Even the staunchest defender of liturgical worship has to admit that the repetitiveness of liturgy leads to daydreaming. Hasn't every pastor found the congregation waiting for his versicle as he came back from some wandering during their response? Once, having returned from such a foray instead of saying, "The Lord be with you," before the Collect, I said "Lift up your hearts." The organist played "We lift them up unto the Lord," and the congregation sang it. This is not new. One early church father tells the story of one Christian lamenting his tendency to wander while saying the Lord's Prayer. A brother chided him for such impiety. He responded by offering the brother a horse if he could say one Lord's Prayer without daydreaming. He began, "Our Father who art in heaven. Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come..." Then pausing he said, "Say, does that horse come with a saddle." Yes, we've all been there and done that during the liturgy we've been through and done hundreds of time.
But still people need repetitiveness. They work it into their daily lives through routines, schedules, rituals, and ceremonies quite apart from sacred things. Most people have morning "rituals" with showering, shaving, reading the paper, the first cup of coffee, etc. in a certain order. It's the same with the evenings. People have daily routines, "ceremonies" they follow the same way each night before retiring. They will feel out of sorts, a little off, restless if for some reason these rituals are not able to be followed.
The movie "Nell" (circa 1996) which purports to be the true story of a woman in modern times having grown up completely cut off from modern culture, portrays a woman who gets up every morning and goes to the river washing, bathing, and swimming in exactly the same way every day. Dennis Bryd, the NFL football player who was tragically paralyzed during a game but walked again, is a member of the Assembly of God, a denomination not known for a love of liturgy. He describes in his book Rise and Walk the following ritual. He had a small leather Indian sack in which he put soil from Oklahoma, and a lock of his wife's and daughter's hair. Just before taking the field he held the bag and meditated praying that he do his best and that no one would get hurt. Then he untied the sack, sprinkled a pinch of soil into his palm, and as the team ran out on to the playing field he let the dirt fall on the stadium ground. He says, "It is a ritual I repeated on every NFL field I ever played on."
There is comfort in the rhythm, the cadence, the ebb and flow of repetitiveness. Those of you who have raised children know that from early on, within the first year, you help your children go to bed quietly if you follow a routine, a pattern, a "liturgy" with them every night. My wife did this with all of our children. The ritual included lights out, night light on, pacifier in, bottle filled, and prayers said. It concluded with the singing of the doxology. On the rare occasion when I was the liturgist, I noted that even 9 month olds would start to hunker down and snuggle under as soon as the first words of the prayer began and were pretty much quiet by the time the chords (discordant in my case) of the doxology sounded.
People particularly need this repetitiveness in times of stress, tragedy, uncertainty, and they will find it. The issue is will they find it in worthwhile things. A solider in World War I writes that since he was not given to praying, he got through a bad shelling by "'repeating a school mnemonic for Latin adverbs beginning: Ante, apud, ad, adversus." This was his liturgy, his rhythm, his cadence, his repetitiveness in the midst of the death, the uncertainty, and the unraveling of war. Christians have historically found these in the liturgy. You've seen this too. At funerals Psalm 23 must be read. The rhythm and cadence of the Lord's Prayer is soothing. If you've done a funeral where a large number of Catholics were in attendance, you might have been surprised, as I was, to hear them forcefully respond after your versicle. They needed to hear that versicle. It sounding forth in their ears again as it had for years previously signaled that the rhythm of their life was going on even though it was interrupted by death.
This is what I fear we are in danger of losing in our desire to get away from repetitiveness. I am well aware, as Loehe said, "The Church remains what it is even without the liturgy. It remains a queen, even if dressed in beggar's rags" (Three Books on the Church, 178). I am well aware of Luther's admonition, "Those who think that the church consists of certain ceremonies and orders, are replacing 'I believe' with 'I see" (LW, 27,85). I don't want to mistake the clothes for the Bride; I don't want to think that unless I can see an unbroken liturgical chain from the 1st to 21st century that the Church has ceased to exist. But I need repetitiveness; I need sameness; I need ritual, routine, and tradition.
People in general need this. Will and Ariel Durant conclude their history of the age of Voltaire with an imaginary dialogue between Pope Benedict XIV and Voltaire based on their reading. They have Benedict saying, "Tradition is to the group what memory is to the individual; and just as the sapping of memory may bring insanity, so a sudden break with tradition may plunge a whole nation into madness, like France in the Revolution."
But this tradition needs to be rooted deeper than me. Yes, a mindless mnemonic device because it doesn't change can comfort a splintering mind in the midst of upheaval, but my soul cries for more, something outside of me and my thoughts. I need to hear God's truth that "our help is in the name of the Lord." I need to be told when the earth is quaking that He "made heaven and earth." I need to be told (and yes shown) what the Church has proclaimed for millennia that when my sins give me no peace, nevertheless, through this Body and this Blood on this altar the peace of the Lord is with me always. The Treatise defines "true divine services" as "the exercises of faith struggling with unbelief and despair concerning the promise of the Gospel" (par.44). That's why I need to be told every Lord's Day that I can "Lift up my heart." And I am comforted by the fact that Lord's people have been repeatedly told this for centuries. As Cyril of Jerusalem says in his fourth century catechetical lectures, "In effect therefore the priest bids all in that hour to dismiss all cares of this life, or household anxieties, and to have their heart in heaven with the merciful God."
Been there, done that. You bet I have. And I will keep going there and doing that "world without end." Even though from time to time I will wander off into my own daydreams, I will be greatly comforted when the congregation calls me back with the great news that "His mercy endures forever" though my concentration span doesn't last 15 seconds.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas