Tuesday, October 28, 2008


In reading mystics, one becomes aware of a light/dark polarity in the images. In mystical religious experiences of light, the characteristics are of fusion with great power, feelings of being woven into the universe, and intense delight. By contrast, the “dark night of the soul” experience is one of terrified abandonment or overwhelming confrontation by judgment and power. Often they are mixed, as in this passage from Catharine of Genoa:

“I see without eyes, I understand without mind, I feel without feeling, and I taste without taste. I have no shape or size, so that without seeing I see such divine activity and energy that, beside it, all those words like perfection, fullness and purity and that I once used now seem to me all falsehoods and fables when compared with that Truth and Directness. The sun that once seemed so bright now seems dark. What seemed sweet now seems bitter, for all beauty and sweetness that has an admixture of the creature is corrupt and spoilt. When the creature finds himself cleansed and purified and then transformed in God, then he see what is true and clean. This sight, which is not seen, cannot be spoken or thought of.”

The known is extended beyond the point of logic in order to express the inexpressible, and the collision of bliss and torture does the same thing to the affect. [The new dimension I want to explore is the actual dynamics of the brain in the midst of this. I will try to make the case later that the effect comes from the limbic system rather than the cerebellum.]

The boys in the plane crash were not conscious mystics. They did not have exceptional command of language and none reported visions of God, but only premonitions of what might be happening at home. The experienced situation itself made concrete this sort of image-ry, a stark intertwining of dark and light. The white snow stretched away infinitely dazzling on all sides, while the boys’ feet were black from frostbite. Sometimes the light was so intense that it struck them blind. In the dark freezing night the boys huddled against the warm bodies of their living friends. Nourishment came at the expense of dead friends. Rescue from outside was canceled so the boys had to become the searchers. Being in the face of non-being, non-being in the face of being: the two forces take on a figure/background relationship of fascinating intricacy and intimacy. One is reciprocal with the other, the contradictions can be contained (if not reconciled) within a larger Ultimate. In Christian terms, the Nativity is always in the face of Herod’s infanticide and the Crucifixion is always in the face of God’s love. The real and the ideal have this reciprocal, paradoxical, relationship within Reality because they arise from a shared Ground of Being.

Anything less than a worship experience that acknowledges both the Void and the Cherished, has evaded its true role. If only existence, “being,” is considered to have value, the way is laid for idolatry, an attempt to impose one’s own desires over what exists. Paradoxically, to cling only to the known and familiar is to invite destruction and sorrow, for the only real permanence is change. Not to change is to die, as the survivors discovered in the most concrete way when they were forced to break taboos and do the unthinkable.

Therefore, worship has the paradoxical obligation of helping us to find meaningful metaphors in cherished reality, but to face the possibility -- even the desirability -- of having them destroyed or lost, and then to help us find new symbols in a newly found view of reality. The rhythmic pulse or shift of focus in worship that we have already noted corresponds to this deeply human death and resurrection of meaning as we grow up and move through circumstances.

There is no way to avoid the destruction of meaningful symbols. Human freedom is not freedom from destruction but freedom to re-create in the wake of destruction. This is why the Eliadean cyclical history, depending on periodic returns to the primordial chaos for the substance of new being, can be more meaningful than the linear history of the Judeo-Christian paradigm and more suitable to this theory of worship. The crucifixion/resurrection theme is played out over and over in the Eliadean schema, while in the Christian version it is understood to have happened once and for all, with reverberating consequences which we remember and act out cyclically through the calendar year and solar day. Thus Christians can claim to have the “only” true version.

And so, these young Christian men, stranded in liminality between life and death, paused at twilight to pray to the Mother of God, who was present at both Nativity and Pieta, those echoing tableaus, so omnipresent in our culture. As the weeks passed, the little band of survivors held onto their natural merging of personal and cultural metaphors for salvation. In the face of the great hostile sheets of snow that threatened to bury them in smothering avalanches, the most comforting image was the mother coming at bedtime to tuck them into a warm safe bed. Until she died in one of those avalanches, the lone female survivor did her best to act as mother, comforting the younger boys. The longing for that enfoldment as they propped themselves contortedly against the jumble of plane wreckage, trying futilely to make broken legs and infected wounds more comfortable, must have been as vivid as any mystic vision of paradise. As Willard Sperry pointed out, evening is the most naturally structured time for worship and in this case the content was supplied by a Catholic heritage and loving families. The source of the content of worship is always between culture and personality.

Thus the core of worship has to do with the relationship between the mystery of non-being and the known-ness of being. Worship is most necessary in the boundary moments: birth, death, transformation, emotional extremes, creation. What was NOT new comes into being. What IS passes away. All is transient and mysterious. Worship does not give us “scientific” answers about these things, except maybe traces on fMRIs, but rather offers metaphorical meanings that engage our brains at some deeply felt, wordless level. These meanings are not to be found analytically, but present themselves subtly under certain conditions.

These are clues about worship from thinkers this manuscript discusses:

1. The beginning and ending of worship are particularly important because they must establish a sacred space and time -- liminal, potential, virtual -- discontinuous with ordinary life.

2. In this space, this sanctuary, the people should enter an attitude of trusting vulnerability, open to their own inner poetic visions and able to respond honestly to others in an I/Thou way.

3. Worshippers need communitas, equality of belonging. All the usual social hierarchies and power structures must drop away.

4. Things, stories, songs, and other people may all carry “felt concepts” -- become the carrier of the hierophany. The concrete relationships with all these “objects” may act out the articulation of the concepts or become a paradigm of the cosmos and history.

5. True worship must include images of both being and non-being in order to make contact with the whole of the Ground of Being. This dimension of ultimacy separates religious meanings from artistic or playful meanings.

6. Chaos is a necessary return to the energy of the primordial time and place -- a powerful source of creativity, a re-forming in a profoundly meaningful way.

7. The power to trust chaos comes from early experiences of the dependability of life, faith that the mother will come. The reiteration of exposure to danger/chaos/falling followed by safety/order/embrace is a paradigm of life itself. It is the dynamic of worship. To deny the loss is to deny the rescue because the meaning is in the relationship between the two. A resurrection without a crucifixion is equally a denial of meaning.

8. The specific images used to bring to being the paradigm of death/regeneration into meaning will always be drawn from an interaction of culture and personality.

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