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[Chalice] On Becoming [Chalice]
a Lifelong Unitarian

Presented March 9, 2003, by Dr. Susan Morrison Hebble

Opening Words

"I think that one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there's nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way: not in making the whole world Unitarian, but in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one's own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self examination."

--Adlai Stevenson as quoted by Forrest Church in A Chosen Life


--Henry David Thoreau

I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived. I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear, Nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary. I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.


I was born into this church. Into Unitarian Universalism in general, and into this small stone church at the corner of 16th and Hampshire in particular. This fact is worth mentioning, indeed, because few Unitarian Universalists can claim to born into the faith. I can puff up my pride a bit more and say, too, that I was not only born into this church, but that I am a fourth generation Unitarian. Look around you, and you will find few among us that have attended this or another UU congregation since they were infants. Now of course, I can take only measured pride in all this-was it not an accident of birth that I happened to be born into a family of Unitarians? I really had little to do with it, after all. But I thank my parents, Ted and Sandy Morrison, and my grandparents, Francis and Paul Morrison, and my great grandparents, Sam and Annie Eldred, for that accident.

Yet, even with such noble lineage, I find myself at a disadvantage to members who arrived at this faith from another. Unlike those who became Unitarian Univerasalists after worshipping in other churches or synagogues or temples, I have never really HAD to think about what being a UU means. As a child and even as a young adult attending church only sporadically, being a UU was just what I was. It has always been one of the peculiarities of who I am. And aside from stumbling over responses to the inevitable questions -- "What's a Unitarian, anyway?" "Do you guys believe in God?" "That's a Church????"-I never gave my faith much thought. Still, as Emerson said, "A person will worship something---have not doubt about that . Therfore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming."

When I was approached to present a talk to this congregation, the suggestion was to focus on that unusual aspect of my church membership-my being a life-long Unitarian. As it has been since I could read, my instinct upon receiving my assignment was to Do Some Research. The UUA has a wonderful website, and a very helpful staff. And there are more books than you might realize about Unitarian Universalism-some primarily academic, some entirely spiritual. And here is some of what I found out: In a 1997 UUA survey of practicing congregants, 10 categories are identified under the title "theological perspectives." The survey indicates 46% of respondents identified themselves as humanists, 19% as earth/nature centered, 13% as Theist, 9 ½ % as Christian, 6.2% as Mystics, 3.6% as Buddhist, 1.3% as Jewish, .4% as Hindu, .1% as Muslim, and 13.3% as "other." (That's one to ponder!) And as you know from the place of this church in Quincy's community, we're a small drop in the organized religion ocean. Even today, practicing UU's number only around 300,000 worldwide. Of those, 156,000 congregate in the US--about .08% of the US population. And of those, it is estimated that only 20% are born into the faith. Intriguing, isn't it, that a faith that seems so natural, so sensible to most people in this space is practiced by less that 1% of the US population?!

My daughter Anna had the wonderful opportunity recently to participate in our RE's Time Machine workshop at a church sleep over. The program offered a cram course in UU history, so I was happy to help out with the event and learn a bit about our past. For a religion whose focus is primarily forward looking, ours has a deliciously rich past, and its history I am determined to look into further. But here are a few nuggets I've uncovered so far: being heretical in the 16th and 17th Centuries was no armchair task-several Unitarians were martyred for their faith. And there was plenty of banishment. We also claim a king, King John Sigismund of Transylvania, where anti-trinitarians were first called "Unitarians." Unfortunately, King Sigismund could not live forever either, and after his death, his court minister, Francis David, was sent to finish his days in the dungeon, and Unitarianism suffered considerable repression. Attributed to David is one of the cornerstones of Unitarian Universalist thought: "We need not think alike to love alike."

