Lent 3: ‘Rhythm and Repetition’
This Lent series of sermons is on the theme of worship. Another word for the kind of worship we do is ‘liturgy’ which is derived from two Greek words: ‘laos’ meaning people and ‘ ergon’ meaning work. In other words the liturgy is ‘the work of the people.’ The word reminds us that worship is done by us all, not just the sacred professionals. And that is why so much of our liturgical text is a dialogue. In fact worship demands dialogue: ‘The Lord be with – And with thy Spirit’, ‘Lift up your hearts – we lift them to the Lord’ or even the ‘Amen’ that is said by the people at the end of a prayer. The Liturgy always involves more than one: it is a dialogue between the minister and the people; between the people and themselves and between the people/ priest and God.
The German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in a German concentration camp during the Second World War, for being anti Nazi and associated with the plot to blow up Hitler. He was a wonderful theologian and he once asked this rather basic and important question: ‘Why do Christians sing when they are together?’ And he replied:
‘The reason is quite simply because in singing together it is possible for Christians to speak and pray the same words at the same time. In other words, here Christians can unite in the Word. It is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings. It is the Church that is singing. And you, as a member of the Church, may share in this song. It is this singing together that serves to widen our spiritual horizon, makes us see our little company as a member of the great Christian church on earth and helps us willingly and gladly join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the church.’ (1)
Today we are looking at worship through the lens of rhythm and repetition. This might seem so familiar a part of our liturgies that we never think about it. When Anglicans meet for worship we have set liturgical forms, service books to follow, and we say the same words each week, be it at the Eucharist or Morning or Evening Prayer and even within those services we repeat words.
There are three common criticisms of this way of worshipping.
First, it is insincere. After all, did not Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount criticise as hypocritical those who were “heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do’? Fixed and traditional texts are associated with insincerity, parroting by rote and disengagement. (2)
Secondly, spontaneous (or often pseudo spontaneous), freely composed words have come to be associated with simplicity, directness and truthfulness. Novelty and variety are most important because we don’t want people to get bored or over familiar with things. We live in a society that disdains anything old or traditional. Perhaps we are better trained in consuming that savouring.
Thirdly, the individual is more important than the group: what really matters is what I want to say, what I believe, or what I want to do.
The repetition of words
The first Christians learned the faith through the repetition of words. They did what we do: listened and participated in repetitive speech-acts in a communal setting, telling stories about the life of Christ over and over again, saying the Lord’s prayer and other prayers and hymns. For Jews, repetition and rhythm was part and parcel of their life and worship, “six days shall you labour and on the seventh rest:” daily, weekly, yearly, the rhythm of each day, the light and the darkness, eating and hunger, work and rest, birth and death, the changing seasons, the annual agricultural feasts. And the church too has its liturgical seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and the calendar of saints days), which gives shape and imprints meaning onto the whole year. During the liturgical year we take in the meaning of Christ, learn to savour what is true and are shaped and formed by it.
And we do this, as St Paul emphasised, as a Body, the Body of Christ, namely, in community. Christian worship is not about individual Christians and their spontaneous overflows of powerful spiritual feelings. It is a corporate act expressed in communal singing, corporate action, speaking and listening. It depends entirely on repetition. If one loves music then one realises that hearing it, or performing it, again and again does not mean it wears out or becomes less significant through repetition. Instead one is led to a greater understanding of the depth of its beauty and richness– and so it is with the liturgy and the Christian faith.
Perhaps a better question to ask about repetition and rhythm is what effect does it have on us?
I am a great fan of the BBC1 series ‘Call the Midwife’ which is shown on Sunday evenings. My favourite character is Sister Monica Joan, an elderly nun who has dementia and yet is capable of extraordinary wisdom and penetrating insight. She is also very difficult to live with. This is what she said in one of her more knowing moments:
“The liturgy is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts; the words are aligned, like a rope for us to cling to.”
