Spiritual Teaching

Rev. Roberta M. Nelson, DD

Berry Street Essay, 2002


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Quebec City, Quebec Canada

June 20, 2002


Last year after my name was announced, the awesome task of writing the Berry Street Essay began to sink in and I was reminded of a line of Denise Levertov (1987): "A certain day became a presence to me… granting me honor and a task.”


It is indeed an honor; one you cannot refuse especially if you are a woman and a minister of religious education. According to some research by a student at the Pacific School of Religion, I am the 7th woman to give the essay and to be a religious educator is, I suspect, quite rare. It has been an awe-filled task, one with many anxieties and questionings.  One of my colleagues, a Berry Street essayist of a few years back, said, "You are going to say to yourself, ‘what am I doing here?’”—he was so right.  The task has weighed heavier than the honor!


Over and over again, I have been reminded of a story told by William Raspberry, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. He wrote of a conversation with a minister friend when he confessed that he had only written three columns, whereupon the minister confessed to preaching only one sermon. Some of my colleagues will probably feel that way about my essay. From my vantage point as a religious educator, there is a need to be persistent about the nature of our calling.


In her poem The Summer Day, Mary Oliver (1992) writes, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”


What have I done so far with my one wild and precious life in addition to marriage and parenting?  My whole work life has been to be in the classrooms and sanctuaries, the hallways and offices, the hospitals and homes, of people young and old and in between who come together in religious communities for nurture and healing, hope and compassion, affirmation and challenge—in the words of Dr. A. Powell Davies, "To grow a soul.”


This path I have walked for 43 years did not happen with a carefully laid out plan. It happened by accident during a conversation with Dr. Robert Miller, Professor of Religious Education at Crane Theological School, who simply asked, "Have you thought about the ministry?” Quite simply put, my response was "No.” I did not know a woman minister. I had not seen any women ministers even though I grew up in a Unitarian congregation. However, Bob did not tell me a very important fact. The American Unitarian Association did not recognize the Ministry of Religious Education. Edith Hunter, author of Conversations with Children, told a gathering of religious educators that being a woman student at Union Theological School meant being on the bottom rung of the ladder. Being interested in a ministry of Religious Education meant there was no rung at all.


I have suffered many of the slights and hostilities experienced by religious educators especially during the era we worked for recognition of our calling. I have also been blessed by a long line of women and men who believed that religious education was vital to the health of our congregations and that the call to an RE ministry deserved our recognition and support. The struggle can be summed up in these words of Adrienne Rich, "A wild patience has taken us this far.”


Many in this room have walked the struggle with us. Many of you may not know there was a struggle and a few may even question that a struggle ever took place. Because our history is often forgotten, I urge you to read Joan Goodwin’s 50-year history of the Liberal Religious Education Association: Giving Birth to Ourselves.


Betty Jo Middleton and I, in our chapter of Leaping From Our Spheres (2000, p 76), quote Conrad Wright writing about changes in the ministry since merger, "The most striking has resulted from the feminist movement in society at large. One consequence has been the increase in the number and proportion of women ordained, fellowshipped and serving parish ministry. Another result has been an increased recognition and status for religious educators, predominantly women.”


Slowly, very slowly, I have watched change unfold. My colleagues and I have patiently and firmly pushed aside the blinders that kept the true meaning of our calling in the dark. A few years ago, I said that I felt "I had been in the storm too long” and that equity and equality for the ministry of religious education would not be fully achieved in my lifetime. I am only slightly more optimistic today. There is a dim light at the end of a long tunnel as more seminarians are called to an education ministry, as more Directors of Religious Education see ministry as their calling and as the Association and LREDA open more doors for leadership development in religious education. The struggle is not over, but significant progress has been made.


I came to ministry because I wanted to teach—it was my career path before Bob Miller asked that important question. Bob and a host of others have been my spiritual guides. They saw the roles of teacher and learner as two sides of the same coin. We were companions to one another, "partners in a sacred dance.” (Harris and Moran, 1998, pp 88–89). Moran compares religious education to the revitalization of one’s job or ordinary task towards one’s work or vocation.  Discovering that which affirms our job reminds us there is something greater to be accomplished in our lives. It is noble work.


In my Essex Convocation essay (Nelson, 2001, pp185–196), I challenged us to find people who are willing to risk learning to teach and to focus our creativity on the role of the teacher as a spiritual guide.


