Creative Liturgy

I always hesitate to write anything about liturgy because it’s ‘not my area’ (“You do not have an ‘area’, Crilly!’ as Bishop Brennan said to Fr Ted), by which I mean that I am not a liturgical scholar and don’t take an active interest in the history, development or creation of liturgical texts. However, every Christian is deeply invested in The Liturgy, the church’s offering of the Holy Eucharist, because it is who we are. I say it is ‘who we are’ rather than ‘what we do’ because the Liturgy is not simply one of the activities of an organisation called ‘the church’ but is, rather, the (at least) weekly expression of the entire Paschal mystery, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving made on behalf of the whole creation, the coming together of the Body of Christ to be immersed in the mystery of Christ’s self-giving for the life of the world. It is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and our participation in the heavenly worship, so of course it is of the greatest importance to us.

It is unsurprising that, given this importance, ‘liturgy’ – the way in which we offer the Eucharist – can also be something of a battleground for competing understandings or emphases. This is another excellent reason to leave it well alone! But I do want to offer one thought about an assumption that can sometimes be heard about a perceived gulf between liturgical expressions that are thought to be ‘creative’ over against those that are seen, by contrast, as ‘traditional’. The assumption, I think, is that human creativity is primarily expressed in ‘making something new’. In liturgical terms, this might include new texts, new pieces of visual art, new music or new ways of using the space in which the Liturgy is celebrated. However, does this mean that every artist who performs an ancient piece of music or makes an icon following traditional forms is not being ‘creative’? And surely the word itself begs the question of whether or no the Liturgy itself requires ‘creativity’ in order to be worthwhile, and if so, what sort of creativity is required.

I would start by suggesting that the primary quality we bring to the Liturgy is attentiveness. It is our disposition of prayerful openness and steady attention that enables us to participate most fully in the Liturgy, whether or not one has a designated role in it. I think this quality is equally important for every style of liturgical expression. Secondly, I would suggest that, in the Liturgy, as in any sacrifice, there is both an offering and a receiving. We offer our best in an act of gratitude, we receive the transforming gifts of God in return, not as reward but as free gift. ‘Offering our best’, is the place where we might locate a desire to be as creative as possible in gratitude for what we receive. This may also be seen as in ‘missionary’ terms as a means to make the Liturgy as appealing as possible to those who do not yet participate in it, but I think these considerations are secondary to the primary concern, which is our faithful response to divine love. For some of us, ‘offering our best’ in a spirit of prayerful attentiveness is not well served by any focus on liturgical novelty that draws more attention to the Liturgy’s style or novel content than to its Godward direction. I am very conscious that this may be a matter of personal preference, but I would be reluctant to see an emphasis on familiarity and repetition as an aid to undistracted attentiveness as ‘less creative’ than the making of new things. By analogy, the Jesus Prayer would simply not ‘work’ if it were not repetitive. For me, the creativity in ‘traditional’ styles of liturgy lies precisely in its demand for fully attentive and embodied presence. This requires an active concentration as well as a certain passivity, for the truth is that the main creative act in the Liturgy is God’s work of creating us anew in the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Here are a few of the ways in which I believe that our embodied, attentive presence in the Liturgy is a creative act:

  • It calls forth from us qualities that exceed our normal patterns of casual interaction or being a passive spectator
  • It demands that we give careful consideration to the use of material things, not least our own bodies through posture or gesture, voice or gaze, but also in the handling of the holy gifts themselves and the vessels that contain them, along with other liturgical items – candles, crosses, iconography, fabrics etc
  • Although I do not think that interpretive mental activity is of primary importance in liturgy, there is a kind of imaginative reflection going on whereby we receive and consider non-visual images or metaphors
  • There is creativity involved in the way we interact with one another in liturgical space, attending to one another’s needs, taking our place alongside others in a harmonious chorus of voices and bodies – think even of the simple act of walking together in procession

These are simple, creative acts that are open to anyone who attends the Divine Liturgy, whatever their role. In performing them faithfully, prayerfully and with a joyful self-forgetting, we enter into the mystery of our theosis, ‘offering unto thee thine own of thine own, in all and for all.’

