Parson to Person: “On Niches, Sheep, and Little Princes,” May 8, 2020

If you ever visit First Unitarian Church in Chicago (near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in the Hyde Park area), you may notice a niche carved in the front wall of the sanctuary. It looks as if it was made to hold a statue, or some other kind of symbol. And it’s right in the middle of the wall, where everybody can see it. I remember the first time I noticed it, and wondering what it used to hold. I mean, you don’t build a shrine in the wall for nothing, so I figured maybe there used to be a cross there, or some other symbol–which was later taken out.


Well, it turns out that there never was a statue or cross or other artifact in that niche. It was built for nothing. Or, to put it more accurately, the wall was built with a niche in it as a reminder that no symbol can capture the truth, no figure can embody the divine. (Perhaps this is a metaphorical way to understand the Jewish proscription against “graven images.”)


That shrine-with-nothing-to-enshrine says what Unitarian Universalism has always been about: You can’t put your finger on the divine. You can’t bottle up the truth and claim that you have it all–in any one book, any one prophet, or any one religion.


Those of you who like “The Little Prince” (by Antoine de St. Exupery) as much as I do, may remember the line: “What’s most important is invisible to the eye.” Perhaps you will also recall the author’s story of how the little prince asked him to draw a sheep. The author does his best, but the prince says about his drawing, “No, this sheep is very sickly.” Then the author draws another, but the prince says “This is not a sheep. This is a ram. It has horns.” Everything the author draws, the prince rejects. Finally, in exasperation, the author draws an oblong container, saying, “This is only his box. The sheep you asked for is inside.” At that the little prince is delighted, saying, “That is exactly the way I wanted it!”


Never doubt that what is most important–about God, love, truth, yourself, or others–cannot be captured in a picture or concept or formula. The best we can do is draw a little box around it and say, with the little prince, “What is most important is invisible to the eye.” But also never doubt… that doubting itself is a deeply spiritual practice! And, in any case, always be ready for a combination of …


peace and unrest,