Monday, October 4, 2010

In Defense of Liturgy

Cogs in a Machine or Notes in God's Symphony?

If you’ve heard my ex call me an alcoholic party girl, he’s totally right. Case in point: I spent the majority of my weekend (Saturday evening and all morning Sunday) attending Mass at Holy Apostles, where I play keyboards in a Catholic band. Somehow, I think this behavior adds exponentially to my coolness factor, but that’s another essay.

This weekend, I dragged a talented young percussionist friend of mine along who has never been to Mass before, in the hopes of convincing her to join my 9:00 a.m. group, which has music, but no rhythm. She found the experience disconcerting, to say the least. “It’s scary,” she said afterwards, “Watching all those people do the same things and say the same things—it was like you were all brainwashed.” She has a hard time reconciling the fiercely independent—dare I say anarchist—friend she knows with the woman who stands up, sits down, kneels, and holds out her arms at all the appropriate times and can recite the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer from memory.  

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a Catholic (yet). I was raised Mormon, and I am bringing up my own children in the faith of their fathers. And I’ve spent plenty of time without the inconvenient ties and binds of any religion (unless you count the Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and when you take into account the fact that members’ tithes pay for a pirate ship, you definitely should not discount the Pastafarians!). So how did I end up at the Catholic church, taking RCIA classes and providing music at one and sometimes two Masses each week for almost a year now?

The answer is simple. I love liturgy.

The very thing that my friend couldn’t stomach—the repetitive phrases, the recited lines, the constant reinforcement of the same old dogma—is comfortable, soothing, and simultaneously intellectually stimulating to me.

I’m not saying you should love liturgy, or that your own beliefs (or lack thereof) are wrong. But I think there’s a strong case to be made for Catholicism. I can’t make an argument that has consumed 2,000 years of thought in one blog post—but I can share my response to my friend and provide a brief explanation of how liturgy functions in furthering my own search for spirituality.

I see the same things my friend saw at Mass—but I interpret what I see very differently. To my mind, all of us—and it’s a pretty diverse bunch (on Saturday evening, for example, the 1000+ Holy Apostles crowd included everyone from the State Governor and his wife to a group of African immigrants)—have made the same conscious choice to come together as one community, in a tradition that spans thousands of years and has its roots in the last supper a Jewish rabbi shared with his friends before he was murdered by Romans.

My friend saw cogs in a machine. I heard notes in God’s great symphony.

In his magnificent treatise, The Phenomenon of Man, that great scientist and devout Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin sought to explain his own paleontological discoveries that supported the secular theory of evolution by proposing a grand theory of cosmic theological evolution called Omega. For more than 20 years, I have thought about Teilhard’s work. But not until that conversation with my friend did I truly grasp its significance. What if every individual managed to attain the highest degree of individual excellence he or she was capable of? And what if all those individuals then joined in a community of believers, whose purpose was to unite their individual talents and skills to create a perfect world, to eliminate the problem of evil once and for all, to truly sing a new song to God?

Oddly enough, this week’s readings and homily dealt with theodicy, or the problem if evil in the world. My own life is consumed with the problem of evil—the disasters that befall us by chance, as well as the ones that befall us by choice. The liturgy—the comforting repetition of a Hail Mary, or the exhilarating proclamation of the mysteries (“Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!)—serve a cognitive behavior therapy function for me. I don’t ask you to understand it. I only want to make you aware of the power of words, repeated, for weeks, for months, for years, for centuries—words which were spoken  by one who may have been the Word, in the beginning.

I will be the first to admit that I am faith-challenged and probably always will be. But by saying these words each week, I choose to place myself in a community that spans the centuries, that finds its roots in a stable, a manger, a star in the sky. “Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist,” Teilhard wrote. When we say these words at Mass each week together, we are not mindless cogs in a machine We are, as Teilhard defines us, “collaborators in creation.

1 comment:

Ken said...

I was hoping for a little vulgate mantra, now and then, interspersed in the narrative.