Mysterium Tremendum

Catherine Crooks January 29, 2017

Scripture Psalm 8

Listen to the time of honoring Rev. Crooks following the service.

Back in the day, some 25 years ago, I had the good fortune of singing in a wonderful community choir in Nova Scotia called Cantabile. Together with The Camerata Singers, an even more wonderful choir, and the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, we had the great joy of premiering a stirring and beautiful musical work by a gifted Nova Scotian composer by the name of Scott MacMillan. The texts for that musical work were drawn from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of ancient hymns, incantations, blessings, charms, proverbs and observations about the natural world, texts that were gathered from the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland over a hundred years ago.

Scott MacMillan’s composition is entitled Celtic Mass for the Sea and it celebrates the ancient Gaels’ reverence for the sea’s vitality and its ferocity and its glorious majesty. Lifting up the ancient lore of the ocean, the musical themes woven throughout the Celtic Mass embody much that is traditionally Celtic—rowing songs and funeral chants, sea-rapture songs and labor songs, pipe tunes and fiddle tunes. And at the heart of the Celtic Mass for the Sea is the clarion call to restore balance and harmony to our global home, to our depleted oceans and to our planet. The music and the texts are powerful and stirring, to be sure.

Though portions of the Celtic Mass for the Sea are sung in Gaelic, the Introit is an English translation. It goes like this.

Now lay thine ear against this golden sand, and thou shalt hear the music of the sea,
those hollow tunes it plays against the land—I have lain hours, and fancied in its tone
I have heard the languages of ages gone.
East and by North send thine eyes forth, over waves with great whales foaming,
where sportive seals dance their wild reels through mighty flood-tides roaming.

Perhaps it is the Maritimer in me, my island-born soul, that is so drawn to the ocean to the sea. It has always been thus. On its shores, I blissfully played as a child. On its shores, I walked as an angst-ridden teen. On its shores, I heard a call to ministry as a searching, young woman in my 20s. On its shores, I grieved in anticipation of my father’s death and found solace after his passing.

On the ocean’s shores—sometimes with waters raging, wild waves crashing against a ragged coast; sometimes with shallow pools and sun-kissed sand warming my feet; sometimes in solitude and silence; sometimes in the comfort of a companion—on its shores, I have experienced that which the German theologian Rudolph Otto calls the Mysterium Tremendum, a holy trembling in the presence of the Mystery, in the presence of God. And in those moments, I have been keenly aware of the vastness of the Divine and of my own small but sacred place in the place of all things. And I have been changed for the better. And the hymn of awe, and of thanksgiving and of praise, the song of the ancient Psalmist, has echoed down through the centuries: “O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!”

But the place in which I have experienced the Mysterium Tremendum week in and week out, month by month, over the past 11 and a half years is not the ocean, or the shores at the edges of it, as much as I have always looked forward to being near it.

No, the place in which I have experienced a holy trembling in the presence of the Mystery with steadfast constancy for almost a dozen years is right here, in this very congregation, in the midst of all of you.

In the beauty of this sanctuary: the deep, dark wood, the crimson accents and the jewel-tones of the stained-glass windows. In the majesty of music: the brilliance of organ improvisations and soaring solo voices, the fullness of the Choir and the haunting call of the cello, the congregational singing which lifts us up, whether we come carrying the burden of sorrow or the blessing of new-found joy. In the solemnity of bread and cup; in the wonder of the waters of baptism; in the Word, offered in poetry or in prayer or proclamation. In the child in the Chapel who calls us to worship at First Service, and the toddler who wends her way through all the people there to retrieve a step stool, single-minded in intent to climb up to the pulpit—completely at home—claiming her sacred place in the place of all things.

Right here, in this congregation, in the midst of all of you, I have experienced the Mysterium Tremendum, a holy trembling in the presence of the Mystery. In the gatherings of elders and the wisdom they impart; in the potlucks and parties for young families and the saving friendships that are born; in the circles of spiritual seekers and compassionate communicators and their collective energy that transforms; in the kindness of all who offer a listening ear and an open heart or a healing hand and ease another’s pain by their very presence; in the courage of those whose lives have been marginalized yet come faithfully to this place of considerable affluence and bless us, and humble us, and teach us by their grace.

Right here, in this congregation, in the midst of all of you, I have experienced the Mysterium Tremendum, a holy trembling in the presence of the Divine. In the sacred hospitality that is extended to those who are experiencing homelessness and the food that is prepared and served and shared each month; in the raising of consciousness about white privilege and racial injustice and the confession and reparation and reconciliation that will continue to be sought; in the caring for creation and the commitment to healing our oceans and our earth, that which has already been broken, while preserving that which is still whole; in the tireless dedication of organizers and custodians and administrators and lay leaders and the countless ways in which their work deepens community and strengthens our shared ministries; in the myriad gifts of my clergy colleagues and in their boundless creativity and their irreverent humor and their unwavering fidelity to God and to this Church through all the years.

Right here, in this congregation, in the midst of all of you, I have experienced the Mysterium Tremendum, a holy trembling in the presence of God.

And, in all of these moments, and so many, many more, I have been keenly aware of the vastness of the Divine and I have been deeply moved by the ways in which each of you is an expression of It, an incarnation of the Mystery, an embodiment of God. Bearing witness to your sacred place in the place of all things is beautiful, indeed. And I have been changed, because of you, for the better. And the hymn of awe, and of thanksgiving, and of praise, the song of the ancient Psalmist, rises up within me.

         When I look at your heavens, O God, the work of your hands,
         the moon and the stars which you have created—
        who are we that you should be mindful of us,
        that you should care for us?
        Yet, you have made us little less than the gods
        and crowned us with glory and honor.
        You have given us responsibility for the works of your hands,
putting all things under our care: all sheep and oxen,
        also the beasts of the field; the birds of the air, the fishes of the sea,
        and whatever swims the paths of the seas.

To have been with you for 11 and a half years has been, for me, a great and humbling privilege. To have been invited into your lives, and into your homes, and into your hospital rooms; to have kept vigil at the bedsides of your beloveds; to have held your children and buried your loved ones; to have walked with you through the valleys of the shadows, and to have celebrated with you your joyful summits; to have accompanied you on holy and healing journeys, is to have experienced a holy trembling in the presence of the Mystery in your presence over and over again.

In your vulnerability, I have known more deeply my own. In your strength, I have been made stronger. In your faces, I have come to know more fully the face of God, and for all of these blessings, I return thanks.

As I wend my way to the ocean and to the Island in the weeks ahead, and for all the years to come, please know that I will carry you with me in my heart and hold you in my prayers, remembering you always with unceasing love

Now lay thine ear against this golden sand, and thou shalt hear the music of the sea,
those hollow tunes it plays against the land—I have lain hours, and fancied in its tone
I have heard the languages of ages gone.
East and by North send thine eyes forth, over waves with great whales foaming,
where sportive seals dance their wild reels through mighty flood-tides roaming.

And with the Psalmist of old, in awe and thanksgiving and praise, I shall remember you and sing: “O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!”

May it be so.