So should I ‘calm down’?

I had a conversation the other week with a person who is part of St. John’s community, but comes infrequently. They raised an issue which has been raised by others too, which I thought was worth writing something about for you.


They said ‘You know, at the big services, the place is so busy. There are people coming in late all the time. That is why I like the mid-week service.’


So I am trying to think my way into what makes this kind of a thought the ‘main one’ for someone. Another piece of feedback has been given about our main service too that the announcements destroys the meditation of a member of the congregation after communion.  The first image that comes to me from these comments is one on ‘intensity’. The people who have said these things bring a passion and an intensity to the worship which reflects a passion and intensity for God. I am reminded of the story of Moses, who was told of two people who were ‘prophesying’ without being part of the regular group. He said ‘Well I wish all god’s people were prophets.’ When I hear people talking about ‘being disturbed’ then the first thing that I hear is someone who takes their worship seriously.


The second impression I have from such comments is that the people who make them desire calm. I am reminded of the hymn ‘O Lord and Father of Mankind’ which has the words ‘let flesh be dumb let sense retire speak through the earthquake, wind and fire they still mall voice of calm.’ Church is meant to be the place of calm.


I am trying to work out what this ‘calm’ serves. I think about ‘the calming of the storm’.  I am aware of some times when we have been trying to get our visas and drivers’ licenses and open bank accounts that I have not been calm, and others around me have said ‘calm down’. In a life where much is raging around, I can see where people would value ‘calm’ in Church as an antidote.


It is also true that a change of mood from ‘normal’ to ‘calmer’ opens us up to God. This is a well known piece of research, that people’s receptivity to being influenced is changed by either lowering peoples emotions (calm) or heightening them (rousing music and speeches ). Some people respond better the ‘calm’ while others respond better to ‘arousal.’


One way of looking at ‘calm’ is that it is the ‘calm after the storm’. It might be better to express ones emotions than to ‘remain calm’. Then a true ‘calm’ may be part of our emotional landscape. A book on pastoral care I have read recommends that the role of a pastor is to bring to focus the issues people have, such that they can be expressed. This is not ‘calming’, but offering the chance for emotions to be expressed.


This is what I do often in prayers in the Chapel each day. It is true, that in western culture, we do not value the expression of emotion, and so do not know how to deal with it in public when it happens. So public emotional expression, unless very discreet, is frowned upon. But in private, I often value the chance to ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ when I m praying in the Chapel. There I can freely express my emotions, and also experience the ‘calm’ that comes from tears, or a discovery of a repressed truth, which has been allowed out in the company of God.  


Sometimes people have so much emotion and intensity that being in a place where these might be touched (like Church) becomes embarrassing. I sometimes feel that when I resist going out to the theatre or other public places. I am afraid that my emotions will spill over in inappropriate ways in public. So I resist going.


For me that means that I am pretty highly strung, and that I need good friends whom I really trust to tell me when being highly strung is ok, and when it is not. As well, I have had to learn how to express my emotions. Learning to say ‘Here is how I feel, it may not be exactly what is the case, and I’m happy to talk about it, but I need to express my feeling first’ helps to relativize them, and also does not frighten others as much as a plain outburst.


I am also reminded of Karl Marx who spoke of religion as the ‘opiate of the people’. He was criticizing religious people because they did not address the true causes of unhappiness but instead made injustice easier to bear by providing relief or ‘calm’.


Mark was encouraging us to trust our emotions but not to drown them in alcohol or in other ‘calming’ ways, but to use the emotion to think about life, and to address the real causes of not being calm.


Another way of applying the thinking part of our brains to a situation is to ask Is my perception of things, which is causing so much emotion the correct one? Have I ‘over -catastrophized’ my situation so that I cry out ‘the sky is falling’ every time a leaf falls from the tree above me? That is a time for reducing emotion through thinking. Again, my friends have been very good at helping me co calm down when I have been very anxious by helping me to put my fears into a bigger framework.


So then my mind turns to a sporting match. There, no one wants ‘calm’. They express their emotions. They yell to encourage their team. They yell to express their disappointment at their team’s mistakes. They yell to criticize everyone’s parents (the referee). So in some forms of public gathering ‘calm’ is not a very high value. What makes ‘calm’ a high value in the worship of God?


Bring in Church on a Sunday morning is also like a football match. The preaching, when it is good helps me to come face to face with God. The same is true of the hymns, and the intercessions. In this case, Church functions not as ‘calm’ but as arousal.


So although I can fully understand the place of ‘calm’ in Christian life, for me that is not all there is. I also want in Christian life places for ‘expression’ and places for ‘thinking’. In the long run, I hope to establish here places for all three. Small fellowship groups can be places for both thinking, and expression of emotion, and of calm, but at a personal level. Church on Sunday mornings to my way of thinking is a corporate, big, and public act of acknowledging the reign of God in our lives, and expressing its shape in the Eucharist. It is like a kind of ‘divine football match’ .


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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