Saturday, November 7, 2015

The First-Person Singular

In the post in my Journey to Orthodoxy series on worship, I mentioned briefly that contemporary worship often bears a resemblance to prayer or devotion. I feel ready to say at least a bit more about this observation now. What I meant by it can be summed up by the fact that a good deal of contemporary worship songs (I would guess a large majority of them, as well as some older hymns) are written from a first-person singular perspective.

This is not just a grammatical quirk. If we grant that contemporary worship is as intentionally designed as older forms of worship, then this trend indicates that some kind of blending of individual and corporate worship is taking place. Christians gather to worship God, ostensibly together, yet do so in words that belie their corporate setting. Is this not strange?

It is such individualized worship that I would argue resembles personal prayer more than corporate worship. In such worship people praise God, give thanksgiving and glory and honor to him, ask for his Spirit—but more as a multitude of individuals gathered together than as the one Church, one body. This gives rise to some other emphases that fit more naturally into an individual approach to worship than a corporate one, like the importance of making (or having made) a personal decision to follow Jesus or a concern for personal apprehension of the truths sung about: what has happened to/been done for me (in particular), what it means to me, how I feel about it, how I will respond to it.

These things are of course good and important. Faith has to be personal in order to change anything. But to me this focus on one's place before God, on looking to the purity of one's own faith and how the gospel can be further applied to it, is found more naturally in personal prayer and piety than in corporate worship. This is why I think such individualized expressions of worship more resemble the role private prayer plays in the Orthodox Church. (How ironic that many Protestants reject the kinds of prewritten prayers ubiquitous in Orthodoxy, but regularly sing worship songs that are nearly the same thing) I don't know enough to evaluate this difference; I'm just trying to point it out.

