Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Liturgy in Truth: Transfiguring the Mind and the Heart

[Originally published in "Weavings"]

We were perched on a cliff carpeted with wildflowers in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Below us, jagged ice towers marked the edge of a gigantic frozen river pouring imperceptibly down to the sea. The glacier’s face was perhaps five hundred feet high, sheared ramparts of ice in shades of deep turquoise ranging to white. It cracked and groaned as gravity and meltwater shifted its tremendous weight inexorably toward the rising tide.

Occasionally one of the forward-leaning ice spires collapsed with thunderous roars, showering the saltwater with debris, explosive booms reverberating among the peaks for many seconds. Each icefall set off a mini-tsunami, generating swells that would have swamped any small boat that ventured too close.

Above us towered wind-sharpened teeth of granite, guardians of the ice field where the glacier had its source. They seemed immobile, eternal. But the three tectonic plates that formed them are still grinding together, torquing the ice and the mountains. A major seismic event could happen at any time. Nearby Lituya Bay is thirty years overdue for another catastrophic earthquake; the last one generated a wave that scoured the surrounding mountains to an elevation of twelve hundred feet.

We sat on the edge of this abyss, stupefied by glory. Far below on the beach, our brightly colored tents sprouted like tiny mushrooms; our fragile kayaks toy boats all in a row.

Simply to be in such landscape is utterly beyond words. It is not only the beauty, the vastness, the elementals; there is a kind of rightness of being, as if all the shifting fragments of life have quietly fallen into place. The whole person comes into play: subtle senses that cringed and hid from the pace and noise of modern urban life come alive in alert and relaxed attention.

We had intended to celebrate the Eucharist while we were up there, but after we scrambled through the last tumble of boulders only to be absorbed by the visionary landscape, our human rite of word and symbol became inadequate to the liturgy we were living. When the priest finally broke the silence by extracting some bread and a cup from his backpack, his action seemed extraneous, an intrusion. (Some cautionary words echoed in my mind, “It is good for us to be here. Let us make three booths....”) [1] If only he had simply reached out his hands for ours, or in silence distributed the elements that had already been consecrated far beyond the reach of any human incantation. But no, he was a by-the-book man, and pulling one out, began to drone the words I normally love but which in that context were almost an obscenity. Everything had already been said from eternity. [2]

Religion is an attempt to gesture with words toward what is beyond words. It is a dialogue with silence through icon, text, and liturgy. If religion refuses its servant role of bringing the worshipper ever more deeply into silence, if it points to itself, it muffles the silence. The dialogue becomes a noisy monologue; religion dies. It is no longer religion. It has become a caricature of itself.

People living in the Middle Ages understood this better than we do: they created churches that are each a micro-cosmos, and they knew that liturgy is ritualized wilderness. Good liturgy provides a context in which our subtle senses, dulled by daily toil, can reawaken. Good liturgy reminds us that every moment of our lives, no matter how squalid or sinful, is Eucharist, our offering of “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice.” [3] It is a sad commentary on contemporary religious culture that people think more about what they get from worship than what they bring to it.

It is not the liturgy that sanctifies our lives; our lives are already sacred, and liturgy tries to remind us of that. The hours of the Divine Office do not sanctify the day; they bring us to remembrance that the day is already holy and we have the privilege of living it, that we have the choice at every moment either to be whole, to be holy, or to fragment our selves and others by focusing on one of our fantasy-generated power trips or anxieties.

The Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior or keeping to the rules; it is medicine for the sick and welcome for the wanderer. Above all it is thanksgiving for the limitless and unconditional love that is our life and our truth.

The Eucharist is not a lordly God condescending, but a God terrifying in humility who meets us as we are where we are, even in hell. Timeless liturgical action tears open the fabric of our lives and shows us that even when we are most conflicted, we are still infused and “onyd,” as Julian of Norwich puts it. [4] The divine life-love is ours no matter how we abuse it and nothing can separate us from it; [5] it is our shared nature with God, the very substance of who we are. The rest is illusion. Julian tells us that God can see only what is like himself; therefore he ignores our sin, which has no being or existence. [6] God seeks only our choice to behold the face of love.

Just as we reverence the crumbs of bread we receive at the Eucharist, so also we are given to know that nothing in our living and our dying is wasted, no matter how frivolous, how sinful, how glorious, how mundane, how painful. Good liturgy is designed to help us understand this truth, to turn us toward the truth of who we really are, which is hidden from us, but which emerges from the silence when our attention is focused away from our selves.

[To be continued]


Anonymous Liturgy said...

Looking forward to the continuing bit :-)


11:50 pm, February 27, 2008  

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