Cameron Dezen Hammon’s first book is now out. This is My Body is getting great reviews. Check out her website and Kirkus. Cameron contributed the essay, “Let Light Perpetual Shine Upon Them” to Common Prayer: Reflections on Episcopal Worship. Find out more about Cameron here. Congratulations to Cameron!
Here’s an interview we recently did with the publishers of Common Prayer.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Increasingly, people inside and outside the church wonder why they should worship. The pulls of family life, sports, and employment raise questions about why spend one’s valuable time in common prayer. We asked a group of talented writers to offer personal and provocative essays about their experience of worship. In a certain sense, we wanted a collection of testimony for why regular worship is essential, irreplaceable, transformative.
How is this book different from other books about worship?
There are many fine books about the history and theology of worship. These tend to be abstract, objective, general. We wanted a collection of very strong and distinctive voices, personal essays, first-person accounts that provide entrees into the experience of common prayer through the particularities of flesh and blood lives. We call it theological memoir.
How did you select the contributors?
We wanted a collection that reflects the variety of people and experiences one finds in The Episcopal Church. The writers include academics, priests, lay people, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, musicians, acolytes, missionaries, vestry members, poets. The most important thing was that they be willing to be put themselves out there and share something personal.
You edited this book while teaching theology at an Anglican College in South Africa. How did that context shape your experience of working on this book?
It brought home the gift of common prayer, shared forms and patterns of worship. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican tradition and our prayers and liturgies are similar all over the world. Our experiences of worship in South Africa were both familiar and unfamiliar. That’s similar to what we experienced as we read the essays for this book—people opened up the familiar and shed light on differences.
Is this book just for Episcopalians and Anglicans?
Not at all. One of the great gifts of excellent memoir is that through people’s sharing the particulars of their lives, and in this case, experiences of Episcopal worship, readers are drawn in to reflect on their own lives. That is, the particular opens a door to the universal. So people who worship in other denominations or are curious about Christian worship, as well as Episcopalians, can find inspiration for their own reflections on encounters with the divine.
There are pictures in this book. Why?
Our great editor at Wipf and Stock, Robin Parry, suggested that since these are personal essays, it would be good to put the faces of the writers with the stories. We are so glad he did.
An Excerpt From Common Prayer
There are several wonderful books about the theology and development of liturgy. This isn’t one of them. In this book, we gather insights about worship by a number of people in the Episcopal Church who are bold enough to try to find language to describe how worship has formed them, surprised them, amazed them, comforted or confronted them; or rather, how God has done that through Episcopal liturgy.
We are priests, people who get asked the questions priests get asked: Why worship? Why at that time? In that place? With those words? Sometimes the questions are asked as challenges, other times in wonderment or bafflement, particularly by people who aren’t as in the habit of showing up in church on Sundays as we are. These essays don’t so much answer these questions as they name some truths, some longing, some Love we know we can’t live without.
We originally envisioned this collection as focused on the experience of worship on Sundays, with the working title “Sunday Morning: Reflections on Episcopal Worship.” Some authors, appropriately, ventured beyond Sundays, and the book is all the richer for it. Hence the title Common Prayer.
In these pages, Spencer Reece dresses for his little entrance; Rhonda Mawhood Lee falls in love with Jesus by flashlight; J. Neil Alexander confesses that he is a Sunday-keeper; Sophfronia Scott gets a taste of grace; Lauren Winner wonders what the deal is with communion wafers; Rodney Clapp plays on Sundays; Melissa Deckman Fallon worries she is a bad Episcopalian; Steve Fowl provides a view from the choir; Amy Richter believes in demons; Cameron Dezen Hammon wants to belong to something; Duane Miller sweats in the calid Spanish summer; Paul Fromberg dances in friendship with God; Michael Battle ponders Zen-like riddles and bubble gum-blowing acolytes; BJ Heyboer finds a home at the foot of the cross; Ian Markham tries to be an atheist but fails; Kim Edwards realizes there is no such thing as ordinary time; Luisa E. Bonillas crosses the US-Mexico border every Sunday to go to church; worship saves Joe Pagano’s marriage; Kathryn Greene-McCreight smears ashes on her children’s foreheads; C. K. Robertson blesses heroes; Batman, Robin, and Supergirl show up for the blessing of Amy Peterson’s home; Rachel Stone longs to bring her pets with her everywhere, including church; and Fred Bahnson recounts the legendary chainsaw Eucharist.
