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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

PAMELA DOLAN HAS GOOD IDEAS

So much good here, and so much which is misleading in very usual ways, in this blog in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Rev. Pamela Dolan
In a previous post, I wrote a bit about looking for God in unlikely places--in a homeless woman on the subway, for instance, but also perhaps in our own closest relationships with friends and family. Now I'd like to turn from the unlikely to the obvious: seeking God in worship.


Scripture and our faith both promise us that we can always find Jesus in our midst by gathering together and breaking bread together in his Name. Of course that does not mean that God's presence is only available to us in church. Christ's risen presence is a bodily presence, and we are being asked to meet Jesus again and again in our incarnated lives, in flesh and blood.


Nevertheless, when we are seeking God's presence in our lives, we must not forget to look in the obvious place, the place that the Psalm 116 calls the "courts of the Lord's house." In other words, we still might need to learn to trust that God is truly and readily available to us in worship.
Some seem to think that “worship” is entirely about praise going up.  This is  vertical imagery.

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Others see praise going up with attraction and holiness coming down, vertical but bi-directional.

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Liturgy, unlike simple worship, goes downward to the assembly, then upward to the divine. It also goes in all the horizontal directions. The sharing, being one-with [communion], is essential to Christian liturgy. It distinguishes it from other beliefs which only engage in worship or appeasement of the divine.


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Rather than being drawn heavenward, after being strengthened in community through the liturgy, we are sent out to mission, to live our individual Christian lives.  

It is hard to live a Gospel of Love in a world of competition.  In liturgy, we experience that we are not alone in our attempts. 


This is why I suggest avoiding the word “worship” to name or describe the Christian liturgy, because it is more downward and outward than the upward which "worship" suggests.  

Many get trapped in our accustomed vocabulary in much worse ways than this author has.  What is conspicuous is how much she comprehends yet she still gets misled by terminology which reflects non-liturgical concepts of public prayer, indeed, concepts which can even lead one away from what is distinct about Christianity from other sorts of belief.  She has the big picture, but some of the verbal tools she has inherited can lead away from her own good points.
Worship can take a nearly infinite number of forms and occur in a nearly infinite number of places, but I am particularly interested in corporate worship, in what happens when people gather as a community and offer "a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving" in a place set apart for just such an activity. This is not to denigrate individual prayer, also a necessity in the spiritual life, but to remind us that--however unfashionable it might be--repetitive, predictable, tradition-bound, liturgical worship [prayer] is a primary place for encounter with the living God. Such worship is corporate and incorporeal--it is done in community, and it involves our whole body, through gesture, posture, and all the senses.
I have added emphasis for these very important points, except substituting “prayer” where the author had “worship”.

Liturgy, beyond worship/adoration, includes, as mentioned, thanksgiving, but also petition and contrition. To refer to liturgy as worship is to re-enforce, through omission, some misconception of liturgy's origins and essence.

God made us to be people who worship him, who regularly come into his presence as a worshipping community. Worship is both the gift given to us and the most right and proper gift we can give back to Him; as the Psalmist says, it is how we "repay the Lord for all the good things God has given us."

C.S. Lewis rightly points out that our worship now, important as it is, is really just a tuning up for the time when we are gathered together as a communion of saints, caught up in eternal praise and worship. In his thorny little book, Reflections on the Psalms, he writes,
It is along these lines that I find it easiest to understand the Christian doctrine that "Heaven" is a state in which angels now, and men hereafter, are perpetually employed in praising God. This does not mean, as it can so dismally suggest, that it is like "being in Church." For our "services," both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school...
There is a myth that liturgy is an earthly imitation of angelic worship, and Lewis is one of its prisoners. Liturgy is not about heaven at all. It is about God nurturing the members of the Christian community that we might be supported in the difficult way of life which is to

Follow Jesus instead of
-the stock market,
-the home team,
-any political ideology,
-the almighty dollar,
-the fashions,
-or any of the other Mammons advertised to us.

This myth of angelic liturgy on earth ends up putting the emphasis on cultural expressions under the banner of "offering our best to God". In contrast, when describing Christian liturgy, the bishops of the Roman Catholic church called for “noble simplicity” [Second Vatican Council document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, #34 and other places]
Leave it to a starchy old Anglican to puncture any self-importance a clergy person might be tempted to feel! And yet I do not despair. As imperfect as our attempts at worship [communal prayer] are, nonetheless they are the great gift of the Church to the world. They are, or can be, the place where the vertical and the horizontal planes of life come together, where we sense for a fleeting moment our lives and souls being drawn heavenward.
Again, I have added emphasis for these very important points, except substituting “communal prayer” where the author had “worship”. Yet, the point is not to be drawn heavenward but to be drawn to Jesus who came to earth to show us how to live.

In the liturgy, God offers nurturance to the people of God through the Scriptures and the Eucharist, sharing of the Word and of the Meal. We respond with thanks and praise. Liturgy is much more a gift of God to the Church than an offering of the Church to God, who has no need to receive anything from us.


This is well captured in Dolan's “where the vertical and the horizontal planes of life come together”. Yet the “horizontal” immediately gets “drawn heavenward.”


Worship was demanded of subjects by rulers, and adoration was worship of the divine ruler. [See blog on latria and dulia.] 

