Liturgical niceties

Peter Batsford recalls wearing black and seeing red

'And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.’ As a student at a theological college where the Offices were recited in a markedly hushed and deliberate tone of voice, there were few things capable of causing me greater anguish than to be joined in church by a group unused to this practice, who proceeded to belt out the opening versicles with raucous enthusiasm.

The obvious response is to say that I had probably spent too long in too rarefied an environment, and that if the tendency of some visitors to rush during Evensong was about as bad as it got for me then I should have counted myself fortunate and stopped complaining. But there is perhaps something else in all this, something to do with our understanding of ourselves as liturgical creatures.

Next on the list of my liturgical bugbears was the habit of some of my fellow students of crossing their legs during Mattins. Again, so acute a degree of preciousness in all likelihood said more about me and my weaknesses than it did about those at whom in the early-morning stillness I mouthed silent expletives as I caught sight of them reclining in their stalls.

Insensitivity

I was doubtless guilty in these instances of an oversensitivity in matters liturgical, but there may well be something in the charge that all too often many of us succumb to the reverse, namely an insensitivity to the implications of acting and being within a liturgical environment. The boisterous shouts of the hapless laity in my first example displayed, it could be argued, a selfishness which desired the liturgy to work for them, rather than the other way around.

Particularly when we join an unfamiliar congregation, we should graciously acknowledge the fact that they have grown together as a worshipping community, aware (one hopes) of the ways in which they can support each other liturgically – one speaking a little more softly to compensate for a neighbour who maybe utters the responses rather loudly – and that, therefore, when we add our voice to theirs, we are in danger of doing violence to the web of relationships which characterize corporate liturgical activity. And that, of course, is one of the most important points: the liturgy is an inherently corporate activity. No matter how many are present for one particular service or another (even, indeed, if the parish priest is in church on his own), yet the liturgy is always the work of the entire Church, and local congregations simply join in with that unending hymn of praise.

My cross-legged colleagues at seminary were, it seems to me, by their behaviour inclining away from an awareness of the corporate nature of the Office. Posture and gesture: these speak volumes about whether we are thinking as private individuals, or endeavouring to cultivate a common liturgical mind.

Communication

But it is not enough simply to be aware of the others in church around us, for the liturgy is not just a means of community self-expression. Before it is any sort of expression, it is fundamentally a sort of impression: the liturgy is God’s work of communicating with us before it is ours of talking at him. ‘If you can hear yourself in church, you are probably speaking too loudly.’ A laudable habit to cultivate is to try to hear the words of the liturgy said with others as proceeding not from our own mouths but as though spoken by a common voice. We should almost be able to forget our own contribution to this, so eager should we be to hear it as something originating elsewhere than ourselves.

Something as simple as taking care over our posture – not sitting as we would if were settling down of an evening with a novel, but trying rather to arrange ourselves attentively and alertly – will better incline us to look beyond us to the true source of the liturgy. We start by paying attention to our part within the group, and from there to attending to the place of the group within the great liturgical whole: within the Church throughout the world and throughout the ages, and, as the Church, within the divine creation.

Treading on holy ground

‘Say nothing, if you cannot improve upon the silence.’ Because it is always more important when we pray that we try to hear God than that we try to make ourselves heard by him, we should remember at Mass and at the Offices that we are treading upon holy ground. There is an important sense in which we should try to make our words sound as much as possible like the silence that surrounds them: this needn’t mean speaking in whispers, but rather speaking thoughtfully, carefully and considerately. There should be as little self-promotion in our worship as we can manage.

In the liturgy, we are speaking only in order that others might hear those words, and hear them not as spoken by us but as spoken by God. So too we should behave (posture, gesture) in ways which contribute to our vigilance in prayer.

When next you go to Mass or to Evensong, take a moment to ponder this. How can the tone and volume of your voice, and the speed with which you speak, help you and help others to turn outwards to the divine as responsible members of the Church at prayer? How can the ways you sit and stand and conduct yourself in church aid your spiritual discipline and help you grow in attentive obedience to God? Let us keep before us as we pray the Apostle’s reminder that ‘we are members one of another ... [and] we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.’ ND

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