Sanctuary, Silence, and Service

A congregation’s venture into mindful worship

by Lauren Hales

At Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Marshall, Texas, gentle lighting, calming instrumental music, and flickering candles interspersed throughout the sanctuary contribute to the immediate sense of calm and welcome worshippers have come to expect at the Sunday night contemplative service. This congregation of Cumberland Presbyterians are innovating what a Sunday’s worship schedule looks like by offering a 5:30 p.m. service steeped in the contemplative Christian tradition. Leading Taizé-based and Celtic-based services on alternate Sundays, they are embracing the ecumenical Christian tradition of mindful contemplation and meditative prayer to worship the Lord.

The inspiration for these contemplative services comes from both the Taizé and Iona monastic communities—sacred spaces that emphasize a Christian contemplative approach to communing with God.

Taizé and Celtic

The Taizé community is a Christian ecumenical monastic community located in Taizé, France, founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schutz (1915–2005), a reformed Protestant. The services at Taizé are known for their focus on silence, meditation, and an opening to God’s presence. As the current prior, Brother Alois, explains, “The exchange with God becomes real for us in prayer: by his Holy Spirit, God comes to dwell within us. By his word and by the sacraments, Christ gives himself to us. In return, we can surrender everything to him.” The Taizé service focuses on this indwelling of prayer by creating an atmosphere of contemplation through meditative singing, experiencing periods of communal silence, and reflecting on Scripture.

Along the same lines, Cumberland Presbyterian’s Celtic contemplative worship service is also modeled after the Iona community in Glasgow, Scotland. The Iona community “is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.” Founded by George MacLeod in Glasgow and Iona in 1938, the community is an ecumenical Christian community of people from different traditions drawn together to act, reflect, and pray for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

The Iona worship style, similar to Taizé, focuses on the power of contemplative prayer and music as a catalyst for a deepened experience of connection to God. Iona pulls heavily on the Celtic style of music to enhance worship, influencing religious communities all over the world to use this style of music. Above all, the Iona Community’s worship emphasizes the call toward justice, which is present in the liturgy they recite and the prayers they speak.

Contemplative Worship at Cumberland Presbyterian

Just as Taizé and Iona both embrace an ecumenical Christian approach, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Marshall’s contemplative service draws on this blend of worship styles to create an innately Christian spiritual space. As the Reverend Mary Kathryn Kirkpatrick, associate pastor at Cumberland, explains, “There have been some forms of spirituality that have become popular that are not necessarily Christian, so many people seem to think that this is the nature of meditation—that it is not Christian. But it has been around for so long in Christianity; it just isn’t practiced as much in the Western world, so it is not understood as an integral Christian practice as well.”

This contemplative worship service, which began in 2012, was the brainchild of Pastor Kirkpatrick, the Reverend Richard Magrill (retired clergy and volunteer) and the music director, Ray Herman. Pastor Kirkpatrick, while attending seminary at Memphis Theological Seminary, visited the evening contemplative service at Church of the Holy Communion (Episcopal). As she explains, “Every time I visited, I thought, we need to do something like this in Marshall if I get called back to ministry there. I had that constantly on my mind throughout the three years that I was in seminary.” When Pastor Kirkpatrick was called back to Marshall, she realized she wasn’t the only person who had been itching to bring a contemplative service to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Richard Magrill had also spent time attending Church of the Holy Communion’s service and was looking to replicate it. With full support from the senior pastor, the Reverend William “Rusty” Rustenhaven, III, the mindful service was born.

These services have been planned, prayed about, and expertly executed for over six years now. Worshippers are immediately aware of the intimacy and spirituality as they enter on Sunday evenings. Soft Celtic instrumental music begins to play 15 minutes before the service starts, the lights are dimmed, and people file in quietly to pray and ease into the mindful nature of the service. The Taizé and Celtic bulletin’s opening paragraph sets the tone for the evening:

“We welcome you to this evening service and hope that you will find strength for your spiritual journey in the week ahead. As this service is contemplative in nature, we ask that you turn off all devices (cell phones, etc.) and that you observe silence upon entering the sanctuary to allow for private prayer.”

Though the Celtic and Taizé services differ slightly in their structure, Cumberland has kept the basic flow of their Sunday nights similar, inviting congregants into fellowship with the Lord through mindful worship.

