Head and Heart

Sermon Four in the series 'A Worshipping Life'

Epiphanytide 2018


Several weeks ago I referred to 'polarities' in the experience of Christian worship, and pointed to worship together and worship alone as one such 'polarity'. I emphasised that a 'worshipping life' that is mature and robust includes both a private prayer life and regular public communal worship. I said that they feed into and live from one another; key parts, in other words, of 'one whole balanced organic life'.[1]

Head and heart are another polarity. We could, of course, use other words to describe these poles, like thinking and feeling, intellectual and emotional, thought and experience, love and knowledge. But whichever words we use, we're dealing with features of being human which are important in a worshipping life, whether it be alone or with others. Only now, instead of thinking about the props, scenic apparatus and the life of the senses in active engagement with what's outside and around us, we're considering what's going on inside us. No one, after all, wants to walk away from an act of worship with the sense that nothing inside him- or herself has been touched, that no ground has somehow shifted, that there's been no pay-off.

At the same time, our expectations of the experience of worship are affected by the encompassing culture, whether we know or like it. This encompassing culture seems to me to push us toward postures which may or may not help our worship, or which lead us to expectations of worship which it cannot or should not deliver.

Here are some of the pressures that we feel.

  • An 'information culture' that, as Martin Laird puts it, 'exalts discursive, logical reason'.[2] He quotes one of Dickens' characters: "Now what we want is, Facts...Facts alone are wanted in this life".[3] This leads to worship that always has to be explained so that there's a clear 'meaning'.
  • An expectation of immediacy, and with it an impatience at waiting. Whatever it may be, we want it 'delivered' straightaway, and then we want to move on to the next thing. We want to 'cash in' easily and quickly. This leads to worship in which everything is meant to be immediately 'accessible'.
  • An exaltation of emotional experience and satisfaction as a bell-weather of authenticity and legitimacy. A satisfying emotional experience become a 'right'. This leads to an endless round of 'jolly' worship where everyone is obliged to smile.

But we must ask: can a worshipping life conform to those expectations? What does Christian experience through the centuries tell us, about what to expect from and what to invest in worship?

Worship, especially with others, and especially the Eucharist (the central act of Christian worship), is in significant measure an intellectual affair. I mean by 'intellectual' simply what St Paul testified to one of the earliest Christian communities. They were wrestling with the place of charismatic gifts in their worship. Although he prized such spontaneous gifts he nevertheless insisted, 'I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in some supernatural spiritual utterance'.[4] He knew, of course, that Christian faith is a response to things that actually happened to Jesus of Nazareth, and a particular understanding of who God is and what God is like. He knew that Christians' worship needs to have worshippers' minds primed for understanding, that is, for 'building up' in faith and the obedience of faith, what he calls 'edification'. The first part of the Eucharist, therefore, has something of the character of a class-room. The sacred texts are put before us so that read out so that hearers might be built up in them. Then someone with authority given to him or her seeks to interpret them so that our understanding might sink deeper and rise higher.[5]

But there's more to it. For we don't, we can't, master the text as if we were scholars and critics determining purely and simply 'what it means'. The aim, in other words, is not that we master the Scriptures, but that the Scriptures master us. We want to understand them enough so that we might stand under them. That's one reason why we have a period of silence after our readings. It's a chance to absorb the spillage of meaning a bit; to soak it in, and then in the second, minutes or hours unfolding to let it work on and in us.[6] I think of the testimony of one of our Christian forebears: 'God far exceeds all words that we can here express. In silence he is heard, in silence worshipped best'.[7]

So we're involved in a way of knowing that is more, not less, than information and head knowledge. Our worship seeks to move us from what the Christian tradition calls the 'lower reason' to the 'higher reason'. The first analyzes; the second contemplates.[8] 'Here', in silent prayer, 'the secret response of each soul to the one Spirit forms as it were a separate thread in the woven garment of the bride.'[9]

That's why Christian worship doesn't sit well with an expectation of immediacy and its relative accessibility--the second point I raised a moment ago. Sometime, as in life generally, we might have an "Aha!" moment in the course of worship, but the experience of worship doesn't usually render its treasure in a predictable, quick way! Therefore a maturing Christian comes to worship with the recognition that there will be some fruit from the experience, but she or he can neither expect nor require that fruit as an immediate pay-off. To approach worship with the expectation of an immediate 'product' to take away is both consumerist and, worse still, selfish. In spite of that, it's important to show up. Just being there is an act of devotion, however void of feeling and fervency we may be.[10]

What, then, is required of us? Two things chiefly. First, that we be prepared for worship in ways, for instance, I outlined two weeks ago. Second, we need to be habitual. We all know that we get better at something, we gain strength of body, of mind, of emotion, the more we experience, undergo or do something. It's the same with worship: its subtle impact and power grows over time as we settle into how it works, what it requires of us, and as we patiently, through trial and error (but with the support of our fellow Christians), learn its ways.

