Monday, November 29, 2010

twenty-third visit: Nov 28th 2010 Quaker, Friends General Conference

10:30am sunday
The Religious Society of Friends of Pittsburgh
4836 Ellsworth Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15213

Spending some amount of every day in a quiet state is pretty essential to me. It's just how I am. Much of it happens in my studio. During an artist's talk, I remember Sigrid Sandstrom, a painter, saying that she never plays music in her studio, ever. "It is always quiet in there, for the whole twelve hours each session. It's the only way the answers will come," she said.

The Religious Society of Friends of Pittsburgh meets in a gorgeous old house in a fairly residential area. Worship occurs in the room that was originally the home's art gallery. It's in the back-corner of the home, outwardly surrounded on two sides by trees and garden, set at a lower level than the rest of the house, down a half-flight of stairs. Approach the meeting room "quietly and gently," a sign reads. Worship begins as soon as the first person enters.

I feel that "silence" is not the right word to use here, as for me it implies an absence, and is too much of a command. The quiet gathering here is that of "alert attentiveness" and serves to ground, and to center the community in order to experience the presence of the Spirit. The services of this congregation, as often is the case in the Friends General Conference, are not lead by a pastor. Worshipers themselves provide the sermon. Unplanned divinely inspired messages are spoken. Worshipers are individually responsible for discerning whether the message is intended to be shared aloud with the other worshipers. Sometimes the worship hour may not include any spoken words.

During this particular service, four messages are spoken by three different people. Two concerning the importance of remaining open to perceive all things, even things that may be considered negative (in reference to the saying "hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil) ...the importance of perceiving and absorbing our surroundings completely, including the good and the bad; not to miss opportunities to respond peacefully to inequalities and unfortunate situations. The other two messages concern the difficulty of tending to the problems in our individual lives while reserving energy and time to offer help to others and make a difference in the world.

An appointed member signifies the end of the worship hour by shaking hands with those near by. Queries for personal reflection are read. Questions concerning commitment to non-violence and pursuit of peaceful solutions and peaceful responses use the words "creative" and "creatively."

After the service, while talking near the reception table, heavy with homemade pies, cheeses, breads and salads, I learn that Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers are united in their commitment to peace. I mention that though my mother was raised a Brethren, I had never heard her speak of this specifically.
"Yes well, it's really the ONLY way Quakers are related to the Mennonites and Brethren: through commitment to peace. But I see you already have a dove of peace on your dress. What are you going to add for us... to represent your visit here?"

Many people ask me this during my visits. The truth is that sometimes it takes a day or two of quiet thinking before the answer comes.

twenty-second visit: Nov 28th 2010 East End's Coop Ministry Men's Shelter

8am sunday
Good Samaritan Service
at East Liberty Presbyterian Church
116 S. Highland Ave,
Pittsburgh PA 15206
east liberty

If you recognize the church name and address (above) from my 13th visit (Taizé Prayer Service), then you are paying way too close attention and should find other ways to occupy your time. But yes: this Good Sam service takes part in a completely different part of the same church (below-ground floor dining hall), with completely different leaders, and involves a completely different congregation, including members of the East End's Coop Ministry Men's Shelter, which makes it fair game by my rules. And since I'm making the rules here, I've already decided that this church has yet even one more service (a ritual or ceremony, really) that is much too unique not to include in gatherings. (again diff place, people, and leaders) Reverend Randy Bush warned me of ELPC's many offerings during our first phone conversation; at first I resist. Alas, he is right. So watch for a final visit to 116 S. Highland's Prayer Labyrinth on 12-5-10.

Honestly, I was wondering if I'd stand apart in this congregation, and not just because of my dress. But no chance: no standing apart for anyone here. Firstly, about 1/4 or perhaps more in the congregation are non-members of the shelter, from my best estimation. And secondly, within 30 seconds of my arriving, I find myself moving to the outer walls of the room, and joining hands with two strangers—contiguously along with every single person in the room to forming a huge inclusive circle, the forty of us: hand in hand in hand.

Worship here "is led by members of the clergy from local churches, guest speakers from a community organization or social service agencies, or members and staff of ELPC." The woman leading today's stalls a bit when we come to singing the first hymn. "Is there anyone here that plays the piano?," she asks. Giggles. "I'm serious." We get by a capella, but barely. Seconds into the second hymn, Reggie arrives, fingers drumming on keys before his body hits the piano bench. He is in his 60's (he told me), African American, long-curly white bearded, and wise. ("Well, I try not claim to be a wise old man, but sometimes I just am.") If he had not made a mid-worship entrance, I would not have been aware of exactly what he adds to the morning, his stumbling fingers giving way to a haunting calliope on the old upright. "That's exactly why it's important to sleep in every once in a while and miss part of a duty: so that people appreciate you," he told me as we talked after the service.

We talked a long time about a lot of things. Teaching music (he) and art (me). Creating and maintaining creative environments.

Also: how amazingly well-maintained the church is in all its Gothic ornateness—this the largest church building I have ever been to in the US, while so many smaller beautiful structures are so badly struggling here in Pittsburgh. "Well," he says, "we have an endowment." "From the members?" "Oh, from one member in particular. Her last name is Mellon." Understood.

In 2006 I moved to Baltimore from Portland Oregon. I remember writing in an email shortly after: "In Baltimore, life is real." I miss that city sometimes, its edginess. And I miss the unrelenting realness. It works to keep things in perspective, so that the little things, like loosing a favorite sock in the laundry or squirrels eating your tulip bulbs, remain little. And in all the humongous grandness of this building, amongst its bowling alley, basketball court and movie screening room, there is realness at this early morning service.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

twenty-first visit: Nov 21st 2010 Primitive (meaning "original") Methodist

11:00am sunday
Door of Hope
5227 Holmes St, Pittsburgh PA 15201

My 19th visit was on the 19th of Nov, my 20th on the 20th and my 21st on the 21st. I did not plan this, but it must mean something and I hope it's good.

So, my 21st visit: I arrive 45 min early; my best guess at the service's start time is a little off. (Times are not posted outside church, no website and no one answering phones.) But I don't mind hanging out in the sanctuary's cozy second floor balcony, one bit.
The building is as grandly designed as a huge cavernous cathedral might be, but is much more intimate in scale. Best of both. Graceful, dark wood everywhere. The opposing walls of the building, each sporting a tremendous, classic Pittsburgh Gothic rose-style stained glass window, are close enough together for me to feel that, from my seat in the balcony, I'm catching the ends of glowing rays from both. Next to me, curiously, is an old movie-theater-style red popcorn-popper cart, with its huge ridiculous, functionless wheels, the plexi-windows still yellow-oil-coated from its last use, probably years ago. Pittsburgh moments such as these come too few and far between, for me.

I relish my gift of 45 minutes of drawing, photo and thinking-time (almost snoozing with my eyes open),
between sips of my decaf that I was kindly offered on the way up. Eventually I come to realize that the balconies are not used for seating during services these days. Since I'm here to mingle, at 11:00 I descend the stairs and settle into a first-floor pew. An animated congregation-member takes the pulpit to casually call for news and chatting... to hold our attention... to kill time, until Reverend Brian is able to arrive, he wryly admits.
"I dunno," he says toward the end of his monologue, "I just LIKE Sundays."
"It's the Steelers," someone from the congregation says. My day for moments, I guess.

Reverend Brian arrives to reclaim the pulpit. A band kicks in: four energetic middle-aged men, occupying 90% of the alter—electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums. PowerPoint projections of lyrics.
Jeanette, whom I'll meet later in the basement, knits in her pew. So today I'm not the only one multitasking worship and the arts.

The sermon: "We are encouraged to be thankful in all situations," Brian reminds us. "That is: IN all situations, not FOR all situations." This reasonable interpretation is appreciated. Vocal solo performance.

Door of Hope Church:
• Primitive Methodist in denomination. "Primitive" taking the English meaning of "original."
• How many churches this sweet size have two rose-style stained glass windows and an ascension dove stained glass sky light?
• The small alcoves behind the balcony once held Sunday School classes, open to the main sanctuary. Paulette can point out the ones that she sat in, as a child.

