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Still those wandering thoughts of umbrellas

24 June 2016

In the first of two articles about what happens in worship, Angela Ashwin explores attentiveness


The beauty of holiness: the eucharist at St Paul’s, Bow Common, in the East End of London

The beauty of holiness: the eucharist at St Paul’s, Bow Common, in the East End of London

THE external elements that make up a church service are important, but there is a hidden reality that is equally significant, and yet is easily neglected: what is going on in the minds and hearts of the worshippers.

When we arrive, we may be so preoccupied with trivia, such as where to put a dripping umbrella, or wondering who is preaching, that we forget that we are on the threshold of an encounter with the living God.

As the service progresses, our thoughts may continue to wander; so we end up with that slightly wistful feeling that you can get after a wonderful concert, when you realise that you missed half of it because your mind was elsewhere.

We may laugh at Annie Dillard’s whimsical idea, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row, 1982), that we should be issued with crash helmets and safety-belts when we come to church. But she has a point. It is all too easy to become casual about what is sacred, and forget that we are there to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96.9).

I like the Orthodox Church’s teaching that heaven comes to meet the earth when we gather for worship. Christ is present to us in infinite generosity, offering himself in word and sacrament, and seeking each of us out. How, then, can we quieten our chatterbox brains, and be fully present to him?

Something that helps me to gather my scattered thoughts and remember why I am here is the Collect for Purity at the eucharist: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden . . .” This is strong stuff, although you wouldn’t think so from the perfunctory way I can sometimes rattle through it.

The God in whose presence we are gathered knows us inside out: all our thoughts, and every desire. If I am paying attention, and truly mean what I say in this momentous prayer, it becomes a wake-up call, and I sense that I am being drawn into something so amazing that my inner monologue does, for once, come to a halt.

As Moses understood when God appeared to him in the burning bush (Exodus 3.1-12), this is holy ground, and the best response is wonder, stillness, and a willingness to be changed.

This question how we engage with worship applies as much to those who lead services as to those who are led, although it is harder to be “lost in wonder” when you are also responsible for the logistics. Bringing small children to church is also costly; just being there is itself an offering of love for God.

A helpful guiding principle for us all is: “Pray the words.” This involves both attention and intention, gently bringing our wandering minds back to the present moment (without berating ourselves for inevitable distractions). It may be that the words being said or sung when we bring our focus back are exactly what we need to hear.

One difficulty in liturgical worship can be its sheer familiarity, which can numb our sense of expectation, and make us even more liable to sleepwalk through services. Feeling our feet on the ground, and noticing the rhythm of our breathing may help us to remain rooted in what is happening.

Here, as in all of life, it takes only a few seconds to apply this simple form of bodily awareness as a way of redirecting our intention and attention towards God.

This is not about making a huge effort, but about being as present as we can to the God who is present to us. Finding some small moments of inner silence in the course of a service does not mean that we achieve more, but that we are likely to receive more.

During Bible readings, some people like to listen as if hearing the words for the first time, especially if a passage is so well-known that we could otherwise think: “Oh, yes, that,” and instantly switch off.

There are many ways of listening to scripture, be it poetry, prose, parable, or letter. The key question is not whether a passage gives us absolute factual truth: it is whether we hear it with an open and uncluttered mind, ready to receive whatever God might be saying to us through the text.

Teachers of lectio divina, “sacred reading”, recommend listening out for any single word or phrase that strikes us in particular. This can apply to the Bible, or to other elements such as prayers, hymns, or a sermon. If something does leap out at us, it becomes a gift that we can take away and mull over during the week.

Pauses are important, as is the pace at which services are taken. Once congregations have got over any initial embarrassment or bemusement, short silences at appropriate points can help us to reflect on possible depths of meaning in what we have heard, and on Christ’s gift of himself in the eucharist. Words in worship need room to breathe, and it is important that liturgy and readings are not taken too fast.

Obviously, the effectiveness of a sacrament does not depend on the rhetorical skills of the clergy. And yet we need a kind of attentiveness in those presiding, which does not mean dramatic declamation of every word, but, rather, a depth of prayerful engagement which makes all the difference.

Stillness is rare in our rushed and noise-ridden society, and the least that worship-leaders can offer to congregations is a gentle space, both reverent and welcoming, where we are drawn, together, into the mystery of the God whose presence is deeper than words.


Angela Ashwin lives in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Her books include Faith in the Fool: Risk and delight in the Christian adventure (DLT, 2009).


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