The Cauldron of Transformation

The Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
February 5, 2012

Note:  I was originally scheduled to present this service last November.  On the preceding Saturday evening I got violently ill.  I thank Rev. Pam Wat for filling in for me with about three hours notice, and I thank the DUUF Worship Committee for the opportunity to lead this service this morning.
Introduction – the Celtic Hallows
In the legend of Arthur, a boy becomes king when he pulls a sword from a stone.  In some versions of the story this is the famous sword Excalibur, and in other versions it is another sword and Excalibur is given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake.  Years later, when Arthur is defeated and near death, he gives Excalibur to one of his men with instructions to return it to the Lady of the Lake, who is a representation of the Great Mother from which the sword came.
We’re all familiar with this story, but we may not recognize Excalibur as a manifestation of one of the Hallows of the ancient Celtic world. 
When the Tuatha de Danann – the children of the Goddess Danu – invaded Ireland, they brought with them the four Hallows, four items of Otherworldly origin.  They are the Sword of Light, which once drawn always cuts its opponent; the Invincible Spear, which never misses; the Cauldron of Plenty, which supplies food for the tribe and never runs empty; and the Stone of Destiny, which cries out when walked over by a true king. 
When the Tuatha de Danann were defeated by the Milesians – the children of Men – they retreated Underhill and they took the Hallows with them.  But the Hallows are older and even more mysterious than the Children of Danu.  They cannot be owned and they cannot be controlled, not even by the fae.
Though the Hallows are represented by objects, they are not objects.  Rather, they are the essence of what those objects do and provide.  Plato would consider them ideal forms.  Jung would consider them archetypes.  A Christian would consider them sacraments – a means of grace.  The form in which they appear changes according to place and time.  They manifest when they are needed and when someone worthy of them appears.  They are with us for a short time, then they return to the Otherworld so they can be recharged, and so we do not become dependent on them.
It is the third of the Hallows, the Cauldron, that we will consider today.
The Origins of the Cauldron
For a household in an Iron Age society, a cauldron was perhaps the most valuable and most versatile of objects.  It sat in the hearth, the center of the house and the source of heat and light.  It was used to cook food, to heat water for cleaning and bathing, for brewing medicines and brewing beer. 
The Celts saw the universe in three realms:  the Land, the Sky, and the Sea.  The cauldron connects all three:  it is made from the Land, it contains the Sea, and the steam from it rises to the Sky.
The cauldron, then, was not simply a household appliance.  By its location and by its use, it was a representation of Nature’s bounty and a mystical center of the Universe, an axis mundi connecting all worlds:  the Land, the Sky and the Sea; the Upper World, the Lower World, and the Middle World; the Past, the Present, and the Future.  Through the cauldron you can travel to any place in any world at any time. 
But you cannot travel to other worlds without being changed by them.  This is as true in a mundane sense as it is in a mystical sense – when you travel to new places and meet new people you learn something… not the least of which is that people are people no matter where they live.  There is no substitute for going some place and experiencing it for yourself.
The first manifestation of the cauldron was as the Cauldron of Plenty, which belonged to the Dagda.  The Dagda is a god who is very old and not particularly bright.  He carries a large club and wears a rough tunic that’s too short for him.  Although he functioned as comic relief in some stories, he was known as “the good god” – one who obtained the blessings and bounty of the Earth Mother for his people. 
In a world where starvation was only a bad harvest and a long winter away, a cauldron that never ran out of food is a very ideal form.  You don’t see much transformation in this aspect – it is simply a means of providing a necessity.
The cauldron appears again as the Cauldron of Bran.  Bran was a giant warrior king who waded across the Irish Sea to rescue his sister Branwen from her abusive husband.  Slain warriors who are dipped into this cauldron are restored to life, only without the power of speech.  For a society that was frequently at war, a cauldron that can resurrect dead fighters is another very ideal form. 
Here the cauldron is still a hallow, still a sacrament, a means of grace.  But now we begin to see the cauldron becoming an instrument of transformation.
