Towards a Theater for Prayer

 

"Theater, like nearly all the arts, traces its origins back to its service to the sacred. We of XIV Ministries believe theater reaches its fullest potential and greatest worth in a Theater for Prayer—when in the service of prayer theater is used to bring into communion the human and the divine.”

 

Since the beginning of XIV Ministries with the creation of “XIV from the Crowd” one of the challenges for us has been to simply talk about what we do. The words—the right words—to discuss and describe and to explain to ourselves and to others what exactly it is we do have been lacking.

So for example: When we put a notice in the parish bulletin inviting people to come join us on a particular night, what’s the word to use that is clear and accurate and distinguishes us from what we are not?  “Performance” and “show” are totally wrong. Though we have performers and we show much, we are not something to simply come and watch and applaud at the end. Such terms rightfully make pastors and liturgists hesitant to invite us into their church space. Both words have too strong connotations of entertainment and actors taking bows rather than prayerfulness. For similar reasons, we do not refer to those attending as the “audience”. The word “congregation”—a group of people gathered for religious worship—is the word we use. The people who attend pray with us and are an integral part of our prayer.

In the past, we have favored the word “presentation” when announcing an event, perhaps for no other reason than its vagueness.  We can’t just say, “Stations of the Cross” for that doesn’t make clear how the experience with us would be similar to or different from another Stations of the Cross. Most often, we have resorted to saying something like “a meditation on the Stations of the Cross with monologues, traditional prayers, sacred music…etc.” 

“Without a vision, the people perish”.

This grappling with finding the words to express ourselves, our work, and our mission has been challenging but also fruitful.  A lack of words in general and ours in particular is indicative of at least three key realities. First, to be sure, it indicates what we might nicely call a shortcoming of knowledge on our part. We needed, and still need, to learn more, to increase our vocabulary and knowledge of both theater and prayer. But the lack of words also indicates a newness, a uniqueness, in what we do. Finally, it indicates a need to sharpen a vision of ourselves and our work: “Without a vision, the people perish”.

What follows is the beginning--but only the beginning--of our grappling to learn, to develop, and to clarify our vision:

A Beginning Vision for a Theater For Prayer

First and foremost, we are about prayer, in particular about praying the Stations of the Cross. Our purpose, our focus, our mission is to foster communion—an intimate exchange of thoughts, feelings, gifts and truest selves—in short, love—between Christ and each and all of his people through the praying of the Stations of the Cross. 

Second, we use theater and the theatrical to draw us and all who pray with us into the prayer to make it as meaningful and beautiful as we are able. We use theater in the service of prayer. We are—this is the term we feel to this point best describes our dramatic works--a Theater For Prayer.

Students of theater know that theater and religion have much in common and throughout history their paths have frequently crossed or even at times gone side by side in most world cultures. In the West, early Greek theater and the Medieval Miracle plays are prime examples and key points of theater development. “Religious” ideas are strewn throughout the great works of our theater history as artists and audiences searched for meaning, for truth, for understanding of the human place in the universe and humanity’s relationship to the divine. The excellent scholar Joseph Pearce has made a strong case that William Shakespeare was quite likely a secret Catholic and shows how the Catholic faith is reflected in his works. Modern works like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and the film The Passion of the Christ show that even now religion and theater are not strangers.

But despite some examples to the contrary and theater’s religious roots, the great bulk of modern theater, live as well as film, television, etc., is far from religious and often disparages religion and glorifies values contrary to the traditional values of many faiths. 

Theater in the Service of the Prayer

So as we develop our concept of theater, we realize there is nothing inherently sacred about the art. Theater has been used as the tool of the evil, the ugly and the false just as well as for the sake of the good, the beautiful and the true. Yet this is also true: Theater, like nearly all the arts, traces its origins back to its service to the sacred. We of XIV Ministries believe theater reaches its fullest potential and greatest worth as a Theater for Prayer—when in the service of prayer theater is used to bring into communion the human and the divine. Our vision for our work with theater is absolutely centered on that conviction. All that we do that involves theater or the theatrical elements is done for the sake of prayer.

A Beginning

The following is the beginning of our meditations on theater and prayer and a Theater for Prayer. It is a beginning and only a beginning. As we continue learning, reflecting, and attempt to put into practice our ideas we will continue to add to or change our thoughts. Our focus is connecting aspects of theater and prayer and developing ways to further our understanding and use of Theater for Prayer. 

