Join us as we celebrate Flower Communion – a Unitarian Universalist sacrament created by Norbert Čapek, of the Unitarian Church of Prague, nearly a century ago. At its core, it is a story about a man and his love of family, country, church and God.
Imagine. It’s a Sunday in April, 1922. There has been a spiritual stirring in Czechoslovakia recently. No longer under the thumb of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechs are reviving their own identity. There is a desire for a new free religion -different from orthodoxy – not Roman Catholic, not Protestant, but definitely spiritual. Even religious. There’s a restlessness among people of faith and freethinkers. Even Socialists and Communists are awakening. And they’re gathered, 1,200 of them in the largest hall of the beautiful Municipal House in Prague. It’s the Inaugural Service of The Prague Society of Free Brotherhood, Norbert Fabián Čapek’s new church. The very first Unitarian Church in Prague.
Although Unitarianism reached America via Europe, it actually reached Czechoslovakia via the USA. I’ll explain in a moment. It’s always fascinating to see how cultures develop independently and coincidentally or simultaneously, and the story of how Unitarianism came to be a driving force in Prague in the years between the wars is convoluted and at times treacherous.
This is a love story, about a man and his love of family, country, church and God. His undying, relentless love, unwavering and at times stoical. But it all began with the teenaged Norbert Čapek, a tailor’s apprentice in his uncle’s shop in Austria, who turned to the study of religion to relieve the boredom of sewing hems and buttonholes.
When Čapek turned 18 he left his aunt and uncle’s home and his apprenticeship to become a Baptist missionary in Budapest. In two years he entered the seminary. He decided that for the time being, the Baptists offered the greatest hope for a new religious movement. But he quickly tired of the status quo. He dropped out. He was regularly being censored in his writings, and was criticized often and mercilessly for his radical liberal views. In fact, he was put before a Baptist tribunal for heretical teachings, but was exonerated. Much later on, he would convert some Baptists to Unitarianism, and quite easily in fact. “The fight is on and I can’t prevent it,” he said, typical of his persevering and steady demeanor. Čapek had the courage of his convictions. He wanted the public to perceive his movements as a contemporary expression of the Czech Protestant Reformation tradition.
Čapek was active in civic life and he also attended quite a few liberal religious congresses in Europe. At the 1910 Berlin IARF congress, Tomas Masaryk, who later became the first president of Czechoslovakia, introduced Capek to officers of the American Unitarian Association. Masaryk’s wife Charlotte was a Unitarian. Nothing came of the meeting, but Čapek and Masaryk, who was a philosopher and an outspoken rationalist and humanist, made an indelible connection.
Čapek was disheartened by the lack of organization and motivation of religious liberals in Europe. Under much controversy, Čapek moved his family to New Jersey in the USA to accept a post in a Baptist church there. His work in the United States and his wrangling with the Baptist religion were instrumental in evolving and underlining his fundamentally Unitarian nature. But four years later he left the Baptist church. And then he joined a Unitarian congregation. This was a good ten years after President Masaryk was purported to have told Čapek, why you’re not a Baptist at all, you’re a Unitarian!
From New Jersey, he appealed for financial support from the USA to bring Unitarianism to Czechoslovakia, where at the time, there was not yet an established Unitarian church. In fact, the only significant church was the Roman Catholic Church, a religion strictly imposed under the Hapsburg Empire. Meanwhile, in relatively nearby Transylvania, The Unitarian Church had already first been recognized by the Edict of Torda, issued by the Transylvanian Diet under its Unitarian Prince John II Sigismund Zápolya (January 1568). The Transylvanian Unitarian church shortly thereafter suffered a decline, but following World War I, a Unitarian revival occurred and congregations were established in regions of the Old Kingdom. The first Unitarian Church in Bucharest, Romania, was founded in 1933. By that time Čapek had installed his Prague church in 1922, which circles us back to the Inauguration Service at the Municipal House.
It seems that the Unitarian Church in Prague was independent of other Unitarian churches in Europe. Nevertheless it enjoyed a tremendous success. Čapek, with what he called a big Unitarian conviction in his heart, was delivering sermons at the Municipal House on Sunday mornings and repeating them on Tuesday evenings at the St. Nicholas Church in Old Town Square, with an average of 1,200 and 700 respectively in attendance each week. Čapek, delirious with religious freedom, proclaimed “I have only one true desire, to throw all that I have, my life and my love, my burning soul and boyish enthusiasm, into the battle for a free, liberal Christianity in The Czech Lands.” Passersby noted that there was often raucous laughter coming from the church, another something heretical that caused much jealousy, and so the Unitarians were asked to move to a new location. They took the Slavonic Hall on Slavonic Island. That is now called the Žofin Palace.
That same hall was used on Saturday evenings as a pub, so when the congregants came on Sunday mornings, they had to endure the stench of beer and stale tobacco, which was especially repulsive to the Sunday School children. And there were about 300 of them.
