There are 317 readings in the UU hymnal, designed to provide words of wisdom, comfort, exhortation, prophecy and joy apposite to the occasions which present themselves at church. Which, candidly, is a panoply of human life.
Sticklers notice: I will be using UU and Unitarian interchangeably. It’s inaccurate and kicks church history in tender parts, but ainsi soit-il.
As a lengthy aside, I purchased a copy of the hymnal and gave it to my cheerfully atheist mOm, as she is the designated driver and provider of editorial content for the crafty circle of elderwomen she remains connected to at the retirement home (which was the last home of her mother-in-law). (My folks are still, praise evidence based medicine & competent ambulance attendants, in their own home.) As such she must occasionally find words for occasions, and I thought I’d minister to her by providing her with some very nice quotations. I also wanted her to be able to find lyrics and words to follow along from Orders of Service I provided her with from time to time when I delivered homilies (see list to the left).
Although she has declared herself permanently disinclined to religiosity, however friendly a face it may present to atheism, I keep hoping that she’ll wake up one morning and declare for Unitarianism, like 16th century Hungary. (I must hasten to add that my mOm is not as big as Hungary, although she contains multitudes). Given that my pOp blew out of the Anglican church the day he was confirmed – to make his mother happy, may she rest in the comfort of Denny’s presence for all eternity in a specially constructed atheist heaven – I can only imagine my father attending church after a stroke which destroyed both frontal lobes, his hearing and his taste buds, and at this point my imagination reels at the prospect of my mother ever darkening a church door in Victoria unless I was presenting.
I’m sure she’ll quirk an eyebrow when she reads that, but I’ve tried not to be a pest in my conversion attempts and she’s been very patient with me.
Aside aside, the hymnal is full of great quotes. Roughly half of them were written by Unitarians, and the rest come from an array of holy books, atheists, agnostics, pagans, Christians and poets. It is a collection of words useful when depth of emotion overwhelms our capacity to frame a spoken response, or when we’re feeling lazy.
Unitarianism is a religion which has dodged liturgy, ducked canon, rejected creed and flattened hierarchy for so long that it has come to be defined (by outsiders) as offering a kind of nebbish-y nebulous feelgood question-of-sin-dodging heathenism, mocking Christianity with its vintage Orders of Service but spitting on Jesus and trampling the Bible underfoot in the ultimate glorification of apostasy. Neither of which we do. We revere Jesus and continue to draw both comfort and sermon ideas from the Bible. We do not worship Jesus or take the Bible literally. Right there we sacrifice the right to call ourselves Christians, but I guess it’s legit if we call ourselves Protestants, cause we’re still protesting everything we can. As we are able.
I prefer to think of Unitarianism as being evidence based religion. Yeah, I know, it sounds like a contradiction in terms, but I think I can at least provoke some discussion on the matter.
In the course of human events, and rather earlier than everybody else, Unitarians became convinced that black people (and other POCs) and women were persons, which meant that they had to change the organization to accommodate them as full members, and anoint them as worthy of the ministry. So it was that the first woman ordained in the US, the highly remarkable Olympia Brown, was ordained in 1863 (probably not coincidentally during the budding of the women’s rights movement coexistent with abolitionism during the Civil War) and so it was that one of the charter members of the Gloucester MA church was a free black man. (No date available at press time, but it was at least 50 years before the Civil War.)
How long did it take science to catch up? Cheezy Pete, check out the UNESCO declaration. Whoopsy, the scientists gathered themselves up after the carnage and frenzy and sacrifice and heroism of WWII to declare race to have no scientific basis. (Whether women are human beings remains an open question on sizable chunks of this old world. Count me as a believer.)
Unitarians had thrown their hearts over THAT fence more than a century earlier, even if we’ve done a shitty job of being integrated since (and that will be ANOTHER rant). So when I say that Unitarians are an evidence based religion, it’s to say that we came to a decision, as an organization, that we can’t fear science any more than we fear the light of the sun or the silence of our sanctuary. (We can always bring sunscreen and wear headphones). We WILL KEEP THROWING OUR HEARTS OVER THAT FENCE. And science, sapientia, Sophia, will keep catching up with us, and showing that when we love, when we work for justice, when we instill inquiry and lovingkindness in our children, when we speak truth to power, science will come along and provide evidence, and tools, and confirmation, even it comes later. We trust the dawning future because it’s always been there for us. Always. That’s what being in the vanguard of religion means. The past is awesome and we love poking around in it but children are starving now, and we look to a future in which that can be made impossible.
When Montreal congregations put themselves at hideous risk by providing contraception and abortion information to women in the 60s, it was before the laws changed. When Unitarians put themselves at hideous risk hiding fleeing slaves, it was before the laws changed. And the laws changed in part because of us, because AT EVERY STAGE of liberalization of laws regarding human rights, in both the US and Canada, Unitarians have been in there preaching, marching, organizing, lobbying and in general kicking ass, taking names, and staying up late putting stamps on newsletters.