But Unitarians and Universalists have persevered, our miniscule population boasting a truly astounding array of characters-the discoverer of oxygen (Joseph Priestly), signers of the Declaration of Independence, founders of numerous service organizations-The American Red Cross, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Planned Parenthood-the most significant early voices in American Literature-Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, vocal abolitionists (Theodore Parker), vocal civil rights activists (James Reeb, who was killed supporting that cause in 1960's Alabama), and vocal women's rights activists (Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger among the most influential). I could continue thus for pages, but I won't. We can hope one day to see the story of UU history played out in a mini-series, one of those Merchant-Ivory period pieces with, I don't know, Renee Zellweger as Clara Barton, Meryl Streep as Susan B. Anthony, and maybe Unitarians Tim Robbins and Paul Newman as Transylvania's King Sigismund and Francis David.

Intriguing as the UU story is, there nags at me one persistent truth: while our religion claims roots that are deep and sturdy, Unitarian Universalism is less about collective history than about the individual journeys of faith. In a wonderful little book called "A Chosen Faith," Forrest Church quotes DH Lawrence, of all people, ". . . it appears to me, one gradually formulates one's religion, be it what it may. A person has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together, adding to it, shaping it; and one's religion is never complete and final, it seems, but must always be undergoing modification."

Lawrence was neither Unitarian nor Universalist, but this comment certainly reflects the Unitarian-Universalist urge, nay, necessity, to keep looking, to change, refine, flow, debate, consider religion perpetually. As Church asserts, "For [Lawrence], religion has little to do with a body of beliefs or practices; it represents a gradual process of awakening to the depths and possibilities of life itself." And while the story of my "gradual process" toward UUism is far less dramatic than, say, that of Susan B. Anthony or Margaret Fuller, I hope you find in it some reflections of your own journey to Unitarian Univerwsalism.

When I was growing up, this church was as familiar and intriguing to me as the attic in my home. It seemed full of enticing nooks and crannies, promising history and mystery for my young mind. My family have always been involved enough in the Unitarian Church of Quincy to have a key to the building, and my brother and I frequently leapt at the chance to accompany Dad as he attended to the church's physical needs on the odd Saturday. We relished the silence of the building then, and played hide and seek while Dad wrestled with the furnace or plumbing or whatever. My Grandmother would often join us, taking the opportunity to practice her organ pieces for the following day. So well do I remember sitting beside her at the organ, trying to reach my brown leather school shoes to the pedals below, trying to imitate the powerful sound her thin and graceful hands created each week. And on Christmas Eve, I sat with what seemed agonizing patience (I suspect my mother might use a different term) through the service, focusing less on what was being said than on the stained glass windows above the speaker-I would imagine various stories to correspond with that placid scene, realizing on some level that this centerpiece of our church didn't seem particularly RELIGIOUS at all. Where was the Virgin Mary? The cross? The Bibles?

Indeed, I had friends who didn't think our church was particularly religious either. In grade school and high school, my friends knew I was a Unitarian, but I don't remember many being terribly interested in what that meant. Yet I found myself intrigued by all the other churches around town. And I attended them with enthusiasm and, sometimes, envy. I visited the Presbyterian church on 24th street many times with my friend Janice. Compared to our little church, the building seemed so big and austere, so modern and spacious-and so full! The hymns were beautiful, and the sermons filled with wonderful stories from the Bible, a book about which I knew little. I also visited St. John's Episcopal Church on Hampshire with my good friend, Mary and her family-it seemed a grand and lovely building filled with grand and lovely people, something out of movies, I always thought. My mother's mother moved to Quincy when I was a teenager, and I frequently went with her to the Ellington Presbyterian Church-a simple white church with a cemetery on its grounds, a church that seemed so safe and peaceful, and so sure of its connection to God. My brother and I even attended a revival once as teenagers-it was a hypnotic, energetic affair at one of the Baptists churches in town.

