Recently I had the pleasure of reading Braiding Sweetgrass, a collection of essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a botanist and a Native American who values her heritage. She has an interesting perspective on ecological issues, interweaving the scientific and traditional outlooks. I recommend it as a good companion to Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si.
In any case, she makes an interesting observation in her book that I would like to address today. She states “Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention.” I like that because I agree with it and find it pithy. Ceremony, especially as we do ceremony here in church, is not just outward show. It has purpose and meaning. She continues: “These acts of reverence are powerfully pragmatic. These are ceremonies that magnify life.” The ceremonies that we celebrate here each weekend do, I maintain, magnify life.
But then she states: “In many indigenous communities, the hems of our ceremonial robes have been unraveled by time and history, but the fabric remains strong. In the dominant society, though, ceremony seems to have withered away. I suppose there are many reasons for that: the frenetic pace of life, dissolution of community, the sense that ceremony is an artifact of organized religion forced upon participants rather than a celebration joyfully chosen.” Hmmm. Here I have to object.
Certainly, there are many deadly dull ceremonies out there. I have endured more than a few. But I believe that you all return week after week, fighting the traffic and navigating the garage, putting up with endless second collections, not as something you must do as an obligation, nor as something forced on you, but because at some level you do experience the ceremony of our worship as meaningful, rewarding, sustaining, and as focusing attention so that attention becomes intention. We are all better for it.
Rather regularly, visitors to our parish comment on the congregational participation in the singing. One recently told me “that’s a singing church!” Indeed we are.
I sincerely hope that you do not find our worship “an artifact of organized religion” but rather something real and organic that speaks to you and your daily life. I know I find our ceremonies rewarding. Not every Sunday, not all the time, but more than enough to cause me to look forward to celebrating with all of you again and again. It is meaningful, uplifting, and frequently fun. When I stand out in front and greet people as they leave Mass they do not look grumpy, relieved the Mass is finally over or bored. They seem happy. Maybe they are just happy it is over, but I don’t think so. I think, overall, our ceremonies magnify life.
However, that does not happen on its own. It requires work: work on the part of the priest, the lectors, the hospitality ministers, the musicians and choir, and especially the congregation. You in the pews are the MAIN determinant if the celebration is truly celebratory or only vapid, empty show.
The key word is “participation.” You already know how to do it. And you do it! Keep working to do it better. May all our ceremonies focus attention so that attention becomes intention.
*Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer ©2013 Milkweed Editions