You’re finally receiving the first Valleyist of 2020! It’s been two months since my last email but I haven’t abandoned the newsletter – I’ve just been in a bit of a rut 😅 (more on that below). But I’m excited to get back into a regular rhythm of writing!
In my last email I described how the grandeur of two majestic, European cathedrals made me feel like God is a cold, distant being; and how this image of God differs from my view of God as deeply relational.
After reading my reflection of how these cathedrals made me feel, my friend Tom (who cough has a PhD in Early Christianity from a prestigious university) responded with this reminder:
“To add one wrinkle to the awe/intimacy issue: remember that these buildings were designed not for tourists to walk through, but for people to take part in a particular religious service — the Roman Catholic mass.
Tom explains that the core concept of Mass, or Communion,
is where Jesus lets himself be eaten by Christians. In other words, the almighty being who strikes awe in us (communicated through aspects of the architecture) is the very same being who comes to us and into us. It’s hard to get more intimate than that! The two go together — awe and intimacy, architecture and Eucharist.”
What a poetic balance!
Tom helped me realize that it wasn’t the design of the Sagrada Familia that made God feel distant, but rather the way in which I experienced the space.
The cathedral was built to be a container, a sort of housing, for the intimate spiritual experience of Communion. Despite its magnificence, it was never meant to be the experience itself.
And yet that’s exactly what’s happened — the structure, the shell, the container, has become the experience. This isn’t an inherently bad thing! I’m grateful that I was able to enter and enjoy the cathedral even though I’m not Catholic or Spanish.
But as a result, the heart of the experience has also changed — everywhere I looked my fellow tourists were popping poses and snapping photos:
Communion had been replaced with its secular equivalent: Instagramming.
At an abstract level, Instagramming (the process of taking a photo with the intent to share it) and Communion are similar rituals.
To begin, both rituals are attempts to ingest or internalize a moment that is bigger than ourselves.
That moment for Communion, of course, is about Jesus on the cross. When I take Communion I reflect on that sacrifice as well as expressing gratitude for what Jesus has done in my life more broadly. In the case of Instagramming, taking a photo is to preserve a feeling from a particular moment in time that will never be repeated again in order to remember it later.
Both rituals are intimate, personal acts.
The bread and wine/grape juice of Communion is something that I take and consume myself — no one eats or drinks them on my behalf. Taking a photo requires breaking from the ebb and flow of what’s happening and blocking out the periphery — no one composes the photo on my behalf.
And lastly, both rituals are enriched by their communal aspect.
When I take Communion I’m surrounded by others who are engaging in the same act at the same time — which fills me with even more gratitude for what God has done not just in my life but in the lives of others. Sharing a photo and receiving responses, though asynchronous, creates a sense of personal connection with people who aren’t physically near me.
Whether secular or spiritual, the danger of rituals is that we can lose the heart of why we partake in them. Rituals become rote or beholden to their containers. The outcome of the ritual looks the same, but the process — the experience it’s supposed to create — is hollow.
Capturing and sharing life moments turns into doing it for the gram. A cathedral without Communion turns into a structure that’s merely a backdrop for Instagram. And Communion without reflecting on Jesus turns into a tiny, bland snack.
The reason I haven’t sent a Valleyist email in the past two months is because I sensed the ritual of writing poised to overtake the heart of writing.
I felt overwhelmingly burdened by my desire to:
Instead of feeling the freedom of my desire to:
But after writing this Valleyist, I feel like the heart of the ritual has been restored.
Like Instagramming and Communion, writing this newsletter is an intimate ritual in my life that’s enriched by its communal aspects.
Thank you, friends, for taking part in this ritual with me.
I’ll end each newsletter with a question that’s been placed on my heart after writing. If you feel like it resonates, please reply to this email with your reflections! Over the course of the newsletter I’ll share some of the responses (anonymously) at the bottom of the next email. I hope we can share this journey together.
What kind of rituals — spiritual or secular — do you take part in, and why?
Last email’s question:
When has God felt especially distant or close to you?
“In the talk I gave at church last Sunday I said that “hopelessness is always rooted in not knowing if God is really there”… but “real, genuine hope is discovered in places like the Valley of the Dry Bones” (I used the Valley of Dry Bones story from Ezekiel 37 where the people of Israel said “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone. We are cut off.”)”
“Our art and design flow from our theology. This is interesting to me because this fall my brother and I have been having conversations about going to church in a movie theatre. He pointed out that in every other domain, people are obsessing over designing a space that shapes people and reflects the values of the institutions (everything from open-concept offices to tiny houses). I think movie theatres and living rooms already reflect a certain theology: of cultural incarnation or familial intimacy, perhaps. But if you had the chance to start from the ground up, how would you design a place for a church?”