Patrick ONeill Rosslyn Hill Unitarian


Happy 150th Anniversary to Rosslyn Hill Chapel. Our family’s spiritual home in London has marked its sesquicentennial with a number of event culminating with a celebration concert on the 7th November.

Rev. Patrick T. O’Neill is their present pastor and a bit of a ‘Embracing Failure’ soul mate. He has spoken on the subject a number of times, but my favourite sermon is “Necessary Losses.” The title is taken from the namesake book by Judith Viorst. I have provided a Readers Digest version below here, but I highly recommend the whole talk (it took me quite a bit of effort to trim it down the degree I have because it is so rich with pertinent insights) which you can read in full here

  • There is no good time to speak of hard things. And for that very reason, many of us avoid speaking at all about some of the most important trials in life. Our silence about such things is understandable, but ultimately not very helpful. I remember a preaching teacher once telling us that the pulpit’s most noble purpose is to touch people where they hurt; to give the hurt a name; and to point the direction for healing.…There are things in life that one simply does not fully comprehend or understand or appreciate until one goes through them. We can sympathize and empathize as we watch others experience pain and trouble. We can intellectualize, most of us, about what it must be like for them. But as the old song says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but me.”
  • “Until very recently in our culture – really up until the last generation, the last twenty-five years or so – the universal human experience of profound loss and the accompanying process of grief were virtually taboo as topics of study and discussion, let alone polite conversation. And then with the pioneer work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others, it seemed for a while that death and dying and grieving became the darling topics of every psychology class in America, and every pulpit, as well…[S]he gave that process a name: the Grieving Process. And once we had a name for it that we could say out loud, we could begin to understand it; to study it; to see its individual stages and components. And with that knowledge, we were then able to help others go through such experience and survive it.”
  • “[S]tudying about loss and grief, and experiencing loss and grief, are two different things. I was devastated when I got home that night [after learning of the death of a child where Patrick was working], and the tears flooded out of me. … And as the tears continued to flow out of me, I told him that [the senior chaplain] had been weeping now for about twenty-four straight hours.…He put his hand on my arm and he said, ‘This sorrow and this loss is now part of your story. And it is part of what you now know about living and loving and dying and losing. And it will become part of what you learn about surviving and healing. You will move beyond this in time. But it will never be behind you. This experience is now part of your story.’ And as soon as he told me that, the tears finally stopped. That was the moment I truly learned what the experience of loss and grief was all about.”
  • “Besides Kubler-Ross’s book, probably the most influential book on the subject of loss written in the last twenty years is Judith Viorst’s classic book, Necessary Losses. Viorst describes the many varieties of loss that we go through on the ‘normal’ journey of life. Viorst’s book is important as much for its sense of perspective on the role of loss in general. ‘Whenever we think of loss, we tend to think first of the death of people we have loved. But loss,’ says Judith Viorst, ‘is a far more encompassing theme in our life. We lose, not only through death, but by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. Our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our conscious and unconscious losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusions of freedom and power, illusions of safety – and the loss of our own younger self, the self that thought it would always be unwrinkled and invulnerable and immortal.’ All of these losses are ‘necessary losses’ because we grow by losing and leaving and letting go.”
  • These losses are part of life — universal, unavoidable, inexorable. Judith Viorst goes so far as to say that the people we are and the lives that we lead are determined for better or worse by our loss experiences. That’s an interesting and challenging thesis. When one hears someone say something like, ‘I guess I’ve been lucky, but I’ve never really lost anyone close to me,’ for example, I’m never quite sure whether to congratulate them or envy them or to wonder just how they’ve managed to insulate themselves from mortal experience for so long.”


I guess not too surprisingly, just like this blog, Patrick’s talk veered into the aligned concept of the Death of Dreams