• The church's construction was overseen by a pastor who at the time was feuding with his brother, also a pastor... to see who could build the better church. This one in Pgh, the other in New Castle, PA. Story is, they ended up looking remarkably similar. (And the moral... ? -wink) These two were referred to as sister-churches until the one in New Castle "closed up" and was sold to the city.
• You'd never guess that years ago the furnace in this one exploded, blew the pipes off the walls and black dust everywhere. Jeanette heard the event from inside her home, blocks away. Oh, the stories, the voices, the grumblings of these old buildings.

I learn most of the above from Paulette who introduces herself after the service. Paulette, with her sister Linda, is part of the middle generation of a three-generation family that attends Door of Hope together every week... and she's been going since she was born. I met another family as such: dear Jeanette, her husband, her mother and her children, as well. This is pretty remarkable as there are probably not more than 30 worshipers (maybe less) attending today.

I'm invited to join their Thanksgiving potluck in the basement. More conversations than can be typed... Jeanette... Greg and Lin... Bob (the keyboardist) and I talk about the peaceful, grounded feeling that comes after spending time in our studios, working on our different arts.

Door of Hope is a sincere, warmly welcoming, incredibly generous congregation, without an ounce of pretension.

Oh, and check this out:
2 worshipers in Steelers jerseys.
1 worshiper in a Steelers sweatshirt.
1 worshiper in a Steelers knit winter hat.
I really do wish that I had kept careful count from the beginning. Now that I'm paying attention, the count has doubled in just one visit.
Running Total: 8 (to date)

twentieth visit: Nov 20th 2010 Roman Catholicism

4:00pm saturday
St. Aloysius Parish
3616 Mount Troy Rd, Pittsburgh PA 15212
north side: reserve township

Oh my. Don't know what made me think that writing a post after a four-hour-night's-sleep was a good idea. Apologies for the first version of the seventeenth visit post, if anyone happened to read it. I think I have it cleaned up to a better state now. It was truly such a mess of rambling ideas. (or more than usual, anyway)

Although St. Aloysius is a block or two outside the city limits, something told me I needed to put it on this weekend's list, so I went with that instinct. (Generally I'm staying within city limits, except when this would lead to the exclusion of a faith—and in that case I venture out, such as to Monroville for my SV Temple visit.) Anyway, did you know that a nine-minute drive from Lawrenceville, through Millvale and a hill beyond lands you in a farming community? With my childhood peppered with trips to Grandma's farm (the spot where my mom grew up), my gatherings experience would not be complete without a church that backs up to treed fields and a parked tractor. Mission accomplished.

The service is only an hour long, but still my knees need a break before the end. (How does my sister do it?) I notice that the scripture reading comes from the same chapter of the Bible as last night's service—this time earlier in the 15th chapter of 1st Samuel. This is the second time something has happened in two's. (During back-to-back visits of Oct 23rd and 24th, the growing prevalence of shooting deaths of male African Americans was mentioned, and never before nor yet since those visits.)

My mind wanders once or twice to the hopeful possibility of an interesting conversation after the service... being so certain that people would linger to socialize. I should not make assumptions like this, but the following is why: Growing up, my sisters and I used to give my mom a hard time about making our family stay in the sanctuary a long, long while after services, while she talked to people. Forever. Over the years, I came to understand that this was a life-long habit that she was not going to break. For her, up to the beginning of her adult life, it was the best way (almost the only sure way) to keep in touch with neighbors—neighbors who lived quite a ways apart from each other, on large properties, in her farming community.

Alas: nope, not at St. Aloysius, or not tonight, anyway. The sanctuary empties, the parking lot too, and even the Priest bids me goodnight as he walks to his car... all before I am finished taking just 4 photos of the church's exterior. At 5pm on a Saturday, just a few blocks outside Millvale, the night is young, I guess.

# of worshipers spotted wearing Steelers garb while worshiping (running total)

Today I decided to keep a running total of the number of instances that I see Steelers clothing or whatnot worn by worshipers during services. I regret that I did not make a point to begin counting vigilantly at the start of this project... as I may have missed a few... but I'll be attentive here out and add to the tally as we go. (I've included the ones I remember leading up to today's date.)

