Friday, January 06, 2017

The Power of Liturgy: I've Heard it All Before

Habit is Heaven's redress; God gives us habit in place of happiness.
- Pushkin, from Eugene Onegin

At church several weeks ago, a lively discussion took off from an observation by George Bernard Shaw: "If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience!"  Our discussion of repetition in life ranged through Scripture, Buddhism, and cultural touchstones (including Groundhog Day).  One of us spoke of "just going through the motions" of faith as a dry, habitual, tedious exercise, something to be avoided.  We were led eventually to a consideration of ritual as an agent of change: even just going through the motions can change us.

Since then, every source seems to have something to add to that question, Is it a good thing or bad to be "just going through the motions?"  Fr. Roger Allen preached Christmas Eve to people who don't usually show up at church, who had so much else they could've done that night, concluding, "You're here because you expect something to happen." But that "something" needs time to develop, in a habit of worship.  Our Bishop-emeritus J. Neil Alexander, now Dean of the School of Theology at University of the South, Sewanee, wrote in a newsletter of the sinking feeling we all have these days of never being "done" with the "busy-ness" of our lives, so he's grateful to stop it all for Morning Prayer, Eucharist, and Evening prayer, time-outs that remind us how we're on God's time.

Just this past Sunday, Fr. Daron Vroon concluded his sermon with a plug for repeating the ancient Jesus prayer thousands of times a day, telling us how he says it while driving or changing a diaper: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  (Later, he announced a pop quiz, but a quiet train at our RR crossing blew its horn just as we were to recite.)

I can attest to that Jesus Prayer.  My recent blog posts cover stressful situations when, driving in traffic, I have tried snapping the radio off to pray it. The words fit the ancient Kyrie chant, so I now find myself humming that chant as I hurry through the hallways at school. By repetition, the tune has become the prayer, making me re-mindful of the Big Picture.

Another source gives ample reason for increasing the "motions" we "go through" in the Book of Common Prayer.  Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as a Guide to a Spiritual Life, a bestseller of the Forward Movement of Cincinnati, is by lay scholar Derek Olsen (blog ). A runner, Olsen likens the habits of devotions by day, by week, and by season, to an athlete's training.  A singular "high" or "surge" is never the point, but to "invest ourselves in a pattern of living" (14).  He warns against the vanity of worshiping for the purpose of self-edification, though.  Ephesians, admonishing us to share "the same mind... that was in Jesus Christ," gives us the point of all this exercise. Olsen adds, "Christian spirituality isn't just about you.  Rather, your spiritual success is tied to everyone else around you... building the body of Christ" (15).

Olsen's gung-ho writing about the Lectionary spurred me now to read all the selections for each day, even multiple Psalms.  He quotes Athanasius, who observed that other Scripture teaches us about law, about the Saviour's coming, about kings and prophets; "but in the Psalms, besides all of these things, you learn about yourself... [about] the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries" (209).

Perhaps because of this focus on liturgy, my take-away from Cynthia Crysdale's Transformed Lives: Making Sense of Atonement Today (Seabury Books, New York, 2016) comes down to this: the habits of our lives constitute "salvation," not a one-time vicarious sacrifice of the Son to satisfy the righteous wrath of the Father.  She puts aside Scripture's incompatible metaphors intended for different audiences (summary p. 65) and builds on St. Anselm's conclusion that "the essence of salvation -- what in philosophical terms we would call its formal cause -- lies not in the death itself" but in Christ's willingness to live in a way that would get him killed, the "unearned gift of obedience, not the death per se" saving us (78-9).  Because evil lives on, "Christ continues to die and rise over and over again."  How does that save us?  "Embracing that story and willingly offering ourselves to it can indeed become part of the salvation of the world" (90). Crysdale surveys western intellectual history to get us to a point where she says (long story short) that theology, like science, lies "not in abstractions, but in lived religious transformation" (122), which suggests to me, again, habits of worship, habits of interactions with others, habits encouraging us to be upstanders willing to give for the needs we see in our communities.

As I drafted this article, I ran into three more angles on the message that salvation lies in the habits of liturgy during my morning readings in Scripture and Forward Day By Day. First, Hebrews 11, telling of heroes in the Hebrew Scriptures, speaks of faith in terms of slogging on through daily work or journeys, repetitive and unrewarded actions done with the assurance that it adds up to something or gets somewhere.  This reminds me of something I read in Richard Rolheiser's book Sacred Fire, where he cites John of the Cross's advice to cloistered believers who've lost their initial enthusiasm for the routine of devotions. Rolheiser likens time spent with worship to time a grown child spends with his aged mother; the routine may seem tedious, even unpleasant (I write from experience, now), but the time builds relationship that can weather sudden storms.  (See my reflection "Beyond Growing Up.")

The commentary this month in Forward is by Sallie Schisler, ordained at 60.  Writing about how she needed time to accept the soldier called "father" who entered her life when she was two, she tells how we can become comfortable enough to call God "Abba" through "worship, prayer, study, and meditation" (1/1/2017).  When an usher at her church told a homeless man, "Sir, you've already received," the man said loudly, "But I'm still hungry!"  Schiller concludes, "Without meaning to, [this man] and God taught me that everyone who comes to the table will be ultimately satisfied -- whether it takes one trip or a thousand" (1/2/2017).

To me, it all adds up to affirmation of going through the motions.

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