Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Heart of Worship

Annie Dillard wrote a beautiful essay called "An Expedition to the Pole" that you should go read right this very second if you've ever been to a mainline church, scoffed or prayed for the mainline church, or just if you like to read things that are beautiful and true. I don't have the essay with me, and I won't try to quote it from memory, but she does make a reference to having gone to a Catholic church to try to escape "Protestant guitars."

("Protestant guitars." As if that doesn't just sum it all up.)

So my big rebellion against a Protestant upbringing has been to seek out the most inaccessible ways of doing church I can find. I started small, with the Book of Common Prayer. Then I started going to mass in Latin. Then I crossed the Pyrenees and walked 800km to go to church in a(nother) language I can't speak.

Sometimes I still try to do normal church. Back in May I went to an English-language church on the Left Bank. But it was too "ladies' tea this afternoon" and "our missions team in Portugual." And oh, the Protestant guitars.

So I poked around a bit and tried to find something more like home. Some sort of emergent or unchurch where the minister might swear sometimes by accident, or where there wouldn't be a minister at all. A church I could knit at and we could grow organic vegetables to eat together and restore antique bicycles, talk about identity politics and read Dorothy Day and Henri Nouwen. But I came up blank and so did my hobbit-like bandanna-sporting go-to on all things unchurch. It seems the English-speaking community in Paris hasn't read The Irresistable Revolution yet.

A few weeks ago, though, I found the solution. I've been attending Gregorian mass at Notre Dame. Not a single Protestant guitar in sight. No clapping. No Sunday School picnic. No one's comparing God to a three-legged milking stool. Just chanting. Chanting in Latin. Chanting the same words that have been sung in that space for nearly a thousand years. Take that, Matt Redman.


  1. sounds like you have arrived at
    where you didn't know you were going
    sounds like a very good place to be right now

  2. i breathe deeper just listening to your description ....just what the heart desires.

  3. Would it hearten you to know that I assign "An Expedition to the Pole" to my students to read for a class on worship every September. Few actually read it, and fewer still get the point, but I think it's better than volumes of the more erudite stuff. And, oh yes, I never did get to hear Latin chanted at Notre Dame, but Sacre Coeur had something of the same effect on me.
    Cheers, Same-anonymous-as-before

  4. Ah, someone else who reads Annie Dillard! My memories of An expedition to the Pole were different though, more a commentary on dropping pretentions that weren't helpful (like silverware in the arctic), which she was forced to confront when the protestant guitars followed her into Mass. I love that essay as it broke down my cynicism about protestant guitars and reminded me that meeting God was the point of it all.

  5. Your talent in writing is only exceeded by your depth of thinking.

  6. I grew up in the Toronto area listening to Protestant guitars -- in fact, I even ran the soundboard at church once every six weeks. Eventually I passed through Canterbury and wound up in Constantinople. One of the places I plan to visit in my Paris stop-over en route to the Camino is Eglise Russe Saint-Alexandre Nevski at 12 rue Daru. From what I'm told, it's quite a beautiful church.

  7. I don't know if you're still checking this blog, but I'm from a similar background, about to walk part of the Camino for somewhat similar reasons, and am definitely going to go look for "An Expedition to the Pole" now. Good luck.