Street Theater and Gospel Presence

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by Kathy Staudt

My Lenten season this year began and ended with participation in displays of religion out in the streets. This is not my usual mode: I tend to be introverted, to value careful, one-on-one or small group conversations about faith as well as prayer and public worship . But when my parish decided to participate in the “Ashes to Go” movement to begin Lent, I decided to take a shift as a lay minister, offering “Drive –through Ashes” in front of our parish church which stands at the edge of a busy intersection. It seemed hokey – we held our “Ashes to Go” sign and waved it and to my amazement people pulled up to receive ashes. Mothers driving carpools (one came back three times so that each of her kids could receive ashes), people on cell phones, interrupting their calls just long enough to “receive a blessing.” People parking, getting out of their cars, and bowing their heads so that I could say the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and adding a prayer of blessing. Why would people pull over to hear those apparently grim words? And yet over 150 people did that day. I’ve been mulling it over the whole 40 days – remembering the quiet, calm radiance on people’s faces as they heard those words about their mortality. But then I heard one of the people say into a cell phone.” Wait a minute: I have to stop and get my blessing.” And I realized that was what it was: people were experiencing our presence on that street corner as in some way a blessing – they may have been former churchgoers or unchurched, though probably with some kind of tradition of Ash Wednesday in their lives. Perhaps it was heard as blessing to have another human being say to you , “remember you are dust” – as we all are. And that’s OK: we don’t have to be more than human. We are who we are. And we are blessed.

Now I realize that for those of us committed to the life of the church Ash Wednesday means much more: that commitment to a season of penitence and self-examination is also profoundly an “insider” experience – perhaps not the first service you would take a seeker to visit. If we are already committed to the church, we are probably embracing the Lenten season as in some sense a blessing, if a hard one – as we do the rounds and cycles of the seasons that are the gift of the church year, and we each have our own ongoing struggles on the journey of faith. But for those outside, there was something about our presence, our availability to them, on Ash Wednesday, as Lent began, that seemed to speak. Somehow our presence communicated that they were welcome as they are. That we didn’t expect them to sign up or join. That God’s blessing is available, and that we were hoping it could come to them through us.

paris.jpgI ended Lent in Paris, where we happened to be traveling on Palm Sunday weekend, and I was delighted to join the procession of the American Episcopal Cathedral up the Avenue Georges V, near the Champs Elysees and in sight of the Eiffel tower. It was a lively, vibrant congregation from what I could observe – a number of younger adults, young families – most of them American or British expats. I felt thoroughly at home. We went up the street with red-veiled crosses, vestments and palms to the accompaniment of African drums. This was in Paris, where people are mostly pretty amazed that anyone practices any religion any more – probably we were seen as an American expat curiosity, but there were cameras, and delight, and a sense of holiday as we went by – again, in our way, we were a blessing to people’s Sunday morning in Paris, as we moved into our own more serious observance of Passiontide.

As I watched people in cafes snapping pictures of us I thought about what these public ceremonies might say about our continuing presence as Christians in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture. Is there a call to be in the midst of a world that is no longer culturally Christian, and claim that original call to Abraham, the call to “be a blessing” to the world, by our presence and our practice, and to cultivate a way of living that might “preach” in its own way? For us on Ash Wednesday, and on Palm Sunday, it was theater, and it wasn’t: we were out in the streets because of the importance of the season and the observance to us, and because of a desire to share, not so much the doctrine of it, as the blessing of it (One friend with whom I talked this over recalled the Celtic priests whose practice was to simply bless everything that they encountered in the pagan cultures they encountered: blessing wells and fountains, animals and families – whoever asked for a blessing – because that was what they did, as Christians).

As we walked up the Avenue Georges VI I also had a flashback to an earlier “street theater” experience from my young adulthood – the All Saints Day processions around the Yale campus in the late 1970s, when Rick Fabian and Don Schell, well known now for such fresh liturgical expressions, were chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale. On Halloween night the community would process around campus blessing various buildings and spots, following ancient liturgical forms, chanting, with incense and vestments. Members of the Yale community were following in our train, in Halloween costumes and to the tune of bagpipes, and it all had very much the feel of a medieval street festival in the heart of Christendom and yet this was a very decidedly post-Christian campus community, and I expect very few of those following thought that we were anything but part of the show. But at one point in the procession, as we paused for prayer, I overheard one onlooker, observing us at prayer, say to his friend in some amazement: “You know, I think these people are serious!”

