September 30, 2020

Lisa Dye: Life, Liturgy and Lethargical Dancing

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing,  William Blake

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, William Blake

Life, Liturgy and Lethargical Dancing
By Lisa Dye

I’m not sure of the entire history of liturgical dancing, but it’s irrelevant to my point other than to illustrate my first and erroneous thoughts of the meaning behind liturgy.

To get there I have to tell you a little about my dad. He has lived most of his life unedited. Think … Archie Bunker. Think … Donald Trump. Now stop thinking of all the specific things Archie and Donald have said that offend you or you’ll get distracted. Think only of the bluster with which they’ve said it. You’ll get a picture of Dad. Unlike most of us who try to keep a lid on it, at least in our younger years, he didn’t wait to turn 80 to let loose. His lid has always been off. You know what you’re getting with Dad.

So when my parents split in the late 60s, they both made their attempts at mitigating the disaster of our family blow up. Something they read led them to pick me up at Girl Scout camp, take me to a theater where Gone With the Wind was playing, feed me popcorn and Hershey Bars and tell me during intermission that they were getting a divorce. (I’m pretty sure there was something Freudian in their choice of flicks, though I know they were trying to show me love.) I spent the second half of the movie in and out of the bathroom throwing up. As a result, I have blanked out every historical fact of the Civil War. I am dumb about it and I detest the era. I read no books concerning it, nor do I watch mini series or documentaries. You will not find me curiously exploring one of its historical sites.

Anyway, my mom referred to Dr. Spock for wisdom and advice in navigating the post-split psyches of my siblings and me. She also took us to Presbyterian Church with her family at times and we visited Catholic Mass with her best friend at others. Not to be outdone in the religion department, my dad took us on a Grand Tour of any church where he might hear stellar music. He was a jazz drummer, and a very good one, when he wasn’t selling insurance. During most of these church visits, we kids were painfully aware of our whiteness and our dad’s animated body movements as he played his air drums in the pew (usually front and center) next to us.

Once when one of Dad’s Sunday morning expeditions didn’t pan out as expected due to the fact the music was bad and the preacher boring, he said (as we left in the middle of the service), “That place oughta be called The Church of Blissful Sedation.” Another time, about which I tell this whole story, was my first encounter with liturgical dancing. Dancing in church? Okay with me. It was new. It was different. It was interesting. Being a budding ballerina, I was enthralled. But Dad rolled his eyes and stomped all over my enthusiasm. The rest of the day and for a while after that, he referred to it as The Church of Lethargical Dancing.

Liturgical … lethargical. The words melded in my mind. It has taken me decades to pry them apart from each other. Cemented into my eight-year-old brain was the equation that liturgy was boring and slow and something worth fleeing.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, in the throes of homesickness for something elusive in my faith practice, that I realized I missed the rhythm and ritual of liturgy I’d seen at times during my childhood. I don’t know why it hit me so. Maybe it was turning the corner into my 50’s. Maybe it was the longing for a worship experience that, unlike everything else in my life, was neither shrill nor interrupted. Maybe it was experiencing the beauty and centering rhythm of participating in the Liturgy of the Hours while on retreat at a monastery. In any case, I was realizing that one way that God seemed to speak repeatedly to me so I could understand was in acting things out as if on a stage.

I began to see liturgy in a whole new light. My Greek class prompted me to meditate on liturgy and related words. The word liturgy comes from two words. “Lit” comes from “laos” and means people. “Urg” is from “ergon” and means work. Literally translated, “liturgy” is the work of the people … a far cry from lethargy … or at least it should be.