One of the key things we learn over time and through experience is that God's self-gift to us cannot be manipulated to our requirements, expectations, time-table, or needs.

That's why emotions and feeling can never be a sole or sufficient pay-off from any experience of worship, my third point a moment ago. Of course our emotional life is part of the parcel we present before the Almighty when we posture ourselves for worship. But, as in every sphere of life, our emotions are like the morning mists--they come, they go, they can change almost from minute to minute, hour to hour. They are like the sand upon which the hapless man builds his house (Matt. 7.24-27). It's for good reason, then, that Christian worship doesn't aim to meet our emotional needs; nor does it aim always to be jolly, to produce an emotional high or a group frenzy.[11]

Having said that, the aim and expectation of a worshipping community and a worshipping individual is not a cold, bloodless experience.

We may well find that worship, especially corporate worship, e.g. the experience of a group singing a hymn, carries un unanticipated poignancy which moves us, maybe even moves us to tears, or to joy. Music, with its words---like that unassuming little candle last week--carries so many unspoken meanings which we secretly accumulate through the course of our worshipping lives. [Easter 1980] Likewise our acts of penitence, of thanksgiving, of prayerful care for others--they too can move us. Why? Because our responses to those meanings happen at a deeper level that mere information. Those responses well-up and at times seep out (maybe to our embarrassment) from a deeper, usually hidden, inner place.

Christian worship in the stream of the great tradition, then, seeks to attain a synthesis between head and heart. It speaks to the mind, it engages intelligence; it is thought-full. It also evokes deeper responses from us that flow under, around, behind mere 'head knowledge'. Christian worship seeks to expose us to a Truth, a Love, and a Hope that we aim both to understand and also to stand under.

And so we're bidden to pass beyond the simplistic distinction between head and heart. Worship is meant to help us do that by the way it speaks to the mind and understanding, and as it musters resources so as to touch us in deep places, and so release in us a stronger desire for God.

Although that is largely gift, we still play a part. We help worship become that. It is our spirits, with heads and hearts conjoined in sincerity of devotion, that turn the outward forms, the corporate action, into living wings of worshipful prayer, praise, thanksgiving and adoration. For our Christian worship reaches its height not in formal beauty, nor in precision of performance, nor timeliness, nor even in the competence or eloquence of its ministers. Our worship's height and perfection lies in that greatest of gifts which St Paul once urged his Christian flock in Corinth to seek, the divine Charity, or Love.

So it shouldn't surprise us that when followers came to an old saint lying on his death bed, each of them asking him how they could restore the services of the Church, he replied to each, "Love God! Love God!".[12]        Amen.


Preached by The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

February 4th 2018, the Second Sunday before Lent

[1] M. Thornton, Christian Proficiency, p. 18; italics his. Underhill makes the same point in a somewhat different context saying '...personal and social action must co-operate all the time' (Worship, p. 22).

[2] Into the Silent Land. The Practice of Contemplation, p. 25.

[3] From Hard Times.

[4] So I translate his word 'tongues' (14.19).

[5] The liturgy of the Word, or of the catechumens, is at least that. It is more than that too.

[6] I think of the words at the giving of the Bible in the service of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child: 'Hear God's word with us. Learn and tell its stories. Rejoice in its Good News. Discover its mysteries, Honour its commandments' (Common Worship: Christian Initiation, p. 56).

[7] Angelus Silesius in his Cherubinic Wanderer, quoted by Laird, p. 23.

[8] So, for instance Aquinas; see Laird, p. 26.

[9] Underhill, Worship, p. 95.

[10] See Thornton, Proficiency, p. 20.

[11] More broadly, the liturgical worship, especially the eucharist, is not just 'a community celebration, an act in which the community forms and expresses itself as such'...so that 'a "successful" liturgical celebration is judged by the effects achieved in this way' (J. Ratzinger, 'On the Structure of the Liturgical Celebration' in Feast of Faith, trans. Graham Harrison (Ignatius, 1986), p. 62.

[12] Related by Underhill, 'Worship' in Collected Papers, p. 88.