Saturday, December 15, 2007

Liturgical culture

During my time at Xavier, I attended both Episcopal and Catholic services multiple times. I grew up Catholic (as Dcn Scott likes to remind me) and still know the misalette well enough to participate easily in mass. Jon and the kids, however, are not familiar with that style of worship at all. For instance, when we visited the Episcopal church as a family, the younger kids had never taken communion "up front" before and when wine passed their lips, they sprayed it at the priest reflexively, totally unprepared for its alcoholic flavor.

I have numerous friends who've converted to Catholicism, who attend Episcopal (Anglican) services, who have "gone Eastern Orthodox." They love the sense of history, the worldwide community of faith, the style of service, the "bells and smells," the ritual prayers, the kneelers, the quiet, the reverential spaces. I respect them. In the times I've attended with and without them, I'm able to appreciate how and why these aspects of liturgy mediate spirituality, peace and connection to God.

Liturgical services don't, however, do that for me. I've wished they would. I remember attending the Catholic church down the road from us by myself (thinking that being alone would help me over the hurdle since I'm keenly aware of how much my family dislikes any hint of medieval display). I love the space in this local church - theater in the round style, big stained glass windows, modern tile floors, pews (which I enjoy more than chairs, actually). There's a fountain and hardy growing green plants in the foyer.

Families, singles, couples filtered in after genuflecting and crossing themselves with holy water. A steady shuffle of feet was all that could be heard since Catholics are naturally quiet in sacred spaces. The service began. I could never quite get into the music in the Catholic church. I was told that the songs were deliberately discordant so that they would not linger in the mind and become a substitute for genuine worship of God (ironic since the Vineyard's whole goal is to get songs stuck in your head so that you will be filled with worshipful song all day).

The processional included banners and incense. The vestments: circa 1500, the priest: male, the calls and responses: familiar and predictable. I felt like I had double vision; as I watched and participated, I could understand exactly why each of the practices were valued and loved by my friends while at the same exact moment, in my own seat, in my own person, I felt nothing... just a nagging sense of disappointment that this is what church had evolved to, that this was the "best" we could do, that these medieval practices had held on for no clear reason and had nothing to do with the Jesus I read in the Gospels. To me, this style of worship feels like religion, not spirituality, feels like a deliberate religious creation post-Christ, not the natural expression of following Jesus. I guess it's just not how I roll.

I've often wondered what was wrong with me. Why don't I experience liturgy as "waves washing over me" the way my friends do? Why don't I enjoy the classical music? Why can't I find my center and a feeling of transcendence through the quiet and prayers? Why am I not moved by the corporate communion? Why doesn't the depth of history in the church draw me, fulfill me? I have a history degree, for heaven's sake. You'd think that I'd at least find the historical dimension of the church compelling.

In my next post, I'll explore why I think it's difficult for me (and perhaps others like me) to join "ancient church cultures." (I'm particularly speaking of Episcopal/Anglican, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.)


mariam said...

Well, you're certainly not alone in feeling bored, restless, unmoved by these traditional services. I remember taking my kids to evensong in Salisbury Cathedral when we were in the UK - just for the experience. Not very long into it my son says, "OK, Mom, I have to leave." He was in a foul temper when we emerged saying it was the most excruciatingly boring, stupid thing he'd every witnessed in his life. Quite frankly I think it frightened him.

And yet for me these traditional services centre and replenish me. If I've had a bad week it is almost like seeing the lights of home when you've been lost in a dark and dangerous forest. There is a palpable physical reaction at times to entering the church. During rough times I like to sometimes go to the church in the morning when no one is in the chapel and just sit and be quiet. There is a lovely stained glass of the good shepherd behind the altar and I have stared at that in the quiet and dimmed light of the chapel for many hours.

