A gentle invitation to worship

At St. Hildegard's Sunday evening services, participants contemplate and respond to the day's readings through art. Photo: Sandra Vander Schaaf
Published January 1, 2019

As people enter through the narthex of St. Faith’s Anglican Church, Vancouver, B.C., on a Sunday evening, they are greeted by a small table bearing a chalkboard with a welcoming message, as well as a box of small wooden hearts and an assortment of words—healing, play, forgiveness, creativity. There is an invitation to take a heart and a word.

Inside, another basket is set with colourful socks and cozy blankets. Some help themselves to these comfortable offerings. Everyone gathers in a semi-circle around a simple table, which acts as an altar for the Rev. Melanie Calabrigo, the gathering priest. After welcoming everyone and giving a short orientation, Calabrigo begins by acknowledging the land (the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people) and reading a poem. This is followed by a reading of the psalm of the day, and the gospel reading, in the style of lectio divina (divine reading).

The gathering disperses and for half an hour, participants converge around arts stations or on their own to respond creatively to the texts they have just heard. As musicians play contemplative music, people around the room paint with watercolours, create sand trays, light candles, dance, write, or simply sit and quietly reflect. After the allotted time, the group reassembles, and all are invited to place what they have created on a colourful quilt, as an “offering.”

Then, they celebrate the Eucharist. Calabrigo closes with another poem, and they disperse, stopping on the way by a table laden with “comfort items” to be taken, as reminders, for the week ahead—small hearts, crosses, chocolate and tea.

This is St. Hildegard’s Sanctuary, an arts-based, contemplative community in the parish of St. Faith’s, Vancouver, in the diocese of New Westminster. It is also a recipient of a $15,000 grant from the Anglican Foundation of Canada for the development of a set of trauma-sensitive liturgical resources entitled “All Are Welcome.”

Connecting to the holy

Calabrigo says the idea for St. Hildegard’s arose out of her seminary studies on the theology of beauty, and her work as a spiritual director, which was focused on “creative processes and how they connect us to the Holy.” At the time, she was also doing some chaplaincy training, which brought her in contact with what she calls “the broad range of trauma in our world.” She soon discovered an overlap between what she learned about trauma and her work on creativity and spirituality.

St. Hildegard’s grant application to the Anglican Foundation notes that there are “many people in our midst who have survived traumatic experiences, whether as residential school survivors, child abuse survivors, sexual and physical abuse survivors, war veterans, civilian war survivors, refugees, the list goes on.” Indeed, Statistics Canada reports an 8% lifetime prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the population, and notes that it can be a chronic condition.

When experiencing grief and trauma, Calabrigo realized, people often “step away from God.” Sitting in worship services on Sunday, she began to wonder if elements of the traditional church service would be “impediments” to those experiencing trauma, and whether there were things a church might do that would be helpful.

St. Hildegard’s Sanctuary is a contemplative, arts-based community in the parish of St. Faith’s, Vancouver, B.C. Photo: Sandra Vander Schaaf

She began to think about ways a service could incorporate creative expression and contemplation. “The experience of beauty has a long history of drawing people to the holy. The arts offer hope through beauty and imagination. And creative practice is known to be both enlivening and grounding,” Calabrigo says. “Those are things that are lovely for all of us, and might appeal to folks that would not come to a more typical church service. I started thinking, ‘What if we could put all these things together?’ ”

Calabrigo met with diocese of New Westminster Bishop Melissa Skelton, who encouraged her to find a space and to make the idea a reality.

The Rev. Richard Leggett, rector at St. Faith’s, is professor emeritus at Vancouver School of Theology, and had taught Calabrigo when she attended seminary. He offered to let her use space at St. Faith’s for St. Hildegard’s Sanctuary. Originally, it was set to be a six-week project for Lent 2016; response was positive, and it continued. In January 2017, St. Faith’s undertook to create resources for St. Hildegard’s to continue in 2018. In addition to weekly Sunday evening services, Calabrigo says they plan to hold monthly arts events and three full-day retreats over the course of the year.

With the grant from the Anglican Foundation, they are expanding their liturgy to reflect the Christian year. Calabrigo says they are aiming to digitally publish liturgical materials for the incarnation cycle by Advent 2018, and the resurrection cycle by Lent 2019. By Pentecost 2019, they hope to publish print versions of all the materials. The goal is to create resources that are easily accessible for anyone in the wider community and church.

