Even as Lawrence Hoffman’s Beyond the Text more than twenty-five years ago prodded liturgical historians and theologians to abandon a naïve approach to the “meaning” and “impact” of liturgy simply (plainly?) residing in the words of the ritual books, a monthly pastoral commitment of mine yesterday occasioned my marveling anew (and confirming for me, again) how much of what people do in liturgy is rote repetition, that is, activity that they cannot even recall or reproduce if asked to do so out of the context of their usual practice. Ugh! I’ll stop trying to theorize on the front end and just give you my vignette from my regular volunteer-chaplain service in an area prison:
This fall I responded to a new request to celebrate Mass monthly in one of the prison’s highly restricted units, whose few Roman Catholic inmates benefit from the generous weekly Communion Service provided by two (permanent) deacons. Each of the three times we’ve celebrated thus far together, both the “insiders” and deacons have utilized a laminated card containing the revised/current English translation of the people’s “parts” (responses, Gloria, Creed, Holy, etc.). But the company that produced that worship aid, it turns out, failed to include the “Lamb of God.” Last month, as we (totaling six, around a table) reached the Fraction Rite I asked the deacon to go ahead and lead all in reciting the Lamb of God. For my part, I wanted to say inaudibly the priest’s prayers for dropping the fragment of the host in the chalice and then my “private prayer” in preparation for communion. The deacon, a man of at least my fifty-something years, stared at me, bewildered. So I said, “Please, go ahead and say the Lamb of God, while I do my stuff for the Fraction Rite.” Neither he nor the other deacon nor the three other men opened their mouths. So, I started, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world….“ Nobody joined in. I was dumbfounded. “Okay, well let’s find it on that card there,” I said. That’s when I discovered the publisher failed to include it. So, I said, “Well, you know, the Lamb of God, right? Just go ahead and say it with me.” … Deer-in-the-headlights.
Now, I readily acknowledge that my approach to presiding is to keep all stage directions minimal, especially when people have the directions and content available in print for them. But what bemused me a month ago was how neither deacon could simply chime in with one of the most basic of the assembly’s prayers at that point in the Communion Rite (and one, I might add, that had not undergone one word of alteration, that I can recall, in the new translation). But the story goes on …
Yesterday, we assembled again for the December occasion of our Mass in that unit together. Things went along nicely, with the men proclaiming the readings by passing around a copy of Give Us This Day (nod and wink to Liturgical Press’s successful missive). When we reached the Preparation of the Table, I proceeded with the prayers inaudibly (the first option in the Missal), at which the deacon began reciting, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins …” A bit amazed, I turned to him—who must have been anxious about his role in leading that prayer and, clearly uncertain as to what point in the Liturgy of the Eucharist it functions—and asked that we save it for a bit later. He seemed more lost than ever. When we got to the Fraction Rite, I said, “Okay, let’s say the Lamb of God.” Silence on the part of all (I sympathetically imagine the deacons and other three men felt insecure, due to my stage directing); so I picked up one of the other deacon’s laminated cards (he being to the right of right-handed me), at which point he reminded me that the prayer wasn’t on it. I replied, “Oh yeah, right, but please go ahead and lead it, while I do my silent prayers.” He just stared at me.
I readily admit I’m a twenty-plus-years veteran classroom teacher who can be overly magisterial in leading a session, even a session that happens to be the Mass. But having now been together three times this fall, I’d say we six guys all seem, to my experience, to be pretty comfortable (lots of joking) with each other. So my interpretation of this repeated phenomenon—this inability of middle-aged Roman Catholics to recite the Lamb of God “on cue”—has confirmed my ever-growing conviction for the extent to which those of us passionately committed to academic and pastoral service to the church’s liturgy need to analyze the rites beyond the text—to invoke the entire argument of Lawrence Hoffman’s 1987 book thus entitled.
So much of the analysis of liturgy remains focused on the words in the books or even the words recited or repeated in assemblies, and this with an uncritical, unarticulated assumption that the discursive content of those texts impact/shape the ideas or imaginations of most of the participants. The individual performances and ongoing practices of a rite/ritual/liturgy are so much more and most often a matter of non-discursive, semiotic (if you will) patterns (starting with where people consistently choose to sit … those five or six men in that prison unit always sit in the same spots around that table, e.g.). If men who’ve been participating in the Mass in English for more than forty years cannot come up with the Lamb of God, how much can we assume about the impact of the words in the liturgy for most people most of the time?
Okay, please, if you’re still reading, dear colleagues, go easy on me here!!!! Perhaps my pastoral failure lies in my desire as a presider not to usurp the people’s parts (in this case, that’s why I wanted them to say the Lamb of God while, as the Missal instructs, I do my part inaudibly). But I’ve told my tale to invite a discussion, if desired, about the challenge of serving the liturgy (in all its rites) beyond the text, that is, mindful of how much people do not “hear” or “think about” or “take from” in the words of the rituals. I realize, readily, that the church’s liturgy is a matter of both word and gesture/action. I guess I’m inviting you to pause with me just to be mindful of the extent to which ritual really is rote (with a big bow to such social scientists as Catherine Bell (RIP), Adam Seligman, Bruce Kapferer, et al.). And, indulgent full disclosure: It’s this line of inquiry I wish to pursue in my next book project (and have already started to attempt in published articles on the communion procession, the rite or marriage, etc.).