Summertime Notes of a Liturgical Junkie

2014-07-22 10.40.33Four Services Worth Writing Home About.

Mormon Service: An “International Ward” in Western Europe. (No, this picture to the left is not of a Mormon chapel, alas. It’s just an action shot to suggest what being a LJ might involve.)

Up on the podium, the bishop is a Wasatch-Front-origined temporary-resident white Anglonavian Mormon, as is one of the councilors, while the other is a recently-immigrated black African Mormon.

The main congregational constituents not represented in the bishopric are the old-time local converts, who now occupy a mere quarter of the pews they used to dominate, and whose once unchallenged language is now only sometimes heard and then always translated into English.

A little more than a quarter of the congregation is of the Wasatch-Front-origined-temporary-resident-Anglonavian persuasion, while a little less than half are recent immigrants from Africa, the overall geographical-origin breakdown being pretty easy to figure out thanks to what is said by whom in what language during the assorted meetings, and to assorted conversations during and after said meetings, and to the surely unofficial but still striking seating arrangement which finds most of the locals and temporary residents in the front half of the chapel and most of the recent immigrants in the back.

All of which matters here not as some sort of reductionist descriptors of complicated individual human beings but as general sociological backdrop for the meeting’s one liturgical moment of note (unless you count the churchmouse-quiet prelude music), which occurs about two-thirds through, when three teenaged girls, apparently sisters, walk from the back half of the congregation up to the microphone, in-between two pretty ho-hum talks, to sing a very non-ho-hum song.

They start in, without accompaniment, on “Amazing Grace,” which isn’t something you hear every week at an Anglonavian-style Mormon-service anyway, but certainly not the way they sing it. The first verse is familiar enough, and the voices and harmonies are terrific, but starting with the second verse all familiarity goes out the window as they throw their heads back and close their eyes and smile and start moving from side to side and turn the volume up and REALLY sing.

Simultaneously the backs and expressions of adult Anglonavians in my considerable sightline spontaneously stiffen (here’s where the general sociological descriptors have a little meaning), including most notably those of the bishop and his Anglonavian councilor, all of which I know not just because of my excellent vantage point halfway back on the side, but because I involuntarily stiffen up too, all of us Anglonavians adding some 3 inches to our previous record-setting maximum sitting-heights, plus some even whiter shades of pale to our faces. Even though I go to a lot of different services in all sorts of churches and hear all sorts of things, it’s just so unfamiliar in the Mormon settings I’m used to.

But at the very moment certain leaderly bodies and souls go spontaneously stiff, those of the recently immigrated councilor spontaneously loosen, and just like the girls his head goes back and his eyes close and his mouth smiles and he moves slightly side to side, right from his cushioned chair, which loosening stands out even more than it ordinarily might given the stark contrast with the stiff-bodied wide-eyed fellows right next to him. Many of the people in the back half of the congregation are smiling and moving too.

When the sisters at last bring the many verses to a dramatic close, most of the front half of the congregation relaxes with a “finally!” sigh of relief, but only for a nanosecond, because at almost exactly the same moment most of the rear half bursts into spontaneous applause, mortifying assorted Anglonavians, including the Sister missionaries next to me who drop their heads into their hands, all of which makes me almost burst out laughing. There’s pure joy in that applause, and just about the whole back half of the congregation enthusiastically congratulates the sisters with hugs and smiles and laughter before they can even sit down, and then again when the meeting is done. I join in the after-meeting-congratulating of the sisters too but feel like a total wannabe.

Nothing wrong with Anglonavian-style worship, of course, especially if you like dull. But nothing wrong with other styles either. The only thing wrong is thinking that your particular style is “normal” and “culturally neutral” or even “culturally transcendent”—or maybe more specifically thinking that the real, absolute, and exclusive meaning of “reverence” is “being quiet and never ever moving or clapping in church unless you have special permission.”

WesterkerkReformed Service: The Historic (as in 1631 and Beautiful) Westerkerk in Amsterdam. The straight rectangular shape lets you know this was a church built specifically for Reformed worship, rather than one of the many cross-shaped multi-aisled formerly-Catholic churches the Reformed shoe-horned their new style of worship into. This new style was all about preaching, which put the pulpit front and center, which worked a whole lot better in a rectangular or octagonal church than a cross-shaped multi-aisled one.

