Previously published in Worship 97 (January 2023).
A Different Checklist
By Genevieve Glen, OSB
We have probably all been there at one time or another, if only in our dreams: at the perfect liturgy. Not one movement out of place, not one word mangled, not one note sharpened or flattened ineptly. What a delight! Until we recognize that something is missing.
I recall one such event. It was an elaborate and beautiful “high” liturgy, the sanctuary overflowing with carefully trained ministers of various kinds, all carefully clad in solemn garb—all matching, of course. It unfolded with the solemn precision of a military exercise or a well-choreographed ballet. It was awesome and beautiful. All that was lacking to the performance was a standing ovation at the end, but that would have been drowned out in any case by the majestic organ recessional. A simple checklist would have assured those responsible that it had been the perfect celebration. Still . . . It was sometime later that it struck me what was missing: in all that stunning perfection, there was no sign of living, breathing, imperfect humanity anywhere. To the onlooker—there were no “participants” outside the sanctuary—it seemed a carefully scripted, carefully constructed ceremonial graveyard. Very reverent, a work of art, certainly well intended, but a field of dry bones nonetheless.
Quite a different memory takes me to Sundays at an ordinary parish liturgy. At the time I was deeply immersed in the academic study of liturgy and allied disciplines. A fellow student and I chose to leave our local comfort zone to participate in a parish Sunday liturgy in another suburb. I have forgotten why. The late morning Mass laid no claim to perfection. I doubt it occurred to anyone there that it should need to. The associate pastor was no textbook definition of an ideal presider. He tended to stumble and drop things. His homilies seemed at first to be simple. But gradually they engaged us, and deeply.
We couldn’t quite put a finger on why, until we realized that in every homily, it was only the language that was simple. Every Sunday, that preacher engaged deeply in a conversation between Scripture and reality about the interplay of darkness and light in everyday life, and he invited everyone else there to join in. He clearly knew the light and the darkness well himself. We later learned that, like many of my generation, he had joined the Marines right out of high school. Before he turned twenty, he was boots on the ground in the horror that was Vietnam. There he took part in person in the terrible wrestling match between guns, bombs, torture, and war on the one hand, and the gospel of Jesus Christ on the other. He could preach as he did, I realized, because of what he knew. He knew that the death and resurrection of Christ are not religious platitudes. He knew that they are real life at its core. And he knew— obviously not from his formal education—that they were the deepest reality of the liturgy we celebrated there on Sundays in the clean safety of a suburban parish long after the war had become an embarrassing memory. If he sometimes stammered and lost his place in the homily, he had earned the right.
As my friend and I went back to that parish Sunday after Sunday, we began to realize that he was not alone. The parishioners had accepted his invitation to join him silently in that weekly conversation, attentive eyes filled with understanding, unspoken thoughts clearly working over what he was saying. What he knew, they did too. They were ordinary hardworking people, many of them people of color, some with shoulders hunched and faces seamed by aging, illness, and worry, others struggling to manage squirming children while hiding smiles at a preschooler’s antics, some sitting alone and keeping a careful distance from their neighbors, others sneaking a peak at texts and checking the time. In other words, ordinary folk.
One Sunday a member of the choir put into song the story they all clearly shared in one way or another among themselves, with their presider, and with whoever else present who was listening. The man stood and sang in unforgettable solo: “There is a balm in Gilead . . .” He had clearly fought his own way to Gilead in search of healing, and he had found it there. And from what I read on the faces of the rest of the congregation, he was not speaking for himself alone any more than the homilist had been. They had all studied in the same school of life and learned there what the paschal story of Jesus Christ really means, because it was their story too. No careful choreography here, no flawless ceremonial, no perfection from which real humanity had been banished. Quite the contrary. And worshiping with them drew my friend and me deeply into the mystery of Christ dying and rising at the core of our own lives. No one was only an onlooker there unless they chose to be.
No one was only an onlooker there unless they chose to be.
These two experiences have set me to thinking about many things, but here
I would like to focus on what they taught me about the “doing” of liturgy. Over the years as writer, workshop leader, teacher, and seminary liturgy instructor, especially during the intense years of liturgical reform and renewal and their still-active trailers, I have paid a great deal of attention to the serious business of liturgical performance, as have many of you.
Performance is, of course, an essential dimension of liturgical celebration because liturgy is something we do. It can be described as communal prayer performed in the various languages of word, ritual, and music. It is communal because, ideally at least, everyone present plays a part, even if the part is not obvious. Sitting still attentively, praying silently as well as verbally, focusing attention on the core dimension of worship, the paschal event, are all modes of “performing” the communal act of worship as much as carrying gifts and lectoring are. They are just not the same type of performing as that of publicly identifiable ministers. To be sure, effective liturgical performance does require public words well chosen and well spoken or sung, actions both clearly expressive and inherently graceful, and music well selected, well played and/or well sung. Behind the scenes, we often disagree, of course, about the choices to be made for a particular celebration to live up to that ambiguous word “well.” But we tend to share a common drive to “do it right,” whatever “right” might mean in a particular community.
