It is easy enough to find historical examples of chaotic liturgies, but that is not my main point here.
I’ve been reading the recent publication of the homilies of St Gregory Palamas, and in homily 51 he makes these comments (emphasis added):
I observe that the church has a full congregation now, and I am filled with joy, but I recall the last few weeks. It was the season of the grape harvest, and the Church of God suffered a serious lack of worshippers and people to offer hymns and earnest entreaties to God. … When the season for enjoying and gathering the fruit comes round, we ought to glorify God even more. We, however, acting wrongly and unjustly, cut down on His praises and neglect them at that time. But why mention this now? There are many who, both before and after the harvest, do not even wake up for the Sunday morning services of praise. Yet it is also the case that some among those gathered here pay more heed to their conversations between themselves than to the prayers and doxologies. The majority are more interested in the goods on sale than in the readings, and in buying and selling than in the teaching of the divinely inspired Scripture. The noble building thus becomes a shop … People buzz around us, as you see, like drones, not listening themselves, and preventing those who want to listen from doing so.
What makes them like this? The fact that they consider they have nothing to gain from entreaties and praises to God, or from listening to the divine Scriptures and their counsel. Some feel that they are doing nothing – though it would not be fair to level this accusation at them all. Certain of them are of the opinion that they are standing idle and consider that any time spent persevering in glorifying God and making supplications is wasted. Proof that they think they are unoccupied at that time is the fact that they excuse themselves when any seemingly urgent work comes along: harvesting, perhaps, picking grapes, or anything else which appears to be necessary.
I cannot begin to say how much this attitude damages our faith, our Christian conduct, and also the material aspect of our lives. Anyone who thinks that the time set aside for prayer to God is unproductive, despises it and devotes himself entirely to the physical activities, does not believe the one who says, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5); nor does he realize that the Lord has power over life and death, health and sickness, and that it was He who made us, so our being alive, our ability to act and our entire existence depend on Him. How can anyone who does not believe in the realities of the present believe in the things to come? … Do you see that it is impossible to have sure faith and genuine virtue without persisting wholeheartedly in hymns and supplications?
First, I’m glad that whisperers during homilies these days keep their voices lower than they did in Gregory’s day.
Second, I’m grateful that the grape harvest no longer keeps suburbanites from morning mass.
Third, what struck me as extraordinarily modern was Gregory’s observation that “some feel that they are doing nothing.” That line seemed to pitch the question of full, active and conscious participation in a different key. When that phrase is used, we are often already focused on ritual activity; but Gregory shifts the focus to the value of liturgical activity. He seems to be asking, “Even if you were the busiest person in the room, do you feel that you are doing something of consequence?” And the answer he worried about receiving was, “No, I feel like any time spent persevering in glorifying God and making supplication is wasted.” Where does such an idea come from? “The fact that they consider they have nothing to gain from entreaties, praise, and Scripture, i.e. from doing the liturgy.”
Fourth, I was struck by Gregory’s response. How can we believe in the things to come if we don’t believe in the Lord’s power in our life today, and establishing confidence in the Lord’s power in our life today requires that we perform hymns and supplications as if they counted, as if the work I did at liturgy was important.