by Catherine Madsen

Liturgy should be as destabilizing as art and just as difficult to make.

CATHERINE MADSEN is a contributing editor to Cross Currents. She was a Fellow of the 1997 ARIL Colloquium, where she designed a course in liturgical writing. This paper was presented at the 1998 ARIL Consultation, "Becoming the People We Need: Mentors and Mentoring Communities."

There is something in religion that may not be true,
but has not yet been sung.

-- E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

The Jewish ritual of Tahara, the preparation of the dead for burial, is emotionally demanding and full of incongruities. The Chevra Kadisha, the "holy society" of those who take on the task, enters the room -- men to prepare a man, women for a woman -- and, addressing the body by its Hebrew name, asks its pardon for any indignity they may visit on it as they work. The work is close enough for indignity. There are smells, there is sometimes blood, the body is heavy and cold, the work reminds nearly everyone of handling a huge chicken. The body is washed twice. First the practical washing, in warm water: the fragile skin cleansed with washcloths, the ears swabbed with Q-tips, the hair combed, the toenails and fingernails cleaned. At this point the body is treated almost as if it were still alive, as if it could feel warm water, as if it could feel shame; only the part being washed is uncovered to view. Then the sheet is removed for the ritual washing. Naked, the body is sluiced with floods of cold water. It is not embalmed. It is dried and clothed in the garments of a priest of the Temple, and the hood is pulled over the face. It is put in a pegged wooden coffin; no nails are used, so that body and box may return entirely to earth. But the most disorienting feature of this profoundly disorienting ritual occurs during the warm washing, when verses are sung from the Song of Songs:

His head is fine gold; his hair is curly and black as the raven.
His eyes are as doves by waterbrooks, washed in milk, set like jewels.
His cheeks are as beds of spices, yielding scent; his lips as lilies dropping myrrh.
His hands are rods of gold set with beryl; his belly a tablet of ivory inlaid with sapphires.
His legs are pillars of marble in sockets of gold.
He is like Lebanon, fine as the cedars.
His mouth is sweetness, and he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
(5:11-16, my translation)

The ritual dates from sixteenth-century Poland. So much had not happened yet, in sixteenth-century Poland, that shapes our assumptions now: no Freud, no television, no concealment of death, no secularity anywhere. No escape from the text that encompassed one's life. No one worried, in sixteenth-century Poland, about the seemliness of men addressing another man in such words, or recoiled from the thought of singing with love to the dead. They were serious enough about the holiness of the text and the task that such qualms did not trouble them. They came from a tradition skeptical enough to say, on the holiest fast of the year, that God does not want our fasting; a tradition exuberant enough to welcome the Sabbath as a bride; a tradition whose bodiless God takes an insatiable interest in the doings of human bodies. Nothing had yet narrowed their imaginations against contradiction.

The makers of this ritual understood the power of liturgy to shape the thinking of a whole culture -- and to transmit, even across four hundred years and two continents, the humanity and care of their own sensibility. When my synagogue formed a Chevra Kadisha and studied the Tahara ritual, some members of the group found the lines from the Song of Songs striking and powerful; others were uneasy, and thought them obsolete and embarrassing. But once we had done the task, we all understood the tenderness the lines had encoded. There is a poetics of liturgy, as demanding and as complex as the greatest art. It need not spell out everything it means us to feel. It leaves something up to experience. Great art, it has been said, leaves cognitive work for the audience (Morreall and Loy 71). If the lines had not been in the ritual, we would still have felt tenderness -- one cannot handle the dead kindly without feeling tenderness -- but we would have felt it inarticulately, perhaps only prompted to murmur on the way out that the occasion felt "very spiritual." Because the lines were there -- because others had thought on that tenderness as profoundly as a profound tradition allows -- we could be fully perceiving members of the tradition at the boundary line of perception. We could be fully alive on behalf of the dead.

