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What Would a UU Religious Order Look Like?

One of the first essays I ever wrote in seminary, and the first essay I ever had published, was on the need for Unitarian Universalism to develop integrated spiritual practices that can be shared and engaged by large groups of Unitarian Universalists.  In that essay, I make the case that someone could make a spiritual practice of living the UU 7 Principles through something like the Zen Precepts.  In more recent days, I have moved away from using another tradition as a starting point for developing a uniquely Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice.  I have begun to wonder what a UU Spiritual Practice, and a Religious Order that engages and follows it, might look like.

These thoughts have resurfaced through the recent “Congregations and Beyond” discussion that has begun in response to Rev. Peter Morales’ white paper of that title.  In my initial response to that paper, I mentioned that one of the ways that Unitarian Universalists might engage with one another and with our religious tradition and movement outside of congregations would be through involvement in something like a religious or monastic order.

There is a history of this… sortof.  In the 1940’s and 50’s, a group of Universalist Ministers formed a group that was patterned on a “fraters” style religious order, known as the Humiliati.  They focused on theological depth and on revitalizing the Universalist Church of America.  There also was another group, known as the Congregation of Abraxas, which formed in 1975 as a group of both clergy and lay UU’s focused on revitalizing worship within our tradition.  I have had the honor and privilege to have met with and spoken with some of the last members of each of these groups about their experiences, for which I am deeply grateful.

There is more history… you could make the case that the Ministerial Sisterhood Unitarian Universalist, founded by Rev. Marjorie Leaming also played a similar role in our tradition, with its focus on supporting the growing number of women enter the (at the time) male dominated UU Ministry.  I’m sure there are many other examples, including the many UU Minister’s Study Groups that are out there, that have some similarities to what I am envisioning.

What I am dreaming of is this… a Unitarian Universalist Religious Order, dedicated to deepening individual spirituality and spiritual practice within Unitarian Universalism.  The Order would develop some shared rituals and spiritual practices.  The Order would make some shared commitments, to ourselves, to each other, to the broader movement of Unitarian Universalism, and to the world.  The Order would develop something akin to a “Rule” for daily practice and living, that could be practiced both in an institutional setting, in a retreat setting, and in daily life.  The Order would be open to both UU clergy and lay-members, and open to Unitarian Universalists of all gender identities, all sexual orientations, and all racial and cultural backgrounds.  Such a commitment to diversity would be a part of the rule of the Order.  The Order would be open to those who have made congregational commitments and those who have not.  It might even be that part of the commitments that members of the Order make could be to be in service to our congregations and movement.  They could also make commitments to be in service to the world.  The Order would include some standards of conduct, as well as a commitment to some kind of spiritual supervision within the order.

Now, as soon as I say “Religious Order” or “Monastic Order”, many people’s minds turn to issues of sex and relationship.  I would not see a UU Religious Order ever making celibacy a part of their spiritual rule.  I would however see a commitment to experiencing human sexuality in a healthy, moderated, and possibly even monogamous way a part of the rule.

I envision an Order that has both an opportunity for people to be “in residence” within the order (perhaps not initially, as that would take some time and funding to make possible) and a way for people to practice the spiritual rule and live the commitments of the order in their local communities and lives.  I would see the Order having regular spiritual retreats, and setting up patterns of responsibility and spiritual supervision.  I would see a progressive form of commitment and deepening as a part of the Order.

All an interesting dream, right?  Everywhere I turn, I see such a desire for a way to deepen our spiritual lives as Unitarian Universalists.  Now, I’m a parish minister, and I certainly know that our congregations do indeed help people to deepen their spirituality… but many people want to make a deeper commitment to their faith and to our religious movement than is required by membership in a congregation.  Often these individuals begin the path toward ministry, as that is one of the few ways we offer for people to deepen their commitment… and then realize in the first year of seminary that serving as a minister is not what they are called to.  Or rather, they are lucky if they realize it in the first year… and not three years into their first settled ministry.