That the liturgy utilizes every sense makes perfect sense. By sight, by sound, by touch, by smell, by taste, by every means, God communes and communicates with us, his children around his table. Fingers dipped in fonts of holy water recall to us our baptism. Burning incense raises our united prayers to God and commemorates Christ’s sacrifice as a fragrant offering (Ephesians 5:2) … and also reminds us that practical, sometimes painful sacrifice in human life diffuses the fragrance of Christ to our hurting world (Philippians 4:18). Reverent kneeling reminds us of God’s perfect holiness (Philippians 2:10) and in the sign of the cross we recognize Him in three persons with one nature (Matthew 28:19). Cantors lead us in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and we respond, singing to God and to each other (Ephesians 5:19). We watch as the Word is raised up and enthroned before its reading, the proclamation of the Gospel and the homily. We thank God that Christ is the Word made flesh and glorify him. We offer him gifts and each other the sign of peace. We remember the Passover and it’s fulfillment in the Lord’s Supper by receiving Christ’s body and blood (Luke 22:14-20), the essence of his abundant and eternal life imparted to us in supreme sacrifice. By it, Christ is in us, and God in Christ (John 17:23). We are completed in unity with him and with each other, blessed by the priest and sent forth in peace and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our mission: to live the liturgy and be his presence in the world (Acts 1:8).

Like a divine play, the Father acts, Christ acts and the Holy Spirit acts to explain the riches lying just beyond the glass we see through so dimly … things no eye can perceive, no ear can hear and no heart can fully know. Yet, in response we do try. We, with our priests, “serve a copy and a shadow of the heavenly things (Hebrews 8:5).” It is, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1075), a “proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the “sacraments” to the mysteries …”

And speaking of mysteries, I have not begun to grasp the whole picture, being, at this point part observer/part participant in the liturgy for the first time in decades. Yet, some aspects of my faith have emerged from murk into light as I’ve stood quietly and just watched for a time. So physical and sensate, the liturgy paints a picture of the work of worship. Life itself is physical and sensate and the mystery is what happens as the Church is sent into the world as the Mass is ended. In a way, that is when the true “work of the people” begins.

Filled with the lifeblood of Christ and breathed up on by his Spirit, we live and serve, each in our little part of the world … in families, in communities in workplaces. As sons and daughters, we offer the Father our bodies and our lives in Christ for his use in this world in response to his mercy (Romans 12:1, 2). Our spiritual service of worship is to present ourselves as living sacrifices. It is what we do in our daily lives, in forsaking selfishness and in being the keepers of brothers and sisters, which brings the shadow of heavenly things to earth and becomes a personal and living liturgy.

Liturgy is also a picture of the redemptive work of Christ in us and upon us. His liturgy has not ceased since he came to earth. He reveals and glorifies the Father, gives us eternal life, prays for our protection, gives us a full measure of joy, gives us God’s word, sanctifies us with truth, unifies and completes us, makes us one … God in Christ and Christ in us according to John 17. Christ’s great priestly prayer details his ongoing work in building his Father’s house. In liturgy, we give our assent to this work. We agree to be the house he is building. George MacDonald wrote, “The Truth of a thing, then, is the blossom of it, the thing it is made for.” Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer (Matthew 21:13).” We are made to be his house, praying and becoming the blossom and fruitful outworking of the Son. We are, first his mission and then his missionaries, first welcomed to his house, then sent to gather others into our house.

Another mystery is illuminated in Christ’s house being a house of prayer. Paul’s directive to the Thessalonians to “pray continually” or “pray without ceasing” depending on the translation used has always stumped me. How can one person do this? Trust me, I’ve tried. Prayer is not a chore for me. It’s something I like. I would gladly be Mary and spend many hours a day in concentrated prayer if I was not obliged to be Martha, to go to work and be in conversations with other people or otherwise do things that keep me from consciously praying. It’s an impossible assignment. Then there is the six hours a night that I’m sleeping. Fine … maybe it’s not a literal command. Maybe we are to be in an attitude of prayer. Yes, I do believe that and generally I think my spirit is continually conversing with the Father.

