Liturgy: Praxis & Pistis

A record of the evolving understanding of Christian liturgy by an ordinary Christian who came to faith among the 20th Century great-grandsons of Ulrich Zwingli. Having left his cradle faith for more sacramental and liturgical climes (yet, still within classic Protestanism), Brother Quotidian seeks to understand the impact of liturgy on Christian spirituality and maturity, and to engage the critical comments, suggestions, and contributions to his quest from others he encounters on the same road.

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Location: North Texas, United States

A Christian since 1970, married since 1981, four-time father; vocational Christian minister; and, currently a priest in the United Anglican Church.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Lessons in Liturgy from Dancing

At the end of the previous blog entry, I offered a question – how can a bona fide unity during worship happen for us unless corporate worship is something very like marching, or dancing? The answer, of course, is that something very like marching, or dancing, is required if one is to experience that kind of unity with others, whether in worship or any other enterprise where such unity is sought.

This is no mystery. People have been marching and dancing for millennia, individually and in groups. It is the latter kind of marching or dancing that interests us, for people can march individually (e.g. what you see soldiers doing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC, or at a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace), and people can dance individually, even if they are in the midst of a dancing crowd when doing so. In fact, the kind of dancing you’re most apt to see in a night club these days is that kind of dancing – the dancing which has all the unity of the pile of raked leaves. Yes, everyone’s out there on the floor, writhing, jerking, twisting, or quivering in some vague synchronization to a heavy beat blaring from megawatt speakers in the ceiling. But no one is doing the same dance, exactly the same dance, or their part in an orchestrated dance where each member has a part determined by the whole dance which unifies the dancers.

It is this latter kind of dancing that is comparable to the liturgy of worship. And, the first person to point this out to me was C. S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer. In the very first chapter of that little book, Lewis writes this:

It looks as if [Anglican clergymen] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favor of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain -many give up church going altogether-merely endure.

Is this simply because the majority are hidebound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only entertainment value. And they don't go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament or repent or supplicate or adore. And it enables us to do these things best - if you like, it 'works' best - when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God.

There is much that could be unpacked in these comments, and I will no doubt return to them in later blogging (Malcom is the best simple primer on the liturgical mindset I’ve yet run across for popular readers). For now, I’ll merely point to the ways in which worship liturgy and dancing are alike.

Like dancing, liturgy subordinates our individuality to something greater than ourselves. This ought to be a no-brainer, but I mention it first to make a couple of points.

First, liturgy demands a subordination of the individual to the aims and actions of the group if the individual is to participate in the liturgy. Of course, you may attend a liturgy and not subordinate yourself to it. This was true for me the first time I entered an Episcopal church Rite One liturgy. You may attend a Viennese Ball and also not participate in that. Your presence is required for the liturgy (or the Viennese Ball), but your presence guarantees nothing about your participation.

To say that the liturgy “demands” your subordination does not signal coercion. No one is going to compel me to tread on the dance floor when I show up at the Plumber’s Ball in Vienna during Ball Season. In fact, I had better not go out onto the dance floor if I am not there to join the dance. Church liturgies are more gracious in this respect. It is perfectly acceptable to remain in your pew as a spectator while the others are joined in the liturgy.

Like dancing, liturgy does not obliterate the need for individual action. Said another way, liturgy (and dancing) are participatory – you must do something to participate in either. You can’t just sit (or stand) there. Even when the participants are simply sitting there (as, for example, during a sermon), their participation amounts to attending to the sermon. A dull sermonizer may cause you some difficulty, to be sure. It may be difficult to follow someone’s thought when it is wandering and incoherent (same for a woman following a clumsy male partner in a waltz). Or, the preacher may actually commit the equivalent to a dancer’s stepping on his partner’s toes, or guiding her into a passing table or chair.

Doing something with someone (or a whole lot of someones) always entails the potential for discombobulation when one of the someones does not deliver his part in a timely or competent manner. The point: everyone has some part to play, and if anyone’s part is not played well the net result will be a diminishing of the joint effort (whether it be worship, or dancing).

