My first post-collegiate job was Music Director for St. Mary’s Orthodox cathedral in Minneapolis. Prior to leading the singing at St. Mary’s, I was familiar with the fundamental rhythms and seasons of the liturgical year. I knew that Christmas Eve entailed a rather lengthy Vigil and the odd combination of a strict fast with eating selective foods. I knew that we would go to Church during the first week of Lent to sing the penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which was comprised of soft, affective music. I remember a bit more rigor on Good Friday, especially the marathon of Gospel readings we heard on Thursday night accompanied by the melancholy choral responses, the dark church, and several trios.
St. Mary’s had a more full liturgical cycle. We sang the canon of St. Andrew in four parts Monday through Thursday, and also had the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, once on Wednesday, and twice on Friday. By the time we reached the Sunday of (the Triumph of) Orthodoxy, we were tired, yet somehow energized from the intensity of that first week. At St. Mary’s, and also in other communities, I came to know the ferocious intensity of Holy Week, which culminated in the joy of Pascha.
What was that liturgical intensity? It would be easy to reduce it to tired backs, knees, and voices, and the human fatigue one experiences from constant exertion, which (in this case) includes a type of spiritual effort. But there was something more to it than the bodily or even a sense of deep engagement, the kind that leaves one barely able to communicate for a few hours afterwards. The intensity included a sense that something memorable had occurred, an encounter that would inscribe itself on my memory, and then, presumably, shape me for the foreseeable future.
My guess is that every liturgist, meaning the lay participant alongside the presider and theologian, is familiar with the intense liturgical experience.
But I would be dishonest if I neglected to say that these intense liturgical experiences are also a part of our ordinary, daily fabric. My moments of having a strong sense that God was touching me include the memory of my mother kneeling in Church and praying with tears that God would heal her cancer – after liturgy. I also remember the profundity of communicating the news of my uncle’s death to my elderly grandparents. These episodes occurred in the rhythms of daily life, outside of liturgy, but my sense then was that God had not only touched me, but pierced the entirety of my being.
Two temptations emerge immediately from this comparison: the first is to equate the everyday experience with the liturgically strong moment, and the second is to relativize the liturgy in such a way as to render it unnecessary, since life provides us with the episodes we need to bow before the approach of God Almighty. I will offer a brief reflection on my sense of the comparison’s significance, but before I do, let me make it clear that the purpose of this post is to invite your reflection: what should we make of liturgical intensity, and how does it relate to ordinary, daily life?
I remember arriving at St. Mary’s for Divine Liturgy one year on Bright Monday, ready to lead the singing. Very few people attended liturgy. I never completely warmed up my voice to lead the singing. I was so tired, I could hardly move; I could not wait for the last “Amen,” to drive home and take a much-needed nap. The intensity of Holy Week and Pascha had faded, and the effect was that liturgy was an episode of “going through the motions,” on Bright Monday – the first day of the Easter Octave. My desire for liturgy to end quickly is thoroughly incompatible with what we teach about Bright Week, which is the most radiant period of joyful liturgizing on our Church calendar, the only time of the year we leave the “holy gates” of the iconostasis open to symbolize our thanksgiving for the privilege to partake of the divine life. It makes me feel a bit odd today that I could present Bright Monday as exemplifying the fullness of Paschal joy, manifest in the liturgy itself, but my own experience of that day was one of great fatigue.
In fact, the only vestige of that fatigue was the absolute chaos of the choir loft when I arrived that morning; one could almost smell our human exertion from Holy Week through the Paschal Vespers with the gently floating sheet music and leftover flowers from our procession around he Church the day before.
This memory leads me to a question: do we invest too much emphasis in certain seasons and compromise balance? Should we have a little less in the first week of Lent and Holy Week so as to leave something more for Bright Week and the season of Pentecost?
As for my conclusion, I would say only that the moments we experience of liturgical intensity are not creations of our own. They are gifts from God. And I would venture to say that we should permit those moments to pierce us in such a way that we awaken to the significance of intense and meaningful moments of everyday life. In those instances, which are also often unplanned, we can rely upon our experience of liturgical intensity to respond to our circumstances accordingly by becoming people who pray, “Lord, have mercy!”, and proclaim, “let us give thanks unto the Lord!”
What are your experiences of liturgical intensity, and what do they mean to you?