I have made reference to my years at a Unity School of Religious Science congregation before. There was, as with any human institution, both good and bad about those years, but probably my fondest memories are about the New Year’s Eve services.
Yes, that is correct — New Year’s Eve services.
The long-standing New Year’s eve tradition in Unity, dating back to the days of the founders (Charles and Myrtle Fillmore) was called the burning bowl service. Obviously, Unity was not an organization with a set liturgy, however, some traditions did survive long-term. The format and the setting were adapted and changed by each community, but the essence was simple: take a piece of paper and write on it all the qualities, fears, or whatever (as long as it wasn’t an actualy person), then you walk up to a large bowl of fire (yes, literally, a large bowl of fire), then you say a prayer of blessing, and well, then, you burn it. Then you take another piece of paper, write on it your hopes and dreams for the coming year, bless that, and burn that too. Really, the ceremony is designed to ask you to be mindful: mindful of who you are and who you would like to be, and what you need to live the best, most faithfilled life possible (assuming that that is your intention if you are at any kind of a church at all on New Year’s Eve).
The first time I ever experienced a burning bowl ceremony was at Unity Temple on the Plaza, one of the original churches created by the founders in Kansas City. It was the first New Year’s Eve after my divorce was final, and I didn’t really want to spend it all with my mother, so Ithought I would give it a try. At the time, there were still some ministers in the Unity movement who had actually known the Fillmores, and they were really the only ones who still did the burning bowl. The Plaza Temple had one of those ministers. It was a most scintillating evening, sitting around in a big church hall in lawn chairs with about 20 senior citizens, singing old Unity affirmation songs and, well, burning our way into the New Year.
After I moved to Washington and connected myself with another Unity community, I did a lot of strange things on New Year’s eve, including producing a Caberet show based on the concept of our relationship to time, but one thing never changed: the burning bowl. And, there was a new ritual introduced by our leader, Amalie Frank — before we did anything that evening (yes, even if we had a show to put on), we had to sit down and write our letters to God.
Our letters to God were written, sealed, and then stored in the church office. Sometime around the mid-point of the year, you would receive your letter in the mail as a reminder of what you were thinking about.
I realize now that so much of what we did at Unity, well, didn’t leave room for God in the equation. There was (and I suppose still is) a rather narcissistic belief in the whole philosophical structure that Human Will can bend the divine to its own purpose at any time, if that Will is just focused enough. This, among other reasons, is why I am no longer associated with Unity. I prefer a God with whom I can be in relationship, not one that I must ordered around like I do my beagle, Gracie.
Philosophical differences, aside, however, I do still see the value of my New Year’s letter to God (which I do still write). After all, I write letters to lot’s of people that I’m in relationship with, so why not God? The letters I write now, however, no longer resemble a list of New Year’s resolutions — thats for a different exercise. And so, I thought that I would share with you all this year’s letter, as I wish you a very happy and healthy New Year.
This is Susan. As always, I’m writing to you on New Year’s Eve. I’m pretty certain that I don’t spend enough time talking with you during the year, but I have done my best to listen more carefully for your voice in 2010. I promise to keep working on that one in 2011.
You’ve granted me a lot of blessings during 2010 — I’ve had good health, I’ve had opportunities to learn and to grow in my faith and in my use of the talents that you have given me, I’ve had love and community, and I’ve had a chance to share those things with others.
I’ve not always been a good steward of the gifts you have given me, and I’m going to work on that a lot in 2011. And you have shown me things about the world this year, about people who are lonely and need community, about welcoming the stranger and seeking peace for the whole world, not just for myself and my loved ones — I promise to use my gifts to help your work for the world as well.
Dear God, I know that I am one of the fortunate ones. My problems are small and my gifts are abundant. In the coming year, I’m going to work harder to spend less time worrying about what I don’t know and more time acting on your calling.
So, God, in closing, I would like to say to you and to everyone reading this letter, how grateful I am for the opportunity to hear Your Voice, to live a life in faith, and for the gifts and challenges ahead.
Thank you, God.