‘WORDS, WORDS, WORDS…I’m so SICK of WORDS!’
This familiar phrase from ‘My Fair Lady’ resounds in my memory as I confront one of those frequent moments of conflict that afflict anyone seeking to work with language – the challenge of using words to describe an experience that transcends words.
And like Eliza Doolittle sings later on in her song to her suitor, Freddy, who spends all of his time TELLING her that he loves her – ‘SHOW me!’ – I wish I could simply ‘SHOW’ you what I experienced throughout the days of this amazing, life-changing and life-giving adventure known as my sabbatical. And to some extent, I tried to do that by posting so many pictures on my Facebook profile along the way.
But alas, what I’m left with is WORDS, WORDS, WORDS. So here goes.
For all my dreaming, talking and writing about NOT wanting to be a leader/manager of a religious institution and my periodic frustrations with the whole religious enterprise, I nonetheless had my most powerful, deeply spiritual and personally emotional experience of my whole sabbatical journey last summer during the first 1.5 hours of a worship service, at the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco.
I walk into a non-descript glass door office building on Fillmore, and find myself warmly welcomed by a man who I discover has been welcoming people every Sunday since the church began in 1971. And my eyes are instantly drawn into the space by the vibrant, almost living colours of the art that covers the walls...depictions of Jesus looking more African than the Caucasian white Jesuses with whom i've grown up...Mary appearing likewise...other scenes of creation crying out and invoking the Spirit...and to the far left, a large portrait of Coltrane, dressed in white, soprano sax in his left hand, and a scroll in his right saying, 'Let us sing ALL songs to God, to Whom ALL praise is due...PRAISE GOD.'
Amongst 20 people or so, I find an open seat in the front row (of course…it IS a church, after all), right in front of the drum kit and where the spiritual leader of the community (and tenor saxophonist), Archbishop Franzo Wayne King, will stand...at least to start. Less than a minute later, musicians casually and gradually make their way up to their instruments and microphones, and without a word, the first chord is struck...and the SOUND begins...and an invisible melody cries out from the saxophone (as Br. King processes down towards the front of the worship space, sounding eerily like Coltrane), arising not out of some collective memory of the past, but rather, out of the primal depths of a most powerful present. Actually, if there is a word to encapsulate what i will experience in the next 80 minutes or so, it wouldn't necessarily be 'heavenly' or 'otherworldly'...it would be 'primal', as in something that is so essential, it emanates from the absolute depths of all being, enfolding secular and sacred, corporeal and ethereal, physical and spiritual, earthly and heavenly, all into one astounding, inspiring, indescribable and truly awe-filled convergence.
And the liturgy begins...and out of the harmonic foundation, a melodic confession arises...they are singing words that are somewhat familiar to me, from scriptures that i know...I John 1, Psalm 23, the Lord's Prayer, the Gloria Patri...but in this experience, the actual words are only one part of the overall picture, unlike the liturgies from my own tradition that are so entirely over-focused on WORDS, to the detriment of the other senses...here, they weave their way into the fabric of the whole garment, smaller pieces of the larger, more magnificent mosaic that is being created spontaneously in the moment...bearing beautiful witness to the sacredness of ALL moments...the mosaic that Br. King best describes as a 'SOUND baptism'...a washing over all of the Spirit made manifest in the vibrations created in that setting in the moment, the SOUND that reverberates the presence of the Spirit and draws all who enter into that presence...the SOUND that invites everyone to return to the Source of our life and all life, the One who IS the way, the truth, the life...to be welcomed back to our heart's, our soul's, our being's true home.
Their mass combines the music of Coltrane, plus African American spirituals, Orthodox chants, improvisation from leaders and the congregation, all of it swirling into this intensely engaging sea of SOUND, a truly sensory experience of the Spirit...pulsating through the reverberations of the tenor saxophone, and the bass, and the piano, and the drums, and the voices, and the percussion…the tambourines, the maracas, the shakers, the different hand drums, even the rhythm of the tap dancers on their rolling wooden platform next to me…then a soprano saxophone enters the trance above the rhythm, prancing and prodding it further and higher…then more voices…then a drone with chanted scripture and prayer above it…then a harmonica, so gently floating above the voices and in dialogue with them, like the Spirit responding to them and coaxing them to go deeper, higher…so achingly, so longingly calling out to the Spirit and with the Spirit…and the heartbeat, the pulse, the rhythm, continues…and evolves…and becomes something more than it was…it ebbs and flows, surging and receding, like the ocean waves…and that tenor saxophone returns…the voice of the Spirit in the depths of my being…and the drums and the bass…and the piano and the voices…and the shaking and the dancing…and it propels us higher, a sacred ascension emanating from the soulful soil of the human spirit, the division of sacred and secular, physical and spiritual no longer present…but ALL as one being, one entity, one creation spiraling up into the stratosphere of the Spirit…and the deepest sense of elation…and peace…at the same time.
