If the stars were made to worship...


There were a number of notable, and some delightful, things about the 4.30pm Hillsong celebration in central Melbourne at the Atheneum Theatre when I visited on August 19.  

  This image, and those at foot of post: https://www.facebook.com/pg/hillsongmelcity/photos/?ref=page_internal

This image, and those at foot of post: https://www.facebook.com/pg/hillsongmelcity/photos/?ref=page_internal



An opening song proclaimed variations on "every thing will be alright," which may or may not have been an intentional echo of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, but I hope that my Roman Catholic professor of spirituality would approve, given that I remember his own memorable adaption, now 25 years ago when I was at seminary, of Julian's words as a liturgical invitation to repentance: "on one occasion the good Lord said, 'everything will be alright," and on another occasion, 'you will see for yourself that everything will be alright'." The confidence of Julian, who received her revelation in Norwich, England, in about 1373, was alive and well in Melbourne this night.


Other songs were more memorable again, including a rendering of John Newton's "Amazing Grace," led gently by a vocal ensemble standing behind a floor to ceiling projection of the lyrics in a "classical" typeface perhaps deemed to be in keeping with this "classic" song. The celebration was mainly comprised of contemporary song more like "everything will be alright," though, and included to my ears one of Hillsong's best, worthy of acclaim both for its lyrics and its mood, at least as it was performed in Melbourne on this occasion. The musicians held back from the "wall of sound" that often marks--and to my ears, mars--Hillsong tunes, obliterating subtleties in dreary guitar fuzz; on this rendering, instead voices and melodies played together to sound out something tender. With "if the stars were made to worship... if the mountains bow in reverence... if the wind goes where you send it... if the rocks cry out in silence... so will I," among its many fine lines--it also spoke of galaxies and burning stars at one pole, every single person as precious at the other, and art and science all at once (https://hillsong.com/lyrics/so-will-i-100-billion-x/).


The first song mentioned, with its echoes intentional or otherwise of Julian, "everything will be alright," was also recalled in a testimony told by a woman from Newcastle and shown on the large screens across the front of the stage. Her story was of losing two children and yet through tragedy being sustained by hope in Christ and heaven. Her story was difficult and following it, the pastor make the point that Hillsong was and wanted to be a place where deep celebration and "real life,"  highs and lows, could both be present. 

While the testimony was serious, other aspects of the service were less so, though they did sometimes employ technology--high-tech video especially. The opening of the "message" was presented a travelogue, set on this occasion in India. The attention to visual arts was nothing less than impressive, with some of the video work reminding me of the black and white portions of The Smith's "Panic": choppy and clipped, jaunty. The narrator spoke of India's magnificent buildings, and the beauty in its culture, but the overall impression was of the place only from the perspective of a tourist, a land of playthings, while othering its peoples. The emphasis on tourism related to points made later in the sermon, but these references to India were a low point of the service--in fact a pretty deep trough--for me, given that the message made no mention of the country's struggles with massive poverty and inequality, its crucial inter-religious character and conflicts, and, not least, the flood that filled the news on the very day of the service--a flood in which hundreds have been killed and half a million made homeless in Kerala (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/kerala-floods-rain-live-updates-rescue-ernakulam-idukki-alappuzha-pinarayi-vijayan-5312746/ ). These aspects of "real life" were not so evident. Presenting India as a foil in the message was, if not near grotesque, at best deeply ambiguous.  To my ears, this was a terrible shame, as the preacher went on to offer an otherwise highly admirable evangelistic talk, with its best moments employing images of thistles and sequoias--drawn from The Message's rendering of Isaiah 55 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+55&version=MSG)--a quotation (projected onto the screen) from Alain de Botton (and given that de Botton writes about "religion for Athiests," the preacher's non-polemical use of his writing on travel seemed like a smart touche), and contrasts between "coming and going" to worship and "seeking and finding" the God depicted as so awesome in worship songs like "So Will I." Another aspect of the preacher's address that I appreciated was the way he talked about "cathedrals"--accompanied by videos of such buildings, and a massive still image of stained glass windows and recorded choral music piping through this portion of his talk. These were said, like other kinds of buildings, to be able to be engaged as "vacant monuments," when "there is so much more" to discover about God. But in making this point (hardly contestable from any Christian point of view) he spoke with respect about the beauty some people find in such buildings, and of how they can enable encounter with God. His own story, he told us, was of a background in a Wesleyan Methodist tradition, of which he spoke with some deep affection, though without account of what had led him out of that to Hillsong. In both instances, I was struck by his care not to disparage other Christian traditions, albeit while inviting to his own, and particularly by how commendably he considered them which contrasted dismissive comments I have been so disappointed to hear about Hillsong from some lovers of choral music and of cathedral liturgical style who have presumed their proclivities to be quite superior. The preacher's final points spoke of the experience of grace through which God makes divine presence known to persons, and the "bricks of grace" surpassing any building that he believes God gives to construct character and bring beauty into human life. Despite finding the opening portion of the talk about India painful to witness, I found what the talk went on to say praiseworthy in its encouragement in "real life" to "seek," "lean in," "press towards" the loveliness which God loves to give.


