Monday, December 24, 2018


In my time the Sunday morning services at First Unitarian Church were quite standard for "high" (sophisticated) denominations, basically the Roman Catholic mass of the deep past as it was slightly transformed through the Protestant Revolution which roughly followed parallel to the Enlightenment ideas of Descartes, science and the Rule of Law.  That is, it was usual hymn sandwich with pieces in their usual places, customized mostly through the choice of readings, the words of the songs, the choice of interval music, and the latest influence on "religious" thought from various disciplines.

Nothing was so radical as the Quakers sitting together in silence until someone had a thought worth sharing, impelled from the "light".  Nor did a dance choir of middle-aged women in leotards interpret life..  We did not "pass the peace" with hugs, which were considered an invasion of space.  We had little "group" consciousness because we were considered individuals who thought for ourselves, but felt that conviction itself was a source of unity.

Then I went to Pacific Northwest Leadership School at Fort Worden.  This was 1975, remember, when that amazing surge of populism, body knowledge, and experiment came fighting its way culture-wide, pushing aside convention, prestige, and tradition.  This was only the second summer of an experimental week that had bombed the previous year.  By now (2018) the conventions and structures have taken over again and few even acknowledge the existence of this early dangerous freeform.  The main innovators have died of old age, but some of us were young when the leaders were already middle-aged, and we have remembered.

Lectures as a whole group was only a way of transmitting information needed in discussions.  Then we split into small groups, different ones for different purposes.  One series was meant to explore and demonstrate organizational strategy.  One was to support individual reflection and processing as the week went on.  The fourth was a series of vespers worships.  The "style" of each services was prescribed by the leaders who also controlled who was on the planning committee.

One was meant to be traditional but it became full of rage, self-mockery.  This was accepted rather than punished, but discussed at length.  Why was it painful? How to get past that?  Two others escape my memory.  I recorded all this when I got home, but it's material filed out in the garage, which is cold.

The fourth vespers has been an indelible memory.  It was meant to be experimental.  I don't know the backgrounds of those who devised it, but they understood what they were doing.  Key to their success was that most people attending were from one cultural group, educated white people with a shared body of thought and experience.  If we had been more assorted, it would have been necessary to go deeper to find what we shared.  The service was developed by group discussion with no dissension like that in the traditional group, which clearly included people who had suffered bad consequences of oppressive religion.

We were asked to gather in front of an empty building.  Individually we were blindfolded and led up the access ramp.  Seated on big pillows, we were in pairs.  In between each pair was a bowl of strawberries.  When all were assembled and introduction had been made, we were asked to feed each other one berry at a time, choosing them carefully, observing the receiver closely to know when they were ready for the next, and paying close attention to the taste, each berry slightly different.  This was an exercise in the senses.

Other things happened -- readings of poetry, maybe -- but then by surprise a woman played her cello in an upstairs room so that it echoed through the rooms.  Few instruments are as much like a human voice. Some people wept.

In case you are a reader who doesn't recognize the cello and would not know the classical music piece, I'll link the sort of music that was played.  It's a commercial link, but that means you can easily acquire the music if you like it.  Paul Winter has always related to animals and natural existence.  He's my age.

This service was not just experimental -- it was elemental.  That is, the sensory experience reached us on an unconscious level as well as the rational.  Much of "felt meaning" comes to us without us even realizing that we have gone to a more basic total way of thinking that we once had in childhood.  Many remark on how everything when we were little was so vivid, how significant the small things seemed to us.  Sun on a cat, the ringing of a struck bit of porcelain, the smell of morning.  

Memories and associations will vary across cultures on the broadest scales around the world from Japan to Africa.  But also vary according to socio-economic levels:  coffee and bacon here, leftover pizza there, rooms darkened, rooms where windows are thrown open, pounding rock music here, silence there.  As we come to take common sensations for granted, they disappear from our consciousness, sinking into our silent internal archives.

One of the uses of ritual is to recover and reinstate what touches us and reminds us of identity.  Figuring out what will do that is the work of the ritualist.  Sometimes it is prescribed by the community and sometimes it must be created.  

The example here is the bride whose intended was killed on the way to the wedding.  I found it in a journal for chaplains and valued it because the clergyman in question was very conscious that he was doing something unconventional and even forbidden by the community, including the bride's mother.  This challenged celebrant knew the couple well -- they were long-time members as well as having done some exploring of their relationship with the clergyman.  He wore every bit of liturgical gear he had to mark the serious nature of this event.  With the corpse of the groom present, the clergyman used familiar bits of prayer but not the wedding ceremony.  At one point he put a hand on each young person's head while he blessed them.  There were no attendants.  The bride did not cry, but put the groom's ring on his finger and kissed him.  Afterwards, she sorrowed but was content. She felt completed.

Even the descriptions of such acts are moving when they are included in stories.  But the writers may have not consciously rationalized why they wrote them into the plot -- just "feeling" that they fit.  The success and stability of a culture can be affected by the intensity and distinction of its ceremonies.  Passive, conforming, overfamiliar rites can empty the pews.

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