We Wookies (WUUC community) have shown in practice and reflection that we place a high value on contemplative practice. We are a Unitarian Universalist community in our openness and acceptance of a variety of contemplative modalities and practices. We see the value of contemplative practice reflected in our committee agendas to our programs, from our worship to our social justice actions. In our church culture, we know that in order for transformation to be authentic and enduring, it must be embodied.

dll embodiment2However, as Unitarian Universalists, we struggle with the theology of contemplative and spiritual practice. Since our 18th c. liberal religious Congregationalist forefather Charles Chauncy articulated the value of reason over emotionalism in Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, we have given precedence to intellect over emotional intelligence. In those glimpses of contemplative sensibilities in our history, as with our beloved Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, the theology leans heavily on the words of contemplation but the articulation of the practices of contemplation are suggestive and vague.

The first of the Five Smooth Stones[1] of religious liberalism as articulated by Unitarian Theologian James Luther Adams, is that revelation is continuous. We Unitarian stonesUniversalists believe that truth is ever unfolding and the practices to realize this truth are to be revealed in the present and future. The sacred and holy sources of our faith are not limited to the past, nor to the walls of our churches but come from the richness of religious traditions, prophetic persons, and art.

It is our job as prophets to reveal the practices that can result in inner and outer transformation, practices that will help us embody our values and principles. We have the freedom to do this in dialogue with Earth-centered traditions, “Eastern” religions, Indigenous practices, and the Judeo-Christian sources. With this freedom also comes the responsibility to use these practices wisely, without misappropriation and ensuring that they are accessible to persons of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and classes.

The Rev. Thandeka has provided some help on our journey of revelation. In Love Beyond Belief, she pieces together fragments of instructions from the writings of Unitarian theologians such as Charles Chauncy, Forrest Church, and William F. Schulz and Universalist theologian and minister Hosea Ballou.[2] Each of these men spoke/speak to what should be cultivated in a Unitarian Universalist path of spiritual/contemplative practice. Rev. Thandeka condenses their teachings into three objectives. Unitarian Universalist spiritual/contemplative practices should result in:

  1. An uplifting individual change of heart;
  2. Doctrinal freedom; and
  3. A religious community’s emotional ethos of caring and compassion.

The development of Unitarian Universalist contemplative/spiritual practice at WUUC should have the goal of transforming the hearts of the individual, freeing the person from the bondage of other’s doctrines, and an emotional shift towards compassion for all.

OK. We know where we are heading, but with what practices?

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper19th c. African-American Unitarian poet and suffragette, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s life provides a possible structure for a path of responsibly syncretizing spiritual practices into Unitarian Universalism. Harper was a member of the historic First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia as well as the historic Black Mother Bethel AME Church. At First Unitarian, Harper was immersed in a culture of reason and rational thought, and witnessed a worship service that was calm, classical, and traditional. In her writing, it seems she was attracted to the rational and reasonable theology of Unitarians as well as their abolitionists and activist stances. So, why did she maintain her membership with Mother Bethel AME Church?dllembodiment5

Harper was probably reluctant to leave her relationship with the Black community, but research is unclear about Harper’s motivation for holding dual membership with the both churches. The African Methodist Episcopal Church of the 19th c. was heavily influenced by both the religious emotionalism that they inherited from their African ancestors as well as the emotionality of the First Great Awakening. At Mother Bethel A.M.E Church, it is likely that Frances Ellen Watkins Harper would have encountered the Black church practices of being slain in the spirit, filled with the holy ghost, and the prophetic word; practices that are jarringly emotional and fully embodied. Mother Harper would have undoubtedly witnessed the great African-American prophetess, Amanda Berry Smith’s spontaneous and emotional sermons as well as the documented emotional and embodied response of the audience to her sermons.

It is my belief that our foremother, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, found reason at the Unitarian church and spiritual practices of embodiment at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This balance of reasoning, justice, and spiritual practice resulted in Mother Harper’s embodied, intelligent and emotional poetry such as The Slave Auction:

The Slave Auction

By Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

The sale began—young girls were there,
Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
Revealed their anguish and distress.

And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
While tyrants bartered them for gold.

And woman, with her love and truth—
For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
With anguish none may paint or tell.

And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
Were gathered in that mournful band.

Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
Whose loved are rudely torn away.

Ye may not know how desolate
Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
Will press the life-drops from the heart.

I write to encourage us all to look for practices of embodiment that will help our community grow into its spiritual future.  Look to your family of origin, the spiritual practices that call you, our UU roots, and the traditions of your respective communities. Practice them until you have realization and bring them back to us at WUUC. Join a Black church, find a meditation community, go to retreat in the wilderness. Our community has the capacity to hold you on your spiritual journey and partner with you as you explore.

dllembodiment3It is a difficult path to hold two traditions simultaneously, there are many competing commitments that make this path difficult. I speak from experience. However, the richness of our path depends on each of us doing the spiritual work and in the end, we will be much richer from the diversity of realizations and practices in our community.

May it be so.

[1] James Luther Adams summarized the foundational beliefs of religious liberals, such as Unitarian Universalists, in Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism. The Five Smooth Stones are a play on the Biblical tale of David facing the giant, Goliath. They are: 1. Revelation is continuous, 2. Mutual consent in all of our relations, 3. Justice in human relations, 4. Virtue must be defined by social relationships and not individual piety, 5. We are rich with human and divine resources that necessitate optimism.

[2] Thandeka. (2009). Love Beyond Belief: A Paper for Prairie Group