The spacious room of liturgy

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


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your observations. And in my recent experience it is not just the younger generation that is asking me to “just tell me what to do” along with a bit of explanation as to why.

  2. I have no idea what it means to “adapt and change into the Trinity”, but I hope it means something like “adapt and change by intentionally aligning our wills with the will of Divine Providence”.

    As for “tent revival meeting”, my hope is dearly not so, because I associate that, at least in its archetypal American form, with a form of worship that is primarily transiently performative and works primarily on the wavelength frequency of the false ego.

    However, give me a buzz when we have liturgy and preaching that not only are not afraid of, but actually engage, spiritual dryness and the dark nights of the soul and senses – The Desert, not The Oasis – not as aberrations to be cured, but as normal, even typical, parts of the maturing soul’s pilgrimage with Christ along The Way. (Hint, it won’t like an archetypal American tent revival.)

    1. HI Karl – I think we are on the same page with the Trinity – what I’ve heard so much of in the past couple years is bending God Almighty to accommodate our desires, rather than conforming ourselves to God and the ways of God…

  3. Thank you, Lizette, for this thought-provoking piece.

    It seems to me that anything which will get us off the liturgical autopilot is a good thing. I can’t imagine what a tent revival meeting for the eschaton would look like, but I can certainly dream of a time when “intentional liturgy” might bring us closer to Guardini’s ideal of people who are actually capable of celebrating. But it takes time to form people in that way. Our 21st-century minds, attuned to instant gratification, need to relearn the virtue of patient, quiet, consistent work to achieve lasting change and progress.

    1. Ah, thanks Paul – you point to another piece of the puzzle I think. My concern with a revival for the eschaton is that so much preaching and so much catechesis is on realized eschatology – this is all there is – that there is no ‘common goal’ toward which we are moving except for the cultural articulation of whatever makes me feel good (each of us individually)…that’s where that was going. perhaps Advent would be a great time for a (very high church) revival that this is not all there is – it is yet to be fulfilled!

  4. I am groping towards the idea that maybe we should be clearer about the difference between (as I was taught in the 1950s) the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful. The reform gave us a change of location, from Ambo to Altar, but we need also to switch at this point from a verbal/thinking mode to a worship/contemplation mode.
    P.S. I do not mean a return to a silent EP, currently for me the most “satisfying” part of the Mass is listening to, and going with, the flow of ideas in the various EPs.

    1. Interesting, I’ll need to ponder the underlying implications of this (and learn more of what you understand regarding this differentiation…)

      1. I am still very tentative about this idea, and will probably express it clumsily, but we gather round the Ambo to hear an extract from the ancestral stories (Jewish or Apostolic), to hear a song from the ancestral store, sometimes to listen to an epistle from an Apostle, to hear part of Jesus actions and teachings, to have them placed in relation to each other and in our own context by the homilist. All these require our taking in the whole flow of ideas. And these teachings are clearly narrated to us for our edification. (This expresses my rejection of a recent assertion by Dr Kwasniewski that the purpose of the readings is praise of God.) There is a clear didactic intention, expressed by ‘Mass of the Catechumens’.
        When we gather round the Altar we say we do so to offer sacrifice, of praise, of the gifts, of our oblation, and so let us stand on the threshold at the Eternal Sacrifice. We deliberately use set formulae, which allows me at least to treat it as an opportunity for Lectio Divina. I do not need to keep up with the flow, if something catches my attention I can let it linger. Were I the celebrant, I would of course not have this privelege (with the exception, particularly notable today, of Padre Pio – “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. )

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