This week one of the eleven surviving copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English North America, sold at auction.
The owner was Old South Church, Boston, and the sale reminded me of all the old Unitarian communion plate that was sold to keep the staff paid, the furnace stoked or the roof on.
Though I respect our history, I respect the institutions more. And there’s something sad when a communion cup or psalter becomes so valuable as an artifact that it loses its intended use; it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit in reverse. As treasure, the silver and the printed pages become less real. They were real because they were instruments of praise and thanksgiving. Better then, I think that they can be sold, conserved and placed on display, as indeed the new Psalm Book’s owner, David Rubenstein, intends to do. (He owns two of the eleven.)
Better still to keep the Great Thanksgiving at table, and our praises in song. And if you want to pray from the Bay Psalm Book… well, then thank God: you can read it online, in this 1903 facsimile reprint.
Even before the explosions in Boston, I was thinking about the idea of sending prayers to another person. We often hear the expression “I’m sending you prayers” or the secularized version “I’m sending you my thoughts”, as if possible prayers or something that can be packaged and deliver like a letter or parcel. Group in too the often-heard “I’m praying for you.” And these were sent in earnest, if my Facebook or Twitter accounts were reliable. It happens any time something awful happens.
I thought about this again because I had been reading about medieval developments in with Christian worship as a way to better understand how and why we worship today. I think people on the liberal end of Christianity like to think that we have little in common with medieval worshippers, ascribing all of our traditions to the seventeenth century or later. The medieval worshiper would understand our attention to color, sound, and movement. They would get our candles and oil-lamps. But they might have a more difficult a time with how little we pray.
Ancient models a Christian prayer had overlapping cycles of the day weekend and year. While the monastics would pray seven or more times a day — every day — others might still pray twice a day. Add in a mass on Sunday and other devotions. Plenty of opportunity to get both the continuous rhythm of the life of Christ and the saints with other, special, topical occasions for prayer. Today’s Protestants are likely to see that whole week of devotion compressed into the Sunday service. The rhythm of our “faith history” — and with it, opportunities to learn through worship — is a rival for time with our special concerns. “Special concern” worship — votive worship — is largely seen in weddings and funerals, ordinations, and the occasional community Thanksgiving service and prayer breakfast. We see it in “candles of joy and concern” which our medieval ancestors would recognize — the original lighters of a votive candle — if perhaps without the public attention! We see it too in the vigils for the dead…
I think we Unitarian Universalists feel the tension between cyclical worship that teaches, and occasional worship that concentrates on particular themes. (Votive worship can address particular doctrines as well as particular people; for this, today, read worship in reference to a particular cause or movement.) We feel the tension, but may not have the language to describe the variety, which makes our worship look ad hoc or random. (Or simply be ad hoc or random.)
So Sunday — or today in your own private prayer or thoughts — consider that “sending prayer” is as core to the faithful life as the best-heard sermon or best-sung praise.
Baha’i visitors came to Universalist National Memorial Church this morning, to mark the centennial of the visit of `Abdu’l-Bahá to the United States and to Washington specifically. He was the eldest son of Baha’i Faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh.
`Abdu’l-Bahá recited a prayer at the Church of Our Father (Universalist) the predecessor to Universalist National Memorial Church; the building is now demolished, so the Baha’is visits (and repeated the prayer) at UNMC because, as one of their number said, “the spirit” of the old church “is here.”