And what a seventeenth-century front-and-center pulpit this one is, set way up high against a pillar, in beautifully carved wood, and replete with a huge wooden sound board right above it to dampen the echoing made by centuries of non-microphoned preachers.

The jam-packed audience seated in movable chairs on the vast floor rises to sing a Psalm as a couple of elders (both male) accompany the preacher (female) to the raised area just beneath the pulpit. Seated in the front row are the remaining elders (including some women), plus about six deacons (including one woman). Seated on the stand are ten or so children.

When the opening Psalm ends, everyone sits, the preacher greets everyone, makes a few comments, and everyone sings another Psalm. She then introduces the theme of the day, and speaks with the children for several minutes before their teachers escort them out for their own child-level services in another room.

The adult-level service is a series of prayers, Bible-readings, brief comments, and sermon, with a whole lot of music in between. In fact the most striking thing to historian me is that despite all the present and historical emphasis on spoken words, and the impressively thoughtful sermon, the music part of the service has actually snuck up and taken over. Thanks be to God. (Which I say not out of anything against the Reformed style of worship per se, but out of my hopeless bias in favor of music [and art] over most spoken words, of any denomination, just about any day.)

The organist is p.h.e.n.o.m.e.n.a.l, and surely is using more than two hands and two feet up there behind the pipes where you can’t see him. Which makes me almost start laughing (why am I the only one cracking up?), because even though Reformed churches (spanking new or adapted) had organs in them from the 1570s on, up until about 1650 preachers insisted that they not be played during services—only before and after. And so the idea of an organ playing practically throughout the service, and playing so overwhelmingly at that, would have made some of the preachers buried right under these stones turn over in their graves.

See, as far as preachers were concerned, organs were totally worldly, even devil-ly, “enticing people to lustful thoughts of the flesh instead of sighing to God about their sins.” Which again is hilarious because a) organs have come to be seen as the obviously normal and timeless and even reverential instrument of choice in Christian worship, and b) it seemed pretty obvious that the preachers were mostly worried that heaven forbid people might (almost certainly) rather hear music (or look at pictures) than listen to really long sermons, especially when local Amsterdam guys like Jan Sweelinck were at the keyboard(s) (and registers and pedals).

Even though Reformed preachers pretty much managed to keep out pictures for good, almost a century of really bad Psalm-singing finally convinced them to allow organs during worship too, just like Lutherans and Catholics already did. Because without an organ, Reformed people sang the Psalms not only in the translation of their choice, but the tune of their choice too, which various observers compared to warbling, hoarse birds trying to outdo each other.

But a mighty organ covers a multitude of vocal sins—what you mostly hear instead is a symphony of powerful yet intricate sounds. Still, singing along with all that doesn’t really negate your pathetic little contribution but instead pulls you along, even makes you feel like you’re an absolutely crucial sine-qua-non part of this fantastic and yes worshipful music-making. Even if you’re probably not.

Of course it helps to have a p.h.e.n.o.m.e.n.a.l organ too, which this church does—two in fact: one big one for show pieces (like Psalms), and one simpler one for accompanying soloists and choirs, meaning the organist has to climb down from his perch and walk over to the simpler organ at the other end of the church (and back), but that’s okay, because watching a really ordinary-looking guy in a tweed coat come down from on high and walk back and forth between organs is something like watching Oz: at first it’s a disappointment he’s so small and ordinary but then seeing someone that small and ordinary doing something that great actually gives you hope.

Did I say soloists?

The breaks between the good but mostly forgettable spoken words (alas, the preachers were right) are filled not only with six of seven sung Psalms but on some Sundays with pieces from someone like this mezzo-soprano who is sending notes by Bach and Vivaldi and Schubert heavenward today, and the beauty and sublimity and ethereality of her voice in that fantastic mostly stone space do not detract from worship, as the thinking in some anti-serious-music-in-church circles goes, but adds to it, just like the organ. Somehow really fine music reaches something beautiful and holy you didn’t know was there, or usually forget is there until you hear it again, and it pulls you along just like singing the Psalms does.

