I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church where experiencing a Sunday service was exactly that, an experience. As you entered you were greeted by the smell of incense and melting candle wax. Images of Bible history were depicted on icons everywhere you looked. The worship service itself involved the whole body, standing and kneeling, singing, chanting, listening, bowing, reading, and silence. It culminated as you opened your mouth and were spoon-fed the body and blood of Christ. We savored the sweet wine and confessed once again that He is our Strength and Sustainer.
If you are reading along with us in Kathleen Norris’ book The Cloister Walk, and haven’t experienced a church service like this, you may be wondering what she is talking about when she goes on and on about liturgy. Or you may be like I was as a young person, participating in a traditional service and feeling mostly confused like you aren’t getting enough explanation of what you are doing or why it matters.
Norris frequently refers to liturgy as poetry, and though poetry is not my thing, the metaphor is starting to grow on me. I had to laugh when she wrote about teaching poetry in elementary school. She explains that kids who normally don’t perform well, who have trouble following the rules, or who don’t thrive in a traditional scholastic environment tend to take to poetry naturally. Poetry allows them a way to express themselves that traditional academic structures don’t. But for the rule followers, those who see school as a task to be mastered, they get uncomfortable with poetry and all of its fuzzy boundaries. I am a perfect example of this. Give me a research paper and I can get it done, ask my to write a poem and I’ll likely hyperventilate.
I think the theory of Multiple Types of Intelligences, which has emerged in recent years, gives some insight into Norris’ point. Some of us are innately visual, others physical or musical, some can read a person, others can manipulate a space. But traditional education, perhaps even more so today with the broad implementation of standardized testing, teaches, for the most part, to certain types of intelligences. Those who are naturally good with words and numbers are more likely to do well in school while those who thrive in the arts or other areas may find themselves lost.
One of the things I love about liturgy is that it makes space for many forms of intelligence and levels of education. In one service there are different ways that you can participate. Some will engage with the visual images, some through singing, or reading, still others through repeatedly making the sign of the cross over their bodies. The liturgy creates an environment where someone illiterate can stand next to a Biblical scholar in worship and both can encounter God in meaningful ways. Liturgy has the appeal of a poem in that there is something in it for everyone and we each don’t have to walk away with the same message to have been affected by it.
Norris warns us,
As children grow older and are asked to analyze poetry, they are taught that separating out the elements in the poem-images, similes, metaphors-is the only way to “appreciate”it. As if the poem is somehow less than the whole of its parts . . .
She talks about having similar frustration herself with learning mathematics.
I sensed that I was getting only part of the story, a dull, literal-minded version of what in fact was a great mystery, and I wonder if children don’t begin to reject both poetry and religion for similar reasons, because the way both are taught takes the life out of them.
I know I am guilty of this. For me, the rule follower, I would rather reduce the great complexities of my faith into something that can be explained in a fill-in-the blank worksheet. I want the answer to be clear, concise and always correct. The Bible is my textbook, to be dissected and analyzed.
Norris goes on to say,
to make the poem of our faith, we must learn not to settle for a false certitude but to embrace ambiguity and mystery.
Facing the mystery of my faith is hard. I am agitated when I can’t put my finger on the right answer or when I encounter something I can’t explain, it is even worse when I realize the answer is something that I don’t really like. Ambiguity is uncomfortable and yet I have come to appreciate liturgy because it forces me to sit in it, smelling incense, hearing chanting, recognizing that I am participating in something other-worldly something I can’t fully explain.
We can look at a newborn baby or a mountain or piece of art and know that there is a touch of the divine there, that there is more to it than we will every be able to fully grasp or rationally understand. And in the same way, for me as a child, the liturgy filled me with the sense that there was a depth to life that was far more complex than I could wrap my mind around. The intricate, multi-sensory, rich experience of liturgy urged my heart to not only desire God, but to experience Him. My awareness of Him (even in the midst of a family that wasn’t all that devout and offered little explanation as to what we were doing at church) was something profound, something that no amount of argument or discussion could prove or disprove. (I’m not saying we should check our minds at the door of the church, certainly reason and logic and an academic review of history are essential to our faith, but there are also some parts of our faith that defy logic and yet we believe them anyway).
I want my daughter to know and love church and the Bible but I also want her to recognize God when she sees Him in other places like in the trees, in people and food. I want her to know that she can be with Him when she gardens and reads and writes and that she can be with Him when she doesn’t understand Him and can’t make sense of the world. I want the sights and smells and gestures to be so ingrained in her that the whiff of incense or the chant of a choir stirs her heart and brings her back, not to a set of ideas, but to the person of Christ, to the experience of Him and His love, to the great mystery of the Christian faith that while we were sinners Christ died for us.