Triggers in religous rituals

A friend took me to a Unitarian Universalist church service, and one of the things which I noticed about that particular service (I don’t know how representative it is of all UU churches or services) was the notable lack of what I can only term as “trigger words” used in their worship service.

Perhaps the best way to describe it is by example. In my tradition, a very common pattern to start a prayer is for the worship leader to say, “The Lord be with you”, to which the response (said by the entire congregation) is “And also with you”, which in turn is followed by “Let us pray” and the actual prayer itself. This is a very common “design pattern”, which is used in many different contexts; perhaps at least 2 or 3 times in every Sunday service. The response is so automatic that sometimes it is used at retreats or at church meetings to call a gathering of people to order. The worship leader need only to say, “The Lord be with you” loudly, and everyone will instantly stop talking and respond “And also be with you”. These sets of phrases act almost like a post-hypnotic trigger, helping everyone to enter into the right frame of mind to begin a prayer.

At the UU service that I intended, there was a very little of anything that I could could serve as these sorts of triggers. Instead, the leader said something like, “we will now offer up any joys and concerns”; and at the end of the service, she simply said, “This service is now concluded”. (In contrast, in an Episcopal service, a service might be concluded with “Let us go forth rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Alleluia, alleluia”, to which the response would be, “Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia”.)

Participating in a worship service that didn’t have these triggers caused me to see how much I had gotten used to them as a way to help me enter into the different parts of a worship service. I suspect I could get used to a different set of triggers, but the traditional Episcopal triggers have been programmed in my having attended hundreds if not thousands of services throughout my life. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why attempts to change the Episcopal liturgies in ways that radically change or restructure these trigger phrases are met with quite a bit of resistance. Sometimes they are necessary, when our understanding of theology has changed over time, but these triggers seem to speak to us at a level that goes beyond rationality or theology.

That’s not to say that the UU service had no such triggers. At the beginning of the service, they did ring a bell three times, in what was very clearly intended to be a call to prepare for worship. And shortly after that, a candle which was floating in a chalice was lit, serving a similar purpose. But aside from that, most of the rest of the service spoke to the head, with very little that sparked an ineffable sence of the holy.

I chatted with my friend afterwards, and she told me that this wasn’t an accident. According to her, many Unitarians apparently don’t like that kind of liturgy. Perhaps they are seen as “magic words” to folks that prefer a strict sense of rationality.

A few months ago, when planning our Easter Eve service at our church, the traditional “lighting of the new fire” was replaced with a different framework. Traditionally, the “new fire” is lit while the congregation is sitting in complete darkness, holding unlit candles. Once it is lit, the bright fire in the back of the church is used to light the Pascal candle, and from that central candle, the fire is passed along to everyone in the congregation, so that by the time Easter Eve processional begins, there is a very strong contrast between the darkness at the very beginning of the service, to one where the church is lit from everybody’s candles — from hundreds of points of light, all stemming from the “new fire”. It represents the coming of Light to the world, and then the spreading of that light from one person to another, pushing back the darkness. To me, it is a very special part of the Easter Eve service.

In one of the explanations for why the traditional “new fire” liturgy was replaced, it was put down by dismissively by calling it a “magic fire”. I missed it, and I think I now know why — to me, the magic is important. It speaks to a part of me and fills a need in me that goes beyond rationality. And in this world that tends to celebrate the intellectual side of things beyond all others, that’s something which is incredibly valuable to me.