Sacred Dance: Training for Blessedness

The heavenly dance in Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment (c. 1425)

Dancing is like a beautiful garment, a garment in which the Spirit moves and delights…When we dance we can recognize our own beauty…and with all creation simply be, thus spontaneously praising the Lord. To dance is to know we are chosen…responding with a human soul to God’s chosen time.

–– Carla De Sola

In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him, as it were with a finger, saying, This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

–– Jewish Midrash

 

It’s a rare Sunday when we get two Lectionary readings about dance, a subject we rarely discuss in church, and almost never engage in. In one reading, dance seems a good thing, a spirited form of prayer. In the other, it is a bad thing, tainted with sex and murder.

In the passage from II Samuel, King David and his huge crowd of supporters make a grand procession to bring the ark of God, the potent symbol of divine presence, into the city of Jerusalem.

The ark, a gilded wooden chest, had been carefully constructed in the Sinai desert soon after the Exodus. As a sign that God was always with them, it accompanied the Israelites during their long years of wandering in the wilderness. Then, after they finally reached the Promised Land, the ark was captured by the Philistines. The Israelites eventually got it back, but there were still more adventures and delays before the sacred symbol could finally come to rest in the holy city.

But when the day of its triumphal entry finally came, we might have expected an orderly, dignified parade to signify the solemn meaning of this moment. But the Bible tells us that King David and thirty thousand others danced before the ark as it approached the city. They danced “with all their might” (that is to say, without any inhibitions––it seems that David flung away most of his clothes). They cheered and shouted at the top of their lungs while trumpets, lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals made a deafening racket. It was more like a Seahawks game than a religious procession.

The narrator doesn’t exactly tell us what to think about all this mayhem, but he does give us a brief glimpse through the eyes of Michal, daughter of David’s predecessor and now David’s wife. In a very cinematic way, the story cuts from a wide angle shot of the procession to a close shot of a high window, where a solitary woman is looking out on all the commotion:

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart (II Samuel 6:16).

Anyone who has danced in church can probably visualize the scorn on Michal’s face, because they themselves have seen that look. It’s the look of someone who knows what belongs in church and what doesn’t, the look of someone who is thinking, “Liturgical dance is not edifying to the Lord.”

While literature, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture have long had honored roles in Christian worship, dance, more often than not, has been regarded with suspicion or hostility.

In the sixteenth century, Catholic priests were threatened with excommunication if they led dances in church, while the dour Presbyterian John Knox blasted the practice of “fiddling and flinging” in the place of holy reading and holy listening. “The reward of dancers,” he said, “will be to drink in hell.”

Five centuries later, the hostility persists in many quarters. If you Google “liturgical dance,” you will find no lack of naysayers. An evangelical complaining about the phenomenon of “praise dancing” is typical:

Looking at people dancing to [a recording] with fake emotions does nothing but take up time. Church is . . . not a Broadway Show. At church people are coming to get delivered from evil spirits. And all this fakery is getting real pagan. Grown men and boys are now dancing too!

And a Catholic priest, feeling ambushed by the unexpected inclusion of dancers at a diocesan mass, called their contamination of the holy mysteries “an act of spiritual and liturgical terrorism.” [1]

Wow. Really? What has dance done to prompt so much attitude?

“Dance in the Liturgy,” a Vatican advisory published in 1975, acknowledged that in some non-Western cultures dance still retains a religious connotation, and may therefore be appropriate for liturgy. But in the West, the union of dance and religion has long been severed:

“Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure. For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations”. 

Is “an atmosphere of profaneness” unavoidable wherever there is dancing? It’s always a risk, I suppose. Can we watch dance, or engage in dance, without having our intentions of prayer and praise overwhelmed by more carnal responses? In my experience, yes we can.

Today’s other dance reading is the gospel story of Salome dancing for Herod (Mark 6:14-29), sometimes cited half-jokingly as Scriptural support for the anti-dance crowd. See what happens when people start to dance? Things get out of control. This nasty little tale epitomizes the commodification of bodies and the steamy side of dance, what some regard as the inevitable side effects of bodies in motion. To them sacred dance is an oxymoron.

But if our secular consumer society, so impoverished in its collective rituals, has left people ill-equipped to dance for God––and with God––do we just concede the game to the culture and abandon the practice? Or should we endeavor to create occasions where people can recover and nurture the innate human capacity not just to dance, but to let the divine dance in us? In the quaint phrasing of his 1948 reflection on the attentive performance of the mass, Catholic priest Ronald Knox admitted that such aspirations would be nonsense if “what you mean by a dance is the wireless in the hall playing revolting stuff and you lounging round in pairs and feeling all gooey.” [2]

Whatever our anxieties and discomforts about our bodies and others’ bodies and the sexually charged atmosphere of our culture, we need to get over it, or else we will lose one of the best and truest dimensions of embodied life: the ability to offer our whole selves––body, mind, soul and heart––to God, and to feel God’s pleasure in the joy of our sensory lives.

In his classic study of the holy in art, Gerardus van der Leeuw found in the Sufi practice of whirling and bowing a beautiful example of embodied prayer which leaves the anxieties of self behind:

“The dervishes dance until they have forgotten everything. Earthly, bodily life is discarded, blown away. Dancing is not a secular pastime, but training for blessedness. In ecstasy, the body becomes light and the chains of the soul loosened.” [3]

Movement is the world’s most ancient language. The universe itself is a dance of movement and countermovement. God moved over the sea of chaos, and the universe was set into perpetual motion. Earth dances with heaven, finitude dances with the infinite, death dances with life, human dances with divine. Move and countermove. Call and response. When we move our bodies in rhythmic and patterned ways, we mirror the dance of Love that moves the sun and stars, and we echo the angelic dance around the throne of God, whose own inmost nature is a dance of selfless give-and-take among the triune persons.

The Psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands, the mountains dance, the hills skip like lambs. Or as van der Leeuw puts it, “Everything spins and circles, everything leaps to the rhythm of the universe.”[4] Life is motion, and to live it is to dance. Our only choice is to do it well or do it badly.

Who understands the exalted dance,
The bowing, bending, waiting stance,
The spinning round forever?
The mincing pace, the whirling space,
The flight that ceases never?

For love may stop, and love may hop,
And love may sing, and love may spring,
And love may rest in loving,
And love may sleep, and love may leap;
What mind can follow, proving? [5]

 

 

Related post: God is a dance we do

 

[1]Quoted in Heidi Schlumpf, “In Defense of Liturgical Dance,” National Catholic Reporteronline, April 14, 2017 (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/defense-liturgical-dance).

[2]Ronald Knox, The Mass in Slow Motion(New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 3.

[3]Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, trans. David E. Green (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1963), 62.

[4]Ibid., 28.

[5]Ibid., 31.Attributed to Sister Bertke of Utrecht, a medieval recluse, whose tiny cell left her little room to move, much less dance. Perhaps her cramped quarters inspired her vision of the soul’s dance with God.

 

God is a dance we do

Elaine Friedrich and friends, c. 1933

Elaine Friedrich and friends, c. 1933

At the end of last Sunday’s eucharist, we sang “You shall go out with joy,” a contemporary hymn with the infectious rhythm of Mediterranean dance.[i] The words, the tune, and the smiling worshippers all seemed to say the same thing: the Spirit really wanted to move in that place. So before we went our separate ways, I invited the congregation to repeat the song, while all who wished stepped into the open space before the altar for an impromptu circle dance. With joined hands, we circled round, spiraled inward, wove in and out of the arches and tunnels of upraised arms, manifesting with our bodies the divine fullness attributed to the Holy Trinity: an “interdependence of equally present but diverse energies … in a state of circumvolving multiplicity.”[ii] Or as St. Athanasius said more simply of the triune God, we were participating in the divine reality of “reciprocal delight.”

