The Common Good

Worship Meets Experience at "The Opiate Mass"

Whenever Karen Ward, Abbess for Church of the Apostles (COTA), makes a suggestion about what's happening on the faith fringes, she tends to be spot on. So, when she told me I had to come to the Opiate Mass in Portland, Oregon, I decided to check this ministry out further. I conducted an email chat with Zadok Wartes, director of Opiate Mass about this Seattle-based worship experience.

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How did The Opiate Mass come into being?

A group of dear friends and I were all experiencing a rather bothersome dissonance between our rock/club/band experience on Friday nights, and our Sunday morning music direction/performance. We dreamed up our ideal of both worlds -- composing and performing epic music in large holy spaces all in the name of the sacred and beautiful. It was an awkwardly indulgent and desperate desire to experience God.

Explain the origin of the group's name.

It is both a nod to Marx's famous assertion that religion is the opiate of the masses, as well as a reference to the liturgical form. Our aim is to create spaces of meditation, rest, beauty, escape, and transcendence; if religion or God or prayer or music offer humanity a crutch, perhaps that isn't such a bad thing. For the curious or skeptical: We don't endorse the use of illicit drugs, opium poppy derived or otherwise.

What do you feel you are able to achieve as a collective unit that you cannot do as individual artists?

We believe in and embrace both the focus and tenacity of the lone author, and the wisdom of the group. Forces that close down experimentation must constantly be shed, and we've found that peers whom you trust and stand on stage with are the best assets in such a process. Any democratic performing arts group will tell you, finding the balance between these two is the gift and challenge.

Who is part of The Opiate Mass community?

We began as a quartet of pastors/songwriters and have since grown to a music ensemble of eight, a visual design team of four to six people, a handful of full-time clergy, audio engineers, and a dozen or so administrative and event coordinating people. There are also a few generous local churches and groups who provide us with rehearsal space, performance space, supplies, capital, promotion, and equipment.

Can you walk me through one of your services?

Each program is visually and musically designed around a theme, or church calendar event, or the space. The visual and light installation is typically static and the music as well serves this hope to create open space and awe. The program is made up of two seamless movements with a long break of silence in the middle and a corporate sung piece to end the evening. We try to balance the energy and dynamics of a concert performance and the dignity and beauty of a corporate worship service. A program may have elements of a traditional mass, but we find ourselves tooling around with a multitude of liturgical practices. No Christian tradition is off limits so long as beauty, wonder, and heartache are experienced.

Explain the process that goes into creating The Opiate Mass' albums.

For both "Make A Sound" and "Albatross" we culled the majority of the material from our live cathedral recordings. A benefit of playing long sets without applause is that the audio is remarkably clean and the performances have a live energy to them. Our lead vocalist will occasionally sing in tongues or the band will improvise long ambient segments; both make for fascinating creativity. Then we polish up the best 30 minutes and sort them into a narrative and theme in the spirit of a concept album. We plan to do a studio album on the book of Jonah as well as an electronic/ambient album in the near future.

Describe what you'll be doing on October 22 in Portland.

After a couple years of fine tuning our craft in Seattle, we are touring nearby cathedrals in Portland, Tacoma, and Bellingham. The events will include an art and light installation, generous sound reinforcement, music, silence, scripture, and singing.

Becky Garrison explores her first visit to Missio Dei in her book Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ. Follow Becky's travels on twitter @Jesusdied4this. For more information about The Opiate Mass visit www.theopiatemass.com.

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