How’s a priest to pray?
Life is fast these days. Everything we do we seem to do faster than our parents ever did. Just think of all the devices we have at our disposal to speed things up: microwaves warm and cook food faster; televisions that can fast forward through advertisements; remote controls so you can change the channel/volume faster (no need to get up); electrical shavers so you can shave faster (not from personal experience of course); electric knives and mixers and bread makers and toasters in the kitchen to make food preparation faster; drive thru’s for those who don’t even want to waste any time cooking … the list goes on.
That’s all very well, and we could argue whether all these conveniences have really improved the quality of our lives or not another day, perhaps. But for now I just want to know: how’s a priest to pray? OK, here’s the dilemma: Sunday morning liturgy. The main prayer of the week. The focus of all our spiritual lives. The unique experience of being united with Christ. Should I pray slowly and contemplatively, in order that we all can make the most of this very special time, or should I pray more rapidly because people just don’t have the time or the patience anymore?
I have heard differing views on this point from a variety of people, all of whom are both sensible and sincere. On the one hand there are those who insist that the Church must keep up with the times. It is unfair, they point out, to expect people who are used to everything in life going briskly and efficiently, to come to Church on Sunday and listen patiently to the word “amen” being pronounced with 167 intonated syllables over two minutes. Just say it, and get on to the next part. And there is no place in the modern Church for long, undulating tunes in incomprehensible Coptic. (I have even heard ancient hymns like “Rejoice O Mary” sung in English, but with the tune so condensed that the whole four verses of lyrics are squashed into just one verse of tune. Perhaps we should call this fast food hymns … McAlhan!)
These days, people have other things to do on a Sunday, so let’s just have a nice snappy liturgy so everyone can go and get on with their lives. The famous Fr Bishoy Kamel who served some years as a parish priest in the USA once pointed out that he who makes the congregation become bored in the liturgy commits a great sin. Apparently, he always prayed at one pace, whatever the situation, and it was a moderately brisk, moderately contemplative pace.
And then, on the other hand, there are others who insist that our ancient tradition should not be watered down after 19 centuries of careful preservation. And isn’t Sunday the Lord’s Day? And according to the Ten Commandments, should not the Lord’s Day be devoted entirely to the Lord? Then why quibble over the length of the liturgy? What else is more important than spending just one day a week together with God and with each other?
The long tunes of the Coptic tradition were meant to allow time for deep meditation upon the words they carry. We sing them in the Church, surrounded by a multitude of icons, the holy sanctuary and altar of the Lord, and in the very, physical presence of the Lord Christ Himself upon that altar. At the end of the liturgy we go forward to receive Him for ourselves in Communion. How can anyone want to rush this experience? We should enjoy it, lose ourselves in the moment, savour it as one savours the sweet taste of rich ice cream (oops – it’s Lent! Sorry). What does it say about our priorities in life when our attitude to the liturgy is “when will it finish”?
Do you understand the difficult conundrum that must be resolved by each priest and his deacons every Sunday? I must confess I can see some sense in both views. I hate praying by the clock (would you look at your watch if you were sitting with Jesus?) and yet, I feel the responsibility to finish the service at the advertised time. Even though I might personally lean towards the longer, slower point of view, I can also see that there are many people today who find it genuinely hard to maintain concentration for two or three hours straight.
Perhaps the answer is to take the middle path, much as Fr Bishoy did.