Welcome. With soothing music, silence, and physical closeness, Cumberland is intentional in how they welcome worshippers into their space. By closing off the outer pews in their sanctuary, clergy purposefully invite congregants to sit closer for worship.

Music. While the Taizé services hosts a pianist, bassoonist, and flautist, the Celtic service is accompanied by a pianist and a recorder. The music director chooses the music to reflect both the week’s liturgy and the Taizé or Celtic tradition.

Reading. The Scripture reading sets the tone for the liturgy and reflection.

Reflection. The reflection is mainly given by volunteer lay people. Ranging anywhere from five to fifteen minutes, the reflection adds a sense of community and agency among the attendees by fostering participation.

Silence. After the reflection is a period of intentional silence. Pastor Kirkpatrick explains leaders “started out making our time of silence three minutes, which for some people was still more than they felt comfortable with. As of this last year we have expanded to five minutes, because this time of meditation and contemplation is so calming for so many people.”

At the Feet of Jesus. This segment is named for Cumberland’s beautiful stained-glass window depiction of Jesus’s outstretched arms. Taking place physically near to the Jesus figure, the candle lighting embraces an ecumenical and mindful Christian effort. Pastor Kirkpatrick points out, “When we first started the candle lighting, an 11-year-old girl saw them lit up at the end of service and exclaimed, ‘Wow! Look at all the prayers!’ and I just thought, She gets it.”

Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is said at every service, with variations to explore the richness and versatility of the prayer.

Offertory. Instead of an offering that goes toward Cumberland’s own budget, the contemplative service focuses on the church in service to the community. Every offering is given to the local food pantry, where the church donated over 2,400 pounds of food in 2017.

Communion. Holy Communion is offered every Sunday night.

Blessing and Closing. As the congregants are blessed and exit the sanctuary, they recess into the narthex where they pass a bowl full of water. Everybody puts their fingers into the water and swirls them around—a symbol designed to be a reminder of the call to service of others.

Why Add a Mindful Service?

Why would a congregation add a contemplative service to its already full Sunday worship schedule? Because, Pastor Kirkpatrick states, “Our members feel a connection with God at the contemplative service that is different from the traditional morning one. Just the fact that the service is different invites a judgment from members. It makes you stop and think about how you worship, it gives you the space for contemplation and a chance to dive in to silence and your own thoughts and prayers. It is so steeped in spirituality that I hope every Sunday it speaks to somebody.” One comment she has heard time and again is that, “The Sunday night service is calming … to the people who come regularly; it starts their week off on a note of calm and peace.” Even though the style of worship alternates between Taizé and Celtic, the feeling of calm and welcome never varies. In fact, Pastor Kirkpatrick comments, “There are people who probably aren’t even aware that the music changes from week to week but who come just to enjoy the silence and calm.” Adding a worship service that promotes deep inner prayer, connection to God, and service to the community, has been a journey filled with trial, error, and much success.

For congregations who want to start a contemplative worship service, the leadership at Cumberland Presbyterian encourages these steps.

1. Meticulous planning. “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, how do we want to do this, and what is the reason we want to do this? We wanted to remind people about the importance of service, which is why our offering is dedicated to the local food pantry and it underpins every part of the worship.”

2. Have a champion. For Cumberland Presbyterian, the clergy emphasize just how important it has been for them to have lay people to assist in the planning and execution of the service.

3. Be organized about building the service. “Over the years,” Pastor Kirkpatrick explains, “we have compiled a notebook full of our own contemplative liturgy that makes it simple to plan the service in advance. I choose the Scripture reading from the lectionary and then piece together a liturgy from our collection that fits best with the Scripture message. Then the music director chooses music and we are set.”

This contemplative service has become an integral part of the prayer life of Cumberland Presbyterian of Marshall, Texas. Cumberland took the initiative to fill a need they saw in their congregation with stunning results. It is the indwelling of Christ’s presence that calls Cumberland Presbyterian to their ministry of mindfulness.

Resources Available to Churches:
Iona Community’s official website: iona.org.uk
Taizé Community’s official website: www.taize.fr
Songs and Prayers from Taizé by Jacques Berthier
Wild Goose Big Book of Liturgies
(from the Iona Community)

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