The Patchwork Liturgist

In my adult life, I’ve passed through six translations of the liturgy: the old American Roman Catholic, England’s Roman Catholic liturgy, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Uganda’s simplified English liturgy, the formal Anglican liturgy favored by our church in Massachusetts (the 1928 BCP, maybe?) and the new Roman Catholic — not to mention all the masses I’ve participated in, however feebly, in French and Italian, Latin and Lhukonzo.

The result being, I stumble over the Nicene Creed, struggle with the clunky response, “And with your spirit.” I feel like an outsider, clutching my laminated card of responses, sneaking furtive glances to remind myself if it’s “For our good and the good of all the church,” or if that’s some other fragment I am remembering. It’s hard to enter in to worship and lose myself when I’m forever bumbling.

But what’s that idea from literary theory? Defamiliarization? The idea that there is value in language getting shaken up, in looking at the same thing in a new light. I get that from all the credal and geographic peregrinations of my twenties.

The legacy of these church shakeups is all the little bits and pieces that have struck me anew because in some sense they were new, to me at least. I’ve got the Song of Simeon memorized from the long soft twilights of my two newlywed summers doing Evensong each Thursday with Anglican friends in Tallahassee. I know the Agnes Dei in Latin from the beautiful immigrant-built church I attended in college, because, though a cradle Catholic who met my husband in high school Latin class, I’d never worshiped in Latin till I moved to Macon.

“It’s the Creed! It’s not SAT prep!” Stephen Colbert complained when the Church rolled out its new translation of the Mass, and while I hope time smoothes the awkward edges of our still-new English Roman Catholic liturgy, I still love falling into the rhythm of communal speech, of being pulled up short by my own stumbles, echoes that draw me back to holy places throughout my life.  A friend who has church-hopped nearly as extensively suggested that in our many mistakes, in lunging for the cheat sheet, maybe we make ourselves just a little more approachable to newcomers, and that’s valuable, too.

I’m not here to argue that they’re all equally right or even all equally beautiful. (The beautiful, cobwebby lyricism of the BCP will always win that for me.) But I feel deeply the romance of the universality that remains —behind impassioned scholarly debates between “born of” and “incarnate,” through the awkwardness of the word “consubstantial,” in the earnestness of imperfect words — in the beauty of the same supper celebrated by communities I’ve come to love the world over.

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