Monday, December 26, 2011



At some point in childhood I realized that I was part of a “holding community” which was my family. It gradually unraveled during the malaise and confusion of post WWII, the same searching for new ways, the same harrowing and questioning that gave rise to a complex of counterculture movements like bikers, hippies, punks, beatniks, sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll. But my family did not go counterculture. They found their modest, conscientious, “holding communities” in jobs and neighborhood. So did I. Still, the confusion was there, gnawing, depressive, sometimes triggering determination to create change. It was scary and exhilarating at once.

Browning/Blackfeet was a good “holding community” for me because it was so loose and conflicted and I belonged in such a peripheral way, that no one tried to trap me. The school system was barely staying together. The point of a “holding community” is that it keeps track of you while you change and still recognizes you afterwards. (This one remembers me after five decades -- indeed, they throw their arms around me in perfect trust that I’ll hug them back, because we “burned” together.) Yes, the chalice that lets you burn together is strong, not quite the same thing as a community but maybe the force that holds the community together.

In the Sixties on the rez Bob and I were obsessed with our actual foundry, our very real crucible and bronze-melting furnace. We were not being psychological or rebellious. We were in a world of intense focus, drawing on a sensory realm that transcended any humans: the complex of terrain, creatures, weather, and grass that for millennia has sustained tribes.

In the structure of liturgy the liminal space is within a temporary “holding community.” If it is maintained too long, it becomes a trap and a psychosis. If it fails to achieve transcendence it may do damage. These are extreme statements meant to describe intense liturgies, maybe therapeutic, not Sunday morning services. The “holding community” prevents the molten person from losing all identity until he can cool and hold form again. If the “holding community” itself becomes molten, a chalice that has lost its shape, what keeps IT from losing all form (meaning)? It must be the culture, the ecology, the history in which the community is embedded, from which it arose and which sets limits. The same forces that created this sub-group will continue to hold it together from the outside or else the sub-group will resorb into the larger scene.

This is a very global theory that might only be useful as an idea, not particularly “true” in any test-able way except felt experience. But felt experience should be honored. Increasingly, it is supported by brain research.


The roots of the Abramic religions are books: hand-written scrolls for the Jews, printed bound books for the Christians. Somewhere in between for the Islamic Koran. These books call liturgists to turn to print, reading, writing, speaking. Books attract literary types into ministry, which reinforces the valuing of print.

The view of liturgy that I’m pursuing has its roots in theatre, the Greek kind of theatre which addressed the gods. To use a theatrical base means passionate conflict, and moral dilemmas acted out by living persons. One participates empathetically, not by speaking pre-determined words. Even knowing how the story will end does not preclude being drawn into events and feeling the emotions in one’s own body. Possibly being changed.

In liturgy the consecutive statements of “confession/pardon” set up the ultimate conflict, the dimensions of the argument. The closer these are to the actual lives of the persons involved, the more powerful the acts of worship. I say “acts,” rather than passages of print, no matter how cleverly assembled. Act in the sense of “actor.” My knowledge of this art comes from the theatre department of Northwestern University, especially the acting teacher Alvina Krause, and the “holding community” that formed around her.

Where is the holding community in theatre? I would argue that there are several. First, the stage itself where the light embraces the acting figures between proscenium and cyclorama. Second, the community that forms in the course of production from the first plans to stage a particular story to the last striking of the set. This is the community that “holds” the actors while they take the risk of becoming someone else, often drawing on their deepest motives and memories.

Then there is the audience, a group that attends to the issues, seeing only the actors and the story, something like the congregation in a church service. And finally, in the community there will be a larger scattered group of interested parties who believe in theatre in various aspects though they may never meet in the same audience.


The limen we cross in professional theatre is the approach to the theatre building itself, the entry into a foyer, a further entry into the auditorium, the lights dimming, the curtain parting. Then the play. We leave back over the limen after the curtain call, the house lights going up, when we rise, put on wraps, leave.

The platform of the “liturgy” is a stage, which might be raised and lit or might be only a cleared space or might be extended out into the audience. To keep from locking on the words, think of Pilobolus or Blue Men or Cirque de Soliel: spectacle, dance. Studying the vids of these companies when they are working to choreograph, think through, and execute meaning is invaluable instruction for a liturgist.

But another media switch is to the screen rather than the stage, so that the platform stage becomes a wall-sized, silvered, flat expanse or maybe a handheld, pocket-sized tiny image. The actors may be drawings. And yet these still manage to present passionate conflicts of meaning to humans, even in many different cultures with different symbol structures. What this means to me is that the “key” location of liturgy, an intense human art form, is in the brain structure -- not in any prescribed actions or writing. What the liturgist must seek is not the perfect combination of bell/incense/chant, but rather the underlying “plate tectonics” of human experience -- some of them “wired in” from before birth. These are what Robert J. Schrieter, C.PP.S, tries to valorize in his discussions of theology: not looking for equivalent symbols but searching for the deeper force that is being symbolized on the neural working platform of the brain.


In my undergrad years I took a Philosophy of Religion course from Paul Schilpp, a renegade Methodist minister who became a noted leader in the Ethical Culture movement. He liked definitions and he and I had a running argument. He said, “Art is an expression of the relationship between Man and the Universe.” We hadn’t gotten to women’s lib yet so that wasn’t the source of the argument. It was the word “expression.” I wanted it to say “art is a communication of the relationship between a person and the universe.” I was taking performance courses where successful transmission of meaning was the whole point. Going off to declaim fine thoughts in the wilderness was not enough. Being brilliantly unintelligible was not enough. the ideas had to get across -- that was the whole point.

My argument has stuck with me for fifty years: “expression” is a concept from writing and puts the emphasis on the liturgist. “Communication” is a performance concept that puts the emphasis on the sharing congregation. To “express” means to create something well and memorably. To “communicate” is to share that with a living community.

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