Worship lies at the heart of the Church, but what is it? Usually connected with what’s done in church, some consider worship can be measured by the extent to which our feelings are moved. I recall finding myself in floods of tears during Mass at the Shrine of St Francis for this man – the ‘Poverello of Assisi’ – speaks to me powerfully of Christ.
But religion and emotion can be a heady mix, and our view of God will affect our worship. If God is considered a demanding judge that will affect our worship, as will the notion that God is all-loving and compassionate.
Worship is about acknowledging and responding to another’s worth with one’s heart, soul and mind. It’s something we give; about directing attention to another; uniting each to the other. It’s the duty we owe to God, our sacrifice of thanks and praise which can be silent as well as vocal. As someone wrote to me:
‘I am prepared to stop what I am doing at least once a day, go into a quiet place and give 40 minutes to God. Those 40 minutes are His. It is my sacrifice to Him. It is sacred time. It is consecrated time. What I do during those 40 minutes and what I experience during those 40 minutes is not really the point. The point is that I give Him time and so make a statement of what He is worth to me. ‘
As the years go by, I notice my feelings for my partner deepening as my love for him matures, but they’re no longer so obviously ‘emotional’. There are times when it’s just very ordinary – and when it’s very challenging. The same happens as our relationship with God matures. It can’t be measured by the way feelings are stirred – I now know a deeper desire to be given to the Other, to be abandoned to the One who is all-good; who is love and beauty, mystery and creativity. My relationship is moving beyond a youthful crush to a love which is more pervasive, expressed in my worship of God who is in all things. Worship becomes less about how I feel and more about who I am.
‘Lift up your heart to God with humble love:
and mean God himself and not what you can get out of him.’
(The Cloud of Unknowing, 3)
Being human is about a being who worships and if someone doesn’t worship God, they’ll worship something else. To centre our heart on God opens us up to our God-like being, our ‘otherness’. Jesus gave himself to his Father and worshipped him in spirit and in truth (John 4.24). He worshipped in solitude, in the Temple where sacrifices were offered and in synagogues where scriptures were read and set psalms sung to simple melodies. That pattern was followed by the early Church and has given us the Daily/Divine Offices (Morning, Midday, Evening and Night Prayer).
Whatever else we may do in church this pattern feeds us in a way nothing else can and prevents worship becoming dependent on mood. Rooted in practices with which Jesus would have been familiar, worship is the vehicle by which our heart and rational nature join – an inclination of the soul to its maker expressed throughout our lives. For worship doesn’t end when we leave the church. In the Concluding Address of the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923 Bp. Frank Weston said this:
‘If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.’
‘Don't let your life give evidence against your tongue.
Sing with your voices... sing also with your conduct.’
St Augustine of Hippo
(an extract from 'Full of Grace - an introduction to Christian faith')