I’ve been thinking a lot about liturgical movement recently. This has been prompted by several experiences, at celebrations with bishops, with masters of ceremonies who strode purposefully around the sanctuary instead of moving unobtrusively. There have also been several deacons who gave the impression of being orang-utans or shambling elephants, and a host of different altar servers who were clearly in far too much of a hurry to get from A to B. I’ve often watched presiders who fidget and seem incapable of keeping still for more than a few seconds at a time. I’ve studied the way people move around in uncomfortable pews during lengthy homilies, and the way some musicians are always getting their music ready for the next piece and thus distracting the people from focusing on the Collect prayer or the Preface. I’ve tried to look at the Communion “procession” from the point of view of an outsider, at the way lectors move to and from the ambo, at the way that bishops leave at the end of a celebration….
I know that when I was a youngster, part of the training to be an altar server was training in how to move. We had to learn how to walk without rushing, almost how to “glide”, something which was in fact easier when you were carrying a heavy missal open on a bookstand from one side of the altar to the other via the foot of the steps. These days, I don’t think anyone does that sort of training any more. I sometimes wonder how many seminary courses for aspiring priests or deacons systematically cover the whole area of body language and posture for presiders and others.
Those who have heard me speak on the subject of liturgical choreograpy (even though the title of the presentation may not have made that explicit reference) will know that one of my “liturgical laws” is this: The slightest movement draws attention to itself and to the person who is moving.
We have all experienced the reader who moves up the aisle towards the ambo while the Collect prayer is being spoken. We may not realize that, because we have “clocked” that motion out of the corner of our eye, we are no longer listening to the presidential prayer in the same way; our attention has been drawn elsewhere. The same thing can be seen at many other times: Gospel processions forming up during the Second Reading, servers “laying the table” during the intercessions (or even during the homily!), the collection of money still continuing when the Eucharistic Prayer is underway…..the list is almost endless, without including latecomers, photographers, even domestic animals, not to mention flapping windows, blinds, fizzing candles, flickering fluorescent tube lighting….
This law of course does not apply just to those who are on the move but also to those who are sitting still. I’ve already mentioned those restless presiders who appear unable to sit quietly to listen to someone else reading or singing. The same sort of thing also applies to other visible liturgical ministers, whether sitting or standing, and let’s not even think about those in the pews around us. Although we do manage to “tune out” all these movements to a certain extent, there is certainly an effect on our degree of attentiveness and ability to focus on what is happening in the rite.
And the basis of the law is nothing liturgical, but rather anthropological. In the same way that we absorb subliminal messages without realizing it, we also do not realize that some movements more than others can make us “take our eye off the liturgical ball” without us being really aware of it.
Of course it is true that liturgists may suffer from this rather more than others. We tend to look at liturgies with a professional eye, with our attention focused on everything that is happening, rather than just having a general impression of the liturgy in progress. But that does not mean that the effect of what is going on passes over the heads of those who are not specifically trained to notice everything. The fact is that, although we think we are still focused, everyone’s concentration is pulled away by movements which might be avoided with a little forethought.