There’s a line in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus that’s stuck in my mind. It sounds a bit religious but it’s not – here’s the full quotation:
Have you thought of the fellow on the other side of it? The finicky, critical husband looking through his art books on mythical Greece. What worship has he ever known? Real worship! Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that…I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity.
Wow! “without worship you shrink”. I’ve used that quotation dozens of times because it seems so profoundly important; and perhaps never more so than this moment in the history of the earth. Now this is absolutely not about getting you to go to church or adopt any strange supernatural beliefs. Worship comes in all sorts of unexpected ways, like at the end of a headline set at Glastonbury when the air seems to thicken and stand still; or when a barn owl flies silently within inches of your head as you walk home in the dark; or when you hold your newly born child in your arms and the air suffuses his skin and it changes colour from slate to rose pink; or when the sheer undeserved generosity of the earth makes you catch your breath over a basket of fruit.
For many years my life was punctuated by festivals. A whole year was a book. Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost were the chapter headings, but there were paragraphs, sentences and even words that could bring me to my knees. On Easter Eve I would sing a long unaccompanied modal song called the Exultet that was so powerful to me I needed to lock myself in the church and sing it over and over until I could get through it without breaking down. It was never the theology that attracted me but the channelling of the emotions. Who doesn’t long to be liberated, brought to life again out of captivity? It was the blues, it was Gospel music, it was an ancient form of music that had been sung for maybe 1600 years just once a year without a break. For the four minutes or so that it lasted I was always touched by an overwhelming sense of the divine. Music is potent stuff – that’s why they always try to crush it.
Now I live largely without the big festivals because the meaning seems to have drained out of them. My own favourites among the dishonoured escapees from paganism were always wassailing, Plough Monday and the Rogation services; all of them celebrations of the earth. Then there were other renegades like Harvest Festival and Remembrance Sunday that managed to draw the community together precisely by remaining doctrinally agnostic, and of course Christmas carols which in any case had been dragged in from the pubs. I always saw the church as a kind of lost property office where you might go to look for something you couldn’t quite remember but know for sure you once possessed.
But it’s all dying and our opportunity to experience real worship is more and more compromised, just at the very moment we desperately need to rediscover and celebrate our creative connection with the earth. And here I want to unpick the idea of worship a little bit because I know that we can all individually, and in the solitude of our own hearts find inspiration and perhaps bliss or even ecstacy –
– and I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
But I think we need more. I think we need to rediscover forms of community liturgy; spoken word, poetry, dance and song; shared feasting and perhaps fasting as well. We need to liberate ourselves to worship the stars and the sun and the whole creation of which we are just a part, and which bore us and held us in its arms for millions of years. We need these community strengthening moments because there is no pleasure and no power in being isolated and right – we’re never right if we’re on our own. Individual salvation is a punishment for egotists.
So in the midst of the work we need to do if the earth is to become whole again we need to remember to add community building and worship to the recycling, the careful use of money, the growing and tending of crops and feeding ourselves with regard to the needs of the whole. Fasting (perhaps from meat) then becomes a gesture of solidarity rather than a demonstration of personal rectitude – it has some purpose beyond imaginary purity. And the liturgy, the work of the people, is an essential part of it. It’s not as if we don’t have any precedents. Even a flower and produce show can be an act of public thanksgiving – it doesn’t have to be cringeworthy sub religious claptrap.
“Without worship you shrink” – that’s the harsh absence that allowed them to call the despoliation of the earth and its peoples a “green revolution”. It’s time to turn worship around and reclaim it for our own.