Don't Blame the Liturgists

(America, November 23, 1991, 383-85)

The joke has popped up at just about every church gathering in the past few months. But in case you are "the only one in Jerusalem who hasn't heard about what's been happening in these recent days," it goes like this: Question: What's the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist....

It would be easy simply to laugh it off as the kind of dark humor that we all use from time to time, perhaps as a relatively harmless way of coping with frustration and its accompanying malicious urges. The church version of Dan Quayle jokes, sort of.

Then again, it might provide an occasion for dipping into some more substantive reflections on our contemporary liturgical scene. After all, grim humor only arises in situations where there are real grievances afoot. Kremlin jokes do not originate in Disneyland.

I'll tip my hand right at the outset. I think the liturgists are getting a bum rap. Liturgists aren't the problem. But rubricists are.

Some Memories of the Past.

To put some flesh on that distinction we need to go back to the church of the 1950's. Priests trained in that era can recall only too well the manuals employed to assure that every action in the Mass was done just so. At the "Dominic, go frisk 'em" (an old church joke you parents can explain to your Latin-starved children) the hands were to be perfectly parallel, and perfectly vertical, and never to extend beyond the width of the torso. The arabesques prescribed for incensing the gifts at a Solemn High Mass required the dexterity of a Nureyev. All in all, Emily Post --- a much more regal lady than that contemporary softy. Miss Manners --- could not have been more precise. Or more demanding.

Whatever else the Mass was, it was defined externally by prescribed rubrics. And just in case the point needs to be highlighted: We must never forget that in the hands of persons with genuine interior sensitivity and reverence --- real liturgists, if you will --- the experience evoked profound prayer in the spirits of many, many people. The point is, of course, that for such celebrants (another more recent word, to be sure) rubrics were never what it was "all about." Rubrics were like the school figures prescribed for figure skaters: a Dorothy Hamill infuses them with transcendent beauty while the self-conscious klutz has us focused on the shaky ankle.

And Then Came Renewal

All that was to change, as we are all too aware. Vatican II was to initiate a revitalizing of the embodied prayer forms of God's people. We were asked to enact in symbolic, ritual form some fundamental conversions of consciousness to which we were being called by a deepened experience of Christian life.

Different thinkers would probably formulate the components of those conversions in different ways, but it is safe to say that high on anyone's list would be two challenges: the call to take seriously the fact that God saves us, not as isolated, atomized individuals but as a people, an organic social reality; and the call to wrestle with the variety of human social embodiments through which the transcendent reality of God's transforming love can be manifested. Liturgy, the expression of those two conversions of heart within the Christian people, was to be communal prayer, the prayer of a social body, and inculturated prayer, issuing from, and of a piece with, the lived social experience of that unique assembly.

Now to pray in common in such a way that the external manifestations disclose God's saving presence in the distinctive life-patterns of each different gathered assembly is admittedly no mean feat. For once we begin to take culture seriously we discover that it is not simply a matter of a guitar, or the use of a peace pipe, or rainbows, or --- gee whiz! --- Gospelized hand-clapping. Frankly, many exercises in "inculturation" come off as hokey, not because in themselves they cannot be genuine expressions of prayer, but because they do not fit this assembled body. Cultures involve highly complex and distinctive attitudes and thought-patterns, shards of normative behavior picked up in zillions of unconscious ways over long periods of time. Much of what constitutes a culture is only discovered when you bump up against it by doing something gauche or awkward. It cannot be learned from a book "about" people. Like learning to ride a bike, you learn it only by doing it, by living within that particular people --- for a long time. Peace pipes are forms of prayer only for people interiorly committed to peace.

The issue becomes more complicated when we use the concept of inculturation in a more broadly analogous way --- as we must, if we are to confront the distinctive realities of worship at two parishes a mile from each other up and down Main Street --- say, St. Ambrose and Holy Martyrs. A scientific cultural anthropologist might conclude from their artifacts that these two congregations belong to the same culture, and in a certain technical sense they do. Yet, in a perhaps richer sense, they are uniquely inculturated bodies, even if they appear to be both Irish-American or Italian-American or what Lyndon Johnson called just plain "Amurrican." Beneath the macro-culture they share, in a profound sense there are distinct cultures at work. Their uniqueness is even more mysterious and powerful than the larger culture they embody.

