Random Thought on Customaries

I had a random thought this morning at Mass concerning customaries (you know, the list of what a body does when during the service…).

Most customaries come at things from the “descriptive” perspective. That is, they list out what you see the person doing: “Walk from here to there in such a way. Genuflect. Then stand in that place…” In the past when I’ve worked on memorizing a new customary, one of the harder parts was remembering when to throw in various gestures or movements like genuflections, bowings, crossings, etc.

What tends to make this more difficult is that a lot of customaries were created in a descriptive fashion. That is, there was a way that things had “always” been done and in order to keep it that way and to train the newbies, someone wrote down a description what they did—often without reference to what the other folks on/around the altar were doing—and it became “official.”

What’s the problem with this?

Well, if the various versions for the various folks aren’t harmonized you can have different folks doing the same things at different times and, especially if they’re standing right next to each other, that can appear a bit odd… (For instance, if the deacon and the priest standing at the front side-by-side cross themselves at different times at the end of the Gloria.) The real issue, though, is that you’ve got a bigger and deeper problem if you having different folks doing the same things for different reasons.

From my perspective, ceremonial actions shouldn’t happen at random or happenstance; they should have specific “triggers.” The three key triggers that fire-off or initiate a ceremonial action should either be words, motion to or through a place, or an object.

If you look at a good descriptive customary, you should start to see patterns, an internal logic, that will lead you to prescriptive principles about when and why certain things are done. I.e., genuflect when entering or exiting the sanctuary (the space enclosed by the altar rail or rood screen), profound bow at mention of the three persons of the Trinity, and so forth.

Here’s the thing, though: if we start laying out the prescriptive principles, that’s when we start getting into the hard work of liturgical thinking. When we start laying out the prescriptive principles, we realize that we’re starting to bring to a conscious level a practical theology of the holy. That is,  ritual gestures are triggered when we hear holy words, when enter or leave holy space, or engage holy objects. If our prescriptive principles are clear and coherent then they inform us—or challenge us—to think about what we think about the nature of the sacred: what is holy and what is profane, how we show respect for the holy, how the holy is kept distinct from the profane.  Simple reflection on what things shouldn’t been done or brought into what parts of the church, how the altarware should be handled both in and out of the service (is there a difference? should there be?) has the potential to run us into some complicated spiritual and theological reflection about our beliefs on the imminence and transcendence of God, about how we think about orders of ministry, and such.

Is the nave of the church an innately more holy space than the narthex? Is the sanctuary inherently more holy than the nave? Who can handle the altarware and does what they wear when doing so matter?

When you get right down to it, this avenue of exploration will eventually lead us to the key root question: how does God who is fundamentally Other and distinct from creation choose to interact in and with our earthly reality—and how does that impact how we conduct our worship?

4 thoughts on “Random Thought on Customaries

  1. Sean+ Lotz

    Good questions. I have always hated what you are terming “descriptive” … everything. Tell me what I’m trying to accomplish with this computer program, and how it works in general. Please don’t just tell me, “First you click this icon then push this button then…” But what the heck am I doing? And what am I going to do when I can’t follow the procedure you have laid out step by step? What if something goes wrong? Or is just a little bit different?

    Same thing with liturgy. In my church, I do tell people when, e.g., to Cross themselves. But more, I’m telling them why and how it fits in with the other times when we do the same thing. And for all my effort, I hope and pray that when they go to a different liturgy in a different church, they won’t have to stand there like dead frogs but will know how to function in the pew (even if more instruction would be necessary to help them out in the sanctuary). And by the grace of God I pray that, after having been told the hows, whys, and internal logic of it all, they will then be able consciously and unconsciously to pray their gestures and movements.

  2. Michael S

    I have been at a church was the customary was “watch the ‘presider’ and do what he does.”
    Any prescriptivism I offered was squashed as “conflicted with people’s personal piety.

  3. Derek Olsen

    I hear you, Michael, especially with the second point. My feeling is that if there is a clear and coherent customary for the altar party, many laity will adopt the standards they see there especially if it’s coupled with coherent liturgical catechesis.

    Too often we allow liturgical and ceremonial to be acquired solely through osmosis—by watching and imitating. But that’s not enough: we still need to connect the dots between what we do and what we believe and how it all translates into our theological perspective outside the church doors.

  4. Chris Larimer

    I write a “Liturgy Lessons” column in our newsletter and sometimes our weekly emails. It’s a great place to supply the WHY to the HOW. Thank you, Ritual Reason Why!

Comments are closed.