Saturday, August 12, 2006

On Doing Our Liturgical “Thing”

Many of us have been tempted to alter or paraphrase a prayer, litany, or liturgical text to “be more accessible” to the congregation. Perhaps we thought the ritual text was opaque to contemporary seekers. And, many of us have suffered (or been delighted by) such at the hands of others. What are we not aware of in these undertakings?

John Donne’s poem, “Upon the Translation of the Psalmes,” (a response to the translation of the Psalter by Philip Sydney and his sister, the Countesse of Pembroke) begins:

Eternall God, (for whom who ever dare
Seek new expression doe the Circle square,
And thrust into strait corners of poore wit
Thee who art cornerlesse and infinite)

Donne, in this little knot of convolution, as I call it, seems to be wrestling with the limits of creativity and human innovation. Might this at least be a caution to us “who dare” to make “new expressions” in the church’s prayer? Is everything our hearts, minds, and words conspire to articulate in song, praise and lament a revelation, a true reflection of the circumference of the Holy? Is Donne, the bard of English poetry, teasing, even himself?

Of course, it is a set up in order to magnify the achievements of Philip and his sister in their effort to translate the Psalms. But even here, he seems to muse on the fact that they did “perform that work again” that the “first author” by a “cloven tongue” was able to sing “the highest matter in the noblest forme.” The translators did the work by “heavens high holy Muse” that “whispered to David, [and] David to the Jewes.”

So what is Donne saying to us in the age of hypertext, instant liturgy, disposable songs and easy familiarity with the divine (“We just wanna” prayers)? Is he warning us that creativity, innovation, and even pastoral “adaptation” of liturgical texts and actions is risky business? I wonder how often in the creation of new liturgical texts or slight changes in the ritual I have thrust the Mystery into confining and silly “strait corners”? I think we are still discovering the challenges involved as we try to live into the so called “inclusive language project.” Of course, not to expand our God and human language is to be blind to how the past and present “doe the Circle square.”

At most, Donne’s caution suggests that we avoid audacity and presumption in making thoroughgoing revisions that only bring out our personal idiosyncrasies and bring attention to ourselves. Every liturgical reviser and committee might well remember the writing on Belshazzar’s wall, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL and PARSIN.” (Daniel 5) Maybe contextualizing a word or a phrase is in order, but to rewrite the whole Great Thanksgiving, for example, may unwittingly shove God and the congregation into a “strait corner” of our own making.

I am certainly not condemning all our efforts at giving contemporary expression to the praise and prayer of the church. Yet could we heed Donne and confess that we need both the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and ever deepening immersion in the inspired sources—the “circles” of Scripture, poetry, hymnody, and art that have created worlds of vision where God is uncornered?

Bottom line: Beware of “poor wit” in preparing liturgical texts.


Desertmother said...

Brother Mine,
Your comments are most appropriate for those who were born within the confines of the circle. But what of those who were excluded by birth, by skin, by national edict?

For us, liturgy was born in sweaty fields of contradiction. A tenacious hold on faith, often found before we arrived here, forced us to think deeply and theologically enough to find sustaining words, defining words and other words to affirm faith. What of the sung and moaned liturgy born in cane breaks, brush arbors, and slave quarters? These bloody, sweaty words of faith have become the sustaining liturgy emblazoned upon my soul and upon that of many of my people. Am I being asked to trade what spoke truth and faith to my soul for what was framed in the ivory halls of those whose feet found their way to my neck? There must be some connection between the people of faith and the words of faith that they speak liturgically.
Several hundred years of sweat, tears and hope cannot be squeezed into the narrow confines of words framed outside of a people's history with God.

In short, I wonder if cautionary words about rewriting the liturgy have limited application. For me, trading the unendorsed liturgy already written on my soul for foreign words and disjointed sentiments would be like trading my existing faith for an academic exercise.

Dan B said...

Dear sister mine (I receive the salutation as genuine),

Well said and you do my "strait corner" expand. Yours is powerful poetry. I am grateful for your bringing a "wild space" ( see Sallie McFague,ABUNDANT LIFE) to this matter. I use "wild space" in the sense of where one does not fit the white, male, Western, heterosexual, youthful, educated, able-bodied, middle-class and successful definition of “human being”. Such wild-spaces (you represent one or more in your comment) open windows from which to see the matter from another perspective.

