I slowly eased into liturgy. I was reading Anglicans first before I entered the doors of their churches. Madeline L’Engle so moved me that I couldn’t imagine I wouldn’t love to worship beside her at her Episcopal church in Manhattan. CS Lewis spoke the gospel to me in ways that all my evangelical Bible studies had failed to do all my life. These people understood beauty. And I realized, while reading them, that I did too. (I’d just never had the chance to recognize it.)
Words. Words. Words. Some would say that prayers written in a book, recited by a congregation, are what Jesus described as “vain repetition,” words without meaning. But I found the words of the Book of Common Prayer to be prayers intricately sculpted, made with truth from scripture, shaped to say what I’d always tried to say with my mumbling and my adding-in of Christian prayer-jargon punctuation: “Lord God, I just…” repeated 13 times in a three minute prayer. I realized we are all users of “vain repetition,” whether we adhere to our unwritten language of acceptable out-loud praying or whether we join in the prewritten variety. We’re all fumbling toward prayer.
I was thinking about this yesterday morning in church. August had thrown a fit over Sunday School. He didn’t want to be there. He wept. He insisted that all he wanted was to “go home and be cozy!” So, I let him join us in the service, prepared that I’d have to escort him out after what I imagined would be the first five minutes of the service, for talking at his unusually high decible level and making pens blast off with full-out rocket sounds. But, miraculously, the kid cooperated, whispered loudly sometimes, pulled me to the ground at one point while we sang and held hands (it didn’t take much…I was a little unstable in my shoes), and made pens blast off as rockets (but without too much booster power). Yesterday’s service felt a lot like what prayer has felt like for me all of motherhood. Spurts and stops. The quick holding up of my heart followed by a boy who needs to go potty or a baby who needs to nurse.
Chris, in his husbandly wonderfulness, has been meeting a buddy of his for a Saturday afternoon playdate with August and his friend’s son, giving me some Saturday time alone. We were commiserating yesterday about the problem (impossibility?) of trying to have a conversation with a friend at while your kids are nearby, asking for help, falling down and crying, making plans to climb jagged rocks: You know, the stuff you have to pay attention to. It was a relief to hear my husband complaining of the same difficulty I’ve felt for years now. The conversation gets interrupted and never goes where it should. Fits and starts. A fumbling.
So there I was in church, the first Sunday of Lent, the cross and the altar veiled in purple fabric, our small reminders of how this is a season of inward honesty, a season of soul preparation. A season where we take the things that we’re comfortable with away because often comfort protects our hearts from seeing truth. We remove the cushion, set our hearts out raw and when it hurts, we remember how fully we must face up to our neediness.
If you’ve ever been in a liturgical service you may recall that at certain points in the congregational prayer or in response to the pastor’s prayer, the community will respond with “Alleluia! Alleluia!” During Lent, “Alleluia” is generally done away with. This is another reminder of our being in a time of mourning, a season of asking God to reveal our own neediness. The celebration will come at Easter, but for now, it’s time to be reflective. In the places where we’re used to spurting out “Alleluia!” throughout the rest of the year, we say nothing. We stop our words. We come up short.
Oh, but we’re so used to that “Alleluia!” It’s our punctuation mark! It’s our comfortable little prayer marker that tells us we know what we’re doing here in the religion play. We are experts.
And every year that I’ve been in a liturgical church, I stare at the prayer in front of me and wait for the voices who will yell out, with great confidence: ahhhhle… And stop. I imagine their flaming faces around the room, embarrassment at being the one who forgot. Those voices were there again yesterday. And I couldn’t help but feel for them, my three-year-old beside me in the service. Isn’t prayer always like that? We think we know what we’re doing and then, boom! something changes. Whether it’s our circumstances or our connection to God or our inability to see the truth about ourselves.
Though I always cringe a little and wait for the awkward Alleluias, yesterday I found myself strangely comforted by them. I kept my mouth shut and heard the other voices around the room catching themselves mid-praise, and thought, Oh! That’s kind of beautiful. And I thought about how God must see us during Lent, fumbling toward worship, attempting to set this time aside as holy and failing or frustrating ourselves, forgetting who we are and who our God is.
Lent is a time when we strip the cushion away. Sometimes the cushion is our own notion of prayer, our own comfort in worship. Sometimes, we shout it out. Sometimes we’re a mess of a people tripping over each other toward God.
It’s the rawness that God sees as beautiful. The humility. The privilege of falling because when we fall, we fall toward him.