So, according to the Vatican II vision, the forms, the symbols, the tone, the subject of the prayer-life of each individual community were to be grounded in that community's own distinctive journey with the Lord, which revolves around its unique struggles and successes; its deaths and risings; its angels and demons; its experiences of shared sin and grace. We were becoming aware that grace, like sin, is never abstract and universal, but always incarnational, limited and localized.

Now it is true, to be sure, that the journey of each local church is undertaken within the larger pilgrimage of the church universal, and the liturgical expression has to connect the local community with that broader movement. But if that larger journey is so accented that the experience fails to express the immediacy of this gathered body's life, it ceases to be liturgy and becomes totemized ritual --- a lifeless shell fashioned out of somebody else's theology and priorities and aesthetic preferences, laid I over the life of this community in a way that all but smothers its own inner movements of the spirit. I So liturgy was to be shared, inculturated prayer. At i least that was the vision. I i And

Then Came the Burgeoning.

And what happened? For a while, as we should have expected, there was a wild profusion of liturgical vitality.

Sometimes there were experiences that evoked contemi plation unto tears; reconciliations and resurrections pro; foundly moving. And sometimes, it must be admitted, there was idiotic irresponsibility. After all, when 1,000 flowers are allowed to bloom, it doesn't even take an - enemy to attract the seeds of weeds.

Unfortunately, as the biblical parable alerts us, some folks just cannot abide the untidiness of weeds. Have to root out this unkemptness, you know.

And Then the Rubricists

(Re-)enter the rubricists --- earnestly --- scythes in hand.

Rubricists, by contrast with liturgists, focus on forms. For them form doesn't follow function, form is the point. Life and all its tangled mysteries, ambiguities and muddied intentions don't get enacted through a diaphanous rubric, they get smothered beneath it. There is a "correct" way to process, and a "right" way to celebrate the Prayer of the Hours, and the "proper" way to prepare the gifts --- regardless of whether the liturgy is being celebrated in the cathedral, a little rural parish, a nursing home or an urban ghetto.

If we take seriously the vision of collective prayer espoused by Vatican II, as liturgists do, there really should be only one question appropriate to the evaluation of a liturgy: Did the external forms in fact lead that body of people into prayer-as-a-people? The goal of common worship remains paramount; all the rest is means.

Instead of that, we are told by the rubricists that the Book of the Gospels wasn't really carried with the arms fully vertical. Or that next time the presider should pace his movement from the presidential seat to the lectern so that he arrives exactly as the Alleluia is ending.

All of a sudden everything is beginning to look the same again. (When was the last time you saw a song leader whose arm was not bent at that same exact angle they all seem to be taught to use now, fingers stiffly together?) What is worse, and more to the point, all this is happening because the rubricists decree it, not because the prayer needs of the communities they serve are calling for it. It seems to matter little whether these external forms have any connection with what the rite is supposed to be expressing. After the fanfares at some recent ordinations, one would not be surprised to see the ordinands come down the center aisle on jousting horses. One wonders how theTympanists' Union got all this power. Nothing against tympanists, mind you, but is this a coronation we are celebrating?

The sad reality is that in many places the terrorists are back. Too many of the programs supposed to be supplying our churches with liturgists seem to be turning out rites squads. As the dark joke alerts us, rubricists do not negotiate, they hold others hostage.

A Misplaced Understanding of Leadership

Ultimately, it turns around one's notion of leadership. We call liturgists, after all, prayer leaders. Ultimately the rubricists miss the mark, not because the forms they dictate cannot be expressions of prayer, but because they do not understand the costly discipline of leadership.

The power to lead is conferred by any people on those who deeply respect the heritage, genius and ethos of those they are called to lead. It is earned, through sensitivity, reverent listening and regard for the otherness of the community, not claimed on the basis of oils on one's hands or letters after one's name. The reality is that the spirit has been praying within this particular people, shaping them through their particular experiences, long before the prayer leader arrived, and the prayer will continue long after the leader has moved on. Leaders do not create prayer, they evoke in people the realization and expression of who they already are, a people fashioned and claimed by God. Prayer is like the coin in the parable. It's still in the house, it's just lost for the moment. The leader's role is to invite the people into the search, not to bring them a bag of trinkets to distract them from the God who is waiting to be found and acknowledged and celebrated.

So first let us bless the Lord for the gift of our liturgists. Then we may be permitted to use a time-honored prayer form from the church's tradition, as we pray: "From rubricists and other terrorists, Lord, deliver us."