Wednesday, October 22, 2014


A Jain text in images

An arguable review of thoughts about what I'm doing.

Art is the expression of a relationship between a human and the universe.  Liturgy is an intense affirmation of this definition that provides a meaningful guide within the specific parameters of survival for either an individual or a group.

"Religion" -- before it is frozen into theology, maybe called spirituality -- is an extension of identity, which is an active relationship between person and situation.  Too much thought about spirituality is just fuzz and custard -- pleasant, but with limited meaning.

Material culture, used to record memory and to create metaphor, is the vocabulary and instrument of arts, including liturgy.  It is useless to argue over whether the images painted long ago in the depths of caves are either "art" or "liturgy" because in those days there was no separation between the two.

The world needs some sort of way of thinking that will bring us together.  Since formal "named" religions are institutional -- ethnically and turf-based, we can't reach unanimity on that level.  But we can go to the universal human experience of spirituality (NOT just emotions of love and all that) which kindles the spark of all religions.  That is, instead of looking at the content, we can look at the structure, not the structure of the outer world but the structure of human experience of it, which has two parts -- cognizant or beneath reflective access -- in the mammalian and even reptilian sub-brains.

Spirituality is an experience of meaning in two ways: it confirms the identity of the person and validates participation in the group.

Spirituality is not verbal.  Therefore it cannot be approached primarily through words but rather through whole-body thinking which precedes, underlies, and expresses thought:  art, dance, music.  It has evolutionary value in that it promotes survival for the individual and the group.

Spirituality is emergent.  When conditions are right, it emerges from the brain/body, called forth by sensory cues, a connectome hippocampus function.

Human development depends first on safety and then on attachment to another human in order for the brain to stay in growth mode.  Otherwise it closes down in hiding and defense, which is a different and higher priority connectome pattern that prevents growth.  The liminality of Victor Turner, et al, provides this safety and attachment necessary for even adults to confirm, re-affirm, or convert their thinking.


What I'm called "liturgy" is an art form.  It's closest relative in theatre in several ways.  Actors study the skills for managing internal consciousness, even in multiple (the character and the actor) and even in what are labeled dissociated states.  Actors learn to modulate emotional responses, to respond to others, to express emotion clearly, to manage their bodies, to use transferences through empathy, not to fear human extremes and excesses.

Liturgy can interact with what we call therapy in various ways.  Liturgy can be a kind of therapy, reducing stress and providing a context for insight.  Likewise, a therapy can become spiritual when people arrive at deep meaning with the support of the therapist or a group.  A therapy group can serve as a congregation, both a "holding community" and witnesses.

a holding community supports you

Liturgy can bind a community together and keep their attention centered on specific acts and events, often those recorded as print of some kind, though there can be great importance given to memorization and to reflection on the meaning of the words and stories.

Most books about liturgy are about institutional, print-based, prescribed events that may be repeated over and over.  The Catholic church is often seen like that, but reading Dom Gregory Dix’s book “The Shape of the Liturgy” taught me a number of things.  The first was that there WAS a shape and that it was not just historical but also evolved:  first came the invention of a “book,” which at that point was a scroll which rabbis gathered to study and reflect upon.  Since this was holy work, it was marked off not in space, but in time, by the saying of prayers.  So the liminal time was closed by another prayer.  So now we have four elements: the prayer of in-coming, the reading of the passage to be studied, the reflection on that passage, and then the outgoing prayer.  

When the Jewish tradition became the foundation of Christian community, the younger groups accepted that Jesus had prescribed to them the ceremony of Communion: the bread and the wine that were normally eaten by a group staying together through mealtime anyway.  These were brought from home and left at the door until the Communion, and that moment of going to get the bread and wine so it could be consecrated for significance, is now in the Mass.  
Togo -- the place, not food "to go"

When the Protestants broke off from Catholic Mass, they kept the basic pattern since it is so natural to humans (the picnic, the potluck, the tailgate party, the hunt breakfast, the pizza party).  Sometimes they simplified.  Then when the Unitarians broke off from the dissenting Protestants, they began to drop out the Communion, the most extreme of them calling it “cannibalism.”  

Part of what makes the Catholics so interesting is that there is always a breaking away but also always a reform from within.  So Schreiter’s book about the problem of explaining bread and wine to people who have never seen either one (Inuit, for instance) is one of the most valuable resources I know for understanding how the deep equivalent human dynamics at the level of the limbic system can be discovered and resolved into new acts that celebrate the same thing.  One must go to the paradoxes of the saints.  The landscape itself becomes the Bible.  The human family remains meaningful.  Death by torturing authorities that turns out to be a release into some kind of transcendence may also be meaningful.  But an institutional religion that formed in one environment will always have to be translated very carefully to keep it from being reduced to toys and magic.  What can the desert say to the jungle?  What can the shepherd say to the keyboard junkie?

I have come late to an appreciation of community, which is partly temperament, partly the times when I was growing up which emphasized individuality and “creativity,” and partly my birth family which was immigrant homesteaders who sequestered the family.   Mathew Lieberman adds to the other specialized cells in the prefrontal cortex the “mirror cells” that support empathy -- the ability to look at another human and understand how they must be feeling.    “We believe that pain and pleasure alone guide our actions.  Yet, new research using fMRI – including a great deal of original research conducted by Lieberman and his UCLA lab -- shows that our brains react to social pain and pleasure in much the same way as they do to physical pain and pleasure.”  

The assertion is made that humans spend a lot of time thinking about their relationships to other people, particularly those towards whom one feels intimacy.  Balancing that, it also appears that we need “out-groups” -- people we disapprove of, whom we shun or even attack.  This mob xenophobia can become destructive, but isolation is equally destructive, and we begin to understand that using it for punishment creates insanity.

Praying for others might be the most common liturgical element for justice, but also imagining a higher power who understands beyond what humans can grasp is often expressed in prayers.  Still, FELT meaning may be different.  Consider ordination of clergy during which the ordained person is not just prayed over and advised, but also is actively leaned on by the hands of those already in ministry, so that the weightiness of the moment is physical and real.  This interaction between words and enacted images is what I’m trying to explore.  


"The Shape of the Mass" by Dom Gregory Dix
"Constructing Local Theologies" by Robert Schreiter

"Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect" by Matthew D. Lieberman

"The Ritual Process" by Victor Turner

No comments: