Stepping through the looking glass

This is taking ages to write and publish! I wanted to write up the whole thing but here is part one (part two soon I hope!):

Preamble

Last month my wife W and I had a few days’ break in a quaint Olde English Toune. Son S stayed at home, overjoyed. Our objective was just to have a quiet time. In particular, I’d suggested this to give W a break (a lot of extended family-related pressures; S being ill a lot lately; and my work being hectic). So we had almost a week of no driving, simple food, and lots of interesting old architecture, history and countryside. We spent a lot of time alone together, and a lot of time each on our own, doing our own thing. A very quiet, calm, refreshing week.

And for me, bizarre, shocking, disorientating, mind-expanding and possibly life-transforming.

There was a largish abbey in the town, dating from the 12th century I think, and still in use. The Abbey was having a little festival that week and I thought I’d attend some of the events.

W knows I am interested in religion, and especially Christianity. She doesn’t know I am more than interested — and if she has an inkling she hasn’t expressed it.

The first thing I went to was a “Festal Eucharist” one morning, the second event was a “Compline” the next evening. The Abbey is very High Church of England and the services were replete with costumes, incense, holy water, candlesticks and crosses. Very grand.

The congregation wasn’t especially posh, however, quite mixed (couple of hundred people — Abbey was 2/3 full). Nor was it especially touristy.

Eucharist

eucharist

For the Eucharist I sat well to the back, separated from the congregation by a good dozen rows. And had my anorak zipped right up.

This was the first formal service I’d been to, possibly ever (not counting marriages and funerals). So it was entirely strange. It went along at a stately pace. There were various personnel with their duties: the priest, the choir, a kind of choir leader, and of course the congregation. All the singing was done by the choir (& choir leader and the priest); the congregation had “speaking” parts in various prayers and “call and response” pieces, and the congregation stood up and sat down at certain places. Thankfully there was a service booklet. There was an organ but that piped up (ho ho) only occasionally (just beginning and end possibly).

The music and especially the singing were wonderful. It was like sitting inside a musical instrument. I have always loved Tallis and the singing was all that kind of thing.

Listening to the words, and speaking the words, and kind of walking through the service at this slow measured pace, was very affecting. The ritual was a kind of embrace, and I found myself thinking about each clause and holding it up to me — each commandment of the Ten Commandments for example. I felt light and fully absorbed carried through this. The service was just over an hour.

O almighty and everlasting God,
vouchsafe, we beseech thee,
to direct, sanctify, and govern both our hearts and bodies
in the ways of thy laws and in the works of thy commandments,
that through thy most mighty protection,
both here and ever,
we may be preserved in body and soul;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen

I can read through the service again — now — and have some of the same feeling.

There was a communion and people went up to have the bread and wine. I only gradually realised what was happening. I wondered if next time I might go up and have some bread.

That evening I read up about the Communion, what it means, how serious it is, how you have to be in a state of grace before having any bread. I felt sad and excluded — not only by “rules”, I didn’t feel entitled, or clean enough, “worthy” to accept such an offering — at the same time I understood and valued the seriousness and the worth of the ritual (including taking seriously whether you should take the bread).

Compline

Compline was an evening service starting at 9pm. Choirs and prayers; no sermon. The Abbey had been the church of a monastery from the twelfth century and Compline would have been their last prayer before night. So this was kind of a historical reconstruction, but still an actual service.

I sat in with the congregation this time.

It was still light at 9pm though inside the Abbey the candles (and some discreet lights) were lit. During the service the sun set and gradually the sky darkened. The Abbey was filled with a warm glow from the candles, as if the congregation itself were filling the church with life.

compline

It was very beautiful and very peaceful and very affecting. The choir, the prayers …

Preserve us, O Lord, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

The confession said together:

We confess to God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
that we have sinned in thought, word and deed,
through our own grevous fault.
Wherefore we pray God to have mercy upon us.

Almight God have mercy upon us,
forgive us all our sins and deliver us from all evil,
confirm and strengthen us in all goodness,
and bring us to life everlasting.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen

It was also very ceremonial – even more so than the Eucharist (this Compline was the service with the holy water being sprinkled on the congregation). At a certain point I sort of roused myself from my state of bliss and thought to myself, “Do I really want to get into all this hocus-pocus?” I didn’t specifically mean these High Church shenanigans — it’s easy to dismiss them as ridiculous but somehow at the time it all hung together — I just meant the whole thing: the mythology, the constructions, the modes of explanation.

I king of weighed up the two options, or forks in the road. I thought of how angry and despairing I can get at times. I thought of the lack of humanity in secular culture. I tried to remember the last time — or if I had ever — felt like these services were making me feel.

And I said “Yes. I do”.

So from that point, when I said “Yes”, I think of myself as a Christian. Still in secret of course. And still sinning. That was the moment I stepped through the looking-glass.

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6 Comments

  1. I appreciate hearing of your experience from a different perspective than my own here in the deep South where almost everybody either “goes to church” regularly or at least used to. We can lose our ability to see it from fresh eyes if we don’t stay aware. I also appreciate the value of consciously asking yourself the questions you do. Glad you answered yes. :)

    Reply
  2. I remember reading this back near the time you wrote about it. I don’t know why I didn’t comment then. It’s a very lovely writing of all that you experienced and thought as you visited this church. I am like Lisa above and feel very comfortable with church to the point of missing out on these more minute details that are all new to you. And of course, my church is vastly different than this church. It looks very much like the traditional Catholic church here in America, though I believe there are some differences–being more akin to the Anglican church. But to me the feel of their worship is so similar that it’s hard for me to differentiate between them.

    I will say that I love going to church and worshipping because of the congregational feel you get versus simply worshipping in the privacy of your home or elsewhere. I love hearing others lift their voices in song to the Lord that they love. It gives me more joy in my walk with the Lord.

    I’m so glad you’re stepping out of your comfort zone and exploring what it is like to go to church or be a part of one. I hope you find one that is near your home that you can become a part of, so that you can feel the support and friendship of others as you grow deeper in your faith. You probably already know this, but I pray for you daily and part of my prayers for you is that you would find a body of Christ that feels like “coming home.”

    Reply
    • Dear Beth, thank you for your comment. Yes, High Church of England is basically Catholicism with a few tweaks post hoc. I used to think the C of E was ridiculous but my feelings are mellowing. There are some candidate churches locally, but that’s for the remote future I think. Thank you very much for thinking of me in prayer, that is very humbling. David

      Reply
  1. Morning Prayer (through the looking glass part two) | Luke 7:39
  2. We | Luke 7:39

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