On the habits of liturgy

I’m attending a Sunday School class at Church of the Incarnation taught by Fr. Matthew Olver. His class is entitled, “A Sacrifice of Prayer: A Beginner’s Guide to Anglican Worship and the Book of Common Prayer.” He started the class with an apologia for liturgy, which derives from the Greek word leitourgia, often translated “work of the people” (laos “people” + ergos “work”). He quoted a few sources that I want to share.

In Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas address how habit is essential to Christian formation and why worship of God is too important to be left up to spontaneous desire.

Habit is good. Most of the really important things we do in life, we do out of habit. We eat, sleep, make love, shake hands, hug our children out of habit. Some things in life are too important to be left up to chance. Some things are too difficult to be left up to spontaneous desire – things like telling people that we love them or praying to God. So we do them “out of habit.” Thus, in the church we generally do the same things over and over again, week after week, telling the same stories and singing the same songs.

Some complain that this makes church boring. While we do not defend boredom (for it is a sin against the joyful adventure of following Jesus), we do say that habits are important, particularly in a faith that is so against our natural inclinations, a faith that is so at odds with many of the deeply ingrained and widely held assumptions of this culture. We therefore must do things “out of habit” as Christians because it is so difficult for us to pay attention to God in a society that offers us so many distractions. As we have said, prayer is bending our lives toward God. Habit is one way we do that.

In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis discusses why the “long familiarity” of liturgy is preferable to “incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service.” Speaking about the majority of Anglicans who favor conservatism in worship over innovation, Lewis writes:

Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it “works” best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. 

But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was “for what does it serve?” “‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.”

A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”

Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit – habito dell’ arte.

And finally, the Latin maxim lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of belief”) emphasizes that you can see a Christian mostly clearly when he or she is worshipping. The desert monk Evagrius famously put it this way: “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” I am learning that the liturgy of the Anglican Church, which comes from The Book of Common Prayer, unites prayer and belief with enough “permanence and uniformity” to make worship my second nature.

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3 thoughts on “On the habits of liturgy

  1. C.S. Lewis, as always, speaking plain reason. Even if a reader to disagree, I feel, the reader would much rather disagree with Lewis than many other writers.

    In my case, I agree with the substance of what Lewis has said. “Being not other than I am,” however, I would ask your opinion on one or two points. If they prove to be “insubstantial,” then well good.

    First, Lewis speaks of habit and defends it. We must speak of habit, because we are all live after modernity, and so we tend to assume that habits are bad because, since we want to be free self-consciousnesses, but habits eat away at our thinking and our willing like mice in the pantry of our minds.

    But we may think of contexts, like sports or business, in which even the most modern of us admit that habits are good, and these examples reveal what the Greeks, Romans, and medievals tended to mean by habit. That is, namely, virtue (areté or virtus: excellence) by which a person does not just “sort of” do something but rather does that thing well!

    I have argued elsewhere that virtue in this sense does not diminish our freedom or our consciousness but instead augments them in this sense: in a virtue that we may have we both direct our attention toward what is important in what needs to be done, away from what is unimportant, and also find ourselves almost already doing what we ought to be doing at just the right times. Should we follow Lewis, who defends “habit,” or should we pursue an account of virtue?

    Second, how would you understand Lewis’ position toward distraction? There is no doubt a tendency in me to turn my attention away from God and toward something novel in communal prayer, as there is in Lewis and others, but it is not my custom, shall I say, to argue for something because it allows me to remain in my custom. I think maybe it would be better to say, at least, that the reason that we are giving is not having to change from a custom, if that is indeed the reason that we are giving.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, Michael. (1) The talk about habits, whether they be good or bad, is not a distinctly modern phenomenon. After all, none other than the the ancient philosopher Aristotle and the apostle Paul were fond of talking about character development through habit (e.g., Romans 5:3). You’re quite right to note that we’ve lost the Greek sense of “areté” (or excellence). To answer your question, I think we should not choose between “habit” or “virtue” but combine them in an account of our formation as disciples of Christ. (2) Lewis says, “Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity.” In my opinion, his position can be improved upon by remembering what Paul Griffiths says about liturgy: “We work liturgically because it is the thing to do, because liturgical gratitude is the only way to accept a gift given, especially one of surpassing beauty and value that we do not merit, and because we are in love and eager to show that love.”

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