Several weeks ago, I hoped to blog about the experience of worship I had at St Thomas’ in New Haven, CT. Well, here we are at last.
The service taught me a lot, and the experience of it is still unfolding for me.
Last time I spoke about the space: the way in which a wholly white space formed a sort of ‘stage’ for the enacting of liturgy. This time, I want to speak not of space but spaciousness: there was a sense of open possibility which permeated the service, and drew me in despite a lot of things that might have gotten in the way.
Before the service began, I was very aware of happy chatter around the church. It gave me a good impression of the community, but I feared there was too much chatter to let me find peace, to pray and prepare to worship; and I feared the commotion wouldn’t cease when the service began.
Well, the noise and motion did indeed make it harder to pray before the service. But against that came the organ: slowly and insistently calling us to prayer. The sub-organist began to play 15 minutes before the service was due to start. And I needed him to be playing for that long. Against all the chatter, it simply takes longer to find — what? stillness, centredness, focus, openness, attention. And yet, because the organist did play — and because of how he played and how long he played — it was possible for both things to be happening: happy chatter and depth of prayer.
Then, when the organist stopped, and the noise threatened to reassert itself everyone was stopped in their tracks by the introit: a solo voice pierced the background noise, and suddenly the whole space was filled with insistent beauty.
Throughout the service, the tensions continued between noise and commotions, and focused, reverent worship. When the service began, the nave was only about a third full. By the time we came to communion, the church was more than two-thirds full. Some of those people had come late, others had begun in the side chapel with their young children, others seemed to walk to and fro though the whole liturgy of the word. I do not understand all of what was happening. I did feel somewhat frustrated by the number of people who seemed to be drifting, moving, talking… but against all that there was a steady beat drawing us in.
It was held by the way the president made space for what was happening. He neither yielded to the disruptions, nor judged them. He simply ‘held’ the liturgical space, and gently quietly held to its structure. There was a sense of an elastic being stretched and released, stretched and released until we found that our consciousness had expanded.
Some of this was done by sound and music: a bell marking the start of ‘silence’ after the first reading seemed to be read by some as an invitation to chat to the person next to them. Silence hadn’t really fallen by the time a different toned bell rang to mark the ‘end time’. But when the bell rang again after the second reading, I could tell we were in a new space: the silence was deeper, more focused — if not yet complete.
The liturgy — not any one person, neither the president, nor the organist, nor the cantors, but somehow the whole of it — kept cajoling us into deeper awareness, open attentiveness.
I found myself wondering how they managed it. Do those leading worship rely on a few deeply prayerful types to help hold the space while so much is going on? Were they so centred themselves that they could hold it? (I respected all those I saw leading worship, but I actually doubt this. The ‘weight’ of what was being held was great, and I know few parish priests who can develop that particular depth of spirituality amidst the demands of a busy church community.) Was it — as I suspect, but find hard to believe– more accidental than it felt, held only by the grace of God?
I found it powerful because I know precisely how hard I would find it to recreate. I loved it because it showed me what I need to learn. I admired so much the rector’s ability to insist on the integrity of the liturgy, to preach on the importance of Holy Week, but to do that in a way that was un-threatened, unperturbed by those who seemed unfocused, unwilling or unable to ‘settle’ into what was going on. I admired his ability to cajole without coercing. I was fascinated by the way in which people were treated as adults, allowed to make their own choices, even when those choices were not the ones ‘wished for’. I was fascinated by the ways in which those leading worship were tolerant of different levels of ability and desire to engage, without yielding an inch of what was happening liturgically — without letting the service be derailed, nor reduced the the lowest common denominator.
It was tremendous.
And yet there were times when it threatened to derail. The peace went on for three times longer than was necessary, and broke down into extended and needless conversation. The notices were given after the peace, with everyone coming up to say their bit, and all the slow careful work that had been done during the liturgy of the word to draw us into God’s presence seemed to be falling apart in the chaos. I truly did not know how the congregation would ever regain focus. But then the choir started a Taize chant, the collection was taken, and the chant grew till everyone joined in and processed around the church to gather at the altar, where the focus was absolute.
Ah, there’s too much to tell you. Let me stop there, with the hope of speaking of the eucharist another day.
So much to learn.