For the past five years or so I have engaged in a spiritual practice. I’ve endeavored to practice it daily, though in fact I have practiced it a bit more intermittently than that. One of the parts of my practice has been reading and then reflecting on a short piece of writing. Sometimes I select a passage from a sacred text of the world’s religions. At other times I read from volumes of contemporary poetry. Often I pick up a book of collected meditations, spiritual writings, or sermons. One of the most reliable resources for my spiritual practice has been the meditation manuals published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Next spring the UUA turns 50. Over the past half century the UUA has published 60 meditation manuals. And, over the past five years I have read a quarter of those meditation manuals as a part of my spiritual practice. I’ve also used many of my favorite selections from these manuals as readings for worship services or as opening words for a committee meeting or class.
This past June I attended the UUA General Assembly in Minneapolis. During GA I had a book signing for the book I edited, The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality. As I signed copies of my book in the bookstore area in the cavernous exhibition hall, I sat across from Robert Walsh who was signing his book Stone Blessings, the UUA meditation manual for 2010. I had never met Robbie before, but I was familiar with his written meditations. Several years earlier, during a trip to Portland, Oregon, I made the essential pilgrimage to Powell’s Books, one of the world’s truly great bookstores. Perusing the religion section at Powell’s I happened to find a copy of Walsh’s out-of-print meditation manual from 1992, Noisy Stones.
With the memory of that lucky find from several years ago on my mind, I decided that I would try to collect the whole set of UUA meditation manuals. Several weeks, and one big book buying binge later, I had assembled the whole set and had also managed to get my hands on several Unitarian and Universalist meditation manuals from the 1940s and 1950s.
The UUA meditation manual for 1975, In Unbroken Line, anthologized published prayers and meditations by Unitarians dating back the mid-1800s. In the introduction, editor Chris Raible mentions that when the American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825, one of its chief purposes was to function as a pamphlet society that published theological tracts and sermons. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that the AUA began to publish devotional literature. A volume of the collected prayers of Theodore Parker was an early publishing hit for the AUA.
Lynn Ungar’s 1996 meditation manual, Blessing the Bread, contains a listing of meditation manuals published since the 1930s. From that list we learn that from 1938 to 1955 the Unitarians and the Universalists each published an annual meditation manual. From 1956 to 1960 the two denominations jointly published one manual under the imprint of the Council of Liberal Churches. If not all, the vast majority of these collections published between 1938 and 1960 were Lenten manuals. They contained forty prayers or reflections, one for each day between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Over the past fifty years, most of the meditation manuals published by the UUA have not followed the form of the Lenten Manual, with the exception of a period from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s when there was a resurgence of the Lenten manual theme.
In honor of the 50th birthday of the UUA I’ve decided this year to read through all 60 UUA meditation manuals (or at least the ones I have not yet read) and keep a loose reading journal on my blog. In order to finish this project before the General Assembly next June, I will be reading my way through them and not praying my way through them in way I normally would.
Throughout this project I plan to describe not only each meditation manual, but also to make some observations as to what these meditation manuals have to say about Unitarian Universalist devotional practices and theology over the past fifty years. After I finish with these 60 manuals, I may decide to look back and explore devotional publications from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Maybe I will even try to get my hands on a copy of Theodore Parker’s collected prayers.
This project does not purport to be a comprehensive examination of post-merger Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice. The UUA has published all kinds of resources that would also have to be considered. It is beyond the scope of this project to consider other volumes of spiritual writing that were not part of the mediation manual series, books about spiritual practice such as Scott Alexander’s Everyday Spiritual Practice or Erik Walker Wikstrom’s Simply Pray, two hymnals and at least two hymnal supplements, and various religious education curricula.
Here are links to read about UU Meditation Manuals through the years. [Links will become active when they are available]:
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1961-1969
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1970-1979
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1980-1989
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1990-1994
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1995-1999
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2000-2004
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2005-2009
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2010-2011
Click here to read about Unitarian Lenten Manuals from 1955 and earlier
Click here to read about Universalist Lenten Manuals from 1955 and earlier
Click here to read about CUC Lenten Manuals from 1956-1960
Several individuals offered tremendous assistance in helping me to assemble my collection of meditation manuals:
Thanks first and foremost to Brent Smith. Brent responded to a query to the UU ministers email list-serve by mailing me a box and two envelopes containing not only a few rare UUA meditation manuals, but also a stack of other published meditations, sermon collections, and pamphlets. Brent: your books have found a caring home where they will be loved; you receive my deepest thanks.
Alison Wohler, a dear classmate of mine not so long ago, sent me three hard-to-find meditation manuals. Alison: I am deeply touched by your generosity.
My parents, Tom and Barbara Belote, purchased several meditation manuals for my birthday.
Marshall Hawkins at Skinner House Books sent me the digital proof of a more recent meditation manual that is out of print and is prohibitively expensive on Amazon.
My friend and colleague Roger Butts helped me to get my hands on a copy of Clarke Dewey Wells’ The Strangeness of This Business.
Several ministers including Jake Morrill, Lisa Presley, Peter Richardson, Douglas Taylor, Jean Wahlstrom, Robert Walsh, Alice Blair Wesley offered helpful advice and assistance.
Finally, thanks are due to Heather Hyland of The Hyland Eclectic bookstore in Florida who helped me to round out my collection.