Rhythm Research Class

Module 1, Class 2: Liturgical Rhythm Forming the Rhythms of Life

Based on readings from Frank C. Senn’s Embodied Liturgy, my students had a discussion in their second class of this module (rhythm and our relationship to God) about the relationships between liturgy, worship and service. According to Senn, liturgy in fact has a much broader meaning than worship, which usually refers to a private and uni-directional exchange from me to God. Liturgy, on the other hand, refers to something more like public service, from the Greek leitourgia. It is multi-dimensional, involving the service of the body of Christ to God through the work of the people as well as God’s service to the body of Christ in the sacraments served to her. This of course includes my individual worship, but always as part of the larger body of Christ. It is a matter of serving God with others, which requires being attentive to others, not a matter of my personal edification, which is often how we think of worship.

Thus, while we often think of about liturgy in terms of call-and-response between priest and congregation, this is simply a manifestation of the true oscillation of call-and-response between the service of the church and the service of God. Liturgy, understood in terms of this oscillating structure, is the vehicle for worship, service, practice etc., the rhythmic form of the life of the Church, its heartbeat perhaps, or its breath.

The students posed an interesting question on the basis of this conversation. If liturgy is in fact rhythmic, does it create a new rhythm or does it simply re-structure rhythms that already exist? Most students seemed to think that it primarily involves the formation of rhythms of which we are already a part. One suggested that it gives new meaning to the rhythms of everyday life, such as the liturgical year bringing new meaning to the rhythm of the seasons. Another said that it perhaps organizes all of the various waves of reality into a harmonious, rhythmic form. We do not usually pay enough attention to the waves in which we are already embedded – light, sound, motion, breath – to be able to organize them into a coherent rhythm, but this is precisely what liturgy does. Vision, words, bodily movement, breath are all organized intentionally and in ways that are synchronized with others into a harmonious whole.

This description of liturgy resonates with something I have started thinking about recently, namely the idea that liturgy may perhaps be its own art-form. It incorporates other art-forms like visual arts and music, yes, but it functions like its own art form. In particular, the arts all take a particular dimension of life and organize it in highly formal ways in order to reveal aspects of that dimension that usually go unnoticed or to communicate something to bodily experience rather than merely to cognitive understanding. Painting organizes color, music organizes tones, poetry organizes words. It seems to me that liturgy similarly organizes time (or rhythms) for the sake of similar effects. So this raises an interesting question: If we do decide to recognize liturgy as its own art-form, what (if anything)  would this mean for how we engage in it?


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