Suggestions on How to Contemplate Worship
by The Rev. Canon Glenn Spencer
Rector, All Saints Anglican Church
It is a good thing to pay attention to the Liturgy. But, no one does a perfect job. Our thoughts move here and there in the Divine Hour – here in the present but also into our past and into our future. While singing a hymn we might recall a kindness done to us by a stranger, or we may remember a thoughtless act that hurt someone; we may wonder what we will eat this afternoon or we might worry over an unfinished project at work. The bells call us back to worship. We are always here and out there. It is best not to be too hard on yourself when you become aware of your distraction. Simply, gently redirect your attention to the liturgy. Don’t fret over the distraction. Don’t be mean to yourself. Gently, even tenderly, bring your attention back to the moment, back to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The sermon is important, but so are the Hymns, the Anthems, the Propers and the Minor Propers. The Propers are the pieces of the Liturgy that change weekly – they are “proper” to the day: the Epistle, the Gospel, and the Collect. We are blessed to have a choir and cantors that sing the Minor Propers: the Introit, the Gradual and the Communion Proper. These also change weekly. They are called “minor” to distinguish them from the Propers that are always required in our Liturgy. The Minor Propers enrich the celebration of the Mass by recalling the principle themes and images of the liturgical day.
I personally appreciate the piety of taking notes during the sermon for the purpose of reflecting upon them during the week. This is just the sort of activity that may be part of your personal rule. But so as not to deconstruct the Liturgy or the sermon, remember that the Liturgy is a whole sacred event that has a total effect upon the Faithful. By total effect I mean that the Liturgy is a whole itself (not just one piece of it) and that it may shape our whole life and turn us repeatedly, weekly, daily towards God. Think of the kind of windup toy we used to play with as children. A tin soldier may march across the coffee table when wound up, but we always have to move it over and over again in the direction we want it to go to get it to the goal. Or if you don’t like that image, think of a mother who repeatedly helps her daughter think about her relationships, her goals and desires in life – but also reminds her of her father’s birthday and her grandmother’s need to hear from granddaughter. It is needful that the Liturgy (a gentle providence exuding a sweet, holy aroma) redirects our steps towards God.
Once more, it is the whole Liturgy that shapes us, not just the sermon. And by “whole” I mean the whole Liturgy and our whole person, all our senses responding to the sensual details of the Mass and not just our minds. So, if you are going to reflect upon the sermon during the week, keep your bulletin and take a hymnal home with you. Recall the Propers and Minor Propers. Sing the hymns if it is possible as you ponder and research the points you noted in the sermon. Recall the music – literally the sounds. Try to chant the Minor Propers on one note – it isn’t that hard. Do not just engage your mind, but all your senses. Recall the color of the vestments and the flowers. Smell the incense. Taste and smell the wine. Feel the Host upon your tongue or in the palm of your hand. Christianity is corporeal, profuse, rich, exuberant and intelligent! To take only the sermon or any other part of the Liturgy, in isolation from the whole, as your contemplation will deconstruct Common Prayer and potentially deconstruct life.
You will have to come back next Sunday (or during the week) to worship God in the Mass. Private piety will never take the place of the Common Prayer and Public Worship. But it is most beneficial to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the whole Liturgy during the week. May God the Father bless us in our adoration of God the Son, as God the Holy Spirit shapes us into the Father’s Liturgical Children in playful worship.