As some of you know, I have just completed a semester of teaching religious education at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. My goals were to introduce the class to the history and philosophy of liberal RE, to explore some emerging trends, and to share my views on the role of education and teaching in the church.


I firmly believe that everything we do in the church community is education—preaching, teaching, music, administration, weddings, dedications, memorial services, committees, social justice. Not long ago in a workshop on planning for education in the church, I asked the group to list all the educational activities in their church. You can probably guess what the glaring omissions were—almost everything from the previous list. I was not shocked because education generally has a very narrow focus in our culture and in our imaginations. Most opportunities to help people broaden their view are overlooked or ignored.


I have enjoyed the teaching. The students were engaged, eager to explore, and curious about my teaching methods. I, on the other hand, wondered if my style of teaching would fly in an academic institution. How would the class and/or the school respond to the use of small groups, the sharing of the teaching role, the use of clay and flowers, silence and quiet reflection, poetry and story?  I recalled the advice of one of my own teachers, and decided to have a good time. I have worked hard to have my students see the teacher/learner role interchangeably.


It is no wonder that Maria Harris cherishes this response to one of her classes—I would cherish it as well: "The course helped me to be integrated; it gave me an opportunity to use and develop my intuitive side—while the rest of my classes demanded the activity of my analytical side….  I believe in a holistic view of life—I try not to divide the secular and the sacred. I try to live my life as a sacrament.” (Harris, 1984, p154)


In Reinventing the Church, David and Beverly Bumbaugh (1997) write:

The church exists to proclaim the gospel that each human being is infinitely precious, that the meaning of our lives lies

hidden in our interactions with each other. The challenge we confront is to be a church that does not bury that great truth beneath all our business, but which enables us to encounter each other with wonder, appreciation, and expectation, to call out of each other strength and wisdom and compassion we never knew we had.

I resonate with these words for they embody what I have come to call Spiritual Teaching. My first church, The First Parish in Needham, taught me about ministry. The Reverend Jack Zoerheide taught me about the prophetic church. Two women—the first, one of the first women physicians in Massachusetts, and the other the first woman state senator in Massachusetts, taught me that women could be crusaders for justice. I had come to Needham young and all knowing. I thought I knew everything there was to know about church life. They taught me patience, stirred my passion, polished my rough edges. I learned from them that teaching and learning are co-creators—dependent on each other for building a healthy church. As grateful as I am for my academic learning, my work with emotionally disturbed adolescent boys, my group work and my work with colleagues, none can compare to the depth of education I received in that New England congregation. In many ways the successes I have achieved had their beginnings in Needham. We were partners in a sacred dance.


Spiritual Teaching begins in sacred space. There is a joke in RE circles that the first thing you do is to rearrange the furniture. It is true for me. The space I intend to use is sacred space. Creating a safe haven demands care and attention. The word sacred in the dictionary is defined as "entitled to reverence”. Close by is sacrament, a practice that is considered especially sacred as a sign or symbol of a deeper reality. For me the church is sacred space. I have been in love with this theme for a long time. It had its beginnings when I took part in the development of the Haunting House curriculum in the early ‘70s. We read the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space, (1969) in which he suggests that houses—I include churches in this category—help us feel at home because they shelter us in three ways: they protect our solitude and provide us with a place to dream, the protect our intimacy with others and they give our memories a home. "Memory organizes, sifts and shapes our former impressions into comprehensive form. Memory gives structure and justification for the present: it creates a field of meaning with which we locate who we are now,” says Wendy Wright, in Sacred Dwelling, (1994). Our spiritual life lives in creative tension between the demands of our daily lives and our moments of insight and beauty. An architect, Joseph Mancini, speaks of retreating to a sacred space to keep grounded and protect his inner self. I also believe there are places we go to for nurture and healing that enables us to leave again and face the world. Richard Gilbert (1995, p.16) writes, "We meet on holy ground, for that place is holy where lives touch, love moves and hope stirs.”


Church has to do with continuities. Church is those people and experiences that nourish our identities. Church consists of those roots and sources from which our energies of faith, hope and love pour forth. Church is giving and forgiving. Angus MacLean, in his book God and the Devil at Seal Cove, (1976) writes, "I deeply cherish the memory of that little bit of earth where I began to have my being.”


The church as a sacred space will be a place for our deepest yearnings and honest reflections—a place that challenges our creativity and imagination, a place of learning and conversation, commitment and action, a place to connect the secular and sacred inviting us into deeper, more profound living.


