This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
The first reading was from book II of Virgil’s Aeneid:
 “Perhaps, too, you may inquire what was Priam’s fate. When he saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”
The second reading was from the Hebrew scriptures, the Prophets, Zechariah 10-12:
Ask rain from the Lord
in the season of the spring rain,
from the Lord who makes the storm clouds,
and he will give them showers of rain,
to everyone the vegetation in the field.
For the household gods utter nonsense,
and the diviners see lies;
they tell false dreams
and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd.
Sermon — “Household Gods”
Some years ago, I got in trouble in a class I was taking. This class was a creative writing workshop, and it was taught by a fellow who had published quite a few short stories in prestigious magazines. I no longer remember his name, and if you heard his name you probably wouldn’t recognize it — nevertheless, he was an experienced and accomplished writer.
Each week, we all had to submit short stories to be read over and critiqued by the class. Each week we would have to read a short story by a published writer, and all the stories written by our classmates, and comment intelligently on each of these stories. Now I have never been able to write a short story that was any good; non-fiction I can do, but fiction is beyond me; but there I was taking that class because I needed the credits and it was the only class that would fit into my schedule. Since I like to read and I’m never shy about expressing my opinions, I was always happy to read all of the week’s stories and then talk about them in class; but I wasn’t very good at writing stories.
One week I submitted yet another boring story, the inconsequential plot of which hinged on one of the characters talking about her household gods. And to make a long story short (as it were), our teacher ridiculed my story because he had never heard of household gods and wanted to know why they were in the story. What, he asked me, his voice dripping with sarcasm, did I mean by household gods, anyway? Well, I knew my mother had talked about household gods, and I more or less knew that household gods were a sort of cultural metaphor for that which is important to one’s household. This did not satisfy him, and we moved on to the next story, and eventually I passed that class.
In spite of the fact that neither that teacher nor I knew what they were, household gods do indeed exist. The ancient Roman gods and goddesses included not just the major public deities like Juno and Jupiter and Diana; there were also minor deities that lived in each Roman household, and these were the household gods. Sixty years ago, when my mother was in high school, high school kids learned a certain amount of ancient Latin, and a certain amount of ancient Roman culture; and so my mother’s generation has been exposed to Latin writers such as Livy and Virgil.
These days there aren’t many people who have studied Latin, who would know what a household god might be. My writing teacher had never heard of them at all, and although I had heard my mother mention them I knew nothing more than that. Yet if you look hard enough, you can still find household gods in the nooks and crannies of our culture:– there is a science fiction novel in which Roman household gods sends a modern woman back in time to live in ancient Rome; they do crop up in literature now and then; come to find out, there’s even a folk music group called The Household Gods. I suspect that evenn those of us who never studied Latin continue to have a vague notion that there might be guardian deities within our households.
And I suspect that many of us, though we may hotly deny it, are still under the influence of some household gods. We may not admit it, but we have let unacknowledged household gods into our homes. And this prompts me to ask: what are household gods, and what function might they still carry out in our homes?
Let me begin by describing ancient Roman household gods. Not that this is going to be a historically accurate description — ancient Roman history covers hundreds of years, and the form and worship of household gods evolved continually over that time span. But a general description will suit our purposes.
The first thing to know is the ancient Roman term for household gods: they were called “lares.” An 1894 book called “The Mythology of Greece and Rome” says this about the Lares:
“The Lares… were the tutelary deities of the house and family…. They were commonly supposed to be the glorified spirits of ancestors, who, as guardian deities, strove to promote the welfare of the family. The seat of their worship was also the family hearth in the atrium, where their images of wood or wax were generally preserved in a separate shrine of their own (Lararium). The Lares received an especial degree of veneration on the first day of every month; but… they took part in all the domestic occurrences, whether of joy or sorrow. …They also received their share at every meal of particular dishes, and were crowned with garlands on the occasion of every family rejoicing. When a son assumed the toga virilis (that is, when he came of age), he dedicated his bulla (a gold or silver ornament, like a medal, which was worn round the neck during childhood) to the Lares, amidst prayers and libations and burning of incense. When the father of the house started on a journey or returned in safety, the Lares were again addressed, and their statues crowned with wreaths, flowers and garlands being their favorite offerings.”
