Ritual Words in an Age of Drivel

by Matthew S.C. Olver

Chronological snobbery, C.S. Lewis’s felicitous phrase, is a perennial temptation. He used the term to describe the modern presumption that our contemporary philosophical perspectives are superior to those that preceded them. But there is a more pessimistic version of the error. In this schema, one assumes that things are worse than they have ever been (whether that “thing” is national politics, geo-politics, cultural morality, etc.). Conservatives are more likely to be chronological pessimists, which provides at least a sliver of insight into the ubiquitous presidential slogan, the one embroidered in white letters upon thousands of red baseball hats: “Make American Great Again.” Interestingly, commentators across the political spectrum have begun slowly to suggest that maybe American politics has entered a new sort of low. The two most disliked presidential candidates in American history is, well, noteworthy.

A dose of skepticism has always accompanied politics and I think most people agree that this is healthy. We recognize that there is always a certain distance between what a candidate says and what is politically possible or probable. Obama ran – in hindsight, we might say ‘audaciously’ – on hope. But we should remember that some of the most effective themes of successful presidential campaigns have been both audacious and effervescent (think here of Ronald Reagan in 1980).

That said, there does seem to be a new level of disconnect between words and reality. And this is something that plagues both major party candidates, albeit in slightly different ways. The list of claims that Trump has made which can be easily disproven in about 9 seconds on Google or in an encyclopedia is staggering. But no less staggering is Clinton’s continued claim that she has been absolutely truthful to the American people about the classified documents on her private email server. And even more, her claim that this of truthfulness was affirmed by the FBI and its director in the conclusion to their investigation [link to this]. Bill Clinton was rather famous for his ability to believe 100% in what he was saying right up until the moment when he had to admit the opposite.

Whither is liturgy in all this?

The power exerted by the ritual world of our political life is significant. One of the reasons for this is because it is so intimately connected to the broader orbit of patriotism, that virtuous love of one’s native country and the people therein. I was raised in a church tradition with little formal liturgy and the small private Christian school I attended had little in the way of conscious liturgy. But they observed the nationalistic ones with fervent devotion. “With patriotism, Bible truth, and knowledge forged in faith,” we sang in our school anthem at the beginning of every chapel service. But when the characteristic that most Americans identify with their political leaders is that their words don’t really mean anything, it seems naïve to assume there won’t be a trickle-down effect.

What does such a reality do for us, we who have been redeemed by the Living Word?

“And the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.”

In these few lines from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot gathers up so much of Him who stands at center of our faith, that Mystery who is Jesus Christ. Eliot’s language is properly ritual-poetic language, not that of dogmatics. It is language whose purpose is less exactitude than the attempted disclosure of unfathomable depths.

I wonder how our instinctual distrust of the words spoken by so many people public figures colors the way most people hear the words spoken in and by the Church. The public failure of Christians does not help this, of course. Neither does the inability of many to read and hear and interpret texts, especially poetical ones.

When I preside, I often try to look at people’s faces and wonder what they are actually hearing during the Liturgy of the Word. It is a strange thing, is it not, for a large group of people to gather and listen to someone read an ancient text aloud? The various comments after sermons often leave me similarly perplexed about what people hear (though this may well have more to do with the failings of the preacher than anything else). I am consistently surprised by how unruffled most people seem when challenging and difficult passages are read. “And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35).

“We would see a sign!”
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger.                         (T.S. Eliot, Gerontion)

Another matter that I pondered a good deal when I was in parish ministry in Dallas was why the vast majority of young people who were coming into the church wanted to come to the most “high” liturgies. A number of the ordinands were asked during their ordination process how the more contemporary Masses helped bring them into sacramental Christianity. “I don’t think I ever attended them,” more than a few replied.

This is only an anecdote and I have no way of knowing how widespread this phenomenon is. But I’ve had similar stories recounted to me by other priests. My point is not to argue for more ceremonial. Rather, I want to wonder aloud what this desire for ceremonial might indicate. My guess is that the desire is less for “high liturgy” per se than it is a desire for a full and rich experience of something different from their ordinary life, something Other. This may be a slightly misguided desire, since the Lord definitely wants to meet us in the life that we live, not remove us from it. He wants the “Amen” to our Eucharistic reception enacted within the very contours of life, maybe even especially in the seemingly mundane majority of those lives.

These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Paul Simon sings on Graceland. I have to wonder whether we might not see a little more of both in the coming generations. A priest friend of mine in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, Samira Izadi Page, runs a ministry for refugees called “Gateway of Grace.” My respect for her and her ministry is profound. Two weeks ago she recounted a story to her fellow clergy of a Somali immigrant woman who had been helped by the ministry to resettle in this new country. Mother Samira writes,

She has been attending Grace Community and two weeks ago, she had a dream of Jesus. Jesus told her that he was God and he wanted her to be one of his children and enter into his house. It was a long dream with an amazing conversation.

If those around us lose the ability to read the signs that thus far have pointed us to the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, it may be that God will start to use signs not often seen in the West.

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…” (Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p 212).

Catholics, Anglicans, all those who share the bond of baptism – we all can pray this prayer.

OlverRev. Matthew S.C. Olver is Assistant Professor of Liturgics and Pastoral Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He is married and a father of two, was in full-time parish ministry in Dallas for eight years, and is now writing his dissertation at Marquette University. He is a regular contributor to the blog of The Living Church, Covenant

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3 comments

  1. Sadly, there is a point more than a little connected to Matthew’s commentary above: the number of times religious leaders have publicly affirmed that “no one who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse is serving in ministry in X church.” In light of the fact that such affirmations are frequently determined to be false, some simply will not hear the public speech of the church / its ministers–indeed, some are simply *unable* to hear the public speech of the church / its ministers. And whatever else it may be, liturgy is surely the public speech / act of the church.

  2. “My guess is that the desire is less for “high liturgy” per se than it is a desire for a full and rich experience of something different from their ordinary life, something Other.”

    I would suggest that “different’ is not the apt word here.

    Consider the traditional approach to writing ikons: it’s not that the Byzantine and descendant traditions were *unable* to paint realistically. Rather, conventions developed to indicate that the ikon was a portal from our natural world through and into metaphysical, supernatural reality. The point is not the difference, but the joining.

    Drying to greatly reduce such dimensions in the liturgy assumes an opposition that is ultimately untrue and quite the reverse of reality. It’s an example of a solution that gets in its own way.

    The Paschal Mystery is the beginning of a new creation. Humanity is not merely invited to pre-lapsarian Original Goodness, but beyond that to glorification via theosis. It is a creation where not only are the Beatitudes fulfilled, but beyond that to a fullness of glory through and then beyond our natural senses. A relentless flattening of the liturgy to the one or the other says more about our own limitations than what we are called forth into being for.

  3. Karl: “Humanity is not merely invited to pre-lapsarian Original Goodness, but beyond that to glorification via theosis.

    What would Milton say that we ought to know? 😉

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