Recent Pray Tell posts have focused on amazing announcements in ecumenical agreement, or on encouraging changes in leadership with great potential for those of us interested in liturgy, or on personal stories that alone would grip our hearts, but because the writer can take them and understand the experiences, we are brought to new heights of compassion and wisdom in faith.
This is not one of those posts. Rather, I invite you to wander with me through what seem like disconnected topics, but which I think are actually connected – perhaps even mutually informative. They have arisen from personal participation this year in many conferences focused on liturgy and the pandemic; a challenging (in the best way) conversation about inclusion of differently-abled people in liturgy (from someone who is far more an expert than myself); and a return to parish ministry – you know, encounters with real people. Fair warning here at the beginning, there is no answer at the end…
So first, what have we learned in returning to in-person liturgy?
For those of us only back a couple months, there is still high anxiety that this may not continue – liturgy is now above all a tentative experience in which the pattern of the seasons, the sequence of lectionary readings, and preparations for upcoming feasts seem beyond our ability to grasp. There is this Sunday, and maybe not next Sunday, so we’ll focus on the moment. The reality of potential new COVID explosions seems to have made us less focused on the past and less sure of the future. Right now we can receive communion, right now we’d best not have coffee at coffee hour – perhaps next week we will not even be able to gather.
I heard someone preach on the virtue of hope a couple weeks ago, it is a wonderful image, but either because of self-protection against repeated disappointments, or simple spiritual exhaustion, a lack of hope in concrete small progress has seemingly also rendered us mute regarding eschatological hope.
Second, a number of very talented people have spoken and written on liturgy and autism recently, or liturgy inclusive of a wide variety of people with different ways of hearing and expressing themselves and their relationship with God. I’ve been part of a couple conversations and have been challenged on a couple of my assumptions and questions. My questions draw from personal experiences, but also go back to last February and what probably seems like yet another very different conversation. That was an ongoing conversation with young faithful Christians in their 20s and early 30s who expressed great frustration with ‘baby boomers’ who want everyone to be personally invited to do things their own way at liturgy – ‘what ever is comfortable for you,’ rather than ‘just tell us what to do at this point in the liturgy so that we can all do it together.’ That conversation, and now very present reiterations of it as undergraduate and graduate university students come back to parish liturgies this month, has led to recent conversations on ritual and transcendence.
A recent essay through the John Templeton Foundation focused on transcendence and awe (“How Awe Transforms Us from the Outside In”). The authors centred on two concepts of what creates awe in people. The first is a “perceived vastness” – the sense that something is so large, so other, it shrinks us to “the small self” or the “right-sized self”. The other element creating awe is the recognition of the “need for accommodation,” to expand our boundaries, to respond differently because of this vastness (“awe turns our gaze outward and upward”).
While the work of psychologists, not theologians, the Templeton research is consistent with what I’m encountering with younger adults in their search for liturgy. They want an event, a happening, a spacious room, a liturgy bigger than themselves in which to enter. What has this to do with the broader topic of liturgy and the disabled? That conversation has often focused on the power of ritual and repetition. It seems there is no better summary than a line from the hit TV series “Call the Midwives”, in which Sister Monica Joan says “the liturgy is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts, the words are aligned, like a rope for us to cling to.”
It is not far off from the work of those who argue that repetitive ritual is of tremendous help to those who cope with ADHD, a consistent ritual to assist the disorganized mind. Sometimes these two groups cross over, other times they are different (and there are many other different needs), sometimes it is theologians and philosophers who argue for the same thing. Catherine Pickstock has written that “the ritual world creates stability in the midst of the ‘chaotic quotidian’…another world (polis) to which the worshipper can flee…” (“Liturgy and Language: the sacred polis”, woven into Léon van Ommen’s fine work on “Ritual Repetition”).
How is the transcendent entered into if the liturgy stops and starts by telling us what to do next, or by telling jokes, or by doing something other than the ritual says is next, or is too full of noise and distractions? How can we turn “our gaze outward and upward” when we seem to be in a shopping centre, or leaderless, or directionless? And conversely, there are those in liturgy who miss all that noise and activity, and find Sunday liturgies too quiet to draw them in. The issues of ritual and transcendence, of entering into that ‘spacious room’ of eucharistic liturgy, are not shaped or experienced in the same way by different participants – whether they be differently abled, have children who are not quiet, are in different generations, or any number of other differences.
And this brings us to the third conversation partner, the teacher that pastoral reality can be. Perhaps both philosophers and sociologists of religion are pointing us to similar concerns. Pickstock, in describing the necessity of liturgy to be “stylized” (to have a “predetermined character”), argues that primarily this plays out in the commonality of liturgy based on its common goal. “The intentions and feelings of individuals are subordinate to the ‘common telos of the polis.’”
Sociologists of religion have argued that our overwhelming culture of the self is the primary element impeding actual corporate liturgy. “Ontological individualism” is, in the minds of many, responsible for the loss of eschatological urgency – the common goal – the “telos of the polis.” Vincent Miller argues that what has replaced the common goal of eschatological urgency is the assumption “that self-realization was the largest aim of human experience…” In all our diversity, toward what are we moving?
How do these oddly disjunct reflections begin to weave together? As the tentative first encounters with the church building and doing liturgy together are accomplished, the unarticulated sense of what is needed is perhaps that we have been asking too little, rather than too much, of our liturgical communities. To be stretched and pulled and reshaped into the “we” of the parish and separated from our well-learned patterns of individualism and isolation may take some ritual thinking.
But temporally we need a re-boot too. Perhaps behind the generational differences and the need for silence (or noise) for ‘real’ transcendent liturgy something else might actually be required, a tent revival meeting for the eschaton. What I have learned from parishioners in recent weeks is that we need to pray through the omnipresent daily global disasters toward the Holy One calling us to adapt and change into the Trinity, rather than praying for God to adapt to us, to change for us.
Who are we? Where are we going? How are we getting there? What was the point of all this? We’ve been gone for a while, time to remind ourselves of the heart of the matter.
Featured image: Salisbury cathedral ceiling