This is an edited version of my Adirondack Daily Enterprise column for March 10, 2015.
I have the sense that American culture is predominantly secular and becoming more so all the time. I’m sure it would be possible to research this and come up with a statistical and fact-based position. It’s probably already been done. But that’s not for me; I’m happy here with mere impressions.
In my life as a Christian, I’ve enjoyed several kinds of religious practice. As a boy in Oklahoma and Texas, I was fully participant in the evangelical tradition. Some degree of participation was unavoidable; it was in the air we breathed, the water we drank.
My friend Tom recalls that in the small town where he grew up, the great religions of the world were thought to be Baptist, Methodist, and Church of Christ. At my high school, a student-run service of singing and extemporaneous prayer called Morning Watch (I’m ambivalent about the capital letters) took place every morning for half an hour before the bell rang. It was so well attended, it met in the auditorium. I rarely missed. On a couple of occasions, a friend and I slipped into tent revivals. Not to worship, but hoping to see snake-handling or something exotic like that. We were disappointed.
At the time I found something I welcomed in that way of connecting with the mystery of creation. I especially liked the Gospel songs and down-home hymns. It has always seemed to me that atheists, the indifferent—perhaps everyone—can appreciate “This Little Light of Mine.” Maybe even “Do Lord,” in the right circumstances.
That variety of worship was sort of extra curricular, though. For generations my family had been thoroughly Presbyterian, with it’s emphasis on preaching. I found life-giving force in that way too, despite the countless sermons I couldn’t understand or get interested in.
(Our one foray outside of Presbyterianism had a surprising outcome. In the summer when I turned six, my mother—wanting some time alone, I suppose—let me go with a friend to vacation bible school at the Baptist church. In the course of that, I answered the altar call; marched right down the aisle and gave my little-boy soul to Jesus. When a bible-school functionary showed up at our house one evening a week or two later to work out the details of my declared intention to join the Baptist church, the family was nonplussed—no one more so than I. No harm was done, though. Everyone but me got a good laugh out of it.)
As a young adult, I tried and relished the ethical and intellectual force of Unitarianism.
Ultimately, I found a home in the liturgical traditions of Anglo-Catholicism, with its antique language, careful choreography, and transcendent solemnity.
Over the past few decades, I’ve come increasingly to an awareness of something missing in the worship practices I knew earlier in life and in my current church affiliation as well: the three-thousand-year-old admonition found in Psalm 46 to “be still and know that I am God.”
So far as I know, all religious belief systems are fundamentally about experiencing the presence of God. That can happen in an infinite variety of ways, but surely there is no better way to promote it than by being quiet and receptive. Oddly, Christian worship services tend to be as chatty as Kiwanis meetings. In my experience, an agreed-upon sense of being in a sacred space with the door closed on the mundane, worshippers connecting with the ineffable is rare; the assembled faithful, however devoted, prefer talking.
Ironically, in secular contexts, being quiet and feeling wonder and reverence occur readily.
In Houston, the Rothko Chapel, a small art museum, has a sign outside: “Guests are invited to experience the silence.” People sit on pew-like benches or yoga mats attending to Rothko’s dark, sometimes monochrome, wall hangings as if in sacred adoration.
The New York Times recently ran a laudatory story on the CEO of the health insurer, Aetna. As a result of a serious skiing accident for which he was given the last rites of the church, he initiated a policy of encouraging employees to practice meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. Time was set aside during the workday for these activities; rooms were dedicated to their practice.
The CEO keeps a statue of a Hindu deity in his office, and he wears a Sanskrit-inscribed amulet in lieu of a tie, but this new way is purportedly secular. And it has resulted in a variety of welcome outcomes, including more productivity, better physical health, and less anxiety among employees. Those bases covered, the Times writer applauded the changes without question or critical analysis.
One can imagine the reaction had the ski accident resulted in encouragement of overtly religious observance rather than practices that are thought—not quite accurately, in my view—to be secular. (They are certainly spiritual—arguably religious.) Suppose there were priests and rabbis and imams walking the halls of the Aetna headquarters in Connecticut offering spiritual counsel and instruction.
In public ceremonies where the mystery of life and death is most insistent, silence is of paramount value. For many years after World War I, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (when the armistice was signed), all the people of Great Britain took two minutes to mourn their losses and focus on the unknowable. All traffic stopped, all conversation ceased.
The moment of silence in memorial services derives its emotional power from people doing it communally. Solitary contemplation is also life giving; myself, I find it difficult to get through a day without quiet time alone in early morning. (It’s especially quickening sitting on my cure porch in the former monastery, watching the sun come up over the graveyard.) But it’s quite a different experience to be silent deliberately as part of a group. That fosters solidarity, reconciliation, and generosity of spirit beyond what usually results from being still alone. Even the companionable silence of just two people who aren’t uncomfortable not talking works in that way.
James Lee Burke, the novelist and chronicler of Cajun life, refers to the need to “keep the snakes in their basket.” Being still can do that.
Why it is not prominent in Christian worship is puzzling.