Saturday, May 24, 2008


What I’m calling liturgy is a time art. That is, a period of time is set aside in which there is a sequence or process. Therefore, there must be a beginning and an end. It’s my premise that these two ends of the process are about the management of consciousness. I suspect that if it were possible to scan brains without pushing the person’s head into a pounding magnetic doughnut of claustrophobic proportions, the beginning and ending of a liturgical sequence would be obvious because one could see the change in which parts of the brain function. Later I will try to search for what parts those might be and why they might trade off, but for now please accept the idea that subjectively one’s mind and emotions change.

What sort of change might depend upon the kind of liturgy and the expectations of the participant (the committed believer versus the observing scientist or writer, for instance). The participant might enter a quiet state proper for meditation or at the other end of a spectrum, become energized for an ecstatic display of movement and speech. But there will need to be SOME kind of trigger to start things off, some signal to the brain. This needn’t be exotic nor need it depend upon mind-altering substances or practices (whirling, for instance).

Consider formal theatre productions. Even entering the theatre and finding one’s seat is part of the preparation, but clearly when the lights go down, the orchestra tunes up and then begins the overture, and the curtains sweep aside, one can feel the focusing, the expectation, and the mild excitement. Likewise, walking up a stepped hill to a cathedral and entering that space can shift one’s mind. (Recently someone said this experience for him triggered resistance, oppression, so we cannot assume it will be uplifting.)

Or here’s an even more mundane little ceremony: going to bed. Putting off day clothes and putting on whatever one wears to bed (even nothing), cleaning teeth, brushing out hair and all the small acts peculiar to one’s circumstances and preferences: laying out tomorrow’s clothes, sorting the contents of one’s pockets on top of the bureau, winding the clock (not usual these days), taking pills, rubbing on lotions, and so on. It’s a ritual and it OUGHT to make your brain shift over to sleep mode. In an interview Lyndon Johnson was asked how he managed to take a nap every afternoon in the middle of the turmoil and worry of the presidency. He said, “I put on my jammies [sic] and I say to myself, Lyndon, it’s nappy-nap time. Then I climb into bed and sleep.” In other words, he knew how to put himself into an habitual state that evoked trusting childhood, which is not a bad mood for some kinds of worship. Like sleepers, people in a liminal state need protection like parents or Dog Soldiers or hidden seclusion.

Some people will resist that threshold, remaining insomniac, and I think some people are that way about worship: what one might call “worship insomniacs.” Sometimes that might be psychological -- needing to keep up one’s guard in order to resist outside pressure or to keep from dissolving identity -- and sometimes it might be physiological, something in the brain cell-structure or molecules. Forced insomnia, of course, is a form of torture. Perhaps this is true of forced worship deprivation.

Victor Turner
, an anthropologist, has been most eloquent about ritual time. He thinks of it as “going over a threshold” or limen into a different space, a sort of metaphorical room. Then at the end one must return to ordinary life by crossing the limen again. This is very important and often neglected when designing liturgy. When I went to Leadership School, the last worship service was scheduled for the moment after everyone was packed and ready to drive off. It was deliberately meant to reconcile people to going home and taking up their lives and work there. Designing something that would DO that when people had just spent a week together in a vulnerable state, exploring parts of themselves they normally ignored, making unexpected shifts of attitude and so on, turned out to be pretty difficult but also quite crucial. We had some bad experiences when people unready for re-entry crashed into their families or resisted their ordinary lives. Women were particularly likely to try to hang on to the special “space” when they got home and not to trust the idea that they could return to it or replicate it in their lives when they needed to. Men often seemed relieved: “Well, that’s over and I survived.”

Some worship experiences are meant to clear the decks, to dispose of one week’s insults and frustrations on Sunday so as to create new hopes for Monday. One theory of dreams is that they are the molecular sorting and discharge of unfinished or useless images and sensations, so that the mind is unburdened for conscious thought. Turner explored this on a cultural level, something like a New Year’s celebration at which people write regrets and apologies and failures on slips of paper and then burn them to symbolize their destruction to prepare for a clean start. He proposed that while “over the limen” people were in a state open to forgiveness and renewal, like successful psychotherapy, a child’s cathartic play, or an artist’s creative flow.

My mundane comparison is that while in that “place,” it is as though the gear shift pedal is pushed to the floor so that one can change gears, not in a trivial way, but so as to forgive, to change one’s world view, to loosen repression, or to let thoughts and feelings from others enter one’s own mind. Normally we don’t do this and never realize that we don’t. But it is crucial to “transition ceremonies” (“rites of passage”), like marriage or coming of age. Many argue that the reason so many people seem to fail to bond or to grow up is that they have no effective ritual of change and therefore go right on with single preoccupations or acting like a child. The control of these states is only legal, the proverbial “piece of paper,” instead of new human consciousness. Conversely the ceremonies themselves have become a matter of materialism: “spending and getting.” No one is changed.

I’ll deal with content and some “orders” proposed by other thinkers at a later blog.

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