Why I’m a Mystic (But Maybe You Shouldn’t Be)

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


From the essay “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

From Louisa May Alcott’s satire on Transcendentalism, “Transcendental Wild Oats”:

“Each member [of the community] is to perform the work for which experience, strength, and taste best fit him,” continued Dictator Lion. “Thus drudgery and disorder will be avoided and harmony prevail. We shall rise at dawn, begin the day by bathing, followed by music, and then a chaste repast of fruit and bread. Each one finds congenial occupation till the meridian meal; when some deep-searching conversation gives rest to the body and development to the mind. Healthful labor again engages us till the last meal, when we assemble in social communion, prolonged till sunset, when we retire to sweet repose, ready for the next day’s activity.”

“What part of the work do you incline to yourself?” asked Sister Hope, with a humorous glimmer in her keen eyes.

“I shall wait till it is made clear to me. Being in preference to doing is the great aim, and this comes to us rather by a resigned willingness than a wilful activity, which is a check to all divine growth,” responded Brother Timon.

“I thought so.” And Mrs. Lamb sighed audibly, for during the year he had spent in her family Brother Timon had so faithfully carried out his idea of “being, not doing,” that she had found his “divine growth” both an expensive and unsatisfactory process.

Sermon: “Why I’m a Mystic (But Maybe You Shouldn’t Be)”

When I was 16, the summer camp I worked for sent me to a weekend workshop led by Steve van Matre, an environmental educator. Steve van Matre was an observant educator. After several years of working with kids, he noticed that conventional environmental education, with its emphasis on teaching identification skills and intellectual concepts, didn’t wind up producing environmentalists. So he, and the other environmental educators with whom he worked, began developing activities that would — to use his words — “turn people on to Nature.”

One group of these new activities was called “solitude enhancing activities.” Van Matre felt that most of the time when we are supposedly in solitude, we are actually listening to a little internal voice that is constantly talking. Van Matre called this voice “the little reprobate in the attic of your mind,” and he said that it was a dangerous voice in some ways, because it keeps us from living in the present. (1)

When he said this, for the first time I became aware of that little voice in my own head. And that little reprobate in the attic of my mind did in fact talk on and on with no respite. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t un-notice it: it was constantly talking, on and on and on, and saying (if I were to be honest with myself) little or nothing of interest.

Van Matre outlined several activities that environmental educators could use to help quiet that “little reprobate in the attic of your mind.” I decided that I wanted to teach those activities to this children I worked with in the summer. Since I was brought up in a family of educators, I knew that if you’re going to teach something, it’s a good idea to try doing it yourself first. So I tried some of van Matre’s solitude enhancing activities.

One of these activities, which called “Seton-Watching,” was to sit outdoors somewhere and do nothing but simply be aware. Van Matre had told us about a time when he did this: He went outdoors, and settled down to stay absolutely still for some lengthy period of time, perhaps half an hour. After sitting absolutely still and in silence for perhaps a quarter of an hour, a hummingbird came along to look at his red hat band. This prompted van Matre to look up, so he could see the hummingbird. The motion of his head startled the bird and it flew away before he could see it, and he concluded he would have been better off remaining motionless, instead of listening to the little voice in his head that told him to look up.

I began trying this “Seton Watching” activity. One afternoon while sitting at the foot of a birch tree, the little reprobate in the attic of my mind finally stopped talking. In that moment, I suddenly became aware of — for want of a better way of describing it — the connectedness of the entire universe. It was quite a sensation. I then discovered that words were not adequate to describe this sensation — it was not in fact a sense of the connectedness of the universe, but something that couldn’t be put into words. Which makes sense, because this sensation only occurred when that little voice in my head stopped talking. Words are very powerful and very useful, but there are other kinds of knowing that have nothing to do with words; and trying to describe those other kinds of knowing with words must obviously be a pointless exercise.

