Remembering, Societas Liturgica Style

Along with two hundred other liturgists from around the church catholic and the globe, I was part of the Congress of Societas Liturgica (5-10 August 2019), held at Durham, England. Like many academic conferences, Societas Liturgica is thematic, and this year was focused on memory, entitled Anamnesis: Remembering in Action, Space and Time. The six plenaries and large number of juried shorter papers looked at contemporary and historical issues in these three arenas of memory: liturgical texts and actions, architecture and places of memory, and theological issues of eschatology and the liturgical year.  The six plenary presentations were a good reflection on the advantage of hearing the voices of others. Not only is the conference trilingual (French, German, and English), and ecumenical, its diversity is a good reminder that we often work locally as far as language and denomination. It’s good to get out and hear some other perspectives and learn what others are reading and confronting in their pastoral situations. The opening talk was by the president, Joris Geldhof (Leuven), who offered a sweeping paper to which speaker after speaker in the following days referenced and made connectionss with. Focused on “how is liturgy in the world?”, Geldhof’s paper was titled “Penetration-Permeation-Fermentation: ponderings on the being of liturgy and its memorial modes.” The first mode of penetration was built on the action of the incarnation – that “electric shock” of God become flesh who continually fills us with light and life. His second category, permeation, used the imagery of one “substance seeping into or oozing through another one.” This long term process is then applied to the interaction between the internal and external, in which the “exterior cult necessarily includes” or seeps into the interior cult,” creating and recreating the church as a true society of charity and liturgy. His third mode, fermentation, is a “quality of permeation…a slow infusion of one substance in another…which effectuates something upon it.” Using the imagery of bread baking – specifically comparing sourdough and yeast, Geldhof brought the baking process and eucharistic bread back around to the fermentation of liturgy with the sanctifying Trinity.  

A briefer look at the other five plenaries reveals the breadth and depth of the field of liturgy in 2019. John Maddison (London) presented the gathering with an overview of English medieval architecture and how the cult of saints reshaped and re-oriented church buildings, including Durham Cathedral where we gathered. St. Cuthbert’s shrine was rebuilt several times to be a place of intimate prayer and the highpoint of pilgrimage through the building, allowing both theatre and mystery in personal pilgrimage and at the great festivals.  Mabvuto Felix Phiri (Nairobi) brought an extraordinary perspective to the political and spiritual damage done in suppressing hurt memories with first hand knowledge of the Rwandan genocide in his paper “Re-membering in Action: Liturgy and Healing of Hurt Memories.” In the political move to put the past behind, silence (or suppressed memories) has hindered any real recognition and forgiveness, both essential to the health of individuals and communities. Phiri argues that “ritual [is] a necessary tool in learning the craft of forgiveness and bestowing healing” because “ritual has the capacity to reach both to the emotional and behavioral dimensions of a human person at the same time.” Also addressing the memories of trauma as part of identity, Jessica Ortner (Copenhagen) took a “literary-critical approach to the phenomenon of memory” in her address on “Memory between Locality and Mobility – Diaspora, Holocaust and Exile as reflected in contemporary German-Jewish litereature.” Ortner noted that as the last generation of Jewish Holocaust survivors are dying, new ways of holding memories are necessary. Literature has been able to address the “delocalization of the cultural memory” by tracing first the exclusion of practicing Jews from the larger community because of their religion, and then their exclusion in the 20th century because of cultural background regardless of religious practice. The contemporary Jewish experiences of hybridity and mobility beg for different approaches to telling the story of one’s family history.

The remaining three plenaries were also unique one from another. Bruce Morrill (Nashville) gave words to the often elusive task of defining liturgical memory by using an elaborate scheme of models within models (“Models of Liturgical Memory: mystcal-political dimensions, mythic-historic tensions”) He first explained why both memory and liturgy are “so resistant to theoretical explanation”, and then approached the issues through the “familial model” (in which the nuclear family creates a set of assumption about the image of the church in which “making memories”…is  about “the present moment that honor the memory of past members…”) His second model, the “Crisis model” was particularly helpful in the second sub-group, apocalyptic, as he spoke about the “primary social body” actually being the “individual believer in his or her agency as judge…in relation to the final divine judgment,” an ecclesial reality that is often beyond the experiences of many professionals in the field of liturgy. This was followed by the “Reenactment-Representational Model” in which the “dramatizations of biblical stories within their liturgies” allows the contemporary community to actually shape the “realistic imagery of key figures and biblical events from the past” in a controlling and narrow way. These models are ultimately tested against the final “anamnestic model” and its “dynamic relationship between past, present, and future.” Here for many of us was the “normative theological” model but the comparison against the other models articulated differences that many of us had not reflected on. 

Morrill’s paper was followed by that of Sr. Benedicte Mariolle (Paris) on “Funerals as paschal remembrance and incorporation into the risen Christ.” Here in particular was that valuable insight into what is going on pastorally in different cultures and languages,  so different and yet so familiar at its foundation. Mariolle reported on the 2016 survey across the Roman Catholic dioceses of France to find out how attitudes to death had changed, how that affected the practical aspects of “funerals”, and finally, what were the actual “forms of rituality” being practiced in parish and non-parish funerals. She presented clearly the theological (and therefore ritual) priorities of the death of a Christian and compared them with the over-inculturated practices that focus not on Christ but the individual, not on the Word of God but on personal choices, and not on the presence of the body but on the desire to not confront death. Lastly, a paper by Stefano Parenti (Rome) was read: “Between Anamnesis and Praise: The Origin of Oblation in Syro-Byzantine Anaphoras.” His paper was narrowly focused on textual issues in Syriac anaphorae, which contrasted with the breadth of topics in several of the earlier papers. It was a fine study of the “missing” offertory formula explored through anaphoral texts and secondary patristic writing about the prayers. This writer found the final paper particularly interesting because it represented so much of liturgical textual historical work that was the norm for many years of Societas Liturgica and has now become one approach – and often the less-travelled road – of the increasingly multi-disciplinary field we call liturgical studies. 

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