Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/10/2011

Why I need a requiem for my father

A "thin place"

A “thin place”

In ways I cannot explain the Christian Eucharistic liturgy holds meaning for me that nothing does. I think of it as a sort of “art form” in the sense Susanne Langer develops. She says that

More than anything else in experience, the arts mold our actual life of feeling. . . [A]rt is rooted in experience; but experience, in turn, is built up in memory and pre-formed in imagination according to the intuitions of powerful artists, often long dead (it takes time for an influence to reach the deepest strata of mentality, and what we learn in childhood, never to lose again, always stems from an earlier age). . .  Artistic training is, therefore, the education of feeling (1).

The ancient liturgy of the Eucharist (while I understand that it is not an “art form” per se) has educated the life of my feelings. I grew up playing the organ in churches (albeit Baptist, not churches for which the Eucharistic liturgy is central). My father was the pastor of those churches. The language of Baptist worship is “built up in memory and pre-formed in [my] imagination” so thoroughly that to try to expunge it from my thought would be tantamount to cutting out some corner of the neocortex of my brain. It is impossible.

When, at the age my brain was reaching full growth (college age—as is true of nearly every other male), I discovered the Eucharistic liturgy, suddenly (and I mean absolutely in one split second) my brain wrapped itself around a “form” as powerful as the “form” of a Beethoven symphony, a form that made sense of the words irrevocably embedded in my neocortex. The “education of [my] feeling” was completed in a way that I could neither control nor prevent. This happened as instantaneously and mysteriously as Helen Keller’s immediate and fully developed understanding of language through her association of Anne Sullivan’s tapping on her hand under the water coming from a pump (see either the play/film The Miracle Worker or Langer’s discussion of the historical incident in her Philosophy in a New Key).

And so, my poor brain, befuddled by nearly everything else in my life—that is not hyperbole!—and limited in its conscious understanding of nearly everything that does not befuddle it, clings to that form, that created expression of “experience. . . built up in memory and pre-formed in imagination.” The life of my feelings, the form of my unconscious experience, is inextricably bound up in my memory of the words and music—and ultimately the “shape”—of the Eucharistic liturgy (2). It is bound up with other expressions and shapes (the Beethoven Seventh Symphony comes to mind which I first encountered also during college in a performance by the Kansas City Symphony from which I—literally—ran almost hysterical from the effect its form had on my neocortex, and ran two miles).

Guide to the thin places?

Guide to the thin places?

Here is the beginning of complication. My conscious mind (for whatever consciousness is worth) rejects—I like to think I have grown out of—much of the rational meaning of the words of the liturgy. And of the words so ingrained in my brain by hearing my father use them week after week, day after day, hour by hour. The rejection begins with “In the beginning God. . .” and continues through the flood,  and Abraham agreeing to kill his own son for God, and through the passing over the Red Sea, and through the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and right up to, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

“Reject” is probably not the right word. The right word would be stronger than “doubt” or “question” but not quite as forthright as “reject.”

The complication continues when I remember certain experiences I’ve had that have nothing to do with art or form but everything to do with feeling. Wind Cave, South Dakota. I was perhaps ten years old when our family went on the Park Ranger tour of the cave and I saw the boxwork formations of the cave. I was, “in the twinkling of an eye” (to use some of that Biblical language I “reject”), changed. I have never forgotten those formations, and every time I think of them, I am left joyful and speechless in a way I cannot describe.

The origin of boxwork remains one of the biggest mysteries of Wind Cave. . . many of the bedrock walls in Wind Cave have resistant fins of calcite from which the intervening limestone and dolomite bedrock has been removed by weathering. The veins in which the boxwork formed are along narrow fractures resulting from stresses produced when the mineral gypsum dried and rehydrated. The calcite formed in these fractures taking on the shape of the original gypsum crystals (3).

Boxwork is not spectacular. It’s so un-spectacular that it’s difficult to get a picture of it hanging from the ceiling of the cave that does it justice. Yet every time I think of it, I am moved. Not too long after that I had the experience of lying at night on a hillside at Chadron State Park in Nebraska with a bunch of other Baptist kids doing something “religious.” I, however, looked up into the sky. (It was, of course, dark, and the expanse of the night sky was spectacular as it is only in Nebraska.) The thought crept into my mind that someone had told me the universe never ended, but I thought, “It has to end. Somewhere.” And I had my first experience thinking about infinity. And that thought changed me forever (forever? infinity?).

Is this a "thin place?"

Is this a “thin place?”

Something about the memory of those two experiences (they are not unique in my experience, simply very early ones) connects my mind, my consciousness (for whatever consciousness is worth), with a reality that I cannot comprehend or explain. Rev. John Morehouse (wouldn’t you know it would be a Christian preacher whom I find to quote) says that in Ireland it is an ancient belief that

wells and caves are sacred places. Known in Celtic spirituality as “thin places” between the mortal world above, these holes in the earth provide the channels by which fairies, leprechauns and even demons can come out to be among us. They are also the places where mortals like ourselves are most likely to travel to the other world, deep into mother earth (4).

Morehouse goes on to quote a well-known expansion on the idea by the theologian Marcus Borg. Borg asserts that

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (5).

In Wind Cave, on the hills at Chadron State Park, and (incomprehensibly) in the Christian Eucharistic liturgy, for me “the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable.” I don’t even know what the two levels are. I know only that this is important. And I need to be in one of the thin places for a moment because my father has died.
_________________
(1) Langer, Susanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner, 1953.
(2) Dix, Dom Gregory, The Shape of the Liturgy. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group (reprint, 2000). See this enormous seminal work on the subject which I was given when I was in college and which provided my first understanding of the liturgy as a “form.”
(3) National Park Service. “Speleothems – Boxwork.” Wind Cave. August 10, 2007. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
(4) Morehouse, John. “A Sermon: Thin Places.” Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Feb. 1, 2004. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
(5) Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne (2004). Quoted in Morehouse.

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