MEDITATIONS ON THEATER, PRAYER, AND A THEATER FOR PRAYER

THE FOURTH WALL

Mission Connection

A part of the Theater of Prayer’s mission is to break through the wall that can separate us from God and from each other during prayer.

Keeping A Distance

The typical theater stage set is basically a box. There is the back wall of the stage, the stage left wall, the stage right wall, and the fourth wall. The fourth wall, quite often, is signified by the curtain that opens or closes to let the audience see into the world on stage. But even when the curtain is opened, the wall remains. It is the invisible barrier that separates the actors and the set and the action from the audience.  The performers pretend to be oblivious to the people watching them on the other side of the wall. The audience follows the action of the play as if they were spies, making sure not to be noticed or interrupt. They allow themselves emotional and intellectual space to judge characters and evaluate performers. Most importantly, they are passive, not active. They sit back, they watch, they keep silent. They keep—literally and figuratively—their distance.

Occasionally, the fourth wall is “broken” or crossed. Shakespeare did it with asides and soliloquies which acknowledged the presence of the audience and allowed it to hear and know things characters on the stage did not know. Other writers and directors have broken through the fourth wall for heightened dramatic effect (revealing the secrets of a character) or intellectual effect (reminding the audience they need to go beyond emotional involvement to think about what’s happening). Quite often breaking the wall is done for humor as well, for example in films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which a character speaks directly to the viewers.

But overall, the fourth wall is necessary to regular theater. Even those who break the fourth wall rely on it’s being present to be broken. The separation is essential.

Prayer: Coming Together

But in prayer it is communion, not separation, which is essential. For example, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the pinnacle of prayer, all involved in heaven and on earth—the Trinity, the angels and saints, the priest, deacons, lectors, servers, musicians and congregation—work together to come together in communion. And few things are more destructive to the liturgical prayer than the mindset of the fourth wall. We’ve all been guilty at times: We come more to watch than to participate. We sit in the back row to keep our distance. We evaluate the sermon and the singing like newspaper critics rather than truly listening and singing along. We even turn a judgmental eye to our fellow congregants—their fashion sense, their behavior. We lose focus. We get bored. We forget the Gospel thirty seconds after it’s read. We leave mass complaining we “got nothing out of it” after receiving Christ in the Eucharist. 

The goal of the Theater of Prayer is to help all work toward unity between the individuals of the congregation, the performers and God. And so each time we gather to pray, we work to tear through the fourth wall.

The Greatest Work Done: The Curtain Torn

The truth is the greatest work has been done.

When Jesus died on the cross, he tore open the fourth wall between God and humanity. The curtain of the Temple was torn from top (signifying the action of God, not man) to bottom (Matthew 27:51).

There are differences and uncertainty among scholars and sources about the exact size of the Temple curtain, but it was theater-like in dimensions, perhaps 30 feet high, 30 or more feet wide and up to four inches thick.  Like the fourth wall, its purpose was separation: separating the presence of God in the Holy of Holies from sinful humanity. Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, could anyone pass beyond the curtain into the presence of God, and then only the High Priest could enter.

The tearing open of the curtain symbolized the mission of Christ: to reconcile God and humanity, to bring God and humanity together, in each other’s presence. In the Old Testament, to see the face of God was to die; after The Fall humanity was not allowed to see God in his glory, was not allowed to walk in his presence, to see him face to face. In the New Testament, the Incarnate God walks among us, reveals himself to us and goes beyond that yet to seek out the lost.

 

But despite our present, revealing, seeking God, we often still feel separated and lost. Our consolation, perhaps, is that we are in good company.

The Fourth Wall of Our Own Making

In the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Philip, speaking for all the Apostles asks Jesus to show them the Father, to show them God in his glory. Jesus responds—and you can almost hear the disappointment in his words—“Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me Philip?  He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe the Father is in me and I am in the Father?”

What was true for Philip and the other apostles back then is still true for us: There is no curtain, no God-made barrier or entrance guarded by an angel with a flaming sword that is keeping us from experiencing God’s glory, from being in his presence. The barrier—the fourth wall that remains—is our own blindness that keeps us from seeing him in the Eucharist, in the faces of each other, in the faces of “the least of these”. We don’t experience his presence in prayer because our prayer quite often is sabotaged by self-inflicted obstacles: distractions, doubts, expectations, inability to concentrate, to place ourselves in the moment.  The fourth wall in our individual or communal prayer, like at mass, is one of our own making. 