This makes the household gods seem rather charming, doesn’t it? You have these little household gods made out of wood or wax or terracotta, which represented your ancestors or your guardians; and they lived in their own little niche next to the fireplace, and they promised to look out for you and your family. If anything happened to your family, whether good or bad, you’d go spend some time with your household gods. When you had a nice meal, you’d give them a little bit of it; if something good happened in your family, you’d put flowers on them. You’d pay attention to them before someone in your family went traveling, and you’d pay attention to them again when that person returned safely home. I particularly like the fact that the household gods liked flowers and garlands best — I’m not so happy with gods and goddesses that demand blood sacrifices (which can be disgusting and messy) or burnt offerings (which is a waste of good food), but it’s always nice to have an excuse to put flowers in your house.
Those who could afford to do so built a special wall niche into their home, a house altar or lararium, in which the household gods were placed; and some of these house altars are decorated with paintings that might show one of more of the household gods. In one of the houses in Pompei, that ancient Roman city that got buried by a volcano, archaeologists uncovered a house altar on which was painted a representation of a snake with a beard and a crest on top of its head; this was the “lars familiaris,” a sort of protective power associated with the household. So it was that these household gods had their own place within a Roman house.
And if you were a Roman, you hoped that your household gods offered you some kind of protection. Of course, it didn’t necessarily work out that way. After all, that house altar in Pompei didn’t protect its household from being buried by that volcanic eruption. And when the ancient Greeks conquered Troy and went through the city killing and looting, the household gods of Priam, the king of Troy, could not save him; as the Roman poet Virgil tells us in the Aeneid, his poetic story of the Trojan war:
“When [Priam] saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched [his wife] Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the [household] gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”
But of course the altar of the household gods did not protect Priam in the least, for the next part of the Aeneid tells how he was slaughtered by the Greeks.
Even though I don’t believe that Roman household gods offer some sort of magical protection, I like this idea of having household gods. I’m not looking for household gods which can provide a comprehensive insurance policy for my house and family, but I do like the way the ancient Romans used the household gods to create a religious and spiritual center in their households. I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not want to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house, but it’s not enough for me to do religion an hour a week.
Our direct spiritual forebears, New England Protestant Christians, did not have household gods; but they did have manage to integrate religion and spirituality into their daily lives. Their religion was not limited to an hour on Sunday mornings.
These days, we Unitarian Universalists think of ourselves as “post-Christian” — some of us still consider ourselves Christian individuals, and some of us want nothing to do with Christianity. Yet although we are post-Christian, that does not mean that we have to throw out every part of the Christian tradition. We’ve taken the cross out of our church, but we still call it a church; we may not read the Christian scriptures much, but we still follow the Christian rule of meeting once a week on Sundays. So I think it is worth taking a look at the old Christian home religious practices that used to be a part of our New England religious tradition.
One of those Christian practices, once so common in New England households, was the practice of daily prayers. In our own tradition — we come from the Radical Reformation and the Free Churches — the governing principle for daily prayer is quite simple: each individual is guided by the Spirit, and so we did not require a complicated scheme of specific prayers to memorize and certain words to say. We still value extemporaneous prayer, and we sometimes still teach our children how to pray in this fashion. My favorite example of this is a bedtime prayer that the Rev. Christopher Raible wrote about. He suggested that parents sit with their children each night and use this format for bedtime prayers:
Tonight I am thankful for… (then you say some of the good things that happened to you today)
And tonight I am sorry for… (then you talk about the things you feel sorry for doing or saying)
Tomorrow I hope for… (and you talk about things you hope for and how you think you can make them happen).
In the old days in New England, prayers were something everyone said on a daily basis. There were many other daily prayers that people used, the most common one being the practice of saying grace before meals.
The other common household practice from the Free Church tradition is the practice of keeping the Sabbath day. I don’t know anyone who keeps the Sabbath day any more, although a Hundred years ago, Unitarian and Universalist families did keep the Sabbath. Ellen Tucker Emerson, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughters, wrote a description of how the Emerson family kept the Sabbath day together as a family:
“Sunday was then kept rigidly the children of these days would say, but Father and Mother considered it kept easily, while Grandma thought it not strictly enough observed…. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six….”
Ellen Emerson goes in some detail, so I will skip ahead:
“I am trying to show what was Mother’s method in the religious education of her children, to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories. To accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and religious study at home. When Eddy got to be perhaps three or even earlier she began to read aloud to us when we were all in bed Mrs Barbauld’s Prose Hymns and often a story-book of a religious character…. This was not always done, for I remember as if it continued a long time the practice of singing before we went upstairs… we used to sit on our three stools round Mother and sing it with her…. She had a little blue book of morning and evening prayers, and I think she read aloud one of those prayers.”
