We sat in the sanctuary, facing the altar, some of us on prayer stools. Some on our knees. As the candles flickered we sang the Taize chant together: “Bless the Lord, my soul/ and bless his holy name/Bless the Lord, my soul/who rescues me from death.”
A few minutes later we sat in a prayerful silence. The silence was interrupted only by the sound of worshipers scribbling prayers on slips of paper, accepting the invitation to drop them in an offering plate before the altar as the smell of incense filled the room.
Sounds like heaven, right? It was indeed a moment of heaven touching earth, as Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes (ASA) launched “Light and Peace,” a new contemplative evening service hosted by Washington DC’s Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes (ASA). Described as “an opportunity to to contemplate the One who is the Prince of Peace and the Light of the World through ancient prayers and opportunities for silence, in a safe and open community,” the service is meant to welcome anyone who is looking for a break from the quotidian DC-hustle to encounter the Divine. The next service will be held on Sunday, October 2 at 5pm, followed by a wine and cheese reception in the church’s undercroft.
(Full Disclosure time: I am thankful to have been a small part of the prayer and planning of this event. So yes, I’m biased about it.)
Interestingly, the same day as our first service, the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece for New York magazine entitled “I Used to be a Human Being.” In the piece Sullivan bewails the way technology caused him to be disconnected from his actual life, unable to be still or silent. The piece had many great quotes, but this one stood out to me the most:
The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.
And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.
As I considered Sullivan’s words in light of my experience at Light and Peace, a verse came to mind: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)
The Psalm in which this verse is nestled describes the God as a “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” The psalm invites the reader/singer into worshiping God and asserting both God’s nature and power. The verse comes toward the end of various proclamations of who God is and is an invitation to the reader/singer to stop fretting and know who this God is.
Which makes me wonder: are we perhaps more human when we are still in the knowledge that–to use a well-worn Christian cliche–God is God and we are not?
This of course flies in the face of what seems to be our current ethos in which we are most human when we are working and producing. We need to justify our existence somehow, to prove that we matter. So we work and we blog and we comment and we hustle. Jesus says multiple times that those who seek to save their lives will lose them–maybe that includes our frantic attempts to find and make our own meaning and narratives. And St. Augustine so beautifully prayed, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
A terrifying side effect of our constant working and churning is that we lose perspective. We look to earth-bound saviors and no matter how much we try, we cannot be still before them, because we know deep down that their power is limited. As Eugene Peterson’s translation of Psalm 46:10 says,
“Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”
That evening at ASA we took God’s invitation to step out of the traffic and take a long, loving look at our God. We sang praise and blessing to this God, asserting that it’s God alone who can rescue us from death and lead us into life–not just physical death, but all the things that are not life-giving. God’s invitation to stillness was not about demanding our worship, but creating a place for us to be fully human, bathed in Light and settled in Peace.
For more information on Light and Peace at ASA, click here. The next service will take place on Sunday, October 2 at 5pm at Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes (12th Street and Massachusetts Avenue, NW)