The next appearance is the Cauldron of Ceridwen, which we talked about in the children’s story.  Now we have a true cauldron of transformation.  The water and herbs are transformed into the Awen, the elixir of wisdom.  The Awen transforms an ordinary boy into a wise man.  Gwion transforms himself into a hare, then a salmon, then a sparrow, and finally into a grain of corn. 
Here we see that the cauldron has a mind of its own.  The Awen is intended for Affagdu, but it doesn’t go to him.  Instead, it goes to the one who did the work.  It may seem like luck, but as movie producer Samuel Goldwyn said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  Transformation is hard work.
We also see that while transformation prepares you to do great things, it doesn’t make all your problems go away.  Immediately after receiving wisdom, Gwion is chased by an angry goddess who intends to kill him.  It’s only after he dies and is reborn that he becomes Taliesin, the greatest poet of Britain. 
The Holy Grail
By the time the cauldron appears again, a major change had occurred.  The pagan, Celtic, British Isles had become Saxon, Norman, and Christian.  So when the Hallows reappeared, the cauldron of the Dagda, Bran, and Ceridwen became the Holy Grail of Jesus. 
In this form, the Holy Grail is the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper.  Some versions of the story say it was also used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Jesus’ blood as he died on the cross.  Like the cauldrons of the Celts, the Grail has mystical powers:  it can feed a crowd, it can cure illness, it can postpone death indefinitely. Also like the cauldrons, it appears when it chooses to appear and then disappears, sometimes for centuries. 
The Grail has its own set of tales, most surrounding not the Grail itself but the search for it.  Lancelot found its hiding place, but was not permitted to see it because of his adultery with Guinevere.  Percival saw the Grail, but failed to ask it to heal the wounded king and it was withdrawn from him.  Only Galahad, son of Lancelot and pure in heart was able to find the Grail and hold it.  When he did, he experienced such glory that he ascended to Heaven, taking the Grail with him.
See how far the Hallows had changed.  What began as the Cauldron of Plenty, which allowed its bearer to feed the people from the bounty of the Earth, had become the Holy Grail, which allowed its bearer to leave the Earth.  The ideal form, what was most desired, went from celebrating Life to transcending Life.
If you’re a fan of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code you know there are some who believe the Holy Grail was not a cup to catch the blood of Jesus but a vessel to continue the bloodline of Jesus – Mary Magdalene.  This theory says that Jesus did not die on the cross but survived to father children whose descendants live on to this day. 
I would like to point out the obvious:  The DaVinci Code is a work of fiction, and the works on which it was based are more speculation than history.  But whether it is fact or fiction, the idea that Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail fits very well with the archetype of the cauldron.  Both are vessels, both give life, and both come from the Great Mother.  This is one bit of real truth in The DaVinci Code.  For many of us who are attempting to recover from patriarchal, misogynistic religions, the great quest is not to find the Cup of Christ or the descendants of Jesus, but to find the Divine Feminine.
The Hallows are immortal but not unchanging.  They take the form that is meaningful to the culture to which they present themselves. 
The Chalice
Even before the legends began, the Holy Grail was physically represented as the Christian communion chalice.  Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, is the ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper, which Jesus told his disciples “do this in remembrance of me.”  In some of the early churches this was not a formal ceremony but a huge meal called the Agape Feast – the Feast of Love.  Over time, it was ritualized down to bread and wine.  It was and is considered a sacrament – a means by which worshippers can receive divine blessings.
Although the chalice is a Christian object, the transformative power of the cauldron remains.  When placed in the chalice and consecrated by the priest, the ordinary wine is changed into the blood of Christ.  Even today, Catholics insist that the communion bread and wine contain the “real presence” of Jesus.
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church decided that since spilling the blood of Christ would be a terrible sacrilege, the communion chalice would be restricted to the priests and the laity would receive only bread.  This would become a point of contention during the Protestant reformation – the Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church state “The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the lay-people.”  Virtually all Protestant denominations practice communion “in both kinds.”
During World War II, the Unitarian Service Committee, working out of Portugal, was engaged in secret work to help Jews and others escape the reaches of the Nazis.  They were an unknown organization, and their leader, Rev. Charles Joy, wanted an official-looking logo to impress the government officials he dealt with.  He commissioned Hans Deutsch, an Austrian artist in exile, to draw something – it was Deutsch who drew the first flaming chalice.  It became the symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee, and later the symbol of Unitarian Universalism.