Church preference may have partly to do with personality of course. Anglicans tend to be a reserved, even shy lot. As one of my fellow parishioners said, "If we were extroverts, we'd be Baptists". The reasons we attend church may also have a fair amount to do with what sort of church we prefer. I confess that I don't go to church for the sense of community, although the people at the church I attend are lovely, kind people. There is, of course, a sense of being in a community, albeit one that is much larger than the individual church I attend. I know that that the office each Sunday is being said by Anglicans (and Lutherans and probably others that I'm unaware of) around the world. My reason for attending church is for personal worship, spiritual healing and growth. I like the otherworldliness of it - I like the fact that I am removed from the everyday. I like the solemnity and quiet because I have come to pray and meditate.

Other people want a faith community for the sense of community support; for the sense of a team with a team identity and common goals to accomplish. This doesn't work for me for a couple of reasons. One is that I live with a family of atheists and I have few friends who are either churchgoers or Christians (at least in the traditional sense). I have a few friends from other faiths (Muslim and Jewish) and I value MY community and my commitments there and don't feel hugely motivated at this stage of my life to take up with a new "community". The other thing is that perhaps because my faith is weak and I have profound doubts, I have a hard time, I'm not sure how to put this, in churches where they talk about Jesus or God like they have a not just personal but familiar relationship with (H)im, where going to church is like going for a weekly family reunion dinner or something, where nothing seems sacred or holy, where God is the just the family patriarch. I can certainly see the appeal of that, but it definitely doesn't work for me. I need more space and privacy and I need a sense of the sacred that is removed from the everyday.

brian said...


I couldn't agree more. About the most I want to see of this type of "worship" service is once a year on Christmas eve, I'll watch a Catholic Mass on TV. Or visiting one every once in a while would be really cool.

I can relate to the beauty of some of the sanctuaries and if the services work for others, I'm not going to knock them. But, they don't work for me. They seem to me to be almost a sacrificial time for G-d as if the practitioners are trying to prove how much they love Him by how grand (and boring) they can make the service. Songs that are deliberately discordant? The Catholic Mass said for so many years in a language so many people didn't speak (Latin).

I guess it's to each his own.


julieunplugged said...

Mariam, I am certain that personality plays a role in this. That's one of the aspects I hope to address in my next post. I also think that a person's conception of what Christianity is contributes as well.

What you report as how you feel in your Anglican services and even your discomfort with the typical evangelical contemporary church styles are both familiar to me and make complete sense. What you describe is what my many friends express when they share with me why they've left the one (contemporary church) for the other (ancient church). I am very glad that this kind of church service has met your needs.

Deb said...

I think many of us crave that sacred space in our lives. While there are sacred moments that can happen in a day through interactions with others or in the midst of the beauty and fear brought on by a snowstorm, we still look for that space that is like no other in our day to day lives.

I think some of us have made the leap from being passive spectators and know that we have something to bring to that sacred space. We have years of being "talked at" and we have wrestled with our beliefs to the point that we know that we actually have something to bring to the table. No wonder 20 somethings who sit in college classes don't show up to be "talked at" some more. They've had their fill of it during the week. Our spirituality is deeply personal and while the "bells and smells" have their place, we want something that fully engages our hearts and minds.

I remember a conversational Sunday morning at Nexus and I was using the mobius strip as an example of spirituality...all around the concept of authenticity. An artist in the group starting connecting mobius strips into a ring. I stopped and asked everyone to look at what he was doing because it was the best visual representation of community that I had ever seen... the flowing of in and out of our lives spilling into others. That would have never happened in a sermon. He probably didn't walk in thinking that he had something significant to bring to the teaching but, given the chance, he brought so much more to the moment that no one could have planned.

I just can't go back to a church that takes on the trappings of a spectator sport. Too much time, energy and money goes into creating the "show." I'm at the point where I prefer my time, energy and money making a difference somewhere in the community. I don't know what that is yet but I know it isn't in the traditional Sunday worship.

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I attended Catholic Mass on and off for about three years or four years and I had a similar experience as you and Brian...but...for me, I could never get past the exclusive nature of the whole Catholic church. It's bad enough that all the priests are men and when you throw in celibacy I just can't get past that, I'm sorry. I'm looking and have actually found a more inclusive group of "believers" and it feels so much more comfortable...

