I’m not sure if I’d heard the term liturgy before my first brush with the thing itself. I was 14 or 15 years old, an awkward high school sophomore trying to find my niche in the United Methodist church my family had recently started attending. We’d been churchgoing folk for generations—in fact, my maternal great-grandmother was a female Church of God preacher in the mid-20th century, a rare sight to behold in conservative Alabama—so the adjustment was not to Christianity itself, but rather this newfound formality.
Every other church I’d attended had been rather casual. Those buildings had usually looked more like warehouses or community centers than this 19th-century brick edifice with its ornate carved altar and stained-glass windows. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with pastors who held terminal degrees or had to answer to various levels of committees. Even the UMC’s contemporary worship service, which we opted for over the traditional, had an order and predictability to it that was foreign to me. Advent candle lightings and Lent fasts were unnecessary complications to what had previously been pure, joyful bursts of holiday fun, and communion by intinction—dipping bread into a common cup—seemed less efficient and hygienic than the sterile plastic cup and wafer to which I was accustomed.Revisiting good fiction—while by no means a replacement for Scripture—can become a vital part of the Christian life.
So, as you might imagine, my first encounter with the full liturgical experience left me reeling. I shifted uncomfortably in the hard wooden pews—why did they insist on keeping them around, when the padded chairs in the contemporary worship room were so much more comfortable?—as the choir and pastor, all robed and distinctly dignified, filed onto the stage. We sang a few hymns and sat as directed. Mid sigh of relief, I started as those around me rose once more, seemingly unprompted, and recited in unison words that were entirely foreign to me:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
I finally gained the presence of mind to flip through the bulletin, but by the time I’d rushed through the Order of Worship and found the block of text—“The Apostles’ Creed”—the recitation was halfway finished. I caught up as best I could, stumbling over a cadence that seemed to come so naturally to the others, pausing with trepidation before uttering the word “catholic.” (This was a Protestant church, right? Right?)
It took me several years to fully appreciate the liturgical concept. Having been raised in churches where quality of worship was more defined by personal connections and emotional experiences, such an organized approach seemed cold and dispassionate. Why should everyone force themselves through the same recitations if they weren’t feeling it? I didn’t recognize the beauty inherent in the structure, the repetition, the concrete order of things, until long after I departed the United Methodist tradition.
Tish Harrison Warren wrote of her own discovery of this beauty in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary:
The words of the liturgy felt like a mother rocking me, singing over me, speaking words of blessing again and again. I was relaxing into the church like an overtired child collapsing on her mom. When my husband and I would get into the car after church each week and talk about the service, I would say to him, “It feels like chamomile tea.” This was my weird way of saying that worship allowed me to rest, to relax into the ancient practices and words of the church.
As I read Warren’s account, I realized the truth in her words. Even though I’d already found a church home that did not rely as much on tradition, I had discovered the comforting embrace of liturgy elsewhere: my smartphone.
A few years ago, I started listening to audiobooks, during my time working for a large corporation. Most of my days were spent in absolute silence, cloistered away in a cubicle as I whittled away at tedious, repetitive projects. Music helped ease the dull ache of loneliness that tended to erupt in the middle of the day, but not much—I didn’t enjoy the roulette-like gamble of internet radio, and I tired of my own collection rather quickly.
But one day, I remembered the lone audiobook I’d accidentally purchased a couple years before, a novel I’d quite enjoyed as a teenager. I listened to it over and over again that summer until I practically had the entire thing memorized. I started picking the plot and characters apart and eventually realized that contrary to my original opinion, the book wasn’t that great—was actually, in some ways, quite harmful. Repetition wore down its value, eroding it like water against a stone. To this day, I can’t see this book displayed on a shelf or hear it discussed without cringing.
Initially, I blamed myself for the experience. I’d worn the book out through listening too many times. Surely any story would eventually wither and crumble under the brunt of such misuse. So I pushed it aside, purchased new audiobooks, and vowed I’d never let this happen again.
But I’ve since discovered that my repetitive listening habits had nothing to do with how this story, once beloved, had fallen apart in my head. It wasn’t that I’d worn it out so much that it wasn’t substantial enough to bear the weight of my use.
