Liturgy as Poison
Finally, I’ve gotten this finished! Its delay had nothing to do with the difficulty of the subject matter, which is as plain as the miter on a bishop.
So, here’s a lesson on liturgy from a car wreck …
As a teenager, my aunt was traveling across the Mojave Desert with other family members one evening 50 years ago. In those days, the traffic across the desert at night was pretty thin. Rare even. In the middle of nowhere, a blowout at a most inopportune spot sent the car careening off the road into a desert wash.
No one was killed. All but my aunt were banged up and unconscious. My aunt, however, was merely pinned in the wreckage. The car did not burn, fortunately, but that also meant it was totally dark. And, the horn was blowing. It kept blowing until the battery was exhausted. That probably took over an hour, maybe longer. No one knows, for no one but my aunt was able to hear it.
And, she doesn’t want to remember it. When everyone was rescued, my aunt was relatively uninjured in body, but pretty well brutalized in her mind (by the car horn). For months thereafter, the sound of a car horn blowing would provoke her to uncontrollable crying. For years, she experienced what today are called anxiety attacks, always prompted by the blowing of a car horn, especially a long, steady blow on a car horn.
No one needs a Ph.D. in psychology to understand why car horns (in themselves, innocent things) provoked such powerful negative emotions in my aunt. For her, for the reasons described, car horns became a kind of poison, a toxic trigger, a sensate experience welded to a horrible situation. We have all heard about such things, and perhaps you have your own equivalent.
I know Christians with this kind of problem, except it’s not a car horn, but religious liturgy which provokes all the negative emotions. For them, liturgy is poison.
Of course, liturgy cannot be poisonous, any more than a car horn. But, (as my aunt’s experience demonstrates) it can sure facilitate the effects of something poisonous. Exactly how it does so takes a bit more explaining, more than I intend to go into in this blog entry (more about that when I talk about sacramental dynamics later). For now, however, I simply want to make this point: whether for good or ill, liturgy leaves a brand on us, and that brand is very difficult (perhaps, in some cases, impossible) to remove.
“Branding” is a harsh term, and so it’s not useful to denote the ways that all of us are “branded” by things in our lives which amount to liturgy, and which we would call liturgy, except that these “liturgical” occasions in our lives are not really religious in nature, and do not have the worship of God as their purpose. Consider Thanksgiving Day dinner, for example. Or birthday observances, or national holidays (the Fourth of July in America will do for an example). The observance of these holidays marks us every bit as much as a branding iron would, and the effects are there for us to see, even if others cannot.
My wife, born on December 26, never feels like it is her birthday unless she gets a present to mark that particular day. It makes no difference that Christmas was an occasion for gift giving – that was to honor (even if only mistily) God’s gift of Jesus to the world. To mark her birthday, it takes a gift for her, for that day.
Or consider the birthday cake. Like me, my wife’s birthday is “off” if there is no cake to mark the occasion. One holiday when she was a teenager, she was in the home of a matron whose Christmas celebration included the making of cakes. My wife relates that this matron baked 11 cakes – each one of them a different kind. As family and friends circulated through her home, the cakes were offered to her guests. Here’s the interesting thing – amidst the abundance of cakes, my wife felt her birthday was diminished, because not a single one of those cakes was ever designated as “hers,” the cake to mark her birthday.
We can multiply these kinds of examples all day. Unless our childhoods were utterly chaotic, they possessed a variety of rhythms, connected to festal occasions. And the repeated observance of those occasions, in the company of other family members (often, with neighbors thrown in for extra fun), helped to shape our identities, our expectations of the future, our social equilibrium, our sense of home, our sense of place, our perspective on everything from ants to angels. We are social creatures, and the rituals by which social life proceeds – birthdays, other anniversaries, seasonal experiences, weddings, funerals, baptisms, annual outings to the mountains, or the beach, or to family reunions (the possibilities go on and on and on) – all these “cultural liturgies” form a matrix that creates, shapes, and sustains our identities as human beings.