It turns out that experiences like this are fairly common. These experiences have been classed together under the title “mystical experiences.” When the psychologist William James studied mystical experiences, he argued they had two defining features. First, said James, the person who has a mystical experience “immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” James goes on to add: “It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.” Second, James said, mystical states are experienced by those who have them as a kind of knowing: “They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” James also pointed out that mystical experiences tend to be short-lived and transient, and they are generally passive. (2)

Mystical experiences are fairly common — William James believed that as many as a quarter of all people have them. And that makes me wonder — what good are these experiences? I’m less interested in whether these experiences are useful, but instead I wonder whether these experiences tend to move you towards or away from truth and goodness. To use the language of the Unitarian minister and mystic Theodore Parker: the moral arc of the universe is long, and the question is whether these experiences help bend it towards justice, or not.

I think mystical experiences can lead to justice, but they can also lead to injustice. In my observation, mystical experiences, when supported by the right kind of community, can strengthen individuals to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. However, I’ve also seen how mystical experiences may twist an individual towards psychopathologies like narcissism and delusion, or embolden an individual to abuse their power and indulge their greed.

Here’s what I think causes someone to follow one or the other of these two possible paths. If someone has a mystical experience and they think it makes them special and somehow better than other people, that can prove to be the path to psychopathology or abusiveness. These people tend to have mystical experiences outside of a supportive and critical community. They are hyper-individualists, and the combination of mysticism and individualism can create a toxic brew. On the other hand, if someone has a mystical experience and is part of a community that holds them accountable for their actions, then a mystical experience can help that person bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. A mystical experience can provide a vision for a better future where Earth shall be fair and all her people one.

In the second reading this morning, the excerpt from “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Louisa May Alcott tells a story of how mysticism can be destructive. “Transcendental Wild Oats” is based on Alcott’s lived experience. When she was a girl, her father moved his family to Fruitlands, a utopian community in Harvard, Massachusetts. The men who started the Fruitlands community were mystics, and their mystical insights informed them — so they said — of how to run the perfect human community. But the Fruitlands community fell apart in seven short months. The male mystics in charge of the community were unable to grow the crops they were depending on, unable to do anything practical, while the women in the community did their best to keep the children safe and feed everyone. Louisa May Alcott’s story “Transcendental Wild Oats” is a thinly disguised satire of the Fruitlands community. Alcott lays bare the sexism and the ignorance of the men whose abuse of their mystical experiences made the lives of other people miserable.

(I should note in passing that Louisa May Alcott was a Unitarian. But hers was not an individualistic religion; hers was a religion of community, connection, and mutual support.)

In our first reading, another Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, described one of his own mystical experiences. In a now-famous image, Emerson wrote: “…All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Christopher Cranch, a contemporary of Emerson’s and a fellow Unitarian minister, drew a cartoon making fun of Emerson’s transparent eye-ball: the cartoon shows an eyeball wearing a top hat atop a tiny body with long spindly legs. (3) I think what makes Emerson’s transparent eye-ball image so prone to mockery is the fact that it’s too individualistic. This is my criticism of Emerson’s mysticism: he is too self-centered. Emerson had the opportunity to go out and wander in the fields and become a transparent eye-ball in part because he left all the housework, all the management of their children, to his wife, Lidian. (4) This sounds too much like the mysticism that Louisa May Alcott satirized. If you become a transparent eye-ball while wandering the fields in leisure, that will be quite different from the mystical experiences you might have while caring for children, or mending clothes, or cooking dinner for your family.

And this brings me to another well-known mystic, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was raised as a Unitarian, but left in his early twenties because the church in Concord, where he was a member, refused to offer wholehearted support to the abolition of slavery. Thoreau’s most famous descriptions of his own mystical experiences occur in this book Walden. Once again, Thoreau’s mysticism is open to mockery. Critics of Thoreau love to tell the story of how Thoreau didn’t actually lead the life of a mystical hermit at Walden Pond — he went home regularly so his mother could do his laundry and cook him dinner. It’s easy to be a mystic when your mom cooks you dinner.

But I think Thoreau’s critics miss the point. While it is true that Thoreau didn’t break out of the strict gender roles of his time, at least he did much of his own cooking and cleaning while living at Walden. And Thoreau had to go home regularly to help his father run the family business of manufacturing pencils (an appropriate role for his gender in those times). Equally important for our purposes, Thoreau also went home to attend meetings of the anti-slavery group led by his mother. The Thoreau family was part of the Underground Railroad, and Thoreau wrote that his cabin at Walden Pond served as a place to harbor fugitive slaves. And while he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau spent that famous night in jail because he refused to pay taxes that went to support an unjust war.

We can rightly criticize Thoreau for his sexism, the unquestioned sexism of his time. And it’s easy to make fun of his mysticism. But unlike the mysticism of the organizers of Fruitlands, Thoreau’s mysticism didn’t keep him from successfully growing his own food, and building his own house. And while Emerson’s mysticism can come across as self-indulgent, Thoreau’s mysticism gave him the strength to take courageous action against slavery, and against unjust war.

When I had my own first mystical experience, I lived in Concord, where Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau had all lived. The Concord public schools gave us a heavy dose of the Concord authors, so at age sixteen I knew their stories. I had even started to read Thoreau’s Walden, and liked him the best of all the Concord authors. So when I had my own mystical experience, I had Thoreau’s example to show that mystical experiences could move one towards making the world a better place.

The justification for a mystical experience is to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. This helps explain Martin Luther King’s fascination with Thoreau. I suspect King had his own mystical experiences, which he no doubt understood from within his progressive Christian worldview. King understood how his deeply-felt religious experiences could give him the strength he needed to confront injustice. Nor is he the only one whose mystical experiences helped them bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Hildegard de Bingen drew strength from her mysticism to enlarge the role of women within the confines of her medieval European society. Mahatma Gandhi drew on his mystical experiences to help him confront the evils of colonialism in India. And so on.

Just remember that you don’t need to be a mystic in order to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Some people have mystical experiences, and some people don’t. Having a mystical experience doesn’t make you a better person; what makes you a better person is furthering the cause of truth and justice. But if you are one of those people who happens to have a mystical experience or two, may you use it to strengthen you to help make the world a better place.


(1) Van Matre’s approach is outlined in his books Acclimatizing, a Personal and Reflective Approach to a Natural Relationship (American Camping Assoc., 1974) and Acclimatization : A Sensory and Conceptual Approach to Ecological Involvement (American Camping Assoc., 1972). The quote comes from my notes of van Matre’s workshop on 6 May 1977.

(2) William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 381.

(3) Here’s Cranch’s cartoon:

A sketch of a transparent eyeball on long spindly legs.
from Wikimedia Commons, public domain image

(4) For an account of busy Lidian’s daily life, see the biography by her daughter, Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. by Delores Bird Carpenter (Boston: Twayne, 1981).

Is It Religion? (part 1) — Sports

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “We’re Human Beings” by Jill McDonough.


The first reading this morning is from “The Cult of the Red Sox” by Mark Silk, (“Spiritual Politics,” Religion News Service, October 31, 2013):

“Anyone who lives in New England knows that sports is religion. There are different denominations, albeit these are not (ecumenical souls that we are) mutually exclusive. You can be a devotee of the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics, and Huskies all at once.

“Of course, the most exalted regional cult is the Red Sox, who have been playing in their Fenway Park shrine since 1912. This year’s bearded incarnation was a dead ringer for the barnstorming teams fielded in the early 20th century by the Israelite House of David, a Michigan commune dedicated to gathering in the 12 Tribes of Israel to await the imminent Millennium.

“In the latter 20th century, the Red Sox sought the in-gathering of the six tribes of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut in anticipation of the Millennium that arrived in 2004, when they captured a world championship for the first time since Babe Ruth propelled them to one in 1918. Last night, Red Sox Nation celebrated its third championship in 10 years. Hosannah!

“Once upon a time, baseball’s gods were indentured to their teams by the reserve clause. Like Athena in Athens or Apollo in Delphi, they were permanent fixtures of a city unless the owner decided to trade them away (as Harry Frazee traded Ruth to the Yankees in 1919). Now, thanks to free agency, the gods can shop around for their gigs. Moving from city to city, they are, perforce, less attached to any of them.

“In Boston, this year, it was more like the old days. When the city was rocked by the Marathon bombing a few games into the season, the players, most of them newcomers, found themselves essential to civic recovery….”

The second reading was the poem “Baseball and Classicism,” by Tom Clark.

Sermon : “Is It Religion, Pt. 1: Sports”

Is sports a religion? The answer is — yes. The answer is also — no.