If anyone tried, nowadays, to invent such a ritual and give it to their community, it would never be tolerated. There would be nervous giggles about homoeroticism and necrophilia; the plan would be hotly discussed at one or two committee meetings, roundly declared inappropriate, and quietly dropped. An innocuous reading would be substituted -- perhaps the one about the two sets of footprints on the beach(1) -- and any suggestion that the new reading was unworthy of both the dead and the living would be met with wounded incomprehension and the charge of elitism. Why, in our synagogue -- or in our church, or in our back yard -- a poetics of liturgy? Why should simple, comforting acts be made difficult with unsettling scriptural allusions? What's the matter with a cute story?

There are very few sources in the theological realm that approach these questions at all. Most works on liturgy are occupied with the history and specifics of ritual practice; poetics would not be a comprehensible category. To discuss the interplay of emotion and intellect in a ritual would seem to the authors of such works a frivolity or a blasphemy. Contemporary revisers of Jewish and Christian liturgy -- and especially their critics -- would understand the discussion, but both revisers and critics tend to operate so much out of theological positions and political goals that they hobble both their intellect and their emotions. The critics tend simply to be more conservative than the revisers, and to explain the failure of modern liturgy as a failure of orthodoxy; they talk as if such a development were predictable and self-evident, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world that false doctrine produces pallid ritual. The revisers, meanwhile, write not so much against orthodoxy as for the contemporary sensibility as they conceive it: to update or excise the antiquities of their tradition, to make their religion palatable to people who dislike it but are not sure where else to go. In a sense they have put themselves in the position of preserving something for which both they and their audience have only a qualified enthusiasm; naturally enough, they cannot give their whole imagination to the task. They are in search of concepts which -- in the dubious phrase of one Reconstructionist rabbi -- they can "comfortably affirm." But something far more important than intellectual assent is at stake in liturgy. It is the integration of the body and the personality into the community, of each person's full energies into the community's work.

We may have to step entirely outside the religious realm and remember what the arts are for on their own terms before we can apply their principles to the making of liturgy. Susanne Langer's Feeling and Form makes a cogent statement of the workings of art on its audience:

More than anything else in experience, the arts mold our actual life of feeling. . . [A]rt is rooted in experience; but experience, in turn, is built up in memory and preformed in imagination according to the intuitions of powerful artists, often long dead (it takes time for an influence to reach the deepest strata of mentality, and what we learn in childhood, never to lose again, always stems from an earlier age. . . . Artistic training is, therefore, the education of feeling. (401)

Readers of Martha Nussbaum's books The Therapy of Desire and Poetic Justice will recognize the idea of the "emotional repertory," the range of feeling available to us, which is in large part a social phenomenon. We feel only as broadly or subtly as our surrounding culture allows, and if that culture is philosophically or artistically shallow our emotional learning will be correspondingly stunted. (Even if our family or friends take care over their emotional lives and other people's well-being, the wide influence of television and advertising and the threat of the bottom line will constrict our emotional range in all but a few people's presence.) Langer, like Nussbaum, recognizes the poverty of feeling that results from the absence of art:

Few people realize that the real education of emotion is not the "conditioning" effected by social approval and disapproval, but the tacit, personal, illuminating contact with symbols of feeling. Art education, therefore, is neglected, left to chance, or regarded as a cultural veneer. People who are so concerned for their children's scientific enlightenment that they keep Grimm out of the library and Santa Claus out of the chimney, allow the cheapest art, the worst of bad singing, the most revolting sentimental fiction to impinge on the children's minds all day and every day, from infancy. If the rank and file of youth grows up in emotional cowardice and confusion, sociologists look to economic conditions or family relations for the cause of this deplorable "human weakness," but not to the ubiquitous influence of corrupt art, which steeps the average mind in a shallow sentimentalism that ruins what germs of true feeling might have developed in it. (401-2)

This is moral language. It speaks of failures of character, of the uttermost privacies of the conscience, of the influence of the dead; it judges, it condemns. Far from promoting "sensitivity" in the hypochondriac sense, it does not admire feeling for feeling's sake; it wants to educate feeling, to teach it discrimination, renunciation, refusal, as the only means to expansion and compassion and grace. It does not offer art as a source of transporting beauty, or as an escape from the miseries of real life, or even as edification, but as the root of our emotional intelligence. People who mistrust art -- from Plato to Jesse Helms -- are always surprised when they find it morally stricter, not more lax, than religion. But Langer's view is common to serious artists. John Ciardi once said that the poet is known by "the valor of his refusals"; George Mackay Brown called the poet's true task "interrogation of silence" (24); E. M. Forster thought art was "based on an integrity in man's nature which lies deeper than moral integrity" (227). Art can deploy moral language without reference to any creed; the unfolding conscience of its audience is all the revelation it needs.

Langer goes on to address directly the relation between art and religion; she finds a natural kinship between the two, a focal center of imagination and action. But this kinship exists only as long as religion is "in its pristine, vigorous, spontaneous phase," when, like art, and with the welcome assistance of art, it "defines and develops human feelings." Indeed at this point "art is scarcely separable from it":

[A] great wealth of actual emotion attends religious experience, and unspoiled, unjaded minds wrestle joyfully for its objective expression, and are carried beyond the occasion that launched their efforts, to pursue the furthest possibilities of the expressions they have found. . . Whatever is holy to people inspires artistic conception. . . [But] as soon as religion becomes prosaic or perfunctory, art appears somewhere else. (402)

At this point of decline, when powerful emotion is lost to theology and liturgy, religion itself forgets that anything is holy. It settles for doctrine and sentiment. It drives out its artists, or tells them to subordinate their own perceptions of the holy to tried and accepted interpretations; it interposes convention like an acoustical damper between the artist and the demands of the holy. It cultivates maudlin loyalties and undemanding art forms -- Langer speaks scornfully of "the saccharine Virgins and barbershop harmonies" that the church condescendingly offers the people (402-3) -- rather than stamina and self-critical feeling. It recoils from emotional integrity as it would from demonic temptation; it can no longer see the purpose of art, believing that beneath the thin crust of morality there lies only chaos.

Why, when liturgy refuses to be artistic, should art want to be liturgical? Why should poetics want to go near religion? Why, in this country, are we so godsick that even artists should insist on laying their exacting tastes on the altar as if they were gifts? No less an artist than Goethe said art, and science too, were complete in themselves:

Wer Wissenschaft und Kunst besitzt, hat auch Religion;
Wer jene beide nicht besitzt, der habe Religion!

Who has science and art has also religion; who has neither, can have religion! When religion renounces intellect, intellect can carry on fine by itself, immersed in pure fact, engaged in the alchemical marriage of fact and imagination that engenders science and art. Religion's business is only to be religion: to recite a dead formula till all the meaning goes out of it, to limit imagination, to persecute pregnant girls.

If only he had been right. If only art did not regenerate religion with every strong metaphor; if only science did not lead right back to religion, drawn to it ineluctably as the apple to the ground. We are creatures of ritual. Langer understands what is lost when art and religion uncouple: art "loses its traditional sphere of influence, the solemn, festive populace, and runs the danger of never reaching beyond the studio where it was created" (403). The populace is deprived of solemnity -- look at the relentless drive for "fun" in every public gathering and medium -- and the artist is deprived of intelligible worship. And artists do want worship. Humanism is not essentially secular. We do not want only to sing the Song of Songs in an arrangement by Palestrina -- or even by Schütz -- in a concert hall, to people who will applaud. We want also to sing it in liturgical trope in the basement of the funeral parlor to someone whose eyes will not open.

I have encountered only one writer on liturgy who consistently understands this apparently futile compulsion, the need for direct ritual action, as a human end worthy of our best judgment. The Benedictine scholar of liturgy Aidan Kavanagh insists that liturgy is "primary theology," from which creed and systematic theology only derive. He writes from within the Catholic context and with particular crotchets about the modern scene with which one may quarrel, but also with exemplary intelligence, energy, and what artists are inclined to call a good crap detector. His book On Liturgical Theology is the most useful starting place I have encountered for liturgists of any persuasion, if they are willing to translate his religious vocabulary into their own.

The book begins with a reminder of the original meaning of orthodoxy: "right worship," not right doctrine. "This is very radical," Kavanagh says. "It implies that worship conceived broadly is what gives rise to theological reflection, rather than the other way around" (3). Belief is an intellectual byproduct of what the community does in its precipitous need to worship:

Worship in Spirit and in Truth is never abstract, nor does it happen on some noetic level which is undifferentiated like a Cartesian grid. Liturgy happens only in the rough and tumbled landscape of spaces and times which people discover and quarry for meaning in their lives. This is an artistic enterprise. (138-39)

It is, therefore, a physical enterprise, which responds to the needs of the body: order, rhythm, repetition, a sense of purpose, a sense of stability. It is an intuitive enterprise -- not in the debased sense of intuition as a vague, mindless knowingness resistant to explanation, but in the sense that intuition is too quick and too complex for explanation, linking up apparently unrelated elements in a flash of coherence. And it has to do with survival: social survival, the linking up of apparently unrelated individuals into a unity. "Societies which cannot cohere on a level which transcends individuality," Kavanagh says, "will not long remain either human or social" (137).

For Kavanagh liturgy is a form of "critical reflection" which takes place in community over a span of time, increasing with each repetition the community's sense of what it is and what it owes. "Liturgical repetition is thus a knowledgeable accomplishment" (139), a collective work of carefully nuanced art, that cannot be grasped all at once -- which may explain why newcomers to any ritual are inclined to feel alienated, and why every attempt to simplify liturgy and make it "accessible" is likely to fail in some measure. The acts done in public must become part of each person's privacy; there are no short cuts. The community's method of critical reflection must establish itself in the individual mind.

Kavanagh also sees the liturgical act -- and this is crucial -- as containing an inherent instability. "The liturgical assembly's stance in faith is vertiginous, on the edge of chaos" (75). Worship is not simply a celebration of life but an uneasy confrontation with our own powers. The curiously tense relationship between nature, artifact, and God in both Jewish and Christian tradition points to this instability: nature in itself is considered inarguably good, but nature under our hands becomes subject to moral scrutiny. Where a natural thing is changed into a made thing -- "when grape drippings become wine, when grain becomes bread, when color and surface become icon -- . . . . the discourse heats up" (40). When nature becomes artifact, idolatry becomes possible. Kavanagh never quite says that this anxiety extends to the actual practice of liturgy -- that there is always a doubt whether a ritual artifact is a sacrament or an idol -- but there is; perhaps this is what gives worship its fervency, its abandon, because in consenting to worship we are taking a risk.

And the risk is at its steepest -- its shrillest -- when we address God, who (as Elaine Scarry has said) is both our artificer and our artifact -- the artifact we have imagined as our artificer, in order to remake ourselves. Worship, says Kavanagh, is an occasion "when the redeemed regard their Redeemer" (8). We look back at our artificer; our artifact looks back at us. What Kavanagh understands as a Catholic in the language of incarnation and atonement, others will find other language for, but the unsettling operative word remains regard. "As God is my witness," we say. What witnesses us so profoundly that we have to look back? In what relation do we stand to it? For Kavanagh "there is. . . . a certain violence involved" in that relation (94). Christians are aware of themselves as complicit in Christ's death: the artificer died for their sins. In Judaism, the artificer continually threatens to unmake, a threat whose credibility has not diminished with the centuries. Even an entirely postbiblical religion would be bound to accept the violence of the relation between humanity and nature -- the violence of the natural order toward us and ours toward it. Yet in spite of the violence, in spite of the instability, we feel ourselves witnessed; and the gaze is not wholly frightening. It is familiar, intimate; it may even, on both parts, be longing. The assembly of worshipers is an I to which something else is a Thou. "In their liturgy," Kavanagh says, "Christians disport themselves warily with One for whom their universe is but the snap of a finger" (119-20). There are styles in these things; Jews, in my experience, disport themselves rather more boldly; but the risk is never diminished.

My own observation is that the most powerful liturgy admits it is vertiginous: absorbs, incorporates vertigo into its order. The liturgist's art is partly quotation and linkage -- the disruption of context, the application of strong words to a purpose for which they were not intended. One can make a case that the true test of liturgical endurance is the ironic misquote; when we can speak of the quick and the dead in traffic -- even if we are not Anglicans, even if the Anglican Church has thrown out the word "quick" as linguistically obsolete -- we revive the old meaning for the sake of the pun, and both invoke order and create vertigo in a new place. There are serious ironies as well as comic ones, and the use of the Song of Songs for someone who is cold and smells of death is one of them; so is the naming of what is visibly and palpably bread and wine as body and blood, an irony that only deepens as bread and wine are understood as the elements of the Jewish kiddush, and the Mass as the transubstantiation of a Jewish ritual of nature and artifact into a Christian ritual of sacrifice and resurrection. The remarkable midrash on the whole Hebrew Bible that is the gospels and Paul's letters is a similar project of quotation and linkage and disruption of context, elaborated with tremendous conviction and urgency; for many who have encountered no other midrash it is thorough enough to be permanently convincing (however dire, at another level, for Jewish existence). There is a fearful irony in speaking of Jewish chosenness after the fact of Nazi "selection." The word irony has a bad press at the moment; for some contemporary thinkers it is a catchword for detachment and moral lassitude. But it is not true that irony always militates against moral commitment, that it is the refuge of the politically exhausted, the supercilious, the craven. It has an unrivalled power to focus the mind on its work. In Jewish liturgy the use of Isaiah's tirade against fasting (57:14-58:14) in the Yom Kippur service is openly and fiercely ironic, and intended to get results. Even the celebration of the Sabbath is a peculiar and delicate irony, especially in light of Abraham Heschel's phrase the architecture of time -- the enjambment of that most sturdy and massive of the arts with that most ephemeral of media, as if palaces could be built of minutes and sunsets and the lighting of tiny fires. Yet the point of the irony is our power to change nature to artifact: the wandering people, the people for whom the relationship to a land is so perilous as never to be safely resolved, make worlds, make weeks, make historical thinking out of something as insubstantial as intention. The irony induces the vertigo -- whereupon we compensate, balance: we know how to right ourselves. Balance is an inborn human faculty, discovered in desperation, exhilarating to use. The best liturgy schools us in this faculty. It gives us the precipitating irony that compels us into decision, the paralyzing absurdity that impels us to act.

Two contemporary examples -- I am happy to report that there are at least two -- show how the disruption of context can be used to striking effect. Both these examples have to do with the commitment between parent and child, and both show the power of liturgical language to bring the community's thinking to bear on a private relationship. The 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer includes an adoption ceremony; if the child is being adopted as a baby, the parent or parents are simply asked Do you take this child for your own, but if the child is old enough to speak he or she is asked Do you take this woman as your mother? Do you take this man as your father? and the child replies I do. The whole weight of Cranmer's marriage vows is behind those words: their sadness, their intimate realism, their tolling of the contingencies of all our contracted alliances: better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. The second example comes from Marcia Falk's Book of Blessings -- a book of Jewish feminist liturgy whose language is often quite disappointing, but whose conceptual underpinnings have a good deal of theological strength. One of its genuinely remarkable liturgical moments is the Sabbath blessing of children. In the traditional blessing, the parent lays hands on the child's head and wishes a daughter to be like the matriarchs, a son to be like Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe. In Falk's version the parent says to a daughter hayi asher tihyi, to a son heyeh asher tihyeh -- imperative echo of that ehyeh asher ehyeh by which God named himself to Moses at the burning bush. Be who you are, her translation runs -- already a slight congealment of a notoriously untranslatable phrase, since asher implies what or as as much as who, and the verb form is more the dynamic will be than the static are, and there is no way to preserve in English the suggestion of God's unuttered name, which is compounded of tenses of the verb to be. But in the Hebrew a whole theological stance, and a moral charge, is transmitted in one phrase. Our children are both our artifacts and the image of the artificer in its uncanniest and most intractable form; we must regard them with the same intimacy and at the same risk as we regard our redeemer -- who may, even if he is entirely imagined, be our only way out of bondage. In both these cases the liturgical utterance serves as the guarantor of seriousness in the relation between parent and child -- a realm where there are certainly no other guarantees. It offers a metaphor through which the work of parenthood can be uneasily understood: in the adoption service the metaphor of indissoluble marriage, in the Sabbath blessing the metaphor of permanent (and permanently unstable) covenant with God. That is the poetics of liturgy, and that is why it matters.

Metaphors are much in demand in contemporary spiritual life. Clergy and theologians have called over several decades for helpful new images to make religion intelligible to moderns or equitable to women, or to serve other urgent causes as they appear. The authors of Common Fire(2) make a similar call for "responsible imagination" (151) on the part of artists, to find a way out of the cultural impasse in which we are trapped. These are all sophisticated and generous people who appreciate the complexities of art; in theory they understand that metaphor is ambiguous and does not appear for the asking. But any artist will tell you: a live metaphor never arose from the urge to create helpful images. The very qualifiers, helpful images, responsible imagination, are faintly inhibiting, monitory; to the wary ear of the artist it is only half a step from there to stigmatizing terms like degenerate art. Words and actions are part of the cure of our suffering; they cannot be harnessed. Even their helpfulness is radically independent, unconditioned, emerging in the most unlikely places and not where the way is made smooth for it: present when it will be present. We belong to a populace from whom the most basic necessities of life and health are being withdrawn; we had better understand just how helpful an image must be even to articulate such a disaster, much less to reverse it. Each sick and destitute person, each child who lives without enough food, each adolescent who lives without hope of education or work, each adult who can find only temporary or part-time work without benefits, each teacher or nurse or doctor or journalist or politician who struggles to work in a decayed and dishonest system, is a whole soul, whose privacy is disrupted, whose will is violated, whose powers are diminished, by the failure of our society to want its members' well-being. It may be that only liturgical irony at its most astringent is sufficient to cope with the anguish. The self-conscious search for new images always settles too soon for too little. Make us an image, said the Israelites at Sinai, we don't know where this Moses has gone, make us a god we can see and touch, we want meaning. No. The imagination is responsible first to its source and only then to the common good. The irony is that this apparent irresponsibility -- the withdrawal into the cloud, the forty days' absence, the smashing of the tablets upon return -- is not individualism but the birth of the law. Moses saw only the metaphor's back, but it was the right metaphor.

One theory of metaphor holds that meaning in the literal sense is never the purpose of imagery: the real function of metaphor is to establish intimacy. Thus the helpfulness of any given metaphor is unpredictable -- or rather, depends not on its content but on the candor and humility with which it is offered. We must feel, not that we are being given a meaning that is good for us by someone who knows best, but that we are being trusted to understand. We must feel that we are regarded. We have all experienced the paradox at some time in our lives, that intimacy is the realm of greatest dignity: that the point of utter humility is the point at which we are most truly honored -- loved in our nakedness, beyond the possibility of artifice or disguise. Ritual language can do that; it can give back our souls, it can make the best of our privacy available to us in public, it can make us people who remember our worth. Or, in the language of this conference, the people we need.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her commentary Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, speaks in passing of "the righteous, men and women of special potency." The phrase is striking, shocking, in its simplicity: righteousness is not the inhibition but the development of our full powers. It suggests not the stained-glass attitudes of rigidity and caution but energy, motion, velocity, the preternatural vigor of physical love. What if liturgy were a way of conveying this state from people who live in it much of the time to people who have it less surely? What if it were a way -- independent of all status markers like job or education or family, inviolable even by crises like layoff, divorce, dispossession -- of linking people to the source of their powers? Perhaps righteousness too is an art -- or an architecture: the construction of worth. The linkages must not be made of flimsy material. Liturgy that keeps us from our powers is a weak link in the whole body politic. Liturgy that restores us to them is strong as death.

Works Cited

  • Brown, George Mackay. "The Poet," in Selected Poems 1954-1992. London: John Murray, 1996: 24.
  • Cooper, David. Metaphor. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.
  • Daloz, Laurent A. Parks et al. Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. Boston: Beacon, 1996.
  • Forster, E. M. "Our Second Greatest Novel?," in Two Cheers for Democracy. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1951: 223-27.
  • Kavanagh, Aidan. On Liturgical Theology. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1984.
  • Langer, Susanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner, 1953.
  • Morreall, John, and Jessica Loy. "Kitsch and Aesthetic Education," Journal of Aesthetic Education 23 (Winter 1989): 63-73.
  • Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Three postscripts

1. Footprints in the sand. The need for consolation is absolutely prior to both aesthetic and ethical judgment; the sense of being cared for is a fundamental necessity of life. This is why it matters so much that we have adequate sources of consolation -- not just charming homilies whose appeal will disappear as we develop aesthetic and ethical judgment (or even as soon as we know the punch line), but subtle and resilient words and acts that will survive the severest judgment. The problem with the "footprints" story is not that it consoles, but that it presents passivity and childishness as the most consoling aspects of our relation with God. There are more enlivening possibilities. It's important not to be satisfied with the nutritional minimum of comfort: it's all sugar.

As far as I can ascertain, the demand for resilience in liturgy is not an "elitist" demand; if only the elite were more interested in durable consolations, for themselves or for those less fortunate. It is a demand for the relief of emotional poverty, which may or may not coincide with economic and educational poverty. Because liturgy crosses economic lines, it can at least offer verbal wealth equally.

2. Irony. I had striking proof of the ironic power of liturgy from a man who has not read this paper, whom I met in an evening class on Emily Dickinson. We were studying "Of consciousness, her awful Mate/The Soul cannot be rid" when suddenly he began telling of being shipwrecked in the Pacific by kamikaze planes at the age of eighteen: swimming away from the wreck as bombs fell around him in the night, voiding his bowels in fear, reciting the Hail Mary as he had been taught to do in a crisis -- and suddenly laughing when he came to "now and at the hour of our death." This might be the hour of his death: the words were not merely liturgical, or liturgy was something realer than he had thought. It struck him, then and now, as a blaze of enlightening irony -- "My consciousness was never my enemy after that" -- and intensified, his life long, both his wits and his Christianity.

3.Wissenschaft und Kunst. Recently as I was waiting at the fish counter in the local supermarket, I noticed that a scallop had fallen off the spoon on its way from the bowl to the packing carton onto a piece of fish. I was thinking of buying that kind of fish, and stood idly thinking that the piece with the scallop on it was no longer kosher; but the woman ahead of me -- she had a European accent of some sort, I think Scandinavian -- warned the man at the counter how dangerous the fish could be to someone allergic to shellfish. He flung the scallop into the trash, and she explained that she had better get rid of the fish too, since even the residual juice could be fatal to someone with the allergy. "And you don't want that on your conscience," she said, easily and matter-of-factly and without reference to any God or established moral code whatever. That was potency: that was righteousness: the uncluttered, uncondemning response to the situation at hand. She, having no obvious religion, had art and science; I, having religion, had neither. Can liturgy help against thoughtlessness? If we think of liturgy as establishing habits -- neural pathways for emotion and action -- how can it establish them not only for group cohesion but for general compassion?


1. [Back to text]  In which the departing soul sees his (?) life spread before him as footprints in the sand -- two sets, showing how God had walked beside him. "But, Lord," the soul says, hesitantly and half-reproachfully, "sometimes there's only one set of footprints. Where were you then?" God lets a long moment pass. "My precious, precious child," he says at last. "Those were the times I carried you."

2. [Back to text]  Two of the authors, James and Cheryl Keen, were keynote speakers at the ARIL Consultation where this essay was read.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.