Living as Jesus taught is to bring forth the rule of God on earth, much more so than to imitate some apocalyptic image of greatness based on monarchy, domination and power, royal cities and royal courts.  These are not the only images of God and are probably not the best images for our times and culture.
The same Jesus who walked with his friends on the road to Emmaus calls us to the table and asks us to "do this in remembrance of me." What if we lived our whole lives in remembrance of Him? The more deeply we immerse ourselves in prayer and worship, the more we can become attuned to the revelation that is also available to us in our everyday interactions, and especially in our relationships with those we love. When we are out in the world, living our lives, and we feel our hearts strangely warmed, we can stop and take a moment to recognize the presence of God in our midst--and give thanks for it.
A final caveat to the blog readers: Do not mistake immersing oneself in prayer with turning inward or turning to a “me and Jesus” spirituality. Christians are called to pray always, yes, to be immersed in prayer. This call is the “Ora et Labora” of St. Benedict. We are called to work and pray. That is, we are called to always be mindful of God as we do our daily work, even our recreation.

Morning and Evening Prayers are reminders, as are Meal Prayers and recited prayers, that we are not called to focus inwardly or on heaven but called to live as Christians. We change the world through living the commandment to love. We keep ourselves on that task through prayer which includes contrition, petition, gratitude, and, yes, worship, adoration, and honor to God. These are our self-improvement tools.

Liturgy is more like our work-out class where it is easier to do the exercises because we are led and are not alone. We do not go there to admire the style of the place or of the leader. We go in order to get in better shape for daily living. That is also the reason for participating in the communal prayer called liturgy.

4 comments:

  1. The English language lacks precision. Words such as "WORSHIP" have different meanings for different people. The user of the word may intend it to be understood in a certain way and the hearer of the word may understand it in a totally different way. Good communication demands conversation. We need to ask if what we have heard (and express that in our own words) is what was intended by the speaker. That is just one of the issues I would like to raise about this blog exchange. Rod Wiltse

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  2. Rod has an obviously correct point.

    I based the entire essay not on what Pamela intended to say but on the problems with just such imprecision.

    I am an academically trained liturgist and interested in the many ways liturgics become warped because we use words without carefully defining their meaning. The connotations of a word like "worship" tend to lead most American Christians away from good liturgical practices.

    As titled, Pamela has good ideas, but I am advocating for more careful and precise language because I have seen so many false starts and so many mistaken directions taken from cliches which are not supported by liturgical theology.

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  3. Morning and Evening Prayers are reminders, as are Meal Prayers and recited prayers, that we are not called to focus inwardly or on heaven but called to live as Christians. We change the world through living the commandment to love. We keep ourselves on that task through prayer which includes contrition, petition, gratitude, and, yes, worship, adoration, and honor to God. These are our self-improvement tools.
    Tom, you said:
    Liturgy is more like our work-out class where it is easier to do the exercises because we are led and are not alone. We do not go there to admire the style of the place or of the leader. We go in order to get in better shape for daily living. That is also the reason for participating in the communal prayer called liturgy.

    Why then is 'liturgy' such a Sunday Mass thing for most Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Christians? I have not seen the daily office revived at all in most places. It would seem that this is one of the great lacunae in western and even eastern parishes.
    I have been rather critical of your posts on another venue, but I'd like to see the 'entire' prayer of the Church done all over the place on a daily basis.

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  4. Auriel,

    I admire your ambition, but is it realistic in the contemporary world?

    The reason I ask is because it seems to me that the communal Liturgy of the Hours depends on a culture like a monastery or an English village. It needs to begin with a community in control of its own time, with time to gather and then disperse to work controlled on their own schedules.

    We, instead,live in a world of schedules controlled by others to which we have to adjust further depending on commuting conditions. I cannot figure out how one would schedule MP and EP in an American suburban or rural parish in a way that people could regularly plan to attend and only need minor adjustments in their schedules in ways over which they have actual control.

    I tend to focus on just how we can perform liturgy better, especially on this blog. Yet, I do wonder whether all the changes from small communities in agricultural villages of uniform culture and religion don't mean that we need different forms from parishes and different prayers from the monastic-based Liturgy of the Hours? This might mean down-town prayer communities which meet for limited times before and after the normal or extended work day.

    Does any proposal come to mind for contemporary

    What daily prayer forms preceded the Liturgy of the Hours? Can we look at that earlier time then create pattern of prayer to serve the same purpose, using the Psalms, yet appropriate for an industrial, automotive, highly literate, multi-ethnic, religiously pluralistic, two wage earner per household society?

    I think the Liturgy of the Hours I prayed over three of my seminary years form a strong image of what good liturgy can be. A shared book of Scriptural texts, antiphonal recitation by verse or half-verse for the entirety of even the longest Psalms. Participation rather than mumbling, a long enough cycle to prevent most boredom, a treasury of psalmody committed to memory just because it is said repeatedly out loud. Non-sacramental, no roles reserved to the ordained. There is much that Mass planners could learn from this.

    Rdr. James and all others are invited to critique this practical liturgist. I get a great deal of enjoyment our of trying to be theologically logical, consistent and practical at the same time. In turn I ask others to be charitable, logical, non-judgmental, discursive rather than argumentative, and be honest about what is a matter of one's taste rather than of liturgical principles.

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