Readiness for spiritual teaching takes planning and care. It is rare to go into a church on Sunday or for a special occasion and find the sanctuary in disarray although I know it can happen.  Not so with many other spaces in the church. My husband Chris and I once did an OWL training in some church classrooms where the lighting was poor, but nor poor enough to disguise the dust, the tables and chairs were inappropriate for the age that was supposed to use them, waste baskets were overflowing, the walls needed paint and, what was most depressing, was that the rooms seemed to hold all the leftover items that had no use in the classrooms but that people could not bear to throw away. I have taught in classrooms across the continent that told similar stories. The church I spoke of proudly showed us their newly renovated sanctuary and fellowship hall, and state-of-the-art kitchen. I also discovered that the education director’s office was in only slightly better condition than the classrooms. I can assure you this is not a rare occurrence.


What does this say about our commitment to create sacred space and holy ground? How can we kindle the hearts and minds and the souls of our people if we pay so little attention to providing space that invites solitude, dreaming, memories and healing?


The church as sacred space has the potential for building a spiritual life. The search to be at "home” is a persistent theme in the religions of humankind. Memories that can be located in a distinct and vivid place are more accessible to our awareness than those lost in some inhospitable space. Our memories shape our impressions into form; they give structure and justification for the present; they create a field of meaning in which we place the here and now.


Our haunting houses and sacred dwellings speak of continuity of place and people. Here are our loved ones; here is where our heart abides. In these place, we grow up and out and old. Here parents die, children are born, spouses change, children leave, friendships crystallize. Here we huddle against darkness and despair. Here we honor our yearnings, renew friendships and continue our pilgrimage toward wholeness. Here we can be rooted and rested. Here we can make life and love happen.


Perhaps the church resonates with these words by Elizabeth Murray (1997), "There is much more to the garden than meets the eye, like the unseen roots, its deepest source of sustenance or magic or balance is not visible. The roots, like our own soul, sustain growth; the trunk holds the here and now of our daily life; the crown resides like our own spirit, transforming light into life.”


Sacred space is a piece of the bridge to the aesthetic. Our sacred spaces need beauty and visual excitement, color and light, comfort and anticipation, silence and sound.  Sacred space does not just happen; it is created by the teachers and learners in the community. I believe that teaching is a sacrament—a sign or symbol of a deeper reality.


Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, (1998) writes, "The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open to those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and student and subject can be woven into a fabric of community that learning and living require.”


The call to teaching invites risk and vulnerability, courage and affirmation. We teach best when we are most true to our selves and our values. This congruency is what Angus MacLean advocates in The Message Is the Method, (1952). When we propose handing students over to themselves we are engaging in a process of trust. We are extending hospitality. Hospitality implies presence, recognition and affirmation. Based on the writing of the Dutch philosopher Henri J. M. Nouen, Barbara and Bill Meyers, (1992, p.63) write "Hospitality is our vocation: to convert the hostis into the hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and freely experienced.”  It is a transcendent activity.


Teaching is also a communal activity. We learn in community because we are connected to others. We learn in community because in the best situation truth and openness and trust will be practiced.  Parker Palmer (1998, p 90) says, "Community is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Grace for me is an unexpected gift. Teaching and learning can be such gifts.


At the heart of teaching must be an invitation for all persons to engage in a process of transformation, the process of moving over, going beyond, across or through real or imagined boundaries. Teaching is a living tradition because it emerges from one’s inwardness. It is an invitation to dive in and wrestle with all that is available to us. It should be an exhilarating experience in which more than our own creativity is operating.


"Spiritual teaching embodies the sacred of the educational process.  Education that is clearly transcendent is religious. Its ultimate goal is to liberate persons to fulfill their potentialities for authenticity and creativity. It is guided by a vision that urges persons to interpret their lives, to relate to others and to engage with the world in ways that they perceive to be ultimate.” (Groome, 1984)  It is the vision implied in the Latin root of education, educare, "to lead out.”


