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.’