Comment Worth Foregrounding
'Thank you for this statement. I have this question: Is it possible, in your view, for a parish through care in liturgy and teaching and embrace of silence to portray itself as a "contemplative congregation"? A priest has asked a friend for some comments on the marks of a contemplative congregation.'
Thank you for your very interesting and very tricky question which, to do it justice, would require a whole book for reflection.
From where I sit, your question begins with two contradictory (not paradoxical) parts, and then has a third part, about the marks of such a congregation..
1) 'is it possible...for a parish through care in liturgy and embrace of silence [to focus on beholding]' and
2) 'to portray itself as a "contemplative congregation".'
Let me respond to the second part first. As long as a congregation is worrying about its self-image or how it 'portrays' itself, it's going in the wrong direction. Contemplation, and the spiritual maturity it fosters, are about self-forgetfulness. Contemplation is coterminous with humility: if you think you've got it, you haven't even begun. So one sign of a congregation embarked on seeking to behold is that it will be modest and effacing about any claims it makes for itself; and what it says about its practice and the effects of that practice will always be provisional—precisely because spiritual pride is ever with us.
Now for the first part of the question: the short answer is emphatically yes; the focus of every congregation should be beholding—I'm not using the word 'contemplative' because it's surrounded these days by so much kitsch and hype, and is misunderstood.
The first requirement is purity of heart, single-heartedness. The goal is to behold for beholding's sake (I won't use the word 'God' because beholding is without object), to help one another find and live from that interior wellspring.
Of course, everyone is in a different 'place'. To move in this direction will be easiest for those who have never tried it (or thought they have never tried it). In addition, there always will be people who want the bells and whistles, signs and wonders, which are most emphatically not contemplation. Congregations are always a very mixed bag. However, the congregation can be brought to focus from wherever they are simply by the presence of people who are already trying to root their lives in silence. It's a process of presence far more than a 'programme', although there are many practical ways in which a congregation's engagement with silence can be enhanced.
Let me give you an example. At the grammar school I attended, all that the assistant headmistress had to do to start morning assembly was to stand up. She was not religious, as far as I know, but she had great interior silence. She was a small woman, not a flashy dresser (or flashy in any sense), but simply the act of standing silently in front of the noisy, heaving mass of several hundred writhing, chatting, laughing children had an almost instantaneous effect: everyone would fall silent and hush any others who were still twitching. This was not a 'technique'; it was simply who she was. No one ever gave us rules for this procedure, or told us what was going on, or announced before hand: it simply happened. It was, as you can imagine, hugely impressive, and I have never forgotten it.
Ideally, this shift should take place organically, a few people being, by their presence, the leaven in the lump. However, for a shift that is so drastic and against the cultural norms, a parish meeting where this re-focussing towards silence could be discussed is probably a must, if it is minimised. There are a lot of simple things that can be done: arranging service times so there is no rush to finish the liturgy; encouraging people to be silent when entering the church; cutting down the quantity of words in the liturgy; editing out conflicting theologies, especially the breast-beating, miserable sinner stuff, which is not part of Eucharistic origins, and especially not after an absolution has already taken place!
At the beginning of this blog there is a full-blown catechetical rite and some suggestions as to how it might be adapted for weekly use. Simplicity, beauty, effacement, silence: these are the key words for good liturgy. The Word should be allowed to fall on the ear without announcement or explanation. You can have as much silence as you like—the catechetical rite takes 4 or 5 hours. The key is that people will be as comfortable with silence as the person leading the rite is comfortable with silence. This pretty much eliminates control freaks, for one of the keys to comfort with silence is a willingness to be open to whatever will happen after the basic (minimal) framework has been established. Find a rite that works and stick with it for a space of time so that it becomes second nature. If necessary, have a different service for people who aren't yet ready for so much silence—but such a service should prepare the less mature congregation for the more silent one.
Ideally, there should be a group of people who will undertake the arduous work of restoring the readings to something like what the originals say. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog, ALL the modern translations of the bible are wanting, not only because they are done with no ear to poetry and rhythm and in consequence are almost impossible to read aloud; but far more importantly, because all the contemplative threads have been edited out, as evidenced in the missing word 'behold' in modern translations such as the NRSV. This committee could meet and go over the readings (probably a month ahead, as this sort of process needs two or three revisions with reflection in between so the words can sound in the heart) using interlinear bibles, and tools such as Great Treasures, all of which are online, restoring the word 'behold' as well as the read-aloud rhythms necessary to get the text across. And being alert to institutional fudges, such as the word 'world' for 'system' in John 14:17. This sounds ambitious, but it can be done.
In addition, the readings can be shortened and there should be plenty of time between them: better to have only part of a reading and to have it read well and have time for silence afterwards than to do the full reading. (Morning and Evening prayer (especially the latter) can usefully be cut in half to allow for more silence: the psalms, one reading, one canticle, with prayers—but five-minute intervals of silence between each element.) People need to be taught how to read aloud: to read slowly, very slowly, but not artificially slowly (although it may feel so at first), allowing each word or phrase enough time to sound in the silence. They should come through the reader, not have the reader putting his or her own emphasis on: reading in church is the opposite of dramatic reading. If you are reading correctly in church you will feel the words taking on their own power and speaking through you in the context of an enormous silence; the reader's only job is to get out of the way.