And what if we are serious? A serious blessing. In all three of these examples, there was a sense of tremendous joy, presence and simple blessing. The church succeeded in simply being present in the world, and visible to those who might wonder what it might be like to be as “serious’ and joyful as we were about the blessing we carried. I believe that in our post-Christian era we’re likely to see more of these public liturgical expressions of faithfulness in community – and maybe it will invite folks to seek a blessing, and to wonder what it would be like to part of a community so joyful and so “serious” about our public presence and prayers. It’s a hope, at least: appropriate for us in this season as in the one just past, as we aspire to be an “Easter people”.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

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Donald Schell
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Kathy,

How I enjoyed the reminder in this of those days of discovery at Episcopal Church at Yale! Thank you.

Rick and I knew one another well from General Seminary where we were both transfer students - me for my second and third year and he for his third. We'd talked a lot about the kinds of liturgy and community we hoped to make, but the All Saints Eve procession and Eucharist in 1970 was my first experience of my friend's work actually making a liturgy, and my exposure to ECY. That All Saints Eve visit to New Haven and my experience of Rick's ordination liturgy at ECY the following January sparked my hope and dream that I might get to work with Rick there after seminary.

For All Saints Eve and Rick's ordination, I was visiting my good friend in his first year of church work and my last year of seminary.

Rick told mer later that Ian Siggins, Yale's Episcopal Chaplain whom Rick would soon succeed, had begun the HallowE'en processions a year or two before as Halloween procession with series of stations with exorcisms around the Yale campus. Ian's vision played with goblins and demons and the revolutionary aspirations of the student movement.

October 1970, when Ian asked Rick to design that year's procession. Rick argued that blessings - of the Library, the Freshman Commons (dining), the President's Offices, and so on, would be a fuller expression of the Gospel take on Jesus' particular revolutionary spirit and a Gospel contribution to the passion for transformation, renewal and change that was still astir in New Haven and so many academic communities at that time.

Whether it was prayers for the work of the university in that place or flat out praying for institutional enemies and oppressors, Rick thought the blessings would be a clearer expression of Jesus' kind of radicalism.

Meanwhile Rick's re-visioned design for the event continued and built on one key offering Ian had made - after the procession made its way from the steps of Dwight Chapel where ECY regularly celebrated its liturgy and wound through the campus, interacting with the largely costumed, outdoor HallowE'en party scene we followed the cross back to the Chapel for a Eucharist. From Ian's first offering of this event, some students - strangers - found themselves engaged enough in what the congregation was doing (Ian's wandering exorcisms and then Rick's pilgrimage of blessings) that they joined the procession, sang and marched with us, and returned to pray and share Eucharist.

In 1973, the year after I began working at ECY we had two or three St. Margaret's Sisters up from New York for the procession and liturgy. Everything was just as you described, bagpipes, incense, processional crosses, and singing our way through the Old Campus, Sterling and then underground to the Cross Campus Library (where the librarian was quite suitably anxious that our incense would set off the smoke alarms and sprinklers). s

Somewhere along the way an undergraduate reveler wearing only jockey shorts and white body paint cartwheeled up to the tallest of the Sisters and shouted "BOO!" He'd assumed this was another undergraduate dressed up as a nun, so was startled to recognize in the seventy year old face he now saw up close, "Oh my God, She's real!"

As far as I remember that was the sum of what happened in that moment. He danced alongside our procession for a little way but eventually wandered off. When I remember those processions, I do wonder how he remembered it. Did he carry with him some moment of sensing more in the unexpected "real" he encountered - a human face shaped by years of praying in community with all the openness years of contemplative prayer can bring? We don't know.

But whatever it meant for that reveler, the biggest picture is that our holy play met wild antics in a way that was actually converting for some. By our play in the Real, our young and enthusiastic participation in the perfection of God who makes the rain of blessing fall on just and unjust alike, some real revelers felt hearts, minds, and bodies stirred to join the procession. Some always followed back to the Chapel for Eucharist. Some stayed to receive. Some returned to become part of that praying community.

I think you're right - even in our most secular settings, a lot of people who might not use the words are nonetheless looking for a blessing.

Thanks again, Kathy, for inviting reflection on those memories and on new practices and discoveries we've made flowing from those earlier days of blessing.

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