Tuesday, November 29, 2011


St. Mary's chapel, Sewanee, TN
Following Thanksgiving, several friends of ours who attend the chapel at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, where we worship when we’re in Tennessee, wrote to us about their part in an interactive Thanksgiving service at the convent. Although the liturgy at the convent usually follows the conventional Anglican way, every once in awhile, the Sisters jolt us out of our “sacred cowness” with an alternative method of involvement; i.e., the interactive sermon.

Friends at Sewanee reported that the Sisters led off with expressions of thanksgiving for various blessings in their lives, then asked others in the congregation to stand and declare their thanksgivings. I understand that this was a cleansing, as well as a praise time for congregants. Although we “frozen chosen” aren’t a testimonial type group, sometimes we’re melted down by the Sisters’ departure from “ritual as usual.” Actually, the interactive sermon is not a new thing and harks back to passages in the first book of Corinthians when people stood up and shared a part of the worship service, as well as expressed transformative spiritual revelations they had experienced.

I remember attending an interactive sermon church in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. The experience sorta’ scared me because people came up to an open mike and critiqued the sermon, which I don’t think is the real purpose of interactive sermons – the purpose is to lead congregants to this sacred place where they meet God. When I preach at Grace Fellowship Church at Sewanee, a very small interdenominational church in the woods near St. Mary’s Convent, discussion always follows my homily, which is a form of interactive preaching and is nearer to educative preaching than inspirational preaching. However, the expressions of this small group are always heartfelt and affirming of whatever message I deliver.

I was touched by the report of the thanksgivings that were said at the St. Mary Thanksgiving service, and the reports sent me scurrying to my shelf of books about blessings which are said not only on Thanksgiving but, in the Celtic tradition, are expressed all year long. The blessing is “a direct address, driven by immediacy and care,” John O’Donohue writes in To Bless the Space Between Us, a book that contains blessings which help us look at “blessing” as a way of life and as a means of transforming a broken world. O’Donohue refers to blessing as a “huge force field that opens when intention focuses and directs itself toward transformation.”

St. Mary's Convent chapel icons
The Namaste, a gesture of blessing when we pass “The Peace” at St. Mary’s, is such a strong influence we found ourselves responding with it to others at The Church of Epiphany here in New Iberia, Louisiana during the Peace this past Sunday. The Namaste, is performed by slightly bowing and pressing hands together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards in front of the chest. The Sisters of St. Mary usually perform it without speaking.

Namaste, commonly performed in India, is a respectful greeting and means “The spirit in me respects the spirit in you,” or “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” The gesture first appeared 4000 years ago on clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization. It’s another non-traditional expression carried out by the Sisters which we’ve adopted and that may have startled those around us when we used it at the Peace during the New Iberia service. However, it’s one that has become involuntary after four years of our attending the convent church at Sewanee. The Namaste is a reverential salutation that could stand a bit of use in and out of church in our own country.

We hope that you expressed thanksgivings for all your providences this Thanksgiving and, as O’Donohue says, “May we all receive blessing upon blessing. And may we realize our power to bless, heal, and renew one another.”

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