My body didn’t convulse in sobs. I didn’t feel sick to my stomach. I wasn’t caught up in just releasing nervous tension. It was like all that was abiding in the depth of my mind, my heart, my soul, my whole being very gradually starting welling up within me and flowing out of my tear ducts, so gently and with such warmth…and my body just gently started moving to the rhythm, the heartbeat of the Spirit…and it was like I was being cradled and I was being released at the same time…cradled in a tender embrace of accepting, forgiving, unconditional Love…released from what I’m not sure…my most primal fears and doubts, wounds and needs…my deep-seeded sorrow and shame…my uncertainties about my life and calling, the needless suffering by so many at the hands of so few, the greed and guilt that arises from fear of Love…but for those earthily sacred minutes, all I can say is that, in the depths of my heart and soul and down into the marrow of my bones and the flowing stream of my blood, in the totality of my very being, I felt completely embraced by Love…and released by the same Love.
Tears come to eyes just thinking about it...and writing about it.
And then…they started TALKING. The WORDS took over. And for me, the inspiration just slowly faded away, so much so that, as much as I wanted to stay until the end to meet the leaders, I left while they were taking the second offering.
It's a small church community, inter-racial but primarily black. The current pastor, Rev. Stephens, is a gifted and passionate woman, a child of the church, who plays acoustic bass in the band. She shared some experiences from a recent retreat that some of them had been on, then she preached...very heartfelt and articulate. Then Br. King got up and started sharing church news, 'churchy' news...and as a visitor, I just felt suddenly very disconnected from it all...like 'when did this transcendent spiritual experience just become another CHURCH?' Why did this welcoming and praising and inspiring community of people suddenly start speaking in 'Christianese' about 'Churchianity'? When did they become just another church with 'churchy' concerns?' I, more than most, understand that a community needs to communicate with each other, and that all communities have some kind of unique language that they use to do this. But as this transcendent experience was transformed into 'just another Sunday at church’, I found myself once again confronted by all the stuff that I find it harder and harder to connect with and even live into in my own faith and life.
Disappointing? not really. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure my body or spirit could have taken much more inspiration at that point.
But I did just want to STAY…in that state of being, in that Presence, in that Loving embrace, in the freedom of gracious release...in that physically spiritual, humanly divine, sensually sacred SOUND.
But I also know that we aren’t made to stay in that state (or any other ‘state’ for that matter). We homo sapiens are always MOVING…ONWARD…SOJOURNING on to the next experience on the journey of life. (I’m remembering that it’s never called a ‘state’ of life, but a ‘journey’…we can be at different ‘states’ of being along the journey, but the journey continues…it is not ‘static’ but always in motion…like ending your thought with an ellipsis rather than a period…)
And so, I moved on...or at least I tried...with more questions than answers...hopefully less backward and more forward...and inward to go outward...and downward to ascend upward...to where upside-down becomes downside-up.
And as I returned to my little bungalow in Stinson Beach, peering out at the magnificent expanse of the Pacific, the ocean that for me is the depiction not of the grey-bearded god of my childhood, but rather, the truly incomprehensible, uncontainable, never-ending, ever-creating Source of life-giving, life-saving, unconditional and unfathomable Love...I heard the songs of the seagulls, the surging of the surf, the chorus of creation...and I heard the cacophony of voices within me endlessly TALKING, bombarding me with a continual onslaught of WORDS, telling me this and that, especially my own voice speaking to myself…reminding me of all my obligations and duties, scolding me for being so myopic and self-interested and self-centered, berating me for not being all that I can be and not making the most of my time away and the fickleness of my faithlessness...
And then I remembered the experience of that Sunday...the dear people who welcomed me and simply let me be me...and the singing and the swaying, the playing and the praying, the dancing and the dreaming, the sighing and the crying...and that great welling up of emotion pouring out into a cacophony of confession, a symphony of Spirit...
And those voices of accusation and judgment faded into the background...and I heard the roar of redemption, and felt the Ocean of Love resounding and reverberating once again, washing over me...
Like that secularly sacred, soul-saving sea of SOUND.
the space where i experienced the SOUND... :)
the inspiration and witness to the SOUND... :)