From that perspective, I agree that my cautionary words have limited application. You point powerfully to the limits. And you point to what I would say is another tradition within the family of "texts" with which Christians worship. Perhaps what you are cautioning is has similar application to the effect of saying to me, "Don't mess with my/our 'text'. Doing so will 'the Circle square'."

Admittedly, the blog you comment on is an intellectual exercise, and without apology on my part. For the more circumscribed context in which I am writing, such examination is warranted. The "existing faith" of many who worship by altered liturgies tailored and suited to their hegemonic values (dominant culture) underwrite a God who props up the nation state, privileges consumption and the geopolitical status quo, and serves as a prophalactic to deep biblical conversion for the life of the world. I speak strongly out of my "existing faith" that is formed in the crucible of liturgical prayer. I do not speak in criticism of what you say or of your context of liturgical prayer. My intent is to call for self examination on the part of what we do to and with liturgy that is self-serving and conforms God to the darkside of the dominant culture.

Viva the dialogue. Comment further if you are so prompted.

Daniel Benedict

Desertmother said...

Brother Mine (the salutation is without wax),
I wonder if the task at hand is to strip ourselves, all of us, from the underside of all cultures as we endeavor to both speak the liturgy and live the liturgy. AND, I wonder if what each of us clings to as authentic liturgy is merely a meager representation of the reflection of Christ we have seen. For example, in the cane breaks, those in servitude were not willing to accept the dictums of apartheid theology (even on American soil) which said that they were born for servile work; they accepted the whispered reports of holy writ, which said that they were fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. They resolved the contradiction between what they experienced and what they knew to be true liturgically! In slave songs, and phrases which have become part of the unwritten liturgy of the Black church in America and other places in Diaspora they (we) affirmed our adoption into the family of God -- sans baptism (gasp!). Without baptism we are part of God's family, denied communion, we still have a place at the table!
How can we, in these postmodern times, reclaim a glimpse of the heart religion, spirituality, of those times and that of the spiritual climate that gave birth to classical western liturgy? In the case of those of us who live in the wild places, I do not see it happening with a revival of rituals and forms that were never part of the corpus of our spiritual liturature.

Unfortunately, I worry about those even within western culture, so far removed from a kinesthetic memory of the liturgy -- can the fire that kindled the liturgy kindle them? I have no easy-fix solutions. Only questions. Thank you for inviting me to this dialogue.

Dan B said...

Desert Mother,

You stir so much in me that I hardly know where to begin. I sense your piercing integrity and appreciate it so much, though I have to confess in the same breath that your experience and ethos are so (seemingly) so different from mine that I sense you and I are seeking to bridge a deep chasm. Even so, it is worth the effort, for us, I trust and for those who care to read it.

Interpret for me, the expressions "sans baptism."

As to reclaiming the heart of the religion and spirituality that gave birth to the classical Western liturgy, it seems to me that that is precisely what the "liturgical movement" over the last 150 plus years has been trying to do. It is far from perfect and it is messy in the sense that we can never fully know or reappropriate the roots of the classical liturgy. However, we can seek to be faithful in our own contexts to the best we know of those impulses, fits and starts that sought to be faithful in the first few hundred years of Mediterranean/North African Christianity. AND we can in these postmodern times appreciate and recover the heart religion, spirituality, of the times of other traditions including those from within which you so eloquently speak.

Is the ordo of the ancient liturgy (here I am referring to the basic four-fold pattern of Lord's Day worship--GATHERING, PROCLAMATION AND RESPONSE, THANKSGIVING AND COMMUNION, SENDING FORTH)incompatible with the heart religion that grew up out of the American slave experience? Can the spirituality of the two enrich and deepen each other?

I don't think we can recreate--nor should we try--to go back to the "kinesthetic memory" of either liturgy? Maybe God's call is to bricolage today's liturgy from the kinesthetic realities of ancient-future tension in the present. Is black gospel incompatible with the four-fold pattern for the Lord's Day? Are Eucharistic prayer and extempore prayer forged of the pain and joy (born of deeply lived grace)of living on the edge of pain, disemfranchisement, and marginalization, incompatible.

I too have only questions too--and some tentative convictions.

Daniel Benedict