World without end

What you will notice first is the people. Look at them. See how they gather together in this place. Apparently this gathering ritual is a thing people do. And they are so at ease with it, gliding between the pews, exchanging greetings, having conversations before the service, waving across the room to their friends, sinking quietly into their seats to court silence before it begins.

Almost everything you will see has ritual significance. There will be so many rituals. Major rituals shared with the ancient Church and minor rituals particular to this congregation. Don’t try to sort out the rituals. Just watch them and be with them and soak in them for now.

When the service begins, the theology is going to hit you hard. You knew this was coming. These people are saying things no human being can know. That’s the bottom line. What they are saying cannot be known. It is unknowable stuff. And yet they will speak of these mysteries as if they are simple, child-like notions. As if any sensible person with her eyes open should know them to be true.

I’m sorry for that. Familiarity breeds a glib blasphemy. But that is human nature and cannot be avoided. Know this: your reaction to their shocking words is the correct one. You still have ears to hear, and that is a beautiful thing.

The service will intensify and at some point you will hear the thunderclap of sacred words, the sharp edges of the high doctrines.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

I trust you to know when you are just outside the door of the holy of holies. I trust a human instinct will alert you to the movement of the deep waters. There is something ancient here, something spoken in the old ways. There is wisdom here from before your language was formed and before your culture existed. Wisdom from the old masters and the older days. This wisdom does not seek your approval. It will not court your favor. You hear it and it echoes in your soul or it does not. So be it.

In these early days you carry no burden of understanding. You need only bask in the wonder that is seducing you. Marvel at how such words can be uttered by modern people and held in modern minds. Marvel that such wisdom has survived into these latter days. Marvel that wisdom lives so effortlessly in the hearts and minds of your generation, in these thoroughly ordinary people whom you may run into tomorrow at the grocery store or post office.

And then let go. I beg you to let go. Let go of trying to understand. Let go of worrying whether or not this is for you. Let go of your suspicion that you are among fools or that you have been taken in by charlatans. Let go of your fear that maybe you have missed something and must hurry to make up for lost time.

Let go and let this experience sit with you.

Let go and step out of our modern world that tracks time and experience and value in such terribly boring and linear and logical ways.

Let go and let not your heart be troubled.

There is no hurry. There is no pressing need. All of this will still be here tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. World without end.



This piece was inspired by recent visits to religious services outside of my own faith tradition. I was touched by how moving it is to be immersed in traditions you see but do not understand. You become like a child.

  • pastordt

    Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you.

  • Ashevillian

    I am fascinated by ritual, by the beauty of ritual, by beautiful rituals. They speak to a primal part. They are therefore powerful, and therefore also potentially dangerous. We out ourselves in peril with ritual, which is probably part of its attraction. We also open ourselves to the possibility of great sustenance.

    It is good to pick our rituals and our ritual community with care.

    • Gordon Atkinson

      The paradox that I still have not figured out is that those seeking a ritual community, as you put it, are often not in a place where such an evaluation is easy to figure out. Or even possible to figure out.

      I know I’ve struggled and continue to struggle with that.

  • Bob G

    At this time of year I often long for the days when I was growing up in the Catholic church. Holy Week really means something to the Catholics. It was just, mmm…different and possibly deeper than my current and past evangelical faith communities.
    The Glory Be was the first prayer that I memorized in CCD at the age of 5 or so.
    “As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be…”
    I never thought about it in those terms before: the unknowable mystery out of the mouth of a child.
    Wow. Thank you for this Gordon!