Like dancing, liturgy requires active and constant engagement by the worshipper. Not only must you do something in liturgy (or dancing, or marching), you must pay attention to what you are doing. You cannot sleep; you cannot let yourself multi-task on a psychological level, unless you want to embarrass not only yourself, but also many others. I mention this because some who don’t know what they’re talking about will criticize liturgy as dull and boring, as if it were done by robots. “Dead, dull liturgy” is the nasty name given to those who are worshipping liturgically by those who do not know how to worship at all. It’s like a man with no feet mocking the complex patterns of a marching band, or the elaborate intricacies of a Baroque minuet.

Like dancing, liturgy creates something greater than the sum of its parts. This is, perhaps, hard to appreciate unless you’ve participated in a dance that unites its members in something bigger than themselves. It doesn’t take a membership in a Metropolitan Ballet Company production to experience this. Square dancing, done well, shows the same dynamic. Even something so simple (and often so silly) as line dancing at a Country and Western Saloon will give you a hint of what I’m talking about here. Or, precise close-order drill on a military parade ground. Or, marching in the high school or college band during a half-time show. Watching these things will never substitute for being one of the marchers, or dancers, or worshippers.

Like dancing, liturgy enhances one’s own private experience. This principle of liturgy “works” only for those who know the liturgy so well that their attention is not wholly occupied with keeping themselves engaged. As Lewis put it, if you need to think every second where to put your foot next, you are not yet dancing – you are, instead, learning to dance, or practicing the dance you’ve learned. But, once the steps are known, known so well that your body fairly flows from one step to the next, then one may focus on one’s dancing partner. Or, on God (in the case of worshipping through a liturgy).

This principle (known by all good dancers, and all good worshippers) explodes the anti-liturgical myth that liturgy suffocates individual experience. Liturgy can be fun for exactly the same reasons dancing can be fun. Or, liturgy can stir your soul and reduce you to tears of grief (at your sins), or gratitude (for God’s grace), or joy (at the communion with God Himself). “Cold, dead worship” is another one of the canards bandied by those who do not know how to worship when speaking of those who worship liturgically.

I served as a chalice bearer for many years in Episcopal Eucharists. These occasions allowed me to survey the faces and deduce the demeanor of literally thousands of worshippers as they approach the Lord’s Table. I cannot recall ever seeing anyone I thought to be bored. A sizeable minority seemed genuinely shaken, or burdened by a weight of something which showed clearly in their faces, what old-time Baptist evangelists might have deduced as evidence that the man or woman was “under conviction.” Many more looked to be quietly joyous. Tears were not uncommon at all.

Speaking of tears, when my wife and I first began attending an Episcopal Church, we soon began to rate the services in terms of the number of tissues we used to wipe our eyes and to blow our noses. A three-hankie Sunday was pretty intense, and we experienced a few four and five hankie Sundays at the beginning. Why? My wife and I are not known to be emotional people in public. We’re not “criers” when we feel something strongly.

The best explanation I can offer is to compare ourselves at the beginning of our participation in liturgical worship to someone out-of-shape who joins an aerobics and calisthenics class at the YMCA. Nothing you do in that class is extraordinarily athletic; but, if you are out of shape, doing these unremarkable things gives you aches and pains in places where you didn’t know you had places. In general, strong emotion will make you cry when your spirit is too weak to sustain the emotional impact of some event. Tears are a kind of safety valve, a way to bleed off a dangerous excess of emotional response – and, any emotion can produce such tears. We may cry at excessive joy as well as from excessive fear, or anxiety, or grief, or gratitude, or (paradoxically) from excessive relief. Lift a crushing weight of guilt from a sinner and he will likely cry – not because it “hurts” to be forgiven, but because he is unaccustomed to the welter of emotions that attend a certain pardon from things lying on his conscience, things which he fears may sometime see the light of day.

Liturgy does not suppress emotion. Rather, liturgy generates emotion by the way it focuses the worshipper’s attention on any number of divinely sanctioned truths, and applies those truths to the worshipper’s own soul and situation. The result is frequently emotional, sometimes massively so.

Like dancing, liturgy creates the occasion for truly individual expression. Again, good dancers will know this, and even those who merely observe dancing will see that this is true. The best dancer is the one who never misses a single step or beat, and whose movement through the dance is festooned with small details idiosyncratic to the dancer himself.