One final note on this service, which had used some "traditional" Christian music, images of "venerable" Christian architecture, possibly even knowingly echoed mediaeval Christian mysticism: a striking appropriation of another tradition was Hillsong's making its own the liturgical action familiar in many old-line Christian settings as "the greeting of peace." At Hillsong, this time of greeting those around one morphed into "the minute mingle." So in various ways this service made some interesting use of "traditional" Christian worship, taking it and turning it rather than jettisoning it, it would seem to me. Just as it opened up new song and contemporary media intending to express its hold on an ancient gospel still being found to bring renewal in deeply personal ways.

Hillsong, "So will I": https://hillsong.com/lyrics/so-will-i-100-billion-x/
Julian of Norwich: https://standingcommissiononliturgyandmusic.org/2011/05/08/may-8-dame-julian-of-norwich-c-1417/ and https://www.paracletepress.com/samples/exc-revelationsondivinelovei-20.pdf

A version of "So Will I": 

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Nectar in the rain / Meditation at Manjushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple


Conishead Priory in southern Cumbria, England, was a twelfth-century Augustinian foundation for prayer around which the friars based a ministry to lepers. It flourished as a monastic centre until the reformations-era when it was dissolved in the 1537 Act of Suppression. Later, a country house was built on the grounds, which passed through various ownerships through to the late nineteenth century when the priory became a popular hotel known as “The Paradise of Furness.” Interestingly, the buildings’ role as a centre for healing was restored in 1936 when the priory was bought by Durham Miners’ Association to serve as a convalescence home for miners. 

In 1976 the priory was once more sold, then to be bought by a Mahāyāna Buddhist group who have returned it to its beginnings in prayer. Over time they have restored the buildings and constructed a temple—“The Modern Buddhist Temple For World Peace”—so creating around a residential community of devotees an impressive centre for retreatants and visitors. A “World Peace Café” and bookshop (albeit limited to reading within the specific Buddhist tradition represented) can now be found, daily tours are offered, and two meditation sessions are open to the public every day. The centre also conducts a busy weekly schedule of teaching and on Sunday mornings hosts a larger gathering billed as “Prayers for World Peace” which is attractively described as a way to “make a positive contribution to our world” and which is accompanied by “Kids Club” in a context of “family fun”—the publicity for the Sunday morning activities striking me as a mix of what may be familiar of expectations of a Christian church (“kids club”) and the key to the local tourist attractions (“family fun”) in this much-visited and beautiful scenic area with coastline, fells and lakes, museums, adventure parks and a zoo all nearby. The place was buzzing on Saturday June 16 when I visited, despite the dreary grey day and pouring-down rain—at the height of the British summer! 

