When Julene Kennerly was the drug resource person in Heart Butte, one of the things she taught us was that people whose horizons have been narrowed by addiction or who became addicted BECAUSE their horizons were narrow, needed to have memories given to them. Therefore, we organized a private showing of “Dances with Wolves” and went down to Great Falls in our yellow buses as a whole school to watch it together. The theatre owner -- who had to have his arm twisted since he’d not been impressed by stray kids he thought were that way because they were Indians -- was in this case admiring of the good behavior he saw.
When Tim’s Cinematheque crew was in Paris, one little boy from a northern country had faded off to the side until one day he broke. No one had given him any special attention and he was hurting. But ya gotta ask. Within 24 hours he and Tim were kitted out in cold weather gear and ice fishing in his homeland. Photos show his face shining with happy concentration on his line through the hole in the ice.
When I found the Unitarians, they were more sophisticated than I was used to: they had fine arts educations and money. Soon I had learned about the "Pachelbel Canon", Barbour’s "Pavane for a Dead Princess", and Mary Oliver’s poetry. We used them in services and for memorials. Now they are dear and meaningful. Saskatoon used Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a call to worship. When I hear it on the radio, I sit down and listen, smiling.
At a meeting at First Unitarian Church, Chicago, kitty-corner from M/L seminary, people struggled with their feelings about the ingredients of worship. “More singing,” said the former Methodists. “More quiet meditation,” said the former Quaker. “More ceremony,” said the former Episcopalian. “A little emotion puh-leeze,” begged the black lady. Realizing we were all missing what we had left, we wondered what was uniquely Unitarian. “More arguments!” laughed the birthright Unitarian.
When designing liturgy, it is all very well to carefully consider structure and transitions and logistics, but where do we get the content? It was easy when I was preaching for the Blackfeet Methodist congregations. I went to the landscape: cows, snow, wheat and all the sense memories connected to them. Not so different from Biblical material: storms, herding, newborns.
One must know the congregation. which is why ministers from the same ethnic, educational, regional backgrounds as their congregations get along more smoothly. Generational differences -- now what? I remember the kid at a Seattle retreat who sang “Wild Thing” in a talent show. He used his own lyrics: “Wild thing, you make my dick swing!” And then he blushed furiously. It was a declaration of independence. He CREATED a great memory for us.
A most dramatic and ingenious project was the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Huge, medieval, unfinished, the stone building was in a neighborhood that had become ghetto. Members had to travel from their upscale homes; neighbors felt nothing for it. The inspired Dean, thinking about the historical origins and uses of such cathedrals, took the building back to its roots. That’s how stone-cutting classes for gang members started; how tightropes got strung across the sanctuary; how jugglers in whiteface came up the aisles; how the Paul Winter Consort played at midnight on the Winter Solstice and raised the huge Sun Gong up into the darkness until the time came for it to be light-struck. Memorable? Yup.
It has to be sincere, authentic, well-done, deeply felt -- not just a bunch of junky improvisations. I say no “junky” but ordinary is fine. Once the Bozeman UU fellowship -- only a few dozen at that point -- went en masse out for ice cream after the evening service. Oldsters and youngsters. A fine memory. Music is great -- slammin’ music at top volume while taking down folding chairs, singing harmony while doing the dishes together after a Thanksgiving feast. Indelible happy memories of service call us back to them.
It is thought that mammal brains build memory according to spatial layouts --this idea here, that thought there, we’re forever drawing diagrams on napkins and the backs of envelopes. This is the one of the senses they test when they run white rats through labyrinths and make them swim in tanks to find platforms under the surface. Beyond that, every event comes into the body through the senses, is processed into concepts and decisions, and goes back out through actions, which are -- in turn -- sensed. This is the keystone to “Method” acting and also to the kind of writing that uses sense images. Like Psalms.
It makes sense [sic] when we remember that all animals have evolved from “eukaryotes,” the tiny one-celled critters that have DNA for their microchip. They swim in a fluid -- a milieu, an environment, an ecology. Their lives are about letting wanted molecules into their one cell, pushing unwanted molecules back out, moving towards the wanted molecules (a sense that developed into smell) and moving away from unwanted molecules or dangers (stinks). A eukaryote that couldn’t do those things didn’t last long. ALL, ALL of our ancestors could and did, or we wouldn’t be here.
So my Blackfeet friend steps into my house, looks astonished and says, “You’ve smudged!” I throw a bit of sweetgrass onto my stove burner when I make coffee. Suddenly he thinks of his grandmother -- it’s not just the sweetgrass, it’s also the Bengay I put on my sore leg. Now when he sees me, his grandmother comes to his mind. One book writer says, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.”
A good liturgist must study the community to see what they sense and then weave those senses into the ceremony. So in Eastend, Saskatchewan, at a “fowl supper” honoring Wallace Stegner, who called his memoir “Wolf Willow” after a common shrub in the area, the organizers (poets among them) provided us corsages of wolf willow, which smells of green apples. If I get a whiff of EITHER wolf willow or green apples, I think of Wallace Stegner.
Marketing people know all about this. Department stores don’t just have Muzack -- they also orchestrate smells and the lights. But that’s predatory. A liturgist wants to provide an environment that a eukaryote would find safe. Because when there is focus and safety, the microchip -- even in a one-celled critter -- begins to mark the moment, the place -- and to open up portals in the cell walls to take in nutrition. Ideas are as important as apples and oranges.