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Monday, January 31, 2011


If you are bothering to read a Blog with “liturgist” in the title, you most likely know what the “orans position” means, but good writing form requires that I define my terms.

Orans is the ancient posture for prayer, standing erect, with hands and arms outstretched and palms turned upward. This is the posture in which Aaron and Hur supported Moses in prayer while Joshua battled Amalek [Exodus 17: 10-13]. This is also the posture of Christian prayer found in some of the earliest Christian art.

The implications of this posture are very interesting. It is, perhaps intentionally, ambivalent. Is one opening oneself to God? Or is the person lifting something in offering to God? Could it be that one is standing with wide-spread arms to receive something from God into open hands?

Christians are called to stand in the presence of God. In the Latin Mass, those present are described as the “circumstantes”, those standing around the altar. It is to this posture we are called when the invitation is, “Let us pray,” especially when called to pray as Jesus taught us in the Lord's Prayer.

When the invitation calls for us to bow our heads, that is meant to be for a brief time of reflection concerning the intentions of our prayer. All should then join the presider in the Christian attitude of prayer, the orans posture. It is the task of the presider to summarize the intentions of the assembly in the presidential prayers, the collects, the collecting together of the minds of the faithful. Some of the more poorly written collects do not reflect this, seeming to be more about preaching to people than offering their prayers, but they are usually of later composition, when clerics said rather than led the Mass.

Similarly, the entire Eucharistic Prayer is the presider proclaiming the collective prayer of thanksgiving and praise coming from the assembly. All are calling to mind in the institution narrative of what happened on the night before Jesus died.

The entire Eucharistic Prayer is addressed to the First Person of the Trinity by the entire congregation, as voiced by the presider. All should be in the attitude of prayer, standing about the altar with arms, hands, minds, hearts, and eyes lifted up to God as we pray. This is not a time for adoration or submission, this is a time for doing, as Jesus told us, in memory of him. This is neither a time for secret mysteries nor a time for close observation. It is a time of communal prayer.

Kneeling and hand folding are not the postures of sons and daughters of God, of brothers and sisters of Jesus. Those postures do not come from the earliest days of Christianity as do orans and prostration, laying face down on the floor.

Kneeling and hand folding come from the Germanic peoples who invaded Europe and formed feudal societies. When one swore fealty, the person knelt before the superior lord and bowed one's head, as is still done today for knighting.

The ruler was seated with hands in the lap and the subordinate put their joined palms between those of the one receiving fealty, who closed their hands around the others' while the lesser person pledged life and service. The posture showed total vulnerability, putting oneself entirely in the power of the ruler. If the fealty was not accepted or judged to be false, one was already a prisoner if held tight for binding.

Kneeling and sitting are late additions to congregational postures in church. Until after the Middle Ages, churches had no furniture for the assembly. The great cathedrals of Europe had no seating or kneeling benches for the laity. People came in crowds and stood, even wandered about, for the services.

Processions did not require great choreography for pews and aisles. It was more of a simple matter of follow-the-leader, the processional cross. Aisles, by the way, were not the spaces between seating areas but the divisions of a building formed by colonnades. The center aisle was the entire nave between the rows of supporting pillars to the left and right, not just a narrow path through the furniture.

Members of the congregation using the orans position is one strong way of changing nothing in the text or ministries or architecture, yet making a great change in how the liturgy is perceived. It is the people of God who are at prayer in the liturgy, not just the clergy. Catechizing our members about their proper status, heirs of the kingdom addressing their Father, can make a huge difference in perception as to the nature of liturgical prayer.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


This Sunday, I attended a different service at a congregation which I have visited previously. It is amazing what one first notices when not present to do an evaluation, yet when the critical faculties kick in anyway.

There was an interesting processional cross which is certainly unique and would end the anonymity of the congregation, so I will not describe it, but it meant my first notice-taking was positive.

The presider was in alb, cincture, and stole, very traditional and not in any way distracting. Except, the cincture drooped under his belly in a very unflattering way. “Does he not look at himself in a mirror,” I wondered.

Unfortunately for my concentration, he now had my attention. What disappointing ways he used to lead the liturgy!

There were the multiple books and loose papers he handled or balanced on the end cap of the sedile. There was the indecisive positioning facing the corner of the crossing rather than the altar, congregation, or some point of devotion. There was the one handed position while praying, instead of using one of the many assisting ministers or an available lectern to hold the texts. There was the mono-tonal and eyes-down reading of the presider's prayers.

When he got to the altar later, there was no visible consistency about what his hands were doing. Why did he switch between orans and other postures? Why hold the bread above his eye level for breaking?

Finally, I got my mind off him. That was not why I came to church, even though these were things I could not help but notice.

There was, however, a final distraction. Glancing at the congregational handout. I saw that the ministers were named under the heading, “Liturgical Participants”.

The essence of the liturgical reforms of the past half century is that all Christians present are participants in the celebration. Usually a failure to understand this is indicated by describing the presider as “the celebrant” [as today's handout also did] as if the congregation were mere observers for a one-person party.

This handout was worse, presenting the entire group in the front, on stage so to speak, as if they were performing a show for an audience of non-participants.

The key phrase of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on the liturgy of Vatican II which put so much ecumenical liturgical theory on the road to implementation, was “full, conscious, and active participation of all present.” If Christians can not get this right, how far have we advanced from the Levitical priesthood and its sacrifices? Without such a sense of participation, we have a clericalized ritual instead of a communal prayer!

Please, kind readers, do not take me to task in your comments for being judgmental toward this poor cleric and his well intentioned editorial staff. Rather, look upon this as an example of the need for evaluation of every presider and every order of service as conducted in each congregation.

If we do not evaluate, how can we improve? If only those who plan also evaluate what they have done, how can they see what they have completely missed? If the same person or category of persons always does the evaluation, what areas of expertise are not being consulted?

It was actually an average or better than average service this Sunday. It just could have been so much better if the details of the presentation were given more attention. 
The few criticisms above are not a fair and balanced evaluation. They are just what one person cross-trained in liturgy and theater noticed without intending to make any comments.
SEDILE: one of the seats on the south side of the chancel, often recessed, for the use of the officiating clergy
ORANS: with outstretched arms and palms up in a gesture of prayer, cf. Exodus 17: 10-13
LEVITICAL: of or pertaining to the Levites, the tribe which provided the priests for ancient Israel

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Art Canard

From U.S. Catholic magazine:
'For centuries the church was the principal patron of the arts. When people go to Europe, they visit churches or museums filled with art that used to be in churches. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy notes: “Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s [sic] genius.” '
“How bland thou art”; Saturday, December 18, 2010; By Jerry Bleem, O.F.M.

The old canard still has life, I see.

It was never the Church which patronized the arts.

It was the wealthy and for the usual reasons, to glorify themselves.

In the eras when bishops were part of the nobility and oligarchy, they participated in the conspicuous consumption of their class, and they installed artistic monuments to their wealth in their palaces, abbeys, and cathedrals. Of course lesser convents and churches, with less well-heeled donors, followed suit.

For forty years I have been reading these self-serving pleas by artists for more employment of artists. Their appeals to history ignore the facts of donors specifying how they wanted their money used, for ego-gratifying monuments more than for charity or social improvements.

The church leaders accepted the monuments in order not to alienate the donors. As continues to be true, the artists convinced the donors that the artists would create whatever the culture would admire.

All such monuments were individually crafted before the Industrial Revolution. Coming from a catalog was simply impossible, but a lot of reproductions of schlock existed in those eras as well.

There is too much art, good and bad, in most churches, too much decoration, too many messages on posters and banners.

If we have the money to spend in addition to charity and justice causes, then let us spend it on training preachers and presiders, lectors and cantors, and on worthy material and objects of the highest quality and least personal artistic expression, objects which are necessary for the liturgy and worthy to bear the weight of the services they offer.



This Blog looks at the intersection of the performing arts and Christian prayer.

Public prayer always involves some performance skills. At the very least, the leader must speak loud enough for others to follow. At the other extreme, the ministers perform the entire prayer, directed to God, for the observation of a large crowd of believers.

I became a theater person because, as a intense teen-aged Catholic seminarian, I saw participation in the Drama Club as a way of developing skills which could be useful later in saying Mass and preaching.
I was not aware then that there was a Liturgical Movement or that the Second Vatican Council was about to re-prioritize what the priest and people do at Mass. The legal changes and ritual guidelines which flowed from Vatican II broadened the applicability of a performing arts background.

With the new Missals, Sacramentaries, and Prayer Books of the Western Christian churches, there came a wider choice of texts, positions, gestures, and movements, especially as church architecture developed away from the previously standard form of nave and sanctuary with the altar against the east wall.
Where, for many denominations, public prayer had used rubrically prescribed gestures and movements as well as specified written texts, now, the ministers were expected to move in appropriate ways in spaces which did not necessarily support the previous choreography and which sometimes provided challenges in terms of lines of sight. 

The expectation that the members of the assembly would be active participants offered challenges for interaction between the ministers and the assembly.

The results could be disastrous.

Expecting solid performances under new circumstances from ministers who were used to following fixed texts using prescribed actions was the equivalent of asking people who had previously recited poetry to improvise dramatic monologues based on mere outlines. 

All this was made worse by a lack of coaching and the general failure to acknowledge the need for rehearsal.

Two blatant examples of what sort of thing a theatrically trained person might immediately find inexcusable can demonstrate why this blog is directed toward practical liturgical performance based on liturgical theology and texts.

All Saints Church had gone through several phases of remodeling, and the altar had been moved away from the front wall toward the nave edge of the upper platform. In the latest change, the chairs for the priest and servers had been placed on the next level down and against the front wall to the left of the altar platform. The ambo [lectern/pulpit] was directly in front of the chairs, at the nave edge of the lower platform. 

As a result, the young servers were directly behind the preacher. Their fidgeting, including twirling of their cinctures, was directly in the line of sight for the congregation looking at the preacher. This fidgeting completely upstaged the preacher. People's attention was literally drawn up stage, behind the preacher, something no theatrical director would ever have permitted.

At Sacred Heart Church, the priest concluded the sermon and immediately began the Creed. He then turned around and went back to the altar. There he turned pages to find the place for his next lines and waited for the Creed to come to an end before speaking them. 

The implications of these actions would never have allowed them to survive a theatrical rehearsal. 

First, by beginning but not reciting the Creed in its entirety, the priest implies that the Creed is something that does not apply to him, that he has no participation in reciting the basics of the faith he has supposedly just preached. 

Second, by walking and turning pages and not participating, that priest shows that he is not aware that he is continually visible, that everything he says, does, or does not say has an effect on how the service is perceived by everyone, including himself, consciously or not. 

Third, those same actions could be seen to imply that the only things about the Mass which were of concern to him were the things specified for him to do. He did not all appear to be part of the assembly at prayer or himself to be at prayer at all but merely going through prescribed words at prescribed times and stations. He showed a lack of understanding of how to make liturgy work beyond the rather limited rubrical approach to valid and licit performance of the sacrament.