“If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high
You’d laugh and say ‘Nothing’s that simple.’
But you’ve been told many times before,
Messiahs pointed to the door,
But no one had the guts to leave the temple.”
— the Who, “I’m Free”
Most religion is an accident of birth. People are born into a belief system and subscribe to it as a tradition. Faith, however, is a subjective experience, born of independent investigation and subscribed to as a practice. One’s religious tradition may be one’s personal practice. The two are not mutually exclusive. However, the letter of the law without the spirit of the law is a dead letter — as the Pharisees found out from Christ. Religious tradition without living faith deteriorates into dead ritual.
“In the theater we shy away from the holy,” says director Peter Brook, “because we don’t know what this could be – we only know that what is called holy has let us down.” So Brook defines Holy Theater, which he has spent his career creating, as “the Theater of the Invisible Made Visible.” The invisible forces within (love, wisdom, inspiration), which the Ancient Greeks called gods, are still our most profound experiences. Theater is the ceremonial sacred space for experiencing these invisible forces collectively.
As individuals we fail to carve out personal sacred space at our peril. Without alone time to “loaf the soul” in Walt Whitman’s phrase, in order to hear “the still, small voice” within — whether in nature or in a house of worship, through music or through meditation — we fail to slip “the surly bonds of earth” in order to taste eternity. Instead we pin ourselves to the wall of calendar time. So difficult is it to let go of the tether grounding us that some of us even enter communal sacred space with our disruptive technological distractions. But those of us who know the downward gravity of unconsciousness, take effort to open our eyes to all around us. We re-decorate our living space and vary our routines and travel routes. We also refresh our spiritual practice, lest it become an unconscious ritual. But how, as a community, can we refresh our sacred space? How can we ensure that coming together has the revitalizing power of ceremony, and not the deadening habit of ritual?
The Ancient Greeks created communal sacred space through theater. They dramatized the metaphysical myths and archetypes that gave their culture meaning. Catholics do the same with their Mass, which is a dramatization of Christ’s Last Supper and the myth of transubstantiation. Jews do this with their Passover Seder, which is a dramatization of their Exodus myth of rebirth and renewal. However, the Ancient Greeks, aware of the deadening nature of routine, never staged a myth the same way. Seeing each myth as a prism, different playwrights reflected different angles of its light on the stage. This rainbow of Greek plays ensured that a myth encompassed the audience, forestalling any audience attempt to encompass the myth with reductionist reasoning. Humans tend to reduce metaphysical mystery to logic, as if it were science; or to a code, as if it were mere morality. But myths aren’t facts; they’re truths. The Greek playwrights exploded the fact of a myth (did Oedipus really exist?) with the power of its truth (our fantasies of patricide, maternal entanglement). Asking whether or when Adam and Eve really existed misses the meaning of the biblical myth of the birth of rational volition. At their best, the Medieval Mystery plays knew this – before they devolved into Morality plays. The Persian ta’zieh plays dramatize the martyrdom of the Imám Husayn, and the best ones portray this sacrifice from various perspectives. In The Children Digging we see the Imám Husayn as a little boy seated on his mother’s lap. Fatima is combing his hair and Husayn cries out in pain when the comb snags. Fatima is distressed at having given her child even a little pain and stops to gaze tenderly at him. She then falls into an anxious reverie, thinking of her dreams for her son and the unknown future awaiting him. In a succeeding scene, two bullies beat up little Husayn. Later the audience hears the names of these boys and realizes these two children are the future murderers of the Imám Husayn. This ta’zieh play thus becomes as much of a meditation on parenting as it on the martyrdom of the Imám Husayn.
Today when Bahá’ís speak of Táhirih, they think of the equality of men and women — because they know the story of her dramatic facial unveiling at the Conference of Badasht. But if they keep hearing this same story, will they keep viscerally feeling the sacrifice and struggle of gender equality? It’s hard to hear the familiar with beginner’s ears. But suppose this myth were dramatized from another angle? Suppose we tell the story of what strength it takes for a mother never to see her three children again. Might we not then see Táhirih — and her choices — from another perspective? Maybe we’ll discover we have come full circle — back to the story of Abraham’s willingness as a father to sacrifice his son. Which in turn might make us wonder why myths continually dramatize the sacrifice of children. And then wonder why a mother now is making the sacrifice. Maybe one myth informs another. Theater is a laboratory for raising questions about our myths — to keep us from thinking we already understand them. For the mind is a secondary organ. It tends to snap shut like a steel trap with certainty. The heart is the primary locus of our knowledge and experience. For the heart trusts the shifting sands of intuition. “Knowledge is a light which God casteth into the heart,” Bahá’u'lláh reminds us, “of whomsoever He willeth.” 1
“How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?
Wouldst thou that the mind should not entrap thee?
Teach it the science of the love of God!”2
With these words the Sufi poet Saná’í recommends that we apply the laboratory conditions of science to matters of heart and soul. Rather than waiting for lightning to strike, we must hold a lightning rod to the sky and attract the spark of intuitive insight. To be fully human, one must create sacred space.
As individuals we already create sacred space in the privacy of our chamber with our personal devotions. As a community we can do this through theater. And by theater, that doesn’t necessarily mean we must write plays. It certainly doesn’t mean we should become theatrical in the histrionic sense. Rather, we can borrow the elements of theater — music, movement, imagery, story telling — to create a laboratory setting to facilitate an encounter with the Ineffable. After all, we take time preparing to go on a date or to meet a dignitary. We spread out a red carpet for approaching a king, just as we tread a long path to reach a place of pilgrimage. We modify our appearance and surroundings to psychologically prepare for an intimate encounter. We become ceremonial. Ceremony is the laboratory for making a “science of the love of God.” In eschewing ritual, we must not forego ceremony. We need not always conduct our prayer meetings, meditations, devotionals and Feasts routinely in the same way. By creatively varying them we might more readily experience what the Ancient Greeks called an “epiphany” – an appearance of the god.
For the Ancient Greeks “drama, became the dominant religious exercise, of greater importance than sacrifices or prayers,” W.H. Auden reminds us, and “the dramatist the most important figure in their spiritual life.”3 Playwrights were as the high priests of Ancient Greece because they made the invisible visible. Today we no longer need clergy to minister spiritually to us — to translate or to interpret Scripture. Each one of us can have his own direct relationship with the Unknowable Essence. In like manner, we all today have the capacity to create sacred space for our community. “God hast endowed each and all,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us, “with talents and faculties.”4 We might not all be playwrights, but we all can use the elements of theater to create a vibrant devotional space for our community’s encounter with the evidence of things unseen.
1. “The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys” 54
2. “The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys” 53
3. W.H. Auden, “The Portable Greek Reader” 12-13
4. “Bahá’í Prayers” 1982 Wilmette, 103