  • Wherever and whenever we invest ourselves passionately, we open ourselves to the experience of loss. And yet, not all loss is ultimately tragic or traumatic. For example, it was fine and good for me at age 10 to dream of playing center field for the New York Yankees. It was the appropriate stuff of many a daydream and boyhood fantasy for me. But came the time when it was appropriate for me to move beyond that dream, to let go of that shining goal for which, alas, I had neither the God-given talents nor even the remotest possibility of ever achieving in real life. Sometime between the ages of 10 and 14, I came to see that for myself. It wasn’t a sudden realization, I’m sure, and there was no clear day on which I awoke and understood suddenly that I would never be a baseball star like my hero, Mickey Mantle.
  • I’m sure I came to that realization on my own, more mercifully and more gradually, through a series of small learnings and cumulative failures and disappointments on the ball field which made me aware that my dream would never come true; that I would never be able to hit far enough or throw hard enough or, god knows, run fast enough to become a major leaguer. So by the time I was in high school, I had let go of that dream. The fact is that letting go of that particular dream, however, freed me to grow into my next stage of maturity. Having reached the pinnacle of my baseball career on the high school junior varsity, it was then time for me to explore other talents I might have, time to invest in new dreams, time to discover new avenues opening before me at that time of life.”


  • Joseph Goldstein, in his book Insight Meditation, proposes an extremely useful distinction between the practice of ‘Letting it go’ and ‘letting it be.’ He writes, ‘Often in meditative language we speak of letting go of things: let go of thought, let go of emotions, let go of pain. Sometimes this is not exactly the right phrase, because letting go suggests that you need to do something. A better phrase to work with is let it be. Let it be….. We need not let go of our illusions of immortality. They will go on their own soon enough. Let it be.’ (Quoted in Wayne Muller, How Then Shall We Live? Bantam Books, New York, 1996. p.172)”
  • “Judith Viorst underlines the truth that whatever choices we make for ourselves in life mean that there are other choices we lose in the process. There is an age in life (maybe it’s around age ten) when life seems to be nothing but possibilities. ‘Making a choice,’ she writes, means giving up these possible other selves, and this too is one of life’s necessary losses. She gives this wonderful example from the writing of William James: ‘Oh, if I could, I’d be handsome and well-dressed… and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon vivant, as well as a philosopher, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a tone-poet and a saint! But the thing is simply impossible….. The seeker of the strongest truest self must review the list carefully, then pick one on which to stake salvation.’ (Viorst, p.49). Sam Keen echoed this realization many years later when he wrote, ‘I am so many, yet I may only be one. I mourn for all those selves I lose when I decide to be one person.’ (Sam Keen, To A Dancing God.)”


  • Moving from childhood to adolescence involves loss. Moving from adolescence to adulthood involves loss. Moving from our families to independence is a kind of loss. The end of any relationship is a loss. Moving from one job to another, from one community to another, parents letting go of their children, divorce is certainly profound loss. Middle age, growing older involves loss too. So does retirement from professional life. All these events, of course, have their concomitant possibilities for renewal and growth in due time, in due process. But this passage of ours includes many a steep and lonely corridor, and no one is exempt from the climbing. And it is best to remember that no one you meet has an easy road. How does the saying go, there are only three rules in life to remember: the first is, be kind. The second is, be kind. And the third is, be kind…I’ve learned that in the course of our life we leave and are left and let go of much that we love.”
  • Losing is the price we pay for living. It is also the source of much of our growth and gain. Making our way from birth to death, we also have to make our way through the pain of giving up some portion of what we cherish. We have to deal with our necessary losses. And in bowing to the forbidden and the impossible, we become a moral, responsible, adult self discovering our freedom and choices….And in confronting the many losses that are brought by time and death, we become a mourning and adapting self, finding at every stage–until we draw our final breath — opportunities for creative transformations….. For we cannot deeply love anything without becoming vulnerable to loss.” (Viorst, p.365-366)


  • “[Church] must be a place of healing. Secondly, it seems to me, the church must be a place of discovery for people constantly in the process of loss and growthThird, the church must be a place of reclamation, a place where people reclaim wholeness in a world of brokenness, reclaim hope in a world of cynicism, reclaim joy in a world of shattered dreams and loneliness. And the church must be a place of reconnection for the alienated and the separated and the wandering and the lost. And finally, not least, I think the church must be a place of celebration, where people can rejoice in the new selves that are daily emerging in their development. People should find here a community ready to welcome and celebrate their brave new directions and discoveries. The church should be a place where people can proclaim with the poet, ‘I who have died am alive again today. This is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and of love and wings.’ (e.e. cummings)”


Patrick’s final line is as a fine a blessing to embacing failure as you will find…


  • “Necessary losses. May your necessary losses be balanced with new blessings, with new growth, and with good friends to share them.”