La Sainte Chappelle in Paris, from Monks and Mermaids, a Benedictine blog
I’m up there in the pulpit in the middle of the sermon when the first car alarm goes off. The woman whose car it is doesn’t like to wear her hearing aids so she doesn’t notice it. I pretend not to. For some reason, one of the tenors in the choir thinks it’s his car and he makes his way out of the choir stall, treading over the other choristers’ feet, then across the uncarpeted side aisle, out of the sanctuary and into the parking lot.
Now another car alarm begins to go off. A second choir member decides it must be his car.
I keep preaching.
Then both alarms stop. Both men come back into the sanctuary, down the side aisle and noisily back into the choir loft. Mission accomplished. And I’ve only got a few more pages to go.
But then the car alarm goes off again. It’s the same car alarm that had gone off the first time and the tenor now recognizes that it hadn’t been his alarm that had gone off before. Somehow he’s figured out that it’s the car belonging to the woman who doesn’t like to wear her hearing aids.
So the tenor decides it’s a good idea to go tell her about it. But just as he is stepping down from the choir loft again, the second car alarm starts up again. And this time a third car alarm goes off. It’s like a parking lot full of wailing toddlers—it only takes one to set them all off.
I see the tenor walking toward the woman who doesn’t like her hearing aids. Then a man in a red tie gets up from about halfway back in the pews. He thinks one of those alarms is his. He makes his way out of the sanctuary to the door into the church foyer. Then I see a woman sitting toward the front. She’s been holding her baby, but now she hands the baby off to her husband and sprints after the man going to the back of the sanctuary. Suddenly it all seems like a football play, the two of them setting up an offensive formation. I expect the husband to lob the baby into the choir loft. Whatever happens, I hope it’s a completed pass.
Meanwhile, the tenor has made it over to the pew where the woman who doesn’t like her hearing aids is sitting. She is looking up at me with a rapt smile. So she jumps in surprise when the tenor stands at her shoulder and tries to tell her about the car alarm. It’s easy to see she’s confused. I find out later she hadn’t even realized she had a security alarm in her car. So naturally she would have had no idea how to turn it off even if she had heard it.
She gets up slowly, a little stiffly and she and the tenor join the others going into the parking lot. After a bit we hear the car alarms turn off, one by one. Then the man in the red tie, the tenor, the young mother and the woman who hates her hearing aids, each of them holding their car keys, come back to their pews. I keep right on preaching, now just a half-a-page away from the ‘Amen.’
“Rabbi, what can we learn from the sound of a car alarm?”
“That what you need to hear is not always what you are listening for.”
*** *** ***
If you can’t have a religious experience when you enter the upper chamber of La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, you must have your eyes squeezed shut.
Floor to ceiling, on all sides, blood-red, azure-blue and citrine-gold stained glass tells the story of characters from the Bible in scenes stacked one on top of the other like Chinese ideographs.
But the religious experience doesn’t come from the stories portrayed--I’ve been to Sainte Chapelle twice and can’t remember a thing about the narratives in the glass. The religious experience is in the light pouring through the glass. It’s like you are inside a jewel, walking through nearly liquid, shifting, simmering colors. It’s synesthetic: you are the colors. You move within the essence of the thing so that being and seeing are the same experience—except that you don’t need to think about it or talk about it the way I am trying to. You just know it. Alchemy at work.
For me, designing a worship service is the practice of alchemy. You’re never told that in seminary, of course. Everybody knows alchemy is a fake science, the science of pagans, a vestige of magic, a medieval trifle. Alchemy is the stuff of a Donovon song—summoning Atlantis.
Whatever. For me, designing a worship service is practicing alchemy.
There is no way to measure someone’s experience of God. So instead of relying on the barometer of reason, worship services are made to appeal to something in addition to our conscious minds: the senses—the aroma of candles and wine, the taste of the bread, the sound of the organ and the people singing, the closeness at the communion rail. A good worship service incorporates and heightens all five senses, even as it follows an ancient and largely unvarying order:
First we gather, singing.
Then we read passages from the Bible, always one from the Hebrew scriptures—the Old Testament, as Christians persist in calling it. Then comes the Psalm—sung or chanted. After that comes a reading from the letters that make up the bulk of the New Testament. These letters tend to be problem-specific, written to address particular concerns that have arisen in the house-churches of first-century Christendom. The fundamentalists—and conservative politicians--would have you believe this is directly applicable to our world today. I still think we’re expected to use our brains. But call me a radical if you need to.