Thank you for your patience thus far. Back to the hymnal.
The readings are divided into groups, roughly, words which are plug and play with the Order of Service, words apt to or from our Living Tradition, and words for special occasions. There’s everybody from Maya Angelou to Israel Zangwill in there.
Here begins the drunkard’s walk. In most cases the quote will be a partial one from the reading, just for flavour, and also to maintain some kind of distance in terms of legal right to reprint. I can quote for commentary but just dumping the whole reading is disrespectful.
Reading 420, Annie Dillard: We are here to abet creation and to witness to it.
Tangential comment: Annie Dillard is one of the most amazing writers in the English language. The fact that she quoted Dorothy Dunnett in one of her works will be amusing to at least one of my blog readers.
Reading 429, William F. Schultz: Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit.
Reading 435, Kathleen McTigue: We come together this morning to remind one another to rest for a moment on the forming edge of our lives.
The line “the forming edge of our lives” hits that sweet spot of brevity, accuracy and power which characterizes many of my favourite readings from the hymnal.
Reading 440, Phillip Hewett (minister emeritus of UCV and one of the finest theologians and preachers of our faith in Canada and whose participation in Rev Thorne’s Rite of Ordination was one of the high points…): Let us labor in hope for the dawning of a new day without hatred, violence, and injustice.
Amen, venerable Phillip. (This is a joke which someone who attended the Ordination might find amusing).
Reading 441, Jacob Trapp (I’d provide a link regarding this remarkable UU preacher but the best one goes to a PDF of his eulogy): Worship is kindred fire within our hearts; it moves through deeds of kindness and through acts of love.
Reading 447, Albert Schweitzer (who likely doesn’t need an introduction): At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.
I think this reading, which is for the chalice lighting at the commencement of the service, for the annunciation of sacred space, is part of Beacon’s DNA.
Reading 457, Edward Everett Hale. This I think may be Peggy’s favourite reading from the hymnal, I could be wrong. It sure is one of mine. I quote it in its entirety: I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
Reading 462, Paul Robeson: The song of freedom must prevail.
Reading 463, Adrienne Rich: My heart is moved by all I cannot save.
Reading 470, Leonard Mason: We affirm a continuing hope that out of every tragedy the spirits of individuals shall rise to build a better world.
Reading 471, L. Griswold Williams: Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.
What admirable concision.
Reading 477, Vivian Pomeroy: Forbid that we should feel superior to others when we are only more shielded, and may we encourage the secret struggle of every person.
Reading 483, Wendell Berry, who should need no introduction unless you’ve been hiding in a hedge these last 30 years: I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
Reading 543, Greta Crosby (a Unitarian minister): Winter is a table set with ice and starlight.
Reading 492, W.E.B. Du Bois, quoted in its entirety: The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thought, until day calling unto day shall make a life worth living.
Reading 496, Harry Meserve: From arrogance, pompousness, and from thinking ourselves more important than we are, may some saving sense of humor liberate us.
Hey, I do what I can.
Reading 504, e.e. cummings: i thank You God for this most amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky, and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes
Long term Beacon members will remember Rev Ev using this often in services, and how wonderful that was, his delivery always being a support to the meaning….
Reading 526, Inuit Shaman Uvavnuk: The sky and the strong wind have moved the spirit inside me till I am carried away trembling with joy.
Reading 530, Robert T. Weston: Out of the stars we have come, up from time.
Reading 557, David H. Eaton: Our destiny: from unknown to unknown. May we have the faith to accept this mystery and build upon its everlasting truth.
Reading 560, Dorothy Day: No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.
Reading 561, Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. (I recollect Peggy has this up on the wall in her house.)
Reading 566, Francis David adapted by Richard Fewkes: Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith.
Reading 579, Frederick Douglass: The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Reading 592, William Ellery Channing (my all time fave historical Unitarian even if he was a well intentioned racist – hey, we all have our cognitive cross to bear): I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering.
Also Reading 652: The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.
Reading 603, Lao-Tse: And whether we dispassionately see to the core of life, or passionately see the surface, the core and the surface are essentially the same.
Reading 637, Robert Eller-Isaacs: For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
Reading 649, Antoine de St-Exupéry: Love, like a carefully loaded ship, crosses the gulf between the generations.
Reading 657, Sophia Lyon Fahs: Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own direction; other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.
Reading 663, Margaret Starkey: We make a holiday, the rituals varied as the hopes of humanity, the reasons as obscure as an ancient solar festival, as clear as joy on one small face.
Reading 671, John Milton: If the waters of truth flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.
Reading 681, adapted from Gaelic Runes (and another favourite of Peggy’s): Deep peace of the running wave to you.
It’s a benediction I sometimes write or say to people suffering loss.
Reading 698, with which I close. Wayne B. Arnason: Take courage friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: You are not alone.