I guess I’ll have to explain what I mean. And to simplify things, I’ll begin by focusing on just one sport. The world of sports is large and complex, and it is composed of many denominations, sects, and cults. I suppose I should focus on the sport that is most widespread in the world, which is association football, known as soccer here in the United States. But we live close to Boston, where baseball reigned supreme for many years. With the coming of the prophet Tom Brady to the Patriots, some of baseball’s fair-weather fans became football fans, but now that the prophet Brady has gone back to San Mateo or wherever he came from, the faithful are slowly drifting back to the fold. So baseball it is.

It doesn’t matter that the Sox have finished three of the last four seasons in the cellar. This is not a Church of Baseball where salvation is measured by wins and losses. This is the peculiar cult known as Red Sox Nation. Regardless of whether the Sox are winning or losing, the faithful of Red Sox Nation make their annual pilgrimages to Fenway Park from all over New England east of the Connecticut River. The pilgrimage to Fenway is the religious dream of every member of Red Sox Nation:– to sit beside that holy ground, to watch the ritual battle of pitcher against batter, to drink the sacred warm beer (for which you paid eleven dollars), to join in the sacred ritual chants of “No batter, no batter,” “Let’s go Red Sox,” and “Hey ump, you couldn’t call a cab.” And for the pilgrims of Red Sox Nation, the ultimate religious experience is to be in Fenway for a game between the Sox and the hated Yankees. Because for the faithful of Red Sox Nation, baseball is more than a game, it is in its highest form a re-enactment of the universal Battle between Good and Evil.

Have I convinced you yet that Red Sox Nation is a religion, or at least a religious cult?

Even I have been converted to the cult of Red Sox Nation. Even I, who have approximately zero interest in sports. I’m one of those people whose only interest lies in outdoor sports — hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing — and outdoor sports don’t count as real sports. Yet fifteen years ago, before I moved out to California, I was a member of Red Sox Nation. I made my pilgrimages to Fenway. I read the box scores, back when newspapers carried box scores. I listened to Joe Castiglione give the sacred broadcasts. If the Red Sox can get someone like me to follow sports — then it must be more than sports, it must be religion.

Yet of course baseball can’t be religion. Sports can’t be religion. We all know what religion is. Social scientists here in the United States even have specific measurements to determine someone’s religiosity — things like belief in a higher power, engagement in prayer or an equivalent spiritual practice, attendance at religious services, affiliation to a religious institution, and so on. We are likely to use much the same measures as social scientists. If someone goes to church or temple, if they believe in God, if they pray regularly, if they identify with some widely accepted religion — then we call them religious. We who are not social scientists might add a couple of additional criteria for what defines a religious person — you’re supposed to read a sacred text or texts, and you’re only supposed to have one religious affiliation at a time.

By these measure, baseball is not a religion. But by these same measures, Unitarian Universalism is not a religion either. Many Unitarian Universalists do not believe in God. Many of us do not pray, nor even engage in any other widely accepted spiritual practice such as meditation. Many of us have multiple religious affiliations. A good number of us do not care much about sacred texts. Quite a few perfectly good Unitarian Universalists do not attend weekly services.

The problem with the usual American definition of religion is that it is based on Western Protestant Christianity. In order to be a Protestant Christian, you do have to believe in God. You do have to pray. You do have to read your Bible. You do have to attend religious services regularly. And you can only belong to one religion at a time.

We then apply these standards, which are based on Western Protestant Christianity, to all other religious traditions. It’s pretty straightforward to apply these criteria to Judaism and Islam. But we have to be more creative when applying these criteria to Buddhism: we have to include Buddhist meditation as a form of prayer, the sutras are like the Bible, and we get around the requirement of belief in God by saying that Buddhists believe in Buddha who is sort of like Jesus Christ.

