The Origins of Circle of Worship
Hazrat Inayat Khan (1887-1927)
On May 7 1921, in London, England a solemn and beautiful religious service was held for the first time.
Seven candles were lent fire from a central flame, and texts from the sacred books of six of the world’s greatest religions were recited. The seventh candle represented all the great souls, “known or unknown to the world who have carried the Light of Truth." This service was the inspiration of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the great Sufi teacher and visionary from India. He named it “The Universal Worship,” and it came to be an important part of the Sufi Movement he founded. This service continues to be celebrated by his followers around the world.
On New Year’s Eve 1995, Tania Gerich and Stream Ohrstrom were returning from a Sufi New Year’s Retreat. The concluding event had been a celebration of the Universal Worship. The beauty and the clarity of the message that came through had moved them, but they also felt somewhat alienated by the “churchy” formality of the service and the patriarchal language. Tania felt strongly that if the form could be opened up to include some elements of spontaneity and creativity, something could be gained. Stream agreed, and before their drive home ended they had decided to try to draw on their extensive experience with ritual, improvised music and dance to realize the inspiration.
When they shared these ideas with their friend Julia Burger, she also became enthusiastic, and the three met to develop an outline. Further valuable inspiration was found in Julia Cameron’s writings of about the sacred nature of creativity. In a series of meetings the three friends collaborated to gradually define a participatory worship service, and also succeeded in writing an invocation that would express their vision.
It was clear that a circle was the most inclusive of forms; and therefore also that the ideal would be to have a round altar in the center. The first part of the service would include candle-lighting, largely modeled on Hazart Inayat Khan’s beautiful vision. As the candles were lit, the participants would be encouraged to spontaneously express their connection to the religion being honored. There would be a monthly theme. Rather than listening to a sermon, all should be invited to participate in some creative activity. Naturally, time was set aside for music, song and dance. The leadership would also be circular, and all would be invited to bring their inspiration and ideas. This is how the Circle of Worship emerged.
Tania, Stream and Julia decided that the Circle would meet once a month and that anyone who was interested was invited. However, as a measure of their commitment, they decided that the service would be held whether anyone else came or not. A mailing list would offer communications with participants, and those who wished, would receive a monthly reminder announcement that gave the theme for the upcoming Circle.
Synchronistically, a new acquaintance, a minister, offered inexpensive space for rent in his old church in Brookmont, near the Potomac River. The chapel there seemed right, but it was worn and dirty and the floor had missing titles, so before the first gathering many hours were dedicated to cleaning and repairing the neglected room. For a year this was to become the home of Circle of Worship.
Invitations to the first Circle of Worship were sent out for the first Sunday in April of 1996. It happened to be Easter Sunday. The response was very encouraging. Some 40 people found their way to Brookmont for the first Circle, and it soon became clear, that this opportunity to celebrate our fundamental spiritual unity filled a need and was welcomed by many.
After the first year, Tania and Stream were able to offer suitable space in their home in Aspen Hill, Maryland, where the Circle of Worship continues to meet without fail on the first Sunday of every month. It is supported by a dedicated group of regular participants, many of whom remain connected and receive our announcements even if they are unable to attend. Everyone can be a part of the Circle by contemplating the monthly themes within the context of their own lives, and so the blessings continue to flow. People new to the Circle are always welcome!
In 2005, Julia Burger chose to withdraw as a facilitator of the Circle in order to devote more of her time to her Buddhist spiritual practice. We miss her, but she is still part of the community and comes to the Circle occasionally. Gloria Kozel, a long time participant, has become a co-leader along with Tania and Stream, and brings her wisdom, experience and open-hearted kindness.
In the past years, we have brought the Circle of Worship to the Washington Theological Seminary, to an interfaith peace weekend at Claymont Court, West Virginia and to meetings of the United Religions Initiative (URI), DC Cooperation Circle. A memorable Circle (with the chiming of the Cathedral bells!) was celebrated in Bishop’s Garden at the Washington National Cathedral.
An Episcopal minister, Eric Schwartz, who has a leadership role in many interfaith activities in the DC area, has told us that Circle of Worship is one of the most effectively inclusive interfaith services he has ever taken part in.
We welcome more opportunities to share our celebration of spiritual unity with the larger community in the future.