As the changing leaves began their transformative work on Lake Oswego, Oregon’s fall landscape, I was creating my first local World Day of Prayer service at the Unity Center in West Linn, Oregon. It was 2002, a year following my move from Alaska and the decision to leave my previous faith tradition. Seeking spiritual growth and alignment with what I believed to be Truth, I was guided to a Unity center on the edge of Portland. There I found a sense of belonging with warm welcomes and inspirational messages. Unity teachings opened my heart and expanded my understanding of religion while satiating my desire for spiritual growth. Finding Unity satisfied my search for a community that embraced or at least acknowledged and respected the religions of the world.
The Unity center was located close to Marylhurst University where I was enrolled in a graduate program for religious studies that focused on pastoral care and institutional chaplaincy. The pastoral care program invited deeper exploration of the world’s religions—an important aspect when serving people of all faith traditions (or those who claim none at all).
Finding a Pathway to Devotion
I quickly became involved at Unity, first as a greeter and then in the prayer chaplain program. When Rev. Victoria Etchemendy invited me to create the center’s World Day of Prayer service, I said yes.
The 2001 service, which took place two days following the tragic acts of violence on September 11, made this invitation a little challenging. Indeed, that prior service was a refuge for the shaken who were grappling with disbelief and maybe even despair. Some might even have experienced a questioning of their faith. I remember appreciating the service as a place to be with others who were grieving and searching for connection and Truth during that atrocity.
I recognized that what occurred the year before was probably not the direction to go for this year. Since I had been given free rein, I chose content that explored peace through the world’s faith traditions. We ended up with a United Nations flavor that identified connection, commonality, and community across religious boundaries. Participants were invited to sit in a circle around a table adorned with candles and a variety of multicultural sacred objects. The readings reminded and invited participants to consider similarities of beliefs.
Moving forward 16 years and having experienced many more World Day of Prayer services, I have discovered that the gift of vigil hours combined with an evening service is a powerful time for those who wish to experience being held in the embrace of their spiritual nature. The combination of silence and celebration creates an opportunity beyond our daily practices.
Devotion: Direct Contact With the Sacred
Former university professor, writer, and spiritual counselor Joseph Dispenza spent several years after graduating from high school in a monastery, including spending an entire year in silence. The greatest thing he says he learned during that time was how to get in touch with the spiritual center of himself. Deep within each of us, he notes, is a great well of health, abundance, knowledge, and guidance. When we enter the Silence and stay in the Silence, we come in direct contact with that sacred well. This, he adds, is where our true higher self dwells—the part of us that exists in no time, with no past, no future—only the present moment. This part of us is connected to all of consciousness and includes the solutions to all our problems.
Consider Unity minister Jim Rosemergy’s statement in his book, A Closer Walk With God (Inner Journey, 1991): “There is an ancient echo calling us to be monks of the city.” Rosemergy is encouraging us all to claim our divinity as “monks of the city,” indeed as “monks” of the world. He goes on to suggest we “maintain a spiritual consciousness while fully participating in daily life.”
Devotion Across the Faith Traditions
Some faith traditions have rigorous standards for devotional activities, including Catholicism, Judaism, and Hinduism. In these traditions, I’ve noticed external symbols aid the focus of devotion or means for reaching the Silence. For Catholics, the Holy Family or a crucifix are prime examples. Of Hinduism’s many symbols, Ganesh—the elephant-headed figure with many arms—is my favorite. Most commonly known in Judaism are the menorah and the Star of David.
Many faith traditions have special devotional days. The Roman Catholics recognize feast days for various saints. Devotional days in the Jewish tradition include Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.
While in graduate school, I worked for a Presbyterian church that shared its facility with a Jewish community, and I was able to observe the keeping of Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day of the year for Jews. This is a day of silence and reflection, often called the “day of atonement” as it inspires introspection, prayer, and petitions for forgiveness so Jews can enter their new year with a clean slate. It is similar to our New Thought tradition of holding a burning bowl ritual near New Year’s Day.
As a hospice and hospital chaplain, I have engaged with people of varying devotional practices from a variety of faith traditions. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I now live and work, a large percentage of the population is Roman Catholic. I am often moved to near tears observing the deep devotion expressed through the loving hearts of the local people.
Many are motivated to travel extraordinary distances to experience and be inspired by the essence of what I call “felt Oneness.” The famous sacred site El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Northern New Mexico is a Roman Catholic church built in the early 1800s and now a National Historic Landmark. Each year roughly 30,000 people from all over the world make pilgrimages to the sanctuary during Holy Week. Some pilgrims walk from as far away as Albuquerque, about 90 miles, and others walk about 28 miles from Santa Fe. Visitors take a small amount of holy dirt for healing themselves or someone who could not make the trip. The history of the church speaks of an apparition of Mary and many healings. The energy here is palpable.
The deep resting in the Divine I experience in New Mexico may be attributed to the mix of culture and religion. You can feel as much and see the sacredness here. In any case, I am inspired to be in that energy of commitment to one’s beliefs and even to entertain new questions about our connectedness, our place in the world, and our own evolution. The people here live from a deep sense of faith guided by their religious beliefs. I call it devotion.
Devotion means love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. Another word for devotion is faithfulness. My own desire is to be that simple but elegant faithfulness that I observe in the ancient practices from which we evolve.
Love, Loyalty, Enthusiasm
In Unity, devotional acts might be defined as reflecting on Daily Word while sitting in prayer, meditation, or the Silence. During these times we could find ourselves surrendering to our own goodness or forgiving what’s in the past and releasing what no longer serves us. After my personal experience this past September during World Day of Prayer’s 24-hour vigil and concluding service, I am ready to claim World Day of Prayer as my annual day of devotion.
Modern-day Christian mystic Father Thomas Keating says, “The language of God is Silence. Everything else is a poor translation.” Keating, the Trappist monk who made it his life’s work to share contemplative prayer practice, once said, “Seeking God in the Silence helps nonmonastics achieve … the discipline of quieting thoughts and feelings in order to experience the presence of God.” In Keating’s definition of centering prayer, one consents to experiencing the presence within us. Isn’t that what we all want to experience in our spiritual life—the presence of the Divine within us? Unity teaches that we are spiritual beings, created in God’s image. The spirit of God lives within each person. It is one thing to be aware of this principle, but another to experience it.
This past year in Santa Fe, I connected with World Day of Prayer on a new and deeper level. Attending the vigil hours was impactful. As a coordinator and hostess for the vigil and the evening service, I was present for the entire day. The Silence invited by the contemplative time altered my intention from duty to desire. World Day of Prayer became a time of celebrating my spiritual beingness without the interruption of the human condition.
By creating a cocoon of safety that the hospitality of Spirit assures, I merged wholly and completely in an experience of Oneness that remained with me for weeks following. I asked myself, Is this the effect of devotional practice? The devotion that allows our faithfulness to be all we came here to be? Devotion is love, loyalty, and enthusiasm. I believe peace within is achieved through the devotional act of dwelling in our divinity.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of World Day of Prayer, may each and every Unity church or center provide a devotional opportunity for going within. This special day invites us to celebrate what from within us can change the energy of the world around us.