C. S. Lewis, in fact, used the word “festoon” to describe how set prayers – those things which the cramped anti-liturgical soul thinks to be confining – are actually powerful generators of individual expression in prayer. In the fifth chapter of Letters to Malcom, Lewis introduces a discussion of these festoonings:

I don’t very much like the job of telling you “more about my festoonings” – the private overtones I give to certain petitions. … I call them “festoons,” by the way, because they don’t (I trust) obliterate the plain, public sense of the petitions but are merely hung on it.

Lewis then goes on to expound the festoons he attaches to phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. As we read Lewis’ discussion, we find discover that the Lord’s Prayer – prayed repeatedly in worship service after worship service over the years of his Christian pilgrimage – has occasioned a complex development of Lewis’ own spiritual maturity. Consider, for example, Lewis’ comments on “Thy will be done:”

My festoons on this have been added gradually. At first I took it exclusively as an act of submission, attempting to do with it what Our Lord did in Gethsemane. I thought of God’s will purely as something that would come upon me, something of which I should be the patient. And I also thought of it as a will which would be embodied in pains and disappointments. … This interpretation is, I expect, the commonest. And so it must be. And such are the miseries of human life that it must often fill our whole mind. But at other times other meanings can be added. So I added one more.

The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God’s will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given “the same mind which was also in Christ.”

… But more than that, I am at this very moment contemplating a new festoon. Tell me if you think it a vain subtlety. I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible future blessings. I know it sounds fantastic; but think it over. It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean?

Are these the thoughts of someone whose repeated praying of exactly the same words hundreds and hundreds of times has put him in a rut? Quite the contrary.

What we see in Lewis’ experience with praying the Lord’s prayer – and this will be true of one’s use of any part of the liturgy, not just the prayers – is a paradox which only liturgy possesses: the more complex and “set” the liturgy, the greater the room for individual embellishment by the participant in the liturgy. Lewis’ festoons are like small improvisations in a dance, improvisations which demand for their context the stability of the liturgy they festoon. An accomplished artist knows that improvisation has the greatest effect when the strictures of art are slavishly followed. The most thorough-going compliance to standards affords the greatest freedom for novelty. The liturgy-impoverished soul will never understand this. It is like asking a blind man to appreciate how three colors – and only three colors – afford the possibility of zillions of colors.

Like dancing, liturgy only gets better the more you do it. On April 15, 1751, Peter Manigault in London wrote to his mother back home in Charleston, South Carolina. He was learning the minuet, and this is what he wrote:

I have learned to dance almost six Months, & as I have a great Inclination to be a good Dancer, am resolved to continue learning a few Months longer, I am to go pretty often this Summer to an assembly at Chelsea, in Order to compleat myself in that genteel Science. I have been three or four times this Winter, at an Assembly at Mileud: the first time I danced a Minuet in public, my Knees trembled in such a Manner, that I thought, I should not have been able to have gone through with it, however by taking all Opportunities of dancing in Public, I have got over that foolish Bashfulness. [see endnote 1 below].

I certainly felt that way the first time I attended a thoroughly liturgical service. First, I watched attentively for several weeks. The “dance steps” of Anglican worship were easy from the pew (stand to praise, sit for instruction, kneel to pray). And, the other “steps” were not difficult to execute: genuflecting, bowing, making the sign of the cross in two different ways, depending on where in the liturgy one was. Timing seemed tricky at first. I could not anticipate where the next occasion for bowing or crossing oneself would occur; but, it was no big deal to simply copy what others were doing around me a second or so after they did it. It was very much like learning to waltz by mimicking walzers, though easier. And, of course, the Prayer Book was a huge help. There were the words we all used for our prayers, for our praises, for out adoration, for confessing our sins, for receiving absolution, and so on.

Still, it all felt so weird to someone reared in Southern Baptist Spartan spirituality. It made me feel very self-conscious at first. But what worked for Peter Manigault worked for me. Taking every opportunity to worship with others who were comfortable with liturgical worship soon had me “over that foolish Bashfulness.” It simply took me a while to get my eyes off myself (no one else around me cared two figs, which was another lump for me to digest).

And, now it all feels as comfortable as a well-broken in pair of shoes. And, all the blessings described above (and many more to be described later) are mine, routinely.

[1], from Mabel Webber, “Peter Manigault’s Letters” [to his mother in Charleston, SC] The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 31/3 (July, 1930), 277.


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