Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that the Liturgy is one of my favourite topics. That’s probably because the liturgy is actually one of my favourite things in life. I hope you won’t feel offended, but during most of the liturgy I do my level best to pretend you’re not there. The most profoundly moving experiences I have had during a liturgy all happened when I had forgotten that there was anyone else in the Church apart from me and the crucified Lord of the universe on the altar.
What a feeling!
The heart and soul are laid bare before the all-piercing gaze of the Creator Incarnate. There is no hiding, neither from Him, nor from myself. My carefully constructed facades crumble away and all those comfortable little lies with which I’ve been salving my conscience evaporate into the air, an air reverberating with the awful words of what He did for me. Who could resist being touched to the depths of their soul?
And yet, I do remember a time in my youth when the liturgy was anything BUT engrossing. I recall liturgies (mostly in Arabic) as a teenager where the main focus of my contemplation was the pain in my feet and back, and whether some old ‘ummo would get me in trouble if I sat down just now. One of the first things I memorised about the liturgy was exactly when we got to bow down; eagerly anticipated moments!
It took a long time to get into the Coptic Liturgy. It also took a degree of effort on my part: asking questions and reading books. One book that was a turning point for me in my experience of the liturgy was Christ in the Eucharist by Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty (you can download this book from www.coepa.org). I consider this book one of the true classics of modern Coptic literature and one that will withstand the test of time. In it, Fr Tadros traces the symbolism and Biblical references of the words and the rites and rubrics of the liturgy. Abounding in ancient quotes from the Fathers of the Church, he explains this divinely inspired rite from a surprisingly personal perspective that serves to help open the flood gates of individual prayer in response to the ancient text and tunes of the liturgy.
I have never looked back since reading that book. My love for the liturgy certainly took on a new dimension when I was ordained a priest, but those earlier quiet, private spiritual epiphanies are forever engraved upon my memory. Which leads me mourn the fact that there still remain people in our congregation for whom the liturgy is a chore or duty, or even merely an act of mere habit.
I enjoyed reading the comments people posted to my last blog. There is always a variety of views on the liturgy, and how it could be ‘done’ better. No doubt we can do it better, and I agree that participation by the congregation is the key. The fact remains that in the liturgy book, it says: “CONGREGATION:” All too often the deacons hijack a hymn or response all for themselves, instead of simply leading the congregation. The ideal situation is where the voices of the congregation drown out, or rather, unite harmoniously with, those of the deacons’ choir, so that the two are no longer distinguishable. Those are the moments when one feels the roof of the Church is about to be blasted away by this angelic praising, opening a conduit to unite heaven and earth! OK, I’m waxing a bit lyrical here, but such moments do genuinely make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Perhaps more lessons are needed to teach EVERYONE the complex Coptic tunes? Nowadays of course, we are blessed to have sites like www.tasbeha.org where one can find audio of virtually any Coptic tune that ever existed. I believe there are Coptic churches in America now, who have choirs of females singing antiphonically with the deacons, complete with their own ‘tunias’. When I put that suggestion to some of the young ladies to at our Church, they thought it was a horrible idea, but I wonder if that will change with the years?
I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on how we can get people to participate more fully in the liturgy. Not saying I’ll agree with all of them, but if you come up with something that is likely to work, we might just go ahead and try it!