Then comes a reading from one of the four gospels, each of them different versions of the same events in Jesus’ life. The gospels are like accident reports written for the insurance company—one driver sees it this way, and another driver sees the same event slightly differently. What’s true? In the end, whatever the insurance company says is true.
After the readings and the sermon come the Prayers of the People.
Different kinds of prayers are sprinkled throughout the service and most of them are based on ancient forms. Only the Prayers of the People, successive snippets to which the congregation responds with something like, ‘hear our prayer,’ address our specific, current realities.
These prayers cover everything—social justice concerns, the state of the world, personal anguishes and hopes. They are a laundry list of our hopes that God will make us stronger, better people in a stronger, better world.
But the most heartfelt parts come when the petitions deal with personal trials. It’s here that we end up pleading with God to heal the sick and comfort the sorrowing, to help those who are addicted or in bad relationships, or feeling alienated or depressed, or any number of the awful things we experience as humans. It’s in these parts of the prayer that we’re asking God to intercede and give us a break from the pain we, or those for whom we pray, are experiencing.
It saddens me that so much of prayer centers on asking for a respite from life.
People will tell you that the brilliant thing about Christianity was that, in Jesus, God became human, just the same as all of us, and was able to feel all human suffering, just the same as all of us. And isn’t that great, they’ll say? It means God knows just what it is like when we suffer.
But personally, sometimes I think that is the coldest, saddest kind of comfort. Yes, it’s good to have a God who suffers with us—shared sorrow is halved sorrow and all that, as my Danish maiden aunt assured me. But I don’t think we really want God to share our suffering; I think we want God to inoculate us against suffering, to vanquish the power of suffering each and every time it finds us.
But we know full well that that does not happen. So sometimes as we pray I think the real Prayers of the People are the ones not being said aloud, when words really do fail us. Who can really tell what God’s will for us is, anyway? Or if there really is such a thing as God’s will? Is it the will of God that we suffer? I just don’t believe that. But we do suffer. Sometimes—often?--God is distant, strangely silent. So we end up making excuses for God for allowing the world to be as it truly is.
These are things I never say to the people of the congregations I’ve served, things I believe I should never say. My call to serve is about upholding faith in a merciful and benevolent God. I was not called in order to be a rationalist, a realist, a pessimist, an atheist, an agnostic. I was not called in order to break down the paper walls of hope we raise against the winds of misery. We hang a picture of Jesus on those paper walls. We hang a cross. What priest or shaman has a right to ransack hope? I don’t. And in fact, I talk of hope all the time. Because I, too, hang a palm-leaf cross on my paper walls of hope. I, too, want a magic God who will make my house of cards a mansion of stone.
And so we stand together, ‘beggars before God’, as Luther called human beings.
What follows next is the heart of every service, Holy Communion. The sharing of bread—usually Styrofoam-style wafers—and wine is bracketed with prayers. But it is that act of eating and drinking together that is so powerful. And even after all these years and with all my disillusionment about the church, this is one of the most intense experiences I regularly have in my life.
When I hand out the papery discs of mystery and hope we call the body of Christ, I touch each hand. I look into each pair of eyes. It is as intimate as anything I know. At that moment it feels as if I am able to love genuinely and without a filter almost everyone who reaches out their hand and lets me touch it with the scrap of processed parchment we call flesh. It is my flesh and their flesh that are touching. The wafer is a kind of intermediary maybe, the excuse that lets us touch, the reason that gives us permission to kneel, to nod Amen. Because when I put the wafer into upturned, uplifted hands I also get to look into the faces of those receiving it.
Here is humanity gathered, kneeling--old and young, infirm and whole. Everyone is close together, so close together their shoulders touch. They are reaching out their hands. Their faces give their hearts away. Sometimes they smile. Other times their eyes glaze with tears. Sometimes they bow their heads and only notice that they have received the wafer when they feel my hands place it into theirs.
Who could really describe what is happening?
It’s not about me. Or them. It’s about us—the three of us: me, the person I touch and that which is unseen between us, somehow dissolving the particularity of failings and sins and grudges, replacing all that with something invisible and unspoken, even as I speak the words that are supposed to say it all: This is the body of Christ.