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Saturday, May 20, 2006

The "Experience" of Liturgy The current issue of Weavings has an article about liturgy by Maggie Ross, an Anglican solitary who lives in Alaska (and has a blog here) that might be relevant to our recent discussions. I do not think that I agree with everything that she writes in her entire article, but I find the following excerpt to be very interesting. It will, I trust, also explain the scare quotes in this post's title: The purpose of liturgy is not to distract us from our emotions and trials, but to help us gather these fragments into an offering that is returned to us made whole in the divine life that willingly is broken for us. As the philosopher Erazim Kohák has said, using wilderness as analogy: In this unimaginably vast and beautiful landscape, we are awakened, our pain is taken from us and forgotten, and our lives returned to us transfigured. Good liturgy will help this ongoing and largely imperceptible death and resurrection to take place. It will lead us gently to pay attention to our struggles, our emotional state, our suffering. It will then subtly attract our attention toward a vanishing point even as these memories are flitting across the screen of the mind. Gradually, through a succession of signs presenting and effacing, that is, pointing beyond themselves, the liturgy will draw us into an imageless, timeless Love. Good liturgy has the capacity to lead us beyond words and beyond "experience," by which I mean encounters that we notice and interpret through self-reflection, and by which we tend to encapsulate our selves. By leading us out of this prison of "experience," good liturgy makes something of truth available to us, the truth that lies beyond our thoughts and ways, our own truth and God's, whose nature we share. Finally it returns us to our ordinary tasks, and while our lives may not seem altered from day to day, over time we become obliquely aware that something has shifted slightly, that something has been justified - not in the sense that we have been proved right and everyone else wrong, but rather in the sense that all our fragments have become slightly better aligned, integrated, infused with the ineffable welcome we call "grace." Good liturgy, faithfully practiced, is transfiguring. The best liturgies - and the most gifted people who preside at them - will tend to disappear even as the liturgical action goes forward, enabling the worshipper to seek into the beholding of the face of God. A litmus test of every facet of religion, but most particularly of liturgy, is this: Every true sacred sign effaces itself. Effacement does not mean destruction. It means pointing the attention of participants beyond themselves, their ideas, their expectations: language, symbol, action - all gesture beyond. This rule of thumb is a test of every sacred sign, no matter what its context. Even Jesus disappears in the Ascension. "Noli me tangere," he tells Mary Magdalene, "Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father." Do not cling to your image of me as Jesus the human person, the risen Christ is saying to Mary Magdalene, but go and tell the others to follow me in faith beyond all images and words to behold the truth of Love outpouring, there to be transfigured, and in that transfiguration to live the truth of your selves. It is not that the images are left behind; we return to them again and again in the dialogue with silence. This effacement is the essential life of God described in Philippians 2:5-11: "He [Christ] did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped." That is, he realized that his shared nature with God was precisely ungrasping, outflowing love. He knew that the self-reflexive activity we call "experience," particularly our "religious experience" - that is, our interpretation made up of concepts and words - may be necessary to being human but is always distorting. He shows us that the way forward through this hall of mirrors is continually to seek beyond the images, so that our gaze on the Father is neither distracted nor broken. Through this cycling of presence and absence, the images themselves gradually begin to change, as does our interpretation of them and of all our experience. We are trans-figured, that is, we are taken again and again beyond the form, the shape, we give to our interpretations, the way we "figure things out." We replace them with newer, better interpretations as our perspective becomes more and more that of the transfigured Christ. This tranfiguration is not of the mind only but of the whole incarnate person. Transfiguration is given not that we might escape the body but that we might better inhabit it. Transfiguration, say Orthodox Christians, is our ordinary state; the rest is phantasm. A Eucharistic community is a community of solitudes made one in their seeking transfiguration in every sense. Sadly, for many churches, liturgy has become just one more program, one more commodity. The "liturgies" in these churches turn people toward narcissism and illusion instead of toward the truth of their divine nature. These churches seem to have forgotten that worship is precisely about being liberated from the prison of our own experience. Instead, their "worship experiences" present us with something we can grasp, that we can consume by reflecting on whether we enjoy them or not. Worship experiences do not encourage us to seek the face of God but rather to talk endlessly about whether or not they made us feel good.

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