I attended the 2pm meditation session, when 60-70 other persons were also present, with elderly and middle-aged persons, young twenty-something women and men in groups and on their own, and numerous families with young children. It was impossible to know how many might be tourists and how many locals, though local people were clearly involved around the site as volunteers and workers. It was also impossible to tell the nationalities represented in the room, but evident that we were all “white,” of “euro”-appearance, including the guide to the meditation, a nun of the community, dressed in monastic garb and leading us with her softly-spoken genteel English lilt. 

Mahāyāna Buddhism is one of the two main branches of the Buddhist tradition, and Kadampa a particular stream within Mahāyāna. Mahāyāna is prevalent in China and Japan in the north through to Indonesia in the south and much of Southeast Asia in-between. The origins of Kadampa, though, are in India, with the Indian sage Atishi (982-1054 Common Era), whose Sanskrit text “Stages of the Path” is highly esteemed and used alongside the teachings of the Buddha. However, while representing this particular lineage, the bookshop’s stock of reading only from within a very specific strand of Buddhism made me wonder about the Manjushri community’s relationships with wider Buddhist traditions: how do the Kadampa relate? How ecumenical (to transpose a Christian term) are they?  I simply don’t know.

What was immediately striking was that although Sanskrit words appeared in the visual environment of the temple, and occasionally in the Kadampa prayer book that was both available to read in the temple and to purchase in the shop, no non-English words were used in the 2pm meditation, which was highly accessible, non-doctrinaire, and jargon-free. Our meditation guide welcomed us most warmly and opened very simply—and in a perhaps typically British way—by commenting on the weather. “How do you feel? Are you affected by the weather?” she enquired, expressing some surprise that this number of people had turned up on such a bleak and drenching day. Rain pounded against the windows as she spoke. “If how you feel depends upon the weather, don’t live in Cumbria!” she joshed, before turning her introductory talk to the possibility of finding “inner peace” whatever one’s external circumstances, weather and all, if one is able to draw resources from inside oneself. “When you find inner peace, great happiness arises,” she encouraged before leading a short, simple—though notably never silent—meditation that began with an invitation to sit up, to close one’s eyes (interestingly not fully, but “leaving a little light” so as not to invite sleep) and to concentrate on one’s breathing. By regularly referring us back to our breath, suggesting that we cast out anxiety “like black smoke” with each exhalation, she invited the group to “locate or imagine” inner peace within. After several minutes of this exercise she drew us out of the meditation, interestingly without ever having left a space for silence—perhaps because in this exercise intended as an introduction to meditation (she had kindly warned at the start that the meditation may be difficult for those unfamiliar with the practice) silence may not at first have evoked the peace being promoted?

After the exercise, many people expressed warm appreciation of the opportunity of the meditation, and the guide then commented that while the exercise may give a taste of “inner peace,” it was the teaching to which the community ascribed that enabled her to maintain her own sense of peace. This was the first and only, and ever so gentle, reference to the philosophical matrix in which the practice of meditation sits in her own life. Interestingly, otherwise no philosophical ideas, nor technical or religious terms, and no prayers were part of the meditation exercise.

I was intrigued by this enjoyable experience and especially by its lightness of touch. As mentioned, it was free of religious, philosophical or technical content, keywords of Buddhist traditions were not employed, and in fact although the temple was referred to several times—as a “beautiful” space in which we were meeting—none of its rich symbols nor artefacts were ever referenced. The meditation exercise was akin to what one may well find on offer in, say, a hospital ward, a school “calm space,” or in advice for anxious flyers in the pages of an in-flight magazine. As a breathing exercise, it was less demanding than the warm-up or cool-down of the yoga classes I occasionally attend. These things are, no doubt, its merit, as it seeks a way to offer a way in to the many interesting  ideas of their particular grasp of Buddhism that are available at other times and in other forums at the priory. 

