Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fireflies and the Mass

The boys were in bed--more or less, anyway--and Sean and I moved to the back porch of the cabin to talk.

Despite an unfortunate name, Mutton Top is a gorgeous cabin. It stands in a clearing near the summit of a prominent hill on the edge of Shenandoah National Park. As Sean pointed out, the cabin has a certain maritime quality, resembling an old wooden sailing ship lacking its mast. It seems to be cresting the hill perpetually. Or perhaps, as I think of it now, it's the ark of Noah come to rest on Mount Ararat.

In any case, the hill continues to rise into the woods just behind the cabin. We stood there talking and looking up into the deepening dark of the woods--the outline of tree trunks growing dimmer every moment.

The fireflies were magnificent. One would flash, and then another, and then perhaps a third, and then suddenly dozens would follow, a symphony of flashes amidst the trunks. And then all would cease, completely, and for a few moments we'd be in the dark again. Then a flash, another, a third, and again the woods would be suddenly filled.

It was too dark to notice just then, but earlier this summer as Andrea and I worked in the garden and I lay in the grass, I noted that when fireflies flash, they rise a few inches in the air.

I wondered why this was so and came up with two scientifically dubious explanations. Perhaps the effort required to glow is total, and so their whole bodies must strain to produce the burst of light. This could explain the brevity of the flash. Or, maybe, the glow itself is like a supercharger, creating a surge that sends them skyward. The latter, in particular, strikes me as especially ridiculous--but also particularly satisfying to the childlike imagination fireflies evoke.

When you see one or two or even a handful of fireflies blinking, it seems beautiful and curious, but also a touch arbitrary--an odd pulsing or twitching of nature. That night in the woods, though, the fireflies were a symphony, filled with purpose. Sean and I had accidentally stumbled onto an eery and utterly majestic form of worship, a ritual by which creatures praised their Creator. A creaturely rite performed for no audience but the Creator alone.

To witness it was deep privilege. Yet it came with a feeling of imposition and even embarrassment akin to what I felt the first time I attended an Anglican Mass. During that first service I noted the great beauty of the service--the majestic reverence of priest and acolytes, the holistic engagement of mind, body, and soul in worship. It was wonderful to behold, but it was also entirely foreign. I was not as much a participant in the service as an outside observer. I felt as though I were a tourist who had indiscreetly bumbled into an intimate gathering, a stranger and an intrusion.

And indeed I was, through no fault or intention or lack of welcome by congregation or minister, but rather due to the very structure and purpose of the Mass. It does not exist to make congregation or visitors feel at home or at ease--though that surely can be one of its great benefits. It exists to worship God and receive his grace. Everything points upward to God. The priest faces away from the audience not because he has a privilege the congregants lack. He, together with the whole church, faces the altar of God because all are engaged in the worship of God.

Strangers and visitors may join in that worship or simply observe it. But observation is not participation, and the Mass is not a passive service. To observe the Mass--to watch the worship of others rather than be drawn upward in participation of that worship--is to stand outside it. Truly participating involves a self-forgetfulness, a losing of oneself in the worship of God.

I have a third theory about the surge of fireflies. They are being drawn upward in a kind of worship outside human participation. I know, of course, that the material answer for why fireflies blink and rise is a simple Google search away, but I'd rather contemplate the mystery in awe and reverence--as Sean and I did that night in the Shenandoahs.
"The article is called 'God and the American People,' and it says 95 percent of us say that we believe in God. But our religion doesn't meet the writer's standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do." -Rev. Ames (Gilead, Marilynne Robinson)
I'm seeing an increase in self-consciously jeremiad attitudes, statements, and thinking among orthodox Christians--myself included, frankly. When we speak, is it out of God's anguished love for his straying people, as with the prophets, or is it out of scorn and fearful anger?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Over at the tumblr, I've written a couple things about my favorite album of late--Mavis Staples One True Vine. I wrote some early thoughts here, and then a slightly more substantial post here.