I have had numerous experiences with spiritual teaching, but none as profound as the invitation from Charles. I met Charles in the late 1960s. As a result of having MS, he walked with a leg brace and crutches. He was a husband, father, insurance executive, active in town politics. Charles lived with unpredictability. There were times of plateaus and downward spirals. With each downturn, he marshaled his anger, fear, courage and determination.  He argued for handicap accessibility before there was any public awareness of the issue. He continued to work and to be active in church and town affairs. Of all that I learned from Charles, nothing can compare with the impact of his determined request that I help him learn to die with grace and dignity. His request started me on a long journey of reading, attending workshops and discovering hospice care that would force me to deal with my own fears and anxieties. I pledged to myself that I would walk with him on this unknown path. Charles lived 20 years beyond the first Death and Dying workshop. He taught all of us to choose community over isolation, to confront our fears, to be open and honest to the process and to live life as fully as we are able.


People do not come to us as empty vessels waiting to be filled. They come with their own stories and experiences, their own family histories, their own brokenness, sorrow, fragmentation, their own fears, joys and hopes. They come to broaden their horizons, to search for truth, to transcend their limitations, to join a community of seekers on a pilgrimage.


What then is our task; what is our responsibility; what is our role as teacher, learner, minister? How will we respond to the many needs, numerous expectations, the myriad pasts and presents, the demand for answers? How will we create an environment where students are engaged in teaching and learning that enables ideas and insights to emerge, content and ideas to develop.


William Ellery Channing urged us not to stamp our minds on the young but to help them stir up their own. That is a vision for liberal religious education but not just for our children. It must be the same for all of us. Spiritual teaching is about healing the divisions between head and heart, thinking and feeling, knowing and being.

I have walked tenderly and gingerly into being more comfortable in the world of the aesthetic (except for poetry, which has always fed my soul). Long ago I was told not to sing, that my drawings were not quite good enough to display. I know I am not alone with these feelings or anxieties. Poetry has always been my bridge across the great divide. John Dewey advocated for the aesthetic in education and Maria Harris writes, "Teachers as religiously imaginative actors and artists must not only be wary of making this separation, but they must actually seek to remove such separations, where ever they find them.” (Harris, 1987, p 46.)


I have been inspired by Mary Elizabeth Moore’s essay, Poetry: Prophecy and Power (1998). As I read it over and over again I am aware of its implications for all the arts.  For me, poetry has the power to nourish and challenge, to critique and empower, to confront and comfort.  Poetry builds bridges between the known and unknown, joy and sorrow, darkness and light.  Poetry has the possibility of expressing our deepest feelings and fears, our loves and disappointments, deepest concerns and confusions even when words fail us.


Moore (1998, p 269) writes, "The power of poetry lies in this betweeness. Poetry is composed of difference, created on bridges between contrasting realities …, between the expressible and inexpressible, and … between present realities and unimagined possibilities.”  Could not this also be said of dance and dramas, art and music? Would our worship and learning life be enriched and more alive if we were to take more seriously the power the arts have to prepare us to meditate and pray, to rejoice, to nourish our souls and transform our lives?


Maria Harris once asked a class to answer the question "What is teaching?” in Haiku form.  One student’s response was:


We meet awkwardly

I invite you to walk.

I find you dancing.


-Bill Maroon (in Harris, 1987, p23)


As a movement we have come a long way since my growing up in a UU church. We have become more comfortable with expressive religious language. Words like sacred and spiritual are commonly heard, if not commonly understood. Silence is welcomed by many and tolerated by more than a few. Rituals are growing in acceptance even though many have rebelled, proclaiming them relics of a bygone era. We should have listened to our children. In the process of rebelling, we have deprived ourselves and our children of comfort and joy, a sense of belonging, strength in time of trouble, and meaning in time of chaos.  Rituals give us sense of belonging and a shared sense of identity. Spiritual teaching embraces ritual. Our spiritual lives cannot develop in a vacuum. They need a history, a story, a tradition. We need a vision of our religious faith and its practice and how that relates to our lives. However, from my experience, too often we associate these experiences with our Sunday worship, forgetting or avoiding the same evidence in other aspects of church life—the classrooms, corridors, offices, and families.


Sharon Parks speaks of imagination as the power of shaping into one. We need to use our powers of imagination to move our church to a more holistic institution, an institution free of fragmentation and separation. We need to build bridges between knowing and doing, faith and action, religion and life, knowledge and power. True education must be prophetic, a call to creative and courageous imagination.


Thomas Groome warns us that we should not pay so much attention to memory and reason that we overlook the resources inherent in our imaginations. He warns that without imagination there will be a chasm between ideas and historical reality.


