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A Stirring in the Corners: The Chaos of a Living Faith

By Rev. William Moremen


     William Moremen holds degrees from Pomona College and The Divinity School of the University of Chicago. A United Church of Christ minister, he has served five churches in diverse locations including the small town of Tehachapi California, the inner city of Los Angeles, and the downtown area of Washington D.C. He is a founding member of Shalem, Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington D.C. and The Pacific Center for Spiritual Formation in the San Francisco Bay area. He has served on the staff of Mercy Center, Burlingame California in its program entitled “The Art of Spiritual Direction.” His books include Developing Spiritually and Professionally and Watch and Pray. In retirement he enjoys competitive racewalking and an ongoing ministry in spiritual direction.

There we were in St. Petersburg, eager to experience a Russian Orthodox worship service – and all we could find was a museum!  It happened this way.  My wife Grace and I, were newly arrived after participating in the racewalk(i) events of The World Masters Athletic Championships in Finland.  As our hotel in St Petersburg was but a few blocks from the magnificent St Isaac’s Cathedral, we stopped by to ask the times of worship – and found a ticket office in front of the church!  The woman inside told us the church was now a museum:  no religious services were held there.  Disappointed, we left.

     Still hoping to find a place to worship, we asked our hotel clerk for help.  She pulled out a brochure, looked it over and said, “You are in luck. There will be a special service tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. at St. Isaac’s.”

     We returned to the church the following morning only to encounter the same woman at the ticket office.  “There are no religious services here,” she insisted, “This is a museum.”  Again disappointed, we decided to pay the admission price and spend our Sunday morning in the museum.

     Strolling through the great cathedral, studying the accouterments of an historic faith, we came upon an obscure corner housing a small chapel into which a few women wearing head scarves were going.  There was also a little stand where you could buy candles.   Not knowing what we would find within, Grace covered her head with a scarf and we bought a candle.   Entering, we saw people placing candles in a large candelabrum. The sound of chanting came from an area off to the side.  Peering around a partition, I saw a space resembling a storage closet – and a priest in full ecclesiastical garb chanting in Russian.  What was going on?  What was this?

     Grace and I sat in a corner and watched as the room filled with more and more people.  Suddenly we were surrounded by activity.  Men and women, including young adults in blue jeans, were donning choir robes.  A choir was forming and it appeared we were sitting in their seats. The choir paid no attention to us but, feeling out of place, we went to join the increasing number of people standing in the chapel.

     And then the worship service began.  There was chanting by full robed priests and glorious singing by the choir. We had hoped for some great Russian choir music and now we were hearing it.

     That Sunday morning in St Petersburg was a grand adventure but for me its major impact was symbolic. Is the Christian church a museum or is it a place of living faith?  And, if there is living faith in the church, is it buried in some corner of a larger more museum-like institution? Or is what is going on in the corner only the more liturgically active part of the museum?

     This St. Petersburg experience helped me get in touch with what is going on in me. I find myself living in a creative tension. On the one hand I value the museum nature of the Christian church and keeping in touch with the words, objects and hymns of the historic faith.  On the other hand I value a living faith that acknowledges a contemporary context. It seems to me that a major element of that context is a pervasive sense of chaos.

     Paul Tillich identified three major periods in church history, each with its own significant existential anxiety and question.  At the end of the ancient period of Western civilization the major anxiety and question had to do with fate and death.  At the end of the Middle Ages it was the question of guilt and condemnation.  At the end of the modern period, it was emptiness and meaninglessness.   I think all three kinds of anxiety and questions are interwoven in the experience of our time, but I think a fourth is now prominent.

     I believe the contemporary anxiety and question has to do with the threat and promise of chaos.  We are threatened with the collapse of the ecosystem, not to mention the economic, political, and cultural systems and structures of which we are part.  Confronting the realization that we are in a universe of two hundred billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars each, perhaps “flecks of froth on a stormy sea of dark matter,” (ii)  we experience the breakdown of our customary view of the world.

     There is a promising side to all this.  According to chaos theory the word “chaos” connotes not only a disruption of limited order but also points to a larger more expansive order beyond our abilities to predict or measure.  We sense a pull to a whole new consciousness that could embrace chaos and its more expansive vision.

     With that in mind, I value worship that acknowledges the contemporary context of chaos with its pain and possibility. I value church discussions, forums, and Bible studies that embrace the pervading chaos and are oriented toward the opening up of a new consciousness with its many facets of theology, ecology, science, economics, art, etc.   I want to explore and have the church explore the notion of evolution as a driving force pressing the human race to take the leap to a new stage, a new consciousness and a new ordering of our life on this planet.  I value asking what and where God is in all this and not simply take the existence and the nature of God for granted.  I want individual churches to find their mission as a fractal part of the larger chaotic, evolutionary thrust. 

     Here is a simple illustration of how chaos reveals the emergence of a larger more complex order.  Take a sheet of 8 1/2” x 11” paper.  Note how familiar you are with this two- dimensional sheet of paper. Now crumple the sheet of paper in your hand.  It is no longer two- dimensional nor has it quite the familiar shape of a ball.  Full of chaotic folds, it has its own complex new shape.

     I imagine how the music of worship might aesthetically express chaos along with new harmonies.  This would allow for plenty of dissonance and for experimentation with new musical forms.  It would certainly include improvisational jazz.  There could be the discovery that chaos in music can lead to its own larger aesthetic order and celebration. 

     Improvisational dance is also a very appropriate form for the expression of chaos and its creative possibilities.  A simple toy called “Chaos Man” illustrates the shift from simple predictable movement to the creativity of new forms emerging in chaos.  The toy first moves to and fro as a pendulum.  Then more pendulums, moving like swinging arms and legs, are added. The movement is now chaotic, no longer predictable, but a new form is discerned.  You could call it dance.

     In the church I would like also to have much more attention given to contemplative exploration.  Karl Rahner said, “In the future Christians will be mystics or they will not be anything.” (iii)   I think he meant that we will need more than declarations about such matters as peace, love, joy and compassion.  We will need to experience these realities first hand.  This means plunging into the waters of inner and communal chaos to seek the deeper nourishing depths.   (As resources for the contemplative plunge and as a thrust of the evolutionary adventure on this planet, I would like to see a great deal of attention given to the interpenetration of the great religious traditions, particularly Buddhism and Christianity.)   

     Is the church a museum?  Or is it a center of living faith?  It often feels to me that, as at St. Isaac’s, the museum is central with, perhaps, something stirring in the corners.  I suggest we heed the call of that stirring, that we rearrange things, leaving the artifacts of the museum respectfully in place around the edges while moving contemporary living faith with its chaos and its wonder to the center. 

(1)an Olympic sport that can also be enjoyed by people of all ages. It is a way of fast walking that has rules that distinguish it from running. It is based on a natural gait, very fluid, utilizing the muscles in an efficient fashion.  Regional, national and international competitions are held for master racewalkers from ages 35-100. 

(ii) Dennis Overby in the New York Times, Science Times 4 October 2001

(iii) As quoted by Paul Knitter in Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009 p.15

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