Worship — and What Threatens It

During my travels in Europe this year, I visited some medieval churches (blessed me) and in two of them noticed something that I had paid little attention to previously: demonic figures in the Romanesque capitels on the West side. No, this is not because I have suddenly turned my scholarly interests toward exorcisms or other apotropaic (i.e., evil-averting) ritual practices. Instead — and much more broadly — I have become interested in all other-than-human created beings, which populated worship life especially in pre-modern time. I am thinking here of everything from the heavenly hosts to the sparrow that builds her nest in the temple, the bee that provides the raw material for the Easter candle, and plants and stars and ice and snow that also raise their voices in praise and worship of their Creator.

Enter the devil. In the church of Notre-Dame in Dijon, Burgundy, and in the Benedictine Abbey church of Maria Laach in Germany, I discovered easily identifiable and prominently displayed devils on the West entrance of the church [and yes, I am aware of the significance of the location]. In Maria Laach, a small devil sits in a capitel above the portal, scribbling down sins. In Dijon, a fierce devil’s head sits above the Western portal inside the sanctuary, seemingly looking at the backs of the worshippers below. I hasten to add that these are only two tiny examples of a much broader phenomenon, of demonic figures displayed in visual art particularly in Romanesque churches.

I will refrain from digging deeper into how to think about the demonic in our own times here. Suffice it to say that I think the profound truth behind the symbol of the demonic is the insight that the world we inhabit is not a balanced, nice, harmonious one, but instead tilted toward destructive desires, and yes, evil. The Christian theological tradition points to this, inter alia, under the notion of original sin. Demonic figures in Romanesque and Gothic churches spell this out for the practice of worship.

Here, I want to use the notion of “threats” to worship more broadly and ask: if the demonic was seen as a threat to worship (and to life as a whole) in earlier centuries, then what threats do we construe for worship today? What do we want to guard against? Some often-invoked dangers easily come to mind: such as inattentiveness on the part of worshippers, or indifference on the part of the broader culture; bad presiding and/or preaching on the part of presiders; bad music or singing on the part of all; a lack of a sense of welcome in a parish community, etc. We may broaden these perspectives to identify wider cultural realities: racial stereotyping which does not stop at church doors; the demonization of LGBT struggles for equality; ecological degradation around the globe which cries to heaven.

Once again, I am not that interested here in the different lists that various people might generate, but rather in the deeper question of how these threats come to be identified in the first place? To put this differently: what do the threats we identify say about us and the world-views that shape us? For those who built the Romanesque and Gothic churches, evil that threatened worship was real, personal, and powerful. It had to be identified and constrained as one entered into God’s presence. I doubt that, over the last thousand years or so, evil has simply gone away, although we certainly have coded the presence of evil differently than our pre-modern ancestors did. The question I want to ask, in the face of medieval reminders of the demonic on church doors, is this: Do we – and how do we — struggle to contain evil as we enter into God’s presence? Or has liturgy become all too nice and comfortable a practice for it still to contend with notions of profound evil that threaten worship?

7 comments

  1. An interesting question, Teresa. I wonder if worship spaces might include small statues of Gordon Gekko / “Greed is good.” 🙂

    Evils that are not personified in some way raise a challenge: factors such as radical individualism certainly threaten worship but I am not sure how such cultural factors could / should be depicted in or near our church doors or worship spaces.

  2. What a fantastic project!

    We do indeed code evil differently in the modern world. I find it difficult if not impossible to talk about ‘sin’ or ‘evil’ or ‘the demonic’ to my non Christian friends; and yet they will readily acknowledge the reality of cruelty and aggression and the disasters of war etc. in secular terms.

    Of course the Jesuits speak of the ‘discernment of spirits’, but even here I wonder if a vocabulary taken from psychology isn’t sometimes used to explain to ourselves what’s meant–or to put it better perhaps, explain our personal experience of evil when entering sacred space. You mention distraction and boredom. Certainly, there’s more.

    I do find the Jesuit practice to be a helpful way to struggle to contain evil as I enter into God’s presence. I don’t know if this is the sort of thing that you mean.

    1. Can you tell me a bit more, about how the Jesuit practice of discernment of spirits is helpful for you, as you seek to enter into God’s presence? I am not sure I know what this might look like.

  3. Well, as you probably know Jesuits speak of people going through periods of consolation and, conversely, desolation. So, if one is in a period of desolation, worship (or the idea of worship) may feel empty or sluggish or not necessary. That little voice pipes up telling you that it would be fine to skip Mass today, for example. One tells oneself that the decisions they’ve made concerning their spiritual practices can be disregarded or changed. So, hopefully one discerns that the source of all this is from ‘a bad spirit’ or even the demonic ( or its modern equivalent) that wishes to harm one’s spiritual life, and so acts to disregard it. Sorry for the simplification here!

    This obviously emphasizes the individual’s subjective or interior life . You may be looking more for social or cultural aspects of the question, or how the Church collectively guards its space against threats to worship.

    1. Thank you, this is helpful. I hear that ‘little voice,’ telling me that I may as well stay home or worship God in my garden, almost every Sunday :). I think of it simply as human sluggishness. Somehow, I am searching for the real threats to worship at an even deeper level, such as unrecognized forms of idolatry in whatever form we live them???

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