L.L. Barkat’s provacative post, “Liturgy”, prompts this response. She wrote about a book that detailed the joy of formal liturgical practices, like using a traditional book of prayer. How wonderful, that author relayed, to pray a Common Prayer in concert with the fathers of the faith and believers all around the world. L.L. struggled with this idea and shared how her personal liturgical rites are more relaxed and include Earl Gray tea, mornings on her porch, and observing the pageantry of nature.
I was reminded of the disdain that I once held for the highly liturgical among us. “How can there by any vibrance in prayers read from a book?” I had thought. Amanda’s wedding changed my mind. It was held at Grace Church (Episcopal) , one of those astonishingly beautiful Gothic edifices. (“The revival of Gothic architecture in America and England, particularly for churches, was a conscious effort to restore solemnity, awe, and even some “distance” (the notion of God’s transcendence) to worship,” reads the church website.) Before the ceremony the best man and I were led to a side room where the priest had us add our signatures to a huge, ancient, volume, as witnesses of the union he was about to officiate. I was awed and humbled by this tradition. In signing my name I felt connected to the thousands of witnesses and spouses who had gone before me in signing that great volume. I felt an awareness of the enormity of the church’s history, and my small, small place in that history. During the wedding ceremony, the priest read inspired prayers of beauty and gravity over Amanda and Colin. I wept, realizing for the first time that even such prayers as these, found in a book written by mere men, are sent from heaven.
Then, thinking about L.L.’s liturgical informality, I recalled the most informal liturgical experience in which I have participated. I was on a women’s retreat. We were working at coming to terms with the wretchedness in our pasts. The retreat leader gave us colored clay and asked us to use the clay to create an image depicting the impact our pasts had had on our lives. I took my beautiful red, my bright yellow, my true blue clay, and all the rest, and smushed each one with black colored clay until there were no distinct colors. Each color of clay had been turned into a black-marbled mash. I then took these individual mashed colors and rolled them into solitary balls, which I stacked into a kind of pyramid. A sombre and gloomy tomb my completed project turned out to be.
I looked at my project and asked of God, “What about my red? Look at what’s become of my red. I so like yellow. I want my yellow back, Father. And can You also give me back my blue? Is it possible for You to un-smush these colors and make them bright and true again?”
The next challenge the leader gave us was to deconstruct our ugly clay representations and, using the same clay, to create an image of what our lives could look like, despite our pasts, because of Christ. I looked at my clay tomb and saw ruined clay. What could I possibly do with this? Well. I began the assignment and witnessed moment by moment the un-ruination of the clay. The streaked, yellowish clay turned into an image of the sun, which went into the top corner. The reddish clay was rolled out into a skinny line and used to spell my name in cursive. My red name found it’s way to the center of the page. There was a purple-ish hue, which was converted into an exclamation point at the end of my spelled-out name: Alease! The greenishness became grass beneath Alease!, and the blueishness turned into birds above Alease!. When the project was done, the black-marbled tomb had been utterly and completely transformed into an ode to life with Alease! at its center. My clay had gone from a dark, gloomy, balled, enclosure, to a picture of airy, colorful, growth and flight.
My fingers and heart had described to God, in clay, what it felt like to have had my colors marred and adulterated. God used these same fingers and heart, and this same clay, to answer my prayer to be true blue again. His answer, that He can use bright yellow, or streaked yellow, or even black-marbled-mashed-up yellow, and create with it the unmistakable image of the Son/sun, brings me joy even now.
Yes, traditional liturgy is wonderful. Yes, extemporaneous liturgy is glorious. Personally, though, I’d love to pray more with clay.