I was lucky… I think I began seminary looking for a way to deepen my own faith, and in seminary found my calling to serve as a minister.

So, how would such a thing as a UU Religious Order come into being?  Would Rev. David Pyle draft the entire rule, shared spiritual practice, and vows, and then wait for people to come?  Hardly.  I’m not envisioning the “Order of Davidians”… first because that is not what I am yearning for and secondly because that name already has a lot of baggage… sigh.

In my dreams I imagine a long retreat somewhere isolated , perhaps even a month, where a group of lay and ordained Unitarian Universalists who are looking to make such a commitment come together, and explore what such a rule and Order might look like.  Where we together share our spirituality and spiritual practices, and find commonalities among us.  Where, through worship and life together, we begin to develop rituals that have meaning for our faith and our practice.  A month where we live in common our shared faith, and from that grow a religious order.

I can dare to dream, right?

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

Perhaps someday….

Rev. Brother David.

6 Thoughts on “What Would a UU Religious Order Look Like?

  1. Had I known that the Episcopalians had orders when I was thinking about joining the convent, I wouldn’t be a Universalist Unitarian today. (this was back in the day when I was an undergrad)

    The one thing that orders have that we don’t is a common text. How would that problem be solved–using them all? How would members get the in-depth hearing and reading of text that happens with most orders?

    I do find the idea fascinating though.

  2. I have often thought of this myself. I think that having one sort of Order would be fine, but why not allow any UU group to start an Order? There are your Jesuits, your Franciscans… we could have groups that were dedicated to living together in different ways, some might be most dedicated to social justice and communal living, some might be dedicated to meditation, writing, art, why not celibacy? Why not silence? These things are choices. There could be an order for women or men only, there could be mixed gender groups, for pete’s sake, we have all manner of genders in our midst! I say throw the barn doors wide.

  3. Um, no. Please, just lie down until the feeling passes. A monastic order? The last thing UU needs is to pretend it is the Benedictines or Capuchins. Just about everywhere I look, one UU church after another is suffering from some weird identity crisis. The answer is not to imitate the Catholics.
    Be proud of who you are. Stand tall and be a Unitarian Universlist.

  4. We have a spiritual practice of INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY for a week at UU Mid-Atlantic Community. It is intergenerational with children, teens, young adults, and young at heart playing together in community. It is a chance to deepen your own spiritual awareness and to broaden your connection to divine all around you. Hope you can come with your family.

  5. There is a culture of consumerism and capitalism that runs our hearts and minds in the western world; it dehumanizes people into consumers and pushes our minds into problem-solution paradigmatic thinking. For me, part of a spiritual order is separation from the “profane” world to reach a deeper space of contemplation and experience of that which moves behind, under and through. A UU spiritual order, rather than focusing on transcending human impulses, as more traditional spiritual orders from faiths that content with human urges as unhealthy, could focus on two things, 1) achieving the deepest, most healthy and most balanced elements of life, 2) separation from the predominant paradigm of consumerism, productization, and dehumanization to find the still, quiet waters that lead to deeper contemplation.

    Such a spiritual order could be a uniquely UU undertaking; it does not have to pull from models of other traditions. It could be fully modern, and focused on ways in which our own principles and identity could be explored in a contemplative, spiritual way.

  6. As a former Anglican and former Brother in a Celtic Episcopalian Religious Order, I have been seeking a similar form of religious life in the UU tradition.
    I would like to be part of one (I agree there can and should be many with different charisms) that emphasized the liberal Christian tradition and willing to embrace and renew elements of Christian monastic/vowed life.
    Please do keep me informed if you decide to move forward.
    King’s Chapel would be an ideal “Motherhouse” for this kind of religious order and
    their prayer book could be the basis of a shared prayer tradition with room for individual \private/personal prayer.
    Please let me know if I can help in any way.

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