Trauma-sensitive liturgy

Calabrigo has worked with a trauma consultant and discussed with several people living with the effects of trauma to learn how to best create a trauma-sensitive service and liturgy. Among the potentially disturbing elements found in the liturgical texts, she says, are those that “express an understanding of the saving work of God in Christ through the lens of substitutionary atonement,” that “express an uncritical view of the salvific benefit of suffering,” that describe “the sacrifice of Christ in physical terms that can be unsettling” and that “employ exclusive gender language for God.”

Leggett, who served on the Anglican Church of Canada’s liturgy task force from 2010 to 2016, says that the goal is to find “dynamic equivalents” to problematic words and phrases—“self” could be used rather than “body,” for example, or “life” rather than “blood.”

“What we’re also trying to do is find language that is evocative,” he adds. “The best kind of liturgical language is an opportunity for you to pause for a moment and think, ‘What does that mean for me? How do I understand this?’ ”

While keeping true to the Anglican tradition and “the good news of God in Christ,” Leggett says, the aim is to make the texts more inviting and to recognize the experiences of the people who are participating.

A community member reads during St. Hildegard’s contemplative worship service. Photo: Sandra Vander Schaaf

There are small changes that make a big difference for some; for instance, St. Hildegard’s practices a non-touch passing of the peace. Calabrigo says some people feel uncomfortable with practices like hugging in church. Although people are trying to be welcoming, she says, “that gesture is actually not welcome for some people.”

Not all people will feel the same way, however. “The best thing is to talk to people and find out what is both welcoming and an impediment for them,” she says. “We err on the side of that which will be the most gracious for all.”

They also decreased the amount of words in the liturgy, says Calabrigo.

“I think that there are too many words in the typical church service,” says St. Hildegard’s artist in residence, Sandra Vander Schaaf. “People get talked at. This is a space where the words are simple and few, and the gift is space. To give everyone half an hour with their own thoughts, to contemplate the Scripture or the poetry, or the prayer that’s been nagging them at the edges of their consciousness all week.”

The ‘burden of expectation’

Vander Schaaf came to St. Hildegard’s as a lifelong church member who had come to feel a burden of expectation at church. “Being on a committee or serving in one way or another has often been like a job, a commitment, that looks a particular way and has particular constraints around it,” she says, adding that for her, this led to church feeling like “more of a burden than a joy.”

At St. Hildegard’s, she says, “it’s less about the ‘shoulds’ and more about offering the invitational love of God to the human soul.”

As artist in residence, Vander Schaaf collaborates with Calabrigo to plan creative activities for St. Hildegard’s services and quiet days. She also makes connections with other artists in the community to share their talents. St. Hildegard’s has incorporated a wide range of artistic practices into its services and retreats, including hand-painting chocolates, learning Haida weaving and going on an Indigenous plants walk. Recently, they painted stones as part of a project for the Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation. After the rocks were painted with prayers for reconciliation, they were laid as part of an art installation at the end of the walk.

Painted rocks representing prayers for reconciliation are placed in an art installation as part of Vancouver’s Walk for Reconciliation. Photo: Sandra Vander Schaaf

Skelton wrote in an email that she values the liturgy of St. Hildegard’s because it “offers those participating an arts-based experience of worship and prayer that is both a traditional Anglican flow and a language system that is trauma-sensitive.

“I’m excited anytime we as a Church can hold onto the tradition we value and at the same time respond to the needs of today’s world—in this case, the yearning for non-verbal modes of expression through the arts and the yearning to create places of healing for those who have suffered trauma.”

Recalling how she felt when she began attending St. Hildegard’s, Vander Schaaf says, “To step into a space that is invitational, that is about grace and beauty as exquisite expressions of who God is and God’s way in our lives, a space sensitive to those who’ve suffered trauma, with an emphasis on comfort and safety in a space of worship and contemplation…it was like landing in an oasis, at a time when I was parched.”

A collection of “comfort items” are meant to be taken as community members leave the worship service. Photo: Sandra Vander Schaaf

Calabrigo says the aim is to “convey the invitational love of God,” by making sure that everyone feels invited, but not compelled, to “do what is best” for each of them. “The invitation is to a gentle space of welcome…not to feel in any way forced or pressured.

“I think that’s a space that’s really needed,” she says. She recalls that when she collected feedback from community members, one comment read, “This is the first time I’ve been able to breathe at church.”

Calabrigo says she feels “graced to be able to gather this community,” adding, “each Sunday I am just in awe of what’s possible.”

This article first appeared on February 21, 2018.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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