Glory Be to Gaia: Cross a multimedia rave party with a Sunday Mass and what do you get? Our reporter witnesses the birth of a new planetary ritual.
Publication: New Age Journal
Title: Glory Be to Gaia
Author: Phil Catalfo
Glory Be to Gaia: Cross a multimedia rave party with a Sunday Mass
and what do you get? Our reporter witnesses the birth of a new planetary
The first thing i noticed when I entered the room were the video screens.
There were about a dozen of them, in various sizes, the most striking of
which was a large white globe hanging from the ceiling in the middle of
the room, serving as a spherical projection surface. Directly below the
globe stood an unusual circular table that looked at once like a neolithic
artifact and a prop from the set of Star Trek. Atop the table, underneath
a Plexiglas pyramid, was a crystal chalice. Off to one side was an
impressive bank of audio and video consoles and a production crew to
run them. As the crowd filed in -- many of them recruited by canvassing
the twentysomething club scene and local environmental groups -- the
sound system played soothing space music, and the video monitors
showed footage of cloudlike patterns. Occasional laser lights flickered.
The music gradually segued into a light hip-hop, then escalated into a
more arresting dance beat.
No, this wasn't a late-night rave party. It was the start of a "Planetary
Mass," a form of multimedia worship spawned nearly a decade ago in
Sheffield, England, by a passionate young band of Anglicans called the
Nine O'Clock Service (NOS) community. At the invitation of William
Swing, Episcopal Bishop of California, some thirty-five NOS members
had come here to San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to stage their Mass
twice over the course of this October weekend.
The ritual -- also known as the "rave Mass" -- was inspired by the work of
maverick priest Matthew Fox, as well as by the "new creation story"
propounded by the likes of theologian Thomas Berry and cosmologist
Brian Swimme. The NOS group, comprising some 300 musicians,
artists, activists, and others, have adopted the festive techno-pop
sensibilities of the "club culture" to devise a spiritual ritual that reflects
their concerns for the planet and their hopes for its future.
Back when I was growing up Catholic, things were, well, different.
Although I served as an altar boy and at some point even aspired to the
priesthood, around the time I entered college -- about twenty-five years
ago -- I simply stopped going to church. Like many other baby boomers, I
had chafed under the aegis of restrictive Church dogma. But, more
importantly, what the Church offered me simply did not meet my
spiritual needs. I'm not talking about just the words and rituals
performed at services, but about the cosmology contained in Church
teachings -- the fundamental beliefs about humankind and the world we
So, like so many others of my generation, I dropped out. I dabbled in
Eastern religion and other forms of mystical experience. Yet I often
found myself wondering whether, if my social conscience and spiritual
curiosity had been nurtured by the Church, I might still feel at home
Which was why I was so intrigued to discover the "creation spirituality"
of Matthew Fox, whose book Original Blessing, in its very title,
countered what, in large part, had driven me away from the Church: No
matter how hard I tried, I just could not feel "originally" sinful. Fox's
writings reclaimed the Christian spiritual heritage of mystics such as
Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen; a heritage that did not seek to
control nature, that did not subjugate the feminine, that did not construe
faith and joy as polar opposites. In contrast, argued Fox,
institutionalized Christianity, along with the industrialized civilization
that grew up around it, is an aberration, a life-threatening wrong turn.
Well, I was not going to differ with that point. But where, I wondered,
was this life-affirming religion? Where is there a form of Christian
worship that transcends consumer culture, reactionary politics, and
contemporary cynicism? Well, as it turns out: in the Planetary Mass.
As the brisk air of harvest time portended the coming winter, I found
myself among some 300 curious people arriving at Grace Cathedral. It
seemed fitting that the country's first Planetary Mass should be held
there, a site familiar to me as the setting of more than a few epiphanies
and welcome experiments in spirituality. The services were being held
not in the Gothic cathedral's great nave, but in one of its basement
rooms, better suited to creating a plugged-in, interactive, postmodern
After the congregants were settled, a group of a half-dozen men and
women circled the round altar carrying votive flames, then positioned
themselves around the room. A voice, hard to locate at first, told us that
we could, if we liked, move toward one of the flame bearers to pray,
and that this was done to "invoke Spirit." As a few people did this, a
woman in a white robe ambled about chanting into a wireless
microphone. She was Lori Camm, one of three celebrants; the other two
were similarly robed and wireless-miked: Matthew Wright -- who
accompanied Camm's chant on flute -- and Chris Brain. Brain, the first
(and so far only) member of the NOS community to be ordained as an
Anglican priest, also wore, around his neck, a stole and a pendant in the
shape of the sun.