Since discovering J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles a few years ago, I’ve devoured them in multiple formats. I purchased them both in a format I could read before deciding to add them to my audiobook collection as well, and now I listen to them both at least once a year. I was nervous about this endeavor at first, certain that after the first few re-listens, my love for them would crumble.
But several trips through, I find my feelings about these stories have only deepened. The first lines of the first books in both series provide an almost instant feeling of relief. I’ve been here before. I know what’s coming. I don’t have to sit on the edge of my seat, wondering what’s going to become of these characters. I can close my eyes, lose myself in the familiar words, and rest.
At first glance, the series have nothing in common. One follows a teenager as he stumbles his way through the newfound magical world and prepares to fulfill his destiny as the Chosen One, the only person who can defeat the evil wizard Voldemort. The other chronicles the adventures and mishaps of a cyborg mechanic named Cinder and her support group of ragtag misfits, most of whom bear a striking resemblance to some fairy tale character or other, as they plot to end the tyrannical reign of Queen Levana. But the more I revisit them, the more I see clearly to the heart of the story they share.
Both Harry and Cinder are orphans reared by family members who despise them. Neither have memories of their parents or a full understanding of their true identity until approached by an older, wiser member of their true community. Both have been designated as a “chosen one” of sorts, but neither are inherently heroic or particularly special. Both lose a tool or skill they always believed vital to victory and are forced to seek strength and power elsewhere. And at the utter end, both feel compelled to offer their opponents forgiveness, a chance at redemption, knowing full well their offer will be rejected. Their compassion stems from one place, and one place only—as they gaze at their opponents, they see themselves. They shudder and recoil as they realize, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
These novels, and others like them, do not wear down or crumple under scrutiny for one simple reason. Rather than entertaining harmful philosophies or concepts the Christian knows to be false, they pull our hearts and minds toward the one true story, the one we all yearn to hear again and again. As C. S. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
In this way, revisiting good fiction—while by no means a replacement for Scripture—can become a vital part of the Christian life. I’m not suggesting that we should never expose ourselves to new material—novelty and discovery are just as important. But when our bodies, minds, and spirits are overwhelmed by the sadness and monotony so often found in the world, we can retreat to the familiar stories we know so well, relax into them, and rest. Just as liturgy provides a structure to worship on which we can hang our weary souls, the worn cover of a well-loved novel with themes that point us to the true myth of Christ can be a soothing salve indeed.
After I left my job and the cubicle it had restrained me to for an office manager position at a university, my audiobook consumption dipped quite a bit. I no longer face a long, insufferable commute, and my office is often a revolving door filled with the whir and buzz of students and faculty members. During the regular semesters, at least. But in the summer months, when the heat turns oppressive and the humidity tells mocking jokes in the corner, I am often left to my own devices. I have a moment to breathe, relax into the silence, and—if I’m of a mind—revisit my beloved stories.
But this isn’t the only liturgical experience summer affords. In many ways, summer is my season of Sabbath. I am blessed with less strenuous work and more silence than I know what to do with. The heat combined with more hours of sunlight make the days bleed together, one after another. Sometimes weeks pass without anything of note transpiring. It’s hard not to feel like summer is a waste of my time. Sometimes I try to combat the void by filling the hours with unnecessary busyness; others, I succumb to my restful urges, but with a mind so eaten up with guilt that the rest refuses to take root.
The truth is that my summers are a gift, especially this summer, as it represents the last few months before I become the mother of a long-awaited infant. It is a gift filled with other gifts. The late sunsets I can more easily appreciate. The campus trees heavily laden with leaves, the better to shade my afternoon strolls. The weekend thunderstorms that trap me inside and give me an excuse to catch up on my reading. Even the quick vacation with my husband to a city we both know backwards and forwards. I should respond to these as I would any other taste of God’s grace—with gratitude—for this is a dim reflection of what we will one day receive from Christ in full. He has said to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV).
If you, like me, have been blessed with a summer filled with restful circumstances, don’t resist them with suspicion and guilt. God created this earth for us to experience and enjoy. We should take advantage of these opportunities to rest, not in hedonism, but in reflection of the one who bestowed such pleasures upon us. Let summer be our Sabbath before the coming hardship of winter. As we vacation or backpack or garden or swim or sunbathe or nap or read, let us remember the summers that came before, and anticipate the ones that will follow. Let this be our own form of liturgy, our oft repeated prayer. This yoke is easy. This burden is light.