Thursday, December 29, 2011


When one reads about the evolution of mind it is clear that percussion, dancing and chanting pre-date the Stone Age or even hominids themselves. Chimps are enthusiastic burlesque performers. In fact, it’s hard to resist their joyful hooting and prancing. Therefore, I suggest that if one is constructing a liturgy of joy and celebration, the key might be in NOT using the concept of the "neuronal platform" that normally coordinates thinking and action, that which may very well be the late-evolving brain element that finally distinguishes between humans and their relatives. Successful liturgies of joy might have to shut down or evade that super-egoish “working neuronal nexus.” Alcohol does it easily, of course, but there may be other ways if we think about civilizations that have learned how to be publicly and physically joyful. Zorba the Greek, for instance, and his love of dance.

Some peoples have managed to avoid performance -- which tends to be about a bunch of people watching few persons -- by emphasizing participation, a pre-theatre mode of expression. One could argue that rock n’ roll, hip-hop, and “flash” events where people come out of nowhere to perform in a public place are a partial return to participation, a reaching back for joy. It seems we agree that the Puritans were a repressed and sober bunch who sat in pews, resisting the wild May Day celebrations of Merrymount. And we know that the hands-up, swaying, lung-busting celebrations of the evangelical and black churches express happy ecstasy.

I was thinking about a kind of theory of sensory context: which are the earliest, which sense prevails, how that relates to the culture. One of the ceremonies I will discuss in the “Molten Chalice” is a New Guinea jungle event where the beat is kept by men jumping up and down to make the gourd fitted over their penis smack sharply against a belt studded with shells and nuts. It occurred to me that in jungle-based locations where one can hardly see very far, sound would become extremely important, more highly significant than sight as one listens for the rustling of prey. Smell would also count big.

But on the grasslands and shorelines of the early hominids, binocular eyesight would take precedence. Whatever that did to the development of the brain processor (probably pushed it right along) it would have been crucial to see and identify objects at a distance or shapes glimpsed but incomplete behind an outcropping. The ability to see and remember shapes might be the platform on which writing and reading developed. Writing and reading may have been what got everyone sitting in pews or at least standing at attention in a cathedral while a priest read from a big book chained to the pulpit. One takes a missal or bible or order of service to one’s seat to read along, so to that extent there is participation. In the beginning books were important to the point of being magic. (So far church goers don’t seem to follow on iPads, but students do that.)

The significance of smell is a great subject but I won’t develop it here. In fact, I’m not going to go on with this idea of puritans on the plains and bacchantes in the forest, but it would be fun -- worth someone’s time to research. It does suggest to me that we have made life so safe, so repetitive, so channeled, that we crave some excitement but our passive regard of pictured explosions, murders, political fiascoes, and natural disasters has no outlet. We never get up and run off the chemicals these images create. I suppose we become habituated and numb, incapable of either despair OR exultation. Stuck like a mouse in a glue trap, as the therapist who is in therapy himself puts it on “In Treatment.”

At the third-year UU Leadership School I attended, we were invited to design our own event. Out came the newsprint and the fibertips so we could write our lists. One item was an evening devoted to “fun.” The problem of how to design a “fun” event was solved in a way predictable if one knew the audience: middle class, white collar, conscientious, socially conscious, etc. They decided on an event of reversal (very Victor Turner): a cross-dressing Miss America pageant. (We had a lot of raving feminists at the time. No “out” gays, which there are now.) So the men would have a swimsuit competition. They had never been on a bright stage in swimsuits before and though they weren’t wearing Speedos, they weren’t used to public “gaze” and had not brought along dance belts or athletic supporters. As some pranced across the stage, intending hilarious social comment, they sported commendable and quite apparent “boners.”

No one knew what to do. It seemed the women could do such a thing without embarrassment, but these quiet officemen could not. Finally someone draped in an armload of beach kelp charged the stage as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Everyone ran off screaming. Much of the night was spent discussing, particularly between married partners.

So the next night Peter Raible decided unilaterally on a “do-over.” (This was the year we got stuck several times and had to jettison democracy in order to save ourselves. At one point we elected a “queen”-- the most sensible and trustworthy person among us -- to tell us what to do, which DID work.) Peter and his helpers told us all to be at a certain place at a certain time, to bring a cup and a dollar, and to wear old clothes. A van pulled up, someone jumped out and took our money, and then they left. We milled around nervously for a while. Then the van returned with -- VOILA! -- champagne !! Just as we got out our cups and were ready to imbibe, the windows above us opened and we were barraged with water balloons. Being surprised, remembering childhoods, imbibing a little alcohol, risking little, at last we were having fun. If the van had unloaded a troupe of nude dancers there would never have been another leadership school. So much of success is knowing the audience/participants. We were bold talkers but timid riskers.

Experiments in sensory elements of liturgy are fun. More is out there than drumming groups and liturgical dancing. One year at Easter I used as a theme Tolstoy’s “somewhere in the world there is a green branch and on it is written the word that will save the world.” I handed out raw asparagus with “peace” or “love” printed on each stalk and -- after assuring the worried that the words were written with food-grade markers -- we ingested the “branches,” thus internalizing the lesson. At another event dedicated to the earth we had a gummi worm “communion.” But it would be a mistake to call it a communion since there has not been a salvific worm. Or has there? Maybe considered in toto as preserving the topsoil of the planet?

At a ministers‘ meeting, one of the jokesters offered a banana communion in honor of penises. It was funny until it turned out there were too many ministers for the number of bananas and some had to be cut up. (Bananas, not ministers.) Another time I told the Demeter/Persephone story and handed out to each person six little kernels of pomegranate -- a minor disaster since the juice stains clothes. After that I used six red beads about the right size. If I were doing it again, I would string them together in clusters of six in order to save time counting out. It is not EASIER to include sensory information into liturgy. And it is not easy to make sure it’s joyful.

Here’s a liturgical story, which was told to me as true. A minister wanted his Easter sermon to be memorable, so he paid a small boy to go up above the ceiling of the sanctuary with a dove in a cage. There was a trapdoor up there and the idea was for the minister to cry out in amazement, “Lo, the Spirit was among them!” Then the boy would release the dove to fly down over the heads of the parishioners.

The minister gave the cue -- nothing came down through the trapdoor. He repeated again, louder. Still no bird. One more time, practically bellowing. The boy’s wavering voice from above: “Reverend, the cat ate the bird. Shall I send down the cat?” It’s meant to be a joke, but I wonder about possible interpretations. By being so serious in our worships, have we let the cat among the pigeons?

Oh, well, let’s just beat out a rhythm on the back of the pew just ahead and sing with Bobby McFarin, “Don’t worry -- be happy!

No comments: