For those like me who are interested in the origin of words, it will come as no surprise to learn that the words ‘worship’ and ‘worth’ come from the same root. ‘Worship’ is derived from the old English ‘weordscipe’ and refers to the state of being worthy and, as I explained in an introduction to worship for school recently, the idea behind worship is to celebrate those things we value or find worthy. For religious people that usually means celebrating God or the divine life, but worship need not be seen as the preserve of the predominantly religious. In her rather interesting recent series of lectures on ‘Values as the New Religion’, Professor Linda Woodhead argues that secular values have largely taken the place of religion in our society, and she reminds us that the secular celebration of values can be found everywhere – in major corporations, government departments, schools, and marketing organisations. One value that has recently acquired a religious significance is the genuflection (taking the knee) that football players make at the beginning of games to mark the respect they have and demand for each other. However, it is not just mutual respect that commands our attention as something worth celebrating, but values like dignity, accountability, transparency, honesty, and integrity. Many of the organisations to which we belong celebrate these values, even if they are honoured more in the breach than in the observance – ‘laminated values’, as Linda Woodhead calls them
What I want to ask in this article is whether worship is simply about celebrating our values or whether it is more than that? Thinking back to my previous piece on sacred spaces, I wonder whether there is a difference between celebrating worldly values – values such as success, mutual respect, and human kindness – and celebrating those values we associate with sacred space? What are those sacred values, and what is it that makes something ‘sacred’? In that article on ‘sacred space’ I explored the idea that religious buildings stand as witnesses to beauty, stillness, and quiet, and that they are reflective spaces that connect us with a living past and point us towards an infinite horizon. The atmosphere of a sacred building directs our attention to what lies beyond, and it places us in a space and time that is stretched out and that reduces us to silence. The sacred raises us up and points us beyond ourselves to a space that is bigger and a time that is longer, bringing us to a point where words start to fail causing us to fall still and quiet. In some circles this is described as awe and wonder, and these values have often been associated with worship. Worship, in the sense of sacred worship, is designed to take us out of ourselves and place us in the context of the infinite and eternal, just as sacred spaces do. Orthodox Christians see worship in terms of the present and mundane being touched by the eternal and heavenly – worship transports us into a different space and time where our perspective is transformed, and our lives are changed.
But, as someone pointed out to me after my article on saving sacred spaces, not all religious buildings convey this sense of transcendence or even the sense that they have been prayed in, and that is curious. What makes a place or an act of worship sacred, and are there some qualities or characteristics that we can associate with this slippery designation ‘sacred’? We have already mentioned beauty, stillness, quietness, reflection, and connection as elements of sacred space, and to these we could add inspiring, uplifting, and enlivening, particularly when we think about worship. For an act of worship to feel sacred it must lift our spirits, enliven our souls, and connect us to what lies beyond that which is immediately present to our senses – to the place where words can no longer describe what is happening, but where we are embraced by a peace and joy that surpasses our understanding. I have often had this experience after hearing a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music, or on entering a place where the stillness, peace, and tranquillity have been a palpable presence. It is an experience that cannot be contrived or manufactured, for its purpose is not to create an effect, but to reveal or uncover that indescribable peace and joy that lie at the heart of creation.
One of the best insights into worship that I have received has come through walking the dog in the early hours of the day. Each day I am struck by the way in which the trees just bask in the sun’s light, or the way in which the birds carry on singing in the rain, and this basking and singing feel like nature’s way of worshipping life – life which is mostly joyful and calm. I know this is an idyllic picture, and I do recognise that nature can also be cruel and powerfully dangerous, but even in the sheer power of an attacking animal, or the roar of thunder, or the explosive power of a volcano, there is something to be wondered at and respected – valued, found worthy, worshipped. Those wonderfully expressive and ancient songs we know as the psalms, songs that have formed the basis of worship for over two and a half millennia, celebrate every aspect of life as a cause for worship. They are a pouring out of human experience and a lifting up of the human condition before the un-nameable and un-thinkable, and yet they mention the name ‘God’ to refer to this indescribable presence that they find elusive. Life is full of moments when worship is the only word that is suitable for describing what is going on – whether it be the trees basking in the sun, the birds singing in the rain, a choral or symphonic work that pulls on the heart strings, the poem that says just the right word, or a piece of art that expresses a beauty beyond words – all these occasions open us up to the peace and joy of infinitude.
If we can find worship everywhere, and I do believe it is possible to experience worship almost everywhere, then why do we need places and acts of worship? Some places lend themselves to worship, and many churches fall into this category. However, some do not, and I wonder why – is it that they don’t point beyond themselves, or that they take themselves too seriously, pointing only to their own importance or even lack of importance? When it comes to acts of worship, I wonder whether using the word ‘act’ is even appropriate? Worship is not worship when it is contrived, when it seeks to produce an effect rather than create an atmosphere or a sense of orientation. Often, worship fails when there are too many words, when it tries to do what is un-doable – to describe or delimit that which is indescribable or limitless. Every experience of worship needs an element of mystery, for worship is about orientation and atmosphere rather than explanation and mundane concerns. The worth of worship is that it points us beyond, towards the infinite horizon, and that it lifts us out of our present, placing us in the greater space and longer time of that which is beyond space and time.