Monday, May 12, 2008

Liturgical Stability: A Neglected Consideration


Father Larry Beane, in the pages of this web log, recently wrote something which bears repeating and reflection. Just what does the liturgical innovation, instability, even chaos, which prevails in so many ways in Christ's Church today, do to our children? Fr. Beane wrote, in part:

"Of course, it does have implications for future generations, as younger people no longer have the image of the hoary-headed patriarchs and matriarchs, fonts of wisdom, and examples of dignified Christian piety...It's no wonder the children and grandchildren of these folks have rejected the faith all together or are so rudderless as to be groping around aimlessly in the 'emerging movement' desperately seeking 'authenticity.'"

His words seized my attention, for they drew my thoughts from the particular problem of bizarre worship forms en vogue among radical feminist Catholics to the more general problem of what liturgical innovation can do to our children, both now and down the road, and conversely, to the benefits of traditional and stable liturgy for our children.

Experts in child development have repeatedly warned of the harm that instability can cause to a child, and of the benefits of that which is stable and reliable in a child's life. Children love to learn; even when they try to deny it, their brains love to learn, and so does their heart, especially after you show them what they can accomplish. This includes challenging things like vocabulary and music, as well as rubrics and good manners. They love stable forms and routines as an environment within which to accomplish this learning. Children think they like a lot of television, video games, and web surfing, yet we now know that their brains do not flourish in an environment in which they are bombarded with a heavy diet of electronic sensory images.

Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, for example, in their book, The Minds of Boys, report the following disturbing data on p. 113.

"The average American child now spends 900 hours a year in school, but 1,023 hours a year watching TV.
In the average American home, the TV is on 6.7 hours per day.
By the time your son reaches eighteen, he'll have spent 22,000 hours watching TV, more than he spends in any other activity besides sleeping.
The number of videos and DVDs families rent every day is twice the number of books read.
By the age of sixteen, your son will have seen 200,000 acts of violence on television, 33,000 of them acts of murder.
One-fourth of children under two years old now have TVs in their bedrooms.
Two-thirds of preschool boys sit in front of screens for two or more hours per day-more than three times the hours they spend looking at books or being read to."

What does this do to children? One statistic that, in a sense, sums it up is given on page 112 of the same book: "In the April 2004 issue of Pediatrics, Dr. Christakis presented research that followed twenty six hundred children from birth to age seven and discovered that 'for every hour of television watched per day, the incidence of ADD and ADHD increased by 10 percent.'"

Conversely, Gurian and Stevens argue that there are great benefits to encouraging the development of vocabulary among children (130).

Yet "church growth" consultants have whole parishes and offices of church bureaucracy convinced that the way to cater to today's young and seeking churchgoer is to devise worship filled with electronic images, and lots of today's music, music of the most modern and irreverent sort, which contain banal and juvenile vocabulary. "Worship" of this sort is not designed to challenge or inspire. It will only serve to insult and ultimatley bore perhaps everyone but its creators and their egos.

Let me cite another expert, one of my favorite writers in this area lately, Dr. Meg Meeker. In her book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meeker's particular concern is the father-daughter relationship, yet in a sense much of what she argues has application for children in general, and parents and authorities in general. She makes the case that daughters long, even when they don't consciously realize or admit it, for examples and role models, and they want and need a reliable, rock solid, environment in which to grow spiritually and intellectually, to learn modesty and faith, and to be challenged in the most healthy ways. A girl will even learn how to worship from the male role models in her life, especially the most important one, her father. Meeker writes, from a purely clinical perspective, on the benefits (especially in chapter eight) of an ongoing religious example for children. In this regard, she compares religious example with the absence of religion in a child's life. Based on these arguments I would suggest that the type of religious example you give your child will have an enormous impact on his view of God. Our "church growth" experts and "emerging church" gurus would have our children act in church as if God were a fickle MTV watching buddy with his own my space account. If you think we are being really creative in this regard, think again. We are simply resurrecting the ancient Greek phenomenon of fashioning gods who look and act like us.

Children need to know they can rest securely in a reliable and predictable environment. Within the safe parameters of that environment, they will then imagine, and grow, and learn, and question, and flourish. Without it, they might be entertained, but they will ultimately find themselves troubled and unable to grow properly. This is illustrated nicely by one of my favorite passages in Proust's Swann's Way:

"At Combray, every day, in the late afternoon, long before the moment when I would have to go to bed and stay there, without sleeping, far away from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom again became the fixed and painful focus of my preoccupations. They had indeed hit upon the idea, to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy, of giving me a magic lantern, which, while awaiting the dinner hour, they would set on top of my lamp; and, after the fashin of the first architects and master glaziers of the Gothic age, it replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicolored apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window. But my sadness was only increased by this since the mere change in lighting destroyed the familiarity which my bedroom had acquired for me and which, exept for the torment of going to bed, had made it tolerable to me. Now I no longer recognized it and I was uneasy there, as in a room in some hotel or 'chalet' to which I had come for the first time straight from the railway train."

The Church needs to inculcate in her children good habits, and before I go on, let me emphasize that habit is a good thing; so, one more time, allow me to continue my habit of quoting Proust in his Swann's Way:

"Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable."

A home is a place in which we ought to feel most free, most ourselves, most able to find our identity. In this sense the liturgy of the Church is an invaluable setting in which to foster good habits, so that reverent worship becomes our very habit, that is to say, that in which we live and find our being.

For years now I have done odd things like make the sign of the cross when I worship, or kneel down at the consecration in the Mass. Kneeling is now done by the whole congregation at every Mass at the church I attend, thanks to the pastoral leadership of its current pastor. But for years kneeling was only practiced a few times a year, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Yet I knelt down anyway from the consecration through the Agnus Dei, week in and week out. It was a foreign thing, no doubt, for some of those who saw me do this. Nevertheless, I determined that the adults can handle the notion that there are Lutherans outside of this parish, and they don't all have the precisely same practices everywhere. One of the things I did not expect to learn, however, is that the children noticed me, and in the relationships I have been blessed to develop with some of them, in my Sunday School class, for example, they have shown themselves eager to learn and emulate. I have found, as a sobering reality, but also as a delight, that it is not only the hoary-headed senior members of Christ's Body that have an influence on the young. We all do. There is much responsibility, and much potential here, for modeling good manners and reverent worship. I pray we will seize it, and with God's help make good use of it.

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