Chocolate Is Just the Beginning
(a celebration of the Feast of Decadent Chocolate)
by Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
February 12, 2017
Poem: Ode to Chocolate, by Sarah Hyson
The darker, the better,
rich thou art in theobromines,
your fermentation eases my heart.
Whether solid or liquid
your ballet on the buds of taste
gives sweet, synergic satisfaction.
You are at times smooth
and others granular,
savory or sweet,
but always delectable.
Chocolate, oh, chocolate,
my love for thee knows no compare,
and yet this love I may with others
harmonize in gastronomic delight.
Poem: Chocolates, by Louis Simpson
Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, “Do you like chocolates?”
They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, “Yes.”
“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
“what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?”
The conversation became general
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,
but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.
As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.
In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
Sermon: “Chocolate Is Just the Beginning” – Rev. Dan Schatz
During the early 1600s, in the Mexican region of Chiapas, the village of San Cristóbal de las Casas, it was the custom of the local women to bring containers of hot chocolate into the cathedral, and refresh themselves periodically during the long masses. They claimed to have weak stomachs, and said that the chocolate fortified them so they could get through the service.
The Bishop did not appreciate this habit, or the explanation. He felt it demonstrated a lack of respect for the church, for God, and, if we’re honest, for his sermons, when the morning’s proceedings were subjected to a steady stream of women going back and forth from their seats to refresh their beverages. He told them to stop. They told him, “No.” He told them that if they continued the practice, he would have them excommunicated. They told him that from this moment they would be doubling the amount of chocolate they brought with them. Finally, the Bishop ordered the chocolate removed by force.
There is an old saying: “Don’t get between me and my chocolate.”
The women left the church, choosing to worship instead at a nearby convent, until a few months later, when the Bishop suddenly took ill and died, after drinking a poisoned cup of hot chocolate.
In Mexico, there is another saying, “Beware the chocolate of Chiapas.” And in the ministry, we might say, “When the congregation has a good thing going, don’t get in the way.”
Now, I’m new to this congregation. This is my first Feast of Decadent Chocolate. So I feel it’s important that, as your Minister, I affirm for you that this is a very, very good idea. Very, very, very good. I am glad to give my spiritual imprimatur to this event, in case anyone feels it is needed, which I’m pretty sure you don’t. And the the name “Feast of Decadent Chocolate” is especially well chosen. Excuse me if I’m drooling. You all are looking at me, but I have stand here and talk to you while looking at the chocolate in the back of the room. Maybe that was the Bishop’s problem.
The truth is, chocolate and religion do go together, and not just because of the obvious out of body experiences good chocolate can provide, or even its healing properties in the wake of dementor attack. The botanical name for cacao, “Theobroma cacao” literally means “Chocolate – the food of the gods.” Cacao played a part in the creation stories of the Mayan Popol Vuh, and its seed was said to be the last of the many gifts the god Quetzalcoatl gave to the Aztec people. In its original, bitter form and in its modern sweetness, chocolate has always been, literally, a religious experience.
Perhaps this is why Gabriél García Marquez emphasized the powers of chocolate is his classic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. He wrote of the priest Father Nicanor, who was determined to build a church for the people of his town, but who needed money to do it, so he gathered the people in open air worship. Some came to the service out of kindness, some out of feelings of nostalgia, and some out of guilt, but he led the mass as he always did, and the congregation began to break up with no great outpourings of spirit or of money for the new church. But then he held up his hand and said, “Just a moment. Now we shall witness an undeniable proof of the infinite power of God.”
“The boy who had helped him with the mass brought him a cup of thick and steaming chocolate, which he drank without pausing to breathe. Then he wiped his lips with a handkerchief that he drew from his sleeve, extended his arms, and closed his eyes. Thereupon Father Nicanor rose six inches above the level of the ground. It was a convincing measure. He went among the houses for several days repeating the demonstration of levitation by means of chocolate while the acolyte collected so much money in a bag that in less than a month he began the construction of the church.”
Now, some of you know we are having a meeting this afternoon in which we’re going to be talking about our renovation project, and some of the financial needs and realities that come with it. So when I read this passage, I thought, “This is easy. I’ll just drink some chocolate and levitate immediately following the postlude.” But then I kept reading.
“No one doubted the divine origin of the demonstration except José Arcadio Buendía, who without changing expression watched the troop of people who gathered around the chestnut tree one morning to witness the revelation once more. He merely stretched on his stool a little and shrugged his shoulders when Father Nicanor began to rise up from the ground along with the chair he was sitting on…. He was so stubborn that Father Nicanor gave up his attempts at evangelization and continued visiting him out of humanitarian feelings. But then it was José Arcadio Buendía who took the lead and tried to break down the priest’s faith with rationalist tricks.”
Now, I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist my entire life, and an ordained minister for sixteen years. I know who the Unitarian Universalist in this story is. So although I could levitate by means of chocolate, and if the chocolate is good enough I might do it anyway, I recognize that we, who embrace reason in religion, and whose search for truth includes that word “responsible” along with the word “free,” are not likely to be convinced of anything by a magic trick.
On the other hand, we may well be convinced by a chocolate feast. This has nothing to do with any magical quality in the substance. Some of us may not even like chocolate very much, or maybe those folks didn’t come today. But the true religious significance in the Feast of Decadent Chocolate is not the chocolate, but the feast.
What’s important isn’t the particular food we’re eating, it’s the joy we take in life itself and the sharing of that joy with a community of love and meaning. The pleasure we find in the chocolate that we enjoy today is made sweeter by the very fact that we do this together. It needn’t be chocolate, although I will grant that the chocolate is especially nice. We might not have gotten so many folks here with the “Feast of Decadent Carob.”
