Wednesday, October 05, 2011


The major blind alley I took in my “feeling around” for a strategy to develop my Doctor of Ministry thesis was mostly due to political factors.  I was obliged to have three thesis advisors, one of whom was John Godbey, the Meadville/Lombard history professor with devotion to Transylvanian Unitarianism, a left-wing Reformation development that had no relationship to liturgical theory.  In fact, it was simply (and is now) Christianity that clings to monotheism.  Godbey himself was quite Christian, not quite Trinitarian. 
The second, more natural, advisor was Duke Gray, then the minister at First Unitarian Church kitty-corner from Meadville. The church Von Ogden Vogt built.  This link offers a fascinating look at how some people saw him:   It’s helpful, because I didn’t see him that way at all.  I found him authoritarian, attached to high prestige Anglican criteria, and inclined to “assemble” religious liturgy in an eclectic and aesthetic fashion that didn’t necessarily respond to the people it was for.  From the get-go he plainly disliked me.  His late move to a more explicitly Christian congregation seems a good idea.  At that time  Gray was a member of Abraxas, an organization of UU ministers and interested lay leaders who explored worship elements and practices.  I was interested in this at first, but finally put off by arrogance and what seemed to me bricolage of elements from a range of cultures, united only by arbitrary theme.  
Rather unexpectedly, it was Father Robert J. Schreiter at the Catholic Theological Seminary, who taught a class on liturgy meant to prepare priests to offer sacraments, who gave me a deeper understanding of what was going on -- or should.  It was an effective countercheck on the tendency, esp. in UU lay-led fellowships, that is mocked as “City Sewer Syndrome.”  That’s when the Sunday morning service drifts over into politics -- secular, sporadic, a smorgasbord -- partly out of exhaustion and partly out of not quite knowing what to do.  Father Schreiter was trying to get us to understand that when reconciling religious material cultures, one cannot assume simply that all foods are communions, so that bizarre ideas about rice and saké communions take hold.  Neither can one let the symbols of material culture, not even bread and wine, become sacralized to the point of losing what they evoke, which may be beyond human understanding except as felt concepts.  Father Schreiter would NOT be an advisor.  I was not Christian, let alone Catholic.
So I forced a relationship to a female professor of Rhetoric of Lyric Poetry, though I had little idea what that was.  I was just feeling my way towards poetics without much idea what THAT was either.  She was justifiably put off by me and my ignorance, though at first she tried to be honorable towards this seminary student, a fringey part of the sprawling complex that is University of Chicago.  In the end we both gave up.
Lyric poetry is a specific kind of poetry that is intensely emotional, often focused on a moment, sometimes in nature.  The “rhetoric” of this poetry is the choice of vocabulary, the tricks of arranging them in various traditional patterns of rhyme and rhythm, the allusions, the images, and so on.  It’s very much relevant to my ideas about liturgy, but in a secondary way, in the preparation of materials, not the actual beats and arc.  As words for hymns, as “prayers,” and in the summoning of mood, lyric poems act for the secular something like the familiar Bible passages used by Christians.  But they are muscle and skin, NOT skeletal structure.
There was another problem.  I had spent a decade on the Blackfeet Reservation and then a half-decade as an animal control officer in Portland, Oregon.  I saw life in very intense chiaroscuro terms, slammed up against death and despair.  But my context at seminary was middle class, mainstream, and bourgeois.  They “had compassion” towards people who lived in Third World conditions -- they just didn’t know them.  To them worship was a Sunday morning harmonious “nice” event, a place of safety and reassurance.  I wanted to think about cannibalism, ordeals, weird New Guinea ceremonies, and insanity.   To my guides, those were disorderly, to be resisted.  Even disgraceful.  When I said “sex,” they said,  “Our time is up now.”
The thinker I needed was Thomas Moore, whom I didn’t come to know until later at a conference in Bozeman, Montana, while circuit-riding there in the Eighties, though I don’t think he was yet quite at the point where our interests converged.  In his book  “Dark Eros” he made “an exploration of sado-masochism in everyday life and culture through a positive reading of the Marquis de Sade. . . .It’s purpose is to deepen our understanding and appreciation for the dark side of life.”  Moore is a James Hillman school Jungian with strains of Asian thought.  This puts him in harmony with my penchant for Eliade and Campbell.  Despite using his therapist’s license to go dangerous places, Moore is still “nice” in the public mind.  It takes someone like Geoff Mains to put a person right up against the extreme.  Your library probably won’t have his books.
Baptism, communion, reconciliation, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and Last Rites are the traditional Roman Catholic sacraments and are or should be on the level I’m talking about:  life-changing, requiring commitment, acceptance of moral terms.  They’ve lost a lot of their punch, partly maybe because they’ve been so effectively claimed by the counter-sacral, the Satanic as developed and expressed in so many music videos.  Secular legal enforcement of these steps has changed.   If the sacraments could be restored to meaning, we probably need additional sacraments of divorce, defrocking, and leaving combat that are equally intense.   
More than that, the sacraments have lost their connections to the inner molten core of life.  We are control freaks, we stay on schedule and on our diets, we don’t like change or risk.  We don’t like to be different.  All our drama is for watching, not participating.  Everything is calculated monetarily.
These are the categories I’m considering at present:  liturgies that focus on 
COMMUNITY: with persons gathered in a unity of purpose:  sharing, rejoining, emerging, changing context, world making, in-gathering, releasing.
GUIDED:  therapeutic, learning. shamanic, intimate confrontation
DEVOTION:  by a person alone:  reconciliation, reunification, empowerment, healing, grief, creation, transformation.
SOLITARY, in extremis:  theology of the void, uncaring, despair, anomie, entrapment, loss of boundaries, substance or trauma effects, madness, death.   Or the positive: ecstasy, fusion, transcendence.
It is these deep-brain concepts -- as much sub- or un-conscious as conscious, much less articulated in words -- that give rise to deep structures of religious experience that are managed by the shifting of consciousness through the use of sensory material culture.  The task of the liturgist then is to find the cultural concepts that can express the elements of these states, and then the derived sensory experiences (words, music, art, etc.) that will carry the structure into meaning for the persons involved.

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