The Speed of Soul
On some Sunday mornings at St. Stephen’s Church, the most important thing that happens for me in worship is the long, slow procession down the center aisle. The organ prelude will have been a centering piece that quiets even the most talkative and stills even the most anxious. The silence that follows the prelude delivers us all into a place of quiet anticipation. And after this pregnant pause, the organist plays the first notes of a majestic processional hymn, the crucifer solemnly raises the cross, takes a deep breath, and then unhurriedly takes a first purposeful step into the nave.
Our crucifers are traditionally high school seniors. Their lives are full of social and academic pressure – to fit in with their peers, to perform academically, to excel athletically, and to get admitted to a good college. They are used to multi-tasking and being many places at once – texting and posting, liking and following. But when they raise the processional cross and take that first solemn step, it is clear to anyone watching that these young people are leading us into a counter-cultural moment that our souls have longed for.
In their daily lives at school and home, our teenage crucifers are accustomed to moving quickly, efficiently, and deliberately, from one task or deadline to another. But when they step into the nave for the opening procession of our ancient liturgy, with 40 or more people behind them (acolytes, choir, clergy, and lay ministers) and hundreds more worshippers singing all around them, it is as if these young people are leading us into another dimension. And they simply will not be rushed. It is beautiful and sometimes brings tears to my eyes. They seem to know that this is a holy moment of soulful dignity and depth. We are following the way of the cross, from the sacred moment of our birth (the font) to the sacred moment of our death (the altar), with a sense of being enveloped by the love of God all along the way. The journey itself is sacred, not just the destination. But how will we know this sanctity, unless we slow down?
The labyrinth at the entrance to the nave of Chartres Cathedral in France has served a similar function for a thousand years. Prayerful pilgrims who walk the labyrinth in this 12th century cathedral know that its winding path does not have any tricky wrong turns or annoying dead-ends. The path leads reliably and inevitably to the heart or center. But a rational, task-oriented person who is bent on efficiency can be frustrated by the labyrinth. The narrow path with its tight turns forces a person to pay attention to his or her steps. It starts out moving directly toward the center, but then it loops outward, then back on itself in the other direction, sometimes circling closer to the center, and then maddeningly moving outward again. You know you’ll eventually arrive at your destination, but the rational mind finds this circuitous route exasperating and a waste of time.
The soul responds differently to the labyrinth. For the soul, this slowing of the body allows the soul to catch up, to settle, and to breathe again. The heart and mind can stop racing, also, allowing our whole being to embody Jesus’ hope that we would come to love with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. It is no surprise that the labyrinth walk is only increasing in popularity today, with replicas of the Chartres labyrinth being built all over the world, for the healing of distracted, data-driven, and soul-weary pilgrims who are eager to come home to God, and to themselves. I think this phenomenon explains the allure of the silences in the evening Celtic services at St. Stephen’s and the transcendence so many long for and experience at the candlelit Compline service.
The late H.A. Williams – priest, monk, and Cambridge University professor – believed that the only churches that will thrive in the future will be those that have become schools or centers of contemplation and ancient contemplative practices. (Maybe this is why, in some places, yoga studios and meditation centers are already more popular than church on Sunday mornings.) Williams believed that people will no longer go to church to be lectured, entertained, or participate in wordy liturgies; they will go instead to enter into and experience Divine Mystery. People will not want to be told about the beauty of holiness, he said; they will want to experience it for themselves.
What Williams was pointing out, I think, was that people will more and more crave a return to the holy wisdom of the Sabbath. They’ll want to do less, not more; one thing instead of many things. They’ll want to slow down, simplify, let go of distractions, and center their heart, mind, and soul. They’ll come to church as a way of returning to their source, to a place of awe and wonder, to divine mystery and the beauty of holiness, to the love in which we all live and move and have our being.
And on many Sunday mornings at St. Stephen’s, that is exactly where a high school senior, moving at the speed of soul, one solemn and purposeful step at a time, is leading me.