People will ask about children: children will behave as their parents and those around them behave: if they sense silence, they will be silent. Go to any Orthodox church on Sunday and see how many children and babies are present for the 2-3 hour liturgy. And most of them are silent. When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, the children either had their own liturgy—and it was a regular liturgy, complete with small altar, candlesticks, psalms, hymns, not some trendy, chirpy kindergarten thing, but simplified and instructional—or else they were with the rest of the congregation. They were ALWAYS with the congregation at the monthly Eucharist (in those days—the 40s and 50s— the parish Eucharist had not yet been established). Just to be present at the Eucharist and hear the King James bible and the beautiful words of the 1928 (modified 1662) Prayer Book was formative for me.
I would ponder words I didn't understand, or words that were used in a way I didn't understand. It didn't matter that my family was such that I could never discuss religion with them (they went to church for political reasons) or that there was no one else I could talk to—in that respect I was very, very lucky, because there was no one to put restrictions on what I thought. I longed to take Communion. It was very important to me when I was confirmed (how important I never let my parents know), even though the instruction was enough to put anyone off.
Also in those days people had a lot more respect for everything—an age of innocence, perhaps, that is gone forever: one simply didn't talk in church. Nor did one applaud. There was also a lot more unspoken pressure about dress: hats and gloves were mandatory, homburgs for men and understated hats (often with nose veils) for women! Of course the dress concern can be carried to an extreme, and the hats and gloves requirement would be silly today in a lot of places in the USA, but the point is that going to church was not just another social occasion in a lifetime of social occasions (this was Washington, DC): one's dress was a sign of respect for what we were about to do together—a paradox, perhaps, that we took trouble over how we looked in order to learn to forget ourselves, even if no one in those days would have ever expressed it that way. This was a kind of Episcopal church that no longer exists. I often wish there were modern signs of respect that flowed naturally for us; I look at the courtesies of the Jane Austen era with envy, the tiny curtsey, the slight formal bow—wrong for us, sadly; we have lost so much.
Yes, of course, people should be encouraged to have silence integrated into their ordinary lives, and even to get together during the week for silent prayer, but it should be exactly that: a space prepared, people come in silence, settle themselves, the door is closed; the time is begun and ended with a sweet gong, and people leave in silence—no reading, no discussion, nothing but the silence. But again, this is a re-orienting of ordinariness, not taking on something exotic.
There should be bible study that reads the bible for its silences. What I mean by that is looking for the ways in which a particular passage points to silence, or talks about silence, however parabolically—God's silence, our silence, practical silence, environmental silence, the silence of the holy of holies—or points beyond itself. For example, 'who loses their life shall gain it' is short-hand for stilling the self-conscious mind to be open to what may arise from the deep mind.
It is imperative to avoid the demon of so-called 'spiritual direction'; this movement in my view is the most destructive movement in Christianity since fundamentalism. It is divisive; it sets up new hierarchies and cliques; it is counter-productive as it only makes the congregation more self-conscious and narcissistic. There are plenty of resources around in terms of books, and there will be people in the congregation to whom others will naturally go for a word, but it should be very informal, very low key, best done over a cup of coffee as part of an ordinary friendship. The minute it is made special in any way, it's self defeating. Spiritual growth is something that can't be manipulated, or taught; it takes place mostly in solitude, and is encouraged by friendship, not dominance: we're all in this together. People who think they are going nowhere are often, if not usually, in a very good place! And the whole point is to learn to listen, deeply, to whatever is going on: there is always a Word to be had in any given moment, if you know how to listen, and it does not always or even often come from a person.
These are only a few suggestions.
Congregations are only as mature as the solitudes that make them up.
Of course there are times in parish life for noisy celebration, for pulling out all the stops, and so forth, but if the congregation has a basic orientation towards silence, not only will such celebrations be more fun; after some time the character of these festivities will change indefinably. They'll be even better, more meaningful.
Signs that a congregation is going in the right direction:
first of all, you will feel it as soon as you walk into the church building, even if it is empty.
Next, everything the congregation does will be low-key, outwardly oriented. People will have more respect for each other. Each person in the congregation is a God-bearer. People respond in kind to the way they're treated: if they're regarded as stupid and infantile, if they are patronised and talked down to, they will tend to behave in an infantile way: their minds will shut down and they will be unconfident of doing anything on their own.
Another sign is an atmosphere of gentle and easy self-restraint—Joseph Conrad said that civilisation is characterised by restraint. This is not repression, but a reserve that says there's something precious here, not to be lightly used or spoken of, a silent ground note or organ point to the activities of everyday life. People will become increasingly reluctant to 'let it all hang out' while at the same time becoming more human and more humane. People will become less concerned about their self-image and more compassionate and concerned for the welfare of others. The congregation will come to realise that the people they ordinarily think of as marginal, either among themselves or newcomers, often have great spiritual depth and creativity that should be listened to. The congregation will be low-key about the practical charity it offers, undertaking it as a given, and not blowing their own horn.
The worship, if it truly communicates silence, will catch up in wonder any stranger who comes in, no matter how simple it is.
Problems will be handled with discretion. Congregations interested in this path might want to look into the Quaker way of having meetings and making decisions.
And yes, everything I have said here goes against the way that clergy are trained, so it's going to be a very hard job, if not impossible, to find an ordained person who not only would go along with such a project but would be able to facilitate it.
Clergy training and the people who do the training need to be re-tooled from the ground up. The seminaries for decades have been sowing the seeds of the demise of what they think of (but isn't) Christianity in the West.
Thanks very much, Dan, for opening up this discussion.
Gentle Readers, your comments and suggestions, as always, are most welcome.