Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Equus / Worship

From Equus by Peter Shaffer, Act II, Scene 25:

HESTER: Worship isn't destructive, Martin. I know that.
DYSART: I don't.

As of this writing, I'm halfway through a two-weekend run of Equus at the University of Houston-Downtown (where I currently work). I play the father of the young man who is central to the story.

The young man in question, Alan, has taken a religious impulse and focused it on horses, building a rather complex theology around his "god-slave," Equus. In the end, the theology results in a violent attempt to destroy the god. Still, the psychiatrist treating Alan, Martin Dysart, recognizes that what's at the center of Alan's religious impulse is a need to worship. Something.

The above exchange smacks me against my head every performance. "Worship isn't destructive, Martin. I know that."

"I don't."

As someone who has had a lifelong impulse toward worship---one that I've embraced and fought at different times in my life.---I'm left to ponder how destructive it may or may not be. In the context of the play, we have Dysart dreaming of being a priest in ancient Greece, sacrificing children. The dream doubles as an expression of question his own profession as a child psychiatrist and as a yearning to have some powerful way to respond to something larger than himself, something that he feels but doesn't allow himself to express.

In my own tradition of Christianity, we have remnants of this bent towards destructive worship. Rooted in the Hebrew tradition of slaughtering lambs, goats, or doves in worship of God, we have references to the Lamb of God, Jesus, who we celebrate as having died for our sake. We even have a ritual meal that, no matter how you deconstruct it, has the surface appearance of ritual cannibalism.

Of course, the Eucharist is hardly a wild ceremony, nothing compared to Alan's midnight rides on his horse-god. People do not approach the communion rail with anything like the abandon of Alan howling in the mist, riding naked on the back of Equus.

I don't even know what to say about that. I mostly just lift it up as something to consider. It may be that worship can be destructive and it may be that taming it down to our slow line toward the communion rail is a reasonable maturing of the sacrificial language of ancient religion. Or not.

Again, the context of the play: Alan, the son of a very religious mother and an atheist father, finds no way to please either. He gravitates toward the bloodier aspects of Christianity, and when his father rips a particularly gruesome picture of Christ's approach to Calvary off Alan's bedroom wall, Alan replaces it with a photo of a horse his father brings home from his printing business. And so Alan's religious focus shifts, or rather the shift is completed, a shift that started years earlier with a childhood encounter with a horse. His mother gave him a religious impulse, his father gave him a new focus for it.

I've seen people describe Equus as a play about a boy who falls in love with a horse. Alan falls in love with a horse in the same way Teresa of Avila fell in love with Jesus---which is to say, horses became the medium for Alan's mystical experience. The "love" is sensual only in the sense that ecstatic experience is sensual---which it is and it certainly can feel sexual. Teresa didn't shy away from that and neither does Alan.

So is what Dysart calls "worship" really mystical experience? And is it destructive? Hester knows it isn't. Dysart doesn't.

I don't know that I could clear it up for them.

Later in the same scene, Dysart says, " . . . Without worship you shrink, it's as brutal as that . . . I shrank my own life." This also smacks me against my head. Worship . . . Awe . . . Wonder . . . Fear . . . Reverence . . . These are the words that come to mind, and if I'm reading Shaffer something like right, these are the things that make our lives expansive. One might even say, abundant. I think I can say that when I've tried to stay away from worship, something was missing. I might not have said I shrunk from the absence, but perhaps absence is a kind of shrinking.

I'm devolving into word play.

Devolved as I am, I am left with these words and they worry me like a pebble in my shoe, even as my big toe worries the pebble. What is worship? Is it destructive or expansive? Are those words mutually exclusive?

If we can choose, how do we care for our worship life, nurture it, so that it is a vital and compelling as Alan's wild midnight rides and as expansive and fulfilling as Dysart hopes it is?


  1. "People do not approach the communion rail with anything like the abandon of Alan howling in the mist, riding naked on the back of Equus."

    I started to argue this point, then remembered you are Lutheran.

    I'll try to respond more later. For now, must sleep. Worship and teaching and fellowship all day tomorrow. Nothing destructive.

  2. If "no matter how you deconstruct it, has the surface appearance of ritual cannibalism" why deconstruct it at all?

    If worship is destructive, it destroys sin in us, especially through the Eucharist. It destroys sin by giving us the life of Christ Himself. We exchange our life for His. One sacrifice for another. Hoc est corpus meum...

  3. "Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, 'Take; eat; this is my body, given for you. This do in remembrance of me.' In the same way, also, He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them saying, 'Drink of it all of you. This cup is the New Testament in My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me."

    These are the words of institution, or at least one version used by Lutherans. YMMV (Your Missal May Vary.)

    On the surface, they appear to be talking about eating human (or god-man) flesh and drinking blood. That there are elements used in the stead of flesh and blood, i.e. bread and wine, we can see from the above text that we are not to take the language of "body" and "blood" literally, but that it's a ritual. So I stand by my original statement---on the surface, it appears to be about ritual cannibalism.

    What you're doing, Brian, is the actual deconstruction, and you do it from your deep, rich, Catholic faith. You are giving a brief analysis of what is happening in the sacrament. We Lutherans might use different words, Calvinists others still. Those different words make up the deconstruction from the point of view of various theologies.

    All we do with these words is deconstruction. Or, interpretation or analysis, or unpacking.

    And again, no matter how you explain the words, how you unpack them, how you analyze them, how you deconstruct them . . . they have a surface appearance of being about ritual (not literal) cannibalism. I contend we have to own up to that, have some honesty about the "plain meaning of the words" (to use a popular phrase in some circles).

    That's all I meant there.