We asked this group of writers to engage in an exercise of theological memoir, to write in their own strong, distinct voices about their experiences of Episcopal worship. We were both thrilled with and awed by the result: personal essays that are funny, vulnerable, faithful; people telling of loss, joy, play, belonging, love. This way of writing is risky. But so is engaging whole-heartedly in worship. These authors show us that this way of writing, this way of worshiping, this way of living is worth it. They share their flesh and blood lives with us and we meet the God who meets us in worship. This shouldn’t surprise us. In worship, Jesus shares his flesh and blood life with us; he pours himself out so we may have life and have life more abundantly.
Through the particularity of their reflections on life and worship, we don’t just get to know the authors. There are twenty-three authors in this collection, but the main character who emerges is the God we know in Jesus Christ, the God of, as Steve Fowl puts it, “unrelenting and eager openness.” This book is an invitation to risk offering the particularities of your own life in the worship of the same God.
Praise for Common Prayer
“This gracefully edited collection is a window into the transformative experience of shared liturgy in all its particularity, difficulty, and beauty. May these honest reflections open the eyes of our faith.”
—Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion and City of God: Faith in the Streets
“If Anglicanism claims to be catholic and reformed, then this winsome volume has the best of both: catholic in liturgy, protestant in testimony. Open this volume and meanwhile open your heart to be strangely warmed by the quirky, the moving, the profound, and the playful.”
—Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London
“In these pages you will see the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—in reflections and recollections that both move the heart and inspire the spirit.”
—The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church
Meet Cameron Dezen Hammon, author of “Let Light Perpetual Shine Upon Them.”
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in Ecotone, The Rumpus, The Literary Review, The Butter, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, The Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. Her essay “Infirmary Music” was named a notable in The Best American Essays 2017, and she is the host of The Ish podcast.
Q and A with Cameron Dezen Hammon
Q: What are your two favorite hymns or songs for worship?
A: My favorite hymns are usually not hymns but just regular songs that transport me. One is “Mary” by Patty Griffin. “Mary, you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes, your covered in rain, your covered in babies . . . Jesus said ‘Mother, I couldn’t stay another day longer’ . . . Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.” It’s about how Mary, the mother of God, was a mother like any. It’s also about the often invisible emotional and spiritual labor that mothers—that women—perform. That song destroys me every time I hear it. My favorite actual hymn is How Great Thou Art. We do it a bit differently at our jazzy Rite II service—uptempo, with a New Orleans Second-line style arrangement. I love it.
Q: What is your favorite worship service or part of the Book of Common Prayer?
A: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our
hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may
perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Q: As a musician who leads worship, are there go-to principles or guidelines you use when choosing music for worship?
A: I try to choose music that moves me first, because if I’m not connecting to it I don’t think the congregation will either. Sometimes I try to choose songs that reflect the readings but often they align whether I plan them like that or not.
Q: Some worship leaders say it can be challenging to worship while leading worship. What’s helpful for you?
A: My job is to walk toward, and invite others to come with me, to walk with me. But whether or not I’m “feeling” it or “worshipping” in every moment, doesn’t matter, I don’t think. Or, I hope it doesn’t. A friend of mine once described leading worship as channeling affections, as reflecting the love of the congregation back to God. That’s what I try to do—to simultaneously get out of the way while leading the way.
Q: What project are you working on now?
A: My first book, This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, will be published by Lookout Books this year.
Cameron’s book is now available. Find out more:
Find Cameron’s music on Amazon