“Living in Truth: Wisdom of Vaclav Havel”
A Sermon delivered to the West Seattle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
December 5, 2004
By Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan
As Unitarian Universalists we turn to many sources of wisdom. One source is the prophetic words and deeds of men and women throughout the ages. Thus we will today hear the words of a great man of our time, Vaclav Havel
I consider myself a believer only in this sense: I believe that all of this—life and the universe—is not just ‘in and of itself.’” I believe that nothing disappears forever, and less so our deeds, which is why I believe that it makes sense to try to do something in life, something more than that which will bring one obvious returns. (p. 190 Vaclav Havel: Disturbing the Peace)
Many of you have asked me why last month I traveled to, of all the places in the world, Prague in the Czech Republic. My sermon today is a partial answer to that question. It is in part the story of the spiritual connections between modern day Unitarians and Prague.
Which all began in the 1400’s when a priest named Jon Hus spoke out against rules of the church. Jon Hus was one of those who promoted radical reformation of the Catholic Church. He didn’t just want to reform the church of clergy abuses, of graft and of corruption. He wanted to transform the church through a transformation of its theology—its beliefs. That was what the radical reformation was about—changing beliefs; and that’s why he is our spiritual ancestor—he thought we should have freedom of belief. Part of the urge I felt to see Prague was to make a pilgrimage to the Bethlehem Chapel were Joh Hus preached his radical gospel. So one day I left Wayne in a friendly pub and I set out on my own to find the Chapel. After some wrong turns, I found it. I entered and sat alone, soaking up emanations of the rich history of the place. I could hear him preaching to the throngs of people who would pack into the chapel, in defiance of Rome. He would say “Come people, take a sip from the chalice, take communion in both bread and wine, the body and the blood of Christ.” Hus touched the inner hearts of his people, with his message of equity and inclusion.
Hearing his words reverberate throughout the Chapel, I felt his courage-- for he lived in his truth—be believed clergy should not have special privileges including the exclusive privilege of the chalice wine—he believed that people should be in direct contact with their GOD, that they needed no intermediary. For these beliefs and actions he was tricked by the Church, thrown in a prison cell and soon burned at the stake, but not before he would declare to all who saw him tied up: “truth prevails.” A statue of Jon Hus dominates the great Old Town Square of Prague. Jon Hus—our spiritual ancestor from Prague.
Fast forward to 1918, after World War I, and consider Thomas Masaryk, the First President of Czechoslovakia. Masaryk married into an American Unitarian family. His leadership contributed a constitution for Czechoslovakia fashioned after the United States. And he chose as his Presidential motto the words of Jon Hus: “Truth Prevails.”
Then, after twenty short years of learning how to be a democracy, Czechoslovakia was invaded by Hitler in 1938. It was during the next seven years of Nazi rule that our Unitarian connections arise again. A Unitarian minister, Norbert Capek, spoke his truth from his pulpit in Prague. Norbert Capek is the man who, along with his wife, created the Unitarian Flower Communion that we celebrate each spring—honoring the beauty of the diversity of all people, like the beauty of a field of multi-colored flowers. Norbert Capek was arrested for preaching messages in favor of the dignity of Jewish people, and later he died in a concentration camp.
There was one more connection between modern Unitarians and Prague. In 1938 our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee was born in Prague, when Waitstill and Martha Sharp went to Prague as emissaries of our Association to discover what could be done for our fellow Unitarians, their beleaguered friends and the more than a hundred thousand refugees who, fleeing Hitler’s armies, had sought asylum there. Throughout World War II the Service Committee conducted an underground railroad, much like the underground railroad Mike told us about this morning in our story, only this one carried Jews, gypsies, gay people and dissidents to safety. And the symbol that was created for the Service Committee, and at times used as a secret password for the underground railroad, was the chalice and flame, that hence has become the symbol of Unitarian Universalism, and which we light each Sunday.
There are hunches, that since the service committee was for a time located in Prague, that the artist who developed the chalice symbol may have been influenced by the chalice of Jon Hus. We don’t know for sure.
It was also during these Nazi years that the future President of the Czech Republic was born. His name was Vaclav Havel. This little baby would grow up learning the stories of Jon Hus and Thomas Masaryk, incorporating from those stories the values of spiritual freedom and democracy. We will hear about him next, but first let’s sing a song written by Norbert Capek, “Mother Spirit, Father Spirit,” #8 in your hymnal.
Vaclav was born into a family that loved books, with a family library that was rich with books on history, politics and philosophy. As a little boy Vaclav was introduced to many of the country’s poets and philosophers, which had something to do with why he wrote poetry as a child, and by age 13 had completed his first book on his philosophy of life.
But life as a child for Vaclav was difficult. His family was well off, due to the hard and smart work of his grandparents and great grandparents—architects and builders within Prague. But this wealth made him different from the other kids. If you have ever felt like you were different or like you were an outsider, perhaps you will identify with his feelings: He says:
From page 5 Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace.
During my childhood, especially when we lived at our country estate and I went to a village school, I enjoyed a great many advantages and perks. Unlike my fellow pupils and friends, I was a gentleman’s son. Our family employed, as the custom was, domestics. I had a governess; we had a cook, a maid, a gardener, and a chauffeur. All of that put, between myself and those around me, a social barrier which, although I was still just a little guy, I was very much aware of and found hard to deal with. I understood it clearly as a handicap. I was ashamed of my advantages, my perks; I pleaded to be relieved of them and I longed for equality with others, not because I was some kind of childhood social revolutionary, but simply because I felt separate and excluded, because I felt around me a certain mistrust, a certain distance, because I knew that between me and those around me there was an invisible wall, and because behind that wall—and this may seem paradoxical—I felt alone, inferior, lost, ridiculed. It was as though I subconsciously felt, or feared, that everyone had—rightly—entered into some kind of silent mutual agreement that my privileges were undeserved, and that I, as the small possessor of these privileges, was ridiculous. In short, I felt “outside,” excluded, humbled by my “higher” status. Add to that the fact that I was overweight and that the other children, as children will, laughed at my tubbiness, all the more so because it was an easy way to exact a kind of unconscious social revenge.”
It didn’t matter that the exclusion he felt was because they lived in very fine conditions. The exclusion still hurt deeply, and the separation from his peers burned inside. Havel would later say that his childhood experiences of exclusion compelled him to write about being human in an unpredictable and often unsafe world.
After World War II, Czechoslovakia was very poor, and because of this, socialism and the communist party was able to obtain control of the country, making promises of better times. The Havels had all their property and businesses taken away by the communist authorities. The Havel family was really excluded now, discriminated against because of their former wealth. Vaclav studied hard, but even with excellent grades, because of his wealthy background, he was not accepted in any of the academic high schools. Eventually he found a job and went to school at night to complete his high school. At the same time he was drawn to private circles of intellectuals with whom he gathered in coffee houses, discussing politics and exchanging writings. He would speak of his respect for the lives of Jon Hus and President Masaryk, for their courage to live in the truth of their principles.
Havel knew he would be drafted in the army if he didn’t go to college, but no college would accept him again because of his family’s former wealth. He ended up in the army, but there, surprisingly, he had permission to start a theatre group. That group competed with other army theatres, but they got in trouble because their play was deemed to be critical of the army. His rifle was taken away from him, a fact that he did not mind.
After finishing his two years in the army, Havel returned to Prague and got a job as a stagehand, and worked his way up in the theatre. He began writing plays, and for a time was able to see them on the stage.
He felt that in plays he could speak his truth. In his plays he tried to convey the truth of human struggle, though he did not try to solve the problems he conveyed. He respected his audiences to do that. He was particularly interested in the relationship people developed to an illogical cruel world. He called it the theatre of the absurd, because it was about people living in absurd conditions. It was easy to find real life material to write about, for in 1968 the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, making life grim for all intellectuals and dissident writers.