Sept 19, 2010 The Church of the Holy Cross
Rev. Dr. Moni McIntyre herself appears during the church's coffee hour (immed after delivering her sermon) wearing a Steelers jersey.
I think this should count as 10, really.
Running Total: 1

Nov 14, 2010 Allegheny Center Alliance Church
I see 2 different worshipers each sporting Steelers jerseys during the service.
Running Total: 3

Nov 20, 2010 St. Aloysius Parish
1 worshiper passes my pew to take communion while
wearing a Steelers jacket.
On my drive home I saw 2 different people in 2 diff neighborhoods walking around outside wearing Steelers garb
... but I guess I can't count these.
Running Total: 4

Nov 21, 2010 Door of Hope
2 worshipers in
Steelers jerseys.
1 worshiper in a Steelers sweatshirt.
1 worshiper in a Steelers knit winter hat.
I really do wish that I had kept careful count from the beginning. Now that I'm paying attention, the count has doubled in just one visit. Need I say Steelers won this day... or so I heard.
Running Total: 8

Dec 5, 2010 East Liberty Presbyterian Church, traditional service
2 worshipers in
Steelers jerseys.
2 worshiper in Steelers sweatshirts.
1 worshiper in a black and gold striped sweater.
Today: 5 worshipers at East Liberty Presbyterian Church wearing Steelers garb.
Running Total for the project: 13 (to date)

Dec 5, 2010 Congregation Beth Shalom
Today, I returned to Beth Shalom to take my photographs, and the gentleman who was vacuuming there was wearing a Steelers sweatshirt. Alas, I can't prove he was worshiping (though I can't prove he wasn't either...) but I guess in the end I can't count him. Sigh.

Dec 18, 2010 Church of Saint Raphael
2 worshipers in
Steelers jackets.
Running Total for the project: 15 (to date)

Dec 19, 2010 South Avenue United Methodist Church
1 worshiper in a Steelers turtleneck, a Steelers jersey, a Steelers jacket and a Steelers cap. Does he really only count as one?
Running Total for the project: 16 (to date)

Feb 6, 2011 Stanton Heights United Methodist Church
8 worshipers in blackandyellowblackandyellowblackandyellow
2 worshipers carrying terrible towels
Running Total for the project: 26 (to date)

April 17, 2011 Immaculate Heart of Mary Church
1 worshiper wearing a Steelers jacket.
Running Total for the project: 27 (to date)

Sept 18, 2011 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
1 worshiper in a black suite with a yellow shirt and black tie.
(I saw like 13 people while I was driving between visits today,
but I guess that can't count.)
Running Total for the project: 28 (to date)

Oct 2, 2011 Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara
1 in a Steeler jersey. Name across the back: GURU.
(Flavors of India and Steeler Country merrily co-exist.)
1 woman wearing a kameez (tunic), white with a pattern of Steeler logos

& along the edge of her duputa (scarf): more logos.
8 men cover their heads with black and yellow bandanas

(not turbans- these bandanas are worn by men who
do not have the
traditional long hair.)
3 children in bandanas, scarves, or black and yellow.

Running Total for the project: 41 (to date)

Oct 4, 2011 First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh
2 in jackets with Steeler logos

FINAL Total for this entire project: 43

Friday, November 19, 2010

nineteenth visit: Nov 19th 2010 Christian Interdenominational, Korean

7:30pm friday
Korean Central Church of Pittsburgh

821 S Aiken Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15232


Over a month back, my sister had been asking me if I'd gone to a Catholic service yet. (She converted to Catholicism a few years ago.) My visit to St. Boniface was purposefully two days after her birthday, a secret gift to her, and I thought she'd be happy to hear. "Latin Mass? That's boring," she said. I didn't think so at all.

Alas, I'm not able to write too much about the content of this evening's service; every word was in Korean. Except "Amen." And the following words, in this order:

• Spoken directly to me: "Are you OK?" (walking toward me from an adjacent pew, squeezing my shoulders warmly... I'm sure she thought I had come by mistake, not expecting a Korean service, instead of the truth: planning it this way.) "Would you like a Bible? I'll get a Bible for you." ( of a few English Bibles kept in the lobby ...and so kindly showed me the verses, so at least I knew what the sermon was addressing)

• on the PowerPoint projection, written in English, next to the Korean-language equivalent: "approval addiction"

• I could tell when we reached the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. The same sweet woman, who had by then moved next to me was the only one in the room who whispered it in English, loud enough for me to hear.

