On May 7 1921, in London, England, a solemn and beautiful religious service was held for the first time. Seven candles were lit from a central flame, and texts were read from the sacred books of six of the world’s greatest religions. One final candle represented all the great souls who carry the light of truth. This service was the inspiration of the great Sufi teacher and visionary from India, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1887-1927). He called it “The Universal Worship” and it came to be an important part of the Sufi Movement that he founded. The Universal Worship 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. They were moved by the beauty and clarity of the message that came through, but felt somewhat alienated by the formality of the service (all the sharing was prepared in advance, for instance) and its patriarchal implications. Tania suggested that if the form could be opened up to include some elements of spontaneity and creativity, something might be gained. Stream quickly caught on and before their drive home ended they had decided to try to realize their inspiration, drawing on their extensive experience with ritual, poetry, improvised music and dance.
When they shared these ideas with their artist friend, Julia Burger, she immediately became enthused and the three met to develop a plan. Further valuable inspiration was found in the writings of Julia Cameron about the nature of creativity. In a series of meetings the three friends collaborated and gradually defined an outline for the service. They also wrote an invocation that would express their vision.
It was clear that the circle shape was the most inclusive format and that a round alter would be in its center. The name “Circle of Worship” evolved from there. The first part of the service would include candle-lighting, largely modeled on Hazrat Inayat Khan’s beautiful vision. However, the participants would be encouraged to spontaneously and creatively express their connection to the traditions being honored whether in music, song, dance, poetry, inspiring thoughts, etc. This is how a more contemporary version of the Universal Worship evolved and the Circle of Worship emerged.
Tania, Stream and Julia decided that the Circle would meet once a month, and like most churches, use a ‘drop-in’ format. However, as a measure of their commitment the three friends were clear that the service would be held whether anyone else came or not! In any case, those who wished, would receive a monthly announcement stating the theme for the upcoming Circle.
Synchronistically, a minister, Peter Ainsely, offered inexpensive space for rent in his old church in Brookmont, near the Potomac River. For a year this was to become the first home of the Circle of Worship.
The initial Circle invitations and flyers were posted for the first Sunday in April of 1996. It happened to be Easter. The response was encouraging. Some forty people found their way to Brookmont Church for the first Circle. As the months went by, it soon became clear that this opportunity to celebrate our fundamental spiritual unity filled a need and was important to many.
After the first year, Tania and Stream were able to offer suitable space in their home in Aspen Hill, Maryland. The Circle of Worship continues to meet there, at OneCircle Center. It is supported by a dedicated group of regular participants, many of whom remain connected through our email announcements even if they are unable to attend. Everyone can be 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 come to try it out and are welcomed with open arms.
In 2005, Julia Burger chose to withdraw as a facilitator of the Circle in order to devote more time to her Buddhist studies. Gloria Kozel, a long-time participant, became a co-leader of the Circle along with Tania and Stream. Besides providing beautiful bouquets of flowers for the services, Gloria brings her sweet, generous energy to the Circle.
The Circle of Worship has been asked to celebrate the service in other venues as well. We have been to the Washington Theological Seminary, to an interfaith peace weekend at Claymont Court, to the Bishop’s Garden at the Washington National Cathedral as part of the United Religions Initiative (URI) Cooperation Circle and to the 54th International Babaji’s Parliament of World Religions and Yoga – and have been well received.
The original Circle of Worship is still lovingly celebrated on a quarterly basis.
An Episcopal minister, Eric Schwartz, who is active in URI and has a leadership role in many interfaith activities in the DC area, told us that Circle of Worship was one of the most effective interfaith services he has ever participated in. We bow to Hazrat Inayat Khan for the inspiration and we are dedicated to continue to spread his powerful message of the unity of all religions. We hope our prayers are heard and lead to greater peace.
If any benefit comes from our gathering together, let it be for the good of all beings!
Hazrat Inayat Khan