As Havel’s reputation increased, his name and his works were put on a “banned” list. His plays could only be shared in quiet living rooms, but were smuggled out of the country to be presented on the stages of other countries, including in the United States. He became a celebrity around the world, which posed sticky problems for the authorities who didn’t want world criticism for their treatment of him.
But governmental harassment began in earnest in 1977 when he was arrested and accused of subversion of the Republic for two reasons at least: 1) his publicized letter to the Czech President critical of policies related to human rights, and 2) his role in organizing a powerful group of dissenters, called the Charter 77 group. He was jailed for five months, released, then rearrested and sentenced to another fourteen months for attempting to damage the interests of the Republic. After he published an essay entitled “The Power of the Powerless”, perhaps the most astute essay on acting from principle since Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” he was re-arrested and from that time on, the government spied on his every move. He says of those times that he would often be convicted on obscure evidence of actually breaking a law, and he wished they would just say to him, “We are throwing you in jail because you are getting on our nerves.”
He would spend nearly four more years in jail. He was released before his sentence was over because he was quite ill, and authorities worried he would die in jail, and become a martyr.
Havel got right back into resistance work. At first he and his compatriots were glad when 30 people would be brave enough to show up for a demonstration, but then increasing numbers of people came. Havel was always there, leading and speaking. While I was in Prague I met Marta. Marta was in college in 1989, and remembers what those months were like. One week she and other college students occupied college offices--using equipment there to copy notices of demonstrations and petitions to the government. She says they had no idea how close they were to freedom—they had no idea how each of their simple actions of spreading the word about demonstrations were about ready tip over a communist government. They just believed in the principles behind what they were doing. She told me how they began asking for privileges from the government. First, the right to hold a demonstration. Then the right to have media coverage of the demonstrations. And then, after rumors of a student being killed, they asked for physical protection. Before long it wasn’t just 30 people showing up for a demonstration, but half a million people!
The communist authorities had no help from a trembling weakening Soviet Union, so the Czech government officials resigned. The Velvet Revolution had taken place, revolution without bloodshed. Within six months of getting out of prison, in 1989, the new Parliament chose Havel, a playwright to be it’s next President. Havel had no experience in politics, he never wanted to be in politics, he hated political party systems, and yet he said yes to the call. Perhaps he said yes in part as an answer to a question he wrote to his wife from prison:
“To what extent, if any, am I prepared to make even the smallest sacrifice of my own interests or comforts for the sake of the larger whole?” Not a bad question for all of us, is it? Whether it applies to politics, or more likely our work, our Fellowship or our families?
The ideas of sacrifice and of keeping the good of the whole in the forefront of our decisions and actions were at the heart of all that Havel did and said. As an individual he sacrificed greatly by being the outspoken dissident. As President, he applied the principle as well, always thinking about what is best for the global world. For Havel, global isn’t a dirty word, it is a reality.
Rather than expecting him to talk about “national interests” or “balance of payments” Havel would speak in global terms about this planet and what decisions we must make if we are to bequeath it, in any state of health, to our grandchildren. He called for universal rights for humans when he said: “The nation state is already past its culminating point.” He said we need to move to a world “founded on a universal, or global respect for human rights, a universal equality of citizens, a universal rule of law and a global civil society.” He called for politicians around the world to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles contained therein.
And Havel calls for the West to end its Euro-centrism, saying “The Euro-American culture that largely molded the character of our present civilization is no longer the predominant culture. We are entering an era of multi-culturalism. While the world is now enveloped by one single global civilization, this civilization is based on coexistence of many cultures, religions or spheres of civilization that are equal and equally powerful.”