After the service ended, she sat a few minutes and summarized the sermon for me. I told her about gatherings and explained that I did not mind experiencing the service in Korean at all and so appreciated her help. I also talked about attending the Hindu service, completely in Sanskrit. She said she could guess that my husband was Indian because of my dress. Well, the largest piece of fabric most currently added is my dupatta. Perceptive. She shared that her husband was on the way home from Argentina that night. Safe travels.

eighteenth visit: Nov 19th 2010, Roman Catholicism, Passionists

7:00am friday
Saint Paul of the Cross Monastery Chapel
148 Monastery Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15203
southside slopes

I did complete this visit, but it was requested of me that I not write about it unless I obtained a confirming response from the religious leaders here. I sent emails and left phone messages, but could not elicit a response. I will say that I am struck by the historical importance of this monastery (not just locally, but nationally—internationally even) and the opportunity to have visited is much appreciated.

seventeenth visit: Nov 14th 2010 Christian and Missionary Alliance

12:35pm sunday
Allegheny Center Alliance Church

250 East Ohio St, Pittsburgh PA 15212

north side: allegheny center

Honestly, I had never heard of the denomination "Christian and Missionary Alliance" before attending ACAC. And apparently the founder (Dr. AB Simpson, a former Presbyterian) had no intentions of his project (initially a rescue-mission) growing into one. This church states its vision as aiming "to be ethnic, socio/economic and generationally diverse."

Not long ago a friend of mine said to me, "Interesting that you are doing such a performative project in a setting where... " I'm not sure she actually finished the sentence, but we can guess her direction. Performance from specifically visitors, is what she was referring to, I think, as something that does not traditionally occur in a worship place. And/or she had in mind the fact that some might see conformity as often dominating a worship place. ...Also, I'll want to clarify that we are talking about performing, as in performance art: art as action. And that is a huge part of gatherings, no doubt.

I bring up the idea of performance in the worship place, because it does happen amongst worshipers in some respects. Performing rituals is one example. And it does happen in another way—a big way—at ACAC: through music. Contemporary song. My husband would be jealous of the audio system here and it is used with full passion. Children's singing group first. Then contemporary spiritual solos by adults. Live accompaniment with amped instruments. There is also a performance of the day's discourse: foot-washing. Themed phrase: "The holes in our soles." On stage, the feet of four church members are washed by four other members
holding higher positions within the church (deacons, perhaps). Point: the idea of not putting one's self above the duty of servitude. Remembering from my fourteenth visit: Feet of the elders are kissed by all participants at the end of a Hindu puja. And—I remember seeing signs posted in the temple's halls on the way to the main areas of worship—feet are washed in Hindu temples, too. (Good thing, right?)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

sixteenth visit: Nov 14th 2010 Unitarian Universalism

10:30am sunday
Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church
1110 Resaca Place, Pittsburgh PA 15212

central northside

This visit is especially memorable for many reasons:

1) The building: There's a lot of mention of how architecture in Pgh passes for Victorian but is really rather American Arts and Crafts in style. I agree, but also see things mostly as a subtle mix of the two under a single roof. I'm no architectural studies major; however, in my opinion this sweet little structure is one-hundred-percent undeniably the truest example of pure arts and craft that I've seen in Pgh yet. Immediately upon entering, there's a huge fireplace (with roaring fire) in a space that has been furnished as a sitting room—yet is open to the post and beam sanctuary via huge doorways, with the possibility of enclosure by way of handsome hinged wooden accordion-folding doors. (Yes, those are little heart cut-outs above, in the banister lining stairs that lead to a tower.) And, I learn, an architect-member of the congregation has taken on the duty of maintaining, furnishing, even overseeing construction of coat racks, name-tag holders, etc. all in keeping with the style. Art.

2) The service: A blind response to my questions about the ability to perform physical worship duties with injury and/or tired aching joints (see 8th visit): "Please rise in body OR spirit." Nice. (Or is this spoken often and I have never noticed?)

Every time I come across an idea (mine, a newspaper writer's or someone's spoken words) that seems to say something about what it is I am exploring through gatherings, I add it to my list. Here's my latest, gathered from this service:
• "To worship: to create that which is valued."
The ritual of attending service; the ritual of making art.
• "It behooves us what we are worshiping because we become what it is we are worshiping. We come here to choose what it is we will become." Unitarian voice. To the sanctuary; to the studio, painter.
• The possibility that this can be answered: "I'm an atheist, so what am I worshiping?"
Here "I" is meant figuratively, not literally, of course. ...In my mind, raising the question: Is there really truly such thing as an atheist?

