TELL ME A STORY
Narrativity is a fancy way to say “telling a story” but Richard Stern’s classes at the U of Chicago expanded that in his teaching anthology “Honey and Wax,” so it included music. We did not go so far as to claim that a landscape is a narrative, but I do that now. “Most people would agree it is a basic way to be human, to find meaning.” H.P. Abbott
These are the stories I use as prompters for ceremonies and rituals, ways to get hold of the virtual, the abstract but deeply felt. “As what one might call an “adjectival” noun, narrativity suggests connotatively a felt quality, something that may not be entirely definable …”
Narrativity might be a hero surviving ordeals until reaching his goal; a mountain climber who summits and what happens afterwards; a hilarious Napi story about an offended boulder chasing him; another Blackft story about a person who goes up into the sky out of love but gets homesick and comes back. It might be an explanation or a question.
This particular story has been my map all along.
A Jewish story from Temple B’Nai Toray in Bellevue, WA
Whenever the Baal Shem Tov, the great master of Hasidism, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a big fire in just a certain way, he would say a special prayer, sing a little nigun, a melody with no words, (such as we sang earlier this afternoon) and the miracle would be accomplished and the terrible threat averted.
A generation later, when his student, the Maggid of Mezritch, needed to do the same thing on behalf of his community, to pray to heaven for protection, he would go to that same place in the forest and say “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire… but I can sing that little tune, and I still remember the prayer!” and again, the miracle would be accomplished.
And yet another generation later, Rabbi Moishe Leib of Sasov, the heir to the Maggid of Mezritch, in order to save his people once more, would go into that same spot in the forest and say,” Dear God I do not know how to light that fire, and I do not know the prayer, and even the little song I don’t remember so well, but You can see I know where the place is, and this must be sufficient.” And what do you know? It was enough just to be in the place and the miracle was accomplished.
Then, years later, it fell to Rabbi Yisroel of Rhizin to overcome misfortune for his community. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, and he spoke to God, saying: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, can’t remember how the song goes, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story about how the Baal Shem tov used to go and do these things in that place. I only remember the story.” And it was sufficient.
The Ritual Process by Victor Turner
This book explains how to create a “liminal space” by providing a way to enter it, being there, and coming back out. Physical senses are the means, like going up a flight of stairs into a cathedral, or the curtain going up before a play, or lighting a candle before praying. The other side of the time/space is coming down, the curtain falling or putting out the candle. Turner worked out this sequence while working with African tribal rituals like coming of age or marriage.
The formula works for almost every ceremony I know, including the Blackfeet Thunder Pipe Bundle Opening in Spring that enlightened me in the Sixties. The cultures Turner studied would create a virtual time/space through the use of their own familiar ecology to enter a protected state of mind and bodies, use that time together to attune, harmonize, resonate and thereby renew each other. Then it turned out the theory worked in “modern” Christian churches.
The Shape of the Liturgy from Dom Gregory Dix
Even familiar and presumably permanent rituals can develop — evolve — over time. The earliest Christians were part of a Torah study group who came together and began to understand in a different way, guided by ideas from Jesus the Christ, until they were “Christians.” Then they shared a meal, mostly bread and wine they had brought with them. This sharing gradually became sacralized as “communion.”
Constructing Local Theologies by Robert J. Schreiter
Ordinary actions that emerge from life to become part of religion will acquire justifications that come from the theory of how the sacred meanings are structured. This understanding comes from a specific ecosystem and the experience of living in it. How does one take the liturgy of one people (specifically Christians) to a culture that has neither bread nor wine? Schreiter says one must go to the most basic concept that underlies the practice. So communion is not what is consumed, but THAT it is consumed in the company of people who share. It might not even be about eating. And eating might not be about taking a sacred leader into one’s body.
Research discovers the evolution of a human being from the point of conception. When an infant emerges from the mother, it has already begun to build a brain and its bodily system by pushing against the confinement and what it feels as the mother moves: hears as her heart, gut and lungs work or as she talks and sings or as her body sways through her work. That is, the genome is the map for self-creation, from the very beginning to the rest of life, always building on the sensory experience of the environment.
This evolution was once thought to be a recapitulation of the evolution of our species: fish, amphibian, reptile, mammal. This turned out to be more poetry than science, but it is scientifically true that each stage of evolved life builds on the one just previous: an amphibian is an improved fish, a reptile is an improved amphibian, a mammal is an improved reptile. We carry in ourselves bits of all those incarnations.
The mammal mother’s impulse is to come face to face with her infant. Her mammalian nature — nursing, rocking, stroking, cleaning — gradually creates a virtual space/time between her and the baby. This safe but growth-supporting context is the evolved key to worship and liturgical experiences later in life.
These ideas provide the basic context of what I’m developing as a structural theory of ceremonies of meaning seen as worship for a community.