We manage to make our clumsy definition of religion work — sort of — by forcing non-Christian traditions into Christian categories. This can become awkward. Take, for example, Confucianism. (Which, by the way, is called Confucianism by people in the West because we like to think of Confucius as a sort of sacred founder figure like Jesus Christ, even though he’s not that at all.) When Christian missionaries went to China in the early Modern era, they said to Confucian scholars, “Confucianism is a religion, right?” To which the scholars said, “Hm. Maybe. Well… not really.” Or take Shintoism. When Westerners finally forced their way into Japan in the late nineteenth century, they told the Japanese that Shintoism was a religion. This led to a certain amount of confusion because there was no word for “religion” in Japanese at that time. It turns out that our Western category of religion is not a universal category at all.

We can try to make religion into a more universal category by defining it something like this: Religion is that which brings meaning to our lives. To paraphrase the mid-twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich, religion is the ground of being. This definition fits better with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, and Unitarian Universalism. This definition also fits sports. Sports brings meaning to the lives of many people. It can serve as the ground of our being.

If sports really is a religion, that could lead to some interesting conclusions.

First of all, like organized religion, sports does more than just bring meaning to people’s lives. Like organized religion, sports can also help build character and develop leadership abilities. This mostly applies to actually playing sports, as opposed to just watching sports. When you play sports, you learn self-discipline — just as when you learn spiritual practices like meditation or prayer, you learn self-discipline. Playing sports teaches you how to work with others on a team — just like serving on a committee in our congregation teaches you how to work with others on a team. And playing sports teaches you both leadership skills and followership skills, because you have to learn when to lead and when to follow the leadership of others — not unlike organized religion where we are constantly learning and relearning how and when to lead and how and when to follow.

But there is a fairly large difference between sports and religious traditions like Mainline Protestantism, Reform and Conservative Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, and other more progressive religious groups. These more progressive religious groups maintain the equality of men and women, recognize LGBTQIA+ rights, and rely on democratic process in running their congregations. By contrast, most sports teams are run as hierarchies, not as democracies. Most sports teams require a rigid separation of the sexes, and men’s sports are seen as more important. Most sports no room for non-binary or genderqueer people. Let’s take these one at a time.

We may criticize organized religion for being patriarchal, but organized sports is far more patriarchal. While it is true that Title IX requires schools to spend equal amounts of money on boys’ and girls’ sports, in most schools the all-male football team reigns supreme at the top of the sports hierarchy, while women’s sports like field hockey and softball remain at the bottom. In pro sports, the most popular major league teams are always the men’s teams. And there is really no place for non-binary or genderqueer people in sports. The only team sport I could think of where all genders are allowed to play on one team is Ultimate Frisbee, a sport that is so low on the sports hierarchy that it’s below even women’s sports.

Not only are most sports patriarchal, team sports are also hierarchal and non-democratic. A high school soccer team doesn’t get to vote on who their coach is going to be — the school administration hires the coach without any input from the students. (Compare that soccer team to this congregation, where you vote on whether to call your ministers; and think of the typical soccer coach who is far more authoritarian than you would ever allow me to be.) And then there are the referees, outside authorities who can wield great power over players and coaches. We are so accustomed to the hierarchy of coaches and referees that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine a democratically run team sport where the players referee themselves. Again, the only sport I could think of where players referee themselves is Ultimate Frisbee, which is barely even a sport.

Now let me turn to another conclusion. If we think of sports as a religion, I suspect a significant part of the well-documented decline of organized religion is not about people becoming less religious — instead, I suspect that people are leaving traditional religions for sports and other cultural phenomena that help people give meaning to their lives. I’m willing to bet that many of the so-called “Nones,” the people who check off “None” when asked their religious affiliation, have simply substituted sports for religious affiliation.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. If you feel you get more meaning from sports than from organized religion, who am I to tell you otherwise? Just remember that sports is not democratic, while by contrast progressive religious groups are bulwarks of democracy, training people in democratic skills and generally supporting democratic principles.

Ours is one of those congregations that is a bulwark of democracy. If you participate in this congregation, you get to practice basic skills of democracy, things like participating in committee meetings, joining with like-minded people to influence policy-makers, learning how to do public speaking, and voting in our annual meeting. We also openly advocate for democracy. We remind each other to vote, we remind each other to contact our elected representatives, sometimes we gather with others to exercise our right of peaceful assembly. In this, we are like many more progressive religious groups that support democratic process. I was just talking with my friend the Reform Jewish rabbi, and his congregation is as big a supporter of democracy as is ours; like our congregation, his congregation advocates for democratic principles and uses democratic principles to run their congregation. The Sikh gurdwara that I got to know about while living in Silicon Valley was another congregation that serves as a bulwark of democracy. In fact, aside from the Christian nationalists and some fringe groups like the Scientologists, it seems to me that most of the religious groups in the United States support democracy more than organized sports does.

