Thursday, March 29, 2012

Recovering "Sanctity"

"And He said, 'Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.' And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper." 
- 1 Kings 19:11-12, ESV

"But the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him." 
- Habbakuk 2:20, ESV

sanc.ti.ty (noun): 
holiness; sacred or hallowed character; anything regarded as sanctified or holy

   It has been one week since the flashback of my late grandfather's life, his parish church and the liturgical hymns that I heard him sing [1], and the impact of that experience has not faded. Since then, I have begun to experience a stirring in my heart, an inner ache that I cannot quite find a word for. It was partly this that drove me to acquire a 442-year old copy of "The Book of Common Prayer" of the Church of England from an antique bookstore in downtown Vancouver last weekend [2]. I've occasionally wondered if this is just an unconscious attempt to just relive those memories, follow his example or seek comfort in childhood familiarity. That's what it initially seemed to be. But I don't think so anymore. Below the surface, I think God is moving my heart towards the a recovering of a sense of "sanctity" in my prayer and worship.

   In the process, I have developed an interesting hypothesis about how a child's  encounter with God in a church environment imprints them with how they see and approach Him later in life. I think it is beginning to help me make sense of how my own heart has been formed to experience God in congregational and private worship.

   I believe my first encounter with God was probably in my paternal grandfather's Mar Thoma parish in India as a child, before my parents and I moved to abroad. As in later memories when visiting India during summer vacations, it was the atmosphere within the church during those Sunday services that I remember as the defining impression - solemn, liturgical, filled with symbolism, yet deeply reverential and meaningful as I look back on it now. There was a sense of hushed respect that made me shut my mouth and watch, with an instinctive sense that I was not in the midst of an ordinary social gathering.

Holy Trinity Church, 1970
Image Copyright: Gulf News
   This imprint was only reinforced when my family moved abroad, and began attending an Anglican Church called "Holy Trinity", and I began going to a Roman Catholic international school, where I would spend all my school life. Of the two, it is Holy Trinity that I remember better, since that is where I spent my Saturdays, Sundays and other church occasions. The silent, empty sanctuary of Holy Trinity Church was an awe-inspiring place for me to walk into as a child - three massive triangles meeting together to form a soaring roof that seemed to disappear into the distance, and a massive Cross fixed to each triangle that I gazed at in awe during services, wondering what would happen if they were to fall on me. With a massive rock altar at the front and two marble pulpits on each side, it is still a place that I remember as having imprinted foundational lessons in my spiritual formation.

   But whether my Grandfather's little Mar Thoma parish, childhood Anglican church or Roman Catholic school, all three taught the same message of "sanctity" that I believe has left a deep and lasting imprint on my mind and heart - that I am in the presence of One who is Holy, and that His holiness is not a small matter to be taken lightly. The message that I  was thus taught as a child was simple, yet profound:

God is God. You are not. Take Him seriously. Meet Him in the manner that is appropriate: 
with reverence and sanctity.

    This sense of "sanctity" with which I was imprinted was to approach God in a reverent manner of quietness of mind and heart, that carried with it a contemplative silence in the spirit. It carried an internal sense that it was deeply improper and offensive to approach and treat my encounter with the great Jehovah in a light manner; that He must be given the dignity and respect that is due His majesty. It taught me that one does not adopt a casual posture and attitude of the heart and mind in front of Him. It impressed upon me a sense that one does not address God anyway one chooses, with any tone that one feels like, because He is not my "buddy".  He is God, and He is holy.

   I have come to believe that the manner and church environment in which a child encounters God shapes their impression of who He is and how they approach Him, sometimes for the rest of their lives. It imprints their character, approach and outlook on life, personality, even the kind of person that they are attracted to.

  After my family moved to a different congregation when I was  young, I have traversed different churches over the years. Some services that I have witnessed and participated in have had more resemblance to feel-good rock concerts that delivered a "high", than a reverential acknowledgement of the "separateness" of the Almighty that leaves a deep impression on the silent soul. Thus, over the years, I think the imprint and sense of "sanctity" with which I was taught to approach God as a child was buried in the process. But not erased, praise God. 

   I'm growing tired of jingoistic, feel-good but ultimately dissatisfying worship. I want to recover that sense of "sanctity" that I was imprinted with once more. I want to encounter God in reverence and awe, in the silence of mind and spirit. Like Elijah, I want to hear that still small voice of the Holy God whispering to me in the sacred silence, as my head is bowed, my eyes are closed and fervent lips silently recite the prayers which I have begun to learn from the Book of Common Prayer that I bought recently. Some of them, such as the Litany, are beautifully worded and expressed, with tremendous depth, touching on some of the deep cries and prayers of the heart. There is a silence not of this world, the divine silence of God that steals into the heart in sanctity of worship that calms, fills, comforts and satisfies in a manner as nothing else can.

  I am deeply thankful to the sense of sanctity that I was taught by the influence of my grandfather's little parish, my childhood Anglican church and Roman Catholic school. I believe God is resurrecting the buried imprint of those lessons in my life, and I don't want to lose them ever again.
- The Wisdom Seeker


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