How Rote Worship and Ritualistic Prayer Saved my Faith

mass_symbolsA common attitude that I encounter in the low-church Evangelical subculture in which I am immersed is that real prayer or worship requires an authenticity rooted in coming to God “just as we are.” This is usually defined in opposition to more ritualistic prayer/worship praxes which are simply “dead religion.” Tellingly, it is not uncommon for me to hear this view espoused by those who were raised in more liturgical settings, especially from ex-Catholics. So, obviously, they are on to something. I mean, I have heard the same complaint from virtually every ex-Catholic I have ever met. When these ex-Catholics encounter a vibrant Evangelicalism that asks them to think and feel and not simply do, they become captivated.

Just the other day I was sitting in a small group with other believers when someone advanced this thesis (he was an ex-Catholic). He went so far as to say that the Lord’s Prayer was simply supposed to be a model and NOT something to be vainly repeated (despite Jesus’s command in Luke to “when you pray, say . . .”). To quote Matt Chandler, “God wants your heart, not your [sacrificial] bull!” In this, Chandler is referring to the prophetic critique of Israel in which they substituted dead ritual for true worship. This man said his faith was saved when this ritualistic attitude to prayer/worship was lifted. I wholeheartedly believe him. The problem, though, is that I have an opposite story.

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I was raised in a Church tradition that eschewed doing anything that remotely smelled like trying to earn God’s favor. We loved relationship, NOT religion. There was no need to mediate our relationship with God through any other person or practice. You could close your eyes and boldly (it was always boldly) enter God’s throne room to have a chat with him. But this never worked for me. Ever. If I prayed (which was rare since no one told me how except to tell me to talk to God as if he was right there), I always suspected that I was just making it up. If God really is a person (or three persons), then he should be sensible, if only with an internal sense. But I never felt that Other presence except under the rare occasion that I perceived God in nature (a thunderstorm, a bubbling river, the dawn or dusk).

As I have written about elsewhere, I learned that I just don’t have a personality type that is capable of doing the creative imagination necessary for low-Church and Charismatic prayer praxes (Tanya Luhrman has a great book on this). And so, during my college years, I discovered the joy of praying Scripture. And then, a bit later, the joy of the canonical hours. These set prayers (mostly the Psalms, but also the collects and intercessions and antiphons of the Church) are a skeleton onto which I can graft my emotional experiences. I can lament with the Psalms of lament and I can rejoice with the Psalms of joy. The burden of having to come up with the words for prayer, to shape my emotions into something coherent, to imagine God sitting across from me–all of that disappears when I am freed from having to rely on myself and I can rely on the words of the Bible and the Church.

And the reason I think this is so effective for me is because the words are physical; they are embodied and enfleshed. They are, in the most basic way possible, a Sign of God’s grace. Or, rather, they are sacramental.

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In a previous discussion on this blog from what feels like a hundred years ago (really only six years ago), I argued that the Sacraments ought to be understood as Signs. A sign, according to Augustine and most of Western semiotics, consists of a signifier and a signified. This is most obvious with words. The word “leaf” for example is a sign. The signifier is the physical word itself. The signified is the concept. Or, to use Augustine’s example, smoke is a signifier while fire is the signified. They are inextricably linked and cannot be separated from each other. They are like two sides of a sheet of paper or two sides of the same coin. In my post from six years ago, I argued that Catholics have a hyper-real vision of the Sacraments because, for them, the signifier and the signified are conflated. The signifier (the bread) is made exactly equivalent with the signifed (the body). I also argued that low-Church evangelicals make the opposite error with a hypo-real understanding of the Sacraments because, for them, the signifier and the signified are broken apart. The signifier (the bread) is merely a reminder of the signified (the body). The bread is only an aid to memory, a physical reminder of a spiritual benefit. Rejecting both of these views, I argued for a via media

I wrote: I vote for a via media, a middle way. We affirm the sacraments as bearers of grace, though we don’t understand how they work. We recognize that they are signifiers, though we understand that they are inextricably connected to the signified. We take the sacraments seriously as conveyors of grace, but we do not obsess over them as the means of grace. The sacraments, then, remain mysterious.

Roman Sacramental theology affirms a strict seven Sacraments, of course. Confessional Protestants usually affirm two (Baptism and Eucharist). Most low-Church evangelicals don’t have Sacraments (or don’t use sacramental language) and call the Sacraments ordinances, or rules. I tend to affirm the big two (Eucharist and Baptism) as capital “S” Sacraments and the rest of them as little “s” sacraments, mostly because a Sacrament is supposed to have been established by Christ himself while sacraments don’t have an obvious heritage in the Gospels, though they clearly do communicate Grace in some way (the other five are confirmation (which I view as a subset of baptism), matrimony, reconciliation, extreme unction, and ordination). And then, of course, there are sacramentals, or things that act like sacraments but don’t have the same pedigree. That is, they are signs of Grace in smaller and less obviously liturgical ways. (I have, for example, argued that new paint can be a sacramental).

