Be still and know…

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.


  1. Beautiful reflection on the importance of the non-verbal and the gestural in fostering and sustaining liturgical prayerfulness, Mr. Inwood.

    I was actually just having a similar conversation with an organ student this afternoon, who is currently learning to accompany the service music. She knows to lift between the introduction and the entrance, to cue the breath, but loses confidence in that moment and abbreviates the breath drastically, rushing into the acclamation.

    I told her, “If you communicate relaxation and confidence in your playing, the assembly will pick it up. If you are anxious or hurried or tense, it will also reflect in the quality of their singing.” I think the same principle applies to liturgical movement.

    If the ceremonies are hurried, if the ministers seem awkward, unsure, and insecure, that will communicate to the gathered assembly. Likewise the converse is true.

    Thanks again for the insightful post.

  2. Paul,

    For what it’s worth, I mention that concept at our liturgical minister trainings on a regular basis. In particular, when we train the Altar Servers in our parish, the first thing I talk about in their training is “liturgical invisibility” and how this relates to both reverence and generosity to those around them. I give several examples of how movement draws attention and how one of our jobs is to keep the congregation (and ourselves) focused on Christ in the current liturgical moment. Since parents often attend, I try to solicit their help in providing feedback to their kids about when they are fidgety and unable to keep still (usually while kneeling during the consecration). Even so, some kids either don’t realize what they are doing or may not be able to completely control it due to medical issues, so it’s always a process with maturity level playing a part as well.

    Excellent observations. Many people don’t realize how big of an impact this can have on a parishioner’s concentration, especially if he/she is seated directly behind a fidgeting Server!

  3. “If you move slowly and deliberately, people will believe you know what you’re doing and they don’t have to watch to make sure you know your job.” Worked with youngsters. Still works with adults.

    This makes me grateful for the parish that doesn’t rush from one setting to the next, but takes time to let the Liturgy unfold.

  4. I am in complete agreement with you on this issue. I have mentioned this more than once to the music ministry at every church I have worked. We are not here to “sing”, we are here to pray. I have always refused to hire outside of the parish when the custom was to employ paid cantors. They never understood their role as ministers or members of the assembly.
    But lately… I have been flabbergasted by the lack of attention and prayerful demeanor by the musicians who are members of the parish. The constant side comments and shuffling about to find the next song or adjust microphones is making me crazy.
    I started the habit of no rehearsing any selections 15 minutes before mass. Lots of people come in late and frantically need to “go over” something. My response is “No, what you need to do is sit quietly and reflect.”
    I also think the scripted periods of silence in a liturgy need to be honored. Everyone should be aware of why they are where they are. A deliberate awareness of the flow that should happen in all of our liturgies helps control the physical movement.

  5. Thanks, Paul. I always look forward to anything with your name attached. Please keep these posts coming – informative, stimulating and, in the best sense, entertaining.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly… and (not but), at the very same time, this reflection points to the need for each of us to cultivate the discipline of focused attention, which is certainly under siege in our time & place, both in & outside a liturgical context (see, e.g., the pull of our iPhones & the demands of multi-tasking, which constantly fragment our attention).

    I suppose that my only reservation with this piece is this: Yes, we are right to encourage each other to be mindful of how we move in liturgical space… and, in addition to summoning others to be unobtrusive, we would do well to summon our own selves to cultivate spiritual disciplines that promote attention & focus. (It’s always easier to see the speck in the other’s eye). Contemplative prayer, among others, is an excellent school for the discipline of focused attention. It’s deeply helpful in “tuning out” distractions, and it translates very easily to liturgical prayer, where we can focus on the voices of brothers & sisters joined in prayer with our own voice.

  7. Paul, A beautiful and great reflection. Growing up, the pastor who taught me how to serve worked hard on helping us to have “good liturgical/or sanctuary feet.” We were able to “dance the dance” and not be noticed by timing our movements and moving within the actions of other things happening. (ie. Slipping out the side to get torches and incense for the Gospel procession as the psalmist was walking up) Those good habits have stayed with me over the years. Now, as an emcee for various Liturgies across our Diocese I always work with the servers beforehand on thinking of their movements and planning ahead for how to make them.

    In College seminary, my organ professor, Liturgical Theologian, and friend Katie Harmon always told us the number one rule: “Thou shalt not distract the faithful.” The humor drove home the point.

    In Major seminary now, I find that our Director of Liturgy and others not only model a good presider style, but men recieve feedback on their movement and actions in the Sanctuary, not only when they serve but also when they do “practice Masses or preach” that are filmed and discussed. We recieve lessons in class and every so often via email on a good “ars celebrandi” and what we should strive toward.

    For those of us who tend to be a little more OCD, or detailed oriented in Liturgy, we notice things like the server in the parish who forgets to take the stopper out of the cruet, the swinging feet of a minister on a bench, Father digging through his side table drawer hunting for the long-gone last coughdrop, among other things. They distract us but I think they also serve as reminders of the imperfect-nature of our Liturgy this side of Heaven, the goals we have to work towards, and internal resolutions to do better ourselves.

  8. There are good examples of presiding. Back in the early 1980s I was at a Salford Diocesan Ordination presided over by Bishop Patrick Kelly (later Archbishop of Liverpool). He sat centrally and was very visible. He paid very close attention to what was happening in the service. When the lessons were read he looked attentively at the reader so that if you looked at him you felt clearly but gently directed to the what was then happening – he could have been pointing!

  9. The worst are the big pontifical ceremonies with what looks like three MC’s. No minister can perfrom their function without being escorted to the right place and then having an MC hovering nearby to make certain that they do it “right.” That’s what rehearsalsd are for!

  10. Imagine a play during which the director was walking around the stage making certain that the actors wer doing things “right.”

  11. Liturgical ministers, both ordained and lay, need to understand the non-verbal elements of liturgy. These include proper timing and graceful, unhurried movements. A priest who is ungainly in his gestures or movements is a distraction, as is a priest who starts prayers or moves to the next part of the Mass before the assembly is ready. A priest who does this is really saying to the assembly, ‘I haven’t time to wait for you; I’m getting on with “my” Mass’.

    I’ve served for over 30 years as a reader in a cathedral. Here are some things we do that illustrate what Mr Inwood is talking about:

    In our cathedral, the readers have reserved places in the front pew of the transept, about 15 feet from the ambo. This arrangement enables the readers to move to and from the ambo unobtrusively and with a minimum of delay.

    After the Collect, the first reader waits till the priest is seated before approaching the ambo. On arriving at the ambo, the reader waits till the assembly is seated and still before announcing the reading.

    After the homily, the deacon (if present) moves unobtrusively to a position behind a pillar and waits there, out of sight to the assembly, until the end of the Creed. He then moves forward to the ambo to read the General Intercessions.

    And yes, ‘sacred silence’ is part of our liturgy. Why are we afraid of it?

  12. Two things:

    – A phrase that a former work colleague would always use is “move expeditiously, yet reverently.”

    – and a vent: the indirect effect of filling the silence with the clacking of shoes on church floor. At my parish, this often happens when the psalmist is moving from the music area to the ambo. It happens so often that the accompanist has begun to fill in the “silence” with an interlude as she/he walks from the ambo. I can understand that this musical interlude might be well intended, but again – why are we afraid of silence and why does one need to stomp? (No need to reprise the psalm refrain instrumentally…after a fermata of sorts.)

    Now, I’m not the parish liturgist, nor on the worship committee (I am just part of the assembly), but I have brought it up to the pastor and music director. So far, nothing has been done. And so, we still have musical interludes between readings to accompany the psalmist. (And the parish uses a majority of hosts from the tabernacle…but that’s another vent for another time.) 😀

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