Saturday, December 03, 2011


The way of thinking about liturgy in the manuscript I’m calling “The Molten Chalice,” is both much more general and much more specific than is usual. It needs examples to be intelligible and probably won’t interest everyone even then. To remind you (tactfully, as our thesis advisor used to say), this approach hinges on two things: an understanding of the well-known van Gennep/Victor Turner three-part protocol for “going into a liminal space” (with the addition of the confession/salvation dynamic familiar from the Eucharist), that guides the use of sensory acts and images drawn from material culture to move consciousness into that liminal space.

The principles include these thoughts:

1. Brains change consciousnesses or modes all the time, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes unconsciously. This is a real change that can be measured with fMRI, EKG, hormone levels, and so on. Though the focus of research is the brain, I accept the idea that thinking is done with the whole body: the brain organizes but the senses are everywhere: gut, muscles, blood system, breath.

2. The “filing system” of the brain is based on sensory context which might be called the marguerite-in-tea effect since Proust’s trigger is so familiar. That is, memory is controlled by sensory awareness. We’ve all had the experience of hearing a bit of music or picking up an object or catching a whiff of scent that snaps us into another moment somewhere else, accompanied by one’s emotional state at the time. This is NOT rational.

3. Turner’s “virtual space” is equivalent to the new idea of the brain having a “work space” (described sometimes as an actual area in the brain that lights up on fMRI) where sensory input is sorted, assigned importance, woven into an idea of the world, and given reaction missions.

4. One might say that the work of the liminal space is the maintenance of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm: that is, the detection of increasingly discrepant information or the confirmation of pre-existing ideas. The physical person is much helped in this task by safety, permission, and the support of a group or another person that are trustworthy and attentive.

As my manuscript stands at the moment, I have six areas of reflection, each a kind of case history, some from personal experience and some from reading. A brief description follows:

1. The UU Leadership School experiment was devised by the Reverend Peter Raible and Rod Stewart in the Pacific Northwest Unitarian Universalist District. They drew in Ord Elliott, who was an expert on organizational design. He is the only one of the three still living. His business is Change Companion LLC in San Francisco. The “school” was a one week retreat over three consecutive summers based on ideas drawn from structuralism; that is, problems are not due to orneriness or even lack of information so much as they are hampered by the way things are organized. The weeks I attended were in the Seventies but included ideas from ecology and the social ferment of the times.

UU’s experimented with fellowships (congregations with no clergy) after WWII when growth outstripped clergy. Such arrangements are now common in other denominations. The idea of Leadership School in part was to give permission and guidance to laypeople. One strand was worship. The drug was voluntary sleeplessness. Seriously.

2. Ethnography in history: In the Sixties I was married to Bob Scriver, who “had the dream” telling him to become a Bundle Keeper on the Blackfeet Reservation where he was born and raised. Such a role requires a wife, myself. We were believing participants, not anthropologists. Again, one of the keys was the material culture of the ecology: animals, berries and grasses, fossil stones.

I began this whole project because of wanting to reconcile the experience of the Bundle Opening ceremony with my own upbringing in quite a different context, the rainy northwest, where my fourth grade teacher was Mildred Colbert, a Chinook elder. Then I began to think about the yearly round of Blackfeet ceremonies large and small, and how they wove into a community that was once seamlessly sharing a worldview (call it religion if you must.) Horn Society, “holy smokes,” stick game, and daily disciplines all tied together for the eighty-year-olds in that Bundle Keeping circle.

3. Ethnographic in exotic places: A person would really have to stretch to find a more strange-to-Westerners set of givens than the Cassowary Ceremony of the Umeda tribe in New Guinea. Yet when viewed sympathetically, it is coherent, seamless, and expressive. Isolation in a ridge/valley jungle ecosystem meant that the cultures were very limited and yet resourceful in their pattern-making. The cassowary, a big bird one has no difficulty envisioning as a Jurassic velociraptor, would capture anyone’s imagination, but in a place where it is a source of scarce protein, it easily becomes iconic. The book I used as my source is “Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language and Ritual.” by Alfred Gell

4. Rites of Passage are friendly and in our culture tend to slide towards the social and commercial. Not this one. A groom was killed in a car accident on the way to the wedding, but the bride insisted on marrying “him” anyway. Their priest was up to it, but it was scary. My reference is an article I found in a Journal of Pastoral Care. I need to search for the citation.

5. The Eucharist or “Mass” is the Western tradition and has been for millenia. I’m using Dom Gregory Dix’s “The Shape of Liturgy” and its wonderful account of how this sequence grew out of Jewish tradition and has held its shape through thick and thin. I also reference the Unitarian liturgist, the Reverend Von Ogden Vogt, and the work of Abraxas, often energized by the Reverend Vern Barnet, who works through comparative religion towards understanding and peace.

6. Ordeals: Cannibalism. My two references are “Alive” by Piers Paul Read and “Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home” by Nando Parrado and Vince Rause. The intriguing element is the role the Eucharist (communion) played in the survival of these men both during and after their terrifying trial. Some sects of Christianity have always believed that the bread and wine of Mass actually becomes the flesh of Jesus.

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