A UU Spiritual Practice

In the comments of the last entry, Ogre pointed out that Rev. Robert Hardies (senior minister of All Souls Church in Washington DC) taught a class on UU spiritual practice at Meadville Lombard seminary. A little googling turned up the syllabus from that class and this sermon Rev. Hardies preached on “The Practice of Reverence.” I encourage you to read them both – they’re worth your time, even if you already have a strong spiritual practice.

A syllabus and a sermon isn’t the same as a week-long intensive seminar, and condensing both into a blog entry cuts them back even more. But it should provide a starting point. Perhaps those who attended the class and have begun the practice can fill in some of the blanks.

The first thing that struck me from the syllabus was that there was a lot of preparatory reading – three required books (from 2005, 1982, and 1852), plus one more from a list of biographies. This is the foundational work – if you don’t know the roots of Unitarianism, how can you expect to follow a Unitarian practice?

The emphasis on meditation and prayer seems like a given to me, but I’ve heard so little about it from UU pulpits it might come as a surprise to some. I think I’ve probably said more about meditation and prayer as a two-or-three-times-a-year lay speaker than I’ve heard from ordained ministers the rest of the time.

Devotional reading comes out of the Congregationalist tradition of Bible reading. It helps you keep the subject fresh in your mind – I know that when I’m reading anything remotely religious or spiritual my daily practice seems fuller and happier. For a daily devotional reading, you can’t do much better than Boston Unitarian’s blog.

Reflection and especially writing is something I’ve always found helpful. But while I’ve spent countless hours reviewing what happened and why, I must admit I’ve never been very good at asking if I was living in accordance with my principles. In his sermon, Rev. Hardies said of our Unitarian predecessors “They pored over their lives like the rabbi over his Torah, convinced that it would yield truth and meaning.”

And finally, there’s group practice and worship. It’s the rare person who can live a truly spiritual life alone – most of us need the encouragement and reinforcement and accountability that comes from being in community with other like-minded folks.

A couple of things strike me about this outline. The first is the discipline required. Not only was there a lot of work for the class, there is the very real work of the practice required every day, every day, every day. But I go back to the discussion I had with Archdruid John Michael Greer at the Gorsedd – “you have to do the work.” There is no substitute.

The second is the similarity to religious practices of other traditions. The Christian and Jewish roots are clear, but I also see a similarity to the Buddhist practice of meditation, dharma study and especially mindfulness. This isn’t so much an exclusively UU (or Unitarian) practice so much as it is a universal spiritual practice done in a Unitarian context. The tools and techniques are common to many traditions, but the context drives the content.

Those of you who were there – did I summarize this fairly, if briefly?

Those of you who are looking for a UU spiritual practice – does this sound like what you’re looking for? I can’t see most of the members of my congregation doing this, but for those who want something more, something deeper, I think it would be very helpful.

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  • I'm definitely going to look at this.

    But why can't we get this kind of education from the pulpit, I wonder? Why can't UU ministers and district executives make this sort of teaching a priority? I guess it all comes back to congregational polity. Ministers serve in collaboration with their congregations. They have to work with the priorities of the congregation, I suppose.

  • OK. I've downloaded Ware's book free from Google Books. It's 175-pages of colonial English diction and a pretty meaty thesis.

    I reflected on this post last night, and began reading Ware's book. I came back to where I was yesterday: Why aren't contemporary UUs getting this education from the pulpit or their adult RE programs?

    I was at an advanced lay leadership conference one year ago, and a lay leader from Portland spoke up during a forum with our district executive.

    She asked why it is that, after a UU learns UUism 101, the theological/religious training and formation ends. Unless you cough up tens of thousands of dollars to go to seminary. Well, not all of us have ministerial or professional RE ambitions. But that doesn't mean we don't crave a deeper study of our religious past, or yearn for adult religious formation.

    I can only guess at the answers.

    I'm not naive enough to lay the blame at the feet of UU ministers — though PeaceBang has blogged about the responsibility of ministers to do this work.

    The dearth of adult religious formation, coupled with the inert religious attitudes of many an adult UU, makes for a sudden and steep drop off in the spiritual practice and study.

  • Anonymous

    It might be that some ministers do not spend their time on this because they believe it is more important to heal the sick than to raise the dead.

  • Anonymous, if you're saying this type of spiritual practice is dead, I think you're dead wrong.

    Batbogey, I think Anonymous has answered your question. It isn't taught because there's very little demand for it, and in a congregational church, ministers serve at the pleasure of the congregation.

    Cathy signed up for an advanced Bible study class at her Methodist church. There are 20 people in the class. Worship attendance last Sunday was 2000.

    Now, they have other classes besides this one, but the point remains: in any group of people, regardless of their religious persuasion, only a very small percentage will be interested in deep spiritual practice.