But I think the Church to which I was most loyal outside of my own was St. Peter's Catholic Church. Our very dear neighbors, the McClains, often invited me along for mass-theirs was an enviably large family, a family full of life and love, and I always felt so honored to be among them. My mother recently reminded me that when the dedication of St. Peter's Church was on the local news, I was there, front and center on Channel 10, celebrating this new church with the enthusiasm of its members! How I envied their Catholicism!! When my peers, Anne and Mary, celebrated their first communion, I longed to join them in a starched white dress, white silk gloves, and oh, the veil! At the Catholic services, I fought the temptation to kneel and pray, to join them in a drink of the blood of Christ and nibble of the body of Christ, to hold crystal rosary beads gingerly between my fingers and whisper whatever it was that they were whispering that sounded SO comforting! How intrigued I was with the ritual! Yet, I never stopped thinking of myself as a Unitarian. And I realize only years later, OK, decades later, that those experiences were part of my becoming Unitarian Universalist. You see, one of the beauties of our religion is that it is dynamic; it is not fixed in a clearly defined dogma with a distinct, albeit comforting, ritual. A Unitarian Universalist may only claim the faith if she commits to that fluidity, if she promises to explore the possibilities, to navigate many different rivers, to recognize, as the Native American saying goes, that no river today is the same river tomorrow.

The most compelling phase of my religious education came when I moved with my husband and small daughter to Malaysia. Now, as an American, I was used to taking pride in the Melting Pot of our great country. But in this small Southeast Asian country I discovered a most extraordinary cultural mosaic-adherents of each culture, each religion maintaining a clear sense of identity along with a strong mutual respect-or at least tolerance-- for one another. In "A Chosen Faith," Forrest Church compares religion to a cathedral, with light (God) shining in varied refraction through many windows. Church writes that this cathedral metaphor illustrates a major source of UU faith:

". . .we assume an almost unique position among the world's faiths. We draw inspiration from other religions as well as our own. Within our churches, we acknowledge the presence of many different windows and at our best truly welcome and respect the insights of others. by remaining open to the insights of others, we may augment our own cherished traditions and expand the scope of our faith."

"Expand the scope of our faith indeed!" Malaysia afforded me a most unique opportunity to do just that. In this country, religion is worn on the sleeve-or in the case of devout Muslim women, on the head. Malaysia is 52% Muslim; indeed, its government is by law an Islamic government, led by a Muslim Prime Minister. But 52% is no mean majority: And the faiths of the other 48% are well-pronounced. About 30% of Malaysians are Chinese and practice Buddhism or Taoism, about 10% are Hindu Indians, and the remainder are Christian or practicioners of ancient tribal religions.

As I've established, my first impulse in such situations is to reach for a book. In this case, I found Huston Smith's "The Religions of Man" indispensable. In his introduction, he notes the human need for religion:

"What a strange fellowship this is: the God-seekers of every clime, lifting their voices in the most diverse ways imaginable to the God of all men. How does it all sound to Him? Like bedlam? Or, in some mysterious way, does it blend into harmony? Does one faith carry the melody, the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony when not in solid chorus? We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen, carefully and with full attention, to each voice in turn as it is raised to the divine."

Whether in the sophisticated city of Kuala Lumpur or a tiny hamlet on the East Coast shore of the Indian Ocean, five times a day, everyone in Malaysia hears the Muslim call to prayers. The singing is hypnotic and serene and somehow reassuring. On Fridays in particular, one might find Malaysian men changing outside a mosque from Western style business clothes into the loose white pants, colorful vests, and beautifully woven sashes of their traditional faith. There are mosques everywhere, it seems, from small, rain stained mosques in villages or on corners of busy streets, to the enormous, beautiful and foreboding Blue Mosque of Shah Alam, the gold dome of which one can see glistening from the window seat of an approaching Malaysian Airlines flight. The Malaysian Muslims we encountered reflected this wide range of mosques-many maintained a fleet of Mercedes Benz sedans in their gated estates, but many more ferried their families around-often 3, 4, or 5 at a time-on small motorcycles. All were kind, friendly, warm people. Never once did my family feel intimidated, shunned, or unwelcomed by Malaysia's Muslims. Indeed, we witnessed the loving surrender to Allah, which is central to this faith. This is certainly a faith of discipline-as adhering to the Five Pillars of Islam requires constant devotion. While one may take issue with certain tenets of Islam and certainly with particular interpretations of the Quran which have encouraged violence and hubris, I could not help but respect the devotion and discipline of Malaysia's Muslims. Indeed, this Islamic country has proven to be one of the leaders in Asian progress of the last decade, and it seems to be maintaining its role as a stabilizing force in world affairs, a tricky balancing act most certainly.

