I recently interviewed Reverend Linda Simmons, Minister of the Nantucket Unitarian Universalists, about her thoughts on faith, God, and being called to religious leadership. Her beautifully poetic way with words, warm spirit, and light heartedness made for a fantastic conversation and some wonderful insights.
You can find out more about Linda and her ministry here.
CS: Could you talk a bit about what Unitarian Universalism is?
LS: Basically, it’s a non-creedal faith – we’re united by our shared search for spiritual growth. Very committed to social justice, to the poor and the marginalized and the underprivileged. Our roots are Christian, in this country and also in Europe, but have grown from there in many different ways. The humanist and transcendental and the atheist movements all were integrated into Unitarianism. Unitarianism and Universalism became one faith in 1961…We don’t affirm the truth of any sacred text but say that all sacred texts are sacred and have worth and merit but that they are all written by human beings and therefore full of perspective and subjectivity and error and attempts to define the divine. But none of them is believed to be the final word on that search. So we welcome Hindus, and Buddhists, and Atheists, and Muslims, and Christians and Jews.
The liturgy – the Sunday service – still follows a kind of Protestant trajectory with hymns and a sermon, so it wouldn’t be that unfamiliar to people brought up Protestant. But we also have all kinds of different things that we include in our services and many services diverge completely from that sort of liturgical structure. So we’re a very diverse people and each of our churches or meeting houses or fellowships, depending on what people call them – here it’s called a meeting house – they all have different commitments. Some are Christian…This church is very Humanist, here on the island. Some churches have very different foci – and all of it is acceptable.
We have 7 principles and 6 sources and those are the center of who we are. The first principle is the inherent worth and dignity of every person and that really gives you a great sense of our orientation. The second one is justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Others are: the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, acceptance for one another, and encouragement for spiritual growth.
People will say, “so how are you different from a boys and girls club, or an al-anon group, which also has 12 steps?” And because we don’t have a central sacred text, there’s no Jesus or Allah or Buddha or Vishnu or Krishna… people say, “well what do you believe in, if you have faith?” The answer is multiple. But there’s a sense that there’s something larger than we are that fills the earth and the universe, (although humanists would say no, no there isn’t, that we are the end of that chain, there’s nothing higher than humanity). But even the humanist would say that there’s something within human beings when we are joined together to work for a common good that is sacred and holy. “Holy” maybe would be too far of a stretch, but there’s always that sense that when we are together we are more than when we are alone and that we all have to trust that we are good and strong and wise enough to determine what we believe in and what is sacred. Then we come together and we do the work of people of faith on this earth, which is social justice. We have a strong commitment to immigration, to queer and gay people and their right to marry, and to the environment. These are some of our unified social justice strategies, but then all of us have our own that we work on in our various communities.
So that’s a kind of patchwork answer. If you go on the UUA website, it says, “we are diverse in faith, ethnicity, and spirituality, but aligned in our desire to practice our faith in tangible ways. We are believers in what is good, what is right, and what is just.”
We have radical roots, which is true, very radical. Abolitionist. Unitarians in history have been people who said, during the inquisition, “No, I don’t think so, I don’t think it’s right.” [UU’s] were anti-trinitarian (Father, Son and the Holy Ghost), but they were more than that – they also contested original sin, they contested that others should be burned or persecuted because of their religious beliefs. So we have a really radical and really very beautiful history. There’s marks and scars in it and times we didn’t stand up when we should have, but it’s a radical history that always calls us to be in the world, as we say, standing on the side of love, justice, and peace. So that’s the quick and dirty of it.
CS: That’s beautiful, thank you. That reminds me of something a friend at divinity school said once: that Unitarian Universalism is all about “praising the mystery.” That was something that really resonated with me because I’ve struggled with figuring out where I “fit in” religiously and what God is – that idea that it’s ok to just praise without knowing was very helpful.
LS: It’s true- praise not knowing. I think we’d all agree with that. There’s not much we all agree with, but I bet we would all agree that living into the questions is what matters, instead of believing that we have the answers. Living with integrity into those questions and with a sense that we have a responsibility to each other and our fellow human beings. So it’s not a living into those questions and sitting down and saying, “I don’t know” – it’s a living into the questions and standing up and saying, “I don’t know, but I do know that we all deserve to be treated with love and compassion and humanity. So…it’s an interesting faith. I always think that one of religion’s great and maybe less than honorable uses is that it’s sort of a cloak in the darkness. You know, [the notion that] there is a God and if I follow this path, I’ll go to Heaven or I’ll be rewarded…and we don’t have a clue. We sit in the darkness together and say “It’s scary! The darkness is scary! and maybe there’s some beauty and hope here. But let’s walk together on this journey of discovery in life.”
It’s the only place that I could ever be and feel that I was living a life of integrity. That’s just true for me. I know some beautiful Catholics and Protestants and Muslims and Hindus that live great lives of integrity. But for me, this is the only place I could be because I could never imagine myself saying this is the truth and the only truth and I know it. I can’t do it, I can’t sustain that. But I am a person of deep faith so this is the only home that I would ever find, I’m quite sure of that. People say, “Why are you Unitarian Universalist?” And I say, “Well, they’re the only ones who wouldn’t kick me out!” (laughs) But it’s of course deeper than that.
CS: Were you raised in a particular religious tradition?
LS: I was raised Catholic.
CS: How did you come to move away from that?
LS: I went to a Catholic school in high school and there were some leaders in the Catholic schools, some nuns and others, who lived less than honorably in my opinion. So that really turned me against the faith for a long time. I guess all faith actually. I grew up in an alcoholic family and to become a UU minister, you have to go through three days of psychological testing. And the psychologist that was testing me said the reason I have so much resilience and hope in me is because of my relationship to Jesus, which I’d never even thought about, but it was quite true. As a young girl, I was very, very attached to Jesus and believed that Jesus was my friend and that he was helping me and that he was, I don’t know, making insanity more sane through loving me. So that was a really early, formative experience for me and opened my heart to the healing and possibility of faith. But as I grew and learned more about Catholicism, I felt it had no room for me as a woman who was seeking and asking questions. It just didn’t feel like it had enough room for me to grow and to be whole and to be spiritually questioning, so I left the faith and didn’t come back to faith again – to organized religion – for many, many years until I had my daughter when I was 27 and ended up bringing her up as a single mother, and then found the Unitarian Universalist church. We would both go to that on Sundays.
So it was a long time and in that time I traveled – I lived in India for a year and I lived in Ireland and I lived in Spain and France and Germany and all over Europe. I traveled for many years. I must say, when I look back and reflect on it, I’ve always been a person of faith. I’ve always prayed, I’ve always believed that I have been guided…I’ve never felt alone. And maybe people say, “how could you have lived in India for a year by yourself?” And I think, well, because I’ve always felt part of something larger than I am. I think that’s given me the capacity and courage to do a lot of things. So although I left the Catholic faith after high school, and didn’t come back to any faith at all – I mean any organized faith – for another 10 years, I would say I always lived a life of faith. I taught high school, in a little village school founded by Ghandi in India. And working with those girls, I had this little hut with a dirt floor and a tin roof and the monkeys would jump on it and a man would ride up from the valley in the morning and ladle milk into a little container I’d put outside. And the girls would sit on the dirt floor of my little place in the evenings and we would talk. They’d ask me if America had streets paved with gold. And I gave them my Marxist rendition of all that was wrong with Capitalism (laughs). But I think of some of the things I did with those girls, and some of the hikes and the time we spent together and I think of the deep faith I have always lived my life with, and faith in what I’m not always sure. Faith in humanity, always. I’ve always lived my life with a deep faith in humanity, which doesn’t mean I’m naïve. I see some of the nightmares we have created for each other and I look out there and I think, “Oh my God, what has become of us as human beings?” How have we allowed each other to live in such violent mental, physical, and emotional states? I feel saddened and ashamed by that – that this kind of thinking still goes on in the world. So it’s not a naïve belief in humanity, but there’s still – in the face of it all – the belief that we have more goodness than cruelty within us.
CS: I think that’s an essential belief if you want to make any positive difference.
LS: I think you’re right, Chelsea. I don’t think you could be a leader unless you did. I’ve never really thought about that until you said it, but I don’t think you could be a leader of a community – as a minister, or all the other ways that we’re leaders of communities – without having a sense that human beings are worthy of fighting for.
CS: At what point did you feel called specifically to be a minister?
LS: I brought my daughter up as a single mother all her life. I married Gary only five years ago. While I was living as a single mom in New Hampshire, I was working with at-risk youth for about 15 years – kids that were high school dropouts and drug addicted and gang involved. Before my daughter turned 18 and left home for her own life, I went to the New Seminary in New York City, which was a two-year interfaith program. Gary and I would drive down once a month – it was only once a month for two days – and there were Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus and gay and straight and transgendered and transvestite, and shamans. It was a beautiful cross-section of the world in this little room on the second story in New York City. When I went there, I was in my 40’s somewhere, I was so angry at God – at the notion of God. Religion felt all tied up with patriarchy and the oppression of the marginalized and surely of women. In my first year there, I was so angry at God and so all I really did for that first year was ask really intense questions of every presenter. We studied all the world’s religions and different presenters from the city would come in – representatives who were rabbis, imams, and Catholic priests and others would come, and talk to us about all the different faiths. I was so angry and all I would do is ask question after question – I was indignant. And the second year all I did was cry. People tell me this – that all I did the first year was ask questions and all I did the second year was cry. And they say, “Linda! Aren’t you going to ask a million questions??” But the second year I finally realized that my anger at God was really anger at the way that people had used God to keep me and others that I cared about small. And that had really nothing to do with God, whatever God is. That had nothing to do with faith or love or mystery or hope. It had to do with people who had affected my life when I was young, whom I just didn’t have the capacity to separate from God because they were in religious roles.
I did that for two years. I was ordained as an interfaith minister in St. John Divine Cathedral which was pretty amazing and then got out and realized there’s not much you can do with an interfaith ordination – it didn’t accredit me to really do anything – it was just once a month of schooling, so we probably read five books during the year. It was mostly experiential and time with each other that we spent. So it awakened a longing in me – that interfaith seminary in New York City. It led me to leave my job as a manager at that non-profit that was working with at-risk youth and to become a Reiki practitioner at the hospital in Dover. A paid Reiki practitioner, it was pretty unheard of. It was a great job.
CS: And Reiki is a practice of intentional, spiritual touch using hands?
LS: People can get very tense about what Reiki means or doesn’t mean, but at a hospital, at its basic, what it meant to me was that I would go into hospital rooms, especially people waiting for surgery…and people’s blood pressure would be off the charts, their anxiety would be up and nurses and doctors would call us in, and we would play soft music. I would just ask people to breathe and I would maybe put my hands on their forehead. And then I would lead them in a visualization. I would say, “Where do you like to go? The mountains or the beach…?” And depending on what they said I would ask them to close their eyes and focus on their breathing and I would lead them on this little journey, through the woods or on the beach. People like my voice and I like poetry so my ability to conjure images is high. Then we would spend 15 minutes in silence – there would be nice music playing – and I’d touch their head and their knees and their feet. Because they were usually in delicate health situations, it didn’t involve a lot of touch, but enough touch for people to really feel calmed down. They would be on blood pressure monitors and their blood pressure would completely relax and people would think, “Wow!” And I thought, all I did was ask someone to breathe – it’s so much about the breath. I’ve had my hands on people who had just had double mastectomies or amputations or had just learned they were dying of cancer. I also worked in the chemotherapy wing of the hospital, so while people were being infused during chemotherapy, I would always do Reiki. It was life-changing, it really was.
