Mystery Worship Eight
It was a day to remember, this day of Mystery Worship Number Eight, on Saturday, June 9, 2012. I had two goals: first a really good walk in St. James Park, Green Park and Hyde Park, all of which flow into each other, and then attend Evensong at Westminster Abbey.The parks were spectacular. So much of this area, especially St. James, was private playground at one point to the rich and royal. Now, although certain areas are roped off and intentionally left untended to provide habitat for wildlife, much of the expanse consists of a combination of formal gardens with mowed grassy areas where people can and do wander at will and have their picnics.
In the late afternoon, as I turned toward Westminster Abbey, I discovered that the Wellington Arch, which I needed to pass through, was massed with people. I also saw several hundred men on or beside bicycles. I got closer and realized something quite unusual about many of the cyclists. Many were, ummm, well just . . . simply butt-naked. As my grandchildren’s cousins said when I told them about it, “You mean they took their KNICKERS off?” Yep.
Indeed, it was naked bike race day and I happened to be at the right place at the right time to see them gather and prepare for their ride.
After taking in the view I made my way to the Abbey and joined the queue who wanted to worship. After a long wait, we were seated quite close to the High Altar, which is where Prince William and his bride, Kate, exchanged wedding vows last year.The building is awe inspiring–and built long before modern building techniques. The current structure took nearly 500 years to complete. Worship had taken place on this site for hundreds of years before that. Those walls hold secrets that would take lifetimes to hear.
The service was the standard Evensong service, straight from the Book of Common Prayer, beautifully sung, chanted and read by the Abbey’s boys choir, adult chorale, and priests.
One thing that particularly struck me as I was listening and floating on the music and the rhythms were the words to Mary’s Magnificat, especially the center section:
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
What a fascinating disconnect such words are from so much of contemporary Christian thought! Neither the so-called prosperity gospel nor the pursuit or secular, political power can be supported by these holy words. Essentially, most modern Christian thought and practice dismiss the Magnificat completely. Those words just don’t fit with our mindset.
As worship progressed, it became increasingly impossible for me to ignore the young woman sitting directly in front of me. In attendance under pressure from her family, her hairdo was her primary focus, and she kept doing and re-doing it. It was all I could do to refrain from leaning forward and whispering, “This is not your private boudoir” but decided it was better to be privately perturbed than to publicly offend.
It also fascinated me that, during the lovely organ prelude, there was much whispering taking place around me. How often our words and observations seem far more important than preparing our souls for worship!
But even with these distractions, I found myself deeply refreshed by the service. My soul is strongly drawn to the contemplative arm of Christianity, with its fixed hours of prayer, focus on the mystical presence of God, and the rhythms of historic liturgy. The service was a nice reminder that while naked bike riders may grab attention immediate attention, the words of God abide forever.