As a woman, I was not permitted to enter the religious sanctuaries of any mosque in Malaysia. But I was encouraged to visit the Hindu and Buddhist temples all over Southeast Asia. While my experience with Muslim Malaysia seemed primarily academic, my experiences with the Buddhist and Hindu communities were much more inclusive. One of my favorite places to visit in Kuala Lumpur was Chinatown, for the two religious buildings I found most inviting were there, across the street from one another, each distinctive in character. On one side of the street stood a Buddhist temple, a charmingly shabby structure, with fading red paint and continually burning incense as its hallmark. At this Chinese temple, people came and went as if to the grocery store-stopping in for a quick prayer to their ancestors, or visiting with friends over a cup of green tea, all the time the smoke and smell of incense circling lazily throughout the temple. A comfortable, communal building, the Buddhist temple embodies the spirit of "transcendental pragmatism" of the Buddhist faith.

I visited many temples throughout Southeast Asia-but I was particularly moved by the Buddhist temples in Bangkok, in part because Bangkok is such a vibrant city, extreme in every respect. The people are kind and gentle-yet the tuk-tuk drivers have no qualms about charging Westerners three times the local rate for a harrowing ride across town, a necessary ride indeed, since walking through the streets of Bangkok requires the same dexterity and focus as taking on an Outward Bound obstacle course. But in this amazing, smog-filled, loud city are scattered hundreds of temples, each with its own character, each offering an island of peace and serenity found nowhere else in such an urban setting. And the temples that moved me were those in which we were able to interact with Thai Buddhists. Wat Po contains not only the locally famous 184 foot long reclining Buddha covered entirely in gold leaf, but also the Thai School of Traditional Massage, and a centuries-old a Buddhist monastery. There, a friend and I had a surreal conversation with a young monk-robed in orange, with shaved head, and the most gentle manner of any person I've met. I remember few specifics of our conversation, but I recall the encounter as incisive, as sincere, as reflective. Images of Buddha consistently depict three characteristics of Buddha: Buddha's headdress always comes to a point, a pinnacle, which denotes the need to consider things thoroughly, to think before speaking or acting; the second element is what the Thais call Buddha's "Heavy Ears", large long ears which emphasize the need to listen carefully and completely and to avoid impulsive judgments; and third, images of Buddha show him looking down, and this pose suggests that one must constantly look inward, constantly reevaluate him or herself. From this young Monk, my friend and I encountered one who honored Buddha's three points admirably. We realized how rarely we encounter someone who would listen so completely, who would think before speaking, who refused to pass judgment on us-two middle-aged, middle-class Western women wandering through a city to which we had little claim. We also realized how rarely we listened well, spoke well, judged fairly in our fast-paced, competitive culture.

Back in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown, cross the street and half block down from the Buddhist temple stands the Sri Mariamman Hindu temple, a towering building, distinguished by the pastel carvings-elephants, gods, flowers-surrounding each tier. Outside this temple, lovely young women sell jasmine woven into necklaces and ancient, toothless men offer to watch your shoes for a ringgit, about 40cents, for one enters all Hindu temple without shoes, leaving the dirt of the everyday world outside. One may bring an offering to the temple-often a coconut, which one smashes into a marble pit just inside the building. Entering this temple is a less social or communal affair than entering the Buddhist temple. For this is a very contemplative place, a place where a Hindu comes to pray in silence and solitude for minutes or hours at a time. The sense of acceptance, of humility, of great respect for the interdependence of earth and spirit permeates this serene space.

