Contemplative Possibilities in Corporate Worship/Liturgy
Here are a few suggestions that can help open the way for people’s first-hand presence in the Presence during a Sunday or other time of corporate worship. These include selected (sometimes modified) excerpts from the section on Liturgy in chapter four of my new book, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth (Paulist Press 2010), followed by a detailed form of a contemplative Eucharist/Holy Communion that is not in the book. Those of you who may be in non-Christian traditions may find some things I say adaptable to your worship forms.
Above all, give room for SILENCE. John of the Cross said that silence is God’s first language. Mother Teresa (who required two hours of silent daily prayer for her Sisters) said that silence is God speaking to us. Isaac of Nineveh advocated loving silence above all things, because it brings you near the fruit which the tongue is too weak to interpret. Meister Eckhart said that there is nothing so like God as silence.
Silence then isn’t just a means. In its fullness silence itself is participation in God’s being, which is the depth of our own being. Such intimate participation is available to everyone, across every linguistic and cultural divide, since silence is a language that everyone knows.
Silence thus is living, pregnant, sacred space, open presence before sounds emerge, and from which sounds (including thoughts) emerge. Silence is boundary-less, inclusive of everything, full of possibilities. It is spaciousness that can draw us deeper into reality as it is, deeper into the delicate gracious Presence that inhabits the silence and the words and songs that rise from it. We are left more available to the Holy One’s healing, transforming, enlightening grace, individually and communally.
If the value of such silence is being taught in spiritual formation groups in the life of the church, with help in ways of practicing such receptive prayer during the day, then what’s done in the Sunday liturgy will be that much more natural for people. Such receptive openness can become the seedbed of fuller forms of open awareness in people’s lives.
Valuing silence in the historic Christian Eucharist/Holy Communion Service is doubly needed and appreciated in the context of the flood of noise and often trivial and commercially oriented voices in our culture that can drown out people’s sense of a larger Presence and Voice. People’s deep souls are starved for meaningful space that allows them room to see and feel life from the openness of their spiritual hearts rather than the drivenness of their over-stuffed minds, an openness where they can touch their own and life’s wholeness in God.
In a few churches today we find a more fully contemplatively oriented Eucharist taking place at some time other than Sunday mornings, for people who find the Presence more palpable in a Service with fewer words and more pregnant silences. For many years I have led a particular form of ecumenical contemplative Eucharist during Shalem programs and retreats that I will share with you here.
A Form of Contemplative Eucharist / Communion
I have varied the words of this form from time to time, so there is nothing sacred about the particular phrases chosen here. I find it important to pause for about 10 seconds or so between every set of words used. The form includes all the essential acts of the historic scripturally grounded Eucharist, surrounded with the fewest possible words to draw us toward the fullness of life in this sacred meal with Christ in the Spirit of the living God.
The very dualistic language of most standard liturgies, where I find God often portrayed as overly separate from us, is muted in the language used here. The words seek to open a more intimate sense of non-dual presence: God in and among as well as beyond us; God not defined away from us but sensed immediately present, deeper than the words; God as the living, pregnant, personal Silence who mysteriously whispers tough and soft love songs among us, and weaves us into Love’s Body, through water, bread, wine, cross and our lived experience of grace. For the cultivation of such awareness, the words are addressed more to the spiritual heart’s intuition than to the mind’s linear thinking.
This form would not be right for every Eucharistic/Communion occasion. Some churches could not normally use it for regular Sunday worship due to the liturgical requirements of their denomination. Even where it is permissible, it would be best to give a normal Sunday gathering of people the experience of a few elements of a contemplative Eucharist before offering this much fuller version. Written and spoken help for people to understand the value of these elements would be important, given the lack of conditioning of many people for appreciation of listening silence in worship. Suggesting ways of being present in the silence could be valuable for people who are new to it. This could include some way of actually guiding people through a period of silence step by step early on, for example, inviting them to be in touch with their desire for God, and then to gently let go the surface busyness of their minds to a deeper openness to God’s loving presence in them, and in the congregation.
The particular contemplative form of Eucharist spelled out here would likely be most readily received in relatively small, informal gatherings of people, especially people who are drawn to a fuller presence in the moment for God, through a less wordy format than most standard Eucharistic/Communion services allow. Besides at special times during the week for such a Eucharist, it can be offered as part of a Quiet Day or retreat.
You will note that this liturgy includes the occasional sounding of a bell. I believe a sonorous bell has a special way of stilling our minds and opening our hearts. Bells have a long history in Christian worship and they can be used in more ways than we usually do. The liturgy also includes optional places for singing. My own preference is to choose songs that complement the simplicity of this Eucharist’s words and its special intent to open people to the immediate Presence. This has meant that I have usually chosen simple repetitive chants or song lines, such as certain Taize chants, that directly address God and draw us to the Presence, with little or no need for dependence on either written copies or screened versions of the music.
Other than the three optional places for singing and a version of the Lord’s Prayer, the congregation is silent throughout. Their silent “responses” to the few words said are whatever is given them in the silences between the words. The congregation also participates through the body: standing at least from the exchange of peace until after receiving Communion (the congregation can sit otherwise for simplicity’s sake, or stand and kneel as the presider instructs). It participates through the body also through open hands during the intercessory and thanksgiving prayers, bowing to the neighbor and clasping their hands for the offering of Christ’s peace, receiving and offering communion, and raising hands in the blessing of one another and of God (which might be more appropriate in some denominations than in others). Such bodily gestures are a powerful sacred language without words.