Communal dance is an early Christian image for the divine reality, due in part to a pun on the Greek word, perechoresis. This term (from peri = “around,” and chorein = “make room for,” “contain”) was appropriated in the fourth century to express the Trinitarian unity-in-diversity. Perechoresis implies a shared existence, a being-in-one-another where each Person, while remaining uniquely distinct, penetrates the others as each and all become the subject, not the object, of one another.

The Trinity is not a simple, static substance but an event of relationships. It is why we can say that God is love. “To be” has no ontological reality apart from “to be in relationship.” In the words of Anglican priest John Mbiti of Kenya, expressing the strongly communal mindset of African theology, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”[iii]

Each Person contains the others and is contained by them in a shared communion of self-offering and self-surrender. But that continuous self-offering is never a one-way transaction, either one of self-emptying or one of being filled. It is always both at once – giving and receiving – as we ourselves know from our own mutual experience of love at its best. As Jesus said, “losing” yourself and “finding” yourself are equivalent and simultaneous. In giving ourselves away, we receive ourselves back. This may be counterintuitive to the modernist mindset of autonomous individual self-possession, but it is the essence of communion: “a giving of oneself that can only come from the ongoing and endless reception of the other.”[iv] This “being in communion” is explored more fully in Part 1: God is relational.

Now here’s the Greek pun: perechoresis also can mean “to dance around,” and the ancient theologians quickly seized on that image as an accessibly concrete description of a complex process. Trinity is a dance, with Creator, Christ and Spirit in a continuous movement of giving and receiving, initiating and responding, weaving and mingling, going out and coming in. And while our attention may focus at times on a particular dancer, we must never lose sight of the larger choreography to which each dancer belongs: the eternal perichoresis of Three in One, One in Three.

“I am the dance and I still go on” (Dancers at Elaine Friedrich’s Requiem)

Wallace Stevens made a poem about the process of giving ourselves over to a larger whole, “the intensest rendezvous” where we find ourselves drawn out of isolation “into one thing.” He wasn’t writing about dance or the Trinity, but his words come as close as any to describing their essential motion:

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.[v]

My mother Elaine knew the joy of the “intensest rendezvous” of perechoresis. She started dancing as a little girl, and as a teenager in the 1920’s she taught dance to younger children for ten cents a lesson. While studying at Northwestern she took workshops in Chicago with some of the great pioneers of modern dance, Doris Humphrey and José Limón. Her teachers encouraged her to apply to Martha Graham’s company. But then she met my father, and a career in dance was set aside for a more domestic life. I owe my own existence to that sacrificial act. Still, she remained a dancer in her heart, and later in life became a great advocate of sacred dance. Whatever I learned from her about the divine dimensions of “dancing around,” of giving yourself over to the cosmic “Love that moves the sun and all the other stars,”[vi] remains a vital part of my theological education.

There are no spectators in the Trinitarian dance, which is always extending outward to draw us and all creation into its motions. As Jürgen Moltmann said, “to know God means to participate in the fullness of the divine life.”[vii] It’s not a matter of our trying to imitate the relational being of the loving, dancing God, as if we were inferior knock-offs of the real thing. God wants us to become ourselves the real thing. God wants to gather us into the divine perechoresis as full participants in the endless offering and receiving, pouring out and being filled, which is the dance of God and the life of heaven.

And while our dance with God has its mystical, mysterious, transcendent dimensions, it is also very concrete and specific to our historical life on this earth, in this present time. As Miroslav Volf has said, “The Trinity is our social program.”[viii] We are called to make God not just an inner experience but a public truth. When Love’s dance becomes our way of being in the world – as believers, as church – the Trinity is no longer just doctrine. It is a practice, begetting justice, peace, joy, kindness, compassion, reconciliation, holiness, humility, wisdom, healing and countless other gifts.