Now, against this background, let’s narrow our focus to things religious, things that might more obviously be called “Christian liturgy.” And let us consider a certain kind of Christian (I know several personally) …
Benjamin was reared in a Roman Catholic family. His parents faithfully took him to mass every Sunday. It was a pre-Vatican II mass, so it didn’t have the features which make traditional Catholics today groan and mutter curses under their breath. Benjamin was not rebellious as a boy, or a teenager. However, he also was not engaged at any spiritual level with the masses he attended. There were forms aplenty (genuflecting at the pew before entering, signing oneself with the cross at certain points in the liturgy, receiving the host from the priest), but they were by and large empty of meaning.
In college, Benjamin met a campus minister from Campus Crusade for Christ. He was vibrantly enthusiastic about his faith, he exuded confidence in Christ and the gospel, he fearlessly witnessed to his faith to unbelievers (including Benjamin), and Benjamin’s heart was captured. He made a profession of faith in Christ at a rally held in a large private dorm next to the campus. The Crusade staff member took Benjamin as his own disciple, tutored him in the rudiments of the Christian faith, trained him to share his faith with others, and brought Benjamin along with him as he ministered to others and shared the gospel with unbelieving students. Benjamin grew in his faith; he kept growing after he departed the campus. Benjamin is, today, a committed Christian husband, father, and church leader.
And, Benjamin hates liturgy.
When Benjamin visits his mother’s Catholic church he gets the willies. When Benjamin visits a high-church Anglican service, he gets the willies. When Benjamin visits a nondenominational church that sprinkles a bit of liturgy into its worship service (say, for example, the antiphonal reading of a psalm), Benjamin gets the willies. Benjamin avoids liturgical services if he has a chance to do so.
For Benjamin, liturgy is poison. Why?
I knew people like Benjamin before I ever understood why. Almost all of them were former Roman Catholics. Or, former Orthodox. Or, former Episcopalians. Or, former Lutherans. They were all from Christian traditions that have a pronounced commitment to liturgy as a form of worship. Another common feature is this: they all came to a saving, living faith in Jesus outside their cradle Christian communions. And, finally, they all judged the liturgical forms of their cradle communions to be the reason why they never came to faith in Christ. The murky liturgy – murky because it was never explained, never expounded – is often viewed by these kinds of Christians as a positive hindrance to understanding the gospel.
Sometimes, it is another factor which sets one against these traditional forms of Christian piety and worship. Consider, for example, the following statement by a choral director that appears in a blog where the subject is the role of the choir master to the pastor of a congregation:
Church polity, especially that of the Anglicans and Romans, is, for some narcissistic types, an open invitation to abuse the staff. Many a musician has been summarily fired for no good reason, to feed the inflated ego of “Herr Pastor”. I personally do not intend ever again to work in the Anglican church — the church of my childhood — because of their polity, which is very much like “the Divine Right of Kings”. Yes, the pastor does and should have the final word, but that does NOT give him the right to abuse the musicians — passive-aggressive games, etc.
Now, a question: what do experiences like this tell us about Christian liturgy? Before I give an answer, here are some illegitimate answers:
Liturgy is bad for you. I reject this out of hand, because liturgy is the creature of God Himself. Whatever else you say about the Old Testament system of worship, it is robustly liturgical. To suppose that God mandated a method of worship that was intrinsically toxic to one’s spirit is simply wrong-headed.
Liturgy is meaningless mumbo jumbo. I wonder about this. Certainly, an unexplained liturgy might reduce to meaningless mumbo jumbo. And, I have no doubt that a chronic avoidance of explanation lies behind many cases of “toxic” liturgy.
But, suppose you are an alien from Planet Zorg, equipped with an invisibility shield and a little thingy in your ear that automatically translates any alien language into something you can understand. You teleport to earth, materializing (invisibly, remember) beside a man leading a goat by a leash to another man, robed in white, who stands with a large knife beside a pile of wood. The man with the goat puts his hands on the goat’s head and begins to say things like “I have lied to my boss, I have stolen from my brother, I cursed God and man when I ought to have given thanks.” He steps back, and the man with a knife slits the animal’s throat. Its blood pours onto the ground. He heaves the carcass onto the pile of wood, and the whole thing is ignited. The goat-bringer and the goat-slayer stand and watch until nothing but ashes remain. Then the goat-slayer turns and says “Go in peace, my son. The Lord has forgiven you.”
