Staked to a Purpose

In the National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin, Corrigan, a nineteen year old college student in a Jesuit school, experiences the rhythm of worship among the Jesuit brothers –

“Mass in the early dawn. Hours of theological study. Afternoon walks through the fields. Night walks along the Barrow River, beseeching his God out under the stars. The morning prayers, the noontime prayers, the evening prayers, the complines. The glorias, the psalms, the gospel readings. They gave a rigor to his faith, it staked him to a purpose.”

I went into my sabbatical already convinced that if the church was to be renewed in our day, worship will be a key part of that renewal. After my time among the brothers at Holy Cross I now believe worship will be the centerpiece of renewal. Renewal will not come from a new program purchased from the denomination or from a consultant; it will not be born of more busyness or a frenetic following after and mimicking of “successful” congregations. Renewal will come as it always has – as a gift, a grace, from the hand of God. As the church worships faithfully, creating space for the grace of God, staking itself to a purpose, we will discover our renewal in surprising places, among unexpected people, on God’s time.

The real question for me, for us, is if we have the discipline, the patience – the faith in God – to be who we are even as we await who we shall be. I believe we do. I live and work among a congregation that teaches me each day what such discipline, patience, and faith looks like in the world. My experience at Holy Cross has only deepened my gratitude for the congregation and denomination through which I serve God.

At Holy Cross, the first worship service beckons not long after the dawn. Each morning my little window in the monk’s cell shone bright with the rising sun. I would go to it and stare out to the east, the gently rocking waters of the Hudson shining with golden light. And then the bell would ring, summoning me to continue my early worship in the sun-drenched chapel. The bell tolls five minutes before each of the services of worship throughout the day:

1. Matins – 7:00 a.m. The word comes from a Latin phrase that means “of the morning.” In Roman Catholic communities it is the last of several evening prayers called “Nocturnals.” The Anglican tradition combined those evening services into one early morning worship. Like many of the services, Matins centers on the chanting of several psalms with the theme of praise.

2. Eucharist – 9:00 a.m. The community celebrates the Eucharist daily, and all guests are invited to participate. The service follows a traditional order that many Presbyterians would recognize, culminating with all the participants gathering in a circle around the Lord’s Table, sharing the peace of Christ, and then taking Communion. There is a great joy permeating this service that peaks at the Table – it is a true celebration of the presence of Christ.

3. Diurnum – Noon. The word “Diurnum” means “of the day.” This is a service unique to the Anglican monastic tradition. It is a simple service, centered in the reading of psalms. At the heart of the worship is ten minutes of silence. The silence took me off-guard the first day; it seemed to last much longer. By the time I left, I looked forward to this service and that long silence more than any other.

4. Vespers – 5:00 p.m. Vespers occurs right before supper, and is characterized with more singing than any other worship. All the prayers, psalms, and scripture readings are intoned, and there are a good number of hymns. I entered the supper hall each evening with a song of peace in my head that often stayed with me into the night.

5. Compline – 8:05 p.m. All the lamps in the chapel are lit, and the worship space is cast in shadows. The service is more subdued, filled again with psalms and hymns. The theme of the service is thanksgiving, and it takes on the character of a preparation, not only for the sleep of this particular evening, but also for the sleep we will all enter in death. The service ends with the worship leader sprinkling baptismal water on all the participants. We leave the service in silence, which will be kept for the next twelve hours. We walk out of that space and into the night with a powerful reminder of our baptisms, water droplets still visible on our heads and clothing.

In between these times of worship I met with a small group of Christians from a diversity of traditions, each of us seeking what it means to serve within the church at a time when Christianity is no longer at the center of the culture. Diana Butler Bass walked us through her book, Christianity after Religion, a sobering snapshot of current conditions and a hope-filled invitation to courageous exploration of a future beyond establishment.

At one point, Dr. Bass said, “Churches need to move beyond simply asking “Who are we?” and begin asking, “Who are we, in God?” The prepositional phrase, “in God,” changes our task from one of discovering a niche market or doing church the way we do politics – polling ourselves to gauge how we feel at any given moment. Instead, our eyes are turned away from us and toward God. Who are we, in God? Without adding the prepositional phrase, we fall prey to our modern propensity to make everything about us. With it, we are reminded that “spiritual journeys are entwined with the great ‘I AM.’ ‘In God,’ orients our selfhood in a larger relationship; we are ourselves, but we are not isolated individuals, we exist ‘in’ something.” And then she said something that brought all the experiences of the week together in a moment of clarity that shone like the early morning sun through my window – “Christians do not worship to be entertained; Christians listen to sermons, sing, partake of bread and wine in community to be in Jesus.”

The purpose of worship is to locate ourselves in the God we know in Jesus Christ. It is only as we are staked to this purpose, only as we come out of ourselves and understand ourselves in relationship to God that we will discover who we are in God. It is in this discovery that the seeds of renewal lie. They have been there all along. Like the tolling of the bell across the waters of the Hudson, God summons us to our highest call in the world – the worship of God’s name. May worship imbue all our hours with joy, and may we find ourselves staked to its purpose.


1 thought on “Staked to a Purpose

  1. Wonderful! The true church – where the Word is spoken and heard, the Sacraments administered and received, and the community of faith is nurtured. Worship is at the heart of it all. Thanks for this great post.

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