Worship Is Beautiful

This summer, I traveled to southern Italy and Sicily with my family. While we were there, we were fortunate enough to see dozens of chiese, beautiful and ancient Italian churches.

While we were in Palermo (a fascinating city), we visited the Cattedrale di Palermo (Cathedral of Palermo). Inside, I saw a little old grandmother (I'm taking licentia poetica and assuming she had grandchildren), praying in complete silence. I was fascinated.

Even though I'm not Catholic, I saw something beautiful in that church. I think I would have seen the beauty of the moment in a mosque or synagogue as well, not because I think all religions are created equal, but because the connection between man and God is universal (although it manifests itself in many forms).

This past Sunday (second anecdote, for those keeping score at home), I went to church expecting a normal service. I got what I expected; the service was relatively normal. It began with a rendition of Michael W. Smith's Agnus Dei, a fairly typical (but nice) worship song. During the song, I was looking around and noticed a man in the congregation singing with his eyes closed and arms uplifted.

For whatever reason, something struck me about this man. I'm not sure what exactly it was; I had met him before, and maybe I just didn't expect that from him. (I'm kind of glad I can't pinpoint the reasoning behind this episode; it would feel like unweaving the rainbow to me...)

Regardless, my reaction was simple: I began to cry, first softly, and then to the extent that I had to sit down.

Why do I share these anecdotes? Because I believe there is something beautiful about worship. Reverence - for God, for Nature, or for almost anything - is something we should respect and cherish, because it is something I fear we are losing. Respect is becoming outdated; almost nothing (except for newfangled idiocies like "natural rights") is sacrosanct. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold..."

Christianity, of course, has been especially hard-hit by this iconoclastic zeitgeist. Just a few centuries ago, the Western World was thought of as Christendom, and the Catholic church (for better or for worse) controlled nearly every aspect of society. Now, popular opinion can often be summarized by Francis Crick's tongue-in-cheek bon mot: "Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children."

I am not by any means advocating ecclesiocracy, or government by the church. (Theocracy, rule by God, is kind of impossible to avoid.) I also agree that Christians are to be blamed for this downfall; if our world is godless, it is because we are ungodly.

But now, a new criticism is being levied against the Christian God. Nonbelievers claim that no truly respectable god would require worship from his creation. After all, the argument goes, why would an omnipotent being "need" the praise of his creation?

Douglas Jacoby's response, in my opinion, is best. It is not God Who needs the worship; we need the worship. God does not want mindless submission, but love. "You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength." (Deuteronomy 6:5, NET) What better definition for worship could there be?

Nevertheless, we are perplexed by worship, because we are perplexed by the idea that we should love God. The absence of this ideal - love for God - has affected how we perceive religion, morality, culture, justice, and almost anything else that matters. This absence is, in my mind, the great tragedy of our time (and of all time), because (speaking from experience) I can honestly say there is nothing quite like worshiping, nothing quite like loving God.

From an outsider's perspective, acts of worship (especially the more ritualistic or charismatic ones) can appear superstitious, strange, or superficial. I can understand that perspective because it is often my perspective.

But it should be impossible to deny the singularity and awesomeness of devotion to God, regardless of one's actual religious beliefs. (The best analogy, for the non-religious, would be reverence for Nature.) Any consideration of religion or God must center around the idea of loving Him. The idea that God's desire for worship somehow implicates him as an arrogant or megalomaniacal freak completely belies the passion people of all faiths and all cultures have shared for Him. St. Augustine said, "Our heart is restless until it rest in Thee."

You may not be able to accept that statement, but at least understand it.

(I wonder if any significance can be ascribed to his using a collective heart - "Our heart" - instead of individual hearts...)


Corey said...

I wonder about the connection between formal worship and loving God. You see, I struggle with questions of faith and religion, so perhaps that is where this question comes from. Isn't it possible to love God or love some form of deity, power, etc. without following through with formalized devotion?

Speaker for the Dead said...

I would hope that everyone would struggle with questions of faith and religion. Otherwise, all we have is naïveté....

It is possible to worship God (or whatever entity) without formal devotion. I think that formal devotion is but one part of worship or love for God. "For this is the love of God: that we keep his commandments" (1 John 5:3, NET). We have narrowed the definition of "worship" to formalized devotion, where it really entails (in my opinion) any act of love. When I think of worship, I think of David's writing Psalms in the middle of the night...

That being said, formalized devotion can and should play an important role in our worship. We, as human beings, love symbols. Think about giving a girl a rose, or about symbolism in literature; symbols are a great way of expressing a deep feeling in a simple, approachable way. And formalized devotion is very symbolic (the Eucharist and baptism are both excellent examples). Formalized devotion also provides an opportunity to worship collectively, with other people, which is very important.

Spaceman Spiff said...

This is beautiful. I have had similar experiences with close friends, oddly enough sometimes during songs that for some reason or another just don't "do it" for me.

That helped me see that there is something bigger than debates about forms of worship, and that perhaps when we focus so much on getting the form right, we are committing idolatry. We in coC traditions are surprisingly vulnerable to this; we tend to sing remarkably well and we know it.

But anyway I think your post really gets at something true and beautiful. Thanks for writing it.

Xander said...

You are a really eloquent writer. You, my friend, are going places in life.

Speaker for the Dead said...

Thanks, Xander!