Saturday, December 05, 2015


Chicago Cathedral of the Russian Church Abroad

I spent decades reflecting on liturgies -- not just Christian worship structures, but religious or spiritual protocols from everything from African tribal rites to New Guinea ceremonies  to Blackfeet Bundle Openings.  I was raised Presbyterian and grew up in the neighborhood church where the minister was very preoccupied with conformity, texts, and propriety -- all of them aimed at prestige.  This turned me away.  In my undergrad years at Northwestern (’57 - ’61), I took courses in religion.  (My major was supposed to be speech education, but was, in fact, Method acting.)

When I attended the Pacific Northwest UU Leadership School in 1975, I had my first experience with designing experimental non-conforming liturgies based on human experience (blind-folded silence, feeding each other, excellent music, memory of one’s own turning points, a long line holding hands in the dark while crossing a broad lawn to the sound of a nearby ocean).  I was smitten.  

Blackfeet Reservation

By that time I had a decade of experience on the Blackfeet reservation next to Glacier National Park where I had participated in ceremonies.  I signed up for an MDiv in Chicago and an MA in Religious Studies from the U of Chicago and achieved both, though I was a little exotic from their point of view.  I turned forty during that time.

In congregations I found I could design services that made people react.  They said they were feeling something spiritual.  Sometimes they wept, not necessarily from sadness.  Nothing to do with dogma or even history, except their own personal story which I didn’t always know.  What WAS that?  How did I figure out what to do?  I’ve worked on those questions ever since.  I’ve come to believe it wasn’t liturgy, though that was one pathway.  It was something I might call Deep Experience, a human response to what recent neurological research requires me to call a “connectome.”

Human Fetus at 8 weeks

A person’s identity is first created in the womb by the interaction of molecules that build a certain body with certain capacities.  After birth, the baby continues to develop those capacities at a very basic level, since the first years of a human are really a continuation of gestation, the finishing process that in other animals is mostly over at birth.

This certain body/person will become an identity according to the influence of the environment which includes culture and family.  At about age 3 the dawning person will continue to grow with a complete but not entirely developed brain, which is an aggregate of evolved parts connected by nerve fibers --the connectome -- managed by the brain.  Part of this guidance and experiencing system is fluid, carrying molecules that also supply information and modulation.  Throughout the adrenarche --ages 6 or 7 through maybe 10 -- the person grows into his or her self, guided by the adrenal glands.  The issue seems to be discovering what arouses that person.

At the end of adrenarche, adrenals kick off adolescence.  Adolescence is too powerful for a young child.  Physically they can be torn apart by sex, as well as emotionally.  Their guidance system will not be able to cope with their urges.  They will be presented with dilemmas that cannot be resolved and therefore are stored and ignored.  Later these deadlocks make trouble.

Through adolescence the person develops control and ability until the culture declares it  is adult, but the brain goes on developing until maybe halfway through the twenties, which is when the abstract and insightful meta-thinking are complete.  AT EVERY STAGE it is possible to have Deep Experience, a moment of spiritual intensity and meaning.  I would propose that even an infant can feel it and certainly from adrenarche on, the capacity is present.  I remember.

But Deep Experience can be blocked, forced by drugs or events, or stuck in terms of meaning so that it stops being a process and starts being a dogma or superstition.  The “connectome” can forget how and what it connected.  The memory of a crucial piece might be lost or “mislabeled” or suppressed or those irresolvables from childhood may come back to interfere.

I would not be able to think about this clearly except for the new research on neurology and “trace-based” neuropaleontology, pre-verbal.  I need to keep repeating this stuff to understand it better.  Anyway, the research is moving quickly.

Because “liturgy” as defined in our culture is institutionally generated and owned, and is about words, often specifically dictated repetition, combined with certain gestures and material culture, it can be an instrument of outside control.   I mean outside the person.  It works sometimes for some people.  It’s one path.

I won't sell this classic book.

I’m selling my books about liturgy.  Inquire on email if interested.  prairiem at  Liturgy wasn’t what I was after.  They aren’t out-dated or mushy popular books.  Some are theory.  I’ll keep a few. They are still perfectly useful for those who respond to liturgy.  I recommend to those folks something like the books on David Montgomery’s website:  I still enjoy reading them, but they are institutional and I’ve discovered that there is no institution that suits me.  Not even the UUA in its present incarnation. 

Be warned:  Montgomery knows that shock liturgy like this Pussy Riot intervention on You Tube is valid, meant to revive some of the original meaning:  Consider that “Game of Thrones” could be seen as really a reiteration of the Bible.  But liturgies are words, experiences are feelings, often wordless.   That may or may not coincide with liturgy.

Finding the human primal feelings that unite us is -- I strongly believe --  the best way to approach a variety of conflicting but coinciding theologies.  I came to this through “Contructing Local Theologies” by Father Robert J. Schreiter, CPPS.  The book is for sale on Amazon for $0.23.  I would not sell you my copy for $230, but if I did, I would buy as many $0.23 copies as I could and hand them out for free.  This is the way to reconciliation, not just among the many kinds of Christians but among cultures.  To hear him speak go to:  He hasn’t lost his touch.  He knows deep experience and speaks from it without dogma.  The ideas in the book derive from missionaries trying to explain communion to people who have neither bread nor grain, like Inuit.

Father Robert J. Schreiter, CPPS

These kinds of ideas -- some scientific, some historical, some rude and shocking -- are all pathways to deep meaning, which is different for each person according to their original germ plasm, life experiences, and environment.  It doesn’t have to be done alone.  It doesn’t have to be recognized as "religious".

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