2014-07-18 11.29.38And all this playing and speaking in a heavenly hour and fifteen, by the way, shorter than the old days, when preachers would just ignore or even turn over the hourglass that had been set conspicuously on the pulpit in order to limit their sermons.

Oh there’s nothing wrong with folksy worship too, and letting a lot of ordinary people work up their singing and speaking and playing skills. But there are a few things worth thinking about here: like the virtue of really loud organs, and stone instead of sheetrocked walls, and serious instead of off-the-cuff preparation of talks and music, and even letting little kids leave right after “opening exercises” (requiring some adults to leave too, of course, but getting the little kids started sooner would be all the more reason to make total time at church more like 2 hours instead of 3).

Catholic Service: Easter Vigil at the Very Ordinary Parish Church of Kessel-lo, Belgium (as in 19th-Century Non-Memorable Neo-Gothic Dark Brick). If you’ve been to the Easter Vigil service, you know what’s coming, but even if you do the high point is still worth repeating.

Suburbs of Catholic Europe are littered with neo-Gothic sort of blobs thrown up quickly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to accommodate the growing crowds moving out of the countryside into towns. Most don’t exactly inspire, despite their derivation from real and totally inspiring Gothic. Maybe it’s how fast they went up, maybe it’s that new times need new styles. But when I go with my friend Eddy and his family to this particular spilling-into-the-aisles Easter Vigil, this usually non-inspiring place has suddenly become magical.

Most of the songs and words are still gloomy, brooding over the events of the day before (Good Friday), and the darkened lights only add to the gloom. Then suddenly the first glimmer of hope appears, in the form of candles that are now passed around, while a song is sung.

A few people holding lit candles light the candles held by neighbors, who in turn light candles of their neighbors, and pretty soon the entire gigantic church is filled with hundreds and maybe a thousand flickers of light, and it is astonishingly beautiful even inside this ordinarily humdrum neo- rather than truly-Gothic space.

You somehow sense when every last candle has started to flicker, which happens right about when the song ends, at which point there is a moment of collective silence, and the candles are set down, and then the clapping begins, building and rolling from back to front and back again, over and over, for what seems like many minutes, and there is nothing like Gothic space—even neo-Gothic space—for rolling sound, especially sound as joyous as this.

The clapping feels as worshipful and reverent as anything you’ve ever felt. Which is when you realize that just as there are many attitudes possible in singing or talking, well maybe in clapping too, just as you learned from the singing sisters, and from any dictionary, where “being quiet and never ever clapping” is not even close to one of the given definitions of “reverent,” but instead only things like 1) a feeling of profound awe and respect and often love, and 2) an act showing respect, especially a bow or curtsy, and 3) the state of being revered, and such.

All of which this sort of clapping decidedly is. Sure, one little whoop or holler would ruin the whole thing, no doubt about it, but no one seems the least bit inclined to do that.

DSCN2575Lutheran Service: The Medieval Church of Simtuna Parish, Sweden. I see up at the front the thirteenth-century stone baptismal font in which my great-grandparents baptized their five oldest children (the last two even after my GGs had converted to Mormonism), before emigrating to Utah in 1891. Up front is also a classic doctrinally-correct altarpiece of Jesus on the cross, from 1797, which my GGs surely saw too during their years here.Sweden 1375

But what they didn’t see was the best part: stunning medieval paintings on the ceiling and walls. As in many Swedish churches, those were whitewashed in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries and only uncovered in the 1950s. They weren’t whitewashed for the same primary reason a Reformed church was (principled objection to images), but for a secondary Reformed reason (distracting people from the spoken word, of course). And they were also whitewashed for the same reason even image-loving Catholics started whitewashing walls: the medieval images were old-fashioned, and simple-minded, and embarrassing, and of course doctrinally dubious. Better instead to hang on the newly-white walls tasteful and doctrinally-safe images in gigantic frames.

