As this series on Knowing God winds down, I’m taking the opportunity to pick up on a couple of important threads that may have been under-emphasized through the series. The other day I looked briefly at the importance of community. Today I’d like to turn my attention to worship, and particularly to communal worship.
There is a tendency among people in our culture to set private spirituality — our personal sacred practices of prayer, reflection, meditation, and so on — in opposition to public worship. This comes from both sides of that division. Proponents of the personal spiritual life can disparage the value of communal worship and lovers of the Church’s liturgical life — in whatever form that may take for them — can downplay the role of daily personal routines and practices. But ideally there should be no opposition between them, and they should flow naturally one from and to the other.
This is far from a new or startling idea. For example, the historical services of the hours (which in my tradition were later formed into the offices of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline) structured both community and solitary spirituality for centuries. Or, when St. Gregory Palamas needed a theological defense of the private mystical experience of God, he simultaneously defended the experience of God in the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life, because there is no division between personal and corporate worship, but a unity of experience and energy. This is something we would be wise to remember.
Worship is one of those words that has taken on a very restrictive meaning in our culture, used only for acts of devotion to a deity. But, at its heart — as the etymology worth-ship suggests — worship is about worth or value. In our worship we demonstrate what we value: where our treasure is, and what is for our hearts ‘the one thing needful’. In a sense, no matter who we are or what we believe, our whole life is worship: it’s an expression of what we value, whether that’s God, family, the Earth, pleasure, entertainment, money, status, work, or anything else under the Sun.
And so, when we come together in community to worship God, it is an act of solidarity in which we express, encounter, and are challenged to live more fully into our values. For Christians, this is done primarily through prayer, song, teaching, reading the Scriptures, and through ritual and sacrament. (Though acts of service and charity are also undoubtedly part of communal worship.)
As I reflect on this, I’m struck by how this basic pattern of worship engages all three perspectives of knowing God, often in mutually reinforcing ways:
- We encounter God as an Other through the words of the prayers and Scripture readings, in and through which we encounter, communicate with, and submit to God. One of my favorite prayers from the old Book of Common Prayer sums up the second-person experience of God pretty well: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee….”
- We encounter God in wonder and awe — as Logos — through beauty and the transcendent experience of becoming part of a whole. Some of my most profound memories are of moments such as these: a haunting melody in a candlelit church, the play of light through a stained glass window or upon an icon, or my voice becoming one with five hundred others singing praise songs in a packed auditorium.
- And, such experiences can flow into the first-person experience of God, wherein everything falls away within us and all that’s left is the love and grace of God. This deep, intimate knowledge of God is also brought out in the sacraments, such as baptism, which ritually enacts our becoming united to Christ and to one another in Christ, and in the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine which are Christ’s body and blood literally become part of us as we “take and eat.”
So much more could be said about all of this — and I’m feeling drawn to do a series on the sacraments some time, but that idea doesn’t quite feel ripe yet — but this seems as good a place as any to end this.
The point simply is that our acts of worship provide us with wonderful opportunities to encounter and do our business with God.