President Havel is in so many ways the model of what I dream for in my government. I want a government that holds the health of the earth and the basic life needs of all the world’s people, including civil rights, as sacred. I want my country to reassess our role in the world, recognizing the realities of living in a global era, recognizing the need to work not unilaterally, but multilaterally, signing agreements and treaties that we really intend to honor. I want a government that respects multi-culturalism, and that seeks to find the evil in our own heart before finding it elsewhere.
And Havel goes deeper, spiritually. He says “We must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations, and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of Being, ….” (1995 Harvard commencement address)
Here Havel is telling us that what we do counts. Everything we do has an eternity to it, a lasting effect. He says, “In my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world that I know; that in everything I do I touch eternity in a strange way.” Havel had times of discouragement and despair, but he believed he had no choice but to “Live in his truth.” But Havel never stopped enjoying life. He loved the pleasures of life, especially gathering with friends for food and drink. To Havel, the preciousness of the pleasures of life kept him from being obsessed and dreary. And he also savored many moments of joy in the struggle.
Without knowing how and when their dreams would come true, Marta and Havel kept speaking and acting towards those dreams. Dreams of freedom, dreams of living their truth without fear.
And hope. Of hope Havel says:
“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it’s a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizon…Its deepest roots are in the transcendental…Hope [is] an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
I know that many in this room have been working towards dreams for things that are good, many have invested years toward bettering our country’s policies and laws, so that we can have healthy streams and wildlife, pesticide free food, and shelter and healthcare for all people. And I know that many of you have put a lot on the line in defense of the civil rights of all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, culture or age…
And I know that some of us have taken some pretty hard hits of late, at home, at work, and politically, and we might even be a little or a lot discouraged with our path. But I ask you to not turn your eyes from the prize, keep your eye on the prizes of freedom, truth, hope and while you are at it, justice, because the truth is that just like Havel’s life story teaches us, continued hopeful efforts do pay off, and we don’t know how close we are to the freedoms we seek and the goals we hope for. I ask you to believe that what you do counts and is not lost in the energy of the universe.
I think Havel’s life teaches us that once we have glimpsed a vision of the world the way we want it to be, it is hard to be compliant and complacent with things as they are. Once we plant ourselves at the gates of hope—hope for a reconciliation, for a love, for our work, or for our world, once we visualize a possibility, we seek ways to make it true. It is in little unexpected moments of our lives that much can happen. Moments at home, moments in a store, moments at Fellowship. It is in times when something is said that the world needs to hear our contrasting viewpoint to nudge it away from fear. It is in times when something just doesn’t feel right in our gut that our little acts of resistance begin to accumulate and make a difference.
And so we are called to enjoy the pleasures of our lives, let us not forget that—I so don’t want us to be sad forlorn activists. And, while savoring life, we also voice our truth,we continue working for that which is good—even if we think we may have to hand the baton to the next generation before we see the finish line.
Despite all the cruelty he has experienced, Havel believes in people, his generation and those coming after us.. Havel believes in the potential for good found in every person. He says “Why is it that when we are traveling alone in the second car of conductorless streetcar, so that obviously no-one could catch us not paying, we still usually—though perhaps not without an inner tussle—drop our fare in the box? …I am not interested [he says] in why [people] commit evil; I want to know why [they] do good or at least feel that [they] ought to…” “There is something in us that even when no-one is watching compels us to behave as though someone were constantly observing us…” That something can be nudged by others speaking out for that which is good.
The real test of our personhood is not how well we play the roles we have chosen for ourselves, but how well we play the roles that destiny assigned to us. (adapted from Havel)
Havel passes the test with flying colors. They didn’t let him go to school, but he became the wiser for it. And so might we as we ponder the wisdom of his life, as he did ponder the wisdom of Jon Hus and Thomas Masaryk.
We are all connected, generation to generation. May we embody the wisdom of these Czech people, may we too have the courage to live in our truth, and to pass it on. So would we then embody those words from over 500 years ago, “truth prevails.”
May it be so. Amen