July 20, 2020

Words, Words, Words!

Let worship words speak within a stone’s throw of worship itself. Let worship throw open windows for us to sense the bigger-than-words realities to which our words refer.

      When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
      When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
      When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
      When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause
            in the lecture-room,
      How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick . . .
            —Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” (lines 1–5)

I hear you, Walt Whitman. I know the airless claustrophobia of the “lecture room.” Sadly, though, it’s usually when I, myself, am doing the lecturing that I most acutely feel the queasiness.

It happens whenever I’m called to make words about worship. Maybe, dear reader, you also find yourself in “lecture rooms” of one type or another. Platforms, pulpits, dinner tables, classrooms, rehearsal spaces: the wide variety of places and ways in which we are called to regularly articulate lofty things about the worship of a transcendent God. Perhaps you are like me? Perhaps when it’s your turn to speak you also feel the air go out of the room?

I used to chalk it up to personal insecurity. But I’m beginning to think that it’s something more than that.

Despairing of Words

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the primal worship word, holy. It’s the mantra, famously, of the four heavenly creatures in Revelation 4 who encircle God’s throne in a never-ending spiral of doxology. Their cry echoes, of course, that of the seraphim in Isaiah 6. The Hebrew word kadosh—“Holy!”—carries a rich freight of meanings and implications. At its root, however, kadosh is less an affirmation than a negation. It means “set apart”—wholly different; unlike anything else we know; beyond the grasp of words.

I’m heartened to know that, when it comes to making words about the worship of God, I’m not alone in feeling inadequate to the task. The most glorious of heavenly creatures are apparently in the same boat.

Whitman’s solution, when the air of the “lecture hall” becomes too stuffy with abstractions? Hightail it outside.

      Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
      In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
      Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I feel you, Walt. An excellent prescription: dose abstraction-sickness with a wordless gulp of reality. I’m all for it. But I wonder, before bolting out of the lecture hall, did you think to open a few windows?

Using Words Anyway

As for those seraphim and living creatures, they do not give up on words altogether. I notice that their primal cry of “holy!” does two nearly opposite things at once. On the one hand, it unflinchingly acknowledges the insufficiency of words to encompass the God who is beyond words. At the very same time, however, “holy” is, indeed, a word. The heavenly creatures do not lapse into mere mystical silence. Rather, they keep lifting up their word-subversive words, over and over and over again—and employ still more words to illuminate that which is ultimately beyond the reach of words. Their words open, like windows, to vistas beyond themselves.

Sometimes, right in the thick of the “lecture room,” windows open unexpectedly. There’s a particular grace-filled moment that never fails to surprise me, even though it nearly always recurs in the “History of Christian Worship” course I teach. Day-long classes can be challenging and sleep-inducing, and I confess that I leverage an intentionally caffeinated cavalcade of words, words, words. A few days in, however—as we barrel into the Byzantine era—we always pause to listen to an especially lovely contemporary setting of the Trisagion. “Holy God, holy and mighty . . .” Without fail, a thick hush comes over the class. There are usually tears. After the song’s final notes die out, we sit in silence until I can muster something or other to say. Having turned for one moment from the superabundance of words, we’re aware that a window has been opened and we have, right there in the classroom, “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

What To Do?

For those of us who are drafted to speak about worship (in either literal or figurative classrooms), I humbly recommend a twofold approach. On the one hand, we do well to follow Walt Whitman’s lead and do our own occasional “rising and gliding” out of the lecture room. The poet’s journey from astronomy class to open stars seems to be a short one. May the same be true for us. May our words about worship be spoken within a stone’s throw of worship, itself.

On the other hand, we might be intent on regularly throwing open windows whenever we speak of worship. What sorts of disclaimers and reminders will help us—and our dialogue partners—to sense the bigger-than-words realities to which our words refer? Are there ways of using words that seem less like charting and diagramming, and more like star-gazing? (Open-ended questions? Metaphor? Story?) And what about deliberate times of “perfect silence”—during both our preparation and our talking?

I’m thankful for you, Walt Whitman. Although your theology is not remotely like my own, I’m glad for your reminder: the maps we sketch are not the destinations they describe.

Digger Deeper

Rev. Dr. Alan Rathe pastors the English-speaking congregation of the Chinese Alliance Church of Westchester, an ethnic Chinese church outside of New York City. Previously he served as worship pastor for a multi-ethnic urban church. He earned a PhD in liturgical studies from Drew University, has served as an adjunct professor at three different schools since 2003, and serves on the regular faculty at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida. His published works include Evangelicals, Worship and Participation (Rouledge, 2014).