The late Fr. Thomas Hopko has recorded a helpful talk on the relationship between the Divine Liturgy (i.e. Orthodox worship) and personal prayer explaining how Orthodox differentiate between prayer and worship. I'll quote parts of it at length, as I think he clarifies the way Orthodox distinguish (and yet connect) the two much better than I could in my own inexperience.
The Divine Leitourgia is the action of the Church. It’s [an] ecclesial action; it’s a corporate, common action. That word “corporate” is very good, because “corpus” in Latin is “body.” It’s an action of the body of Christ. It is not an individual, personal activity of a bunch of people simply being gathered together. It is the realization and the actualization of the kingdom of God on earth in the Church which is also, then, an actualization or a realization of creation itself as God’s kingdom.
Then in the Church you have everything participating. You have light, you have smell, you have incense, you have all these physical properties [which] are there in this particular gathering. It’s very important to realize that when we’re speaking about worship in spirit and in truth, this is the total worship of all of creation in the Church of Christ, anticipating the coming kingdom of God, where everything will simply be worship. Everything will be holy Communion. In the age to come, everything will be worship, everything will be praise, everything will be thanksgiving, everything will be filled with truth and wisdom, knowledge, understanding, insight, and everything will be holy Communion. The very existence—life itself, existence as life—will be communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, glorifying and worshiping God through the Son in the Spirit, and worshiping and glorifying God and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what is the Church, the Qahal, the Liturgy.
And then people will say, “Well, can’t you just go out into a field and pray, you know, pray where the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming and the trees are shading and it’s just so gorgeous. You’d be alone there and you’d say your prayer. Can’t you just let God know what you want at any time? And didn’t the apostles say you have to pray without ceasing and be constant in prayer, pray literally without ever stopping? And don’t you pray in your heart? Isn’t it a personal matter when you pray? Isn’t it a kind of very intimate relation with God?” and so on.
The answer is: Sure, yeah, that’s right. That’s perfect, that’s true. And every Christian and every human being has to do that. Our life has to become prayer. The holy Fathers will say prayer is not just something that you do; prayer is something that you become.
However—and here’s the point for today—the Divine Liturgy is not a prayer service. And the Divine Liturgy is not a service where people come together to express their own personal private petitions together in a group. We’ll see that that’s part of it, but that’s not the essence of it at all. In fact, even in language, if you take ancient Christian writings—let’s say the writings for the first, I don’t know, millennium of the Christian history—the Liturgy was never even called prayer. Prayer was something you did in your cell, it was something you did in your room, it was something that you did in your heart, it was something that you did constantly, and everybody had to do it. It wasn’t that you simply went to church, which of course is a modern expression, “go to church.”
When we go to church, we do pray. We say prayers, we say litanies, we say, “Let us pray to the Lord.” We pay attention to the prayers; we say Amen to the prayers. Sure, there are prayers there, because the whole life of a creature has to be prayer. In the Liturgy, we have the various kinds of prayers. We have the prayer of asking, we have the prayer of praising, we have the prayer of thanking, we have the prayers of interceding and praying for one another, we have the prayers of letting known our needs to God—but that is one aspect of the gathering. It does not exhaust the whole meaning of the gathering at all, not at all.
Those are things that can be done alone, and should be done alone in one’s room, and they are things that even families or groups of Christians can do together when they meet. You could have a prayer group come together and say some prayers, intercede for each other. That’s not very traditional in Eastern Orthodox history, but there’s probably nothing wrong with it, as long as you’re not simply gathering together to inform God what he already knows and then to tell God what God ought to do about it. Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to quote his spiritual father, Archimandrite Cyprian Kern, who used to say, “Many people think that prayer is informing God what he already knows and then telling God what he ought to do about it.”
Well, that’s not prayer. Prayer is not naming it and claiming it, either. Prayer, in fact, does not even begin in one’s own words. If you follow the Scriptures, you learn to pray and you begin to say, as St. Anthony the Great said in the desert, using the words that God provided for his own glorification. And that means, fundamentally, the psalms, and then it means the Lord’s prayer, it means the doxology, it means the trisagion—the “holy, holy, holy.” These are prayers that are given to us that we repeat, by the Scriptures, by the Holy Spirit, by God’s will put into our mouth.
A person can definitely share with God what’s on their mind. We can tell God what we think. We can tell God what we want. We can make known our needs and our anxieties and so on to God. But we do not go to the Divine Liturgy for that purpose. In fact, we go to the Divine Liturgy to learn what we, not only ought to say to God when we talk to him, but we go to the Divine Liturgy and the Church’s liturgy generally to learn how we ought to think, to learn what our mind should be really on, what our heart should really desire. In that sense, the Church’s liturgy and the Divine Liturgy par excellence is a school of prayer. It’s a communal act in which we go to be shaped and to be formed as human beings and as Christians in that community where God himself is acting, teaching, preaching, offering, consecrating, blessing, and giving himself to us for holy Communion as we give ourselves to him for the sake of that very same holy Communion.
However, [a private prayer rule is] prayer, that’s evchē, that’s prosevchē; that’s not leitourgia. That’s not leitourgia. You could say it’s our personal leitourgia as what we do as members of the community in our lives with every breath every day of our life as we try to actualize in our everyday life what is given to our experience in the liturgical life, particularly when we gather and participate in the Divine Liturgy. You could even say that the personal pietistic prayer life of a Christian is the actualization individually in what is given in the Liturgy; it’s the actualization all the time in one’s own person to what is given to the entire community when it gathers at the church for the Lord to act at the Divine Liturgy of the Church.
The Divine Liturgy has all of the aspects brought together in perfection in the context of worship that simply constitute our human life generally at every moment of our life. That’s why I said earlier we could actually say that human life, according to Christianity, is to actualize every moment of every day with every breath that which we experience and actualize in the Church’s Divine Liturgy. That’s the connection between everyday life and the Church’s liturgy. We need the Divine Liturgy of the Church, behind closed doors, to have the experience of life and truth and reality in God, so we know how to live the rest of the time. And the rest of the time, we try to actualize it, we try to realize it, we try to put it into practice, from Liturgy to Liturgy.
According to Hopko, prayer is possible and good either individually or in a corporate setting, but worship (which includes and transcends prayer) is at its core corporate, the leitourgia (literally, "work of the people") of the body of Christ which permeates and transforms our individual lives, but does not originate there. Both are good and important, but there is a definite difference between them.

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