Yet, one morning at Mass, it struck me. The Church in its liturgies is praying around the world and around the clock. It prays without ceasing. This realization lifted a burden of anxiety off my shoulders. It didn’t make me breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Well, now I don’t need to pray.” No, it made me breath a sigh of relief and to pray more joyfully and confidently because I pray in the Body of Christ, sometimes carrying burdens and sometimes having my burdens carried, but always the burdens are carried. “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”

Another mystery is that liturgy facilitates diversity even though liturgy is regular, repeated and predictable. How can this be? I don’t know other than to say that as people give God their bodies as living sacrifices in worship, he imparts facets of the infinite Christ a little differently in each one to be living sacrifices in the world uniquely. The mystery of Christ is “celebrated through particular expressions” and manifested in “various forms of holiness” (CCC 1202). We see this in the millions of ways people find to serve him … and sadly in all the ways that get left undone. We humans need a plethora of expressions of Christ to discern and to taste one drop of the vast, eternal ocean of him.

Shamefully, we do not always recognize various forms of holiness if they are forms that are unfamiliar. But just as travel acquaints us with the lovely things of other cultures and cuisines and gives us an appreciation and taste for them, the communion of saints is to do that very thing for us spiritually. When we take hold of the idea that Christ is much higher and wider and deeper than his particular expression in us, and the people we are used to, then we can accept his various forms with revelation and a sweet embrace.

Holiness, in its most pure form, originates in God. It is hagios in the Greek and means, “different, unlike, other.” He is altogether apart and other in being and purity. We revere this in him and we accept that it makes him mysterious and impossible to fully know, though we long to know him. Yet strangely, when God by his grace and by the surrendered acceptance of one of his children pours out a bit of his otherness into them, we with our own and more familiar forms of holiness, often react with suspicion, with condemnation and sometimes persecution. We bind up the diversity that should result from liturgy. We are capable by the grace and the power of God in his Church of being “integrated in unity” (CCC1202), but often we will have none of it.

This subject prompts me to think about St. Mary of Paris. She was not your typical saint. Married twice, she then became a nun. Given to smoking and drinking publicly, even while wearing her habit, she was the kind of woman that some churches I have worshipped in would have run out on a rail. Yet … she was radical in her love and service to the poor. In this was her otherness, her holiness. In this was her liturgy.

This is what I am talking about here … the liturgy of our lives. Richard Rohr writes, “In the beginning, you tend to think God really cares about your exact posture, the exact day of the week for public prayer, the authorship and wording of your prayers, and other such things. Once your life has become a constant communion, you know that all the techniques, formulas, sacraments, and practices were just a dress rehearsal for the real thing – life itself …”

I confess to you, my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned, in what I have done. But mostly it’s in what I fail to do. I fail often to worship God with the work of my life. I am guilty of dancing away, quite lethargically, much of the time, tempted to neglect what truly important things are before me because I am blind to their significance or because I am lazy and loveless. Sometimes, I fail to see my unique liturgy because I think it should look like so and so’s over there. Theirs always seems so much better or more important than mine. But it is only in serving God in the particular people, the particular work and the particular sacrifices he chooses for me that I can reflect what otherness he means for me to have. And together, with you in your otherness, we accomplish the work of the people.


  1. Christiane says

    “In this was her otherness, her holiness. In this was her liturgy.
    This is what I am talking about here … the liturgy of our lives.”

    Hi LISA,
    I think your exquisite writing, shared with us here in the Imonk community, must also be a part of your own liturgy. Thank you for sharing your gift with us. This was a wonderful post. I needed to read this.

  2. David Cornwell says

    “But it is only in serving God in the particular people, the particular work and the particular sacrifices he chooses for me …”

    Sometimes recently I have a spasm of guilt because I can no longer attend to the Sabbath in the way I was taught and attempted to practice for most of my life. The life of Christ entered through the prayers, hymns, i.e. the liturgy of the Church. And now I’m prevented from attending to this habit and practice and a certain emptiness fills this lack and accuses me. But through the accusation comes another voice that assures me that what you are saying in the above sentence is very true.

    I must agree with Christiane, this is a beautiful and very meaningful piece and speaks to me at this time. This is some of your best writing. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, David. I understand the frustration of trying to adjust to our changing circumstances and seasons. Someone I talk to on a regular basis recently said, “Please pray that I can accept the changes that are coming into my life.” It was a simple sentiment, but I felt the weight of its meaning because I am in a transition too. These times can be painful and confusing, but I think it means God is giving us a new job. It takes a while to settle in.