Interfaith reflections

1.    Breathing as an interfaith exercise. The openness of the breathing meditation makes it commendable as an interfaith exercise, as it is proposition-free while inviting a sense of unity. Persons sharing common posture, and breathing at the same time, are able to enter a common experience. And their own traditions might well each in their own way enrich understanding of it. As Christian theologians have noted, for example, singing together—at the very least an exercise in sharing patterns of breathing—means that bodies are in unison long before bread and wine are placed on a table within the context of scriptural narratives of being made “one body” in communion [1].

2.    Looking slant from Christian perspective. As a Christian practitioner in the exercise, I was also struck by how very similar if not identical meditation exercises have sometimes been part of Christian assemblies I have been part of—The Crossing (Track back to the Archive post on Boston Cathedral), for example, includes a “Spiritual Practice” in its gathering rite, one of which might be a breathing meditation, while Philadelphia Cathedral, after communion, allows ten minutes when the assembly disperses around the large building to sit quietly or lie down and meditate individually before being called back together for the sending out.

3.    Looking around for analogs in my own tradition. I was also pleased that participating in this meditation exercise at the Buddhist monastery later caused me to  wonder about the Christian analogs of its very simple way in to keys to a way of life within a religious tradition. Perhaps within at least western Christianity in “post-Christian” plural cultures, in recent years the Alpha Course has provided one of the most effective paths to Christian faith, while current shifts within the churches of Britain towards what archbishop Rowan Williams called a “mixed economy” not only of traditional forms of church but Fresh Expressions of Church suggest the real need for many more experiments in inviting new people to Christian faith. Indeed, café church, Messy Church, and pizza church were all on offer the following day in a nearby town where I was staying. At least some of these fresh expressions are pitched as “kids club,” or something like “family fun.” And while the content of the Alpha Course is not a complex version of Christian theology, it is by no mean proposition-free—not that the latter is necessarily desirable in an attempt to invite to Christianity, but meditation in Buddhist company made we wonder what experiential openings have or might be developed by Christian communities in a dechurched culture. Although on the surface seemingly having very different styles, I suspect that it is Pentecostal emphasis on experience and its apparently relaxed (though no doubt somewhat stylised and self-conscious) bodily participation in worship that is closest to what the Buddhist community at Conishead is offering with its ways in to meditation. Among these Buddhists and among many Pentecostal Christians, the invitation is first of all to join in with your body, to find out by doing something sensate in worship.

4.    Looking for learning for my own contexts. The visit evoked slants on my own tradition and its practices of gathering and it renewed my questions about invitation—particularly around what I have called here “ways in.” On reflection, it recalled my concern at regularly noticing that—and then talking with visitors who confirm that—for example, A Prayer Book for Australia’s liturgy of baptism (surely, at least in part meant to be a “way in”) seems so theologically complex, a deadweight, to those who are now unfamiliar with church. I have often wondered if to those with little Christian vocabulary or sense of Christian doctrine reading the theological ideas in the baptism service is any less baffling than, say, speaking in tongues to them? The orthodoxy of the rite is not the point, but it’s intelligibility in a plural, in part secularising, culture in which basic ideas and keywords in the rite—“Trinity,” “salvation,” “baptise”—may be no less strange/exotic/bamboozling to the unfamiliar than “Dharma,” “bodhisattva,” "samhedi”—key concepts in Mahāyāna thinking all carefully avoided in the meditation in which I participated at Conishead (though of course they appear at other times). 

So I was glad to be at the Kadampa temple, and I am grateful not only for the visit but for the questions which emerged for me as a Christian participant in what for me at least was both a welcome and thought-provoking interfaith exercise.

[1] Gabe Huck, How Can I keep from Singing? (Chicago, Ill.: LTP, 1992). 

 Images from the temple,  and prayer book available to read in the temple. Photos: Stephen Burns.

Images from the temple,  and prayer book available to read in the temple. Photos: Stephen Burns.