The work shut me up – besides the imagery and the visualizations I would do with people, I would be silent for 15 minutes. It was good to shut up, and it was good for me to just be quiet and open my heart to the experience of being a human being with someone who was suffering in their own humanity. It was a really beautiful work for me – it really changed me.
The chaplain at that hospital was an ex-Catholic priest who left the church in his 30s and married a nun and now they have three children. Beautiful, beautiful man; I just adore [him]…I would go into see him after a particularly difficult experience, there was a hospice there and I would do Reiki with people as they were dying, and when I would just not know where to go next, I would go and visit him and we would talk theology. One time he said to me, “Linda, you really need to apply to divinity school, you would make a great minister.” And through our conversation he started a position to make me a volunteer chaplain at the hospital. It was the first such thing there and at first I was just allowed to go into the rooms and sort of triage – just assess their need and tell [him] whether they needed to see a chaplain right away or could wait a day or two. I was not authorized to really have a conversation with them. Being a chaplain…. requires a divinity degree and four units of chaplaincy at a hospital, and I’d had none. After a time though, people would ask for me…So he let up on some of the restrictions of the position and really allowed me to experience the job.
From there I got laid off because the economy tanked and the first thing they laid off of course was integrated therapies…massage and Reiki. I started my own small dance company and did that for a year. It was called Dance Temple…I’m not a trained or professional dancer but I’ve danced for many years and so I danced people through the chakras. It was my own sort of amalgam of many different dance techniques that I’d learned and at the end I would read a poem that I had written about the dance experience – I would read it to everyone as they were lying on the floor. People in that dance class too would say, “You need to do something with this….this ability or this longing, or this open heartedness, or this capacity to hold space for others.”
So I applied to Harvard Divinity School because I wanted to be in an interfaith seminary, I couldn’t have gone to a Christian seminary, I would have not thrived. When they accepted me, I was as scared as I was excited because I had a life – I was teaching dance and I had a Reiki practice at my home and my daughter lived not far from where I was living in New Hampshire. My mom, my brother, and his children also lived not far and I am very close to all of them, so it was scary to pick up and leave everything I knew and scary again to graduate and come out to an island 30 miles out to sea. But I’m following a path that feels that it’s calling me and it feels good. It’s still scary sometimes but it feels right.
CS: What are some of your favorite things so far about being there and being in a new community?
LS: Well, it’s just an incredible privilege, no question. We’re a congregational polity, so the church is a people and it’s the congregation that runs the church, owns the church, that called me and could also fire me. So my authority is the authority I gain daily from people trusting in me and believing in me. It’s not authority that is given because of my title. Now that’s true in some ways but in other ways when you’re a minister and you’re putting on a robe, people give you authority that you haven’t yet earned as well. I don’t want to deny that or the responsibility of that authority, but what I find so tender and heart-opening and sacred is, as a minister, how quickly people are willing to let you into their lives and into their stories and into their tender places – into the soft spots of their hearts and into their fears and dreams. I find that to be an extraordinary privilege. And then there’s all the fun – the potlucks and the time with children, which I adore. We have a religious education program and I often read the story on Sunday to the kids. I’m really having a great time with the kids. Education has always been my thing. There’s a social justice program here that I enjoy very much. I’m doing some work in the local hospital here, some chaplaincy, which has been wonderful for me. And I marry people, and bury people, and bless their babies. And every Sunday I stand up for 20 minutes and talk like I know anything. It really is a real honor – just a real privilege and honor to be allowed and given the right and the trust and the open-heartedness to lead a community. Now, mind you, they’re looking and watching me pretty closely (laughs). You know, ministers can also do bad things and be bad people and lead people into places that are not healthy for them or for the church. So they’re watching me and don’t give me carte blanche at all. And as they see that I am who I appear to be, they trust me and open themselves and the community to me a little bit more. So it’s definitely a dance, and I wouldn’t want to be doing any other dance. I really can say that with my whole heart – this is the dance that my life has been waiting to dance. I’m quite sure about that.