Strange to your alien ears and experience? Let’s suppose so.
Beyond comprehension? Not at all, especially after meditation on what you have seen and heard. Especially after you have seen this enacted over and over. Your understanding may never be complete without a teacher; but, it is poppycock to suppose you cannot puzzle out something authentic about the meaning of the ritual you have observed.
And this very ritual, or several of them fundamentally similar to it, is a staple of Old Testament spirituality. The point: even without instruction, the meaning of the liturgy is not impossible to see, at least in its outlines. And, of course, God made provision for instruction by scattering the Levites throughout all the cities of Israel, rather than giving them a territory to themselves.
If the liturgy of one’s cradle communion is opaque, it is no fault of the liturgy. And, it is not the fault of liturgy that its observers abide in ignorance of its meaning. My children were always asking me, “Daddy, why do we kneel before entering the pew? Why do we bow when the cross passes down the aisle? Why does the priest say ‘The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation’?”
Blaming liturgy for your ignorance of the meaning of liturgy is like blaming your scurvy on oranges because no one ever explained the nutritional value of Vitamin C.
Liturgy hides the truth of the gospel. Liturgy confuses the truth of the gospel. These are the same or different criticisms, depending on whether the critic thinks there is any shred of the gospel buried in the liturgy he criticizes. But, both are contradicted by the simple fact that liturgy, when it is informed and shaped by the Biblical revelation, is the surest way to lodge the gospel firmly in the heart of the Christian. Christian life begins with a liturgy – baptism. Christian life is sustained by a liturgy – the Eucharist. And, if it is a liturgy that follows the shape of the Christian worship in all places through all the ages (excepting certain backwaters of the Reformation), the Christian liturgy of worship will exercise the Christian spirit in a wide array of spiritually wholesome, spiritually edifying, spiritually maturing behaviors – prayer, confession of sin, confession of faith, praise, sacrifice, thanksgiving, intercession for others, receiving the Word of God, learning doctrine, finding correction, being equipped for the work of ministry. All these things are done, and done best, when done with, in, and through liturgy. The particulars I will expound in later blog entries.
What, then, do we learn about liturgy from those who are allergic to it? Just this: liturgy is incredibly powerful to shape the faith of the soul who encounters it. From those for whom liturgy is a poison, we learn that this power can work for ill as well as for good. And, paradoxically, for some unfortunate Christians (and, of course, I judge them to be very unfortunate indeed), their very aversion to liturgy is a pungent testimony to liturgy’s power to fix belief into a matrix that is very stable, and probably unalterable (except, perhaps, through very severe trauma). In their case, their encounter with liturgy has inoculated them against liturgy. Their lot is like the man who saw so little of value with his eyes that he poked them out with a stick, and then judged that those with eyes were seeing only deceitful mirages.
Can one live without eyes? Of course. I have a friend who is blind from birth. He understands on one level that he is handicapped; but, he does not mourn for having never seen a rose. He and I know that one day he will see a rose, and much more than a rose. And, by God’s grace, he is patient to await that restored vision.
I have friends who have eyes that, nevertheless, do not see. They do not see the things liturgy would show them, they do not receive what liturgy could impart. Where others see grace, and beauty, and heavenly glory, they see only confused mumbo jumbo. I know that one day they will see the grace and beauty and glory, for they will join the Church Triumphant in those luxuriantly liturgical courts of heaven and its worship around the Throne of the Lamb.
Can I help them enjoy a foretaste of the world to come? I honestly do not know.
Unworking the mysterious works of liturgy on the Christian soul is a puzzle I do not know how to solve. But, the intractability of this puzzle convinces me that liturgy is not a game, nor a dilettante’s pastime.