Monday, November 21, 2005

An ode to the Nordic and Celtic Services at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Held every other Sunday at 6.51pm (to commemorate the death of a saint, and also the city’s area code), these two services take turns bringing in a packed house, over 70% of whom – on average – are those that have left the church.

I’ll tell you why.

Winter, or cold weather in general, is never a purely wonderful event unless you’re viewing it from the inside of a warm enclave of sorts. One can almost withstand the below-zero temperatures, biting wind, and an imminent prospect of death by frostbite if they know they will soon enter a much more inviting environment. This environment on cold and dark Sunday nights is the stoic Pilgrim Lutheran church.

As you walk up the steps, you immediately enter another world. Too often in our culture, most of us have been stripped of our heritage and tagged with the infamous political (although extremely privileged) title of “white”. (Note that this is not an ethnicity by any means.) But at Pilgrim, some of that has been rediscovered. This is no ordinary worship service that has been given a Celtic or Nordic flavor. The service itself is made of these elements. The songs, the languages spoken and sung, the readings offered – all draw heavily upon many Americans’ past.

Yes, we all talk about music that is African, Middle Eastern, or having drums as ubiquitously “ethnic”, but these services are just as culturally rich. And the thing is, it’s a history many of us have never tasted. We’ve had this taken away from us in the many national sins of which our country is responsible. We have been oppressed just like those we have oppressed. And the result is a horrendous ignorance of where we come from.

But as you walk up the steps, you enter a huge cavern that is mostly devoid of lights. The snow softly melts on your coat and your hands slowly regain life-giving blood. The church is transformed into a place where all can meditate, reflect, or transform. No pressure is given. The musicians are world-class and the songs are spiritually and lyrically brilliant. The pastor, Carol Tomer, spent time in Scandinavia, and has taken great care to present a service that sustains as effectively as it comforts. Hmm. I bet you anything that’s what many people felt was lacking when they left their own church.

So your journey continues. Your footsteps echo in this enormous old sanctuary (some of us are still amazed by sanctuaries that breathe history and awe into our bodies instead of looking like office buildings…I guess you can call me conservative on that one) as you walk past numerous flags hanging overhead. This is perhaps the most creative way I’ve seen to hang the American flag (which I believe has no place in a house of worship) while not coming across as nation-specific.

The memory of the biting cold fades into a fantastic mosaic of candles, warm colors, and haunting music, all flowing together and creating a sort of intricate pattern that tingles your senses. The Nordic service features a yodeler, who turns the popular image (Yodel-i-ooo!) on its head. The Celtic service incorporates the famous sound of the Northumbrian pipes into air that is thick with beautifully soft fragrances.

It feels like when Mom put another blanket over you on those extra cold nights. You can’t explain it, but it’s just what you wanted. It’s just what you needed.

And so are these services, speaking to a part of yourself you may never knew existed, and giving credence to the floundering image of institutional religion held by some circles the world over. No wonder people flock to this contemplative worship, even when they might not step foot in a church any other time.

It isn’t peppy, exciting, or joy-filled in any conventional sense. Yet sitting there, enveloped by the silence, the prayers, the music, and the beauty, the soul cries out in shrieks of joy.

“I am loved, as a child of God. We are loved, as people of God.”

So props to Pastor Carol and all those who work to offer these services. From deep within the world – a world in so much pain, a world that seeks so much love and forgiveness – there is a silent need. Within the walls of Pilgrim Lutheran that need is met. It isn’t everything, nor is it a clear-cut answer to the uncertainty of this world. But it is genuine, and people from all backgrounds can enter into this house of hope and face life together.

In silence, in music, in hope, in love.


At 1:17 AM , Blogger Jessie said...

Holy shit. I want that. Seriously. I'll leave it at that.

At 1:49 PM , Anonymous Katie said...

Absolutely fascinating. I want that here.

I utterly despise the term "white" by the way.

And, after growing up playing and doing homework in them while Dad worked, I adore the way older sanctuaries breathe when they're empty. Not bad-empty like no one comes, mind you, when they're just waiting for what's coming next.


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