On early Sunday mornings, when the sanctuary is still dark, I am alone there, straightening the chairs, checking the thermostat, setting the hymn books evenly among the pews. In a couple of hours, the people will start to arrive. What will they find in this space, set apart from other spaces, within the clearing of an hour set aside from all their other busy hours?
Unlike almost every other thing we take time to do on purpose, worship makes nothing, accomplishes nothing, sells nothing, yields nothing. It is its own end. In our liberal communion, it has no direct object; grammatically, the verb is intransitive. We don’t worship anything, but draw instead upon the oldest meaning of the word, worth-ship: to consider that which is of worth. To honor what is worthy of honor, to notice what is worthy of notice, to grieve the losses and the sorrows that are worthy of our tears, to tell stories about and sing about, to celebrate, what matters; to name, in the clearest possible language, with the most beautiful music, through the deepest possible silence, a few significant things. Of the 168 hours in a week, we set one aside precisely for this work that is not exactly work, this activity that isn’t very active (and yet nor is it passive), and which yields no product— except sometimes a kind of deepening. Sometimes, by luck or grace, there may come glimpses of a sense of reassurance, or comfort, or acceptance, or peace of mind or peacefulness of spirit sufficient for the hours, days and week ahead. There may come gratitude, forgiveness, resolution.
There may be felt an unwelcome and uneasy challenge to calcified conviction, or an unexpected stirring to more concerted courage, or a calling to actionable outrage, when outrage is what’s needed in the world beyond the self. These things are not felt by everyone at once. Worship for us is communal and yet essentially private; who knows how far anyone may travel between the Prelude and the Closing Words?
The service is not the Thing itself. The music, the silence, the speaking of names, the movement of the morning light (the way that it has moved for years and years), across the walls and over the faces of a beloved community—none of these is the Thing itself, but any of them may open the spirit to it. Ritual is art and sacrament. We stand available. We are alert and awake, mindful that we are alive and fairly fragile, aware that there are some few things that we can do together, on purpose, and many more things out of our control. The saving grace in Sunday morning is that it comes round again and again and again, whispering one way to try to grow a soul: Notice. Look. Wonder. Give thanks. Mourn. Repent. Rejoice. Repeat.