  3. You are very kind, Christiane. Thank you.

  4. “The Church in its liturgies is praying around the world and around the clock. It prays without ceasing. ”

    Something even more than this. There is a liturgy ongoing from the exchange of electrons between valance shields to the grand procession of galaxies rotation about a common center. At any time, the Church leads us into this liturgy, in which neither the similarities nor the differences are ultimate – always changing yet forever the same.

    Charles Williams called it the Great Dance.

    “This subject prompts me to think about St. Mary of Paris. She was not your typical saint. ”

    Are any saints typical? St. Mary Skobtsova of Paris comes from our side of the fence, doesn’t she? If so, you’re right. Her canonization is still controversial, she being part of the aristocratic Russian intelligentsia that was so much a part of the problem in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Her confessor was Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who has few defenders these days.

    Western Enlightenment liberalism doesn’t get much traction in the OC. A lot of times we throw a pinch of incense on its altar (while we still can) so we can get on with what’s really important

    Still, she probably knew Corrie ten Boom at Ravensbruck, where she was martyred, and she is the patron of an Antiochian Orthodox church in Tennessee.

    My favorite Parisian saint is Genevieve.

  5. Hi Mule. Thank you for weighing in. Although electrons, valance shields and galactic rotations are beyond my ken, I appreciate you bringing them to this little dance. Someone here will understand better than I.

    Perhaps unconventional would be a better description of St. Mary. At any rate, I appreciate her otherness. I also appreciate yours.

    • Are any saints typical? I hope not. I can only imagine the conversations between St. Mary of Paris and acerbic old St Jerome.

      “Otherness” gets altogether too much spark and play these days, as if it were a virtue or an ascetic practice in and of itself, usually contrasted against an imaginary conformity.

      I think it was Tokah who said it best. There is just common humanity for whom Christ died, and every individual person for whom Christ died. As much as I like reading about Miss O’Connor’s grotesques on the pages of her books, in real life they usually represent opportunities for charity which I inevitably fail.

      • Sorry, I have been away for awhile this afternoon. I’ve been busy with the common activities of work, maybe too boring to discuss here, but certainly necessary. I agree that otherness for the sake of otherness is probably rebellion or some form of narcissism. I don’t advocate at all. Most of us do need to take care of very common things, but my particulars are unique to me and yours are to you. That is the point I am trying to make. I think people lose heart sometimes, feeling like they are not doing anything significant. We can worship God just by doing what’s before us, touching people and circumstances in ways that we can that others cannot … and trusting that others touch people and circumstances in ways that we cannot.

  6. Nice piece, Lisa. I wish my church was more liturgical for many of the reasons you’ve illustrated here. Your insight about prayer, paraphrased by me as “there’s someone in the body of Christ praying at all times” is a relief and freeing. Whether or not *I* pray unceasingly doesn’t mean the Body isn’t praying unceasingly!

    Also…I don’t mean to laugh at your pain, but your story about being told about your parents’ divorce during the intermission of “Gone with the Wind”…oh, gosh…that’s painfully funny! And the Civil War era is one of my favorites…sorry it’s been so damaged for you!

    • Thanks so much, Rick. Feel free to laugh at my movie experience. I look back on it with a sense of humor. It was miserable at the time, but now I see that it was just what most of life is … people trying to do their best with a difficult situation.

  7. A beautiful and thoughtful piece, Lisa. This sort of communication is clearly part of your liturgical (NOT lethargical!) dance. I’m an Episcopalian, and our liturgy is practically identical to yours. You helped me see more and deeper into my own practices.

    I can surely identify with this: “I am guilty of dancing away, quite lethargically, much of the time, tempted to neglect what truly important things are before me because I am blind to their significance or because I am lazy and loveless.”

    Also, like Rick, I had to laugh out loud at your parents’ “Gone with the Wind” performance. FWIW, the movie was awful to my 12-year-old self; I sat with my hands over my ears and my eyes closed to miss the scenes of battle and suffering. (And my parents didn’t even get divorced.) 🙂

    • Thank you, Heather. I’m with you. “Gone with the Wind” is pretty disturbing in and of itself. I probably would have been upset watching it anyway, but the divorce announcement made it particularly memorable.

