The Power of Liturgy

Roman Catholics (RC) are given a bad wrap often in the way they do worship on Sunday mornings.  If you have been in RC worship is stereotyped as being much like the directions on the back of shampoo bottles: stand, sit, kneel, bow, repeat.  

When I attended St. Mary's University (a RC University) in San Antonio, I attended worship often in the many RC communities and had many conversations with RC Christians.  In part because I worked as a sacristan to the chapels on campus and in part of a natural curiosity, I asked many RCs about their worship and how, at the time, it felt like people were going through the motions without thinking.  Most of my peers would tell me that some of the rituals did not mean anything to them, most did.  As one who was not raised in the RC denomination or attended RC worship often I felt like I was going through the motions every time in worship

Until the day I was going through the stand/sit/kneel/bow/repeat cycle in worship and was able to think of a thesis for my political science paper for my "final project".  

The power of the ritual struck me at that moment: with my actions and words already memorized I could free my mind to not think about the actions at hand and could think about other things!

If you are like me you grew up memorizing your multiplication tables.  We memorized these not because we lacked calculators or computers, but the process of memorizing these bits of information made multiplication move from thinking to instinct.  

When we think about something, our minds are occupied and what we are thinking about is all that we can think about.  So in the beginning when we are thinking about the problem "4x4=" our brain:
Interprets the symbols 4 and x and =
Counts by 4s, four times (4, 8, 12, 16)
Stops counting at 16
Locates the appropriate place to write 16 on the page
Writes 16

All of this takes a bit of time, in the beginning as we learn.  But over time, we move from having to think about the problem to just instinctively knowing the answer.  4x4=16

While we were once spending large amounts of time and brain power to compute the answer, we could not think of much else.  

The same for wrote liturgy.  

Liturgy frees our brains from having to think about what is happening next and what to say next in order to allow our brains to consider higher levels of thinking.  

In the cover story of the recent TIME, which talks about Tiger Mothers, this little quote comes to the surface:

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "It's virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extensive practice," he notes.  What's more, Willingham says, "if you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic. Your brain will literally change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it." Once this happens, the brain has made mental space for higher-order operations: for interpreting literary works, say, and not simply decoding their words; for exploring the emotional content of a piece of music, and not just playing the notes.

While in liturgy I am wrapped up in the moment so that I am not actually thinking about it.  I am not thinking about what to say but rather I am thinking about new God images or how to respond to massive problem or how to reconcile with my neighbor.

Liturgy leads me to think about higher order things.   The only problem is that in order for the liturgy to be utilized in this way, I have to participate in the liturgy often.  Otherwise, if I only participate in the liturgy one time a month, I am working in worship like I did when I was memorizing my multiplication tables.  

And that sucked.