Again and again let us pray to the Lord
As many Christians return to corporate celebrations of morning prayer, evening prayer, eucharist and other sacramental rites (while others of us still wait for that day), those particularly interested in the meaning of liturgical practice have shifted conversations. Many questions now begin from how best to worship the living God (never a guarantee of safety) most safely in a world still immersed in a pandemic. From the meaning of virtual liturgies and online community to music without breathing, communion without touching, and togetherness without nearness, the temporary and shifting world of figuring out how to pray together with these new and changing challenges dominates the thoughts, practices, and shared insights of many.
There is another conversation of some length now, which while probably still premature, has been underway for some time. This set of concerns centres on the question of the lasting effects of COVID-19 on our worshiping lives and selves. What will we have learned? What will we have lost? What will we have gained? Not unlike the sometimes painful but necessary work of contemporary medical ethics experiencing, reflecting, and articulating on what new medical technologies mean for the church, liturgy in a time of pandemic will best require some distance to make sense of how we have been changed. What this is all leading to here is the importance of repetition in liturgy.
In the past seventy years, prodded by the gifts of those immersed in the social sciences, we have articulated for new generations why repetition is key to the way we pray alone and with others, particularly in the insights regarding what repetition in ritual actions, standardized prayer texts, and movement do to us. We move from reading something (or hearing something) external to our very being, to incorporating it into our very selves, knowing it ‘by heart’ – doing prayer with the ‘ears of our heart.’ The ritual actions and words and stylized engagement with others become a part of us in the realm of habitus. Sociologists tell us that habitus are things we do and say and inhabit which are socially passed on (and ‘social’ can be civic society, religious and educational institutions, families, friends or other constructs of an identifiable group) which become ingrained in us to the extent that they continue “in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them.” (cited in Z. Navarro (2006) ‘In Search of Cultural Interpretation of Power’, IDS Bulletin 37, 16). The aspect I find most interesting is that while habitus is a socially formed imprinting on both the group and individual, it stays with the individual as they change settings, sometimes adapting to new contexts (and sometimes inadvertently). I suspect many of us have seen the brief Facebook video of a young man walking into a store, sanitizing his hands at the dispenser next to the entrance, and then genuflecting before picking up his shopping cart. His body recognized a door, a ‘font’ and a socially shaped ritual of entrance – his brain forgot that he was entering the grocery store, not the parish church.
Ritual repetition is a key pattern by which we participate in the work of liturgy, giving outward expression to what we know to be true, that through our baptismal grafting we cannot not participate in the body of Christ – it is who we are ontologically, in our very being. And so, as the outward expression of inner realities (St. Ambrose’ sacramental definitions of mysterion and sacramentum) or any of our modern definitions of sacrament, repetition is crucially important to how we are shaped by corporate prayer and ritual sacramental encounter. The misguided approach to liturgy as needing to always be something new – the tyranny of the ‘new and improved’ consumerist approach – is something other than the essence of liturgy.
But in a seemingly counter-intuitive way, it is ritual/liturgical repetition which immerses us in what so easily confounds us – the “remembering our future” of sacramental worship, particularly in the “source and summit” which is the eucharistic event. Our worship is rooted in what will be fulfilled, and yet it is always incomplete. The necessity of repetition is there to embody the liturgy as rehearsal for what will be completion and fulness. By its very pattern of constantly beginning again, repetition both reminds us that this is not “it” – this is not the fullness of encounter with God, the fulness of participation, the fulness of presence – all of that is yet to come. In language parallel to theatre and literature, Peter Larkin writes that “the liturgical rite is a series of recommencements, a song for the occasion of a journey, or the threshold of a destination, not a final closure.” (see Literature and Theology 21 (2007) 154.) At the same time, verbal and non-verbal repetition links us to the ‘once and for all’ event (the historical event) that established the desire of ritual return. It is ‘always the first time’ in newness because of the repetitive patterning. The life-giving tension of “already and not yet” compels us to enter into the liturgy again and again, recognizing in our response to God’s initiative an eschatological metaphysical reality; “not yet, and indeed never” with regard to our liturgical rehearsal between the historical event and its culmination. This, our best but never complete offering, offered again and again, will never be the heavenly banquet – it is the reflection, the partial participation, the anticipation, the proleptic undertaking of the “not yet.” (see Walter Knowles, “A Method in Their Praxis” Worship 88 (2014) 363).
Having seemingly wandered far from the ramifications of liturgy in a time of pandemic, let me restore this focus on repetition to a more practical (and pastoral) realm by putting two realities side-by-side. Reality one: repetition is essential to liturgy; reality two: embodied repetition is challenged by online liturgies and by the pattern of prayer as worshiping communities emerge from solely online to gathering together in the same place. The centrality of repetition in practice and theology is challenged because we cannot do things the way we did them (for those who have the joy of gathering together to worship). We cannot touch things, receive things, express things, share things in the same way – so patterns of repetition begin to shift. But in the long eucharistic famine (a famine of the gathered community still ongoing for many), what are the repetitive patterns of prayer which have sustained our parishioners? Here, in an informal and ongoing survey, I have found that before the pandemic, many people had already decided (chosen to make room for?) no more than a monthly attendance at mass. With other distractions at a minimum, these same Christians began in March and April with weekly online attendance but did not sustain it. In addition, those who do ‘attend’ an online liturgy weekly often move around, sampling morning prayer from Ireland, evening prayer from New Zealand, and Eucharist from England (or the cathedral, or the parish down the street…) Another pattern emerging in my informal survey is even more fractured: a homily from here, the eucharistic rite from another, the communion music from a third – because they have a socially distanced choir in a huge building. We will, in that longer and more thoughtful reflection on what liturgy in a pandemic has done to us, undoubtedly see rather disturbing patterns of a new consumerism of liturgical product emerge, as well as understand what these patterns will do to us in returning.
On multiple and simultaneous levels, how has the essential element of repetition in liturgy been challenged and changed? As with any use of a classic rite of passage, the individual or the community at the end of the process is never the same as when they began (separation-liminality-reincorporation is not a fixed circle). When we reincorporate liturgically, we will be different than when we were in the middle of March. But what will we be? How will we be changed? Will people charge back to church, filling up the space with a sigh of relief and a return to the patterns of ritual communication missing from their lives? Will our communities be sparser – many having realized that they survived without liturgy (on the surface) and can continue in that way? How has repetition as a liturgical essential sustained us? How will repetition be expressed and allowed to re-create what has been lost (or support what is perhaps brand new to others) as the body of Christ emerges into material reality once again?