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.