Saturday, February 12, 2005

Longing for Liturgy: Part Two

I believe that my longing for liturgy began in childhood when I attended a cousin's confirmation. Such was my early fundamentalist indoctrination, that I felt a hum of terror as well as a frisson of curiosity while watching the proceedings. Were these windows "idols?" Were these carvings "graven images?" I let myself down into what was Holy Mystery. The service was scarey and wonderful. The colours, the candles, the organ and choir embraced me; spoke to the place inside me where God and Beauty dwelt. The air was filtered gold. The scriptures had a familiar cadence, but a deeper dignity than they achieved when we read them from well-worn "promises" around the supper table each evening.

It is not news that space affects and shapes worship behaviour, and visa versa. People move into a cathedral with a muted awe. There is little chat before service. The space invites contemplation. A large industrial space is conducive to contemporary worship with room for sound equipment, projection screens, dancing and moving about. The plain Quaker meeting house is perfectly suited to the prayers which will be spoken after silence. Given these differences, I wonder if denominations, rather than being a divisive, might be God's way of providing for varying taste and temperament.

In EVANGELICALS ON THE CANTERBURY TRAIL, Robert E. Webber urges us to be Christians first and whatever else we are, Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist (even "emerging" one supposes) second. This concept was compelling for me since the church where I worshipped had many "distinctives". There was a tendency for me to commit the sin of henotheism, placing the distinctives and governance of the church in the ultimate place in my life. God showed me that the amount of time I spent talking about the church, complaining about the church, strategizing for change in the church, were depleting my love of God. Indeed, my constant battle with the church was substituting for a truer experience of God in my life.

Webber asserts that the evangelical church arose, in part, as a response to scientific rationalism. Christianity needed to be rational. Sermons defend what properly may be accepted as Mystery. I remember an agonized flannelgraph retelling of "Jonah" which a zealous leader inflicted on our stunned congregation. In it he showed, with dimensions, that there was a fish large enough to swallow Jonah whole, what Jonah experienced literally in the belly of the whale, and how he, hairless and naked and scalded by stomach acids, was spat onto the beach. All irrelevent!

I find the liturgical church comforting in that it takes me into the creaturely space of not-knowing. God is great, compassionate, mysterious and bigger than me. I sense this in the vaulted space, in the art, in the grand music pulsing through wooden pews, through the timelessness of the service.

Never was this comfort more needed than when Rob and I found ourselves in England as tragedy stuck his family at home in Canada. His sister, thirty-two years old mother of three children under five, was killed in a car accident. Unable to return for her funeral, we sought out a place to be in prayer each day of our journey, stopping for evensong or attending morning prayers wherever we found ourselves.

The day before the funeral in Canada, we visited Westminster Abbey. In November, by custom, it is surrounded by a memorial to war dead. There were thousands of white crosses planted in battalions, complete with a separate section for padres who had given their lives in service. Hundreds of padres! Newly ordained pastors, we purchased a cross and placed it in memory of some unknown padre in some unknown place. We were strangely comforted by participating in this symbolic act. In its deepest sense, that is what liturgy offers, a symbolism which speaks to heart matters, bypassing the rational mind. This multitude of crosses and our own loss had a connection which would only be destroyed by analysis.

The Abbey, however, was not our ultimate destination on the funereal day. Crowded with tourists, it was more like a museum than a place of worship. No comfort there. Just to the left of the Abbey, stands St. Margaret's Chapel. There God's Spirit surrounded us and comforted us. The interior was womb-dark and one could kneel for a long time in quietness, undisturbed. I remember shaking uncontrollably. Neither could believe that this young mother, wife, sister, daughter...was dead. In agony and unknowing, we clung to eachother, comforted by the palpable eternity which surrounded us. This has remained a most sacred memory of our life journey. In our bereavement, we felt surrounded by clouds of witnesses, connected to past and future by the act of kneeling and reading and praying.

1 comment:

bobbie said...

oh connie, this is beautiful. i have saved it until i had time to sit and ponder it, dwell with it - and it was so worth waiting for! thank you.

i have been feeling to insulted and isolated with this illness. like my head is under water or sealed in a zip loc bag. it has been surreal. even from god. there has been so little penetrating my thick skull. truly a winter of my discontent...