In Part 1, I explained the rationale for cultivating innovation and surprise in Advent liturgies, and described a multimedia preaching “performance” in 1968. The subject of Part 2 is an experiential journey taken by the congregation through a very early example of a worship installation, curated at a Los Angeles church on the Third Sunday of Advent, 1972.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, situated between downtown Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, is one of the most beautiful churches in the city. Modeled after a late 12th century Romanesque Italian church, it is a cathedral-sized longitudinal space with a high ceiling (it would later become the Pro-cathedral of the Diocese of Los Angeles). The interior walls are plain concrete, but the chancel is adorned with colorful marble and mosaics, drawing the eye of worshippers from the monotone of the nave toward the alluring colors surrounding the high altar, where a spectacular carving of the risen Christ is the terminus that completes and fulfills the spatial momentum.
Built by a prosperous white congregation in the 1920’s, St. John’s in 1972 was multicultural, with African-Americans comprising the majority, along with Anglicans of Belizean descent and a sizeable contingent of white liberals. For many of the members it was a destination church, known for both its liturgy and its social witness. I had attended seminary with its new rector, Bill Persell, who brought me in to start a monthly evening liturgy called The Third Sunday, a “liturgy lab” developing cutting edge experiential eucharists, grounded in the arts and organized around themes ranging from the liturgical year to politics and the environment. Every month about 200 people, many driving an hour or more, made a pilgrimage to those unusual and compelling evening liturgies.
For the Advent liturgy, people stood in the back of the nave, facing away from the distant altar, for spoken choruses from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, interwoven with sung verses from the hymn, Sleepers Wake. After several Scripture readings, people were taken “eastward” (toward the altar) in small groups to begin a multi-sensory journey through the ambulatory, a long enclosed passageway circling behind the chancel.
The journey began in the baptistry, where each person (let’s call them “pilgrims”) was sprinkled with water from the font as the priest said, “Awake, O sleeper. Rise from the dead, and Christ will be your light.” (Ephesians 5:14) From there the pilgrims proceeded through a succession of sounds (mostly recordings of poetry) and images (projected film and slides). The first poem was the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, recited in the doleful voice of John Ciardi (“Midway in my life’s journey I went astray in a dark wood …”). Beyond that the path descended into the claustrophobic space of the boiler room, where “hell” consisted of seeing only your own image played back on several closed-circuit video monitors.
Ascending back into the ambulatory, the journey continued through a succession of projected images of a broken and longing world. At the halfway point an audio loop played Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (“the Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full … But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar …”). Beyond that bleak utterance the path entered a section of total darkness, where the pilgrims had to feel their way along the walls toward a dim blue light somewhere beyond the curve. It was an experiential analogy of faith’s “dark night.”
Near the far end of the U-shaped passage, the voice of T. S. Eliot intoned the end of his Four Quartets (“And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”). Leading the group to a curtained doorway, the guide then spoke words from Auden’s For the Time Being:
For the garden is the only place there is,
but you will not find it until you have looked for it everywhere
and found nowhere that is not a desert.[i]
Passing through the curtain, the pilgrims exited the cramped space of the ambulatory into the luminous openness of a candlelit chapel with golden mosaic walls, where they waited to welcome those who came after them. The luminous environment and the loving smiles seemed an apt icon for the future being prepared for the friends of God. Advent indeed.
Once everyone had made the journey, we gathered round the altar in the main church for the eucharist. My faded copy of the mimeographed bulletin provides a quote from Andre Hamman, D.F.M. as the epigraph for this “homecoming” section of the liturgy:
“The terminus of the Exodus is the reassembly of the people of God to celebrate the definitive and universal Pasch … The baptized can quit everything, lose everything, but [s]he has found the family where the living God resides.”[ii]
The ritual journey we made that night was a pioneering incorporation of installation art into liturgical practice. As Claire Bishop has written, installations, by being ‘theatrical’, ‘immersive’, or ‘experiential’, make the participation of the ‘viewer’ an inherent part of the work:
“… it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space [rather than] a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance … Instead of representing texture, space, light and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience. This introduces an emphasis on sensory immediacy, on physical participation (the viewer must walk into and around the work), and on a heightened awareness of other visitors who become part of the piece.”[iii]
By disrupting the usual patterns of worship (starting the liturgy facing “backward,” getting out of the pews to explore the building’s “residual” spaces normally unused during worship), and initiating a journey of discovery, we allowed the worshippers to enter the ritual in a more embodied and attentive way. As I wrote at the time, “The one who journeys, discovers, overcomes ordeals and finally attains a center where he or she can dwell [becomes] more aware of what it means to be somewhere, to leave it and arrive somewhere else. “ Even if it is the same place “known for the first time”.
My influences in the design of this worship installation were the biblical Exodus, Dante’s 3-stage journey of Inferno – Purgatorio – Paradiso, and the major Advent theme of endings becoming beginnings. It was all about movement away from, passage through, arrival at … “The James Joyce Memorial Liquid Theater,” an experimental work created by Los Angeles’ brilliant Company Theater, also had significant impact on my thinking about ritual experience. In that play, each member of the audience was gently guided by actors through a series of mysterious spaces and multi-sensory experiences.
My conception was also shaped by childhood memories of the funhouse on the pier at Santa Monica’s Ocean Park, where I had loved the harrowing thrill of passing through narrow, zigzagging corridors (some of them totally dark), as the muffled sound of surf leaked through the floorboards. For me, the Advent installation was a kind of “theological funhouse.”
In the 1970’s, installation art was becoming a conscious practice, but I am not sure how early it began to be explored by liturgists. Worship installations are now a staple of alternative worship, but I suspect that what we did at St. John’s in 1972 was pretty rare. This is how I summed it up afterward:
The journey was a dying (baptismal figure, narrowing of space, sounds and images of a yearning world, an unknown way, darkness) and a rising (emergence into an open, “transcendent” space, and being gathered into the community of the eucharist). It was a losing (leaving the original assembly and the main space) and a finding (rediscovering the community and the original space).
In other words, our Exodus had brought us home.
[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 274
[ii] Alas, I no longer have the source for this.
[iii] Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 2005)