CS: That’s an incredible thing. A lot of people aren’t able to find that.
LS: Well, I’m 54 years old so it took me a while to get here! And I’m so grateful to be here.
CS: What is your practice of prayer or meditation?
LS: I wake up every morning and go for a run. I mean a short run. Gary comes, and he walks while I run, so that’s how fast I run. I don’t want you to think I’m any superhero. We run down to the docks of the yacht club that are closed for the winter and we go out onto the pier, which has been an incredible feat in some of these winds – I mean, 50 mph. So we walk out onto the pier, and it turns to the right and you can face into the sunrise. And we say a gratitude prayer. It’s so windy you have to hold onto the pilings or be blown into the sea. And the sea – you’re in the middle of the sea – and the sea is always something different, it’s like this beast. It’s sometimes soft and calm and sometimes raging, the colors constantly change, as do the sun and the sky. So we say a gratitude prayer and then we come back here and meditate for 20 minutes.
I’ve recently become a student of a Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist Lama on the island. I just started that about 2 months ago. I see her twice a month, and she is teaching me about the mind. I don’t respond to dogma so I told her that right up front. I’m not going to respond to any dogmatic teachings, regardless of the faith tradition, but I’d like to learn how to settle myself down, center myself, and quiet my mind so that I can feel what there is to feel, and be present. I meditate for 20 minutes every morning, then we have breakfast. And often in the evenings, because we’re on an island, you can go to one place to watch the sun rise and another place to watch the sun set. So at least 4 times a week, we go to a beach – Madaket – and take a walk and watch the sun set. Because of how I’m wired, my deepest spiritual practices have often been physical – like walking on the beach for the sun set or running in the morning and saying a prayer with the sun rise. But adding meditation has been beautiful for me, really extraordinary to start working with quieting my mind. 20 minutes is what we’re up to and that’s quite a feat and to do it every day is another feat so I’ve been enjoying that a lot. Throughout the day, if I get in a place that scares me, and that happens all the time – almost every day – that I feel afraid that I’m not good enough or whole enough or worthy enough or strong enough or smart enough to live into this position the way it should be lived into, that also can become a time of prayer for me. Where I just open my heart and I say, you know what, I’m here. With all that I am, I’m here. And help me know that that’s enough, and usually after a very short time, I’ll understand that it is enough to show up and open my heart and mind. I question myself a lot – was that the right thing to say or do or give or presume or offer – and it takes a lot for me to be a minister, it’s taking a lot of me. I became a minister for many reasons, and one of them was because this is what I need to learn. This job is asking the questions that I want to live in to. That’s for me, essential – that the work I’m doing is asking the questions that I need to be living it to, to grow myself where I am at this time in my life. Ministry asks the questions that I want to be living in to.
CS: After growing up in a secular home but in a very Christian environment, for a long time I thought that I hadn’t been given any conception of God, but realized later that I in many ways “inherited” the cultural conception of God that surrounded me. I’m curious about how you conceive of God? What is that for you? Are there any images that you associate with God?
