Worship opens realm of the Spirit

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Mar 12, 2013

Ana Hernández is a composer, arranger and performer of sacred music and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

[Diolog] Singer Ana Hernández was helping to provide music during a small Christmas-morning service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, when one of the hymns made her weep. After the service, organist Dan Moriarty said, “You know what’s amazing? I push buttons on the organ, and water comes out of your eyes.”

“The water drops on the stone of the floor,” Hernández replied, “and the thought that comes into my head is: I wonder how many other tears have hit this floor?”

Moriarty looked at her and said, “Yeah.”

What started as a “goofy” exchange suddenly shifted “into something unbelievably important and huge and wondrous,” Hernández said. “The Spirit will turn on you like that, on a dime, in a second.”

For Hernandez, liturgy at its best inspires wonder – not only a sense of awe in experiencing the holy but also a sense of curiosity.

Author of “The Sacred Art of Chant,” Hernández is a composer, arranger and performer of sacred music and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

“I didn’t start out in the Episcopal Church, but I’ve been here since I was 17. …I fell in love with the liturgy, the music and the way it helped me access Spirit, the way it helped me access the things that I knew were important to me,” Hernández said. “I’m still figuring out what’s important to me, because I’m always curious … I’m always approaching life with that kind of, ‘Whoa! How does that work?’ or ‘How did she do that?’ It’s that curiosity, I think, that keeps me grateful for things I don’t have any clue about how to articulate.”

When we come to church, we bring our questions into a space with “something for every sense,” she said. “There’s [stained] glass to look at, and that causes wonder. There is sometimes … a really amazing sense of smell going on with incense, right? There’s the sense of taste and touch in the Eucharist.”

And we hear music and the words of the liturgy. “The flow of the words, the rhythm of the words themselves can cause wonder in people,” Hernández said. The prayer book can help you enter a sense of wonder “and enable you to form the questions that will guide your life.”

And while the words remain the same, our perspective on them changes week to week, she said. “You find different things in it because you are never really the same.”

“There is no one right way” to do liturgy, she added. “You go to church and we learn the drill from the book … but in that the Spirit is constantly working on us and the Spirit is working on our curiosity and our sense of wonder.”

For the Rev. Victor Thomas, “The most important part of worship is the showing up for it and knowing that it’s our responsibility and our role to give praise to God, that it’s not about us. …It’s really about showing up for God and, because of that, we’re showing up for one another.”

“But the wonder piece is important because when we show up for worship we have an experience with God,” said Thomas, rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Houston.

The liturgy helps people enter that experience in different ways, and different styles will be meaningful for different people. Each Sunday, St. James’ offers a Rite I Eucharist, a Rite II service with organ, choir and trumpet, and a noon contemporary worship service with a jazz influence.

“There’s some people that, if we only had worship in the 12 o’clock form, would not be members of this parish,” Thomas said. “There’s something that takes place at each one of those services and each one of those genres that really speaks to these people’s souls.”

The music, he added, is “not there to entertain us. It’s there to bring us deeper and more profoundly into the presence of God. The same thing with preaching.”

And at the center of the worship is the Eucharist. “The Eucharist is all about mystery, and that really does feed us,” Thomas said. “It’s not like we’re trying to have all the answers … The sense of mystery with the Holy Communion, I think that adds to the wonder in worship.”

“We’ve got the best tradition in the world,” he concluded, “because there’s so much to it and there’s so much depth and weight and, really, if you do it with passion and very intentionally, I think it’s meaningful for so many people.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent. This article first appeared in the March issue of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas publication Diolog. Hernandez’ music can be found at anahermusic.tumblr.com.

Comments (2)

  1. Doug Desper says:

    The Methodists taught the very staid Anglicans of the 18th century that when you give people their music that church renewal happens. Hymnody isn’t just the new creation from the ruminations of artists and experts with their spiritual journey and personality type serving as the measure. Hymnody belongs to the pews. It is the main vocal expression of those who don’t make it their life to study meter, meditate upon depths of nuances, and create new songs. The Episcopal Church needs to give the American people the opportunity to express their music – to unleash the pews with energetic singing with American cultural mainstays that are both sound theologically and expressively. How Great Thou Art, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, To God Be the Glory, Sweet Hour of Prayer, My Hope Is Built and others are already found in our supplements. When made available the roar of these songs from our pews are the clear indicator of what our next Hymnal revision should contain. Give the pews their opportunity for expression.

  2. Pr. Gretchen R. Naugle says:

    Wonderful article–and true for so many of us!

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