On liturgy and ambiguity
May 29, 2007
I've been slowly working my way through Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.
Her book The Cloister Walk is one of my very favorite religious memoirs. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography offers engaging meditations on place, spirituality, and small-town life. I often carry my pocket copy of The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work in my purse for re-reading. And I also really like her poems. So I expected to like this book -- and I do, though it's more like a collection of little bite-sized chocolates than it is a full literary meal. It lends itself to being read in bits and pieces, which is helpful, since that's the kind of time I've currently got!
Anyway, in the chapter called "Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity," Norris says a lot of things that really resonate for me. Here's a taste of the story at that chapter's heart:
When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey where I am now an oblate, I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over Christianity. What interested them more was my desire to come to their worship, the liturgy of the hours. I was a bit disappointed -- I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventually fall into place.
This passage charms me because it rings so true. I know a lot of people who might say, as Norris did, that doubts and intellectual frustrations distance them from religion; and I also know a lot of people who might respond, as the monks did, that doubt is no problem at all, and that the way to deal with doubt is to keep practicing. Regular prayer can effect subtle and thorough changes, but the only way to understand that is to take the leap of beginning to pray.
Later, Norris writes,
If I had to find one word to describe how belief came to take hold in me, it would be "repetition." Repetition as Kierkegaard understood it, as "the daily bread of life that satisfies with benediction." Repetition as in a hymn such as "Amazing Grace," or the ballade form, in poetry, where although the refrain is the same from stanza to stanza, it conveys something different each time it is repeated because of what is in the lines that have come in between.
The more I inhabit Jewish liturgy, the more I understand what Norris is talking about here. (Clearly this is true of liturgy qua liturgy, not merely hers or ours or anyone else's.) There's something in the repetition of words that invests both the words, and the silences between them, with new meaning. Later in this same passage, Norris notes that weekly church attendance came, in time, to shape the days between Sundays in much the way that a repeated poetic refrain shapes the feel of a poem. I know the feeling.
She tells the story of a seminary student arguing with an Orthodox theologian at Yale Divinity School. The student asked what to do when he couldn't affirm certain tenets of the Creed; the theologian responded, "Well, you just say it." The student, distressed by this answer, queried again, "How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?" And the theologian replied, "It's not your creed; it's our creed." In other words, these aren't your own words, written just for you and tailored to be something you can affirm easily. These are the words of our community. Simply saying them is important, and links us across both time and space; and saying them changes us, gradually; and it matters that we say them even if they don't perfectly fit what we think we believe.
Probably my favorite passage in the essay is this:
As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend. And once I realized that this was all it was -- that in worship, you are asked to say words you don't understand, or worse, words you presume to think you have mastered well enough to accept or reject -- I had a way through my impasse. I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.
As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend -- isn't that the truth! And I love her insight here that liturgy and poetry intermingle in this way. Often, I think, liberal religious folks want to demand of our liturgy that it appeal to our minds, to our politics, to the ideas and values we hold dear -- and there's a lot to be said for that. But at the same time, it's worth remembering that liturgy isn't only, and isn't always, meant to express something timely and agreeable; it's also meant to connect us with our history, with other people, and with some of the deepest emotions we know how to feel. It's not always meant to be comfortable, or to be something to which we can assent intellectually.
Granted, great poetry isn't necessarily usable as liturgy; the two serve different needs, in the end. But I think there's common ground. We allow our poems to be associative, complicated, resonant in ways we don't necessarily understand; how might we be changed if we treated our liturgy likewise?
On a related note, Eric Selinger at A Big Jewish Blog has announced a project called Siddur Kol Hevel: A Prayerbook for the Rest Of Us, and wants to hear what poems, quotations, and other snippets of text you would put in a siddur of your own:
What are your favorite, most inspiring, most unsettling passages? The ones you turn to, or that shaped you, for better or for worse? Ones you've stumbled across, and that haunt you--or tickle you, for that matter, with their sass and heterodoxy.
Drop him a comment and weigh in; I'm expecting interesting stuff.