Now Camm's image appeared on the monitors and on the white hanging
globe. She welcomed us, and thanked San Francisco for welcoming
them. After Wright and Brain made brief comments, Camm pointed out
the altar's circular shape, noting that it symbolized the fact that "we're
all equal." She went on to quote a favored NOS aphorism, which
expresses the group's participative ideal: "the posse is the priest." Then
she concluded, near-rapturously, by saying that "the whole universe is
There followed a quick, video-prompted call-and-response ("Eternal
justice/Her presence is with us"). An energetic male-female singing duo-
-suddenly illuminated near the altar -- led a throbbing dance-beat chant.
As we danced, already exulting, we sang along, reading from the
Now we feel your Life-force rising!
Raise the Passion ten times ten!
Now we breathe you, Christ, inside us,
Feel the freedom pushing on!
Feel the freedom!
Feel the freedom!
Feel the freedom!
Feel the freedom!
When the chant concluded, Wright led us in a series of physical, vocal,
and mental meditations. First, a tai chi-like calisthenic: standing, raising
our hands slowly upward and downward, we were urged to "breathe in --
life; breathe out -- fear; breathe in -- passion; breathe out -- despair;
breathe in -- hope; breathe out -- death." Next, we sat and simply
breathed, in contemplation of the "oneness of all humanity in the love of
God." From this we moved into a chant of the ancient Aramaic word
With the congregation thus attuned, Brain solemnly read a quote from
Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based
environmental think tank, that spoke to the urgent need for cultural
change in light of our advanced state of ecological deterioration. He
concisely translated Brown's remark into theological terms: "'The
Kingdom of God' is not synonymous with the Church. It's synonymous
with all of life -- and that means one thing: We all are saved, or we all
Clearly, Brain added, in light of "our cynicism, our sexism, our
consumerism," it's incumbent upon us to "do some letting go. So let's
do some of that now: confessing our sins to God." What followed was
the most supercharged video portion of the Mass, offering a steady
barrage of words -- "factions . . . adultery
. . . sorcery" (this last intercut with footage of a televangelist) -- and
images that neatly summed up the vanities, paradoxes, and blind spots of
the modern world: scenes of Judas Iscariot betraying Christ with a kiss
(from the film The Last Temptation of Christ) juxtaposed with Bill
Clinton and John Major, starving Third World children, high-tech
warfare. These yielded to a litany of "virtues" with which we might
replace the "sins": "Vicious Love . . . Aggressive Patience . . . Furious
Generosity . . . Passionate Faithfulness . . . Ecstatic Gentleness";
interspersed with time-lapse nature footage and accented by a young man
dancing a hip-hop in a spotlight before the altar.
A quick recitation of the Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy/Christ, have
mercy/Lord, have mercy") led to a Gospel reading, from the opening
verses of John: "In the beginning was the Word . . ." When this was
finished, the celebrants and the congregation exchanged what was, to my
mind, the most sublime dialogue in the entire service: "This is the
Gospel of Christ/Thank you, Eternal Voice."
>From among the worshipers seated on the floor, Matthew Fox himself
arose to deliver the sermon. "Where is this promise?" Fox began,
referring to the promise of eternal salvation inherent in the Word. His
answer: "The Light of the Divine One is in each of us." Our reductionist
society, Fox explained, has "lassoed" this Light and made it serve
military, industrial, entertainment, and business purposes, causing us to
lose sight of "what a gift it is just to be alive, to be well, to be together
on this planet."
Indeed, Fox went on, "Our species got so excited about texts" --
information and scientific knowledge -- "that we associated 'the Word of
God' with books, and we forgot something ancient: that, as Meister
Eckhart said, Every creature is a word of God." With the advent of the
printing press, he continued, "we anthropocentrized the Word. But 'In
the beginning was the Word' -- that's 14 billion years ago! The Word of
God is everywhere. . . . What we've longed for . . . is a language to
express our mysticism. Perhaps now, in the postmodern age, it's
emerging: the language of Light."
Fox recalled his first encounter, a year ago, with the nos community,
"the people here teaching us to pray in a new way -- and in a very ancient
way: with more dancing, and fewer books." He cited an observation by
West African medicine man and cross-cultural workshop leader
Malidoma Somi, to the effect that "when a culture loses its spirituality,
only the young can bring it back." He noted that the young people of the
NOS community -- average age twenty-seven -- seem to have embarked on
just such an endeavor. "The task of bringing it back is so great that it
takes a lifetime commitment," Fox said. But "I'm convinced that young
people around the world are ready for the kind of strength and
commitment so evident" in the nos community. Also, he continued, "we
older people are hungry, we are thirsty -- we're ready to learn. That Light
burns so brightly in all of us that darkness shall not overcome it."
Fox's words yielded to the festive Sanctus chant (celebrating billions of
years of "cosmic evolution"), which led into the Communion, the part of
the service that convinced me I was witnessing something truly
innovative and valuable. Half a dozen people circled the altar, each
carrying a sacramental substance. One carried wafers, another wine; but
there were also earth, air, fire, and water. (I understood this as a
Communion of the Elements.) As each substance was offered, a brief
benediction was uttered -- for example, "Christ our Liberator/In our
global village we offer bread/In the presence of those who starve."
When the earth that sustains us was presented, Brain said, "I wash my
hands in this soil," mixed his fingers in the dark loam, and then wiped
them off on his vestments.
Soon the familiar wafers and wine of the Eucharist were taken to
different points around the altar, where any who wished could come to
receive Communion. In various spots around the room several men and
women twirled, in proper dervish stance, while Camm sang "The First
Time Ever I Saw Your Face." As I watched a few communicants receive
the sacrament I wondered, How long has it been . . . twenty years? I
couldn't remember when I'd last received Communion. Suddenly this
seemed like a perfect time to break the fast.
I stepped up to a woman holding a chalice full of consecrated wafers.
She took one, dipped it into a chalice of consecrated wine, and offered it
to me with the admonition, "The Body of Christ." How many hundreds,
even thousands, of times, had I heard that phrase, yet never fully
appreciated it. But for one moment I was able to see that, by taking
Communion, I was partaking of the life force that fuels Creation; able to
perceive of myself as a part of the divine Body of the universe receiving
the energy of the "cosmic Christ." As the wafer slid down my throat, it
felt surprisingly substantial, and the wine ignited a wonderful warmth.
I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I went back for seconds a few minutes
later. I wasn't sure if this was kosher, so I asked if I could take
Communion again "for someone who isn't here." I wanted to invoke this
loving energy on behalf of my son, who is enduring arduous treatment
for a life-threatening illness. I was asked to give his name. "Gabriel,
'Messenger of God,'" I answered.
Again, I received the Eucharist, and I felt that welcome warmth. As I
sat down I concentrated on quieting my mind and seeing my family --
including Gabriel's brother and sister, and his mother, my wife -- in the
loving heart of all Creation. It was not hard to do.
I could do this again, I thought.
After the Communion, things drew rapidly to a close. The celebrants
exhorted us to "release the leadership, vision, and creativity in your
people," as a way of charging us with continuing the sacred work of re-
inspiriting our culture. (There is talk of establishing a permanent NOS-
like community in the Bay Area, although no specific plans are in place
yet.) "Lord, in your mercy . . ." they pleaded; "Hear our prayer," we
answered. A joyous, lengthy, boogie-down dance ensued, with everyone
up and churning their vital juices. It could scarcely have been more
primal had we built a bonfire in the middle of the room. When it was
over, the celebrants proclaimed, "The Mass is over, go in peace." Came
our reply: "Thank you, Eternal God."
One of the more remarkable aspects of this service is that it has
developed, and continues to unfold, under the sponsorship of a
mainstream Christian denomination. At a post-service press conference
Brain, Camm, and Wright talked about their relationship with the
Church of England: After a tenuous start some ten years ago, they now
enjoy great interest and encouragement from their mother Church. Many
clergy from Sheffield and elsewhere, including archdeacons, visit their
services, said Wright, and other Christian communities around England
have been inspired to craft similar "postmodern" rituals of their own.
Apparently the Anglican hierarchy embraces this trend not only as a cool
way to attract the media-bred younger generation back into the church,
but also as a natural expression of contemporary spirituality and an
appropriate response to humanity's predicament. At this same press
conference, Bishop Swing -- who was seen shaking his holiness during the
service -- also spoke. "We're coming to a moment in history where we've
got to fish or cut bait with regard to Nature," Swing observed. "Did
Jesus die for all people, or for all Creation including people? The Mass
we saw tonight was like John the Baptist -- a forerunner. I was very
excited by tonight."
During my lifetime, I've seen seismic upheavals in the Catholic Church
into which I was born, as well as great shifts in its trajectory: Vatican II
and the openness of Pope John XXIII's reign, followed by the
doctrinaire regressiveness of Paul VI and John Paul II; the birth and
flowering of "liberation theology" in the developing world; continuing
struggles over the ordination of women and reproductive rights. There
have been changes in the liturgy as well, including saying the Mass in
local languages; there has also been a concomitant, Latin-preserving
backlash against that change. I've seen, at Glide Memorial Church, in
San Francisco's gritty Tenderloin district, contemporary social activism
melded with old-fashioned, say-amen-somebody, rhythm 'n' gospel
worship. I've heard, in a Spanish cathedral in Peru, the Mass said in
Quechua, the ancient Incan tongue. Yet I never thought liturgical change
was very important, until I attended the Planetary Mass.
When I arrived home after the Mass that night, well past midnight, it
occurred to me that this was something different. The Planetary Mass is
a reformulation of traditional Christian worship, and more: It is the
Mass reborn for a new millennium -- looking not only back to the life of
Jesus, or ahead to eternity, but also around, to the state of the world we
have inherited, and within, to the beings we can become.
Had there been a Planetary Mass in my parish twenty-five years ago, I
realized, I might never have left the Church.
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