LS: Sometimes it depends, when my mother had breast cancer, God was a force that could save her life. And I hadn’t talked to that image of God for a long time. I worked at Brigham and Women’s as a chaplain when I was at Divinity School, and there was a Rabbi there who was training to become a chaplain and he said, you know, we are small, we are finite creatures, human beings. Our minds are small, we need images of God in order to comfort ourselves. But we know as Jews that these images are not real, they’re not representative but they’re ways that we can bring ourselves and others some peace. And I think of the Hindus, after living in India, and all their statues – Ganesh and Krishna and Kali, many families had different personal deities that they would pray to. But all of them understood that this was their family deity that they felt the most compatible with. And they understood that they were praying and offering their food and incense and candles to these small gods, and that everything was worshiping the One. But because we’re only human and because we have idiosyncracies and personalities, and desires and needs and ideas about what’s good and bad, we each need a personal god – the Hindus would say – that we can worship as a way to worship the One that is ineffable, that is formless, that is beyond understanding. So for me, I respond to that – I don’t know what God is, I haven’t got a clue. I don’t seek to know God, it’s beyond my capacity to understand. So I sometimes will conjure an image of God because I need one – because my mom is sick, or my daughter’s hurting, or because I’m afraid. I will conjure a mother Mary or a god-figure with huge arms that I can grab or sit in. But I don’t believe that’s what or who God is. I think that’s some form that I ask God to take in that moment so that I can be comfortable.
So what is God? Gee, I don’t know. I hope that there is an intelligent mystery that is beyond my capacity to understand or give shape to, that exists. That’s my hope, and my experience tells me that’s true. But would I go off and tell you that’s the only truth? No, I wouldn’t. It’s just strongly possible to me that there’s an intelligent mystery that’s beyond our understanding that is part of the universe. And I hope that’s true, but I couldn’t promise anything to anybody.
After my Brigham and Women’s experience, I was so devastated, there was just so much suffering there. One of my units was the stem cell transplant ICU, and the other was the place where women who had lost their children had come, and my heart was broken so often. I remember having lunch with a female Rabbi I met there and saying, “How could this happen if there’s a God?” And she said, “Look Linda – why should you get to know this? Centuries and centuries of people have been asking who and what is God. What would you have to change so that instead of asking WHO is God, ask WHERE is God? Tell me that answer.” And I talked for 20 minutes – I know where God is – always in the eyes of the woman as she’s getting a stem cell transplant, in the smile of the mother as she holds her baby, in the love between two people as they’re saying goodbye and one is dying. Where that force of love and hope and mystery lives. And then I thought, here’s what matters to me: I think human beings are God’s mercy on this earth. To live into that, I decided to take her challenge and to live into that – trying to be God’s mercy on this earth – that’s enough for me actually. I don’t really need to know more than that, if I can just live into the incredible courage and the integrity and the hope that being a good person on this earth requires, that’s a pretty much full-time occupation (laughs). Now when others are dying, people ask me if there’s a God. And I say, “Yes.” People will make that into what they need it to be when they’re in those positions. But do I think that there is a mystery that is beyond my understanding, I do actually, I do.
CS: I try to include something that my readers can try, or do, or cook, or read. Do you have any parts of your tradition or practice that you could share?
LS: This is just a personal lifestyle choice, but I used to have a glass of wine every now and then and I stopped drinking when I came to divinity school. I wasn’t ever a heavy drinker, but I decided to not take any alcohol into my body because I wanted to look straight up at what I was seeking to learn. So I don’t drink, or eat sugar, or use any drugs, or smoke cigarettes, and I eat clean. I guess what I’m going to say with that is that it’s scary to seek anything. And to seek it without the ways that we numb ourselves is for me a deeply religious practice. I don’t preach that from the pulpit to anyone, you know, I don’t mind if people like to have a glass of wine or something, and so I don’t know how to even talk about it because I don’t want to seem like I’m intolerant of other people’s ways of relaxing, and I’m not. But I must say that since I have chosen to live my life without these numbing substances, I have felt more peace and more capacity to relax and to sit with mystery and not-knowing than I have ever in my life been able to experience before.
I never even thought about it until you just asked, but I think that those choices are a deep part of my religious life. And because I don’t have any answers, because the questions are more than the answers, and because it’s all about living each day with integrity – and I screw that up all the time too. And to not turn away from the lessons and the questions, and the growth that this experience offers me is a really important part of my religious and spiritual practice.