In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged
August 29, 2008
I've mentioned Catherine Madsen's work on this blog before. She's the author of The Bones Reassemble, a powerful critique of modern liturgical language. (She's also a former contributing editor to the journal CrossCurrents; if you want a sample of her nonfiction online, try Notes on God's Violence, published in that journal.) I first encountered her work when I was editing The Women's Times, the regional women's monthly newspaper. That's when I got my hands on an Avinu Malkeinu variation she'd written, which startled me and moved me so deeply that I folded it up and carried it in my tallit case for years. She and I met for lunch a few years back, when I was hard at work on a manuscript about creative Jewish liturgy. (The manuscript has since been tabled; in writing it, I realized that rabbinic school was still calling my name, so it served its purpose.)
Anyway: I'm a longtime admirer. When I got home from Jerusalem this summer I found a copy of her latest book on my desk: In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged.
Anyone who writes a deliberately controversial book about the failures of modern liturgy should be expected to follow it with a book that shows how the job should be done. This is not that book. In Medias Res was written some fifteen years before The Bones Reassemble, when I had only begun to feel my way toward the premises for liturgical writing that I set out there. I was in the fairly common position of being unable to accept any of the revelations on offer, but not wanting to live without shared ritual; I drew from the only scriptures I had, the poetry and prose I trusted, to imagine what that ritual might be. There are certainly things here that I would no longer write -- and I could prove by my own methods how much of it is not worth repeating -- but the approach may still be useful to other liturgists.
That's from the 2007 Author's Note which begins the book; it's followed by a preface (written in 1990) that talks about the challenge of making "certain thoughts sayable," of crafting a liturgy "not of revelation but of experience and uncertainty." Not top-down, but bottom-up; not ignoring or setting aside the uncertainties of our contemporary experience, but arising directly out of those uncertainties.
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