This past Sunday I went to Boston, picked up my old colleague and dear friend Walt Wieder, and together we made our way to the one hundred & sixteenth meeting of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
I felt a mix of emotions. My association with the Fraters is long established. I’ve been attending Fraters meetings for fourteen years, and as a member for twelve. I arrived thinking this would probably be my last meeting.
For the past maybe up to half dozen years the Fraters have been caught up in conversations about their, our very existence. And, I arrived thinking it genuinely possible this could be the last gathering. Not just for me, but maybe, for the Fraters itself. I’d missed the previous year’s meeting, which I knew was lively and at times, contentious. The year prior to that we were for one of rarest of times canceled due to a severe snow storm. And the couple of years before that, well, beginning to tackle the various issues.
Those issues turned on questions of identity. We were formed in 1905 by a group of Universalist clergy who felt a need for a pre-Lent retreat. The years passed. During that time, a light-hearted group formed using mock medieval titles, and eventually traditions grew. The nominal leader was the “Prior.” Who was said to hold “absolute power,” but for a single year. There was also a “Scribe” and a “Keeper of the Purse.” A rhythm emerged focused on papers being delivered, fellowship, a spelling bee that was claimed to be an amusement, an evening gathered in the Inn’s pub called the “Flowing Bowl,” a Tuesday evening banquet featuring who knows from when a large cut of prime rib, and then a morning communion service on Wednesdays, concluding the gathering with the Prior pronouncing the event the “Best Retreat Ever.”
The membership was limited to Universalist clergy. It was also limited to the number of beds available at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. Which fluctuated a bit, but held at about twenty. And, membership was for life.
In 1961 with the consolidation with the American Unitarian Association, Unitarian clergy, and then with their ordinations Unitarian Universalist clergy joined. In 1989 the first woman minister was admitted. It would be 2007 before the first minister of color would be admitted. Given the shape of the organization, life tenure, and limited membership, change could be glacial.
But change does come. Along the years things would happen. In the 1950s during a generational shift and the near wholesale admission of the membership of the Humiliati into the Fraters certainly shaped the group radically.
But, mostly smaller things aggregated. One year when they arrived at the Inn and saw crocuses jutting out from the snow birthed a tradition of making sure crocuses were present at the gathering, and in time the flower became a symbol marking the Fraters. Stories accumulated. Once a Frater enraged during one of the spelling bees, threw a chair into the Fireplace. And then the outrage when another Frater presented the Inn with a plaque noting the Frater’s long tenure there, but starting off with a “presented by” featuring his name in the largest type. Then vegetarians joined the gathering, shocking the sensibilities of some who felt dead cow a necessary element of the banquet.
Through all of this papers were read, worship was conducted, and people grew old, died, new members joined.
And, that’s us now. We were at the edge of another generational change, a marker as significant as when the Humiliati joined. And, now they were passing. And that’s what we’ve been discussing, the shape of our gathering, and being honest, whether it was even necessary to continue.
In formation we are like many other Unitarian Universalist clergy study groups, if with some interesting elements that can only occur over time. Our particular connection to Universalism, however, remains a unique thread. But, also those pressures of the moment, the pressing demands of right, to address class, and race, and sexuality and the built in limitations of our abilities to address these terrible and significant concerns. Which left some among us feeling maybe a natural cycle was coming to an end.
I kind of felt that way. And, going to this meeting I felt maybe this would be the last of our gatherings. As the mysterious workings of the seniority system which contains epicycles within the cycles, that anoints a Prior, this was my year. Of course the real work of keeping the group going, of communicating within the membership and with the Inn fell to a smaller working group, all I had to do was invite the presenters and preside at the meetings. All I had to do.
As I was coming I’d told myself this was the end. If not for the group, at least for me.
When I picked Walt up I opined we were a gathering of Universalist antiquarians, and it seems that there is little call today for such a thing. He replied, no. That’s not what we’re about. It is, he said, an annual gathering of people who have very little in common, ordained Unitarian Universalist clergy, but otherwise of radically different gifts and interests. And, that discipline of coming together, of being present, that’s what is important. It is an enlivening project.
Then, later, briefly discussing this, Carolyn Patierno reminded me that when it was my task to invite her into the Fraters that I told her it was a spiritual discipline. We, with those varying gifts and interests, vowed our presence to each other for four days every year. That we would endeavor as best we could for as long as we could return annually to the Inn, a spiritual Brigadoon, and with that to each other and to the dream of Universal salvation.
And then our newest member Manish Mishra-Marzetti told us all that he needs us. I was caught a little aback. Manish is one of the rising stars of Unitarian Universalism. He is already a wise and generous minister with a reputation as one of the more compelling of our preachers. And he said, humbly, heart fully, he needs us.
I felt myself recalling what this project is.
Then as the papers were presented, Hank Pierce kicked it off with a discussion of how Universalism is reemerging within Protestant Christianity. And that reminded me that my observation that Universalism, which began as the belief all dead people go to heaven, shifted sometime at the turn of the previous century into a belief that all religions contain elements of truth, is vastly too superficial a description. Rather Universalism, contains those things, but really it is the great intuition that the divine is not hateful, the divine is in fact that which reconciles. The universalist message is that God is Love. And not some Hallmark card sentimental love, but as the love we find within ourselves and among ourselves that disrupts the ordinary, and allows the good to emerge.
And with that our business meeting.
We had not long ago agreed we would focus on inviting people under fifty, and as best we could people of color. All still Unitarian Universalist clergy. All always, always with a call to the mysteries of Universalism. However, what we realized in our gathering is that there is a precious and powerful and dangerous moment presenting. That generational shift was immediate and present.
Due to age and health, we are functionally able to bring in a substantial number of new members. Coming to the meeting I focused on the low attendance this year, and my heart was filled with thoughts of ending.
But. Actually while there is an ending, there is also a great turning. And that turning has been set into place. This is all opening a change as significant as when the Humiliati joined us.
And there was a right timing in this gathering. We were that smaller than usual gathering, we were tired of the disputes that accompanied many of these past discussions, and instead turned our hearts to the matter of embracing each other and the future. We reclaimed that vision of a generous table, and our vow of each of us to the other, and explicitly out of this to the hurt world. We reaffirmed the light hearted qualities of our gathering and keeping our traditions, most of them, although we did go through them all and settled on some adjustments.
Also, we reminded ourselves that our initial reason for gathering was heartfelt. We very much reclaimed that.
And we each of us, me included, renewed our commitment.
Helen Cohen’s paper outlined our history, and called us forward. She offered that we might propose an eighth principle, owning Love as our ground. Nancy Arnold’s paper on race and religion and Universalism itself spoke to all of us about what work we can do together that might be useful in the healing of this world. It spoke specifics. It was challenging and compelling.
Finally for the last paper Carolyn Patierno preached a mighty preaching. She, too, reminded us of our history, our deep history as Universalists. She spoke of our history as Fraters. She spoke of our more recent years. She named names. She was honest about shortcomings, but more she reminded us of how many of us in this gathering were her mentors and exemplars. And she spoke of the welcoming table that we are. And she spoke of the life of vow that we are.
And she reminded us of the secret truth of Universalism, reminding us of Manish’s call, and that is the happiness of people is not found alone. We are saved together. All of us need each other. Our joy depends on others’ joy. And our task in this gathering is to remind ourselves, and to prepare ourselves: to be of use.
And I saw. The Fraters of the Wayside Inn can continue. The Fraters will continue. We’re in for a bit of a body shock. Nearly a third of us will be new by our next two meetings. Almost all coming from backgrounds different than the majority of us so far. It’s exciting. It’s scary. It’s wonderful. It presents the possibilities of who we might become.
And, I believe we will continue. For how long? Who knows? As the Buddha said, all things made of parts will come apart. But, for now, we are giving ourselves away to the future. We are bringing in new members who will change us profoundly. And, at the same time, I believe, we will help them in their changing.
And the message of Universal salvation in its many possibilities will continue to be supported by this little subset of his preachers.
One of our traditions is to sing an amen.