DSCN2561The service’s many many notes and many many words (for very very few people) are something of a mix between Reformed and Catholic styles: a little more ritual than Reformed, a little more singing and preaching than Catholic. But it’s the art that’s standing out here, and that I (alas) am paying most attention to. Sure, maybe it distracts from the sermon even more than the music does, but if you’re a visual learner maybe that’s the best way for you to get a little closer to heaven.

To paraphrase Paul, “And now abideth word, music, and art, these three: but the greatest of these is art.” At least for a visual learner like me, or thee.

Especially this sort of art. One of the great-kept secrets of the church-visiting world is all the fantastic wall-painted medieval churches in non-churchgoing Sweden. Most of the great ones aren’t in big city churches but out in the countryside, where most people lived for so long.

Sweden 2158These rural churches didn’t follow the usual mother-hen arrangement elsewhere, with the church set in the middle of a village. Rural living in Sweden was (and still is) organized more in hamlets of four or five houses than many dozens or hundreds. So the parish church was more like a lonely rooster, out in the middle of a field somewhere close to the parish’s geographical center, with maybe a house or three nearby.

2014-07-22 12.23.18This might help explain why Swedish churches can sometimes feel a little sad, at least the ones that show up in an Ingmar Bergman is-this-the-part-where-I-kill-myself movie. But this standing-alone also makes them unusually easy to see, and attractive. And if they have some nice medieval wall-paintings, then they’re not even close to sad but come alive.

Maybe the paintings in Simtuna, from the 1450s, aren’t quite as fine as those in the 20 or so nearby churches done in the 1480s by the more famous Albert Pictor. But they are fresher, thanks to the recent restorations supported by the Swedish government, and of course they are in the church of my great-grandparents, so I like them plenty. And the most interesting and yes spiritually moving things about all such paintings are precisely the naivete and doctrinal edginess that so many later generations came to despise.

Sweden 166How could those later generations have objected, you wonder, to some of the biblical scenes depicted here or in a Pictor church, like Jonah practically diving into the mouth of a big fish, or Jesus being crucified? They seem faithful enough to the text, and so they must have been just aesthetically offensive.

Sweden 160But there’s plenty else that probably offended in every way, starting with assorted images and characters that maybe seemed to have nothing to do with true religion—like the guy up on a big wheel, or the hunter blowing a horn and going after some rabbits, except in the next scene the hunter has been tied up by the same rabbits to a pole and is about to meet a violent death at their hands. But to medieval minds that didn’t so easily separate real life from religion, those were no doubt highly religious messages—i.e., the big wheel was a wheel of fortune which you might one day be up on and another day down, while the hunter’s nasty story reminds you of the same thing in a less gently metaphoric way.

2014-07-18 11.23.16Probably also offensive to later sensibilities were the (in retrospect) so obviously transitory ideas and assumptions, about reality and doctrine and decency, like the endless assistant demons and nymphs and other mythical creatures, which many at the time considered to be absolutely real but which later generations might not have. Or like what they and various crucial characters were wearing (or not) at certain crucial moments in Christian history.2014-07-22 10.36.24 But that’s precisely what is so interesting and moving about the “old-fashioned” ideas: not just to see how earlier people imagined the world and the heavens, but to make you reflect that your particular ideas and senses of reality might be just as transitory.

It’s a humbling thought, that. Which of my own surely rock-solid ideas and assumptions will later generations consider mythical and quaint? But then I also think, well if they have to change I guess I’d rather have them depicted in some quirky and interesting fashion, like here, than in some composite and safe one that may very well prove transitory too. Err boldly and all that. And I’d probably rather run the risk of erring than of not having them depicted at all in order to avoid erring. If no idiosyncratic ideas flourish, then there won’t be any good ones that survive.

DSCN2572Another liturgical thing that stands out in the Simtuna church is the coffee area for after the service—right inside the church itself, in the transept, rather than in a non-cultural cultural hall. If this were a Reformed church, this area could even double as the venue for Communion, and fittingly too, because after all what is a coffee-time or even all-out Swedish smörgåsbord but a spiritual gathering? Communion in the ancient church started out as a full meal, not a symbolic one, because eating together is always a sort of holy act of fellowship, and eating together with Jesus-believed-to-be-present is an act of even holier fellowship. No reason a meal area couldn’t be part of a modern church too, I suppose, just like in the ancient church, which practically invented the church pot-luck supper. At least if the Swedes didn’t.

