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Page history last edited by Yvonne 8 months ago

As this essay is no longer available from the UUA, I feel it is too important for it to disappear off the internet, so here it is.


It is now available again at https://www.cres.org/pubs/abraxas.htm


An Abraxan Essay:

W o r s h i p


79 June 800

An Abraxan Essay




WORTH, CONNECTION, ORDER.  “Worship” is sometimes narrowly understood as bowing down to some supposed deity. The etymology of the word, however, leads us to a far more significant activity. The root of “worship” is worthship, considering things of worth. “Religion” (religare) means to bind up, to reconnect, to get it all together. Worship is thus the central activity of religion because through worship we reconnect with worth. Worship is a compelling vision of life in its fullness. Its scope, diversity, coherence and power engender the fundamental meanings, values and relations for our lives. Worship centers us. It gives us a perspective that orders the Void, the chaos of unconnected fragments of experience. Through worship we find our connections and take our place in society and the cosmos. Here beholding and becoming are the same.


THE CREATION AND CELEBRATION OF HUMAN VALUES AND MEANINGS.  It is fashionable nowadays to describe worship as “the celebration of life.” This too easily becomes a party or a vague sentiment. Worship is the celebration of life in its depths—intimate, intense, and ultimate. Through worship we discover, enliven, enrich, create, order, enhance, and empower what gives life worth. We experience awe, wonder, flow, fitness, appreciation, refreshment, and commitment.


THE WHOLE.  This does not mean there is an ontological Whole or Absolute Worth. It does not mean that all things actually fit together. On the other hand, worship is not illusory or simply “subjective.” It does mean that worship is the activity that fits things together, that reaches toward a whole as we create ourselves and our world.

SPONTANEOUS WORSHIP.  One can worship alone, “communing with nature,” in the ritual of a sport or other play, in work and in social action. Worship is not necessarily an orderly, regular calculated process, though it always creates order. Worship is more like falling in love, like being struck with the majesty of Mont Blanc, or like the surprise and gratitude we feel when someone touches us deeply in an unexpected way. For the creation and celebration of values, meanings and relations appears accidental perhaps as often as devised: if directed, then often outside ordinary awareness. The spirit of God, before creation, brooded on the waters before there were even any words. So our spirits hover in the Void, until we discover meanings emerging. Thus Schweitzer came upon “reverence for life,” Einstein formed the Relativity theories, and Mu Ch’i painted his “six Persimmons.” After considerable brooding, each integrated values into a larger whole in a moment of high awareness, of spontaneity and freedom. Such a consideration of worth occurs when the horizontal and the vertical—the mundane and the transcendent—suddenly intersect for us. There we gain awareness; we create a new or renewed order through which the entire universe plays.



DELIBERATE WORSHIP.  Thus we rejoice when we unexpectedly find ourselves worshipping.  But there is also place for the deliberate, labored consideration of values, whether they be themes Beethoven nurtured into the Fifth Symphony or the relation of First Amendment freedom of the press with Sixth  Amendment guarantees of jury impartiality. Conscious and intended worship seeks to name our gods—to identify our values—even if they be such only for the never-ending moment. Hidden and unacknowledged gods can rule our behavior without our knowing it. Naming our gods and taking responsibility for assessing their worth enlarges our freedom. When we find we hold conflicting values, we may be alienated—unconnected—from ourselves and each other. Worship is the healing of such splits.


IDOLATRY.  Regular worship, a continuing reconsideration of values, as our lives and society change, prevents ossification and idolatry by guarding us from confounding the proximate with the transcendent. The discipline of deliberate worship thus is a source of expansion and freedom. Giving thanks even for the unknown, we can in high awareness choose the ways of growth, proportion, and flow.

“WORK OF THE PEOPLE.”  The church offers the discipline of deliberate worship. A community of faith, the church adds the dimension of human life to worship in nature. Private and public worship enhance each other. The presence of others who challenge and enrich our lives with competing and supporting agendas and priorities gives us additional eyes through which to see the universe—to reconnect us to ourselves, one another and the cosmos. Public worship then is not a presentation; it is involvement. It is not a lecture, concert or program. Liturgy means “the work of the people.”


