The Beauty of Holiness

On September 23, 2010 (the evening of the harvest moon), Christine Hamby, with the help of labyrinth-lovers from the parish, created an illuminated labyrinth in the Parish Hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Townsend, Washington.

Christine uses battery-powered plastic tea lights to build her temporary installations. The resulting labyrinth is kid-safe — no flames, no glass. When illuminating a dark space, it is also extraordinarily beautiful.

From its earliest incarnation, the Anglican Church has had a passion for the aesthetic of worship. Episcopalians — the branch of the Anglican family found mostly in America — are no exception.

We Episcopalians love beauty. We love the graceful phrasing in our Book of Common Prayer, and we love to create beautiful spaces for worship.

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: O come, let us adore him.”
Antiphon used in the service of Morning Prayer, BCP, p. 44

Places of great natural beauty—ancient forests, lonely mountains, wave-swept shores—are instinctively recognized by all peoples as sacred, as “thin places” where Holiness can penetrate and touch us through and through. Beautiful liturgy is a human-created attempt to do the same thing, to help us find our way to the thin place that’s always present and waiting to be discovered again. (Liturgy consists of all the parts—words, music, setting, and actions—that come together to form a worship service.)

On the night of the harvest moon, that thin place was palpable at St. Paul’s. At one point in the evening, I was standing just inside the entrance to the Parish Hall when a little girl came through the open door. She was maybe seven or eight years old. At the sight of the labyrinth she stopped in her tracks, and her eyes grew so wide! While she was struck dumb, I had time to remember how it felt, as a child, to suddenly enter a magical realm, a place that seemed to have been created for my delight alone.

Then she turned and darted back outside, calling “You have to see this!” A moment later the whole family came in: mother, father, and the little girl with her two younger sisters. They all paused to take in the scene. Then they took off their shoes and walked the labyrinth together, the youngest daughter in her father’s arms. I sat and watched with a full heart.

Passion for the beauty of holiness is both a particular gift that the Anglican church offers the world and a particular weakness that can mess us up good, spiritually speaking. We create services so beautiful, they draw in the stranger: strangers we may find difficult to welcome, if by chance they behave in such a way as to disturb our own aesthetic experience. We become so attached to the beautiful phrasing in the prayer book, to the exact look and feel of our church buildings, that any change triggers an intense fight-or-flight reaction, and we either tear the church apart to preserve it or threaten to walk away entirely.

Well … so … that appears to be the way of the world. For reasons known best to God alone, my own greatest gifts and deepest wounds seem to want to live as close together in my psyche as possible. In my experience, I do not escape this phenomenon by joining a group. However, being in community does seem to provide a wider variety of ways to bring gifts and wounds together into abundant life.

On the night of the harvest moon, people from both the parish and the larger community came to St. Paul’s to walk the labyrinth and experience the beauty of holiness. Everyone was welcome. The installation was inherently transitory. At the end of the evening, Christine and her husband John circled the room gathering the tea lights into large woven baskets, then loaded up their car and took it all away.

But before they did, I walked a single circuit of the illuminated labyrinth with my iPod. This short film gives a hint of what it was like at St. Paul’s, on the night of the harvest moon.

Illuminated Labyrinth from Margaret D. McGee on Vimeo.

 May grace and peace be yours in abundance.  1 Peter 1:2

      —  Margaret 

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