It’s mind boggling to imagine the fledgling Unitarian Church bursting at the seams of a giant room, an attendance most of us have never seen in a local church gathering. But our historic friends of almost 100 years ago were enjoying a religious freedom they had never known, and Unitarianism appealed on a functional and cultural level.
First of all, it made no demands on an allegiance to a wrathful god. It celebrated the beauty of the earth, much of which was contained within the Czech borders. Čapek’s hymns were praising of the natural beauty of the countryside. Čapek once said that “Unitarianism is the only solution and the only religion good enough for the Czechs. We need a religion that is not in contradiction with science, a religion that is a first class factor in our cultural life and able to renew our nation’s morality and put it in the right place among the nations of the world.”
The typical church ceremonies, weddings, funerals and child dedications, were kept pretty close to the traditional form. But Čapek yearned for a new identity, something that would set the unitarian church apart from other denominations, while at the same time capturing the true flavor of the pantheistic sweet natured Unitarian body.
Tired of borrowing spaces for his large following, Čapek sought an appropriate building to buy for the Unitarian Church. And what he found was a former palace at Karlova 8. He appealed to his old acquaintance, President Masaryk, for support. He reminded Masaryk that he had recommended Unitarianism to Čapek at a time when Bohemia was not ready for it … but now it was. And he promised that he would name the nicest hall after Charlotte Masaryk. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Culture recognized the Unitarian Church of Czechoslovakia as a true church. And the Ministry of Education approved a religious program to be taught in public schools. The American and British Unitarians agreed to help with financing. Things seemed to be in full swing. But myriad problems surfaced with financing, and the AUA severed ties completely. But Čapek and his church prevailed, and at last the building was financed and open for worship.
In June of 1923 Čapek presided over the first Flower Ceremony, later to be known as the Flower Communion. It was an experiment in symbolizing the Czech’s liberty and brotherhood … a service that was so powerful and impressive that people exclaimed they had never seen anything like it. Čapek read from First Corinthians 13, the beautiful biblical poem about love, that Elizabeth read for us this morning.
Today the Flower Communion is celebrated by Unitarians everywhere. Answering a call for a tradition, a ritual, even a sacrament, Čapek gave us something that was not about sacrifice, rite of passage, or transmutation. It is a simple but beautiful act of friendship, unity, solidarity. We exchange one beautiful gift for another. My trust for your trust, my promise for yours, that we will continue the quest for religious freedom for all.
That joy was to be short lived. Soon the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, and by 1940 worship services were being monitored by the Gestapo. It seems that the linguistically talented Čapek continued delivering brilliant sermons, sometimes tucking in a slur against the regime that sometimes raised eyebrows but was never actually fully perceived or understood by the bored soldiers.
It was forbidden for Czechs to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, but all were hungry for something other than Nazi propaganda, and Čapek was no exception. He and his youngest daughter Zora regularly tuned in to the BBC broadcasts, and Zora even transcribed them in order to distribute them to her friends and colleagues.
Sadly, one of these false friends turned Zora in. And in 1941, Norbert and Zora Čapek were arrested and taken to Pankrác prison. From there Čapek was taken to Dachau, and from there to the gas chamber.
Čapek kept up his positivity while in prison. He endured starvation and beatings, cruel winters, humiliation. He missed his wife terribly. But during this time, he wrote home that he had composed his best hymns. He wrote perhaps eighty … few survive.
But we know that even in times of darkest despair, Čapek held a strong faith and love of God, grateful for his very existence.
But Čapek’s Unitaria survives, both the building and the membership, although our numbers have declined. Years of Nazi and Communist suppression of spirituality left religion in the Czech lands limp. During Communism, many people were simply frightened to attend church. The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians was left demoralized and no longer had a confident sense of identity. Unitarianism spread its focus out into other spiritual themes, including eastern philosophy. This can be seen for instance, in my Prague congregation, where our senior pastor is a Buddhist scholar as well as an ordained Unitarian Minister, and I personally am all over the religious spectrum.
Many formerly faithful Christians have left their churches for much the same reason they left during Čapek’s time … a church based on sin, suffering and salvation doesn’t resonate well with people who are rational and free thinkers. Today we find a thoughtful humanist society at large with no spiritual home. They don’t know we exist. Go out on the street, take a clipboard and a mic with you and interview 100 people. Ask them if they have heard of the Unitarian Church. If they have, ask them if they know our philosophy, our principles. And when you tell them, they’ll nod thoughtfully and tell you quite honestly that it sounds perfect. But look around you, how many then come to church? Here we are.
Our history isn’t finished. Next week, next year, next decade, this story will continue. Let’s take our guidance from the man who gave us this blessing of a holy church. Let’s keep the faith and work together to build us up into a welcoming refuge for humanity … a place where people of good will can gather to praise God and enrich our community and world. So be it.