People often ask what started our investigation into Catholicism. While the prodding of the Holy Spirit took the form of discovering different “puzzle pieces” that connected to each other, there is one piece that I remember identifying close to the beginning of the search — the liturgy.
From about 2007 until we converted in 2013, Mike and I were in a significant time of religious transition. We had left the church we had gone to since we were married, the church in which he grew up, and we were stepping back to ask, now what? We needed time to consider whether issues that we had bumped into in our past experiences were particular to those churches or indicative of larger issues that we had with Evangelical churches as a whole. At this point, we hadn’t yet discovered that our core struggles were actually Protestant-Catholic ones. Our questions seemed to be more in regard to stylistic observances about the format of many Evangelical worship services. (Though we soon discovered that questions of substance were really at the heart of various issues that appeared, on the surface, to be about style.) After a few months of not attending anywhere, we started going to one church in the area casually, without getting involved much beyond Sunday mornings. It was sort of a neutral space where we could continue to explore the general issues that bothered us about previous worship service experiences or environments.
At this time we did not have children yet. The only concrete things in our lives were Mike’s teaching job at DeMatha Catholic High School and my distance Ph.D. program. I was mobile and finishing writing my dissertation, and DeMatha graciously gave Mike a sabbatical year. We went to Los Angeles for that year so that Mike could study at Fuller Theological Seminary and ascertain whether their Ph.D. in Theology was the right step for him. He had always wanted to go to Fuller and live in California. (He was actually supposed to start there in January 2003; he already had a housing assignment. Instead, God led him to Regent University in Virginia Beach, and he met me.)
So off we went, all of our belongings with us, across the country. It was one of the most formative years of our marriage. God was stirring up a lot of things for both of us. Given many of our reservations about Evangelical worship service formats and “rituals,” we thought we would try an Anglican church in Old Town Pasadena — a conservative Anglican church, I must emphasize. The liturgical service was a completely new experience for me. I remember sitting/standing in the beautiful church, aware of my participation in worship. I remember leaning over to Mike at various points and saying how it didn’t feel like we were members of an “audience.” The space felt sacred and reverent, the congregation verbally responded to the readings, stood for the Gospel reading, and walked forward down the aisle to receive communion from the priest.
Each Sunday I would try to process why these physical actions and rituals of my participation in the service were so significant to me. It is an interesting coincidence that during this time I was reading James K. A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, as part of my dissertation research. Smith’s main point in the book (his first in a series of three books on cultural liturgies) is that we are first and foremost desiring beings, not primarily thinking beings. It is our hearts, not our heads, that are fundamental in our spiritual and religious formation. What we love is not determined by that about which we think, says Smith. What we love is what we worship.¹ But what is worship? This is certainly a question to which I was seeking an answer, and Smith helped me discover what I had been bumping up against but was unable to articulate — worship is embodied and liturgical; it is ritual; it is that thing that is practiced until it becomes habit. So if my worship is not just a mental exercise or does not just stem from thinking about God or filling my mind with facts about God, then the physical things that we do in worship services actually matter greatly. The rituals are extremely important, because they are elements that are actually forming my faith, forming my desire for God.
Evangelicals don’t use the term “liturgy” to describe the format of their church services; in fact, many of them dislike the perceived “rigidity” of liturgical services in mainline denominations. I have heard criticisms such as: that environment is “not open to the Holy Spirit” or “boring and outdated” or (most commonly) “people in those churches are just going through the motions.” However, in reflecting on the worship services I was raised in, it is clear that every single one of them had a “liturgy,” whether they realized it or not. We are liturgical animals; we all have rituals that we practice, whether we are conscious of them–whether they are purposeful–or not. These are the practices that form our faith. Every service goes through regular motions, repeating them each week. Consider a few “motions” common in many Evangelical services:
- Greeting or welcoming time — music is playing and people walk around shaking hands
- Greeting visitors — asking them to fill out a card and place it in the offering plate; perhaps asking them to stand for a corporate welcome
- Various points at which music is played — either live or recorded
- Praise and worship — congregation sings, led by a worship leader and “praise team” from the stage.
- “Special Music” or choir performance
- “Altar call”
- Opening/Closing prayer
These are just some general ones, and there are others that are more specific to certain denominations. But these are all fixed; they are there in every service. In most Evangelical services they are thought of as the “order of the service,” but their significance exceeds beyond shaping the content of the service. The rituals and practices are formational because participating in them constructs our understanding of what it means to worship God, as well as how we actually live our faith.
I suddenly realized the source of my deep angst about these matters. Though Evangelical churches had their own practices, their own “rituals,” many of them were based on the premise that our behavior and the worship of our daily lives is formed by the knowledge individuals are given. The general idea is, tell people the truth and their lives will be changed. Deposit truth into their minds and you will see the fruit in their lives. From this perspective then, it makes sense that most Evangelical services I grew up in take the format that they do. What is the central point in those services, the peak toward which all other elements are moving? The sermon. The sermon occupies most of the time in these services, and pastors are operating under the assumption that the message they are giving will in some way help the congregation to gain insights into their faith that help them live it out more completely than they have before — their hope is that the message will form them.
The liturgy of the Catholic mass approaches formation and transformation from a more embodied perspective. In other words, the central element — the Eucharist — and many of the accompanying rituals that surround it are geared not toward a deposit of knowledge in our minds. They involve rituals, physical practices aimed at shaping the desires of the heart. We enter the church and touch the holy water, making the sign of the cross. We genuflect toward the altar, toward the Sacrament, before entering our pews. We tap our chest with our fist during the Penitential Act. We stand for the gospel reading, before which we make the sign of the cross with our thumbs over our foreheads, lips and hearts. During the consecration of the Eucharist we are kneeling, and then we walk forward to receive it with open hands and mouths. The whole of the mass, the whole liturgy, is a prayer to God that we are praying with the priest. The liturgy is an act, a practice, in which we participate to worship God. This reflects the truth that our sactification and personal transformation does not automatically happen as a result of a deposit of knowledge into our brains — we practice it.
Why is this understanding of the liturgy, or our worship services, so important? Smith puts it well for us:
“The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship are not the ‘expression of’ a Christian worldview, but are themselves an ‘understanding’ implicit in practice–an understanding that cannot be had apart from the practices.”²
There is an understanding of our faith that we will only have when it is practiced, when knowledge has made its way from our heads to our hearts through embodied practice that truly is worship. When I go to mass, the understanding implicit in the practice is that it is not about me — it is about Christ. I certainly gain plenty of intellectual insights, particularly from a good homily. Sometimes I am blessed by songs that are sung. However, those insights and graces serve the purpose of assisting me in my practice of worshipping the Lord. I am there, along with my brothers and sisters in Christ, to unite with the universal Church in memorializing His sacrifice and aligning my life with His. The liturgy is old and has been prayed by the Church for a very long time, and plenty of people (including myself) find the history nostalgic and the prose beautiful. Yet, it is not its aesthetic that is ultimately compelling, for flattering my stylistic preferences should not be the desire of my heart, should not be what I love, should not be what I worship. The liturgy is compelling because it trains my soul to worship Christ, for I want Him to be my desire, whom I love, the object of my worship.
¹ Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009, p. 51.
² Smith, 2009, p. 69.