EXPERIENCE, NOT EXPLANATION.  Liturgy is an immediate yet eternal experience which demands the participation of everyone in the religious community. It is not a simulation of some other experience, like theater. It is not merely an explanation of the way things are or ought to be. Liturgy transcends various styles or levels of interpretation since it is a prior unity of experience. For example, two persons taking part in mass may have different explanations of it and of the world. One may understand things quite literally; the other may give a mythical or metaphorical interpretation. The important fact is that they are both taking part in the same event, a sign of their human bondedness to one another and all life. Liturgy thus permits greater freedom than do rhetorical injunctions. While exegesis often divides, liturgy encourages “unity in diversity.” This does not mean intellectual precision is unimportant. Theological homework is required. A “worship arts” committee, more dance and drama, a new organ or a poetical sermon without transcendent reference will fail to meet the deepest human needs. Nevertheless openness to the experience of transcendence is more important than a precise analysis of what is or is not.


PLAY. Worship, like sex is a supreme form of play. Play liberates us from the work mentality that seeks (at least functional) absolutes by which to judge our activities. In play, in worship, we need no reason outside life to give life meaning. Some attend church as an obligation, to justify or earn their existence. Such an attitude profanes life’s character as a gift, unearned and unearnable. In worship we celebrate with wonder and gratitude the meaning of that gift. The consequent responses we seek to make are not to earn life, but to revere it in centered faithfulness.



A VISION OF WHOLENESS.  Our secular age gives us little access to a vision of wholeness. Our fragmentation masks from us the import of the human story. In our time it is difficult to find genuine open community. There are few tribes of people who trust one another enough to deal openly with the question of what is important in life. (New communities are appearing now, but often they are not open. Rigidly defined by narrow allegiances, they themselves participate in and perpetuate division in the world.) Our secular age has abandoned, demeaned or trivialized human rituals through which one once gained access to the whole. This situation also makes the development of new worship forms awkward and vexing. We have been parted from ourselves by rejecting ancient and humane customs and institutions. We have blasphemed the process which created new forms of Ordering. Simply because an institution—the presidency, the church, communion—has been abused, used hypocritically, deeply stained in many cases—is no reason to abandon it. The fact that love and friendship have been betrayed (which is very much the Passion story) does not require us to renounce these values (a discovery named Easter). Nor are past failures any excuse for refusing to fashion new rites and institutions.


RITUAL.  Nevertheless, we are beginning to appreciate ritual. Ritual is done by custom, rote or habit. Much of our lives depends on ritual: tying our shoes, brushing our teeth. If we had to lean how to drive a car each time we got behind the wheel, life would be intolerable. Some ritual is needed in much of what we do. Ritual frees us to use the vehicle to go somewhere. But ritual alone is a blank book. Liturgy (the work of the people) fills the book with meaning. A prayer that appears a superstitious ritual to an observer may be to the participant a profound act of spiritual awakening.


AN ABRAXAN IRONY.  If worship is the reconnection, the integration of experience, then it is possible only if there are real fragments needing unification. The very alienation of our age gives us the opportunity for empowering liturgy. Our corporate worship seeks to embrace and connect individual resources and priorities. So “evil” and “alienation” cannot be excluded as we move toward the whole. It is the tension between the actual and the ideal which not only wants resolution through worship but which inspires it in the first place.


THE SIZE OF THE LITURGY.  Because our lives are varied and few of us are at identical places in our cognitive and emotional development, public worship must be large enough to address different ages, classes, conditions, and concerns. The liturgy must embody all organs of the human adventure, with all its directions and contrasts. Such liturgy reorders our differences in the large view and makes them whole. Liturgy appealing only to the "traditionalists," or the iconoclasts, or the, successful or the visitors, is a liturgy without the dimension and integrity which stretches, restores and renews our lives. Only a very large liturgy can speak to all of us. If we are to grow religiously, we need worlds of vision beyond those we know now. If parts of the liturgy fail to speak to us at one point in our lives, it may mean there are worthy things yet to behold. Only a very large liturgy can speak to us for a lifetime.


HOW THE EXPERIENCE IS FORMED. While spontaneity is possible and desirable, public worship enables rich and durable forms of worship to emerge, just as a symphony is developed. Many liturgical forms epitomize the history and possibilities of human interaction. Some of these forms are no longer suitable but many have been unnecessarily neglected and deserve renewal. The smells, vestments, motions, phrases, sounds and houses of worship themselves can convey and further the ordering of awareness, the design of fitness and fullness, the reconnections of genuine faith. The liturgy, with its psychological order and theological sequence, is the central means through which individual participants discover their parts in the human enterprise, and by which the church itself finds and expresses its corporate identity.


LITURGY AND THE WORLD.  But liturgy is more than an instrument of the individual and the church. The self and the world, spirit and politics, intersect in liturgy. Through liturgy we change the world by changing ourselves. Worship brings it all together. Through liturgy we involve ourselves in the larger society with greater vision and effect. In worship we freely touch the changing world with access to the experiences of the past and the present with the imagination and invention of a people honestly sharing their personal religious pilgrimages together in tribal celebration, in centering, in ordering.


WORSHIP AND SEX.  If worship involves the intimate, the intense and the ultimate, then worship is to the church as sex is to marriage. Like the sexuality of marriage, worship cannot be its only activity or its exclusive basis, or it has no real life in the world. Yet the worship of the church, again like sexuality in marriage, is the essential sacrament defining and enlivening other personal, social, economic and political sides of the institution's life. Further, like sexuality in prostitution, dead forms of worship are detached rather than intimate, shallow rather than intense, and trivial rather than ultimate. Moreover, a church without worship is like a platonic marriage, meeting special needs of a few but for most failing to command the interest, energy, imagination and commitment of a rich relationship. The obvious alternative to regular worship with a community of faith is to remain single (unchurched).



THE WHOLE PERSON. Just as worship is an act of the entire community of faith, so it is an act of the whole person—intellect, esthetic sense, body, emotion. Literal truth is too confining: We would lose Beethoven, Rembrandt, Shakespeare and maybe even Emerson with a creedal test. Many important decisions—such as choosing one’s spouse—are not made simply by intellectual calculation. Pure emotional appeals are too transitory to reorder one's vision with clarity. The liturgy demands our presence as whole persons involved with one another, and thus reconnects us.

This sometimes means singing or saying something we may not literally believe but which, from another perspective, informs our experience. Many of us left Christian churches that required literal acceptance of creedal statements, and offered few alternative modes of expression. What is important is not so much the words but rather the experiencing of legitimate religious moods and modes, no one of which can be taken as final and completely comprehensive.


OUR GENIUS.  We find it easy to enjoy different kinds of people and viewpoints. We can rejoice in many languages. We can love Dante even if we cannot accept his cosmology; we can sing the Beethoven Credo even if we cannot subscribe to it; we can feel and revere the 1905 Symphony of Shostakovitch though we abhor communism; we can participate in a Hindu chant without compromising our own mythologies; we can enjoy Christian communion without patching it up to fit our own prejudices; we can teach "Silent Night" to our children though we disbelieve the Virgin Birth; we can be moved by Hamlet while we deny the existence of ghosts. We can sing, we can dance, we can rejoice without censoring any honest hallelujah or plea for help. Our genius is being able to see God, the Void or Whatever, working in every person and place.



UU CONTEXT.  Our churches, especially where liturgy is not automatic or routine, have an unparalleled opportunity today for the renewal of liturgy. Where clear-thinking people celebrate their companionship with one another and with human struggles through out the ages, separations can be healed through the revival of the art of worship. However, just as it is difficult for someone who has never heard baroque music to understand the musical language of Bach, so we must overcome the prejudice against liturgical forms to develop and communicate with a rich religious language. Such a language appeals to the entire person. Without it Unitarian Universalism will continue to be for many a revolving door into the secular world. Without it our children will find our intellectual emphasis inadequate to sustain their commitment to our movement, as they will also find the cute "smelling the flower is worship" too weak to inform their decisions with wisdom. With a rich liturgical tradition we can build temples of meaning and societies of justice.


DISCIPLINE. To develop an empowering liturgy, the professional UU leadership must turn from the charismatic model. The churches must turn from narcissism. No longer may we pride ourselves as mavericks. We must become virtuosi in the art of worship. Instead of inventing the wheel each week in each church in our individual ways, we must develop disciplines for sharing the technical as well as "spiritual" aspect of worship as we use it and live it in our churches and lives. While each congregation must retain control over its own worship, such disciplined sharings—tested through wide rather than idiosyncratic usage—offers a hope for moving beyond pulpit exchanges and shuttling programs towards a body of powerful common liturgy adaptable to specific situations. Such disciplines would refine, enrich and enlarge our practices into a genuine living and growing liturgical tradition.



This is the work of the Congregation of Abraxas: liturgical renewal. We believe the human enterprise and the health of our churches requires above all else the capacity and vehicles for genuine private and public worship. We want to renew liturgy in our lives so it will renew us and our society. We hope the suggestions of this essay are part of an open Renewal process.


ABRAXAS—An order of Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay people who see worship as the center of our liberal religious life and work, and who have joined together to develop liturgical materials through a collegial process. Drawing on Eastern and western religious themes, the group is concerned with the forms and content of both public worship and private devotional discipline. Friends receive mailings from the group. General Members participate in collegial writing and decision making. Ordered Members take upon themselves a special discipline of work and sharing. Membership in all levels is for a year at a time. Samples of published materials and further information about the Congregation and its retreats can be obtained by writing the Executive Secretary at P.O. Box 4165, Overland Park, KS 66204.[No longer available -- write P.O. Box 45414, Kansas City, MO 64171.]


This essay, originally a pamphlet (1976), appears on pages 22-26 in the 207-page 1980/81 volume, The Congregation of Abraxas Worship Reader and Supplement: Essays in Worship Theory from Von Ogden Vogt (1921) to the UUA Commission on Common Worship (1980) -- copies of which should be at the theological schools.


This essay was drafted by Vern the Void and perfected by comments from Duke the Dumb, Fred the Full, Stephan the Spare, and Harry the Holy, all in agreement with every word.



Vern's Abraxas Rant

Abraxas was a big part of my life. The five of us (Harry the Holy, Duke the Dumb, Fred the Full, Stephan the Spare -- and I was Vern the Void), all Unitarian Universalist ministers  who started the group in 1975, studied the Rule of Benedict and decided to form ourselves as a "liturgical and missionary order" for our fellow UUs (our missi9on field), who, we felt, too often practiced a shallow and impotent form of Sunday assembly. We took vows paralleling poverty, chastity, and obedience:http://www.cres.org/pubs/abraxasG.htm .  


We wanted to draw upon the world's traditions of awe, repentance, thanksgiving, and service, and to renew those forms for the liberal religious communities.

Originally our monastic enterprise was for the five of us, but as people found out about us, they wanted to join, so we developed postulancy and ordination processes as folks (mainly lay) wanted to come to our retreats, some as long as 8 days, sometimes as many as 20 lay people, which we held around the continent, from New York to Berkeley to Toronto. Most clergy seemed uninterested in anything that would upset their routine worship (usually sermon-focused rather than sacramentally).

The hunger for real worship was appearent whenever Abraxas offered worship opportunities. For example, a rabidly humanist fellowship took a chance with an Abraxas Eucharist. Careful preparation of the congregation to lower the literalists' fears led to remarkably full participation in the sacred rite, even by vociferous atheists. The relative disinterest of the majority of UU professionals to engage deeply in examining worship practices when it became clear that the laity, usually unknowingly, hungered for something more than an interesting and inspiring lecture, has been crushingly disappointing to me.


My own good fortune in serving a congregation that welcomed all sorts of explorations and experiments in worship led to remarkable energy and reward. Whether it was Christian Midnight Mass (I was warned no one would come, but by the second Christmas the church was packed), Buddhist Wesak observances, Sufi dances, Jewish, Hindu, American Indian, and rituals of other faiths respectfully, all informed by Abraxas sensibility -- and of course Abraxas-influenced liturgies. My ministry concluded with the worship committee designing its own liturgy using the Abraxas four-part theory of liturgical design.


But denominationally, our success has been mainly in modeling for our colleagues the wearing of stoles or other vestments (following our presentation of a stole to then-UUA president Gene Pickett who wore it at General Assembly), though we claim some contributions through Fred Gillis (one of the O.F.= Original Five, also known as Old Farts) who served on the Commission on Common Worship, and Mark Belletini who chaired the Hymnbook Resources Commission, and later Wayne Arnason. "Wayne the Wide" (and Kathleen Rolenz) whose book Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists shows a continuing interest in thinking about worship practices.

Occasionally students will be intrigued about our work and some claim to be influenced, but I see no signs that the basic study we did, and explorations we charted, have provided any significant improvement to UU worship. Sometimes I hear of Abraxas materials being used or adapted in some way, and I wonder if this is being done in a charismatic (leader-centered) or virtuoso (congregation-centered)  manner, so I am relieved when I hear the focus is on the gathering rather than on the presider, on a world-wide heritage shared into the present hour rather than on the presumed wisdom of a particular person. A liturgical format (liturgy="the work of the people") makes the widest scope possible, and the use of the "cadenza" encourages sponteneity supported by structure.


I have been greatly enriched in many ways by Abraxas. Since our emphasis was on the virtuoso, the skilled and trained one, not the charismatic, excessively personal style, we considered it of great importance to train folks how to lead liturgy as well as how to draft liturgical forms (our official publications were always "trial"). It may be as difficult to learn to lead worship from a book as it is to learn to play the piano from a book; experience, examples, a teacher may be a great benefit in entering a sacred tradition.


Our commitment to publish only what was meaningful to all five of us, with vastly different theological perspectives (Christian and Buddhist to Humanist and atheist), led to transcendent discussions and worship, a great deal of learning and fun (our inside jokes still cheer me), as well as enduring affection.






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