Do Not Enter the Hall Smelling of Onions! Or, should Liturgy be stimulating?

In Dogen’s instructions on conduct in the meditation hall, from which the above quotation comes, he is keen to protect practitioners from an excess of stimulation. Interestingly, he also considers the possibility of someone entering the hall while intoxicated with wine accidentally! His better known ‘Rules for Zazen’ (Zazen Gi) underline the need for a space that is calm and quiet and this is because zazen is quite the opposite of seeking an intense ‘spiritual’ experience. It is a matter of living one’s life fully even when it does not present us with anything of very great interest – ie most of the time! If one chases any sort of ‘experience’ at all as a goal in life, there is a very strong danger that we will constantly imagine that fulfillment lies elsewhere, and that is a sure-fire route towards disappointment. Zazen is nothing more or less than the living of life itself – fully, consciously, openly.

Dōgen - Wikipedia

What, then, of Christian worship? What is its primary purpose? Is it even wise to talk about worship as having a purpose at all? There is a real risk that we see liturgy as a kind of spiritual stimulation, a ‘high’ to keep us going through the drudge of the week until the next boost comes along. We might see that in terms of a mental insight, an aesthetic experience, a sense of community, an extraordinary encounter with the divine. None of these things is bad, but what if they don’t come our way?

It seems to be against everything that we imagine to be necessary for church growth to suggest that worship should understimulate rather than overstimulate us, but I think I’m going to try now to make a case for just that!

I think that our patterns of prayer and ritual can have a very positive role in forming our approach to life as a whole, and if they are to do that well, they need to be capable of seeing us through monotonous, unappealing and uncomfortable aspects of life as well as joyful and exciting ones. To do that, they need to school us in the art of finding equilibrium and stability, of staying put and paying attention, of receptiveness and subtle awareness. If our liturgical or ritual life aims only to provide us with excitement, stimuli or points of interest, we might end up seeking these rather than giving ourselves fully to the longer and slower work of patient attentiveness.

So what might the ritual practices be that can nurture this quality of balance?

First of all, repetition is our friend in this approach to ritual prayer. Repeated texts and gestures instill in us habits of attention and focus. And it’s not as if these things are devoid of content – what more theology do we need than that contained in the Jesus Prayer?

Secondly, the use of liturgical chant provides a steady pulse to our prayer, aids memory and reduces the temptation of over-expression, which is another kind of stimulus. I would love to see the chanting of liturgical texts become the norm once more for most of our liturgical services, even small-scale ones (and it really is no less virus-emitting than speech!).

Thirdly, the use of aesthetics that promote focus will help us with our attentive stillness. I strongly believe that church buildings should be beautiful, not to provide sensory stimulation alone but to enhance the sense of harmony and attention. This might suggest a simpler aesthetic with clean lines and few points of distraction but I think that other approaches can offer the same thing. For example, I do not find a Greek church with icons everywhere to be over-stimulating and I think this is because the form of the building itself is usually very simple, with a focal point on the apse, emphasised by the Royal Doors in front of it. There is only one altar and usually a minimum of furniture. And the icons themselves are an invitation to attentiveness – they do not provide drama and ‘interesting detail’ but stillness and presence.

Finally, all ritual prayer should be offered with care; not hurried or sloppy but measured and unfussy. There is a particular onus on the one presiding to embody that sense of collected presence and careful attention, not getting in the way of the community’s prayer and in no way self-promoting. This does not mean that clergy and worship leaders need to leave their personality at the door, but simply remember that they are not the focus of attention. That’s one of the reasons our church strongly favours the use of liturgical vestments – they are not my clothes expressing my personality. Each person praying also might pay attention to how they are present in the liturgy, perhaps even if they are participating from home through a screen.

I want to be clear that I am not rejecting any aspect of liturgy that is emotionally uplifting, simply suggesting that this should not be sought out as the highest expression of our prayer and that we would do well to nurture habits that sustain us through every moment of life rather than offering an escape from it.

Joyful Banquets – Sermon for Pentecost 19

parable-of-the-wedding-feast-icon - Catholic Stewardship Consultants, Inc.

I guess that if we were each asked to describe our perfect paradise, we would all come up with something slightly different. Depending on our temperament, we might go for peaceful seclusion or bustling conviviality, warm Mediterranean climes or cool northern skies, music to dance to or silence to soothe us. So if we are more disposed towards something a little quieter, we might be put off by the recurring image in the gospels of the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast. To those so inclined, I would simply offer the observation that, even at the noisiest wedding, there’s always a quiet corner where you can find others taking a break from the inevitable carnage of an Orcadian Strip the Willow.