Our Place Among the Things

I’ve been reading three books recently which all, in different ways, ask the urgent question of how we, as human beings, relate to the other beings and objects with which we share this planet. James Bridle’s book, Ways of Being, asks how we might work alongside other forms of intelligence in our world in order to create more cooperative and less destructive patterns of interaction. He shows how limited we are when we see other intelligences only as versions of our own, whether that be the singling out of facial recognition as the preeminent sign of self-awareness in other animals, or the construction of forms of AI solely as competitive systems form maximising production, or the failure to recognise the profoundly social nature of the intelligence of plant systems.

Writing from a very different perspective, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) asks, in a series of of essays edited by John Chryssavgis, whether our ecological crisis might be more than simply a moral one, for example a matter of over-consumption, greed or heedlessness, and may, in fact, be much more a problem of ontology. He suggests that our failure to understand ourselves as bodies and the strangely persistent notion of ourselves as having a body leads to the kind of dualism that places mind over matter, leaving matter itself as a lower form of being, ripe for exploitation and manipulation. Did we forget about the incarnation?

I might find time to explore these rich works in more depth at some point, but I want to focus on the third book I’ve been reading, one which has touched me deeply. Again, it’s in a completely different genre – fiction – but I think that Ruth Ozeki’s Book of Form and Emptiness helps us address the question of our place among the things in an imaginative way that engages the heart and moves us beyond the realm of ideas to the realm of relationships. The novel is multi-layered, but the narrative is primarily concerned with a woman and her son, and how they respond to the sudden death of their husband/father. The story is told with a depth of compassion and without judgement as it deals with Annabelle’s increasing tendency to hoard and Benny’s ability to hear the voices of objects around him, which becomes increasingly overwhelming. The objects tell their stories, many of which relate experiences of pain or exploitation.

Benny encounters two other characters, who offer different ways of interacting with the things and beings they come across. One is a young woman, an artist he meets on a pediatric psychiatric ward and with whom he reconnects when he finds refuge in a large public library. The Aleph, as she is known, makes art from materials found in dumpsters, including snow globes that portray images of environmental harm. She also makes trails of message for people to find and follow, inviting them to make connections through the world. The Bottleman is a Slovenian poet and philosopher who lives on the streets and is overlooked as a drunken down-and-out by many. However, he is one of the few to take Benny’s questions seriously and to enter his world, respecting his questions.

The mental health challenges of the main protagonists are treated neither romantically nor patronisingly but with patient understanding. Similarly, the running theme of a self-help book on decluttering by a Zen priest in Japan, which Annabelle dips into from time to time in an effort to deal with her hoarding, is taken seriously while also inviting a more subtle engagement with the Zen Buddhism which underlines so much of the book’s character (Ozeki is, herself, a Zen priest and the title refers to the Heart Sutra).

The book moves slowly towards different ways of relating to the material world, largely through the characters of the Aleph and Bottleman, who are both possessionless but hardly abstracted from the world. The Bottleman helps Annabelle redistribute many of her cluttering possessions to those who might enjoy them and the Aleph makes art from ‘trash’.

Finally, the book moves us to a place where the relationship between Benny and Annabelle is restored and deepened, enabling them to support each other in the loss that had previously driven them apart. There are many other layers to the book which I won’t explore here, but I want to emphasise the fundamental relationality of the characters to the material world around them. Objects have stories and voices but need to be kept on the move rather than possessed in a way that ends with us being possessed by them. Similarly, the voices of the marginalised are brought to the foreground of the narrative, inviting us to hear one another, and especially to hear voices that sit on the edges of the all-consuming world of ‘success’, ‘progress’ or ‘rationality’. Most wonderfully, though, the book does this not with the heavy-handed prose of the preacher or politician, but with humour, playfulness and delight.