This all sounds rather charming — if we lived a hundred and fifty years ago. But which of us today would like to devote all day Sunday to memorizing hymns, and listening to serious writing read aloud, and hearing Bible stories, and reading prayers aloud, and singing a few hymns before bedtime? Which of us would like to tear children and grand children away from video games and MySpace to participate in such things? And how many of our children or grandchildren would easily consent to such things all day every Sunday? The children I know would sooner have a wall-niche constructed next to the fireplace, and pour out libations to little statues of household gods — and they would only do that, I suspect, until they got bored with it.
Most of the households I know no longer include much religious practice at home. Some households are quite good at saying bedtime prayers with young children; I know a few households that actually eat dinner together every night and even say grace before they eat; I know a few households where families sing hymns or hymn-like songs together. But I don’t know of any households where someone regularly reads aloud from “serious writing.”
If anything, I think the pagans among us do the best job of including religion in daily life within the household. I know quite a few pagan households that regularly say grace or in some way bless food before eating it. I know quite a few pagan households that incorporate regular religious rituals in their home life; and in the best Free Church tradition, they often make up these rituals themselves, as the Spirit moves them. I know of pagan households that have some kind of house altar, not unlike the house altars of the ancient Romans. And I even know some pagan households where children are taught religious songs and chants, and where people actually read aloud to each other from religious writings.
What about my own household? Traditionally — back in the days when Ralph Waldo Emerson’s children were young — clergy were supposed to be exemplars for living a good religious life. My friend Rabbi Michael is still such an exemplar — he keeps the Sabbath, and his three children keep the Sabbath. But I am not such a good role model: my life partner is pretty much unchurched, and I’m not going to impose my religious practices on her, so we don’t do any of the things I’ve talked about. Yes, I do keep a Sabbath day each week — my Sabbath day is Friday, because that’s what fits into my busy schedule, and every Friday I don’t do any unnecessary work, and I make an effort to read serious writing, and good Transcendentalist that I am I try to engage in my spiritual practices of writing and reading. But these are things I do on my own, not things I do with the rest of my household.
Many of us are no longer able to fit the old Free Church religious rituals into our home lives; and perhaps we no longer want to do so. But wouldn’t it be nice to do something at meal times besides turning on the television set? Wouldn’t it be nice to devote some time each week to a consideration of the most important things in life, rather than spending all our leisure time playing video games and sending inconsequential email messages? And if we can’t observe the old Free Church religious rituals, still less will we return to the ancient Roman rituals surrounding the household gods. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a reason to bring fresh flowers into your house? Wouldn’t it be nice to have little rituals to observe when someone in your household was goind away on a trip, or returning home? or rituals to observe when your children or grandchildren came of age?
Of course these days most of use lead lives that no longer give us any time to observe such rituals outside of an hour-long worship service on Sunday mornings. And I want to emphasize that many of us are not going to be able to impose our religion on our households. Those are the facts of life for many of us.
But pay attention to those facts of life. A little while ago, I said that I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. I will go further than that — like it or not, we are religious beings; doing religion is one of the ways we make sense out of the world. You can choose to get rid of conscious religion in your life — you don’t have to say grace before meals or force your children to say bedtime prayers nor do you have to go to church on Sunday mornings. You can choose that you’re not going to do those things. But you will have to find some way to make sense out of the world, and if you don’t do that consciously, you will do it unconsciously.
Our culture is constantly telling us to make sense out of the world by having more stuff — we get that new video game, or that new iPhone, or that new Toyota Prius, or that new house, and suddenly our world makes sense — for a time, it makes sense. But all religious rituals have to be repeated over and over again, and so we go out and buy more stuff; and we work longer hours so we can buy more stuff; and we make our children study hard and send them to lots of afterschool activities so that they can succeed and get the best jobs with a high salary — and buy more stuff.
Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not wish to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house; I do not wish to reinstate the home religious practices of Ellen Emerson’s family. But I need something more than an hour a week to feed my soul. I know that household gods still exist, and even if we don’t acknowledge them or know what they are they are still a powerful force, and they are living in our households right now. In our Free Church tradition, we don’t have to follow certain procedures and formulas; but we do have to give ourselves space to be moved by the spirit. We should pay attention to the household gods we are willing to admit into our households.
What will our household gods be? Will we worship consumer goods? Or can we find a way to update some of the old religious practices? Can we devote some time each day to meditation and prayer? Can we set aside time each day to reflect on what we have done, and what we hope to do? Even if we do nothing more than bring fresh flowers into our households, if we do it with the intention of focusing ourselves on the highest things, if we do it as an expression of our wonder and joy and awe before the mysteries of life,– I think that will be enough.