Embodied Worship, Workaday Grace: Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary

September 19, 2017
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Title: Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
Author: Tish Harrison Warren
Publisher: IVP Books
Publish Date: November 1, 2016
Pages: 184 pages (paperback)

The campus of Notre Dame is God-haunted. It’s been years, but the memory lingers.

There is a pathway through the woods, around the lake. I walk it at dusk, leaves crackling underfoot, small creatures rustling in the brush. The wind ripples across the water.

Glancing up, I startle at unexpected figures in front of me. They are statues—three crosses with men hanging on them, and a woman weeping at their feet. This sylvan Golgatha is hidden from the main path; one might easily miss it. But the sunlight glinting off the bronze cross sends a thrill through me. C.S. Lewis called this feeling “Sehnsucht”—a longing for something inexplicable. The feeling of wanting to weep, yet without being sad, and without knowing why.

Drawing nearer to the heart of campus, the natural noises give way to another sound—the soft tolling of bells. Incense wafts down towards the lake: a sweet, woody smell, with a hint of lemon. At the top of the hill towers the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where I often bring my young son. He loves to walk through the church: pointing out favorite paintings, studying the stations of the cross. If I turn my back for a moment, he climbs the font and paddles his fingers in the holy water.

Something about the sacred spaces of Notre Dame strikes me at a deep level—perhaps it is the physicality of the worship. Worshipping there engages every one of the senses. Fingertips graze the hard wooden pews, the tongue tastes wafer and wine, nostrils take in the frankincense, ears prick to the peal of bells, the bursting notes of the organ. For the eyes there is a feast of sparkling stained glass, vibrant gold and blue frescoes, and the glinting bronze of the high altar.

Tish Harrison Warren, in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary, reflects on the importance of the body in worship. For many Christians—particularly academics and seminarians—it can be tempting to view Christian training primarily as a journey to fill one’s head with the right ideas.

One of those doctrinal ideas is the significance of the body. This thread runs throughout Scripture: from Christ’s physical incarnation where the Word became flesh, to the scars in his hands and side, to the promise of bodily resurrection. Christianity is a faith that values the body.

But it is one thing to know the value of the body, and another to practice and experience it. Warren describes the day she first became starkly aware of this, while visiting friends at a small Anglican church. The service constantly employed the body: sitting, standing, kneeling, eating the Eucharist, crossing oneself, bowing, processing. It felt like a “spiritual Pilates class.” This, Warren realized, was what she had been missing all along.

There is a deep relationship between bodily acts and acts of the soul. This is why in Scripture, God’s people are often commanded to fast: physical discipline and spiritual discipline are inextricably linked. In the same way, the posture of prayer—bending the body—has a real connection with the bending of the soul. Warren recounts a time after seminary when she was experiencing such grief and spiritual doubt that she could no longer pray. She didn’t have the words. But she could kneel. And kneeling eventually led her back to the words of prayer.

Not only are our bodies essential to Sunday worship, but what we do with our bodies during the week is a liturgy. This idea is not new: the early Reformers held a high view of the work of everyday life. One of the tenets of the Reformation was that before God, all vocations were equally holy: priest and painter, monk and mason, nun and nursemaid. All work, done well, brings glory to God.

In each chapter of her book, Warren describes a mundane, everyday routine and infuses it with holiness. She gives us the eyes to see that every ordinary moment can be offered up as praise to God.

When we look in the mirror, we can remember that our body is sacred. These teeth we brush will be in eternity.

When we explode in anger over something minimal—it is not time lost. It is an opportunity for confession and absolution.

When we call a friend to build up one another, we are speaking in liturgy: call and response. We remember our community of faith.

When we fight with our spouse, we can be the first to lay down the sword. We can offer to pass the peace.

When we settle in to sleep, we can remember our mortality. We place ourselves in God’s care until we wake again.

Our daily life is a form of worship, just as much as what we do in church. As Warren asks,

What if days passed in ways that feel small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us? The often unseen and unsung ways we spend our time are what form us. Our mundane moments, rooted in the communal practices of the church, shape us through habit and repetition, moment by passing moment, into people who spend their days and therefore their lives marked by the love of God.

My husband studies and teaches theology. His days are filled with the mysteries of the divine nature, the problem of evil, the sacrifice of Isaac. My days are filled with diapers, tiny tantrums, spilled cheerios. But the time that God has given us—the “insignificant” time—is when we are being formed into his servants. Every moment spent cleaning juice off the floor, every flare-up of anger and subsequent apology, every spoonful of green mush airplaned into a chubby mouth—all of it matters. All of it is redeemed.

Along with that comes the invitation to slow down: to notice daily experiences as they form us, to be mindful of the Spirit’s work in our everyday life. Perhaps above all, we are challenged to learn to see the beauty of small moments.

John Ames, a character in Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, knows this well. An old man, not long for the earth he loves, he relishes the splendor of ordinary life.

There you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat… Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.

When I take the time to look, I can see this loveliness. My daughter’s eyes are large and beautiful in her small face, and they sparkle a particular way when they catch sunlight. My son’s laugh is the most explosive, joyous sound imaginable. Our backyard lawn in the full morning sunlight is a brilliant shade of green, reminiscent of the brighter-than-earthly grass of Lewis’ heaven in The Great Divorce.

Observing comes easier to children. They will stop to stare at every ant on the sidewalk, pick weeds from the ground with rapturous awe, marvel at the cracks in a wooden fence. But adults grow weary, weighted down by the anxieties and stress of life. It requires great effort to just be present in a moment. But as Warren writes,

When we enjoy God’s creation, we reflect God himself. God does not stoically pronounce creation “good” like a disinterested manager checking off a quality checklist so he can clock out early. God delights in the perfect acoustics of ocean waves, swoons over the subtle intensity of dark chocolate, and glories in robins’ eggs and peacock calls….

We have sinned and grown old, and become dulled to the wonders around us… We must take up the practice—the privilege and responsibility—of noticing, savoring, reveling, so that, to use Annie Dillard’s phrase, “creation need not play to an empty house.”

This world – this life – is extraordinary. Before we grow old may we, too, learn to notice it. To marvel. To be.




About the Author
  • Kate Henreckson has taught literature, composition, and theater at multiple levels, and is currently a freelance writer. She lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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