The Healing Cup: The Story of the Flaming Chalice

Many Unitarian Universalist churches and fellowships start their worship service on Sunday morning by lighting a flame inside a chalice. This flaming chalice is a symbol for Unitarian Universalists just as the cross and the Star of David are symbols for other religious groups. The story of how the flaming chalice became our symbol is an interesting one and it begins during the Second World War.

During that war, a lot of people living in Eastern Europe—Unitarians, Jews, and others—were in danger of being put in prison or killed by Nazi soldiers. A group of Unitarians came together in Boston, Massachusetts, to form the Unitarian Service Committee and their plan was to help the people in danger from the Nazis. The director of the Service Committee was the Unitarian minister Charles Joy. Rev. Joy had an office in Portugal so he would be near the people he wanted to help. He was in charge of a whole secret group of agents and messengers who worked hard trying to find safe routes for people to escape.

Rev. Joy and his assistants often needed to ask governments and other organizations for their help to save people who were in danger. They would send messages to anyone in government who might give them money, transportation, or a safe route. Because they were a new organization though, not very many people had heard of them. This made it much harder for Rev. Joy and the people in the Unitarian Service Committee to get the help they needed.

In those days during the war, when danger was everywhere, lots of people were running away from their own countries. Often, people who were escaping and people who wanted to help didn't speak the same language. Rev. Joy decided it would be much better if the Service Committee had an official symbol, or picture, to help identify its members. With a picture or symbol, it wouldn't matter if people couldn't read the language.

It looked like Rev. Joy would need to find an artist. He went to a very talented man named Hans Deutsch for help. Deutsch had escaped from the Nazis in Paris, France, where he was in danger because he drew cartoons showing people how evil the Nazis were. Rev. Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol to print on Service Committee papers to make them look important. He wanted the symbol to impress governments and police who had the power to help move people to safety.

For his drawing, Deutsch borrowed an old symbol of strength and freedom from Czechoslovakia—a chalice with a flame. Rev. Joy wrote to his friends in Boston that the new symbol seemed to show the real spirit of the Unitarian religion. It showed a chalice, or cup, that was used for giving a healing drink to others. And it showed a flame on top of the chalice because a flame was often used to represent a spirit of helpfulness and sacrifice. And so the flaming chalice became the official symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee.

Many years later, the flaming chalice became the symbol of Unitarian Universalist groups all over the world. By the early 1970s, enough Unitarian Universalists had heard the story of the flaming chalice symbol that they began to light a flaming chalice as part of the worship service in their churches. Over the years, this practice has spread over most of the United States and Canada.

What does it mean to have a symbol like this? Well, one thing it means is that wherever you see a flaming chalice, you know that there are Unitarians and Universalists nearby. Having a symbol also can remind you of what's most important to you—and sometimes a reminder can make a very big difference.

One very old woman told how the flaming chalice of her homeland, Czechoslovakia, helped her while she was in a Nazi prison camp. Printed under the picture of the Czech flaming chalice was the motto "pravda vitezi," which means, in English, "truth overcomes," or "truth prevails." Every single morning in that terrible camp, the old woman said, she traced a picture of a flaming chalice in the sand with her finger. Then she wrote the motto underneath it. "It gave me the strength to live each day," she said. Whenever she drew the chalice in the dirt she was reminded that some day the world would remember the important truth that every single person is important and should be free to think and believe as he or she chooses.

When we see people light the chalice at the beginning of our service every Sunday, we can enjoy it because it is a lovely thing to do. But we can also remember the story of the flaming chalice and the strength it has given people for hundreds of years. We use it to let others know that Unitarian Universalists believe in helping—others.