Is there a place for the Lord, or only for parties, for shopping, for revelry? Is our soul open, as is Holy Mother Church and as was the Virgin Mary? Or is our soul rather closed, with a “Do Not Disturb!” sign hung on the door to it? — Pope Francis, Advent 2014
I once knew an African Methodist Episcopal pastor who, with a deep, raspy, booming and melodic voice would preface his sermons with this prayer:
O Lord, invade our stayed and steady space
With your raucous and unsteady grace!
At which point the congregation, accompanied by spontaneous chords pulsing from the organ, would jump to their feet, break into in-place dancing, like whirling dervishes singing with hands raised high united in a seemingly infinite variety of praise words:
Oh Jesus! Oh Lord! Glory! Yes Lord! Thank yuh Jesus! Father we praise you! We love yuh Lord! Oh Holy Ghost! …
After maybe a minute and a half, the people slowly settled down and the preacher, his face truly radiant with the unchained joy of that moment, began his sermon. Everyone at that point seemed ready to receive his words, which, as I recall, were very challenging.
This was something very new to me, “stayed and steady” New Englander that I am. And though I was able to marvel and be awed deep within at the uninhibited freedom of these faithful to express their love for God with such embodied expressions of joy, I stood nearly motionless. What I saw reminded me of a stanza from a poem by a personal favorite author, the 13th century Persian Sufi Muslim mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī:
Love is the dancing cry of the soul, calling the body to worship
Like a shining whirlpool, or a spinning mayfly
So is love lifted among the skies.
After the service I connected with the pastor to share with him my experience, and we talked about the role of song and dance in worship. Among the many things he said, one stands out in my memory. I’ll try to capture the phonetic beauty of his phrasings:
How can you worship in the Holy Ghost without gettin’ your body into it? Who can hold back when the Ghost comes? You have to move with the Him, lift your spirits with your hands, dance your joy like David danced with abandon before the Ark of God. And preachin’! Preachin’s gotta make me sweat, ’cause the Holy Ghost’s a’burnin’ in me. If our bodies stay too still, our spirits get tired, sleepy, lethargic. We don’t wanna just remember God’s Word with our minds, but we gotta let Him sink deep into our legs, our arms, our feet and our tongues or He ain’t gonna get in our hearts. That way we neeever forget Him when we a’walking through the rest of life. If you gonna open your heart to Him, you gotta open your arms and open your hands and open your mouth when you worship, so the grace of God gets deep inside; open up like a baby bird beggin’ her food from her Mamma.
If you have never seen the dance-ritual elements of Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy, it’s quite extraordinary. See an example here. When I see this, I am reminded of that magnificent metaphor the Greek Fathers used to describe the dynamism of “inter-indwelling” that pulses in the heart of the Trinity: perichoresis, which is a Greek word for a twirling form of dance.
While our own liturgical tradition is not friendly to the spontaneous eruption of dance or words of praise, our ritual is itself a tightly scripted choreography intended to allow the worshipping body of Christ to express and form an open posture before God. But we can’t allow the tight-script to bind our spirits and put them to sleep. We have to allow the movements, the words, the song, the sights and smells to join with a faith that is alive, possessed by love and open to permitting God to freely invade our overly-controlled lives with the unsteady vibrations of love.
I think of the stories Bl. Raymond of Capua tells of St. Catherine falling into ecstasy after receiving Holy Communion, or crying so much during the celebration of Mass that the celebrant would require her to sit far from the altar to avoid distractions. While I am not advocating disruptive or emotional theatrics during Mass, we still must enter worship in a spirit of radical openness to God who wishes desperately to rouse us from our boredom, re-awaken our wonder and awe and imprint His grace deeply into our bodies and spirits.
My AME pastor-friend fittingly commented on his first visit to a Catholic Mass at my parish,
You Catholics got it; you got all the right words and moves. You just gotta loosen up and give the Holy Ghost a little more room.
Take away the “Do Not Disturb” sign next time you go to Mass.