Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Many Forms of Devotion to the Religious Life and a Challenge For UUs

Off and on throughout my childhood, I wanted to be a nun. I am sure to some extent I had a romanticized notion of the monastic life, but on the other hand, the desire was also likely an early manifestation of my calling to the religious life. I don't remember exactly when it happened, but at some point, someone said to me "You can't be a nun. You are not Catholic." My heart broke a little with those words.

It is not that I had been unaware of my religious position. By this time, I was old enough to not only have a sense of my religious community's shared understandings, but also my own beliefs. I was envious of the Catholics in several regards, from the daily worship services to the prayer candles and even the opportunity for confession, but I was clear that my own beliefs did not match the Catholic dogma. I did not desire on any level to convert, or to abandon my own faith, but I felt a deep desire for the rituals and practices of sustained, focused, and supported devotion.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, our theological diversity does not easily lend itself to communal devotional practices.  But we are spiritual seekers, and religious history the world over is ripe with religious seekers coming together for the practice of devoted religious life.  Sure, any of us has the option to give up our worldly goods and devote the entirety of our lives to spiritual work, but there is a reason that most people who do this usually enter into a community in which they can do it.  It makes a big difference to have support, to be in community with others on the journey

Even the Buddha spent much of his own search in such community.  Though the story also says that his life among other seekers brought him close to death through intentional self-starvation and dehydration, perhaps if he hadn't done preparatory work in community, the Buddha would not have been able to find his path to enlightenment. 

In fact, while even in the Catholic tradition, few people take up the monastic life, those who seek a life less intently focused on the spiritual still often come to church looking for the community of seekers.  This is especially true among Unitarian Universalists, who tend to cite "the community" as having prime importance among the many reasons to come to church (by the way, Lizard Eater wrote some interesting reflections on this in March on her blog, particularly on two interdependent posts on March 5th and 8th). 

So we understand the value of religious community, and as a community of seekers, we can respect those who, in their search, feel compelled toward a focused and sustained set of practices and even a life fully devoted to religious practice, service, or study.  My experience as a Unitarian Universalist is that most of us can understand and honor the choices of those who choose monasticism.  What I think is interesting, however, is that as a community, we do not anticipate that any of our own children will feel compelled, or called, to such a life.  And we seem to think that if they do, the reason would be dogmatic or creedal in nature, rather than an extension of their lives in search.  We bless those among our children who grow to convert to Catholicism or Buddhism, and who in doing so, choose monastic paths.  But we do not provide a path for our Unitarian Universalists who do not convert to have the same opportunities within our faith. 

As an associational body, for those Unitarian Universalists who wish to devote their lives to the religious, we offer an almost singular path.  That is, we offer the opportunity for religious leadership.  We offer some opportunities for service or "mission," but the vast majority of these are nearly completely intertwined with leadership.  As a general rule, we do not allow some folks to choose service alone, but we nearly always ask them also to be leaders.  We ask them to be Father Abott.  It is only a mild exaggeration to say there are no sheep in our flock, only shepherds. 

This fact struck me this week when I found an old "Drive Time Essays" CD for Unitarian Universalist lay leaders, and popped it in my CD player for another listen.  In a description of Unitarian Universalist youth groups, and in explanation of why most youth groups do not use curricula, one UUA essay writer stated matter-of-factly that the primary focus of these groups is leadership development.  This contrasts greatly with the expressed needs and understandings of more than one youth and parent of youth in my programs.  One parent, for example, has said to me repeatedly: "our kids can get leadership training in so many other places; that should never be the primary purpose of our youth groups."  And yet, the essay's claim does fit with my observations of youth groups around the country.  As just one illustration, with long-held respect for lay preaching, we ask all our youth to know how to lead a worship service.  But we only occasionally ask any of them to become well-practiced as worshippers. 

This pertains not only to youth, but also to adults.  Among adults who feel compelled to devote their lives to the religious, we do not support serious, focused and sustained religious study, with the exception of the study for ordained ministry (for which we provide almost no financial support, some structure and limited instruction and encouragement).  I have met more than one person who studied for the ministry only to discover after a large financial investment in this study that they were not suited for that type of leader role.  I have also met a shocking number who never made the discovery, and who either had it painfully divulged to them through the MFC, or worse, who made their way into ministry anyway.  Did this not diminish their light, their gift, and also that of our faith?

Having read about it on iMinister's blog, I watched the visual documentary "Into Great Silence" tonight, and it left me with a question for my faith community.  I can't have been the only Unitarian Universalist child who felt the call early on to the religious life but who did not want to covert in order to experience its depths.  Is it really realistic or fair to think all these children should grow to be religious leaders?  Do we not risk diminishing the light of these children if we try to mold them all into future ordained ministers (where, furthermore, parish ministry in particular is often the only financially viable option)?  Can we not cast a net wide enough for these children too, wide enough to bring their gifts into the light?

Where is the home we make for the most dedicated, most serious seekers among us, young and old alike...not just those who have the ability to lead, but also those who are compelled only toward religious practice, service, or study?  If the answer is, "there is none," and I think that is indeed the answer, then we have work to do.  Let us do it, friends, and let us have gladness in our hearts for the need to do it.


  1. You are talking about me! I have not considered it in these terms before, but the distinction you make resonates with my personal experience. I am in search of a religious life, but I have no desire, time, or energy for religious leadership. It is one of the things that makes church attendance a challenge for me. I have a hard time saying "no" to requests, partially because of an unspoken assumption that the truly dedicated and the truly spiritual will be actively involved...but when I do accept a leadership role, church becomes a dreaded chore and I begin to feel resentment. This has a draining rather than an uplifting effect on my spirit and my view of life. I need to be lifted up, to be inspired by true and natural leaders, to be challenged in my thinking, to feel love (rather than resentment) toward my fellow worshipers. By taking on formal leadership roles, I give of myself without growing in equal measure. And what kind of deflated leader does that make? I would much rather practice a quieter form of leadership - leading by example, in how I take care of myself, take care of others, and take care of the physical space we inhabit.

  2. I am glad to hear my thoughts resonate with someone. That's helpful.

    The trick with congregational communities, in my experience, is that they are indeed communities, which means we need to each actively contribute to their well being...and I think doing the right job does help us grow in equal measure to the way we give of ourselves (I like the way you put that).

    One of the things that I appreciated about the movie "Into Great Silence" last night is that it clearly demonstrated that every monk had a role, that every monk made a contribution for which he was apparently well suited. They definitely weren't consumers of community, but active caretakers. But must the jobs always require some form of leadership? Certainly among the monks, they weren't asked to be Father Abott. Only Father Abott had a desk with stacks of paper everywhere and a laptop and a phone, and a fundraising letter to write.

    Hmmm. Is this a "Mary and Martha" kind of conversation? What I mean is, would you find it fulfilling to make coffee or pass out orders of service or move around chairs when it is time to set up for a class? Or to give a ride to an elderly or ill member of the church who can't otherwise make it on Sundays, or to make such a member a meal every now and then? Something that affirms your belonging and expresses your positive contribution *when you are present* while not requiring you to step out as a leader or even make a longterm commitment?

    I am interested in whether that resonates or if that is another difficult road?

  3. Yes! I do want to be helpful and contribute to the church community. I just want that contribution to be more of the sort of examples you have given, rather than in an organizational capacity. As a sheep in the flock I want to give wool as well as graze, but I do not need to direct the herd.