As you would expect for a church of non-creedal non-conformists, there is no official meaning of our  flaming chalice.  You are free to contemplate it and take whatever meaning you find helpful.  As for me, I find great meaning in the lineage from cauldron to grail to chalice. 
The Cauldron in Contemporary Society
Though we have seen shifts in its form, the cauldron has never really left our collective imagination.  Thanks to Shakespeare and Harry Potter, the cauldron will always be associated with witches.
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing.

Double, double, toil and trouble.
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Double, double, toil and trouble.
Something wicked this way comes!

The goddess Ceridwen used herbs from the forest and field to brew the Awen.  By the time of Shakespeare, the ingredients had degenerated into a collection of disgusting animal parts… though there is one tradition that says eye of newt and toe of frog are herbs given secret names to hide them from those who would misuse them and to make them sound more potent.
Regardless of the ingredients, the transforming work of the cauldron remains the same.  Whether it is food to be cooked, slain fighters to be resurrected or wine to be turned to blood, anything that goes into the cauldron will be changed forever.
Who the Cauldron Chooses
At the risk of losing my universalist card, let me say something that should be obvious from these stories but which is at odds with our desire for egalitarianism.  The Hallows do not present themselves to everyone.  They present themselves to those who are worthy of them and to those who are receptive to them.  Arthur did not become king because he pulled the sword from the stone.  He was able to pull the sword from the stone because he was the True King. 
If the Hallows present themselves to you – if you are overshadowed by Grace, if you are presented with an opportunity for transformation – do not waste time questioning if you are worthy.  You are, or the Hallows wouldn’t have presented themselves to you in the first place.  If you find yourself offered a sword, a spear, a stone, or a cauldron; if you stumble upon an unexpected opportunity, if you receive something good you had no idea was coming, first say “yes.”  Then give thanks.  Then consider what you should do with it.  Remember Percival, who held the Holy Grail but failed to ask it to heal the wounded king.  How can you use it to build the common good?  How can you use it to make our world a better place?  How can you use it to become a means of Grace for someone else? 
Whatever you do, do not think that because the Cauldron presents itself to you, it belongs to you.  Do not think that because you pull a sword out of a stone, the sword becomes your property.  You may possess a hallow but you will never own it.  You may see it as an object but it is not an object – it is an archetype, an ideal form, the essence of what it does and provides.  It is older, more powerful, and more mysterious than you or me.  Make good use of it while it graces you with its presence, then bid it a fond farewell when it returns to the Otherworld.
The Alchemy of Transformation
With or without the Cauldron, transformation is an inexact science.  So much so that sometimes it’s referred to as “alchemy.”  Remember the medieval alchemists’ search for the Philosopher’s Stone, a mystical substance that would enable them to turn lead into gold.  They consulted sacred texts purporting to come from ancient Egypt and they conducted experiments using various substances.  The poor alchemists never found the Philosopher’s Stone.  The dishonest alchemists claimed to find it and used tricks of stage magic to convince their benefactors that they had. 
But the good alchemists realized those sacred texts were speaking symbolically, not literally.  They recognized that the process of transformation wasn’t about refining lead into gold.  It was about something far more valuable – refining the human soul.
After the Buddha had been enlightened, he was travelling through India teaching.  People could tell there was something different, something special about him. And so one day some people came up to him and asked “are you a god?”  And the Buddha replied “no.”  “Are you the reincarnation of a god?”  “No.”  “Are you a wizard or a magician?”  “No.”  “Are you a man?”  “No.”  “Well, then what are you?”  And the Buddha answered “I am awake.”
When we are transformed, we are awake – we see things as they are, not as we wish they were, nor as we fear they might be.  And because we see things as they are, we do not accept the false premises that cause so much suffering. 
When we are awake, we understand that all things are connected.  Trace your roots back far enough and you discover there are no Americans, no Europeans, no Asians – all humans are Africans.  Go back further and you find the first primate, the first mammal, the first vertebrate, the first life.  We’re all connected.
