Tedious At Heart – Why use liturgical ritual?

Reports of a Liturgical Revival are greatly exaggerated.

I say this with not a little disappointment. The Daily Office has been for me a source of divine life and love, enabling me to serve and give to a capacity I could never have imagined. In a ministry of uncertainty, which I guess is where we are all called to serve, the Office gives me rest.

If you spend your day serving those who have little that is certain – no certainty that their relationships will endure, that their mental wellbeing will improve, that they will continue to have a job – it becomes a welcome shelter to open the pages of the Prayer Book and join with the many who are doing the same.

Such ritualised worship, far from being insincere or (the dreaded) rote, is actually a opportunity to experience and express the perfect reconciliation the Christian has with the Lord. By this I mean that one can memorise, perfect, and make beautiful the simple ritual of Daily Office in in so doing give every day an offering which is acceptable before God of time, of words (or songs), of listening, and of asking. (Yes, it is the case that we who have been made new in Christ are always acceptable before God – this is not a work the Christian performs but Christ.) Rather I have found that the knowledge that I have offered acceptable prayers (as judged by the Scriptures and interpreted by the liturgy prescribed by Christian tradition) is deeply comforting.

No matter what else I got wrong this day, I know I did one thing right.

To use the liturgy (order of worship) given by historic Christianity gives expression (words, form, action) not only to the Gospel but also our common life as Christian believers. Yes, we can look at another Christian and be convinced in our minds that we should be nice to them, but when we share a common language and expectation of worship such unity becomes far more visible and far more compelling.

Liturgy is how the Church tells me what is acceptable and appropriate in worship. This means I am not a prisoner of my conscience and do not need to languish under the crushing weight of my own expectation. How can this be anything but a gift?

In a world which is vague, ambiguous, conflicted, and individualised it is so nourishing to engage with a ritual which is defined by someone else, given to me to perform and be shaped by, and to realise that these words, actions, and experiences are the stuff that makes saints. Do you think Augustine of Hippo became a theologian overnight, or was he shaped over years by rigorous discipline in prayer and devotion?

But such lessons are easily taught in a sermon. I get it – someone can admire these virtues from a distance. We can all post quotes from The Rule of Saint Benedict on Instagram.

And underneath the high ideals of a ritual, liturgical, historic discipline is tedium.

Life, as it turns out much to the Christian Men’s Movement’s disappointment, is not full of battles to fight and women to win. Life is made up of a series of engagements which variously demand our effort and our pride. Work, education, child-raising, marriage. Men particularly are told to identify with the hero’s journey. They believe they have set off on a quest to achieve something meaningful and will gain the necessary magical aid to fulfil the need.

This is not how life works. The American Dream is the closest thing I suppose; the story of an enterprising young man who leaves home, founds a business, sells it and doesn’t work a day after his 40th birthday.

Perhaps the reason that very few have joined me on the path of Liturgical discipline is because the story it tells is so unappealing. Wouldn’t you rather believe that with a protracted period of immense effort, you can go home and rest forever? Spiritual discipline hold out no hope of an eventual rest or retirement.

Liturgical discipline is a way of life which seeks to cultivate the virtues necessary to make someone a more suitable servant of their neighbours and of the Lord.

Thomas Cranmer understood this, and so his 1662 Prayer Book introduces the ridged order of worship ‘daily throughout the year’. At the moment that is still an aspiration for me, but I find that the more disciplined I become, the more I love the work I am doing and those around me. I am grateful for that, even if I’m not on the spearhead of a high-church resurgence.

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