Monday, March 17, 2008

IV Liturgy in Truth: Transfiguring the Mind and the Heart

Congregations need to ask themselves what they are about. Are they playing church? There is nothing inherently wrong with playing church, and there is even a sense in which liturgy is play. But play in the trivial sense of power strategies, stereotyping, and showing off will lead to internecine warfare far more often than it will lead to beholding. Church is supposed to be a vehicle that helps us along the road to God, not a playground for self-absorption, social climbing, and dressing up.

The point here is not to pass judgment but to suggest that we need to be ruthlessly honest about what we are doing. If a congregation wants to meet for a purpose other than beholding, fine, but say so. Do not waste the time of those who come to pray, who come for the liturgy of beholding that leads to spiritual maturity and the truth of God. [18]

When liturgy devolves from being God-centered to being me-centered, social strictures choke off the full range of emotion. Every service has to be “uplifting,” encouraging people to flee from their emotions and from intimacy with the unknowability of God or anyone else. In this milieu there is no dialogue with silence, nor space for it; no comfort for wounds or weeping. There is no room for the darkness, sin, and death inherent in the human condition, [19] or for the ancient liturgical rites of Holy Week that enable catharsis and the silence of transfiguration. Without death, there can be no resurrection.

The first few moments of a liturgy are usually indicative of what is to come. “Good morning” signals something far different from “Blessed be God” or “The Lord be with you.” This may seem like a trivial point, but the words and actions of the liturgy bypass the rational. Simply by coming to church we make our selves more vulnerable to the ambient forces at work around us, and we need to be very careful about what we expose our selves to.

While it is true that God provides manna in the desert, the twisted discourse that too often passes for liturgy is nothing less than catastrophic, not only to the immediate congregation, but more significantly to the transmission of the heart of Christianity. It is not simply that Christian culture with its profound ways of reading and listening is lost; there is a gradual erosion of the ability to engage these ways of knowing, the use of paradox, symbol, and gesture that have come down to us from earliest days. When we lose these ways of knowing, it becomes almost impossible to recover them.

If ever there were a time that Christian liturgical practice needed to stand over and against the prevailing secular culture it is now. There is nothing complicated about effecting change in our liturgies; it does not require programs or focus groups or notebooks or celebrity speakers or vast amounts of money. It does, however, require that we make some choices, both personal and corporate.

We need to recover silence and leisure in our liturgies. We need to learn how to be silent and how to communicate that silence silently. A congregation will be comfortable with silence only to the degree that its clergy are comfortable with silence. We need to recover silence in our lives; Sunday liturgy does not make up for a lack of silence and prayer during the rest of the week.

We need to relearn ancient Christian ways of reading and listening. These will tend to arise naturally as we recover silence, but in many cases there needs to be remedial work simply in learning how to speak slowly, clearly, and meaningfully without being artificial. Careless, hasty speech communicates careless, hasty religion and can destroy any liturgy, no matter how carefully it has been designed. Furthermore, disordered speech can be indicative of disordered life and raise anxiety levels in the listener. The reverse is also true. One group of slum children in the United Kingdom who were considered uneducable were able to turn their lives around by learning to read Shakespeare to cows.

But there is more. We need to be very careful about the choice of translations we use liturgically. [20] Christian texts are meant to fall upon the ear, the doorway of the heart where the process of transfiguration takes place. They are meant to be heard repeatedly as the year turns through the liturgical cycle. The sense of these texts is borne on the music of speech or chant to become an internalized concordance, a kind of prayer wheel that turns continually in the heart. The Scriptures, especially the Psalms, are meant to inhabit us so that a word or phrase appropriate to whatever we are doing can float to the back of our mind to serve as comfort or warning.

Listening is more difficult to learn, but is acquired organically as we become comfortable with silence and learn to speak from silence. Part of the education of listening (and the usefulness of formal liturgical texts) is paying attention to words, phrases, or parables that we don’t immediately understand. We learn to receive them, sit with them, chew them over, consign them to our working consciousness, which flows just below the level of everyday consciousness, so that we can be fed in the gaps by our internal concordance, often when we least expect it.

We need to recover the art of effacement. While there is theater in liturgy, sanctuaries are not personal performance spaces, and seeking into the beholding is not about watching yourself become an instant “mystic.”

Most of all, we need to learn to trust one another and our common humanity. Effecting this goal means learning to listen to those who are marginal, who are not members of the educated, social, or clerical elite; divine wisdom is given to the simple. [21] In addition, we need diversity in liturgy. We need different kinds of liturgies in different stages of our development and in specialized contexts. Yet no matter how simple or grand, contemplative or celebratory, the same rule of thumb applies: a liturgy will be effective only insofar as it is able to implement its own effacement. Every true sacred sign effaces itself.

Good liturgy welcomes us to the wilderness of beholding God in the truth of our selves. Only when churches are willing to stop grasping at self-perpetuation and create rites that gesture beyond themselves will they be able to fulfill their mission of helping us to realize our ‘onying’ in God; only then will they have a chance of becoming a means of transfiguration for us and for the world.


Blogger Crimson Rambler said...

This is very helpful, thank you!

5:50 pm, March 26, 2008  

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