I sometimes hear a parish described as having “good liturgy.” What I have discovered is that this means different things to different people, from splendid choirs and beautiful vestments to robust congregational singing and use of homemade bread for the Eucharist. In academic settings, I have generally found that what counts as “good liturgy” often corresponds to a particular theoretical stance regarding the nature and purpose of liturgy, or a certain reading of the history of the liturgy. “Good liturgy” means something different to someone who sees the 13th century as a period of liturgical decadence compared to one who sees it as the full flowing of the liturgy’s organic development.
Outside of an academic context, however, “good liturgy” often amounts to “what I’m used to.” In other words, people are drawn to rituals that they have come to feel at home with and which have become meaningful to them. Whether this is “Eagles Wings” being sung at every funeral or the prayer to St. Michael being said at the end of every Mass, people see as good those rituals which have shaped their lives and given them meaning. And I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.
What I think is sometimes under-appreciated is the connection between repetition over time and something being “meaningful.” Let me give an example.
I have been a Roman Catholic for a little over forty years. For the first thirty-eight or so of those years I could count on my two hands (and maybe a couple of toes) the number of times I heard the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) used in the liturgy. I didn’t particularly feel as if I were missing something. Not only is it difficult to miss something you’ve only rarely experienced, but my amateur interest in liturgical history and theology had schooled me to think that the Canon was an inferior product, confused in structure, unbalanced in theology, and clogged with the detritus of liturgical history. In short, it did not constitute “good liturgy.”
I thought it was acceptable that it had been retained in the reformed liturgy largely unchanged, since it was a vital part of our heritage, but this was a thoroughly theoretical level of appreciation. On the rare occasions that I heard it used I was quite distracted by its oddness compared to the new Eucharistic prayers: the lack of any mention of the Spirit apart from the doxology, the strange way in which the intercessions were “wrapped” around the institution narrative, the repeated (almost nagging) pleas that God would accept our sacrifice, the long lists of sometimes obscure saints. I thought of it as something like an intricately embroidered fiddleback chasuble that a parish might possess. You could trot it out on occasion, but its archaic character and overall weirdness made it something that no right thinking person would want to use on a regular basis.
A couple of years ago there was a change of priestly leadership at the church I serve as a deacon and suddenly the Roman Canon was cropping up a lot more often—as in, most Sundays. The rationale for this was the statement in GIRM §365: “the Roman Canon… is especially suited for use on Sundays…” Hearing it twice every weekend had the effect on me of not only reducing its oddness, but of making some of its supposed vices seem like virtues: the long lists of saints becomes a widening of the circle of those gathered at the altar; the repeated pleas for acceptance of our offering convey a sense that nothing we offer God is in any obvious way worthy of divine acceptance; the central place of the institution narrative amidst all that pleading reminds us of what we offer and why we dare to offer it. Though the relative absence of the Spirit from the Eucharistic prayer still seems strange, I have begun to see that the Roman Canon has its own kind of logic, focused less on the descent of the Spirit on our gifts and more on our sacrifice being raised to the heavenly altar and joined to that of Christ. In short, by repetition the very things that had seemed archaic and weird to me have begun to make sense. I have come to feel at home with them.
This, of course, is simply how ritual works. We do not engage in rituals because they make sense, but rituals make sense because we habitually engage in them. The point of ritual is to convey a mystery that is not subject to the kind of neat, linear account that reason can give. There is at least a partial truth in the claim of the anthropologist Frits Staal, “ritual is pure activity, without meaning or goal” (“The Meaninglessness of Ritual,” Neumen 26/1 (1976), 9). That is, ritual is not a symbolic expression of a non-symbolic idea, nor a means of attaining some aim beyond itself. Of course, a Christian could never completely embrace such a view, since the Roman Canon itself prays that God would make our ritual offering rationabilem. But it does seem to me the case that what makes a liturgical action or text “good liturgy” is not its correspondence to an idea or its suitability to a purpose outside itself, but its capacity, when repeated over time, to generate meaning. I feel, for example, that my understanding of ritual sacrifice has been deepened by my repeated praying of the Roman Canon in the context of the liturgy, and that this is a kind of understanding that could not be had simply by having an idea explained to me.
I think a legitimate criticism of the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council, a criticism made at the time by anthropologists like Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, is that they were too much based on theological accounts of what is going on in the sacraments, or on historical narratives of how the sacraments developed, and not enough on an appreciation of the way in which ritual is not simply reflective of meaning but generative of it. A deeper appreciation of how “what I am used to” might be a factor in what constitutes “good liturgy” might have made the reformers a bit more cautious about eliminating rituals deemed “meaningless,” such as the use of salt at baptism or repeating “Lord I am not worthy” three times at the invitation to communion.
Is this to say that we cannot employ reason to distinguish between “good liturgy” and “bad liturgy” or that liturgical rites should never be reformed? Not at all. But it might shift somewhat our criteria for such judgments. Any reform of the liturgy to ensure that it retains its character as rationabilem has to appreciate the resistance of ritual to rational reduction. It must also be careful about the way that novelty can undermine the power of ritual. For what constitutes “good liturgy” is not determined by a theory or a historical account, but rather by what, through repetition over time, habituates us in such a way that we can see ever more deeply into the mystery we celebrate.