Sunday, December 30, 2012


When a manuscript is finished or close to that, one composes a query to send to agents or publishers or experts in the field to get a little objective reflection and possibly some offers to move towards publication.  A non-writer but quite shrewd friend asks me how a writer knows when a book is finished.  I guess there are about as many ways as there are books.

When the insight has been sufficiently explored.
When you can’t think of anything more to say except something that’s really rather different.
When someone wants the manuscript as it is.
When it fits the presumptions and prejudices of the several-layered establishment that fancies itself to be a “publishing” “industry.”

But the reverse is just as interesting:  why finish?  Now that blogs and websites offer the possibility of endless manuscripts, why not take advantage of it?  Since there’s no money in publishing anymore, why worry about it?  Every “book” I’ve self-published has showed up on Google for free.  NOT the ones I offered for free, like the Blackfeet history compilations.

Since this is about liturgy, why not just email a pdf to everyone who shows interest?  Or every UU congregation -- there are only a thousand of them.  Maybe start a website where people can post videos of liturgy designed according to these principles.

The following is close to being a formal query.


This inquiry into the design of liturgy (ritual) is neither religious nor literary nor dogmatic nor institutional in any way.  The object is the primal feeling of the holy when a human being as instrument detects the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”  What are the parameters of such an experience?  Invited or uninvited, enthralling or devastating, recorded or lost in the abyss?

What is this mysterium?  Inquirers have suggested endorphins, epileptic seizures, dissociation, schizophrenia, meditation, concussion, supernatural beings (ranging from God through angels and devils to Martians), psychotropic drugs, hypnotism, dehydration, the holy spirit, and brain tumors.  Maybe caused by intense virtue, desperate danger, exalting nature, the death experience itself, or really good sex.

In the split between rational theology and poetic ecstasy that runs through designed numinous experiences of all kinds and times, people become committed to what works for them.  But WHY does it work?  What makes it effective?  Can we “eff” the ineffable after all?

This inquiry is proceeding on the basis of “felt meaning,” not reasoning, and not confined to the other kinds of thought we are used to distinguishing as the workings of the brain cortex, but rather a whole-body experience involving all the senses as processed through all nervous systems (including the hormonal, the autonomic and the gut-net-sheath) and the entire sequence of evolved brain parts from the top of the spine up.  The premise is that some situations create perception of the Holy, maybe faint but real.  It is as planned and designed as any art form, but more intense, reaching deeper.  (The concepts of soul and spirituality are set aside as over-used to the point of being useless.)

Most central is Mircea Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane.”  Highly relevant are the studies of “liminal place and time” by Victor Turner, the study of “focus” by Eugene Gendlin, the study of “flow” by Mihaly Czikzentmihaly, and brain studies by Antonio Damasio.  These choices do not eliminate other theories, but they are the ones I find most helpful.  

Roy Rappaport also supplies a basic key as follows:  because humans can only connect to the larger world (or even detect that it is there) through their senses, their material cultures are the containers of their inner lives.  Thus, the religions of different places -- growing up from awareness of what is precious in their locations -- value different aspects:  water where there is desert, fish where there is sea.  The impelling force in every case is the need for survival -- both that of individuals and that of the group -- but because what is most needed is different in different places, the symbolisms are different from each other.  In fact, the only common element of all religions is that humans can feel sacredness.  That is the unifying connection of all religions.  But not everyone feels it and people vary in their sensitivity to their local metaphors.  It’s tempting to think that liturgy can waken greater awareness in everyone.

Perhaps it is the precursors to actual ceremonies that will be effective reminders of the sensory threads that weave together the holy cloth.  Pre-language, arts of movement, music, and the much neglected senses of smell and taste.  Metaphors of relationship, transformation, and bliss.  These would be local, familiar, treasured.  Today the challenge is to find some way for human beings to value each other and the planet itself.  The response began for many with the photo of the planet Earth from the moon.

The first part of this manuscript could be called “the ground of liturgy,” parallel to Paul Tillich’s phrase “the ground of being.”  The idea is to look at the sensorium of humans and how they weave in and out of religious thought and feeling to create what I hate to name by the elevated term “semiotics” (which I only understand on good days), but which I can’t quite name as metaphor, especially if you paid attention to your high school English teacher and know it as a formal figure of speech.  What I am pursuing is something like what Daniel Bor, author of “The Ravenous Brain,” calls “chunking.”   Not exactly the same, since that seems to refer more to the dividing of things into categories which then become assumptions. 

Maybe one could call it concatenating, accumulating, composing, structuring, or snowballing.  It is the phenomenon of one sensory image getting stuck to another which suggests a third and keeps on complexifying until finally it becomes a concept -- not a word-concept with a name (which is why it’s so difficult to name) but rather a “felt” concept, as in a dream.  It is what happens in the poet (whole body, not just brain) when hit by an insight which is then “composed” out of a midden of entangled memories, inventions, and rhymes into something that gives us that insight across the gap between author and receiver.  The quality of the receiver is relevant.

The second part of the manuscript is examples and reflections on how and why the liturgies turned out as they did.  I begin with the dignified and conservative and progress to the ghastly edge of survival.

This query is very much like the others I've composed for this effort.  I don't like it.  Too fancy for something so basic and natural that any child can do it.

No comments: