Going to Church
by Clarinda Mac Low
Just about a week ago I was walking around on a Sunday morning, seeing, as one usually does on a Sunday morning in my neighborhood, people walking to and from church. As I watched a group of elderly church-goers, clearly friends, walking arm-in-arm, suddenly I got it. Of course! Church! (or temple (Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, etc.) or mosque, or…). It’s a gathering place, a center of community, a place you can go where there will be people to say hello to, people with whom you share at least some values, where you can participate fully, or fade into the background and still be around people who know you. Even if you don’t like everybody, even if you don’t always agree with the words of the spiritual leader, even if you’re feeling a crisis of faith, that place is YOUR PLACE. What makes this place even more powerful than other gatherings is that you can hope for at least a modicum of transcendence, a moment where you touch the hem of the ineffable and experience a transformation in communion with your fellows.
You see where I’m going with this, right? For anyone who attends performances regularly, this sounds awfully familiar. For anyone who both attends performances and makes performances, this is even closer to home.
Without a gathering place, who are we? What do we have? A constant flow of unfamiliar faces, the often warm but also often alienating family unit, a loosely-strung constellation of friends… . It’s a cold empty world out there sometimes, and the warmth of a group, huddled around the flame of yearning for spirit, can give you the strength to live.
I suddenly understand more deeply the difficulty that people experience in leaving a religious sect, or spiritual practice. This dance and performance world has become my temple, my gathering place, the place where I know people, and people know me, where I can go to gather with a bunch of friends and semi-strangers and hope for a modicum of transcendence. Even if I’m an apostate, even if I’m a heretic and a malcontent, even if I feel estranged, this is still my place, and I feel welcome to slip in the back door when I need to. What makes me lucky, in this case, is the elasticity of the world I chose—heretics are welcome, and malcontents are viewed with curiosity more than suspicion. No burning at the stake, no bombs in the bathrooms of our black box theaters. Maybe a some spiteful backbiting, or a few exclusive cliques, but no Inquisitions.
So far I’ve been focusing this bloggy discourse on how performance affects an individual—this may be somewhat misdirected, or, at the least, incomplete. A shared experience forms bonds, creates that elusive creature, “community.” A performance brings people together into one space and supplies them with a shared experience. In a secularized world, the shared experience of performance may be even more vital than it was in a world where shared religion cemented bonds, for better and (very frequently) for worse. After all, as I mentioned a few weeks back, Western theater has its roots in a religious tradition. The rituals that gave rise to the classical Greek theater were transformational rituals based in Dionysian mystery cults, intended to absolutely change the participants, take them out of their everyday lives and catapult them into a new mode of being.
As Karen Armstrong describes it, in one version, the Eleusinian mystery cult, the initiates followed in the steps of Demeter as she searched for her daughter Persephone, taken away by the lord of the underworld. The ritual included a two-day fast, a terrible event just barely averted, a revelatory reunion. “At Eleusis, they achieved an ekstasis, ‘stepping outside’ their normal workday selves…[they] did not go to Eleusis to learn anything, but to have an experience which…transformed them.”
This shared transformation continues, and the ecstasy, muted as it may often be, is one reason that we gather, all together, and suspend our disbelief and everyday concerns to be transported and, one can hope, transformed.
 Karen Armstrong. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. Alfred A. Knopf:USA, c2006. pgs. 185-187.
Next: Moving pictures