James KA Smith and Liturgical Animals

On Friday I was able to attend a special Eucharist service at Christ Church Anglican here in Phoenix. There was a guest homilist, James KA Smith, who is well known for his writings on Christian worship, secularism, and other topics, and the service itself seemed to be conceived of as a kind of “liturgy workshop” for visitors from non-liturgical backgrounds.

Dr. Smith’s sermon was very good, I thought, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to explain what exactly was going on at the service.

The reason I call it a “workshop” is that the presider took a minute or two before each part of the liturgy to explain its name, origin, and purpose within the service. Of course, the result of explaining what ritual action you are going to take before you take it is that what you are doing (almost) ceases to be a ritual action at all. I suppose it’s more precise to say that, the more discursive padding you provide, the lesser the power of the ritual to do its work in surely and silently forming you.*

* I’m speaking here about the natural power of ritual action and how it corresponds to our embodied experience, not necessarily about the supernatural effects of the Mass. I’m not sure yet about how to understand the way these things are connected — because they clearly are, yet a worship service without the special grace that comes through the Real Presence still has real formative power.

For evangelical churchgoers, this Pausing For Explanation will be such a familiar, rote part of experiencing church that it might take on a kind of ritual feel all its own. Scene: a pastor extemporaneously explains communion before the bread is passed around, or pauses to remind his congregation that infant dedication does not affect the baby’s salvation. A worship pastor discourses on the appropriate emotional response to the song he is about to play, as he provides mood music on the piano. But I’ve experienced this at Mass from time to time, too. It’s usually an older priest, and I want to say this was part of the generational problem of the 60s and 70s — priests genuinely came to think that the way to bring the liturgy to the people was to pause in the middle of performing it and explain the “real” meaning of every phrase and gesture. It was the heydey of what some ritual theorists refer to as “sincerity.”

But actually, because this is all about breaking down and analyzing the intrinsic but nondiscursive intentionality of the act, and bracketing it with more comfortable explanation, it transforms an experience of ritual action into merely learning about ritual action.

I can see why introducing things this way, on such an occasion, was seen as a helpful and welcoming thing to do for the visiting Christians from various backgrounds. I think I would have found it enlightening and inspiring when I was at the stage where I had read about and liked the idea of ritual, but had never experienced it as a fully intentional act. But as it was, I kept thinking — this is like explaining a joke before you tell it, or stopping in the middle of playing pretend to establish, “remember, right now I’m just PRETENDING to be a pirate.” The most disappointing words you can hear at a moment of your vicarious imaginative experience of piracy on the high seas are: “I don’t want to play anymore.” In my house as a kid, that would get you kicked in the shins. What do you mean, you don’t want to play?! We weren’t playing. You just ruined it!

Now, I rush to say, I didn’t exactly want to kick the good rector in the shins, but it did notably disrupt the momentum of what we were doing (as I’m sure he was also aware), and it also reminded me of what “we,” liturgical Christians, are up against when it comes to sharing traditional forms of worship with our evangelical brethren. Overall, the experience really highlighted for me how deeply entrenched this culture of discomfort-with-ritual is in huge swathes of Protestant or evangelical Christianity. I’ve read some books on ritual in the framework of modernity that have helped me see the wider intellectual and social trends behind anti-ritualism, but I couldn’t help but wonder about why this discomfort manifests itself so potently in this specific subculture.

Incense. An essential.

In the evangelical communities where I grew up, we did everything we could to stave off the suspicion of ritual — chiefly by pausing to explain and explain away the “inessentials” of what we were doing. These “inessentials,” I now see, were in large part the forms and patterns and actions that are actually the backbone of what it means to do or mean anything. I personally responded very well to ritual in all areas of my life, and actually look back at my childhood and laugh when I realize all the ways I was acting out (so to speak) my liturgical deprivation. I won’t go into the ways I filled the void, but suffice it to say that it involved pretended reenactments of “pagan” rituals and a continual longing to be Jewish, since they at least got all the fun stuff, before the Gospel made it obsolete.