There is a terrible urgency in the world we live in. the wounds of the Earth’s people and our own planet are crying for salvation. We need a new wisdom to help us heal the devastation and terror, to imagine a world free of war, poverty, destruction—a world with more heart and soul, compassion and grace.  In Constance Urdang’s poem Living in the Third World (Harris, 1977, p 86), a beggar describes the egg of the world as cracked


And from its wounds

Poisoned tears fall, like rain in Jakarta.


What does spiritual teaching have to say to the hurting world? For me, spiritual education is prophetic—a call to creative and courageous action. Spiritual teaching implies that we are "growing a soul” that will free us to heal the world. It implies that we are grounded, that we are reflective, that we have taken the time to "see” that which we have not seen before. Spirituality and justice are in constant dialogue. We are all members of the human family and we must respond to the needs of that whole family. Spiritual teaching and justice seeking are branches of the same tree, whose roots are inextricably intertwined—you do not have one without the other.


Rabbi Abraham Heschel has written "What impairs our sight are habits of seeing as well as the mental concomitants of seeing. Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know.” (in Harris, 1989, pp158–159)


Spiritual teaching opens our eyes and ears, hearts and minds, hands and fingers to the healing of the world.  The more deeply and genuine the inner search, the wider the external effect and the more we have to offer the world.  Harris’s advice is to spend twenty minutes daily in contemplation about our action, a time to be still and receptive so we can "see” what we have not "seen before” (Harris,1989, p158).


Thomas Groome asks us to be "pilgrims in time.” To do so demands that we ask ourselves what is at the heart of religious learning.


The human heart is the reservoir of our spiritual longings. The church must take seriously its role in fostering truth, beauty, wonder and justice. It must inspire people to seek transformation. It must liberate people from old ideas and images. It must help people discover the strength and power of their own story and the stories of their elders. It must heal the brokenness and challenge the status quo.


Spiritual teaching is not esoteric and removed; it is lived in the everyday. It is lived congruently within our faith tradition. It is a reservoir of power and wisdom that keeps us from being blown away. It resonates with the mystery and awe at the center of our being. It comes from deep inside and needs our nurture and care.


We must take care of ourselves.  As Mary Oliver in The Journey (1992, pp 114–115) reminds us that, even as we walk deeper into a world of ever more incessant demands, we must listen to our inner voice, "determined to save the only life [we can]….” So may it be!



Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Bost, MA (1969).

David Bumbaugh and Beverly Bumbaugh, Reinventing the Church, Sermon at Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ, (October 14,1997).

Richard Gilbert, We Meet on Holy Ground, in In the Holy Quiet of this Hour: A Meditation Manual, Skinner House Books, Boston, MA (1995).

Thomas Groome, from theme talk at Meadville/Lombard Mid-winter Institute , Madison, Wisconsin (1984).

Maria Harris,Teaching and Religious Imagination: An Essay in the Theology of Teaching, Harper and Row, New York (1987).

Maria Harris,Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky (1989).

Maria Harris and Gabriel Moran, Reshaping Religious Education: Conversations on Contemporary Practice, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky (1998).

Denise Levertov, Breathing the Water, New Directions, New York (1987).

Angus MacLean, God and the Devil at Seal Cove,(1976).

Angus MacLean, "The Message is the Method." published in the Christian Leader, (January 1952).

Betty Jo Middleton and Roberta Nelson, The Ministry of Religious Education, in Gretchen Woods, editor, Leaping From Our Spheres: The Impact of Women on Unitarian Universalist Ministry, Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, Boston, Massachusetts (2000).

Mary Elaizbeth Moore, "Poetry: Prophecy and Power”,REA. Journal, vol. 93, no. 3, (1998)

Barbara Myers and William Myers, Engaging in Transcendence: The Church’s Covenant with Young Children, The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, Ohio (1992).

Elizabeth Murray, Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul, Pomegranate, Rohnert Park, CA (1997)

Roberta Nelson, The Teacher as Spiritual Guide, in The Essex Conversations Coordinating Committee, Essex Conversations: Visions for Lifespan Religious Education, Skinner House Books, Boston, Massachusetts (2001).

Mary Oliver,New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts (1992).

Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of A Teacher’s Life, Jossey-Bass, Publishers, San Francisco, CA (1998).

Wendy Wright,Sacred Dwelling: A Spirituality of Family Life, Forest of Peace Publishing, Inc., Leavenworth, KS (1994).