My son has a tattoo of a chalice on his shoulder. I remember the day he called from Ithaca NY. He was visiting some friends he had met at a UU Youth conference, had just turned 18 and was in the tattoo parlor.
“I just want you to know, mom. I’m not asking for permission or anything.”
Raising a UU child is always fun! I wasn’t really against tattoos, it’s just that I’ve seen teens make mistakes, like ‘Sam and Sally Forever’, and I knew for sure he wasn’t stamping ‘I love mom’ on his arm. So, I asked about the cleanliness of the establishment and then I asked, “What are you having put on your body?”
“A chalice,” he said, “I made the design myself.”
Well there you go, how do you argue with that? The UU faith was so important to this child of mine, so much a part of his identity and his spiritual home, that he was making an indelible statement.
It’s only recently, through my Wellspring journey, that I learned the history of the symbol of our faith. The chalice is not just a cozy way to begin our worship ceremony but an emblem that defines our commitment to freedom, action and creative dissidence. Its origins begin with the Unitarian Service Committee during WWII.
In 1940 the Rev. Dr. Charles Rhind Joy, directed the Lisbon, Portugal, office of the USC. Lisbon, the only open port in Europe in the early 1940s, was the preferred destination for millions of refugees. The USC took special interest in helping artists, intellectuals, and dissidents escape the Nazis. And so while Joy worked with people from all walks of life, his clientele included many famous authors, scientists, and politicians.
Many of the refugees fled without the identification papers they needed to cross borders, so the Lisbon office concentrated especially on helping them obtain replacement papers. Joy introduced an innovation: travel documents issued by the USC itself. “It may amuse you a bit,” he wrote to the Boston office of the USC, “to know that we are now issuing navicerts to pass emigrants to the new world through the British blockade. We are certifying that they are politically safe and sound.”
Joy believed these documents needed a seal. He asked Hans Deutsch, an Austrian refugee artist working in Lisbon, to create one. The result was essentially the flaming chalice as we know it now.
An Austrian refugee, caught in the evil of fascism, created a symbol of freedom. This is what the creator had to say about his work.
It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice. In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized, though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts. This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”
My son graduates college on Mother’s day and yesterday I told him about the origin of his tattoo. He was pleased with the history, and took the opportunity to tell me…see mom it was a good idea.
I wondered out loud, how I might have an indelible symbol of my faith for all to see. He put his arm around my shoulder, leaned his head down onto mine and said, “You do mom. Me”
Happy Mother’s day