Monday, October 27, 2008


This is a very extreme example and deliberately so, partly because it is an excellent antidote to the notion that worship must be “pretty” or “aesthetic” and partly because it is an example of such strong emotional chiaroscuro that things normally taken for granted become more obvious.

There are two main points. The first is the enormous power of a deeply felt metaphor to order and enable the most chaotic and horrifying circumstances. The need for such powerful metaphors in a society like ours is very great. Even upper middle-class lives are threatened by economic, political and sociological shocks or the intervention of sudden catastrophe as in the case of this airplane crash. [This was written in 1982, before 9/11.]

The second point is that the formal structure we have been discussing grows out of a theological world view, perhaps distinctively Western, that is deeply binary. Human thought is almost defined by its capacity to envision the real and the ideal simultaneously, so that they can be compared, always to the detriment of the real because of the nature of the ideal. We can create a vision of the ideal out of the most ordinary of materials and then guide our daily efforts accordingly. Whether we locate the ideal in the past, the future or in some other place, it acts as a goal, a goad, and a justification. In worship, I suggest, the most central structure arises from the “felt concept” of the ideal juxtaposed with the real and our striving to reconcile the two, even knowing that the flesh is weak and time is limited. Our desire for the ideal -- that which is worthy -- impels us forward as surely as it did those boys struggling out of the Andes. Our sensitivity to the contrast between what “is” and what “could be” is the dynamic of our creative impulses, our drive towards perfection.

Creation is best activated under certain conditions: those that allow release from the givens of daily life. Such conditions may be sought, as when a monk goes on retreat or an artist goes to the studio, or may be thrust upon someone, as in the midst of an emergency, trapped by a blackout or forced into a hospital stay.

In the weeks on the mountain, the young men from Uruguay were in a “liminal” state; that is, ordinary reality was bracketed. They were over the threshold (the limen) of reality. Worship also occurs in a “liminal” context, as well as dreams, psychoanalytic situations, intense intimacy, deep concentration on problems, and children’s play. Ordinary social rules and hierarchies do not apply in such circumstances.

Says Victor Turner, the anthropologist who has developed this concept of the limen in his work on rites of passage: “... liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.” Initiates who are voluntarily conducted into the liminal state are “represented as possessing nothing... It is as though they are being reduced or ground down to a uniform condition to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to enable them to cope with their new station in life.” (“The Ritual Process”, p. )

One of the strongest aspects of liminality is its link to “communitas.” Turner himself uses Buber’s definition of “communitas.” “Community is the being no longer side by side (and one might add above and below) but with one another of a multitude of persons. And this multitude, though it moves towards one goal, yet experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the others, flowing from I to Thou. Community is where community happens.”

Turner elaborates:

"Communitas breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in inferiority. It is almost everywhere held to be sacred or “holy,” possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency. The processes of “leveling” and “stripping,” to which Goffman has drawn our attention, often appear to flood their subjects with affect. Instinctual energies are surely liberated by these processes, but I am not inclined to think that communitas is solely the product of biologically inherited drives released from cultural constraints. Rather it is the product of peculiarly human faculties, which include rationality, volition and memory, and which develop with experiences of life in society...

"The notion that there is a generic bond between men[sic], and its related sentiment of “humankindness,” are not epiphenomena of some kind of herd instinct but are products of “men in their wholeness wholly attending.” Liminality, marginality, and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art. These cultural forms provide men with a set of templates of models which are, at one level, periodical reclassifications of reality and man’s relationship to society, nature and culture. But they are more than Classifications, since they incite men to action as well as to thought. Each of these productions has a multivocal character, having many meanings, and each is capable of moving people at many psycho-biological levels simultaneously. (The Ritual Process, p. 128)

Perhaps one last quote from Turner will help to show the relationship between liminal communitas as a concept and the communitas of formal Western worship in a Christian context.

"Essentially communitas is a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals. These individuals are not segmentalized into roles and statuses but confront one another rather in the manner of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Along with this direct, immediate, and total confrontation of human identities, there tends to go a model of society as a homogenous, unstructured communitas, whose boundaries are ideally coterminous with those of the human species."

Certainly the boys did not duplicate a social hierarchy but existed in a daily confrontation that was direct, immediate, and total. However, though there was no social structure as such, a time-structure soon developed. The base, as in any primitive culture, was day and night, the chores of preparing food and water, and the planning of expeditions. Formal worship appeared spontaneously at bedtime (Vespers), an element of structure that would be liminal in normal society but became an evocation of the known, loved and orderly in this context.

There are two important aspects of the Vespers Rosary that are worth exploring at length. The first is the fact that the prayer was at the transition of day into dark and the second is that the prayer was to the Mother of God, rather than the Son of God or God the Father, who could have been interpreted as precipitating them into this punishment for His own reasons.

To begin, let’s look at the transition factor. Transitions, borders, boundaries are always mysterious and full of potential. They are the ground of duality. Huddled in the wreckage of the fuselage, subsisting on shreds of human flesh, not knowing if they would survive at all (especially after their radio announced the search was abandoned), and facing a night of cold and pain, twilight (the hour of the wolf) must have been intolerable. One more day passed without relief. One more ordeal of restless nightmare. Even in the best of times people have bedtime rituals. In the worst of times religious ritual is indispensable.

This situation lays bare the ultimate religious duality: that between being and non-being. The most basic possible religious decision is whether or not to go on living. (There were no overt suicides in this catastrophe, though some seemed to give up.) Not until the decision is to live -- to be -- is the issue how to be, what to be, so that the decision becomes moral. Tillich said, “...religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself.” (“The Courage to Be,” p. 156) I take that to mean that the will to live is very strong and drawn from existence itself, both within and without the person. Tillich relates it to mysticism, saying, “In mysticism the individual self strives for a participation in the ground of being which approaches identification... all mystics draw their power of self-affirmation from the experience of the power of being-itself with which they are united.”

Schweitzer spoke of “life in the midst of life, life that wants to live.” This is much easier to say in the jungle than on a high mountain where there is no other living thing, not even a passing bird. These boys were thrust up against the non-being, non-life, being small, solitary and vulnerable life in the middle of sky, stone and snow.

Ths analysis of worship we are pursuing is at heart mystical in the sense that it requires recognition of the ground of being that contains all the potential of non-being. Religion thus becomes creativity in a liminal state, an assertion of being in the face of fate and time.

Back to Tillich: “The mystical courage to be lasts as long as the mystical situation. Its limit is the state of emptiness of being and meaning, with its horror and despair, which the mystics have described. In these moments the courage to be is reduced to the acceptance of even this state as a way to prepare through darkness for light, through emptiness for abundance. As long as the absence of the power of being is felt as despair, it is the power of being which makes itself felt through despair. To experience this and to endure it is the courage to be of the mystic in the state of emptiness. [Kenosis.] Although mysticism in its extreme positive and extreme negative aspects is a comparatively rare event, the basic attitude, the striving for union with ultimate reality, and the corresponding courage to take the nonbeing which is implied in finitude upon oneself are a way of life which is accepted by and has shaped large sections of mankind.”

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