Whatever our preferences, I think there are fundamental truths in the image of the wedding feast which are enduring. The first is that the image of our ultimate destiny as a thoroughly communal affair rings true. We are made to interact with each other; we are made to learn the art of living a good life in the company of others; we are made to find ourselves when we move beyond self-concern and into love for our neighbours; and we are made in the image of God who is not solitary but relational. And in this time of restriction, we crave our vital social connections more than ever. But I’m intrigued that Jesus chose the image of a wedding feast as his basic paradigm of the Kingdom of God. Why not a family or a community or a nation? Well, apart from the fact that these social realities are fraught with complexities of their own and each risks a sort of exclusive or restrictive dimension, there is something about a wedding feast that these other groupings doesn’t quite capture. Above all, the wedding feast introduces a note of unrestricted joy that is not necessarily present in these other examples.

I don’t think we talk enough about joy in the spiritual life. We seem more disposed towards thinking of the sterner virtues, or the instructive possibilities we find in hardship, or the notion of heroic sacrifice and we can dismiss joy as frivolous in comparison. But joy is also a kind of sacrifice in the sense that it is a giving up of po-faced self-control in favour of self-forgetting delight. It is a letting go of self-importance so that we may truly and simply enjoy the gifts that someone else brings to the party. It replaces the anxiety that can so diminish our spiritual wellbeing with light-heartedness and delight.

I think there’s something almost comic in today’s parable when it recounts the terribly worthy excuses given by those who not only refuse the first invitation but even continue their joyless sulk when the messengers draw their attention to the smell of the best food being prepared under their very noses. Enough with your partying, they say – we’ve got work to do. We are people of substance and have no time for your trivial interruptions to the serious business of commerce. Where the wedding feast speaks of abundance for all, a time out of the grind of daily life, those who refuse to come are concerned only with their own gain. One of the miserable so-and-sos who does turn up even refuses to put on a festal garment in an act of self-righteous reproach to the celebrating partygoers.

But for all its comic impact, the parable sets before us a rather stark reminder of the choices we must make day by day. As with all parables, it is not intended to make a single point but confronts each one of us with a deeply existential question. In this case, the question is about what we truly value. Are we too concerned with our own security or self-image to let ourselves go for the sake of another? Are we so much invested in our own advancement that we shun the gifts offered to us by someone else? Does our own little world take precedence over the much bigger reality that opens up before us when we allow the stranger to take a place at the table alongside us?

In these difficult days of constraint and anxiety, there is always a risk that our world will shrink in the way it did for those who refused the invitation to the wedding banquet. There is a risk that we prioritise our own nation or tribe over the greater family of humanity. There is a risk that faith becomes a private matter rather than a fundamentally communal reality. And there is a risk that our bigger vision takes second place to our more immediate concerns.

In the face of these constraints, Christians continue to offer participation in a wedding feast. Every day, we set a table in the face of our fears and place there bread to strengthen our bodies and wine to cheer our hearts. For now, the feast may not be as sumptuous as we would like, but it is a feast nonetheless. It bids us rejoice; it invites us to set aside self-concern in order to meet one another and, in doing so, to meet the God who is our bounteous host. Whatever else we do, we must continue to offer this joyful sacrifice because, in doing so, we offer a foretaste of the coming kingdom and we learn the art of being together at a table where none is left behind. This Holy Table points simultaneously in two directions: it draws us away from self-concern and towards the heavenly banquet; and it draws us away from self-concern towards those who are hungry here and now. It is, at the same time, the gate of heaven and the serving counter of the Steps to Hope van that parks outside our door. The Liturgy here and the Liturgy after the Liturgy are one joyful sacrifice. How could we resist an invitation to such a feast?


Sleep specialists recommend that short naps of no more than 15 minutes can have a beneficial effect on our energy levels and alertness. Any longer than that sees us getting into a deeper level of sleep which makes it harder to wake up without feeling drowsy.

But I would like to propose a different, or perhaps complementary practice. Why not spend 15 minutes each day being awake? I mean really awake. The practice of zazen, of seated meditation, is not an exercise in relaxation as such, and is certainly not some kind of dream-like state. It is simply the practice of being awake, of being alert to the world around us, of being receptive to everything without devouring it, of open-eyed stillness in the face of whatever is around us. It is not the shutting-off of thoughts and not a retreat from the world but a simple exercise of attention. As such, it is, at the very least, a way of expressing our capacity for wakefulness and a way of strengthening that capacity.

The term wakefulness has synonyms in the religious vocabulary of Christianity and Buddhism, and probably others too. In Christianity, the desert tradition gave us nepsis – watchfulness or sobriety – and in Buddhism, the experience of enlightenment is an experience of awakening. In fact, in the latter, I think that Soto Zen would prefer to speak of being-awake so as not to suggest a movement from one state to another – enlightenment is not a goal to attain but a present reality to express. In Christian experience, watchfulness is also a constant invitation – ‘today, if only you would hear his voice…’ – and the vivid words of Compline come to mind:

Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in the faith.

We needn’t get too into the question of ‘external’ diabolical threats to see the wisdom of these words. The fact is that we are vulnerable when we are not awake and our lack of watchfulness closes us off from others.

So don’t give up the siestas, but do think about having a time to be fully awake each day!