2014-07-18 11.34.37One last liturgical thing worth mentioning: the pews. Swedish pews are so unspeakably tidy and comfort-giving to someone like me that I really don’t know how to speak it. They’re just so cozy, not to mention beautifully painted, just like the many Swedish farms around the countryside. I could also see how that level of coziness and orderliness might also feel restricting at times, but right now it feels mostly reassuring, and that you belong.

Alas, I’ve just about missed all the words and even musical notes looking around today like this, I have to admit. But I’m not sure I’m any worse off for it. Those paintings are every bit as moving as a fine organ, and certainly as a sermon.

2014-07-22 10.13.45The Big Short Conclusion. If the main point of liturgy (and religion) is to help you feel the presence of God (and maybe it’s not, but I’m just assuming here that it is), and thus to get some direction and nerve for real life, then maybe it doesn’t matter much how that happens. Maybe for some people fellowship helps that happen better than art, music, and word do. In fact, if you can experience God with no fancy art, music, and words, then I wholeheartedly applaud you (with permission). But if in your weakness you are helped along by such things, and if they even add to your sense of fellowship and belonging, then how nice it might be to have a little more, especially if they don’t really matter to some others.

8 comments for “Summertime Notes of a Liturgical Junkie

  1. Very nice article.

    Our Lutheran liturgy is designed to keep us centered on the finished work of Christ for us sinners, the ungodly, lest we start down the road of getting ourselves in the act of trying to clean ourselves up.

    And it helps to keep us counter-cultural, so we don’t end up like so many churches that have let people who don’t care about the church, redefine the church.

    Thanks, very much.

  2. I enjoyed your description of the “international” ward. I attend a small ward in Western Europe which also has a high percentage of “internationals”. The language of the ward is the local official language of the territory, but English and sometimes French or Russian or Spanish act as languages of communication among the members. Sacrament is interpreted into English as a matter of course, and in the last three years we’ve had several talks in English, one in Russian, and one in Spanish.

    One week we had three teenage sisters whose parents are from Africa sing Amazing Grace as intermezzo. It was the highlight of the meeting. The Spirit was very strong and several members wept quietly during the rendition. Another Sunday we had an Armenian sister sing Via Dolorosa (she sang in English and Spanish). I found both of these expressions of worship very compelling.

    I think that if you sing these type of songs in a spirit of worship, they are as acceptable to God as anything that is to be found in the approved LDS hymnbook. In that sense, they can be powerful instruments to help us feel God’s presence.

    (To be clear, I am not criticizing the hymnbook. I think it’s a beautiful compilation, in whatever language, and we are blessed to have it.)

  3. Thanks theoldadam. Gabriel, sounds like we might have been at the same service. Or maybe they’re in big demand in various places.

  4. When I walk in a Utah ward I enter a cinderbrick cell to listen to a conservative hymn mostly sung a half beat to slow. Nothing for the eye or ear. I am told that the service is for the mind and heart, but little space is given to the former as over compensation of the latter is thought to be the proper way to think. I am reminded very often in such circumstances that the ward is where I work,and the temple is where I worship.

  5. I spent many of the weekends of my 14th year looking at cathedrals in and around Germany. This pretty much ruined me for Mormon architecture. In college I discovered good choral music, and the wreck was complete.

    (which is to say–thanks for this, Craig.)

  6. Our Swiss ward is a mishmash of German, Swiss German, French, English, Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, Sign Language, Filipino, and Portuguese speakers… and whoever else the missionaries happen to bring to church on Sunday. It is beautiful, and I do not miss huge sacrament meetings in the western US at all. Thanks for the peek at your Sunday adventures, Craig.

  7. I loved this so much, Craig! It reminded me of many of my own liturgical experiences around the world, in Mormon and non-Mormon churches.

    The Spirit speaks many languages. Hearing it in a language with which I am unfamiliar (whether spoken or otherwise) always enriches my religious experience.

  8. Thanks for comments, all, especially mention of how plenty of this this isn’t so far off from your own experiences….

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