For half my life (about 20 years) I’ve been fascinated with the martial art Aikido (which can be translated as “the way of the spirit of harmony”). I was introduced to it in my mid-20s. At first, it confused me. I thought martial arts were about taping into one’s inner animal, unleashing it, and overpowering one’s opponent, thus winning the fight. Aikido turned all of that on its head. In class, I heard things like, “You want to take care of your uke (the person you are throwing),” and “Don’t do that, because you could hurt someone. Do this instead.” I was confused, yet enthralled.
I only studied the art a few months before life changes made it too difficult for me to attend any longer. But it was enough to for me to realize that this was the art I wanted to study. So I didn’t study anything else until I found a class in my area a little more than a year ago. It has been a great joy to return to the martial art I love most.
When practicing Aikido, techniques begin with an “uke” attacking a “nage”. In contrast to many arts, the nage’s mindset is not one of defensiveness toward an enemy. Even though uke’s attack is (theoretically) that of malice, nage perceives the relationship as one of mutuality and partnership. When the attack comes in with its malicious energy, the nage accepts the energy as a gift by absorbing it in some way (or at least not impeding it). The nage then blends her energy with the aggressive energy, thus redirecting it into her center to make it her own. Once the energy is her own, her concern for the well-being of her aggressor cleanses the energy of malice. After her perspective and intent have transformed the energy into that of compassion, she returns it back to her uke, her own life-giving gift to him.
Of course, my life has taken many turns since I first encountered Aikido, one of them being ordination. Those years of experience have led me to look at this martial art differently. In the early days, I thought of Aikido as merely a non-violent martial art. Now, I look at it as a magnificent form of liturgy.
Liturgy, when done well, is far more than “mere ritual.” It is about participating ritualistically in a story of becoming. In basic Presbyterian liturgy, we begin with an opening call to worship in which the leader calls out to the people, and the people respond. It’s story that begins with a divine word that creates, in this case, a people. But then we have the confession of sin and assurance of pardon, through which we act out the fall and restoration. Having been restored, we now listen to the Word of God (the scripture and sermon) with new ears, ears informed by the experience of our fallen/renewed lives. Having heard our calling, we are then sent out into the world as expressions of the grace that we have received.
Attentive liturgy has a shaping effect upon our lives. When we intentionally participate in a story repeatedly, that story helps to shape how we see things and how we respond to them. Christian liturgy is a story of redemption, a story in which the power of divine love draws in the darkness to itself and transforms it, sending it out again as new light. Or, to put it another way, it is a story of transforming malice into compassion, of transforming sin into grace.
What does it mean to become more “human”? What would the world look like if we were to transcend our bestial drive to survive and the ensuing need to conquer? It seems that a worship service that relays our calling to become agents who redeem malice through compassion and a martial art that nurtures an attitude of caring for one’s neighbors are both wrestling with the same question. As they wrestle, they tell their stories. And in their ends, they present new visions of human possibility in which we can all participate. Whether I partake of cup or twirl people around me, I experience both as liturgical expressions of the Divine.