A Contemplative Eucharist/Communion Service
Everything in quotes is read by the presider.
Ring bell, followed by a moment of silence.
- “We bless your loving presence, Ever-Gracious One.”
- “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.”
- “Have mercy on us.”
- Optional brief collect (prayer) related to the particular occasion or the liturgical calendar (e.g., for Epiphany, it could be simply “Shine through us.”).
- “Speak to us a living Word.” Here lectionary based or other selected scriptural lessons can be read. Sometimes I have asked readers ahead of time to select just one or two verses from each lesson. Sometimes I have added something written by someone in another tradition, e.g., Thich Nhat Hanh’s brief, passionate view of the contemplative power of the Christian Eucharist.20 Silence for several minutes between each lesson.
- Optional homily. I often trust the Spirit to sufficiently speak to people in the silence after each lesson, so that no separate spoken homily is given. Sometimes I open the time to a corporate homily, where anyone can share what they are moved to share, in a brief sentence or two. Once in awhile I will give a brief homily myself, choosing words that hopefully continue to draw people to the living Presence.
- Ring bell.
- “Now let’s open our hands and ask God to pray through us silently (pausing for a moment or two between each of the four areas of prayer, followed each time by the ringing of the bell):
- “First, let’s listen to God’s prayer in you for the world.”
- “Now listen to God’s prayer in you for the church” (optional: and for all forms of spiritual community).
- “Now listen to God’s prayer for those people you know….for those who have died….and for ourselves.”
- “Now listen to God’s prayer in you for repentance” (optional: “strike your heart with your closed right hand as a sacred gesture while you do the following”): “silently name and let go whatever ways you have disregarded God’s inviting presence (optional addition: “and harmed the community”) in the situations of your life” (pause). (optional addition: “Embrace the desire in you to see the world day by day through God’s eyes and respond as you are called.”)
- “The ever-reconciling One through the living Christ promises us forgiveness and new life. Our sins are forgiven.” (optional: “Our union in Love is empowered once again.”)
- Exchange of Peace. “Please stand.” (Ideally the people will be in a circle, but this is not necessary). “God’s (or Christ’s) peace that passes understanding abounds among us. Let’s affirm that peace for one another silently now. I will begin by enclosing the hands of my neighbor and bow to God’s Spirit in them. That person in turn will silently bow and offer God’s peace in Christ to the person next to them, and so on around the room.” (If the group is large, an option is to have each person offer and receive the peace from the person on each side of them, as representatives of the whole congregation.)
- Offertory: The gifts of bread and wine (and grape juice, if that is a choice), along with any other gifts, if others are collected in this service, are brought to the Communion table/altar.
- “Let’s lift our hands and hearts in silent thanksgiving and praise.”
- “We join our voices with the whole company of heaven, proclaiming your glory, Holy One, filling heaven and earth. Now let’s praise God’s wholeness among us with a continuous chant of ‘holy’ together. By ‘continuous’ is meant that your voices do not have to remain together as they are chanting, so that you can begin and end the chanting of “holy” at any time. Then, between everyone, there is a continuous sound coming forth. It can be monotoned, or melodic, as Spirit may move you.” The experience of such a collective sung “Sanctus” often is felt as both ecstatic and calm at the same time, an expressive way of opening the heart, both the individual heart and the shared heart of the community.
- “Blessed is the one who comes in your Name. Hosanna in the highest.”
- Words of Institution: “In the holy meal that we continue to share, Jesus said: “This is my Body given for you” (bread lifted to congregation). “This is my blood shed for you” (cup lifted to congregation).
- Epiclesis (hands over bread and wine): “Awaken your wondrous Spirit among us through these holy gifts.”
- The Great Amen: Silently raise the bread and wine (optional: followed by a bow).
- Lord’s Prayer. I normally read the following version written by Jim Cotter and found in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer and elsewhere, asking people to line it out after me:“Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love Maker, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:The Hallowing of your Name echo through the universe! The Way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your Heavenly Will be done by all created beings! Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!
With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.”
- Fraction: Raising and breaking the bread in silence.
- Communion: “Receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation (or Cup of Wholeness), and wordlessly offer it to your neighbor, in silent reverence.” (optional: silent distribution of communion by the presider and appointed others, especially if the assembly is large.)
- Optional singing during Communion.
- Thanksgiving: “Let’s sit (option: stand, kneel) with open hands in silent appreciation of the radiant Love living within and among us.” (Several minutes of silence.)
- Ring bell.
- Blessing. “Raise your hands with me for God’s blessing to flow through us for everyone here, slowly sweeping our hands around the circle (room)….Now let’s raise our hands to God, blessing the Beloved’s ever liberating presence shown us in Christ and flowing through all creation.”
- Dismissal: “Let’s go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”
I have included this sketch of a tested liturgical form as a way of stimulating your own Spirit-led imagination regarding possibilities for Eucharistic (and other worship) forms that might more fully invite our present, open awareness in the moment. The common denominator I think includes fewer words, and words (including song/chant lyrics) that seek to open us to immediate presence in the larger gracious Presence, punctuated by a listening silence that allows the words to be more deeply heard and inwardly digested. As I earlier inferred, such qualities seem especially important as compensation and restitution for people coming from the context of a constantly pressured, over-wordy, over-stimulated culture.
My deepest hope in prayer and life is to share more of the immediate Spirit-consciousness from which Jesus lived and from which he invited us to live, something of the “mind of Christ.” A contemplative Eucharist, or contemplative worship service of any kind, strives to assist such an intimate divine-human mutual presence.