Falling in Love

November 23, 2011

“Their Liturgy of the Hours is, at root, a symbolic act, an emulation of and a joining with the choirs in heaven who sing the praise of God unceasingly. To most people even to think of such things seems foolish, and Benedictines are well aware that their motives are easily misinterpreted, labeled as romanticist or escapist.” – Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

Anglican worship, like Benedictine worship (and Jewish temple worship in the old Testament), is meant to be a reflection of the worship in the heavenly temple. It reminds us that, in one sense, Christ lives with us on earth, but in another sense, we live with Christ in heaven.

As I have shared before, when we first started going to St. Matthews, Christian and I were intimidated by the, for lack of a better word, “other-ness” of the service. We weren’t sure when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel; the sermon was only fifteen minutes long (but extremely dense…when taking notes these days, I often find myself copying down the sermon word for word if I can keep up); the incense smelled strange; the order of the liturgy was hard to track with.

From the first Sunday, we knew we had a decision to make: either decide to conform to this somewhat-foreign way of doing things, or find a different church. And of course, conforming for conforming’s sake is no good; when we decided to go to St. Matthews, we knew we had a lot of work to do. We feel (and the church encourages) a responsibility to learn why the service is structured the way it is, and where its traditions came from. We’re just at the beginning of the process.

But in the mean time, we have been participating in the service. And while we still fumble around a lot (Christian usually says the liturgy a lot louder than I do, so his mess-ups always make for a good laugh…just a few weeks ago he accidentally chimed in on the priest-only section and it was a hoot), we find that we are learning just as much (if not more) by participating in the service as we are by going to Inquirer’s class.

One of the hardest parts of participating is learning the liturgy. Christian and I follow along in the Book of Common Prayer, and though we have a good idea of the order these days, we still get confused with page-turning every now and then. Learning when to pause and when to speed up has been really helpful in the memorization process; it reminds me a lot of reading poetry.  There is something so meaningful and life-giving in speaking the Creeds, the Confession, the Thanksgiving out loud in community.

Kathleen Norris says,

To say or sing the psalms out loud within a community is to recover religion as an oral tradition, restoring to our mouths words that have been snatched from our tongues and relegated to the page, words that have been privatized and effectively silenced.

Now, to be honest, I’m a big fan of  “privatization” when it comes to most things. For example, I would rather spend hours researching something on my own than have a discussion about it. Sure, this is partly because I’m introverted and love time alone, but it’s also because I’m impatient and proud. Similarly, I would rather sit back in a service taking notes (and inwardly analyzing every theological point within a sermon) than participate myself. And this is one of those preferences I have learned to deny, because I really think it is rooted in selfishness.

Learning to actively participate in a service–to say the words, to concentrate in the silence, to approach the altar–has been a rich, perspective-altering experience. Exactly how it is changing me is something hard to articulate.

Kathleen Norris (can you tell I like her? also, hers is really the only personal-preference-book I have time to read these days) talks about a conversation she had with a Benedictine woman who compared liturgy to falling in love, because

“You don’t enter knowing the depths. It’s a relationship you live with until you begin to understand it.

I have only touched the surface of liturgical worship, but I am already beginning to recognize the truth of this statement. I wish I was ready to write about the importance of liturgy, but right now it’s too abstract in my own mind. I know that it is good for my soul, but I can’t say much more than that yet.

Last week Father Scarlett compared liturgy to dancing: they are both highly scripted, but can become almost intuitive over time.

Well, let’s just say I’m not a natural dancer…the self-consciousness is still very present, though its gradually fading. I told Christian last week that every time he or I says the wrong thing a little to loudly or speaks at the wrong time in a service, I picture an over-eager runner wiping out and scraping his face on the track (in an America’s Funniest Home Videos way, not in a facial-reconstruction-surgery-required way). Hopefully some day the mistakes wont break my focus, but for now I’m working on stifling my giggles.

Absurd acts

November 2, 2011

Monks and poets both value image and symbol over utilitarian purpose or the bottom line; they recognize the transformative power hiding in the simplest things, and it leads them to commit absurd acts: the poem! the prayer! What nonsense! … Maybe monks and poets know, as Jesus did when a friend, in an extravagant, loving gesture, bathed his feet in nard, an expensive, fragrant oil, and wiped them with her hair, that the symbolic act matters.

-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

The symbolic act matters. I don’t know if I would have agreed with that statement 2 or 3 years ago. But more and more, I am learning that I need the symbolic act—the kneeling in worship, the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine—to help me see. My heart sometimes needs some nudging from my knees or my hands, and it is this connection between body and mind that I didn’t really used to buy. Maybe I thought I was beyond it? That these symbols—so tangible and obvious—were too blatant, or maybe too simple and child-like?

But now, I love these symbols—the Eucharist, the laying of hands and anointing with oil—and I need them. I know myself more…I know that I am easily distracted, that I need to be reminded, that I don’t understand yet. Sacraments are, in a sense, “extensions of the Incarnation into the present.” God communicates His invisible grace through visible symbols…grace  I receive regardless of how I feel, because I receive the bread with my hands, and the wine with my lips.

And when I learn to cherish the sacraments, to receive them with the wonder of a child, I start to see the world around me differently. I start to notice other visible signs of invisible grace, imperfect but still whispering Christ’s presence. And I know one reason Kathleen Norris compares the poet with the monk: both see life steeped in metaphor. If, as G.K. Chesterton suggests, “everything is stooping and hiding a face,” then metaphor is necessary.

This week in Inquirer’s class, Father Scarlett reminded us that, in the world to come, there will not be sacraments because the whole creation will, once again, be a perfect sacrament…including me.

When I am quiet enough to see well, I remember that, even now, “each Christian is a sacramental person, a sign of Christ’s presence and a mediator of grace.” If I let it, this can change my interactions with my housemates, my boyfriend, my teachers. I can recognize and receive grace from them, and pray that moments of frustration  become opportunities for me to give grace.

Of course, this hasn’t proved easy—its not one of those things that I can learn simply by praying one of those sweeping prayers in the morning (is anything?). It’s a moment by moment learning, a too-rushed prayer, and I choose anger more than I want to.

Transformation is a slow process and grace is hard to learn, but the sacraments are offered week after week, and grace is promised each moment.