Lauren Winner, in her book Mudhouse Sabbath, suggests that liturgy can be dull. As a young Catholic girl, I could attest to that. My parents, hoping my brothers and I would be more attentive, tried sitting toward the front of the church until I fell asleep one too many times and fell sideways into the aisle. I thought I could fool everyone into thinking I was ultra-holy by closing my eyes. Obviously, my 8-year old little self found sleeping came too quickly instead. Maybe it would have worked in a charismatic church. When I hit the floor and awakened, I could have rolled around into a worshipful dance to save face.
It may very well have been these rote prayers in the Catholic church that put me to sleep. I agree with Winner that saying the same rote prayers can be boring. She says sometimes when reading prayers from a prayer book she’ll realize her mouth has been moving but her mind has been thinking not of the words she’s read, but of her weekend plans. Case in point. Liturgy can lead us to dry places where it’s hard to find God and draw close to him. Or so I used to think… back when I was a judgmental, superior spiritual giant.
Now I believe there is a great place for liturgy and Winner explains it best:
When you don’t have to think what you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.
Put differently: I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find, at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism. Though meaning to commune with or reverence or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour…. It (liturgy) is not open to our emotional whims.
Preach to me, Lauren. That whole notion of narcissism hit me square between the eyes. Just last night, this whole self-centered prayer occurred to me. I had dinner in California with my friend Amy and her family, at her sister Juli’s house. I flew to Cali for a surprise party for Amy’s 40th. For her gift, I scanned in loads of pictures of Amy and I through the years, and wrote a story, a sort of memoir. As I wrote, so many memories crept in, especially of our junior high years when Amy’s mom was dying of cancer. It was bothering me that I couldn’t remember anything about Juli at that time. She has always been a huge part of Amy’s life, and of mine, but I couldn’t remember one single thing about her during those months before her mother died.
So the night after Amy’s party, when a group of Amy’s friends and family members descended on Juli’s home for dinner, I asked Juli if we could talk sometime that night. After dessert, I asked her several questions about those years. She was very generous in answering and it was hard to contain the tears, which I didn’t do so well, as she shared what life was like for her, for Amy and for their brother Todd. She shared stories of the nights she spent at the hospice with her mom, the things her mother told her, and how she watched her suffer at the end. Her mom was always her best friend. She told her everything. Juli helped fill in the missing parts of my own narrative. Even though I had shared in part of the experience, it wasn’t my mom, and I was only 13. I guess I was trying to process the pain through an adult lens now. The whole conversation was a gift and I was reminded how much I love having a history with Amy and her family.
When I exhausted Juli, I thanked her for a wonderful dinner and for inviting me for Amy’s party. She said, “I don’t want you to go.” That in and of itself could have made me crumble as part of me didn’t want to go either. I cherish the times with Amy’s family as an unexplainable love happens in their presence. But I held it together while I said my goodbyes before heading back to meet Amy at her house, where she was putting her kids to bed.
I could barely get the key in the ignition before the tears just fell out of my eyes, and the sobs pushed their way to the top of my throat. I laugh to think what I must have looked like as I pulled away sobbing in my little blue rental car. And in case you’ve forgotten Lauren Winner in this tangent, here’s the connection. I became the narcissist as I started talking to God in my emotion-driven prayer. As I drove down the boulevard out of Juli’s neighborhood, between gulps for air, I said, “God, I think…” Pause – because that’s what happens when you cry hard. You can’t speak. But soon I forced something out again. “I think I’m crying because of Mrs. Browne. And I am crying because I miss talking to Juli like that. I’m crying because….” and right then I was sure God was saying, “Quiet. Be quiet. I know.”
What was it that made me think I had to tell God why I was crying. Why my heart felt like it was cracking in half? Why did I try to tell him how my heart ached again as if I were 13, watching Amy at her mom’s graveside? Maybe because I wanted to hear my own voice. Or maybe it gave me a sense of control to name all of the reasons or emotions behind the tears. The truth is, I didn’t know why. I didn’t know if I was crying for Amy or for Juli or even about Mrs. Browne’s death, although I think that was a large part of it.
I don’t know if I was crying because I said goodbye to some lifelong friends and goodbye to some interesting, new friends. I don’t know if I was crying because I missed my husband and longed to be home with him and my kids. Or if I was crying because Amy’s dad looked so old and it was another part of how life changes. I do know that I just needed to be in the presence of God, receiving His comfort and care and His softness. And I was thankful he said, “Quiet.”
When I got to Amy’s, I still couldn’t name what all my emotions and thoughts were. So we talked and I made her cry, and we talked and cried until we were so tired our eyes were too heavy to keep open for more than a few seconds at a time.
If I had a prayer book there, maybe I would have opened it to something related to grief and sadness. It would have, like Winner says, freed me to participate in the life of God. My heart and mind, too heavy to create my own words, could have borrowed from the saints before me who practiced the presence of God. Maybe it would have helped me practice His presence, too. This liturgical way of prayer teaches me that my words don’t make me a spiritual guru. Quite the opposite; they often cut me down to size. I realize, in humility, that my words are often nothing more than empty space, or a foolish cover-up, maybe even manipulation or an excuse not to feel because I’m too busy trying to explain how I feel, to busy trying to fit words in a place where words – at least my own – don’t fit.
When I arrived home, I read this Scripture which offered comfort for that painfully, beautiful night in California:
Therefore we do not lose heart.
Though outwardly we are wasting away,
yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
For our light and momentary troubles
are achieving for us an eternal glory
that far outweighs them all.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen,
but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary,
but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 | Source: The Bible (New International Version)
I don’t always believe this Scripture. If anyone asked me if I believed it – believe that our troubles are light and momentary – I would lie. I’d say yes. But I don’t really. Not when I’m trying to play God and explain things to Him rather than listening to the wisdom provided by silence or by other liturgical elements at which I have so often scoffed. Someday I hope I’ll be wise enough to recite verses like these over and over… and let them make a true believer out of me, not a true believer OF me.