Church is, of course, a reality that lives and breathes and changes. In the period of post-conciliar liturgical reform and renewal that began in the mid-sixties and never quite seems to end, scholars have pursued study in a number of disciplines to help us understand how the various aspects of liturgical performance can be made more effective in serving the paschal life of the community. Among these disciplines are history (how did we get from there to here anyway?), language (tell me again what “performative language” is?), ritual (how high should that cross, that candle, that consecrated bread be raised?), sociology (how do groups integrate new and diverse populations?), biblical studies (what is the significance of all those stories of bread and water?). All these disciplines and more have played important roles in the development of liturgical performances in various settings. However valuable they are, though, they sometimes seem to miss the essential questions raised for me by the two celebrations I described at the beginning of this article. Perhaps that’s because they are questions so obvious we never think to ask them. We perform as best we can according to our lights—but to what end? And with what effect?
We perform as best we can according to our lights—but to what end?
And with what effect?
In the first celebration I described, the conscious end that seems to have driven all practical decisions was to give glory to a transcendent God—an admirable purpose indeed. I knew those responsible and knew them to be people commendably committed to it. The unintended effect, however, seemed to me as a member of the congregation to be separation and exclusion. Those who really counted were identified by their elaborate and beautiful uniforms. They ringed the altar in impenetrable ranks, barring entry to anyone who was not wearing the right kind of clothing. One felt there would be consequences if anyone was irreverent enough to try—which, of course, no one did. I’m afraid I could not help remembering the gospel story of the man cast out of the wedding feast because he was not wearing a wedding robe (Matthew 22:12). The general message to us outside the rails seemed to be: watch, be quiet, pray, but don’t touch! There were obviously many people in the congregation who complied in a very deep spirit of prayer and adoration, but since they were not invited to verbalize their prayer publicly, the ritual had the feel of solitary communication between individual worshipers and the Almighty. Focus was on the action in the sanctuary. Perhaps without anyone’s intending it, the ritual drew everyone’s attention to itself at the expense of awareness of one another as members of Christ’s Body.
In reflecting on that second liturgy, I realize I don’t remember anything unusual about the particular way Mass was celebrated there. The liturgy must have been as ordinary as the participants. Nothing done, except that one solo, drew any attention to itself at all. The preacher himself was an example.
What my friend and I learned about his experience of war did not come from him. He never mentioned it, or anything much about himself at all. Instead he adhered to St. Paul’s approach: “. . . we do not proclaim ourselves; we pro- claim Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5). All the facets of the celebration seemed instead to draw everyone, with their ordinary everyday experiences, their joys and sorrows, their personal stories, into a single shared focus: the reality of Jesus Christ in his dying and rising. Somehow, what was said and done in readings, homily, song, and action connected that reality to the everyday lives of all those present and wove them together. I think, upon reflection, that the “somehow” was the dynamic power of God’s ever-transformative Spirit always at work fusing us into the living Body of Christ, inside the church and then in the world outside it. That is the dimension of performance that is under no one’s control but God’s and forces no one’s participation except those who choose it.
Even though we may know that, and know it from experience, those of us responsible do sometimes want to evaluate the individual elements of the performance to see what each contributed to or detracted from the desired outcome, the end and effect we hoped to achieve starting out. What is frustrating about this very businesslike approach is, of course, that the melding of the paschal mystery of Christ and our own lives through the liturgy is not something we can measure. We may, and often do, make a checklist of items after the event, hoping perhaps to be able to say: not one movement out of place, not one word mangled, not one note sharpened or flattened inaptly. But in so doing we will find no way of reaching beyond that desired perfection, or its absence, to assess the interaction between what we have done and what God has wrought in us through it.
Where do we see the evidence of paschal transformation wrought through the liturgical event?
A priest friend recently offered me a clue as to what to look for in answer to the real question: where do we see the evidence of paschal transformation wrought through the liturgical event? He told the story of taking Communion to an old lady confined to bed in a tenement. Family and friends had gathered with her. It was no ideal performance, this rite of sacramental Communion in a dark, crowded, malodorous room. Words were the minimal version prescribed by the rite, music was not possible, ritual actions were rather quick and cramped. My friend was momentarily dumbstruck, though, by one woman who came forward to receive: her face was seamed with hideous scars laid over facial bones that had all clearly been broken and had reknit haphazardly. She could barely speak even a clear “Amen.” But after she had received the sacrament, he said, her face was suddenly lit with a light from within that was so radiant that every disfigurement seemed to disappear from sight, at least for a moment. He saw, he said, death and resurrection.
That deeply moving story suggested to me that perhaps we ought not bother with checklists and evaluation meetings. They will tell us something of what we might want to know about the performance itself. Were the words said and sung correctly? Was the ritual well carried out? Was it all done right? Those responsible for that high liturgy would really have wanted to know. Those in that parish might have thought them interesting, but most probably they would not have thought they mattered much. They would have been right. They really are not the most important questions to ask. Perhaps instead of asking any questions at all, we should watch the people’s faces as the liturgical performance unfolds. In the end, that is the only evaluation that really matters.