is love” carries “God is not-love”with it. Or it should.

Aquinas sees this as a kind of spiritual growth. We first and earkliest take words with their ordinary prosaic meaning. We read religious texts as though they were histories or science books, with words in their literal sense — as we use “literal” today. But a spiritual pilgrimage will lead us to increasingly deeper readings of the texts, beyond and beneath the literal – as we use the word today – meanings – to allegorical readings and finally to what were called “spiritual” or “divine” reading. And this is where the significance of the affirmation-denial emerges and, in spite of its apparent strangeness, makes sense. It’s at that level that one seeks to touch God.

In the affirmation-negation pair, the negation serves as a kind of warning — indeed, as a number of warnings. God is not just a great big very old and wise person. It warns us against being too parochial and too arrogant – as though only our (fill in Anglican, Christian, Jewish, Muslim…) concept of God is right and accurate. It warns us of being too judgemental — Muslims, Hindus, Christians etc. – all others — are doomed and damned for not believing what we do. Basically it reminds us that we are, after all, human. And though we can only think and speak of God in our limited vocabulary, we must, nonetheless, negate it.

And it applies to the writers of the sacred texts as well. That no matter how inspired they were, they were also human, as were their inspired writings.

Of course the modern atheists are right when they accuse religious people of all too often trying to impose their religious laws and defined dogmas on everyone else, and of wreaking havoc on other people, on the world in the name of their God, of glorifying kinds of ignorance, of being intolerant. But the rightness of those accusations is because they are directed at religious people who do not take the extra step and say “God is not”.