Friday 29 January 2010

Tough Going

Producing new liturgical material is quite difficult. When looking at material from various faiths, to produce the essence of what is said and applicable elsewhere, there is a danger of 'doing violence' to the original whilst making it more universal. But that has always been the case.

The idea is to produce liturgies that people can use at a moment's notice. The first service is 'traditional Unitarian', but the problem here is that much that is traditional carries beliefs most Unitarians no longer express. So it is more a traditional feel, a sort of generation of transcendence. Some material can be rescued and used again, without any manipulation, because it has already happened, whereas others are done here and now.

Harry Youlden was an Ethical Church Lecturer in Liverpool. He created a liturgical book, a secularised and modernised set of pieces based on the Book of Common Prayer. The Unitarians did the same, often, but whereas they have somewhat grown old, much of Harry Youlden's material is still usable (though I did edit some myself when I first discovered it at Unitarian College between 1989 and 1990). Here is one piece by him:

Life be Beautiful as by Ethical Church Lecturer Harry Youlden:

The strain upraise of joy and praise:
Life be beautiful.

In the vision of the new day, let the ransomed people say:
Life be beautiful.

They who have left the gloom of ancient creed; they in this song of songs shall lead:
Life be beautiful.

They who in peace with all do dwell; all trustful souls the chorus swell:
Life be beautiful.

By the love that cheers the lost who call; by the grace that saves weak feet that fall:
Life be beautiful.

By lofty aims that banish fear; by simple hearts and deeds sincere:
Life be beautiful.

Ye floods and oceans billows, ye storms and winters snow; ye days of cloudless beauty, hoar frost and summer glow; ye groves that wave in spring, and glorious forests sing:
Life be beautiful.

(After Youlden, H., section of 'The Strain Upraise', Manual of Ethical Devotion, 1914, 97-9)

One I have done myself is from the Sikh faith. This involves removing and replacing references to Nanak (such as by 'Teacher') and some re-ordering of the text. Here is one:

We ask the Holy and life-sustaining: what do we know?
The drop of water is in the ocean, and the ocean is in the drop.
The day is in the night and the night is in the day. The same is true of heat and cold.
The male is in the female and the female is in the male.
The soul is the Light and the Light is the soul.
Who understands these?
Who knows but the Teacher of the Divine.
The word is concentration, and in concentration there is knowledge. The one who meditates on the knowledge can understand.
The Teacher sacrifices this understanding to those who meditate into the Holy.

Derived from the Rag Ramkali, Adi Granth, 878

Sometimes such rearranging is not possible. Other times it is unnecessary. The 'traditional' approach allows for a basic theism at least, most of the time, with hints of an interventionist God or active Spirit. Mystical material is often best left alone, as with this Muslim material:

Seven heavens God made: first Paradise.
Next the gate of eternity, the third the house of peace,
The fourth Felicity, the fifth the home of golden light.
The sixth the garden of delight, the seventh the
Footstool of the Throne. And each and every one
Sphere above sphere, and treasure over treasure,
The great decree of God made for reward and pleasure.
Saith the perspicuous Book: 'Look up to heaven! look!
Dost thou see fault or flaw, in that vast vault,
Spangled with silvery lamps of night,
Or gilded with glad light
Of sunrise, or of sunset, or warm noon?
Rounded He well the moon?
Kindled He wisely the red lord of day?
Look twice! Look thrice, and say?'
Thy weak gaze fails:
Eyesight is drowned in yon abyss of blue:
Ye see the glory but ye see not through:
God's greatness veils
Its greatness by its greatness - all that wonder
Lieth the lowest of the heavens under,
Beyond which angels view
God and God’s miqhty works, asunder:
The thronged clouds whisper of it when they thunder.
Allah Kabir, in silence we
Meditate on Thy majesty!

Arnold, E. (trans.) (1954), Pearls of Faith, Lahore: Orientalis, 80-1. The above is a commentary on the ninety nine Beautiful Names of God by Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) after he became a Sufi mystic in 1096 CE.

The task is to get these into a service structure, more like the old liturgy books Unitarians used than a hymn sandwich. The 'moderate' service will have a hymn sandwich. The 'radical' service will be as non-theist as possible. I may then have a Christian service, a Pagan service and an Eastern service. It just takes so very long to do! Although the above are placed, I realise I need to go back and check for typing and punctuation errors.

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