To discover, ruminate, explore, meditate, question, to become, to create that which is valued.

3) After the service: Before I could leave my pew, Bethany comes up to me and introduces herself. She is actually a member of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh (see 15th visit). She missed meeting me there, saw a mention of gatherings on a blog and decided to make a visit to this Unitarian congregation so that she can say hi. Means so much to me! She has studied world-religion at the graduate level and does work with children in the field. And she's a fan of art. Pretty fantastic, huh? I am so happy to meet her, but so sad that I'll be out of town for the solstice observance this year that she mentions. Sigh. She asks me about the type of art that I am most interested in... curious about the role that art plays in this project, perhaps? I wish I had said more about the role of performance in my art practice that really began in my very first paintings. Performance art. My interest in moving toward blurring the lines between one's practice and one's life like Joseph Beuys did. Like followers of religions do. Like the followers of Joseph Beuys and his philosophy of social sculpture do. I think this will come up again...

4) Rev. David McFarland actually calls me that afternoon to ask about my visit-experience and whether there is anything he can do to help re: this project. Wow.

Tis late. I will have to remember to edit this post later; I'm sure I've left a sprinkling of typos. For now, please forgive me.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010

fifteenth visit: Nov 7th 2010 Unitarian Universalism

11:00am sunday
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh

605 Morewood Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15213


Today I am basking in the luxury of devoting the bulk of the day to gatherings. The morning: this service. The rest of the day: writing, sewing, drawing and documenting via photography. Usually I just have to make do with minutes between obligations—even when full uninterrupted hours are really what my work needs. I imagine it's not a different feeling... this piecemeal practice... for those who attempt to regularly find time for observing the spiritual side of life. Besides looking forward to sewing today, I'm especially looking forward to the time to think. About what? About this: 1) the varieties of my worship experiences these past two months and 2) creating contemporary art and practicing religion—How do these separate experiences come together, and what do they look like when expressed visually? Where is the overlap and how do I make it visible?

The first page of First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh's bulletin welcomes guests and contains these words:
"We acknowledge that artistic expression can be a powerful way of communicating religious insight...We are seeking to weave social justice into all aspects of our church life... join us in affirming and promoting justice and human rights as we build stronger connections with the larger community and work to make our world a better place. ...we welcome the presence and participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in all areas of church life."

Honestly, I never thought I'd find a church's stance on such issues spelled out so clearly, even though here a different approach is taken toward the connection between arts and belief, compared to that of gatherings. These are not just words. The basement of the church houses a gallery exhibition of seemingly Joseph-Cornell-influenced assemblages and paintings by Kirsti and Erika Adkins and Jane Crumay Lobingier.

Here renewing the church's covenant includes:
"Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Through this project I'm looking for moments during which belief unites instead of separates humanity. World events (and local, too) tell us we are a long way off. This church seems to have the same concern: a group called the Unitarian Universalists for justice in the Middle East, and an Anti-racism Working group, both perform specific actions to keep things moving in a certain direction.

Today's sermon: "The Upside of Transience." Away with the old, on to the new—though nostalgia causes us to hesitate, the only way we can achieve a better state is through change.

How can the ritual of going to weekly worship and the ritual of making art, thrive purposefully, enriching and responding to the life today, if the focus remains solely on the repetition of a tradition?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

fourteenth visit: Nov 5th 2010 Hindu, Diwali

10:00am friday
Kedara Gauri Puja
at Sri Venkateswara Temple
1535 McCully Rd, Monroeville PA 15146

Timing is on my side: ends up that I had began researching a visit to the SV Hindu Temple just in time to catch the Kedara Gauri Puja, the prayer ceremony for Diwali (also known as Deepavali) or the "festival of lights". (Deepavali translates into "row of lights.") This is often considered Hindu's most important holidays and, if you know the story from the Ramayana, signifies the return of Rama and Sita from banishment in the forest. It also marks the beginning of the financial year, and involves sweets and fireworks. Overall, the light stands for good winning out over evil, and love and wisdom over ignorance. I also remember my mother-in-law saying that it's an evening during which all the homes have all their lights turned on, late into the night.