So let’s return to the question with which I began: Is sports a religion? The answer is still — yes and no. No, sports is not a religion because the IRS doesn’t automatically grant tax exemptions to sports teams. No, sports is not a religion because you don’t have to believe in God or pray (but by those criteria, Therevada Buddhism isn’t a religion either.)

But — yes, sports is a religion because it gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives. Sports is a religion for many people who no longer have a religious affiliation, where it fills a religion-shaped hole in their lives. And sports provides additional meaning and purpose in the lives of many people who are part of more typical religious groups like our congregation. We should honor all the things that sports brings to the lvies of many people.

But even if you can’t accept sports as a religion, it seems pretty clear that while organized religion is in decline, sports continues to grow. And there’s a problem with these two trends. Sports does not provide major support for democracy in the way that many religious groups do. Yet we live in a time when democracy is under attack; democracy needs all the help and support it can get. We need as many institutions as we can possibly get to support democracy, and democratic principles. So religious traditions like ours remain critical bulwarks of democracy.

Why I Don’t Pray (But Maybe You Should)

Please note: I did not have time to fully correct the sermon text, so no doubt it’s full of errors. Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is by the Unitarian Universalist choral conductor and composer Nick Page:

“I composed a piece of music called ‘Healing Prayer,’ to be sung by combined choirs and congregations. I wrote it because a dear friend had been diagnosed with leukemia. He asked that his friends neither visit him nor call him, but rather that we simply pray for him. And people prayed—even many who had never before given prayer a thought. My friend is now well on his way to recovery. I am far too scientific to say that our prayer healed him, but I know that those of us who prayed found a deeper connection to him, to each other, and to the world we live in — and I know that my friend also found that connection between self and all things. I also know that this connection was more than mere thoughts — it was tangible — as tangible as the medical treatment he also received.”

The second reading is a poem by Denis Levertov, from her book Oblique Prayers (1984). The text is online here.

Sermon: “Why I Don’t Pray (But Maybe You Should)”

Back in 1999, I was serving on the Pamphlet Commission of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These days, pamphlets are produced by staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association, but back then they relied on volunteers to create pamphlets. We were working on a pamphlet titled “Unitarian Universalist Views of Prayer.” This was part of a series of pamphlets where we asked a variety of Unitarian Universalists to give their views on topics such a God, the Bible, prayer, and so on. Each pamphlet showcased the wide range of opinions that can be found among Unitarian Universalists, and part of the point was to show that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a doctrine or dogma. We find our way to truth, not by having someone else tell us what is true, but through dialogue and through trying out ideas on other people and having our ideas modified and changed through our participation in a religious community. Ours is a pragmatic approach to religion, a pragmatism that is related to scientific method.

Cathy Bowers was the Commission member charged with coming up with material for this pamphlet. She solicited brief essays on prayer from a wide range of Unitarian Universalists, who held a wide range of viewpoints. Cathy solicited an essay from Anita Farber-Robertson, and Anita wrote about a devastating illness she had had in her thirties, saying, “For the first time in my life, I understood intercessory prayer…. I asked my friend to pray for me. He did. I was astonished at its power.” Intercessory prayer is the classic type of prayer where we ask God or some other divine power for help in our lives.

As a way of contrast, Cathy then got James Ishmael Ford, who is both an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, to write about prayer from the Zen perspective. James wrote, “I’ve found through ordinary attention I can know enough to find authentic peace and joy.” This type of prayer is sometimes know as centering prayer, or meditative prayer, and it need not have anything to do with God. in a similar vein, Cathy then asked Roger Cowan, an avowed humanist, about prayer, and he wrote: “I am a humanist who prays, who begins each morning with devotional readings and a time of silence and prayer.”