Learning that the Christian dispensation did not make ritual obsolete, but actually built on it, drawing Christian worship toward some even more transcendent and immanent reality, was and is a continual joy. I learned what ritual actually was through ennacting it together with a community that was carrying on the practice of the Church throughout generations. I put my back up against it and slowly soaked in what was happening and what I was.

When I miss being evangelical, what I miss is the world, the kind of living, that I experienced through what we did. I sometimes miss the praise and worship “mode” of singing (though not often, to be honest) — or, more frequently, I miss the very earnest, very self-effacing position of prayer that I’ve dubbed the Evangelical Slump. (You know what I mean: elbows on knees, forehead propped on fists.) I miss carrying a huge Bible to church, or summer camp, or the cadence of extemporaneous prayer (which, I realize after seven years away from it, requires continual practice and formation to keep up). It might sound shallow to focus on these “externals,” which I was always taught were essentially meaningless. But they weren’t meaningless. They taught and formed me – not just my intellect, not just my beliefs, but my very self, the desires of my heart.

It’s these experiences that make our human lives what they are, and form us as members of the Body.

The Evangelical Slump.

So I come around at last to Dr. Smith’s homily, which meditated on this point: that ritual practice is an apprenticeship of repetition that forms our habits and our hearts, in allowing us to continually enact who we are called to be. As he repeats often in his books, Dr. Smith describes human beings as “liturgical animals.” Liturgical action, or ritual, is not something “man-made” that threatens our authentic experience of relationship with God — it is actually God-made, in that he is the one who created us to respond and live through the experience of ritual, as part of our human nature. As Christian worshippers (described in Colossians 3), we “put on love” through our enacting of liturgical worship, becoming more and more aware of what our hearts should love (and aware of what they love instead), both learning and becoming in this “school of love.” (I underlined this quote in my notes — the “school of love” is the way that Benedict describes the monastic life in his preface to the Rule.) Dr. Smith delivers some great lines that pack a punch and sent a ripple through the congregation. I jotted down:

On the Eucharist: “The way to our hearts is through our bodies – we absorb God’s story at a gut level.”
“We become what we worship because we worship what we love.”
Punning on SAD: “Lent is a season of affective order.”

He quoted Augustine (“he who sings prays twice”) and the congregation almost groaned, they were so moved with recognition — another note in my file for the essay I will someday write about how singing is the evangelical sacrament.

I appreciate Dr. Smith’s obvious familiarity with the medieval philosophical tradition on habits (internal dispositions of character) and his indebtedness to Augustine and Thomas in certain aspects, and wish I could comment more on his incorporation of quotes from Luther and Calvin. As both of these confessional traditions preserved liturgical worship, but in a markedly different form than before, I have much to learn about the way that liturgy has been conceived of and practiced in these “lower” traditions. My jump from evangelicalism to Catholicism leads me to assume that any liturgical tradition is as “high” as my own, since it is high compared to where I started — but the more I experience worship in liturgical Protestant communities, the more holes I find in this assumption.

It was a very auspicious time to hear Dr. Smith’s thoughts on the essential role of liturgical ritual action, as I’m heading in to Lent, and I have not always been a very successful observer of liturgical seasons. It’s a challenge in our life, which teems with so many rival liturgies, many of which exist to tear us away from forming solid habits and sane dispositions in the first place. I think modern Westerners suffer from a real lack of ritual formation in all areas of our life, which can make it difficult to actually benefit from ritual practices unless we approach them in the right way. It certainly has been difficult for me in the past — fasting is a particular hurdle. But Dr. Smith urged that we remember Lent as a time to submit to the story we are told in worship, letting it govern our imaginations and affections at a visceral level, the “tangible teaching of our hearts.”

I’ll be praying that he and all of you have a blessed Lenten season.

Easter Fire in the Holy Sepulchre.

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