I leave our house a full half-hour later than intended... but am familiar enough with Indian culture to know that I have no reason to speed. Sure enough, upon arriving I have plenty of time to leisurely deposit my shoes on the wooden shelves near the door, find the main office and buy my ticket. "Now, just go up those stairs, around the main temple, and you'll see people waiting." Yep, still waiting. I have time to add my fruit (prasad) to the pile near the alter, to acquaint myself with the seven other puja-partakers (six women, one man) and situate myself comfortably in front of the alter on the long narrow Indian rug covering the white tiled floor, before the start of the ceremony.

The puja begins with the Panditji approaching each participant with several questions spoken in Sanskrit. At first the pundigee skips over me... "No, no, do her!" My new friends insist. Long, long beautiful sentences in Sanskrit. "He's asking your name," my friends whisper. "Now your husband's name. Any children?" I answer, touching the plate he is holds out to me with the tips of my fingers, as the others did. I can tell by their reaction that apparently having a husband named "Arohan Subramanya" is in a way, a more valuable ticket than one I had purchased in the office.

The ceremony is physical, recalling my day at St Boniface and inludes rising several times at key moments to shower the alter with rice or flower petals we each receive from Panditji. We stand and pirouette, turning several times around before sitting again. Some take full prostration on the ground to pray, child's pose, forehead to the rug.

We tie bracelets made of a yellow string with one head of a chrysanthemum knotted in. It's a sort of protector... to ward off evil... remembrance of the puja—you should wear it all day... not to be thrown away, but instead tie it to a tree. (or to a dress, maybe?)

Pujas are ceremonies for all senses. (Perhaps you can say the same about Catholic Masses.) Here, fruit, flowers, garlands and rice: a sight adorning the alter. The smell of chrysanthemums, incense and burning oil wicks, waved in circles. The ringing of a bell. Touching plates, fingers to foreheads applying the tilak just above and between the eyes, right hands cupping rice and flower petals. And taste...

At the end we eat prasad together—fruit that now has the deities' blessing residing in it. Prasad perhaps carries a somewhat similar idea of the bread and wine of Christian communion, if you are familiar with that. In Indian culture, eating in general is a VERY important part of any gathering and is an expression of happiness, gratitude—almost praise toward others. "Eat, eat, Becky," I hear repeatedly (and often not much else) for hours during visits with relatives. Additionally, the kitchen in SV Temple (and probably most other Hindu temples?) is always full of hot food. But that's a different ticket that my new friends and I did not buy.

I can't resist saying, this brings to mind food at gatherings of another sort. One of the first things I learned about a co-op gallery that I joined years ago... "We always have food here. Food for all at monthly meetings. Planning meetings always happen at a restaurant and retreats are always pot-lucks. Not to mention the openings: food for the crowds." Bonds created, secular and sacred.

After the ceremony, more questions to me: "Where do you work? And your husband? I'll take your email. I can introduce you both to many other people who work where you both do. Have you been to the main temple? We must sit there just one minute. We never leave before we sit there just one minute. Come. We believe that there are many ways to reach god and this is one way and you grew up with a different way but it is all the same god and so you are always welcome. It is so good you are doing this. So good that you have come today." Malini said this last part so many times that I had to mention to her that I've been going to a lot of different worship places over the past two months. She gets a little quiet then, but not for very long. We eat some rice (prasad left over from a different puja) before going to find our shoes and heading out.

thirteenth visit: Nov 3rd 2010 Taizé Prayer Service, All Souls/All Saints Day

7:00pm wednesday
Taizé Prayer Service
at East Liberty Presbyterian Church
116 S. Highland Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15206

east liberty

Taizé is a mid-week hour of prayer and song. Though elements of the service are grounded mainly in Christianity (through my perception at least), the service is open to and honors followers of any belief seeking quiet meditation. The Taizé Community on which this type of service is based, was initiated in 1940 by Brother Roger Schutz. It was his response to WWII—to create a religious community in France, based on international reconciliation and open dialogue regarding differences in beliefs.

