Diana Butler Bass, a well-known commentator on the contemporary religious scene, has said “All sorts of people — even mature faithful Christians — are finding conventional religion increasingly less satisfying, are attending church less regularly and are longing for new expressions of spiritual community.”
At the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach, something new in the religious marketplace has emerged from its 12th century cloisters. RUAH, which means “spirit” or “breath” in Hebrew, is a weekly Wednesday night candlelight service with hymns arranged with a world-music sound and a walking meditation called the Via Sacra. This “sacred way” takes the worshiper on a journey to stopping places nestled in various corners and rooms of the cloisters with questions to ponder, oils to smell, icons to contemplate and pillows on which to sit and take in the beauty all around. This is set into a centuries-old liturgy in which the rhythm of prayer calls the soul into quiet, calm and peace.
People from different backgrounds are finding solace in this hour-long respite from life’s hurried pace — those who have been to church or never been to church; who are yogis, who are of different religious affiliations, even agnostic. They are of all ages. Young children are asking to be baptized, and older people are finding healing from grief over the loss of a loved one. A young woman finds her faith in God awakened here after years of wanting nothing to do with the church. A couple long divorced experience hope after 20 years of pain and separation following their son’s suicide. There is awe and mystery in the air, renewal and hope in the prayers, freshness of sound in ancient hymns and permission for all to listen to their own heartbeat and ask: “How am I doing in this world?” “What do I believe?” How do I want to relate again to the people around me and to myself when I leave this place?”
No less a person than Pope Francis has encouraged the church "not to lose sight of this important goal: to help the liturgical assembly and the people of God to perceive and participate, with all the senses, physical and spiritual, in the mystery of God."
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When Jesus gave the bread and wine to his followers, he was offering them the very essence of himself, his body and his blood. He encouraged them to remember him when they broke bread together. Embedded in this ritual is a sensory act that is both physical and spiritual. RUAH invites all who come to this same experience that embraces body and soul to find rest, to breathe deeply, allowing the spoken word, the music, the light and the shadows to wash over them. Here there is freedom to move in any direction one feels drawn.
In the 21st century, church attendance is down across all denominations. Many people are juggling competing priorities on Sunday mornings, from soccer practice, breakfast together with the family, a stroll in the park, outdoor recreational sports and other activities. The draw that existed in years past to attend church has shifted. As Butler Bass has also said, “The first decade of the 21st century could rightly be called the great religious recession.”
Father Gregory Mansfield, pastor of Saint Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church, which owns the monastery, along with his leadership decided to take a risk and try something new. He partnered with Mishkhah, an organization whose mission is to reveal the mystery of Christ through the arts, and created RUAH, a new offering on Wednesday nights. RUAH has engaged Miami’s music community, bringing in some of the best talent from across the area. These musicians play in all kinds of bands across many genres and bring a live, improvisational sound to hymn arrangements and modern secular covers. From instrumental music that accompanies the Via Sacra, a walking meditation, to vibrant, rhythmic hymn arrangements, RUAH has captured the hearts and minds of people who ordinarily would not find themselves in church. RUAH is a worship service that embraces the ancient rituals that are centuries old, while adding modern elements of image, poetry and art.
RUAH began last November as an experiment whose success is now challenging everyone involved to consider what comes next. It will run through the end of this month at 7:30 April 18 and 25 at the Ancient Spanish Monastery, 16711 Dixie Hwy, North Miami Beach.
Kate Eaton founded Mishkhah in 2010.