Thinking About...Liturgy

Lately I’ve been thinking about liturgy. I know, I know—that sounds incredibly boring. The word ‘liturgy’ causes most of us to think of church services, and specifically the dry (and often alienating) routines of a particular denominational tradition. Liturgy need not be a dirty word. Etymologically, liturgy means ‘the work of the people.’ Liturgy suggests that Christianity is not just about a set of doctrinal beliefs. It is a form of shared life. That is to say, Christianity is as much what a community of people do as it is what they believe.

I have just finished a challenging new book by Jamie Smith that defines liturgies as “rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations.”

Part of the strength of Smith’s book is how he names the liturgies (whether overtly religious or not) present in all of our lives. Liturgies are unavoidable. Because all people are fundamentally spiritual and are ‘lovers’ at heart, all people are defined by liturgies—be they sacred or secular. Our cultural practices—whether shopping, or watching television, or worshipping on Sundays—shape our desires and, in turn, inform our view of happiness.

My reading Smith’s book coincided with a twenty-four retreat at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical Christian fellowship and residential community in Church Hill. Life at Richmond Hill is intentionally liturgical. They gather for prayer three times a day (at 7 AM, 12 noon, and 5:30 PM). They dine together and live together. The rhythm of life at Richmond Hill may sound monastic. But their lived liturgy shapes their interaction with each other and with the world.

I’m not advocating that we all adopt a monastic style liturgy. But (following Smith) I suggest we become aware of the liturgies that inescapably shape our lives. As affective creatures of habit, our patterns (whether reflected upon or not) necessarily shape what we value and how we live. Our unspoken daily routines, as much as our articulated beliefs, shape who we are.

What do your liturgies say about who you are?