Nothing moved me during our trip to Hong Kong as profoundly as our visit to the Wong Tai Sin Temple. We boarded a large bus, drove through the vast urban, modern metropolis, a maze of triple decked highways and traffic, and then got off the bus in front of a series of stunning towers. They went up and up and up. These apartment buildings full of 200 square foot apartments are what most Hong Kong residents live in. Standing in that location before we made our way to the Temple on foot, I almost felt as if I were in a futuristic society, one that has been even further removed from nature and the spiritual connection we have to the elements. All I saw were towers.
While walking to the Temple we continued to make our way through the labyrinth of cement and steel. Perhaps it was because of the cloudy day but it seemed like most things were shaded gray; yes the gray of industrial civilization but too the gray that ends up coating everything you wear and touch in large cities across the world. As a New Yorker, this was both eerie and inviting at the same time.
And then we were there at the Temple.
After a brief introduction we were allowed to meander through the Temple at our own pace for roughly half an hour. This was both my favorite and the most deeply spiritual thirty minutes of my two weeks in Hong Kong. The immersive stay in the Wong Tai Sin Temple introduced me to color, to ritual, to history, to scent, and to a way of experiencing the divine in the natural world I had not encountered elsewhere in Hong Kong. The yellow and red, colors of hope, joy and light, were decked about the Temple. Priests were stoking fires, lighting incense, preserving the prayer life of the thousands that paraded through the Temple. Numerous altars were spread throughout the Temple, some for young lovers, others glorifying the cremains of previous Priests who had served at the Temple, each providing the opportunity to lift up prayers in their own setting. Of course the incense that clouded the entire area only added to the experience.
Even though Presbyterians are not big into worship with “smells and bells” I love worshiping with all my senses and the incense wasn’t only an olfactory experience. I was able to light incense of my own and participate in the prayer experience of those who worshiped and remembered at the Temple. And perhaps most impressive to me, most inspiring, calming, and spiritually stirring was that the entire experience took place outside. No longer was I immersed in a world of gray, futuristic towers. Now, I was immersed in a world that was grounded in history, in ritual, in red and yellow, of smoke and fire, of water and air, or remembrance, love and hope.
As I have returned home, I have remembered my time in the Temple with great respect and affection. I have concentrated my efforts on bolstering the elemental and experiential components of the rituals I administer during worship. We too use fire and water during worship. We too use vibrant color to mark seasons and the passage of time. But they were so impactful at the Temple for me, I want to make them as impactful for those whose worship experience I lead here as well. We have started to hand out baptismal candles since my return, inviting families to light the candle on the anniversary of their loved ones baptism as a reminder, both of the special day, but that they have forever been marked anew by the Holy Spirit. We have included color into our bulletins and worship life in new ways, marking the passage of time and the significance of season, by honoring both the liturgical time of year, but also what is happening around us more locally. We have committed our community to holding more worship services out of doors when the weather allows, providing us the opportunity to experience nature and to worship in God’s bountiful Creation.
Our time at the Temple shared for me a deeply spiritual side of Hong Kong that demonstrated a love of place, community, history, ritual, a connection to the divine, and a hope for the future. May all worship experiences aspire to that high mark.