These self-made barriers are the ones that the Theater of Prayer, always reliant on the grace of the Holy Spirit, strives to help ourselves and those who pray with us overcome by putting theater in the service of prayer. 

THE WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief is a beautiful theatrical/literary concept that needs to be brought into prayer. People are comfortable suspending disbelief for a theatrical event. By including a theatrical event in prayer, theater can help people get through their self-imposed curtains to enter more deeply into prayer.

Fundamentally, the willing suspension of disbelief means just that: we are willing to set aside our unbelief. We are willing to be open, not held back by doubt or skepticism. In theater, we accept what we know is not real—the characters are actors; they don’t really die, etc.—to enter into the created world of the performance and the deeper and real truths and realities it may present. We cast aside the obstacles to enter into beauty and mystery. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Poetic Faith

The concept of The Willing Suspension of Disbelief had long been recognized and did not originate with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, but the apt term is his.

Coleridge, well known for his Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, favored stories of the supernatural during a time when the culture around him was becoming more and more shaped by rational, scientific views. The audiences of Shakespeare’s time truly believed in witches and ghosts. Coleridge understood that his readers no longer believed in ghosts and such beings. To appreciate his works they would have to be willing to set aside their doubt or skepticism—to suspend their disbelief—to enter into and enjoy his works. Coleridge said this constituted “poetic faith”.

It is interesting that the more scientific and rationalistic people have become in the 200 years since Coleridge, the more they have become willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a horror scare, a space battle or a fantasy world. 

At times, it seems, we are almost too good at suspending disbelief: when politicians make promises, when marketers promote “miracle” products, when pride projects an image on oneself as better than others.  

“Lord, I Believe. Help Me Suspend My Disbelief”

Unfortunately, it seems the place modern people struggle most with suspending their disbelief is when encountering God and one another, especially someone in any way “different” from them. Upon meeting another, people’s beliefs—often skeptical, doubtful, negatively judgmental—relating to the sex, race, appearance, financial status, etc. block their openness to the other, their willingness to trust, or even give the benefit of the doubt. Their disbelief in the possible goodness, friendliness and trustworthiness of the other obstructs the building of a relationship. 

Disbelief likewise prevents or creates obstacles to faith in God and a relationship with him and his body, the Church. Skepticism and doubt keep people from ever entering the Mystery to discover its wonders, truth and reality.

Even we believers find ourselves joining in the cry of the father in the Gospel of Mark (9:24). The father is desperate for Jesus to help his son. Jesus asks him if he believes. The man cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” So often we just can’t “see” or “feel” God’s presence, we can’t suspend our disbelief long enough to truly experience the saving presence of Christ and so truly believe. In another scene from the Gospels, Jesus tells us like he tells the famed Doubter, to suspend our disbelief, to set it aside and simply reach out and embrace his mystery.

“Do not be unbelieving,” he tells Thomas, “but believe.” (John 20:27)

Theater For Prayer: The Beggar in the Service of Prayer

Theater demands the willing suspension of disbelief, to be not unbelieving of this character, place, this plot etc. it has created, but to believe. Perhaps “demands” is not quite the right word.  “Begs” would be a better word, for a theatrical presentation is completely and helplessly reliant on the audience being willing to set aside realism and skepticism to enter into the truth of its staged world.

Theater For Prayer, by presenting a theatrical character/event, invites the congregation—begs the congregation—to bring the willing suspension of disbelief into prayer. Once a person participating in the prayer suspends disbelief for the sake of the theatrical, he or she may be opened to the grace to further suspend disbelief and enter deeper into the mystery of faith and the encounter with Christ.

A Final Thought (For Now)

When we enter deeply into meditation on sacred scripture, and place ourselves in the moment of the scene, and watch and respond as if we were there, it is true that the “Jerusalem” of our meditation may not be real, but our emotions, insights and experience of God’s nearness as we pray and meditate are. 

A ready example might be the story of the woman caught in adultery. Whether a careful reading, a picture, or a dramatic scene help put us in the moment, once we enter the moment we may open ourselves to an experience that really, authentically, moves us. We may be reminded of our own guilt and need for mercy; we may become more aware of and hopeful in the mercy of Christ, we may be less inclined to be judgmental or accusatory; we may turn to around us and see fellow sinners in need of kindness and support and acceptance.  By suspending disbelief we move past the “real” into a deeper reality and encounter there a Real Presence who moves us in real and meaningful ways.