I rarely plan my visits more than 5 days in advance. And this visit: just 1 day in advance. Despite this I feel I've been really lucky in catching holidays and special observances that I had not been anticipating... as is the case for my next visit (I thought I had fully missed the Hindu holiday of Diwali) and for this visit as well. Reverend Christiane Dutton responds to my email, mentioning that tonight there will be a candle-light procession through the church honoring All Saints and All Souls Day, done only at this time of the year. Perfect.

It is dark when I arrive. This church takes up an entire block—a small block, yes, but still one whole block. I start navigating hallways, trying to follow a trail of signs, but have to return to the doormen to ask directions to the chapel, where Taizé takes place each week. Ends up I need to walk through the humongous, towering, empty, dark sanctuary (pictured above) all alone, in order to get to the chapel. My footsteps echo the only sound. Poe has followed me from Baltimore, and I enter into the perfect All Souls mood.

In the smaller chapel where Taizé is held, 20 or so worshipers are seated and six 20+ foot tall, narrow vertical banners of a Christo/Jeanne-Claude saffron orange mark the front alter. 20 or so candles provide the only front-alter light. If I were a ghost I'd totally hang out here.

The Taizé Prayer Service begins:
A few musicians seated in pews across the aisle from me play hymns with quiet sensitivity. (violin, flute, viola)
Scripture is read aloud. (in Spanish, Korean, French, German, and finally English)

And the All Saints/All Souls Procession begins:
Each carries a lit candle, in a slow-moving, single-file line, to the baptismal font, then the huge sanctuary. Here a remembrance of communion is held. It is emphasized that this is need not be approached as a sacred communion—but "just a breaking of [homemade rye swirl!] bread together" where non-Christians are welcome to partake.
We spend a minute in the crypt (never to be complete without) before returning to the chapel.

A speaking aloud names of those we know who have passed this year. (Since I began gatherings this is the the 3rd time for this ritual, in 3 services of very different beliefs: 3rd visit, 12th visit, and this one.)

Worshipers requesting specific prayer huddle in groups of 3-4, wrapping arms over shoulders with Reverend Christiane. And so this continues until the line of prayer request-ers diminish and the service ends.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

twelfth visit: Oct 31st 2010 Center For Spiritual Living

10:30am sunday
Pittsburgh Center For Spiritual Living
5655 Bryant St, Pittsburgh PA 15206
highland park

The Pittsburgh Center for Spiritual Living is a congregation led by Reverend Nancy Whitson Kandel, affiliated with United Centers for Spiritual Living. I have seen the phrase "Science of Mind" associated with the Center, and sources say that this philosophy was previously known as the "United Church of Religious Science." All three are all directly related, and Ernest Holmes is known to be the founder (1887 - 1960). As I understand, this philosophy is separate, unique and not to be confused with Christian Science. It is considered New Thought, but not New Age, and has roots in the Transcendentalist Movement. Think: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau of the 1830's. In Reverend Nancy's words: "We are a spiritually inclusive... interfaith center where we honor all faiths. ...and the laws of science as present by Ernest Holmes ...We use universal principles taught in all major religions."

Throughout the service are many, many mentions of the individual's role as an artist. I interpret this as one's responsibility to create a positive, functional society and environment, and to create metaphorical, emotional beauty. Joseph Beuys' philosophy, "social sculpture" comes to mind, stating that we are all a part of a world-wide society that can be seen, in a way, as an art project to which we are all obligated to contribute responsibly.

The room: complete calmness. A shy, full bearded 16-year-old behind an electric keyboard. Candles. A ringing bowl pushes sound through the air not unlike the vibrations of a shofar. It is Halloween: a mention of Day of the Dead and an opportunity to remember those who have passed... encouragement to speak the names... not unlike Yom Kippur. Here Amen is spoken this way: "And so it is."

Of all the places of worship I have visited thus far, this was the congregation that seemed most comfortable asking me questions about this project called gatherings. After the service, Reverend Nancy speaks to me. A conversation with Odessa about the drawings I have been doing in relation to inspiration... and mention of her own drawings. Kim wants to know to which worship places had I been and which part of my dress was created in response to which services. I'm at this odd place where I know I stand out because of the appearance of the dress I wear... and it will only become more so. The positive side of this is that in certain circumstances (ones in which people around me are not afraid to ask or comment), it becomes a way to share my art. NOT being noticed would serve no purpose, I remind myself.