Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part I

Alright—having done a fair amount of work on saints in advance of the end-of-June SCLM meeting, I’m returning again to my other main writing project: the prayer book spirituality work in process for Forward Movement. (You can find the earlier posts related to this topic by clicking on the Prayer Book Spirituality Project tag.)

This section is taking a bit more time than some of the others, but that’s ok because 1) it’s one of the more important sections and 2) I feel like this is the section that so many current accessible works on the prayer book are missing. Thus, it’s worth doing it right. It might take us several parts to get through it and re-writes are inevitable…

The “Basic Disciplines” section intentionally parallels the “Basic Principles” section because it builds where that one left off. You might like to revisit that one before continuing here.


Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship

The Need for Disciplines

On my more optimistic days, I have faith in the formative power of the liturgy. Much of the work of the liturgy on the soul occurs passively. That is, it’s a matter of trusting the process. We may not feel it working on us, but following the prayer book system, being in the liturgies, participating in the prayers, will have a long-term effect whether we realize it or not. Woody Allen has famously commented that eighty percent of success is simply showing up—and that certainly seems to apply here!

However, at the end of the day, just being there isn’t enough. After all, if it were, then there would be no such thing as bad priests; we could rest secure knowing that anyone who was invested and participated in these patterns would be an ok person, and that we could simply trust the formation. But things aren’t so simple. There are people who live in these liturgical cycles yet who seem not to be transformed and changed by them, who can exhibit the baser tendencies of human nature unaltered by their liturgical practice.

Showing up is important—but it isn’t enough.

We sometimes use the metaphor of a rock in a river to talk about incremental change over time. A rock dropped into running water will be smoothed and polished over years from the passage of the water around it and from rubbing against the rocks around it. And yet—a rock that has sat in a river for a thousand years may be just as dry on the inside as one that has never seen the water. Just because the outside has been changed, doesn’t necessarily mean that the heart of it has been touched.

I don’t want to be a rock: I want to be a sponge. I want to be permeated and saturated by the environment that I’m in. I want my insides to be touched by the years of these experiences as much as my outsides. I don’t want to just experience the cycles of the liturgy, I want to be altered and transformed by them.

If eighty percent of success in the liturgy is just showing up, than the other twenty percent may well be about making it count, about opening up the insides. This is where we get to the disciplines that can make the most of our liturgical practice. These are the long-term habits that help us open our minds and our hearts to what is going on around us, that crack open our shells and enable to waters of life to seep within us and change us throughout. As we discussed in a previous section, it may be helpful to think about these from an active perspective: these are the things that we do to cooperate with God’s transforming grace. Alternatively, they may resonate with you in a more passive construction: these are the things that help us stop resisting God’s embrace and help us relax into the person of God.


The first discipline is intentionality. Think of this as focusing our attention on the big picture. If it’s not enough to simply show up, then we can at least show up holding in our minds the reason why we’re showing up! God is not made greater through our worship of him; God is already greater than that. We do worship God for our own purposes, and we would do well to remind ourselves of what those are and to carry them into worship with us. We don’t simply go to fulfill an obligation, or to gain another bargaining chip with God. Rather, we come because God is worthy of praise, and in the very act of praise and adoration we recall to ourselves and those around us who God is and what God has done for us.

Before we participate in any act of worship—whether alongside hundreds of others or alone and by ourselves—we would do well to stop and fix in our minds what it is that we are about to participate in. We are here to worship God. We are here to enjoy the presence of God, and to participate in the process of communicating with God alongside and in communion with a great company who have praised him through the ages. Beyond that fundamental principle shared by all forms of liturgical worship, the various liturgies have their own purposes. Be aware of what it is you are about to do. Collect to mind the general intention of the service in which you will participate.

Furthermore, worship is part of a pattern of orienting ourselves towards God and aligning our stories, beliefs, and principles with God’s. As we consider the general intentions of the service, we also want to connect these general intentions with what’s going on with us. The liturgies tend to speak in generalities—we thank God for blessings, we lift up concerns. As part of being intentional, as we take a moment to consider the big picture, we should also take a moment to consider the specific intersections between the language of the liturgy and the events of our lives. What are those specific things we are thankful for? What are the actual concerns burdening our hearts and minds?

I’ll talk more about the general intentions of the various services as we discuss them and will clarify just what I mean here as we focus on them in turn. By specific intentions, though, I mean that we may choose to hold in mind a particular aspect of the broader purpose that touches on something going on in our lives at that moment.  For instance, if someone has just passed away, we might choose to participate in a Eucharist holding them in mind, recognizing that—as the Eucharist connects us with the whole communion of saints—we might be thankful for their place in our lives and be comforted knowing that our connection with them through the Eucharist has not ended but that we share the same banqueting table with them. Or, if we have been touched by a particular joy as we approach the Daily Office, we might hold that joy before us as a concrete example of those things for which we praise and thank God.

(More to come as it gets written…)

7 thoughts on “Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part I

  1. Susan Loomis

    I don’t know. I want to be a sponge to soak up God, but to do that I have have to be active in relation to the liturgy. I have to focus and be attentive for the liturgy to be meaningful. I have to interact with the liturgy. Alert passivity.

  2. Barbara (bls)

    Excellent! I especially like the part about “choosing to participate in worship with a particular intention in mind.” That’s something I don’t think I’ve ever done consciously, but something I want to begin to try, I think.

    Really well-done! Looking forward to reading more….

  3. Derek Olsen

    I agree! The next sections include Participation, Attentiveness, Memorization, Diligence, and Stability. Intentionality/Participation/Attentiveness are related aspects of a common concept of engagement as far as I understand them.

  4. John-Julian, OJN

    Derek: this is a truly wonderful undertaking on your part—both the “Principles” and the “Disciplines” I think your chronology of importance is great! Yes, “Being there” is primary—but thenI think I would rank regularity—then participation [these three previous recognize that “doing it pretty well” is basic and beneficial in itself]—then sincerity of intention—then comprehension—then spiritual involvement (engagement)—then depth of immersion—and then, I suppose, euphoria…perhaps once or twice in a lifetime (grin)

  5. Beth

    I appreciate the primacy given to showing up (80%) with a good space (20%) included for “making it count.” While I’ve experienced overemphasis on the former to the detriment of the latter, I’ve also dealt with a lot of starry-eyed newcomers from non-liturgical traditions, and I think many of them might reverse the proportion and put a much stronger emphasis on participation requiring a kind of sincerity and a cognitive understanding of “what it all means.” (It’s liturgy; it doesn’t woodenly “mean” that way. And while I wouldn’t want anyone to be *in*sincere at Mass, monitoring your level of sincerity can get toxic pretty fast.)

  6. Pingback: Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part III | haligweorc

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