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The Presence of the Holy: Worship That Works

On a Sunday morning in San Francisco, we were excited to discover the congregation and liturgy of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in the Portrero Hill neighborhood. We had heard that St. Gregory’s was known for its innovative liturgy, which had adapted and incorporated ancient Christian and Jewish practices. We were captivated by the “bells and smells” of their worship: the high liturgical vestments, the swinging of incense and censures, the complete attention given to involving all the senses in worship.

At one point in the service, a large, beautifully bound edition of the Bible was lifted up by the priest and paraded through the congregation, much as Jews do with the Torah. Everyone was invited to touch the Bible as it passed by or, if that was not possible, to touch the shoulder of someone who had touched the Bible. As the book wound through the throng, there was the sense of being part of a living stream of history and tradition. The action moved private and daily devotion to the Bible into a public act of worship and reverence. It was a clarifying moment, a moment when we felt especially moved to be in the presence of the holy.

At St. Gregory’s, the meaning and purpose of gathering was very clear from the beginning: to worship God. In many worship traditions, the meaning and purpose is made clear in every component of the service from beginning to end. In Unitarian Universalist (UU) church settings, that clarity often depends on the size of the congregation, but our perception is that what usually happens is something like this:

Members who know each other are talking among themselves inside and outside the worship space. People with clipboards are milling around asking you to sign this petition or join in on this project, committee, or cause. Some of this activity may spill over from the foyer or social hall into the sanctuary. Children are dashing to their classrooms. Parents are hurriedly trying to detach from their children and grab a cup of coffee before the service begins. They come into the service late, hoping to avoid announcements. A prelude is playing but no one is really listening; they are busy talking. The opening words of the service—often “Good morning!”—are the signal for some to come into the sanctuary. Finally, about ten minutes into the service, the last people have entered, settled themselves into their seats, and let go of enough of their lives to be open to what is happening in the service.

Whenever we attend a service that begins like that, Kathleen can’t help but think of her homiletics professor, who asked a class one day: “What’s the worst thing you can do in worship?” Kathleen has written about her response to hearing that question:

My mind was reeling. I could think of several things—forgetting my sermon, tipping over the chalice, delivering a terribly awkward prayer. The professor paused for a moment and then said, “Breaking the silence before the service with ‘Good morning.’” I was astonished. I thought, That’s what we do in every UU church I’ve ever attended. He continued: “People come together in worship to be reminded that they stand in the presence of the holy.”

The presence of the holy! We wonder how many members of Unitarian Universalist churches when asked why they came to worship, would respond: “To be in the presence of the holy.”

Actually, we suspect more than ever before. The word holy used to be one of those tricky words that you had to be prepared to defend with a precise definition before using it in a Unitarian Universalist church. Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, the last self-identified humanist to be elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, turned a corner for us in a report to our 1986 General Assembly. Schulz observed: “Reason is still a cherished standard in our religious repertoire, but reason is coming to be supplemented by our immediate apprehension of the holy and by our conviction that the holy is embodied in the abundance of a scarred creation.”

It wasn’t a definition of the holy, but it was an acknowledgement that the universe in which humanity dwells remains fundamentally mysterious to us, despite the many advances we have made towards understanding it. The “apprehension of the holy” is an experience that exists both in time and out of time, an experience where body and mind drop away and we have a sense of beauty, awe, and oneness with the world around us. Most people report having such singular and defining experiences, or less dramatic but more frequent experiences of holy moments.  They are experiences that transcend theology, for they confirm the faith of the believer and remind the nonbeliever that experiencing the holy is also part of being human.

We believe that the apprehension of the holy is an experience human beings have in common. Worship is a human activity located at the crossroads where the apprehension of the holy and the living of daily life meet. Insofar as the meaning of our lives can be transformed by the apprehension of the holy, such transformation will occur not because we understand those experiences but because we are able to embody them in our lives.

Worship experiences do seek to offer us answers to the questions about what our lives in this universe mean. For some religious traditions, the meaning is best understood through a defining narrative, such as the life and death of Jesus Christ. For others a singular story is not enough. The meaning is experienced as invisible to the eye, but resonant in our hearts. In both cases, the practice of liturgy is critical to tell the story or open the heart. The Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, John Daido Loori, says that the purpose of liturgy is “to make the invisible, visible.”

Next: We Covenant Together

For more information contact worshipweb @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 9, 2012.

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