Worshipers gather at nightfall.
They quietly slip through the doors of Pilgrim Lutheran Church in St. Paul, light a thin candle, place it near the altar and slide into a pew. The lights are dimmed, creating a sense of stillness.
What follows is an hour of Celtic music, drumming, interpretive dance, scripture and poetry readings, woven together and punctuated with periods of silence for reflection, meditation and prayer.
But no sermon; the Rev. Carol Tomer, Pilgrim’s lead pastor, leads prayer and communion but spends most of the service in the background.
Pilgrim Lutheran’s Celtic contemplative service is one of three themed evening services the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood church holds each month for people seeking a different kind of worship experience after hours. About 250 people attend the evening services each month at the church, which has 500 registered members.
The evening services were started 16 years ago to reach out to “those who have felt exiled from the church tradition,” Tomer said.
“[They] left the Christian community at some point for any number of reasons and now are longing to return, tired of doing their spiritual journeys alone. ... These worship services have been portals of return,” she said.
Tomer, who studied at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and Harvard Divinity School, helped launch the contemplative services.
The Celtic service, started in 2002, is the oldest and most popular of the night services. The Nordic contemplative service began in 2004 and Compline for a New Millennium, a service featuring the Minnesota Compline Choir, was started in 2016.
Pilgrim is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but its evening services attract people from a variety of faith backgrounds or maybe none at all.
“The evening worships really speak to my soul,” said new Pilgrim member Stephanie Gossett. “It gives me permission in this busy world to be still for a few moments in a purposeful and meaningful way.”
Tara Harl, who spent part of her childhood in Scotland, and her daughter, Ailsa Odom, used to drive all the way from their St. Cloud home for Pilgrim’s Celtic service. Harl moved to Kansas and her daughter now lives in Ortonville, Minn., but they agreed to meet last Sunday in St. Paul for the Celtic service.
“It’s in our hearts and it’s in our blood. It’s a wonderful place to seek out the Holy Spirit in meditation,” Harl said.
The Celtic service draws from Celtic Christian sources and the music is played on traditional instruments, including bagpipes. Ancient folk melodies are played at the Nordic service.
Music is essential to all three contemplative services, and Pilgrim relies on professional musicians to compose and perform, including composer and piper Dick Hensold and cantor Peggy Larson. “They are all really distinguished musicians in their own right,” Tomer said.
Each of the services follows an ancient arc but have been revised for the new millennium, Tomer said. The readings, which she calls weavings, feature excerpts from the Old and New Testaments, poetry and essays.
At last Sunday’s Celtic service, which had the theme “The Tender Gravity of Kindness,” readings were taken from the Old Testament books of Job and Jeremiah and the poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye.
The service is marked by repetition, both in music and words, which invites meditation. A simple prayer was intoned by Tomer: “God in my life. God on my lips. God in my soul. God in my heart. God in my suffering. God in my slumber. God in every living soul. God in my eternity.”
Later in the service, Tomer invited congregants to communion. “This feast we celebrate is for you — you who have been here often, and you who haven’t been here for a long time, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have tried to follow Jesus and all of us who have failed,” she said.
Lori Gottschalk of Minneapolis first went to Pilgrim’s evening services four years ago. She had worshiped with congregations affiliated with other denominations and taken time off from organized religion before arriving at Pilgrim’s doorstep.
“I absolutely love it. It’s a spiritual retreat for me. It’s a blend of traditional worship and tremendous freshness,” said Gottschalk. “It just takes you to that place of your heart beating and your connection with God.”