Liberation theologian Justo L. Gonzales puts it well: “If the Trinity is the doctrine of a God whose very life is a life of sharing, its clear consequence is that those who claim belief in such a God must live a similar life … for if God is love, life without love is life without God; and if this is a sharing love, such as we see in the Trinity, then life without sharing is life without God…”[ix] So, in the immortal words of Lewis Carroll’s Mock Turtle: Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?[x]

My mother was still dancing in her nineties, mostly in the gentle motions of Tai Chi. A year before her death at 96, she was asked to lead a dance prayer in her retirement community’s chapel. It was no longer easy for her to stand, so she performed the prayer seated, while the elderly congregation echoed her gestures with their own frail bodies. The prayer was Daniel Schutte’s well-known anthem, “Here I am, Lord.”[xi] In this video you can only see Elaine, but I’m pretty sure she was dancing with the whole company of heaven.

[This is the final post of a 3-part series on the Trinity. Part 1 was “God is relational,” and Part 2, on the experiential foundations of Trinitarian belief, was “You can’t make this stuff up.”]

[i] Words by Steffi Geiser Rubin, music by Stuart Dauermann (© 1975 Lillenas Publishing Company)

[ii] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2003), 114

[iii] q. in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 352

[iv] Graham Ward, “The Schizoid Christ,” in The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, ed. John Milbank and Simon Oliver (NY: Routledge, 2009), 241

[v] Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” Collected Poetry and Prose (NY: Library of America, 1997), 444

[vi] Dante, Paradiso xxxiii, 145, trans. Robert & Jean Hollander (NY: Doubleday, 2007), 827

[vii] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 152

[viii] Miroslav Volf, “‘The Trinity is Our Social Program’: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement,” Modern Theology 14, no. 3 (July 1998)

[ix] The Trinity: Global Perspectives, 301

[x] From the Mock Turtle’s song in Alice in Wonderland by Anglican cleric Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll)

[xi] Daniel Schutte, © OCP Publications 1981

Just a dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Byz Res mosaic

On Holy Saturday in Jerusalem, an hour past sunset 26 years ago, I greeted the Resurrection with the Ethiopian community in their courtyard on the roof above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Processing around a small cupola representing the empty tomb, they sang and danced with torches and umbrellas. Their graceful, white-robed bodies and joyful faces were vivid icons of the risen life, producing in me a state of dreamlike wonder. As I later made my way through the deserted stone passages of the old city in search of the midnight liturgy at the Russian church, I fell into an apocryphal reverie.

I imagined the risen Jesus quietly reversing the steps of his Via Dolorosa, away from the cross, away from the mindless crowd now sleeping off its orgiastic fury, away from the city of betrayals and farewells, away from the awful time of trial. Going home. To Galilee.

Of course we don’t know how the Resurrection actually happened, nor do we grasp the concept of passing out of existence only to return the same yet different. Perhaps the closest we come is our daily rising from sleep, when it may take a moment before we remember who we are and reconnect with the continuity of personal identity that somehow survives the abyss of unconsciousness. Even so, there sometimes remains a strange sense that we have crossed over into a new space and time full of unimagined possibilities. We are not quite the same person who closed his or her eyes the night before. Behold, says Jesus, I make all things new.

The sublime intensity of Holy Week, culminating in the Triduum, or Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, can produce a similar effect on the faithful who make the long journey from the Last Supper to the first Alleluia. We not only learn something along the Way of the Cross to the place of Resurrection, we become something as well. When it’s over, we are somebody else. Forgiven. Set free. Made new.

As I said in the Vigil homily on Saturday night, “we have made an exodus from our tired old stories of death and loss into God’s new story of possibility and promise.” Any Vigil worth its salt will enable us to dwell for a few hours in the light of that new story, the light that penetrates our shadows with the bright splendor of God’s future. And when it’s over, we may wonder: What just happened? Was it only a dream?

One of the striking things about the Easter Vigil is that there is no single representation of the Resurrection. The gospel reading might describe dazzling messengers announcing it after the fact, but the event itself is never described in the text. The closest the liturgy gets to a specific resurrection moment is when the Presider launches the eucharist with a shout of Christ is risen, and a holy tumult is made with chimes, bells and drums while all the lights switch on to banish the darkness. But the victory of Life and Love is actually manifested repeatedly throughout the liturgy in symbol, word and sacrament, as well as in the faces and gestures of the assembly. The liturgy as a whole is an experiential analog of the Paschal Mystery.