My family and I had the privelege to attend many religious festivals and celebrations during our time in Malaysia. Among the most memorable were the Hindu ceremonies. We were honored to be included among the guests at the Hindu wedding of our daughter's pre-school teacher, whose name was Shoba. It was a traditional arranged marriage. And the wedding was an extraordinary event-it lasted at least 3 hours, with three priests, wrapped at the waist in white cotton cloth, their bare chests painted with white Hindu symbols; during the entire ceremony, a quartet of musicians played an intriguing and intoxicating blend of music, the sound of which was hard to define but which suggested to me some combination of blues and jazz, with a bit of zydeco mixed in. And the congregants never stopped talking! Absent was the silent reverence of every Catholic or protestant ceremony I had attended. Even though we understood nary a word sung, spoken, or chanted at this wedding, the joy and acceptance were palpable. And by all reports, Shoba's union, like so many arranged Hindu marriages, has proven strong and enduring.

I also had the privilege to attend a most extraordinary religious event: The Hindu festival of Thaipusam held only in Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia, Hindus in the hundred thousands descend for days on the grounds surrounding Batu Caves, itself home to an amazing series of Hindu statues and temples built into caves and cliffs. Thaipusam honors the deity Lord Subramaniam, and the festival offers an opportunity for devotees to pray to this god for atonement or for some sort of blessing. But this is no kneel-down-and-offer-silent-prayer celebration: The celebration is long, intense, visceral. Those participants who wish to pray to Lord Subramaniam adhere to a vegetarian diet for 48 days before the event to purify their hearts and minds; once at the temple, they make themselves available to the spirits by chanting and cleansing themselves (with a special priests aid) in the rivers nearby. These participants then enter a trancelike state and prepare for their ascent to the temple of Subramaniam. It is now that the most dramatic action takes place. Men and women are fitted with Kevadi-large, heavy, ornate structures, many several feet high, placed on the devotee's shoulders; women who wish blessings of fertility carry instead large, full jugs of milk on their scarf-wrapped heads, and most compelling of all, many young men, wearing only ceremonial loin cloths and painted on their faces and bodies, have their supporters pierce their cheeks with metal skewers and their backs with metal hooks and ropes, on which the supporters pull as the entranced Hindu, pure of spirit and feeling no pain, pulls his entourage up the 200 or so steps of the hills to the icon within the highest point of the Batu Caves. Once there, a high priest leads the believer through a series of chants and prayers, brushes him or her with holy chalk, and the skewers, kavadi, or milk jug is then removed. The devotee collapses into a faint, awakening seconds later, soul cleansed and his or her body clean of any scars or blood.

The experience may seem incomparable to my serene encounter with the Buddhist monk in Bangkok, but it was similar in that everything seemed to occur out of time, out of any context I had known-I was removed from myself, from my understanding of the world. And I emerged with a surer sense of myself, of the world, of my place in it.

So often in Southeast Asia does one meet Religion-every home in Bali welcomes its visitors with a small, lovely alter of candles, icons, flowers; the tiny wood and mud kampungs (villages) of Malaysia circle shabby but beautiful mosques; even the Colonial St. Andrews church of Kuala Lumpur upholds a small bastion of English tradition, recalling the centuries-long British rule of Malaysia before its 1950's independence, and every week it seems, residents suspend time and business to celebrate some festival honoring Buddha or Allah, or one of the many Hindu gods and even-in an astounding display of gaudiness-Christmas. But my point in telling these stories is not only that I still find them so interesting, but that in these travels to distant lands, where I saw no shadow of a Unitarian Universalist Church, and in my youthful experiences in the churches of friends and family, I was becoming UU.

Every time you or I walk into this church, we are different people from what we were a week or month or year ago. But that is the spirit of UU-that we grow, that we change, that we open our hearts and minds to the innumerable wonders of this world-be they of exotic extremes as the Thaipusam Festival or as seemingly simple as a walk in the woods, "getting as near the heart of the earth as one can." But within the sometimes reassuring, sometimes unnerving dynamism of our faith are the constants-the comforting assurance of love and acceptance, the constant respect for the interdependent web of existence, the strong and persistent faith in humanity, and always the promise of a few more questions to seek out in the musty nooks and crannies of an old stone church on a corner.


--Ed Searl

May we find the world to be sometimes so beautiful, we will want it to be more so, more often, for more persons.

©2003 Dr. Susan Morrison Hebble
All rights reserved.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan Morrison. 2003. On Becoming a Lifelong Unitarian, (accessed July 4, 2020).

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