Advent Adventures in Worship (Part 2: Homecoming)

%22Journey%22 sm

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)

Two hours in heaven

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Belief is hard – at least when you dwell within the bubble of secular modernity, where reality seems to function well enough without invoking divinity as a causal mechanism. As long as there is money in the bank and a storm hasn’t knocked down the local power lines, as long as I am healthy and not spending any time in foxholes, it might slip my mind that life is a gift rather than a possession. God doesn’t make it any easier by being invisible or in disguise, and preferring to be subtle when it comes to manifesting presence.

In The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition, William Countryman sees the ebb and flow of divine presence as “the central rhythm of Anglican spirituality.” Like the elusive behavior of waves and particles, the Holy seems to leap unpredictably between available and unavailable, known and unknown, intimate and distant, withheld and given. This can be hard on believers.

Oh that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipt blossom, hung
Discontented.

– George Herbert (“Denial”)

There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

– R. S. Thomas (“In Church”)

When Herbert or Thomas felt God’s absence, they still remained in relationship with divinity. They missed its nearness. They longed for an intimacy lost. For the totally secularized, God is not merely absent. God is not even missed. The sense of longing inherent to the human condition has been transferred to more tangible, less ultimate objects. For those who do not reside within the practices and discourses of a faith community, is a relationship with the transcendent recoverable? The arts have been proposed as a substitute for religion. But instead of replacing God, the arts often seem to incarnate the divine, even for those who would never think to describe their experience theologically.

In A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit, Anthony Monti cites Sir Thomas Browne on the way music restores us to a spiritual mode of awareness:

There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ear of God.[i]

In more contemporary language, Frank Burch Brown writes that the Sanctus of Bach’s Mass in B Minor “so shines and overflows with the musical manifestation of divine plenitude that in the experience of many a listener heaven and earth seem to converge, revealing the ultimate reality of their ecstatic union/communion.” [ii]

Image Journal, an exquisitely produced quarterly exploring the intersection of “art, faith and mystery,” employs both beauty and thought to counter the modernist dogma of belief’s imminent extinction. And at last weekend’s Seattle concert in celebration of the magazine’s 25th anniversary, I experienced the “musical manifestation of divine plenitude.” For two glorious hours, four choirs and a reader of poems pushed back the veil of doubt and distance so that a fortunate crowd of listeners could dwell – effortlessly, ecstatically – in the radiance of holy presence.

The design of the program had a litugical structure. There were seven sections – a sacred number – conducting us through the stages of spiritual journey: Cloud of Unknowing, After Paradise, The Contemplative Life, Longing for the Messiah, Mothering God, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, and From Darkness into Light. Each section’s theme was introduced by a contemporary poem wrestling with the presence/absence of what Denise Levertov calls “the Other, the known / Unknown, unknowable.” [iii] And each poem was followed by a triptych of choral pieces from medieval to modern, from Hildegard and Palestrina to Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Seattle Pro Musica, Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble, the Medieval Women’s Choir, and the Women of St. James Schola took turns lifting their voices in the resonant space of St. James Cathedral.

Sometimes the presence entered gently, as in the lyric by Jeanne Murray Walker: “Listen! Already God descends, waking us, / with his new breath, from sleep, / … like a mother.” [iv] Sometimes it clapped like thunder, as when the supplicating harmonies of Tavener’s “God is with us” were met with the sudden roar of the organ in heaven’s unambiguous reply.

The most stunning moment for me came at the end of James MacMillan’s Christus Vincit. The triumphant text – “Christ conquers, Christ is King, Christ is Lord of All” – started quietly with the sopranos, joined by the basses rumbling a rhythmic plainsong like breaking waves. The interplay of high and low, feminine and masculine, was punctuated by generous silences, allowing us to savor the fading reverberations. Then a single soprano began to rise above the other voices, with melismatic ornaments resembling the grace notes of Celtic song. Alleluia, she sang, over and over, her voice rising in a vocal mimesis of the ascending Christ. The other singers fell away as she soared on: Alleluia! Alleluia! And then, reaching a high B that seemed beyond the reach of mortals, she sang “All-le – “, but instead of the final syllables, there was sudden silence, as if she had vanished into eternity before the word could be finished.

In such an atmosphere, it was unbelief that became impossible. No more weeping by the rivers of exile, no hiding of faces from an alien Creator, no wandering in the wilderness of doubt and loss. We were home at last. God was not a dubious idea, but an immediate experience.

Alas, we are never permitted to linger long around the throne of presence. Once the vision fades, we must go forth to redeem the time being from insignificance.[v] But those two blessed hours provided a rich and lasting sustenance for those of us who continue along the pilgrim way.

[i] Anthony Monti, A Natural Theology of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003) 121

[ii] Ibid., 122

[iii] Denise Levertov, “Sanctus,” from concert program

[iv] Jeanne Murray Walker, “And He Shall Dwell With Them,” from concert program

[v] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976) 308