Rhythm Research Class

Module 1, Class 4: Flow and the Christian Experience of Time

Our final class for this module continued with O’Donnell’s Remembering the Future, particularly engaging her use of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research on flow. O’Donnell suggests that the time of Christian liturgy ought to include flow, but the correspondence is actually not so clear.

Flow is a perfect state of concentration without struggle. In flow, one is working on something with such absorption that one’s sense of time disappears. Given O’Donnell’s conception of liturgy as disintegrating the barriers between past, present, and future so as to more tightly integrate them (see previous post), it makes sense that she would attempt to incorporate the idea of flow into her conception, since one could argue that flow simply describes the same experience that she does with respect to liturgy. However, the class agreed that it is not at all clear that the research on flow can be imported into the concept of liturgy so easily, for multiple reasons:

  1. It’s important that we understand that flow is not at all the same experience as simply checking-out while muscle memory takes over. It is not arriving in your driveway without having any memory of the drive home. It is, rather, a kind of hyper-focus in which you become absorbed in the task at hand. I have had plenty of experiences of simply checking out during worship and having my muscle-memory take over. In fact, sometimes I have to work hard to not let this happen and I suspect I am not alone in this. So, if it is the case that occasionally the opposite happens and we find ourselves in a state of flow during liturgy or worship, I think it’s worth asking what it is specifically about that situation that enabled an experience that might otherwise be unusual. It is clearly not simply worship or liturgy itself.
  2. Relatedly, it seems to me that all activities during which flow sometimes occurs involve creatively meeting a challenge of some kind – painting, writing, rock-climbing etc. This begs the question: what is the creative challenge in liturgy that we are attempting to creatively meet that might induce a state of flow?
  3. Then there’s the question of whether or not flow is a state that is desirable from a Christian perspective. Or, perhaps better-stated, to what degree and in what circumstances should flow be part of the Christian life? One of my students raised the observation that surely flow ought not to take up too much of the Christian’s experience of time since Christians seem to be required to engage in struggle, which is incompatible with a state of flow. Flow is perhaps too comfortable a state to occur too often. This might smack of a kind of self-flagellating Christianity, but I do think it raises an important question – does the idea of flow represent a kind of premature eschatology in which past, present, and future are fully-integrated and we are peacefully at one with the flow of time? Could it be irresponsible to exist in such a state when so much of the world around us is in shambles? What is the appropriate relationship for Christians between flow and other experiences of time?
  4. Moreover, within a Christian framework, there is the interesting question of what or who, exactly, is flowing. More to the point, Christians will often talk about the Holy Spirit flowing through them. Is this what O’Donnell means, or is this sort of flow something different than temporal flow? Either answer would raise a question: If the flow of the Holy Spirit is something other than temporal flow, how are these two things related in liturgical flow? If the flow of the Holy Spirit simply is the same thing as temporal flow, to what extent can we be talking about the same thing as Csíkszentmihályi?

Regardless, questions about flow continue to probe the nature of the Christian experience of time particularly with respect to liturgy, which is an important topic given its involvement in the Christian experience of the divine.

This module has explored the role that rhythm plays in the Christian’s liturgical relationship to the divine. The next considers the role that rhythm plays in our relationship to ourselves, particularly with respect to mental health and illness.

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