When we are awake, we understand there is more to life than the material world.  Oh, I doubt we’ll ever settle the argument over whether there’s a God or a Goddess or whether the soul lives on after death.  But when we are awake we understand that once our basic necessities are taken care of, more material things don’t bring more happiness.  What’s really important are family, community, learning, experience, and love. 
The Keys to Transformation
So, how does this transformation take place?  I think we UUs understand better than most that there is no one right way for everyone.  But there are two things that stand out.
The first is aspiration – you’ve got to want it.  You’ve got to want it bad enough to work for it, to strive for it, to sacrifice for it.  The legends of the Holy Grail speak of quests – of long, perilous journeys; of hardship and challenges, just for the chance of finding the Grail.  Your Grail quest may be long and arduous or it may be more modest – but in either case you should expect to put work into your spiritual growth and practice.  The American Buddhist teacher Baker Roshi said “Enlightenment is an accident, but practice makes us accident prone.”
The second key to transformation is receptivity – maintaining flexibility as to how and where and when transformation will occur. 
Once upon a time there was a man who built a house in a flood zone.  One day it began to rain and rain and rain.  The waters began to rise, and the man prayed “God, please save me from the waters.” 
And the waters kept rising.
The waters reached his front door.  The TV and radio announced calls to evacuate, but the man said “God will save me” and he stayed put. 
And the waters kept rising. 
They flooded his first floor, so he moved to the second floor.  Some neighbors came by in a row boat and said “get in, we’ll take you to safety.”  But the man said “No thank you, God will save me.” 
And the waters kept rising. 
They flooded his second floor, so he moved to the roof.  The State Patrol came by in a motor boat and said “get in, we’ll take you to safety.”  But the man said “No, God will save me.” 
And the waters kept rising. 
They flooded his roof, so he climbed to the top of the chimney and hung on for dear life.  A helicopter came by, lowered a rope, and said “climb in, we’ll take you to safety.”  But the man said “No, God will save me.” 
And the waters kept rising. 
The waters swept him off his chimney, into the deep flood and he drowned.
The man went to Heaven, not because he was a devout Christian, but because we’re Universalists and we believe things are going to work out OK for everyone, even people who don’t use the brains God gave them. 
He charged right up to God and said “God, what happened?  I prayed, I had faith – why didn’t you save me?” 
God looked at him funny and said “what are you doing here?  You weren’t supposed to die – I sent two boats and a helicopter!”
When we are fixated on good things happening in one and only one way, we can miss out on life-changing opportunities.
The Cauldron is Here
 
<light cauldron>
I believe the Cauldron of Transformation has manifest itself in this congregation, right here right now.  We have the opportunity to eat from its bounty and to drink the Awen, the Elixir of Wisdom and Inspiration.
Are we worthy of its presence?  We are, or it wouldn’t be here.  We have a unique opportunity to learn and grow as a fellowship and as individuals, and to bring real growth and real change to our lives and to our community.
When I prepared this service back in November I was thinking in terms of our 2012 pledge campaign.  Would we step up and do what needed to be done to make Rev. Pam our full time minister?  Would we do what needed to be done to increase our Director of Religious Education’s time and to fund the other ministries we want and our community needs?  Well, we did! 
But the Cauldron is still here.  We’ve taken one big step on our quest to find our Holy Grail, but there are many more steps left on our journey.  We have our full time minister, but we need to find ways to accommodate all the people who are responding to the message of Unitarian Universalism in Denton.  We need to find ways to reach the people who don’t know about us but who need to hear about a church that honors the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  We need to be busy with the work of building a more free and just world right here right now.
For some of us, the transformation may be a personal affair.  What wounds need to be healed, what studies need to begin, what practices need to be strengthened, what calls need to be answered?
The Cauldron of Transformation isn’t finished with us yet.  But it won’t be here forever.  Maybe next month, maybe next year, it will return to the Earth Mother.  When it does, will it still be full?  Or will it return empty, having poured out all its bounty, all its wisdom, all its transformation on this fellowship?  Will we receive its grace, and in turn become a means of grace for others?
May we have the courage to make it so!
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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.


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