Measured Extravagance

29 October 2002 - 9:56 a.m.

I've been thinking a bit about religious worship the past couple of days - not enough to pull together an entry or a poem about it, at least not yet, but it's been skipping across the surface of my mind a little more frequently than usual. It happened that on Sunday two people told me they missed me on Worship Committee, and that last night I was reading John Dufresne's Love Warps the Mind a Little, which includes a Catholic administrator as a major character and a good deal about past lives and future speculation as well. At one point, the narrator (a lapsed Catholic) declares:

The religious experience should be private and it should aspire to ecstasy. Worship should not restrain you, keep you standing/kneeling/sitting in your pew, should not secure you to earth. It ought to take you out of yourself, the way reading Tolstoy does. At least that. It ought to lift you, set your feet on higher ground. And it should disturb you, bewilder you, confront you with the reality of your condition. I was beginning to understand why Dale may have gone Baptist. They have to have better music, for one thing.

The mystery had once meant something to me, the incense, the hypnotic cadence of Latin, the tangerine and wine-dark light pouring through the clerestory windows, the entrancing hymns, the priest, his back to me mumbling the incarnation that would transubstantiate the bread to flesh. Now the Mass is all so clear, so forthright, so shared, so rote, and all the mystery is gone.

That first paragraph? Pretty much the opposite of my own needs. I used to perform with a gospel choir in Chicago fueled with testifyin's and Amens and people dancing until they were soaked in sweat and close to passing out. It was fascinating and entertaining. . .and distracting.

It wasn't for me, not as a regular diet. I don't like the sensation of being bullied or hectored into participation, even at concerts or parties, whether it's clapping along, shouting along, singing along, dancing along... At the same time, I understand that performers thrive on audience energy and feedback, so I try not to be a total toad about it. Context matters a lot: I'm fine joining in the yells during Jazzercise classes and can be embarrassingly vocal during bowl games. That said, please don't try to make me do the YMCA or chicken dance. I won't enjoy it and I will hold it against you.

I suppose what it boils down to is that I'm moody and particular when it comes to group activities, including worship. I don't "aspire to ecstasy" when it comes to community observance of the Sabbath; I tend to prefer my liturgy grounded and orderly and rooted, and to pursue spiritual highs on my own time and in my own space. If I weren't in the choir, I'd likely be alternating amongst First UU and temple and some variation of High-Church Episcopal much more often.

Here's the rub: I've never converted to Judaism or Christianity because doctrinally, there's not enough of a match, not even in the liberal movements. But - the very thing that pulls me toward their services are the rituals that doctrine built: the prayers have teeth and carry the weight of tradition. [1] Unitarian Universalism manages it sometimes, but there's also many a service that feels to me like a glorified neighborhood meeting or consciousness-raising circle. Which, doctrinally, is fine with me - community worship is a gathering of neighbors and a collective heightening of awareness, in my view - but, aesthetically, sometimes I crave a traditional seven-course dinner instead of the cafeteria approach. (Even though I think buffets are more workable for daily life, both literally and metaphorically, especially when you've got kids you want to bring to the table and acquaintances who'd be intimidated or repelled right out of the house if confronted with placecards and polished silver.)

Hm. I seem to be a writing an entry about this in spite of myself. I really do have to work on other things this morning, though, so just to complete the list: what also got me musing over worship was doing a search on "Creative Love, Our Thanks We Give" on the web, as a potential text for a calligraphy project. The hymnbook noted that it had been "adapted" from the original by William DeWitt Hyde, which mandated a search for the original lyrics (to satisfy both copyright and aesthetic concerns), which led me to an essay on Changing the Words - which was written by my choir director. Sigh. (Not about the essay, which was useful, but about its revelation that the adaptation was extensive. I needed to know this, but it also means I'm still looking for a suitable text.)

Last but not least, there's Naomi Chana's characteristically lucid and diverting exposition of her difficulties with choosing a synagogue (the guest comments are also worth a peruse).

In a different area of synchronicity, some of the conversations in Love Warps the Mind a Little reminded me of Dorothy Allison's essay about "Compassion" in the latest issue of Tin House: A dying mother asks Allison's older sister, "What do you think happens after death?" The daughter reluctantly but eventually admits:

"What I think is, if you were good to the people in your life, well then, you come back as a big dog. And..." Jo paused and tapped a finger on the bedframe. "If you were some evil son of a bitch, then you gonna come back some nasty little Pekingese."

Jo laughed then, a quick bark of a laugh. Mama joined in weakly. Then they were giggling together. "A Pekingese," Mama said. "Oh yes."

And one last quote, not directly related to any of the above, except that it too comes from the Dufresne novel, and I want to return it to the shelf:

We drank, watched the Sox get slaughtered by Baltimore, and start their inevitable slide to oblivion. You have to love them.

Nicky said, You can live to work or you can work to live. We sat in his room eating Vietnamese out of boxes and watching Andy of Mayberry and You'll Never Get Rich simultaneously. He said, Writing stories isn't frying fish. Give yourself another twenty years, he said. Write every day. Then, if no one wants your stories, give yourself another twenty years.

[1] An example: one of the responsive readings at Sunday's All Souls service at First UU was a May Sarton poem. Lovely and moving and appropriate - but, reading it aloud with the rest of the congregation, it didn't make me vibrate inside the way that uttering the Mourner's Kaddish within the sanctuary of Micah is able to do. And some of it is the cadence of the Hebrew, and some of it is knowing that many of the people in the room know the prayer by heart, and some of it is knowing that their parents and the parents of their parents also said this prayer, and some of it is simply the declarative power of the prayer.[1a] But all of that said, I wouldn't want to impose it on anyone uninterested or unprepared to praise the sovereignty of God - and that's why we read May Sarton and Mary Oliver poems at First UU instead, and some people still can't bring themselves to join in the group responses (a position I can totally sympathize with, of course).

[1a] And a tiny part of it is that there's an utterly beautiful setting of it by Salamone Rossi (1570-c.1630) I encountered years ago, so there's a trace of personal resonance as well.

It looks like "Creative Love, Our Thanks We Give" was on my mind one year ago, too.

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