The wisdom of historic Christian worship sees worship not only as expressive (what we offer to God) but also as formative (what God is doing to us in the encounter). And quite simply there is no formation without repetition, without being immersed in a practice over and over again. We are shaped by a set of practices, which work at a deep level to orient our hearts in a particular direction. This is the way in which theology is expressed, in liturgical word and deed. Indeed, it is often said that the best hymns are the best theology. And just think of the ones you know by heart, the musical and verbal phrases combined together in your mind and heart:
‘Father- like he tends and spares us;
Well our feeble frame he knows.’
‘But above all, the heart Must bear the longest part,
Let all the world in every corner sing.
‘Guide me O thou great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land.’
‘Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place’
‘O guide me, call me, draw me
Uphold me to the end.’
As Sister Monica Joan said: “The liturgy is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts; the words are aligned, like a rope for us to cling to.”
When I was an ordinand, my Vicar, who was a very lovely man and a very good parish priest, would introduce me to all sorts of writers and thinkers. He had this great gift of inspiring discipleship in a person, the desire to learn more about Christ and the Christian way. At that time one of the great hospital chaplains in Britain, Norman Autton, happened to be at the University Hospital in Cardiff and each Lent he would organise a series of lectures at lunchtime for the clergy and interested parties. They could be on anything – ethics, poetry, spirituality, church history, or doctrine – and he was able to get some of the most able speakers of the day on such subjects.
I remember my parish priest taking me along to hear Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Bishop for the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain. In those days I was well acquainted with Anglicanism, in its Welsh variety, and knew something about Roman Catholicism and the Protestant chapels, of which there are many in the Welsh Valleys, but the Orthodox church was relatively unknown to me, rather exotic and very foreign, and of course still persecuted in Mother Russia. As a writer and broadcaster, Archbishop Bloom, pulled in a large audience to the hospital lecture theatre, but I think everyone felt he was speaking just to them personally.
What I remember most was not so much what he said, but the way that he said it, his holiness if you like, which was palpable. He talked about the mystery of God and His love for His creation in a way I had never heard before. He took prayer seriously and was obviously someone for whom prayer was not just something you did before bedtime or tried to do in church, it was an important way of living, of relating to God and to people and to the world.
This is Archbishop Bloom’s advice on prayer. ‘ The first thing, then, is really to find words of prayer that are worthy of you and worthy of God. I say this… because if they are good enough for you, then God can accept them, but if they are not good enough for you, leave God alone, He has heard better things than that.’
This is what he also had to say:
‘Many people who begin a life of prayer think that unless they feel very strongly about the words and phrases they use, they are not being sincere. This is not true. One can at times be perfectly sincere in the lucidity of one’s own mind, in the straightness of one’s will, although at a given moment these words, or it can be gestures, do not express what I feel now.”
Do you love me?
Bloom then gives this example: ‘ When you live in your family and you work out of doors and are doing a heavy kin of work, you may come back physically worn out. If at that moment your mother, your sister, your father, or whoever else, said ‘ Do you love me?’ you would say, ‘ I do.’ If the other person goes on to investigating, ‘ Do you really love me at this moment?’ what you could honestly have said is, ‘ No I feel nothing but my aching back and worn out body.’ But you are perfectly right in saying ‘ I love you’ because you know that underneath all the exhaustion, there is a live current of love.’…
The prayerful repetition of our communal worship and personal prayer, may not be spontaneous often, or based on a warm and rosy glow or an enthusiastic desire to pray, but nonetheless it can still be rooted truly in our conviction and in our love of God.
At the end of his talk, Archbishop Bloom taught to pray the Jesus Prayer, a prayer regularly used in the Orthodox Church.
We were to say slowly, quietly and meditatively these words,
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ constantly repeating them until they still us and become part of who we are. These are words to take into our heart, a prayer that sums up the whole of the Gospel.
Anthony Bloom again,
“What is of general use, and God given, is the actual praying, the repetition of the words, without any physical endeavour – not even movements of the tongue – and which can be used systematically to achieve an inner transformation. More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.”
I recommend it to you.
The repetition and rhythm of Christian prayer brings us into the heart of the Gospel and its truth for us and world.
- Much of this sermon is influenced by Cally Hammond’s research and reflections published in ‘ Sound of the Liturgy.’
- Christian Community: Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer published in 1939 and in English in 1954
- Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 6:5ff
- . ‘School for Prayer’ – Metropolitan Anthony Bloom