God calls some people to be priests because he doesn’t trust them to be Christians in any other way.
A wise spiritual director once said this to me over dinner, after we had both participated in an especially spectacular evening liturgy on Easter Day. He was reflecting on a complaint I made about a wayward subdeacon, and was chastening me for the state of heart that produced it. I had unwittingly fallen into the trap of thinking that perfect choreography was the condition for true worship, rather than one of its highest expressions.
My friend’s comment was a much-appreciated bit of lighthearted satire, and highlighted my need for humility. But it suggests a broader question. Clergy (not to mention Christians in general) are faced with a continuous parade of human failing, especially their own. How on earth are they supposed to pray, and how especially at the altar, where they are responsible for so much, where so much is at stake? Is it too much pressure to pray? Must we simply resign ourselves to participating in yet another form of performance art?
The liturgies of Holy Week and Easter (beautiful, evangelistic liturgies!) are behind us. But how do we remain faithful Christians in liturgical contexts when we have looked “behind the curtain” and seen the practice, the drilling, the personal rivalries, the drama, the mistakes, that often go into producing them? How can acolytes, clergy, ushers, administrators, or altar guilds pray when they are constantly worried about the next step?
God may call us to Christian service because he doesn’t trust us to be Christians otherwise. But Christian service is its own kind of crucible, and it can be hard to see the altar where “the sparrow hath found an house” (Ps. 84:3) through all the crowds shouting “Crucify!”
What is prayer during the liturgy? We may as well ask, “What is music?” The answer to both is ephemeral.
Notes on a page are not music. Neither is the sound produced by an instrument, and neither are the motions of a conductor. Music is something more, something beyond symbols on a page, instruments, and performers. Likewise, liturgical prayer is not simply the words we say, nor the posture we adopt: neither gesture, nor vesture, nor our attitude, nor the result we desire. Liturgical prayer is something more than all these — encompassing them, but beyond them.
We are often moved by music: moved to joy, moved to pity, moved in a thousand different directions. Prayer also is motion: the Spirit of God groaning within us in sighs too deep for words, turning our hearts to the Sun of grace, pushing us to grow in the knowledge and love of God. As a plant turns naturally toward the light, so at the altar: the movements we make, the words we say, and the attitudes we adopt — are all caught up in the desire that God would “graciously behold this thy family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the Cross.” Liturgical prayer is movement, marching, both to Calvary and to heaven, where a Lamb, appearing as one slain, commands all glory, honor, power, and dominion.
There is nothing extraneous, nothing that cannot somehow be included in that solemn procession. All the errors, all the mistakes, all the personal faults and failures of participants, all are swept up in that train — just as human nature, knit to God’s, was lifted high on the Cross. You might be a new member of the altar guild anxious about the number of spare purificators on the credence table, an old subdeacon annoyed at the presumption of the new thurifer, or a quiet member of the congregation noticing the lector mispronounce “Caiaphas” yet again. You might be a celebrant forgetful of page numbers, a warden concerned about the crack in the roof, or any number of a host of other people with worries or distractions ecclesiastical, secular, or deeply personal. No matter who you are or what your concerns, none are excluded from the Cross, none doomed to exile outside the cave of Christ’s tomb, none strangers to Christian worship.
Liturgical manuals are full of very specific instructions, and vergers with their maces can cast stern looks. Yet the task for us fallible humans is not simply to “get it right” but to move in such a way that puts us at the disposal of the Holy Spirit: to be aware of our own need for grace, to be aware of the location and intentions of our neighbors, and to surrender our egos, so that all might be offered to the glory of God.
As skill increases, however, and as we gain familiarity with our tasks and responsibilities in worship, something even more marvelous happens. The trappings fall away, and love takes over. Our Lord freely entered the bonds of death. In the liturgy, we constrain our movements to certain patterns, our speech to certain vocabulary. By his Resurrection Christ transfigured and overcame death in the power of the Holy Spirit, that it might be for us the bed of hope and the gate of life. As we enact our worship with ever greater attentiveness to each other and to the movements of the same Spirit within us, it becomes as natural to us as breathing: no longer a constraint to our creativity or a stress on our sense of devotion, but the freedom to love God with every fiber of our being. In short, we participate with the celebrant, the acolytes, the choir, ushers, altar guild, administrators, and entire congregation; with saints and angels and all the faithful departed from every age, we are caught up in that Love that, in Dante’s famous phrase, “moves the sun and the other stars.”
Worship is not “time out from real life,” as so many seem to think. If we carry our worries and burdens with us into church, then we are only human. If we are distracted in the course of things and drop a torch or spill coals from the thurible, it is simply to be expected. If we turn to the wrong page and start reading the wrong Eucharistic prayer, if we are listening to construction outside more than to the preacher’s sermon, then we are only human. These are reminders that what is at stake in worship is not perfection but, by the power of the Holy Spirit, union with Christ in his sacrifice, offering every part of ourselves and our lives to God. At its best, worship is not a respite from the world and its pressures, but the occasion for us to face head-on our own pride and shame, and to encounter Beauty “ever ancient, ever new,” through the Holy Spirit who carries us to the very brink of heaven. There we are found, identified, and called in the love of God to love him in return. There we are fed with the food that nourished countless saints before us. There the crucible of Christian service opens onto the mighty torrent of the love of God, and “the rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God” (Ps. 46:4).
Fr. Blake Sawicky serves at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, Missouri.
The featured image is “Lumen de lumine” (2009) by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. It is licensed under Creative Commons.