My first serious girlfriend came from good Roman Catholic stock. Having tried (and failed) to be raised as a Christian child and finding nothing but lifeless platitudes in high school ‘prayer groups’ this was terribly exciting for me. At the first opportunity I went along to Holy Communion with her and watched with interest as she responded and genuflected and crossed and engaged with the liturgy. Afterwards I eagerly questioned her about the meaning of her responses and words. She looked at me blankly. Now when I say ‘blankly’, I do not mean that she did not know the meaning but she could not even reproduce the words she had spoken with such fluency half hour earlier.
Such is the way with some Sunday Christians.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that 🙂 We are after all both animal and communal. Rote reproduction and synching in with the group mind is natural for us. It is part of who we are. It is the ‘animal soul’ aspect of our beings. It is what keeps us alive every day and allows us to drive through peak hour traffic or shop in in a busy supermarket.
It can however be taken too far, as the Gospel According to Python shows.
As Buddhism and 80s pop music philosopher Howard Jones assert our regular self, the self that feels it is ‘an individual’ is really nothing more than a “jumbled mess of preconceived ideas”. This explains why we, as individuals can go to church and act like my girlfriend. It explains the definitely rote, unthinking responses in church, ‘Praise be to God’ and wot not. We easily fall into this. We easily fall into unconsciousness and it is the aim of depth spirituality to wake us up.
There is a wonderful story about Gautama Buddha teaching a group of students on a hot, sultry day when the flies were out. A fly kept trying to land on Gautama’s head and he would shoo it away and continue his preaching. After a little while he lifted his hand and shooed again. “Why Master”, asked a student “are you shooing the fly away? It has already left”. Gautama replied, “yes, but the first time I did it without thinking and so now I do it again with consciousness.”
Christianity aims to wake us up, to be conscious, to allow us access to the eternal verities and to serve the One through a radical and completely personal change of heart and life. It also insists on communal worship where we can easily fall into group and animal soul behaviour. And this is one of the greatest gifts of Sunday mornings.
When we enter group worship we literally exist between that tension of group-animal, automatic self and our individual, conscious engagement with the liturgy. We have to choose to be conscious; we have to choose to actively engage on the ‘inner’ levels with the prayers and the liturgy. And we have to continue to engage in communal responses and actions. We cannot be purely individual in church: we have to be both self and group. This is one of the main points of church. Of course we are helped in this movement between the automatically reacting group-mind and conscious choice by the presence of Christ who chose to move beyond his instincts of fear self-preservation towards a cruel and tortuous death.
This tension between group-reaction and individual-choice is a microcosm of the spiritual life. It is a condensed experience of the struggles to move from being the ‘natural man’ as St Paul (and the GD) puts it to being ‘spiritual’ (or ‘more than human’ as the GD puts it).
So every Sunday morning we are given a gift of tension that surmises and reproduces our life-long task. As we engage with that tension we are empowered and learn to participate in the greater tension of our spiritual life. It is a gift of the path of theosis, participation in God through changing ourselves towards perfection, as Christ was perfect, yet remaining always broken and imperfect.
And yet there is more, as there always is 🙂
In Christian theology the worship of the One is eternal and continuing, beyond temporality, beyond our experience of time. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. The angels continually sing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ before the One. This occurs in Kairos, a time beyond temporality (Kronos) a time where we can assert every day, at every moment, that THIS is day Christ was born, died and was resurrected. (We see this understanding also in Buddhist myths of Gautama’s birth, enlightenment and death occurring on the same day of the year).
Our physical church services move us from Kronos to Kairos and we enter the continual worship, as the liturgy says; “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven”. Now this is mind bogglingly awesome if we stop to think about it. We participate in the transcendent and the physical liturgy as one. In the Orthodox traditions the worshippers represent the Cherubim. We worship side by side with the angels. Thus our communal worship in church is more than we can see, and more, much more significant than we can imagine.
In most Orthodox and esoteric Christian theology human beings are gifted with qualities the angels do not have, most often described as reason. Therefore when we enter church and worship as and side by side with the angels, not just the people next to us who rote-read the lines, we are bringing to the worship of the One something unique and wonderful. We – every one of us, imperfect and broken – are adding to the eternal, uncreated unfolding of the fullness of the One. We are engaging in acts that hasten the Kingdom when all shall be consumed and become infinite and holy, when each individual being is perfectly united with the One, yet still existing to worship the One, expressed by the holy name that is One and Many – ELOHIM.