Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Rite by Rote

Why learning of the texts of the liturgy will transform worship, improve singing, improve art, and renew the culture.

In some ways, I am the product of the new-model education that became trendy in the 1970s and which sought to throw out all tradition. The emphasis on experiential learning meant that I had very little formal training in grammar and punctuation - I once managed to talk my way into a job at the Sunday Times as a sub-editor without knowing how to use speech marks. If you think that my work is full of typos now, you should have seen it before Grammarly told me my errors! And I can’t recite a line of Shelley or Shakespeare to save my life, let alone offer you a coherent exegesis of the text. (I even had to look up “exegesis” on the internet prior to writing this paragraph, as I wasn’t sure if I was using the right word.)

As we were going through this educational revolution, many - including my parents - were critical of the trend and argued for the re-introduction of the traditional methods, most simply characterized by the “three R’s - reading, writing and ’rithmetic.” At the time, I was glad to avoid such horrors (as I saw them), but I have to say that now I am not so sure that my 1970s-style education by osmosis given was a good thing. In fact, I am going to suggest that we not only promote all three of those Rs, but also introduce a fourth, one that I hated even more when I was a teenager - Rote.

The purpose of a great books education is to give us familiarity with certain key texts that characterize the culture and so form us to participate in it. Collectively, they form our story, in which, it is hoped, our own personal stories will participate. The more familiar we are with the story of our nation and our people, the more likely we are to be contributors to and conservers of it.

This aspect of education - inculturation by storytelling - is as old as culture itself. The Greeks had the Iliad and Odyssey, the Romans had the Aeneid, and the Israelites had Sacred Scripture, which itself tells us of this principle of inculturation; the story of the Israelites is to be retold to successive generations in order to preserve their faith. At different junctures, it describes how this was done in order to redirect a straying people; for example, we see Moses, Joshua, and Samuel in the Old Testament, and Stephen and Peter in the New, doing just this.

As Christians, we are Israelites by adoption, and any education that doesn’t focus on the Bible, or does not make it a central part of the education, is not Christian. In our case, we need both the Old Testament, the original Scripture, as referred to by St Paul in his letters, for example, and the addition to this, the inspired Scripture of the New Testament (including Paul’s letters). It is the latter that connects us to the former, bringing the Gentiles into Israel through Christ, which completes the story of salvation for all humanity. I am all for learning other classical texts that typically make up the Great Books curriculum too; they represent good supporting material, but I would say that they are not absolutely necessary. However, an education that has classical texts but little or no Scripture is a waste of time.

You can’t become a doctor by taking the course in a pre-med program, no matter how thoroughly you know the material. Studying Dante, Beowulf or even Greek philosophy is not a bad thing, but it is wrong to place these at the center of our education or to see them as absolutely necessary. The study of salvation history, on the other hand, ought to be mandatory. I don’t regret at all having had little or no exposure to classical texts in my education. I find literature, and poetry especially, incredibly dull. But I do wish I had learned the value of Scripture.

If we were Protestant, the discussion would stop there, but we’re not. The liturgy itself is a living-out of the story of salvation, a drama in which we are participants. The study of salvation history in Scripture prepares us for the worship of God in which our formation as Christians is more profound. The Bible is dependent upon the liturgy for its true meaning - it was written to be proclaimed in a liturgical context (as well as studied outside it), and contains much of the blueprint for it.

Jean Danielou’s book The Bible and the Liturgy explains this well, to quote from the summary of the book written by the publisher:
The Bible and the Liturgy illuminates, better than has ever before been done, the vital and meaningful bond between Bible and liturgy. Father Daniélou aims at bringing clearly before his reader’s minds the fact that the Church’s liturgical rites and feasts are intended, not only to transmit the grace of the sacraments but to instruct the faithful in their meaning as well as the meaning of the whole Christian life. It is through the sacraments in their role as signs that we learn. So that their value will be appreciated, Daniélou attempts to help us rediscover the significance of these rites so that the sacraments may once again be thought of as the prolongation of the great works of God in the Old Testament and the New.
The deepest participation in the liturgy will come from an intimate awareness of the texts, as well as a deep understanding of their meaning and through them, how to engage, body, soul, and spirit with the dynamic exchange of love that is taking place. This is where rote learning comes in.

The more we know and understand the texts and can sing those parts we are required to without having our noses buried in a book, the more we can engage authentically with what is happening. It will allow us, for example, to engage with art. Furthermore, we are likely now to require art that speaks of all the liturgical activity going on, and it is this that will stimulate the reestablishment of an authentic schema of liturgical art in our churches, one that actually nourishes our prayer. This, in turn, could become a powerful driving force for cultural change, for it is the forms and styles that are intimately connected with authentic worship that will drive this.

For those who wish to learn to pray with sacred art, especially in the context of worship, freeing ourselves up to look at the art in the church or icon corner will help; knowing and understanding the texts and their chants, gives us the ability to sing along, so that we are less reliant on the missal and the psalter that will do this. I am not expecting memorization of the whole text of the liturgy, but we should start somewhere if we haven’t already. The more we can do this, starting with those that are repeated most often, I suggest, the freer we will be.

Authentic liturgical art induces right prayer when we take the trouble to look at it during our worship. Currently, in my observation, (thinking now of the pious and orthodox) there is very little engagement with art beyond devotional prayer, and so it becomes too much an internalized, introspective cerebral activity. This contemplative aspect should be there too, make no mistake, but it should not dominate to the degree that it does. I had these same thoughts in mind with recent postings about baroque art in the Latin Mass and the placement of choirs in the church.

In my opinion, the damage to our culture and our faith through this lack of engagement of the whole person cannot be underestimated. The prospects of cultural renewal are greatly diminished without it, and in my reading of history, this may well have been what caused the dislocation between the culture of faith and contemporary culture that Benedict XVI describes as taking place in the early 19th century, in his book the Spirit of the Liturgy.

I am currently attempting to put this into practice myself. Rote learning is a very difficult process for me - especially as I am now in my late 50s - but I am doing my best. I sing repeatedly the texts of the liturgy so that I can look at my icon corner as I do so. I have set myself the target of learning by heart  the chants of oft-repeated liturgical passages, the hymns, psalms, canticles, prayers and so on.

For a man to start doing this in his late 50s is a difficult task. If I had been given the chance in my first 10 years of life, the riches that it would have given me would have been great. Still, I am where I am...back to the Gloria and the Benedictus!

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