Last night a handful of us descended from the House for an experiment in Street Liturgy, somewhere in Downtown Milwaukee. Five of us, decked in our customary cassocks, piled in a Subaru and made our way to the stoop of some urban storefront church, where we gave the Prayer Book a living and unusual articulation.
It was a simple service: we chanted the Great Litany, spent some time in silence, offered a few collects and extemporaneous prayers, and then did the best we could at chanting Compline (a challenge given that we rarely do Compline as a community and never chant it). It had no immediate, amazing, visible impact on the community. There weren’t a lot of people around, and mostly, we were just ignored. Nevertheless, I would have to rank it among the most profound liturgical experiences I have had during my time at Nashotah House.
What made it so moving? First, all of the words of the prayers were transfigured as we prayed, not only for the world, but from within it. This is something I’ve noticed on the other infrequent occasions I have done similar things; for instance, I get this sense when caroling around Christmas. When our prayers are proclaimed, rather than merely private affairs, they take on a new meaning. It’s not really something that can be explained: you have to do an open-air liturgy to experience it.
Similarly, I was deeply impacted by the juxtaposition of the rhythm of liturgy with the pulse of the city. Indeed, we might call it a “secular liturgy.” The ebb and flow of quotidian humanity passed before us: buying and selling, eating dinner, parking, going from point A to point B and back again, waiting for a rendezvous, panhandling. I was overwhelmed with the sense of how God delights in his creation, and how he yearns to bless, and to transform, and to open all of these to being Eucharistic. He longs for these liturgies to be transparent to his work and to his love in the world; to turn all of these banal experiences into sacrifices of thanksgiving through union with Christ.
Slowing down, being still and silent in that place, and listening to the Spirit, I suddenly had a sense of the presence and the nearness of God. I have never experienced this in a city before. I have always experienced cities as being somewhat cold and godless, full of noise and distraction. And yet, standing in silence, hearing all the noises of the traffic, and distant conversations, and doors opening and closing, I experienced a beautiful cacophony that is no different than anywhere else where human hearts beat, and that God is no further there than in the monastery secluded in the deepest wood or emptiest desert hermitage.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, I found myself lifted out of chronos time and into kairos. I experienced a sort of timelessness. This is something I often experience with Eastern liturgies, and in personal meditation from time to time, but it doesn’t happen for me very often with contemporary Western liturgy.
To pray with so comparatively little, with such comparatively poor liturgy, in such a poor and inconvenient environment – and yet to feel God so profoundly near: this was immensely inspiring. Perhaps our ability to have rich entrances to prayer has more to do with our state of heart, our state of intention than the actual substance and form of the liturgy. Not that the latter is inconsequential: indeed, we should do all that we can to perfect and beautify it. But even if it is imperfect, God can speak in it and through it.