This is Not Very Interesting: On Stoles & Malas

Okay, I never thought I would find this dilemma so compelling as to put a whole lot of thought to it, much less to write about it, but here I am.  Which says something since I haven’t posted to my blog in a couple of weeks.  Maybe it’s having to write a paper every day for my week-long intensive class last week and the two 10-13 page papers from that class hanging over my head, but I haven’t been particularly energized.

And this lack of inspiration has persisted even in the face of an amazing new Facebook Workshop for UU bloggers that has a whole host of cool peeps being rejuvenated and renewed and reinvigorated and rewriting.  Well, writing again, which is not quite the same thing, but you get the idea…

I am here today to talk with you about the very, very important dilemma about when a Unitarian Universalist can wear a stole.

(I know, I just lost 96% of my readership.  Come back next post.  Pretty please?)


UU seminarians fret about wearing stoles.  Are we allowed?  Who is allowed?  Who says?  Are their rules for this?  Are the rules applicable?   Are they the same rules as for wearing a clerical collar?  What about a clerical robe?

What does this mean for a faith movement that talks about a prophethood of all believers?  That if one can wrap one’s heart around the word “ministry,” that we all have a ministry that brings us into the world to make it a better, more just place.

From what I can figure out, before I become ordained, I can (and sometimes, should) robe, like for memorial services.  And I can (and might be asked by my CPE supervisor) wear a clerical collar.  (Future CPE supervisor, if you are reading this: please don’t ask me to wear a clerical collar.  I will feel like I’m fronting something I’m not.  Like presenting myself as a Christian.)

Consensus says: I may not, however, wear a stole.  Or, if I choose to, it might look like I am being uppity, as well as passing myself off as something I am not yet.  Though some people report that their supervising ministers on internships require of them to wear a stole while they are conducting worship.  Maybe the ordination juice of the supervising minister rubs off on the intern?

Given how few rites of passage we UUs have compared to many other religions, the wearing of the stole is something that is reserved for ordained clergy.  Though your mileage may vary depending on which region of the United States you inhabit, which also influence thoughts on robing and collaring.

I guess I can see why this is confusing.  But still not especially interesting.

Just recently, a seminarian asked not what the rule is for wearing or not wearing a stole, but what the rule is – if any – for where the stole comes from.

Must it be a gift?  From whom? Your family? Your sponsoring congregation? Your ordaining congregation?  Can you buy yourself a stole?  What if it’s really, really pretty and reflects all your deepest innermost spiritual elements?  What if it’s on sale?  Or on eBay?  If you buy it or commission someone to make it just the way you want it, does that somehow diminish it?

Now I find this question much more juicy.  Since it’s years before I will be wearing a stole (because I am choosing to abide by the value that stole wearing is for ordained clergy.  I am working really, really hard towards this goal and by god, I want something to show for it!), my entry into this juicy question is from a different angle.


I have a mala bracelet.  I wear it as a sign to myself to bring spiritual intention to my daily life.  It has also become a signifier to others who recognize it. I was recently in a room full of robed UU ministers.  I approached one I only knew and admired from afar.  Within one minute he pointed to my mala and recognized our shared Buddhist connection.

This mala bracelet is one of many from over the years.  Some have broken.  Some of gone lost.   This one plain.  It’s not all that visually appealing to me, but my husband got it for me the last time he went on retreat, so it holds meaning.

In Buddhism, the mala typically has 108 beads, but the bracelet version does not (it will often have a divisor of 108, so 27…).  Malas have their parallel in other faith traditions.  Think Catholic rosary beads.  This tespih, which is the Turkish word for the beads Muslims use; they have 99 beads to represent the 99 names of Allah.  I have both these in my possession, gifts from people I hold dear (and in the case of the rosary, handmade just for me — thank you, Roy).  Sikhs, Baha’i, and Hindus also have prayer beads.  Wikipedia told me so.

The mala bracelet on my wrist is wearing out.  The string is stretching.  I know that I will need a new one soon.  This process, which has happened several times, is part of the dharmic experience of impermanence and unattachment.  I teeter between wanting the one I see in my head (which would require me to buy it) and the belief that items we imbue with sacred meaning should have an origin other than a financial transaction at the local Tibetan-owned store.

My husband told me I should just go out and buy myself a new one.  Maybe instead, someone should tell him about this one

0 thoughts on “This is Not Very Interesting: On Stoles & Malas”

  1. Hmm. Years ago I bought my own deck of Tarot cards, despite the tradition (as I was informed, at least) that one’s first deck must be given by another. That type of tradition is cool when you’re in a community that will ensure that the gift is indeed given. But what if you live a random American life? I think it’s OK to make do even if that means buying it for yourself. You can still get the use out of it, and it will become meaningful in its own way over time.

    Epilogue: I got good use out of the deck, and then gave it to someone else just starting out :^)

    1. Andrew, thanks for the link to Joanna’s post on this, which I had missed. It’s a powerful story she tells. I wonder how my living where I do — Western MA, Lesbianville — changes the context so much that it would change the story and it’s redemptive quality. I wonder how my own thoughts on the collar will change if/when my geography changes. Again, thanks.

  2. On the question of where do you get the stole… It’s nice if people give you one … but if they don’t… or you want one of your own choosing … or just because… you just buy the one you want. No evidence that it diminishes the efficacy of your prayers

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