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If, as I have posited, sacraments are signs of Grace, then they are of inestimable value to the Church. The canonical hours, then, function sacramentally because they are a physical and tangible signifier of God’s relationship to me. They communicate Grace to me because they exist objectively and serve as the locus onto which I can graft my subjective experience of God. They serve, then, as a rock against which to lean, as a prop for my flagging spirit and failing flesh. I have written about the value of the canonical hours for me personally at length elsewhere.

So, the main thing I wish to expound here is this: why is it valuable to affirm a sacramental vision of the world anyway? Why is it not enough to simply affirm that we each have an abstract relationship with God and leave it at that?

My answer to that question is three-fold. First, I will argue that we are enfleshed and embodied creatures. Severing our mind from our bodies denies the way God made us. Second, as an implication of the first point, the way to sanctification will not be won by mind over matter schemes. Here I will expound some of Jamie Smith’s insights from his book You are What You Love. Third, as an implication of the second point, for the Church to be a Sign of Christ in the midst of a secular and degenerating world, we are going to have to appeal to people who do not share our presuppositions.

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So, first of all, Descartes is the problem. In an attempt to answer the skeptics of his day, and as a way to have an unimpeachable foundationalism, he reduced the self to the mind. He said that the first feature of existence, the very warrant by which existence could be proved against the skeptics, was that he could think. This is his famous cogito ero sum (I think, therefore I am). The Cartesian self, with its view of the body as purely ancillary to the real business of being, is the primary way in which our society conceives of persons. And this runs the gamut. Everyone from transgender advocates (who assert that your truest self is the way you feel, regardless of your biology) to C.S. Lewis, who once said something stupid like “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” affirm this view of the self. But it is nonsense. Utter nonsense. What you are is a person. Spirit+Soul+Body=person. And these three are inseparable and, in a union deeper than we can comprehend, rely on and inform each other. The body is the aspect of us that is material, and that interacts with the material world via the material senses. The soul is the part of us that animates us, that grants us vitality. This is the mind, and it is immaterial. The spirit is the part of us that communicates with God, that gives guidance to the soul. The spirit contains the conscience, of course, but is the seat of virtue, especially of faith, hope, and love. The implication is, of course, that attempting to appeal simply to spirit/soul (these get conflated in contemporary anthropology) while ignoring the body denies an essential aspect of who we are.

Popularly, the Cartesian view of the self has led our culture to affirm that authenticity flows outward. You are what you feel, what you think. Your “real you” or “true self” is waiting to be discovered if you will just dig in deeper and deeper and deeper. Feelings are natural and therefore true. For example, we must feel in love to actually be in love. We must want to help those in need for our help to be authentic. If we are irritated or frustrated on the inside while perfectly calm and gracious on the outside, then we are not being genuine. Objective doesn’t matter because what matters is subjective thoughts and feelings. Relatedly, then, you ought to conform your actions and words with what you feel in order to be authentic. If you don’t feel in love anymore with your spouse, then you should get divorced. If you always wanted to be [the thing you are not], then you are encouraged to leave [the things you do now] in order to pursue your authentic call. Incidentally, this is why homosexuality, transsexuality, and other non-normative sexualities easily became socially accepted (and why no-fault divorce, gluttony, and extramarital sex have long been socially accepted). If you feel something, then it would be inauthentic–wrong, in fact–to not act on it. Feelings are true whether or not they correspond to reality. This is the Cartesian self gone wild; it is the nonsensical notion that my thoughts and feelings are truer than my words or actions.

While Evangelicals tend to expect people to conform to the objectively true Word of God (and so resist, for the most part, the absurd reign of the subjective), it is in their prayer and worship praxes that they affirm the Cartesian self. In denying the objective reality of the Sacraments (by insisting that for an experience of God to be real, the subject needs to intend for that experience to happen or, at least, be consciously aware of it), low-Church evangelicals affirm a Gnostic and subjective faith and ask too much of people. Worship, for most low-Church evangelicals, requires sustained and focused attention as the only real criteria, making worship an exclusively mental activity. The degree to which the body is involved in worship is simply as an aid or signal to the mind. But worship as a mental activity fails to sanctify because the mind does not have the power to reform itself without aid from the body and the soul.

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So, second of all, for sanctification to be the result of our worship, our worship is going to have to be embodied. This is because, as Jamie Smith has pointed out, we are not primarily thinking creatures. We are, rather, affective (or loving) creatures. We tend to act in accordance with what we are persuaded the good life is, but our vision of the good life is not really all that rational. It is shaped by our senses and experiences. Jamie Smith has a long-winded example of how this works in his book. He explains that he can mentally assent to the idea that he should eat organic and healthy food, buy his produce from a local farmer, reduce his carbon foot print, work for sustainability, etc. But mental assent (as everyone knows) does not, in itself, lead to reform. Plato, who viewed vice as primarily stemming from ignorance, was very wrong on this point. We only reform ourselves when we feel compelled by a vision of the good life that appeals to us, that is made beautiful to us, beyond our current vision. Smith demonstrates this point through the incongruous image of him reading Wendell Berry (an agragrian’s agrarian) while eating a Costco hotdog in the Costco food court.

Our affections are deeper than our conscious thought, and if worship is going to counteract the idolatry in our hearts (wherein we love things other than God because we have a poor vision of the good life), then it is going to have to do something with our whole beings (including our bodies). Indeed, the most direct avenue for real conversion is through our hearts, which is deeply influenced by our physical environment. My experience of God in nature is a testimony to that. This is why Beauty as the third transcendental (after Truth and Goodness) is so important; this includes story, art, drama, music, and all the rest. But low-Church evangelical worship tends to reduce worship to songs, but even those songs are reduced to the lyrics of the songs as an aid to the private prayer that the individual in worship is supposed to be experiencing. The way that Beauty operates is always pre-mental/conscious thought. We only ever realize, after our immediate experience, that something is beautiful and that we have worshiped. In fact, surely we can worship God authentically even if we have to drag our passions there kicking and screaming by physical force (body) or an act of the will (soul) because we objectively know that doing so is right and good. The low-Church evangelical insistence that real worship is what happens in our heads affirms the contemporary vision of the Cartesian self which rejects ancient (including Jewish and Christian) anthropology that insisted that what you do is the realest part of you. The problem with the pharisees is not that they performed ritual action, it was that they performed their ritual action in an attempt to make God happy with them. True religion can be ritualistic, especially if that ritual shapes us to love God and love neighbor.

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And so third, if the Church is going to function as a Sign for the world (signifying God’s invitation), then we are going to have to appeal to people who do not share our presuppositions. But low-Church evangelicalism hardly knows how to do this. It can be good at appealing to people’s conscious minds, but it is pretty terrible at appealing to their loves. This is evidenced by all of the terrible art (including film and music and visual artwork) that evangelicals have made in the last several decades. If God always has to be consciously thought of for art to be worshipful, then the art that we are going to make will simply be propaganda. But if, instead, art can appeal to people’s affections without raising the specter of God to their conscious awareness, then we participate with God’s natural creation (mountains and rivers and the human body, etc) in drawing people to God. The Heavens tell of the glory of God, but they do not do so with words. And they do so only by analogy and inference.

When my faith was on the rocks (I was steeped in a Liberal theology and was trying to head out the door), there were three primary things that brought me back. The first was Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. That book taught me of the depth and breadth of the great Christian tradition. What drew me in were not the academic arguments made by the patristics, but was the story that Oden told of the deposit of faith, in accordance with the regula fide, passed on throughout the generations of the Church. He helped me create a new social imaginary, a new vision of the good life, that was more compelling than the Liberalism dunked in holy water that I had embraced. The second thing that helped bring me back was the liturgy of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest. The fact that the Sacraments were effective whether I wanted them to be or not is a testament to the importance of embodied objective reality that sits outside of the subjective experiences of my mind. And, indeed, the drama of liturgy got at my heart before my mind was even aware. Third, and maybe most importantly, it was praying the canonical hours day in and day out, whether I wanted to or not, that prepared my heart, through my body (my knees, hands, voice, tongue), for Grace. And this is exactly what Jamie Smith argues for when he affirms that habits both shape and our shaped by our affections. Slowly, over the course of years, I found myself back in an orthodox faith and in a conscious relationship with God. But that journey back to God started before I was consciously aware. And, and this is my main point, if I had been consciously aware, I would have resisted. The last part of me to convert was my mind.

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And so, yes, I get that many people were raised in a liturgical tradition that was dead to them because it did not actually reach their affections. I assume this happened because they were poorly catechized or never had any of it explained to them or never asked anything of them except rote participation. But my experience is the opposite. Without rote ritual, I would have a dead faith. Without crossing myself, reciting the Lord’s prayer ritualistically, reciting the creed, kneeling at the prescribed time, etc, I would not be a Christian. I remain in a low-Church evangelical setting for lots of good reasons (about which I plan to blog in the future), and I don’t plan to leave for Canterbury or Constantinople or Rome, or even Geneva or Wittenberg, but this is one primary area in which my church and other similar churches could learn quite a bit from Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and various Reformed groups.