Here are a few of this year’s many resonant manifestations for me:

  • The New Fire: It is always moving, after we have all been scattered from the bare and mournful church interior of Good Friday, to see how many return the next night to gather outside around the New Fire with expectant faces. Death has done its worst, and we have come to make our reply: Love wins anyway. I especially rejoiced to see the children, already dressed for the Ark story in their animal costumes, standing right up front with their floppy ears and shaggy coats. As St. Paul said, not just humanity, but the whole creation, eagerly awaits the day of renewal.
  • The Creation: “Once upon a time, human beings had no story. Only the gods did things worth telling.” So began the Prologue to our sacred stories, concluding with the discovery, by an ancient “tribe of nobodies” that their own lives were, in fact, part of something much, much larger. “Human beings had become a story told by God.” Then out of the darkness a voice said, “Let there be light!” Projected on a 15’ screen, we saw the first light of the creation, from Terence Malick’s film, Tree of Life, continuing with spectacular cinematic images of earth’s evolution up through the arrival of the birds. Then the film switched off and a monkey and frog entered to cavort among the assembly, until a flute sounded, and the musical “breath of God” turned them into the first humans. They straightened up, removed their wooden Indonesian masks, and became suddenly conscious of their own humanity. “Adam and Eve” were played by pre-teens, but when they cautiously crossed the gap between them to touch hands and connect with the strange and unknown “other,” they gave us a transcendent image far beyond their years.
  • The Red Sea: This central metaphor for the Paschal Mystery of “crossing over” from death to life was a complex interplay of live actors, projected images (documentary-looking Exodus images from DeMille’s 1927 silent, The Ten Commandments, plus Civil Rights footage from the Selma to Birmingham march of 1965), soundscapes (6 separate cues to mark different stages of the story), and dramatic theatrical lighting. After the Red Sea had been crossed, the narrator concluded by saying, “When the world says no, the power of God is …”. The Israelites, all played by children, completed the sentence by shouting, “YES!” The brave sound of those young voices will long stay with me.
  • “Hallelujah”: After each story, we sang a song and said a prayer to reflect the story’s themes. The last story, The Valley of Dry Bones, was followed by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with powerful Easter lyrics by Scott Lawrence. Our hand candles were relit as we sang: “no darkness can conceal the light within you … hallelujah, hallelujah…” All those candlelit faces, all those beautiful voices raised in song, said Resurrection as powerfully as anything else we did that night.
  • The Dance: At the end, following communion, we invited people to come out of their seats to gather in a great circle to dance. I had been warned to expect only a half-hearted response. Episcopalians are reserved, I was told. Dancing in church might be outside some people’s comfort level. But as we sang a couple of choruses of “I will raise them up” from the Bread of Life hymn, everyone did in fact rise up and come out of their pews. We joined hands, and off we went, circling and spiraling as we sang the Easter Troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”) and “Jesus Christ is risen today.” Resurrection wasn’t just something we heard about or thought about, it was something we embodied, something we danced. As Christ shows us every Easter, “I am the Dance and I still go on.” Amen to that! We proved it with our bodies.

When the Vigil was over, we each went our separate ways. The Vigil “set” was struck, like a circus tent, leaving behind little trace of what had taken place. Had it all – not just the Vigil but the entire Triduum – been just a dream, soon to fade in the glare of everyday life and ordinary time? Or had our extraordinary journey together, soaked in Paschal images, revealed something essential, enduring and profoundly transformative?

Whether in this year’s Triduum, in my Jerusalem Holy Week long ago, or in many other memorable traverses of the Paschal Mystery, I do believe I have encountered, embodied, and imbibed the core of our faith: Christ lives. Love wins. We shall be changed.

The resonant images and experiences of the Triduum have been planted deep within me, year by year. They may still have to struggle in my poor soil or compete with the choking thorns of my world, but as the collect-prayer for Thursday of Easter Week asks, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.”

God, bring that day closer!