R. Michael said...

I appreciate the differences I experience in liturgical worship (I was raised Baptist and now attend a "hip" non-denom). There is something about being in one of those stone, gothic, flying butressed buildings that reminds me that it is not about me but rather God. Still though, familiarity breeds contempt and I think after the novelty wore off it would seem here.

Conversely, the church I now attend (with requisite electric guitars, drums, and rock-star wannabes) seems narcisstic and self focused. Don't think we want to ask the question WWJG...he may not like any of them.

R. Michael said...

fixing the last sentence of my first paragraph of my post..."I think after the novelty wore off it would seem mundane."

Kansas Bob said...

I was raised and.. don't tell anyone.. became a believer in the Episcopal church.. my born-again experience at 27 could have been a renewal of faith.. anyway..

My experiences with the Roman Catholic church was as an outsider after I started dating Ann 13 years ago.. attendance continued two years. If found it to be a somewhat robotic experience.. even the handshake of peace was kind of plastic.. most of the folks only took the wafer and not the wine.. found that odd.. guess there were a lot germaphobes.. of course I had to develop a strategy where I could let the real Christians get by me and keep my toes safe when communion was offered.

Overall I found the RC experience to be pretty sterile in nature.. the service always seemed to be geared at the safe intellectual side.. never seemed to have much passion.

Chuck said...

When I started investigating the state of Christianity again a few years ago, I was intrigued by the term "ancient/future worship" that I kept hearing in conjunction with the emergent church conversation. I was especially excited about the "future" part of the equation, as the traditional forms of church have never been my cup of tea. Unfortunately I have found very little focus on the future aspects. I've seen a lot of interest in resurrecting ancient spiritual disciplines and practices, but no real investigation of what a future-focused worship experience would be like. The closest I've come is watching the Blue Man Group show - seriously, it was truly a post-modern spiritual experience for me. So I keep hoping something will capture just a tiny piece of that paradigm.

Mariam said...

The church I attend is "low" Anglican, without the smells and bells, and without the obtuse liturgy and music described by Brian - just the basic Anglican order of services and stripped down liturgy. Precious little "entertainment" value. Perhaps if I had been raised in the church I would feel differently but as it is each Sunday as I repeat the prayers I think, "Wow. Amazing. That's just what I've been thinking, only they thought it so much more eloquently."

Anonymous said...

Nothing is wrong with you.

"I was told that the songs were deliberately discordant so that they would not linger in the mind and become a substitute for genuine worship of God."

They'd be mistaken. Sadly the past 40 years removed all the great music of the past 1,000 years - literally. There will be over the next 5 years a return to Palestrina
type music.

I found many of your posters comments interesting.

The education of the Liturgy(a.k.a. mass/service) had a significant change as you may know in the mid 60's. There is a clear movement towards incorporating some of the old Latin "smells & bells" as it is unflattering phrase is use by those who don't generally have a favorable view of the church.

Americanism (priority of the individual over everything else) has difficulty in many quarters with accepting Liturgical services.

It's a classical case of why would I want to put some one btwn me & God. Where as from my view as a Catholic, if I don't need anyone btwn me and God why would I bother going to a church service for bible study when I can do so with my family at home any day of the week.

Liturgical actions without understanding why your doing what your doing will make the service very dry and at some point very boring or as Kansas Bob said robotic.

Just one some example is standing for the Gospel. I've taught adult religious class and I always tell them you shoul focus on rising from the dead. The Gospel is about resurrection, life after death. You don't just stand because everyone else is standing. Your standing to acknowledge that the Good news to man is that Christ conquered death. And you believe it.

As a history (church) buff myself Julie if you took some time to read about the history of the creeds and the amount of bloodshed that was given over numerous turns of phrases. It's the little guy with nothing but his body to stand (in some cases literally before Emperors) and state your not God.
If you know the history you can't say those words without think about those in China today who are beaten for their profession of faith, or priests killed in the middle east, or missionaries in India beheaded.

julieunplugged said...

Quickbeam, welcome to julieunplugged. I've just completed my MA in theology at Xavier University, which you may not know, and have studied the creation of the creeds in depth.

I don't lack understanding when I'm in the liturgical services. I am not moved in the ways that others are. There is a difference.