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Living in exile

Unitarian Universalist history is the story of gadflies and incurable heretics always inconveniently pushing the boundaries of convention.
By Victoria Safford
March/April 2004 3.1.04

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Unitarian Universalists are accustomed to self-identify as exiles, or at least as emigrants either from some other religious tradition or from an utterly un-churched secular life. For most of us, our emigration has been voluntary. We were not excommunicated or banished from the churches and the temples of our childhood; we walked, and nothing forced us to come here. Technically, we are more willful expatriates than persecuted exiles.

But in our collective memory, the shared history of our tradition, is carried the imprint of true exile: early Universalists banished from the countries of their birth, chased as far as the New World (and even here the going was not exactly easy); early Unitarians martyred by Calvin or the Inquisition, their books forbidden, their churches destroyed, their communities demolished, in Poland, Spain, Italy, Romania. Read one way, our history is the story of gadflies and rabble-rousers, perpetual malcontents and incurable heretics always inconveniently pushing the boundaries of convention. Read another way, and perhaps more honestly, Unitarian Universalist history is the story of those who could not with integrity abide imposed belief or imposed religious practice. They faced the most awful kind of exile—separation from their own hearts, their own consciences, their God.

Many early Universalists and Unitarians insisted to their deaths that they were in fact true Lutherans, Catholics, Congregationalists, and certainly Christians, but for their insistence on the spirit’s liberty and freedom of expression they were severed from the church or killed. When we sing now the beautiful words of Rumi’s poem, Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving, I think this is the history we’re remembering, the tradition of forced or willful leaving, of going where you need to go, even if it takes you far from your first home.

The contemporary philosopher and Polish expatriate Leszek Kowlakowski wrote some years ago: “Any exile can be seen either as a misfortune or as a challenge; it can become no more than a reason for despondency or sorrow, or a source of painful encouragement. . . . We have to accept . . . the simple fact that we are living [always among] refugees, migrants, vagrants, nomads roaming about the continents and warming their souls with the memory of their—spiritual or ethnic, divine or geographical, real or imaginary—homes . . . Exile is the permanent human condition.”

Both Unitarianism and Universalism were strengthened by their exile status; they were honed and purified under duress and they put on a kind of spiritual heft. It’s a story analogous to many of our own personal stories, as each of us grows and changes and chooses ever more deliberately what manner of person we will be—or discovers ever more bravely what manner of person we truly are.

The Rev. Arthur Foote used to call newcomers to our congregations “shedders,” the term used by lobstermen in Maine to describe that tender moment in a lobster’s life between its first hard shell and its mature one. It’s a vulnerable time, the moment of transition from one life to the next, whether you choose it (as in our case) or not (as in the lobster’s). Throughout life there are these tender, vulnerable times when we know we’ve left one world, one life, behind, but we’re not sure yet what country we belong in, what kind of faith, what kind of politics, what way of seeing is our own. Our whole lives long, our only work is transformation: transformation of the changed and changing world (which is ever thus), into new hope with renewed imagination. It carries us into places that perhaps we never would have chosen, but where, ultimately, we are proud to live.


Excerpted from a sermon preached to the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, on November 9, 2003.

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