But chocolate is just the beginning. It’s the community that makes the difference in our lives. It’s the quality of a community that with one hand reaches out into the world to work for justice in a time when so much justice is under attack, and with the other reaches toward one another to dance and to sing and to care for each other, and to grieve together, and to grow together, and to celebrate with each other, and to share a wonderful experience. As Richard Gilbert asks, are we called “to savor the world or to save it?” And he writes, “The one will not stand without the other.”
We need to allow ourselves the fullness of life – the sweet as well as the bitter.
When I was a college student I spent three months working in the Chilean población of Cerro Navia. It was a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago, and I had asked to do an internship there because I wanted to meet and study the Christian Base Communities that had been such centers of resistance and solidarity during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The streets of the población were dirt, dogs wandered everywhere, and the closely packed houses typically had one small paraffin stove to keep an entire home warm through the cold Chilean winter. During the long years of the dictatorship, many of the people there had known friends or family members who were among the disappeared. And even while I was with them, General Pinochet, who at the time still controlled the armed forces in Chile, threatened the elected leaders by briefly taking over the governmental palace in a show of force.
I came to my field study well prepared, or at least I thought I did. I had read Gustavo Gutierrez’s great work on the Theology of Liberation, and as I sat with the members of the comunidad de base for their small group conversations, I expected to hear neo-socialist ideology welling up from the group. But there wasn’t much of that. I thought the people would talk about the political situation, but they didn’t, much. I thought I would hear how hard it was to be poor in Chile, and to be oppressed. I thought maybe I’d hear some righteous rage against the system. But for the most part, what the people chose to talk about was their families and their lives, and for all the hardship in which they lived, what I mostly witnessed was the love they shared with one another and the very real joy they took in the community they had created together.
I have never known people who laughed as much as my friends in Cerro Navia did. Every time they came together, they laughed. Despite all that had happened, or perhaps because of it, they made it their business to enjoy the pleasure of life in community. I think that’s what made them so powerful during the years of resistance to military dictatorship. As hard as many of them had worked for so long, and as many difficulties and real horrors as they had faced, it was this kind of community which gave them the strength and the power to keep going and ultimately to persevere.
After awhile I asked them if their groups had always been like this, and they told me that there was never a time when laughter wasn’t part of their gatherings, even during the worst years of the dictatorship. And the next week, one of the group members brought me some old photographs from the 1970s, not long after Pinochet took power and massacred so many thousands. One of the pictures had been taken at Christmas – the Summer solstice in Chile. It featured a bright, colorful street mural painted onto a brick wall, graffiti in the población, with a giant rising sun and the message, “Feliz Navidad para todos, menos para uno.” “Merry Christmas to all – except one.”
No matter how serious things get, in the world or in our lives, we need to be able to laugh together and enjoy good things together just as much as we need to be able to cry together and grow together and be inspired together and better the world together. Joy and pleasure are just as important a part of a healthy spiritual life as contemplation and prayerfulness. In the words of the old Humanist Manifesto, “Nothing human is alien to the religious.”
So when we come together in a Feast of Decadent Chocolate, we are absolutely fulfilling a religious function, just as we are when we honor the voices of children, or make music that shakes the rafters, or stretch ourselves just a little bit more so that the beauty and warmth of our building can live up to the beauty and warmth of our community. It is absolutely a religious function when we reach out from our congregation and homes to send the message of welcome to all our neighbors, no matter who they are or where they are from, or who they love or who they voted for. It is absolutely a religious function when we come together to revel in our diversity, sharing wisdom and learnings from many paths, from Theist to Pagan to Humanist to Buddhist and so much more. It is all a delight to the mind and soul, made so much better by the community with whom we share it all.
And having laughed together and shared in some of the joys of living, we are better able to face the difficult and hard times. We have built the trust to be real with each other, to ask difficult questions, to challenge the way things are, to be vulnerable in painful and frightening days. Never imagine that just because a congregation delights in chocolate decadence or in games or in laughter that the community is in any way less serious, or less spiritually grounded. It is exactly the reverse. What we create in this congregation is a place where anybody can come and be their authentic selves. Here is a place where you don’t need to set any part of who you are aside. This is a place in which nobody has to pretend.
We laugh together, yes, and enjoy our feasts and potlucks and games, and we also hold one another through tears when we are grieving. We reach out to each other as much as we are able to do when one of us is suffering. We grieve together through loss and sorrow. We work together in the community outside as well as inside our congregational walls, so that we can bring some of our Unitarian Universalists values to bear in Chester County and in Pennsylvania and in our country, and the world. And we explore together everything from ideas about God to spiritual practices to needs we would help to meet.
Chocolate is just the beginning.
And here’s the beauty of it all, for me – the peculiar combination we find here, of passion and compassion, laughter and depth, spirit and reason, respect for every person’s individual conscience and commitment to live well in community, and all the rest of it – is a rare and precious gift in this world. People search for years to find what we make together every time we come together. And it’s always changing, always growing, always deepening in so many ways. We’re always seeking to live with greater integrity, asking new questions and exploring in new directions, finding ways to live our values of beauty in diversity a little better and a little bit more. The wonder of it is we’re just getting started.
Today, it’s a Feast of Decadent Chocolate. And with each bite, I have no doubt it will be a truly spiritual experience. We might even levitate. Next week it will be something else entirely, and in years to come, who knows what joys and wonders and spiritual awakenings will rise in this, our beloved community.
“There is nothing better than a friend,
unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
– Linda Grayson