Monday, November 14, 2011

An old shoe

I admire Wendell Berry: poet, novelist, essayist, sustainable agriculture guru. I had been generally aware of him, but my interest was really cemented when I heard an Easter anthem by Paul Halley, "What Stood Will Stand." That led me to the collection of poems, "Sabbaths," and from there to "A Timbered Choir." To his novels, etc. A rich gift from a piece of music coincidentally heard at a convenion of the ACDA.
For a recent birthday, I received yet another volume of Berry poems. It is not a new collection - Traveling At Home (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1988) - but it is new to me. A slim volume with evocative wood engravings by John DePol, it takes the reader into the geography of the delightful novels, and the geography of a farmer committed to the history of a place and the integrity of the land.
Section One is a poetic essay, "A Walk Down Camp Branch." I was struck with the following passage. Berry is describing a walk he and his dog have taken over the years: There is a sort of mystery in the establishment of these ways. Any time one crosses a given stretch of country with some frequency, no matter how wanderingly one begins, the tendency is always toward habit. By the third or fourth trip, without realizing it, one is following a fixed path, going the way one went before. After that, one may still wander, but only by deliberation, and when there is reason to hurry, or when the mind wanders rather than the feet, one returns to the old route. Familiarity has begun. One has made a relationship with the landscape, and the form and the symbol and the enactment of the relationship is the path. These paths of mine are seldom worn on the ground. They are habits of mind, directions and turns. They are as personal as old shoes. My feet are comfortable in them. (p 11-12)
Some readers will, like me, have thought of another favorite author by this point. And like me, perhaps have begun to think of C. S. Lewis even before the mention of "old shoes." Already before that reference, my thoughts were toward the nature of worship and liturgy. (Occupational hazard? But also the gift of the poet; one must always ask, "is this about more than or other than  what appears on the surface?")
C. S. Lewis is not necessarily a go-to, must-read author in matters of church music and liturgy. But he is always worth considering, and often wise. At least, he was a good observer. In the first of a series of Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963) Lewis addresses concern about proposed changes to the Church of England liturgy. He supposes that many will resent the changes, and that some will even leave the church over them. He asks, "Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not." And then this: They have a good reason for their conservatism. 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 show 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 woud be one we were almost unaware of; our atention would have been on God. (p. 4)
Lewis goes on to caution about novelty, and the purposes that drive changes. But he stops short of insisting that the given form of the C of E liturgy is the only form he could live with. 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. (p. 5)
Berry's observations about a casual walk that couldn't help become a well-worn path (like an old shoe) is a good metaphor for the human tendency to develop healthy habits. (When children learn to pray, they repeat what they hear their parents say. And I don't think my children were unique in being just a bit unsettled, up to a certain age, when their parents did not keep to the "liturgy" of prayers!) Lewis' concern for average, lay worshipers, is a good reminder that at heart, people want to meet God when they gather for Christian worship, and our professional innovations should keep that in mind.
And what of change that must be made, because our worship is to be always reforming? Here again, both authors have a word: Intentionality. (My summary, not a word either author uses.) The walk down Camp Branch will fall into the habitual steps unless Berry purposefully chooses another way; that is, without a specific intent, why take another way?. And Lewis, if conservative, is at least wise in his human understanding: I think it would have been best, if it were possible, that necessary change should have occurred gradually and (to most people) imperceptibly; here a little and there a little; one obsolete word replaced in a century - like the gradual change of spelling in successive editions of Shakespeare. (p. 6) Well, glacial change is hardly change at all! But his point - no doubt exaggerated - is important to consider. I need to remember that people want to feel at home in public worship, even at College Church to put on, as it were, their slippers as they gather.

1 comment:

Jim Lowery said...

OR take off their shoes.

The familiar can, of course, be a rut ("a grave with both ends knocked out" as Mr. Hicks [Wheaton COllege COncert Choir] used to define it), or it can make us sensitive to the presence of burning bushes, or the still small voice as in the dead of night (think Samuel).

Great reminder. Thank you.
Jim Lowery
Richmond, VA