For the past decade or so, I’ve been most concerned with the institutional health of liberal religion: there are human values which are carried best by human institutions, and without a strong institutional structure those values seem likely to wither like a plant without water and adequate soil.
But recently I have become increasingly concerned about the spiritual health of liberal religion in general, and Unitarian Universalism in particular. We religious liberals spend so much time on social justice — and there is indeed an overwhelming amount of social justice work to be done — and we spend so much time on the health of our institutions — and again, there is indeed an overwhelming amount of institutional work to be done — that it has come to seem to me that we are slighting our spiritual well-being.
Along with that, we have come to understand “spiritual well-being” in such individualistic terms that the phrase has almost no meaning within the context of institutional Unitarian Universalism. In the past month or so, I have heard the following mentioned, and even glorified, as activities that foster spiritual well-being: yoga; Zen retreats; shamanic training; dream work; walking the labyrinth; meditation that is rooted in non-Western practices. These are either highly individualistic practices, or practices rooted in another spiritual community; or both.
Yet I rarely hear religious liberals speak lovingly of the core practices that lie at the center of our own liberal religious tradition. Those core liberal religious practices include the following:
1. Keeping a journal in which one reflects on one’s spiritual health, and spiritual weaknesses;
2. Writing and sharing one’s spiritual autobiography;
3. Reading and discussing sacred texts, including those texts that have been most important to our traditions for the past two centuries: the Hebrew Bible, the Christian scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects;
4. Prayer, both reflective prayer where one thinks about one’s spiritual health, and meditative prayer where one opens oneself to a transcendent reality beyond the individual self;
5. Close and intentional observation of the natural world, often within the framework of scientific observation, but framed in terms of a larger religious vision;
6. Intentional keeping of a sabbath day.
Since these practices have fallen into such disuse, I had better try to give paradigmatic examples of each practice:
1. Emerson’s Journals. And Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is really a journal of spiritual health and well-being in the guise of a fictionalized narrative.
2. Thoreau’s Walden.
3. The sermons of John Dietrich, and the discussion they provoked.
4. The poems of May Sarton feel to me to be the results of deep prayerful reflection and meditation. For example, her poem “Jealousy”, which ends with the lines “Fifty years ago /I saw what it means to burn. /I met the destructive flame, /But only now I am old /Have I come to know / Its name.” feels like the result of what I’d call reflective prayer, and her poem “Three Things,” which ends with the lines “Wind in the poplar, tremor under the skin /Deep in the flesh, a shiver of more than blood /When lovers, water, and leaves are more than one.” feels like the result of meditative prayer.
5. Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, is one of many examples of Unitarian Universalist scientists who may understand observation and investigation of the natural world as a spiritual pursuit.
I need to talk at more length about sabbath-keeping. Ellen Tucker Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, has written one of the best descriptions of Unitarians keeping the sabbath in the nineteenth century, in her The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson (link to excerpt). Sabbath-keeping has changed dramatically since then Ellen Emerson’s time, although the principle of devoting some length of time to religious matters remains absolutely central to liberal religion. The problem lies in how we keep a Unitarian Universalist sabbath: is it an empty form of attending Sunday services, followed by conversation about congregational business, or other activities which allow us to avoid confronting ourselves and our commitment to one another?
Or do we understand Sunday services both as a time to center down and do the hard work of confronting our selves and our lives in community, as well as a time to allow our deepest yearnings to rise to the surface? Unitarian Universalist poet Everett Hoagland gets at both the hard work we need to do, and the sense of deepest yearnings, in some of his poems. His clear-eyed encounters with racism and violence can represent the hard sabbath work we need to do, as in his brief poem titled “Nagasaki”: “melted temple bells /tolling silences survive /memories flash /points”. And in one “found poem” based on what he overheard at a Sunday service, he writes about the sabbath experience itself, as in these lines: “Only a UU /would say & literally, /religiously mean /our church’s worship /service scene ‘…lifts me /beyond belief’.”
So my item of concern is this: How can we address our spiritual well-being as religious liberals in community? More specifically: Can we move away from highly individualistic practices, and practices that we have borrowed from other religious and spiritual traditions, and renew our own core spiritual practices? Could it be that our core spiritual practices are moribund, and should be abandoned? —that is, could it be that turning back to our core spiritual values will require too much of us in today’s highly individualistic and consumer-driven society?