Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Sanctuary of First Unitarian Church of Chicago

At my seminary the students prepared a short worship service as Vespers on Friday close-of-day.  We were encouraged to be experimental, which interested me very much after some eye-opening events when I was a lay person attending a Leadership School. They were simple designed events with deep impact.

In seminary we used a small side chapel at the cathedral-like main sanctuary of First Unitarian.  A firewall normally separated the two spaces, but it was stuck, fully raised open, leaving a dark chasm where one sensed the height of the stone interior even with lights off.  I was struck by this “feeling” of unseen emptiness and remembered a scrap of poetry about facing the void, how what we see is somehow ourselves.  So I organized a conventional sequence of song, reading, lesson, prayer, but all on this theme and with everyone seated looking into the dark past a big mirror where we were reflected.  It was pretty effective.

Years later, when serving a small congregation in Canada that was in love with the UU practice of lighting candles adapted from the Catholic practice by adding words by the lighter to the congregation.  They never got enough of lighting candles on Sunday before the service, so that sometimes the entire hour was taken up with candles lit for things ranging from deep grief to trivia.  One Christmas Eve I decided we’d just go with it.

I arranged the space with rows of chairs on each side and a line of folding tables down the center.  Down the middle of the tabletops, I set up dozens of candles, using Pyrex drinking glasses half-full of salt as candleholders.  The theme was babies: our babies, other people’s babies, dead and lost babies, climaxing with the Baby Jesus.  Each section was begun with a short reading, then the people were invited to light candles.  Soon we were all shimmering in heat waves.  (Do not do this without a good fire strategy, even if it’s only buckets of water ready to throw onto the tables!)  Tears poured down cheeks, laughter met song, and people talked about this for days afterwards.  I doubt that anyone has forgotten it.

Abrahamic liturgies that developed into today’s mass used by various denominations have their roots in sacrifice -- some say human, certainly animal, and gradually becoming less bloody, diminishing to symbolic substances  (water,oil) and merging with communal meals, accompanied with study of written materials that so dominate religious experience even now.  The Christian branch has kept an echo of sacrifice in Communion, shared food considered to be intimate recognition of the life of Jesus.  The Jewish sequence is anchored in Friday Shabbat, a family congregation that shares bread and lights candles.  Muslims ask for prayers throughout the day, wherever they are, but always with their heads pointed to Mecca.  Fasting is their sacrifice.

Blackfeet ceremonies like opening Bundles with song and dance have no written material but rather use songs associated with specific animals whose hides are in the Bundle as prompters.  At the opening of the Thunder Pipe Bundle in spring --  meant to beg for protection from the lightning strikes that walk across the land with thunderstorms, -- a big bowl of sarvisberry soup is eaten after everyone picks out the biggest berry and passes it up to the smudge altar to prompt a good crop.

Heartfelt ceremonies in the face of danger strong enough to threaten survival will have much power that crystalizes into forms that are natural to daily life.  The trouble with designing powerful ceremonies today is that most nice prosperous people who attend mainstream churches slide along grooves without much intensity, mostly controlled by media promotion of events as opportunities to buy.  

Depression, despair, ennui, meaninglessness, skepticism, drug-taking are the result of lack of contact with the fundamental reality of our animal selves: the senses.  Research now suggests that the neurons of the body (not just the dashboard in the brain) provide information about the out-of-skin-world to the in-body self through hundreds of perceiving cells, not just the five senses.  And these sensate codes are stored in other specific cells according to the moments of first perception.

The coded information may be very simple and subtle: the perception of being along the edge of a space, the information that your head (still attached) is leaving the top of your body, where it ought to be, because you are bending over.  Some people have eidetic memories which means they can store so much sensation that they can summon up pages they have seen and “read” them from memory.  Most of us might remember when looking for something written that it was in a book that had a red cover with a picture of a tiger and on a page about halfway through, printed halfway down.   Some researchers suggest there are as many as 200 different kinds of perception, some of them linked to memory more than others.  Mostly never rising to consciousness.

The sensate codes developed by experiencing moments and linked to memory may be the sensing of one’s own interior emotional state, which has its own perceptual system (the autonomic nervous system) operating with both electrochemical strands of nerve fiber and excreted molecules, floating in blood and plasma, from various sources with various effects.  Most people know that twisting squeeze of the guts that goes with high excitement, maybe awareness of danger.  Others are so used to denying, controlling, forcing the appearance of compliance, that they have sealed off awareness.  Many techniques try to recover code in memory or possibly to create new ones.  The line between therapy and worship gets blurred in the process, but that doesn’t seem like a bad result.  It's not the practice but the content that might be disturbing.

Intense awe and the humbling of cosmic awareness are harder to provide, but it seems to be coming to us now through what some have called Mystic Science: the feeling of being part of a whole far beyond our ability to perceive.  No longer do we believe in the protection of a big humanoid ruler, but we still remain vulnerable to the impact of looking at a long vista on earth or the limitless spaces a time-linked telescope can reveal.  I have no idea which organ secretes what (though there are suggestions) or which cells respond to "Eternity", but something certainly seems to make the body respond and since the body is the substrate of felt meaning, the response can be measured by instruments.  

Personal behavior is a little trickier.  If survival is predicated on control and domination, reinforced by a religion’s assurance of the right to domination, then -- unreasonably -- violence and destruction of threats, real or not, the results will be (in my book) Evil.  If the response to awe is an impulse to participate and protect others, it can slip the issue of survival over to the whole complex of the planet, including all beings without worrying about the priority of humans, of living things, or any one “ideal” state.  Then the focus goes to the ongoing torrent of time, which tears everything apart -- then reunites them in transformation.

Our societies around the globe seem to be re-enacting this now.  The imagery of holocaust is nuclear/drought/famine based.  We see the images daily but without a powerful, emotional, sense-coded feeling of belonging and participating.  What ceremony can we design that will provide this?

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