And Cathy also got some people to write about types of prayer that we might not usually term prayer. Nick Page, the Unitarian Universalist choral conductor, wrote about how music became a form of prayer for him. We heard part of Nick’s essay in the first reading this morning, and he concluded by saying that he wrote his “Healing Prayer” composition “not because I believe in a higher power, but because I believe in a living universe with energies both powerful and subtle — all mysterious.”

In the end, Cathy came up with a really good collection of seven different UU views on prayer. In typical Unitarian Universalist fashion, each of these seven people interpreted prayer in different ways, but each of them spoke movingly about the power of prayer. She presented these essays to us at the next meeting of the Commission. Everyone on the Commission (except me) spoke enthusiastically about the seven essays. I kept quiet for a while — Cathy was an old friend of mine, and I didn’t want to sound negative — but I finally asked: “Where’s the essay that says prayer is a crock of beans?” Because, as I pointed out, there were a lot of Unitarian Universalists — people like me — who don’t pray at all. If we were going to be true to the title “UU Views on Prayer,” then we needed to represent those of us who don’t pray.

Cathy and the rest of the Commission readily agreed, somewhat to my surprise, and Cathy promised to contact several well-known Unitarian Universalist atheists and humanists to ask one of them to write a brief essay on why they didn’t pray. But she ran into a problem: no one seemed to be willing to write such an essay. One well-known Unitarian Universalist humanist just didn’t answer her inquiries. A well-known Unitarian Universalist atheist gave a reply that could be boiled down to, “What is this, some kind of joke?” Others were more polite, but all came up with excuses to not write about why they don’t pray.

At that point, everyone on the Commission turned to me and told me that I’d have to write the piece about how prayer was a crock of beans. Now, I was in no mood to write anything. My mother had died a couple of years earlier, I had just started a new job, and I was trying to complete a master’s degree in my spare time. But they wouldn’t let me off the hook. “It doesn’t have to be long,” they said. “Just a paragraph.” So here is what I wrote:

“I don’t pray. As a Unitarian Universalist child, I learned how to pray. But when I got old enough to take charge of my own spiritual life, I gradually stopped. Every once in a while I try prayer again, just to be sure. The last time was a couple of years ago. My mother spent a long, frightening month in the hospital, so I tried praying once again but it didn’t help. I have found my spiritual disciplines — walks in nature, deep conversations, reading ancient and modern scripture — or they have found me. Prayer doesn’t happen to be one of them.” Nearly a quarter of a century later, I have a different set of spiritual disciplines or practices or whatever you want to call them — but prayer still isn’t one of them. Every once in a while, I still try praying, and it still doesn’t do anything for me.

However…. That brief essay only talks about personal prayers I might do for myself. If someone else wants me to pray for them, I’m more than happy to do so. So, for example, if I had known Anita Farber-Robertson during her thirties when she was so ill, and if she had asked me to pray for her, of course I would have prayed for her. Now I’m a minister, and when you’re a minister people ask you to pray for them all the time. Of course if someone asks me to pray for them, I will do so, and I will put my heart into it. I don’t believe the notion that dominates modern Western culture, that religious belief must underlie religious ritual. I agree with the ancient Greeks and Romans — you don’t have to believe in the gods in order to participate in religious rituals.

In fact, for me as a Unitarian Universalist, I think it’s most accurate to say that religion centers on community, and that ritual exists to keep the community healthy. For us Unitarian Universalists, our main ritual is coming together once a week as a community; if we pray for each other, the biggest effect of those prayers is to help us draw closer to one another. While many of us are believers (and many of us are non-believers), our communal religion is primarily based on connections between people, and the connections we humans have with the rest of the world around us.

Speaking as a Unitarian Universalist, then, if someone asks me to pray for them, it doesn’t matter whether I believe in prayer. It doesn’t matter whether prayer is part of my personal spiritual community. What matters is that someone has asked me for something that’s very simple to offer — a prayer. If I pray for them, I’m helping to strengthen the interdependent web of humanity. So if someone asks me to pray for them, I’m generally going to say yes. When Anita Farber-Robertson asked her friend to pray for her while she was so ill, he said yes. It didn’t matter whether he had a regular prayer practice, or whether he was like me, someone who never prayed. He prayed for Anita, and she found herself “astonished at its power.” This is the power of human interdependence.

This raises the interesting question of what happens when someone prays for someone else. Anita wrote about the astonishing sense of power she felt from intercessory prayer. Was this sense of power real or imaginary? I can almost hear some of you thinking: “But scientific studies have shown that prayer [choose one] does / doesn’t work.” That misses the point. Prayer cannot be adequately studied with the kind of objective statistical analyses that science does so well. Prayer is about your very subjective experience. Anita felt the power of intercessory prayer, which we could also call the power of human connection. By contrast, I’m one of those people who doesn’t happen to feel the power of human connection if others pray for me or if I pray for others. I happen to feel the power of human connection in other ways. There is a great range of subjective experience among human beings, which is part of what makes it so difficult to be human.

James Ishmael Ford, the Zen Buddhist priest and Unitarian Universalist minister, wrote about another kind of prayer from his perspective, saying: “I’ve found the beauty and mystery and grace of our existence are revealed in prayerful attention. Through attention we can come to know the connections.” Christians might call this type of prayer “centering prayer.” Secularists might call this “meditation.” These types of prayer involve stilling your thoughts, and simply paying attention. This is another way that we can become aware of the power of human connection, and indeed the power of our connection to nonhuman organisms and indeed to the non-living world as well. Many of us in this congregation find this type of prayer to be extraordinarily meaningful, providing shape and even purpose to your lives.

As is true with other kinds of prayer, meditation or centering prayer doesn’t work for everyone. I meditated regularly for many years, then finally stopped because I sometimes had negative experiences, where meditation wasn’t calming; instead it threw me off balance. It turns out that negative experiences during meditation are fairly common, with perhaps a quarter of all people who meditate having had some kind of negative experience. As with intercessory prayer, people differ in their experience of centering prayer and meditation — for some of us, centering prayer or meditation is an essential part of our lives; for others of us, centering prayer and meditation don’t work.

It is fortunate for us that we are Unitarian Universalist, so we don’t feel like I have to keep doing something that either doesn’t work for us, or leads to negative experiences. We are a pragmatic people, we Unitarian Universalists. If a Unitarian Universalist wants to learn centering prayer, the rest of us encourage them to give it a try. If it doesn’t work for them, they are still just as welcome in our community.

Similarly, if one of us Unitarian Universalists asks the rest of this community for prayers — prayers for healing, prayers for getting life back on track, whatever the request might be — we as a community are going to pray for that person. This is what we do each week during our worship service when we listen to one another during the candles of joy and concern. While a few of us may be so creeped out by prayer that they really feel they can’t pray, it doesn’t matter, the rest of us can pick up the slack. Some among us may not believe in prayer but are still willing to offer up a prayer; if the recipient of the prayer feels it’s meaningful, then it’s meaningful.

I’m sure the people sitting here this morning, or participating online, represent a wide diversity of views of prayer. We have Buddhists among us who might agree with James Ishmael Ford’s views of prayer. We have Christians among us who, along with Anita Farber-Robertson, may feel the power of traditional intercessory prayer. We have agnostics and atheists among us, some of whom pray, and other who think prayer is a crock of beans. We doubtless have some Pagans and New Age people among us who might or might not use the word “prayer” but who engage in some kind of prayer-like practice. A few us of are mystics like me, and as is typical of mystics our views are going to be all over the place. And I’m sure there are musicians among us who, like Nick Page, feel that making music is what they do for prayer.

Yet even with this great diversity of viewpoints on prayer, we come together in community. We are bound, not by doctrine or dogma, but by the ties of community. If someone asks us for prayer, we’ll do our best to comply with their request . This is what community members do for one another. We do our best to support each other. Some of us are overwhelmed by life, and it’s all we can do to show up on Sunday morning, either online or in person — or maybe we don’t even show up on Sunday morning, but we still think about this community. Yet even when you feel overwhelmed by life, you can still be supported by this community. And maybe that’s the real power of prayer: it doesn’t require extraordinary effort. All you have to do is think of someone else, and if you want you can say a few words that sound like a prayer to you. It doesn’t seem like much. But the power of that tiny little act might astonish us with its power.