  8. Thank you, Lisa.

    When I was early in High School, the Newman Center priest from the nearest college came to say mass at my parish. A nun came along, who did a lovely liturgical dance in front of the altar. I have fond memories of this, in spite of the fact that the priest was later defrocked, and that I have never really warmed up otherwise to liturgical dance. The image and experience at the time was very solemn and sweet.

    I used to think liturgy was “mindless”, but mostly because I was told it was and didn’t think about it for myself. Now the Liturgy serves very well to bring my mind, and the whole rest of me, into the Presence.


    • I think things sometimes have to be mindless before they are meaningful. It takes time for assimilation or soaking in and meaning can suddenly rise up when least expected.

  9. Very nice piece, Lisa! The most helpful comment on liturgy I have run into recently is that it is pre-modern, which was obvious to me once it was stated, modern in the sense of the age that began roughly 500 years ago and is winding down as we speak. This would explain the gulf and too often antipathy between those in the liturgical wing and those evangeiical. It would also explain the oftentimes attraction of liturgy for post-moderns. Paul’s admonition to pray constantly always struck me as absurd and unrealistic and ridiculous until Richard Rohr and others brought the concept of wordless contemplation to the table. Now it seems at least something that can be practiced and improved, perhaps as the “mindless” mind of Christ, something not either/or but on a continuum with the Holy Spirit holding your hand along the way. I have been doing an interesting balance between a spoken non-musical Episcopal service once a month and an unspoken Quaker contemplative meeting weekly, each with its own sort of “communion”. My favorite part of the liturgy is probably passing the Peace. At the end of the Friends silent prayer session we hold hands in a circle for a moment, which is also a passing of the Peace in its own way. Interesting times.

    • Charles, it’s good to hear from you. You always have an interesting perspective and I enjoy your comments. Maybe integrating practices from different traditions as you are talking of here (and as I’ve done to a degree) is really a way of trying to put back together what church splits and splinterings have separated over the centuries. The unspoken Quaker contemplation you mention is much like what the desert fathers and mothers practiced in the beginning.

      Peace to you.

  10. I had the opportunity to preach last Sunday at a local immigrant church, composed mostly of people from various nations of central and western Africa. I preached in English, with translation into Swahili, but there were also “unofficial” translations taking place in the seats into French, and possibly a variety of other tribal languages.

    The last half hour (of their three hour service) was dedicated to jumping and dancing. It was in the order of service, and it was truly a work of the the people. It was work — as they progressed from bobbing and weaving to strenuous leaping and running. It was of the people because there were no spectators (except perhaps myself — who refrained not least because in the 90 degree heat I would have been positively drenched and dripping if I did anything beyond the bobbing and dipping stage), but all were dancing for the joy of Jesus their King.

    Now understand that I’m not a huge fan of ecstatic forms. But like hymn singing (as opposed to worshippy concerts) I suspect this kind of dancing is more appropriate to worship than performancy semi-ballet where someone dances and the rest watch. That just seems bloodless, and pallid, and silly. Silly, even though the dancing of my African friends was all about being fools for Jesus.

    Perhaps being silly is a completely different thing from being a fool. As Marva Dawn likes to say, part of the beauty of the liturgy is that it is such a “royal waste of time.”

    • King David might well have been the father of liturgical dance Scripture says he “danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.” This certainly gives the idea that this event was a group celebration like the one you mention above. I don’t think the people were there just watching David. They were participating with him. And then there was Michal, his wife, in the aftermath, despising him in her heart and telling him he was vulgar. This is what we must guard against … cultural Christianity (i.e. Christianity confined by the box of whatever culture we are used to). I have a feeling that in heaven where every tribe, and tongue and nation all worship the Lord, we will suddenly see with new eyes just as you have vividly described above.

  11. This is so beautiful, Lisa. I love the explication of the liturgy, but I also treasure the description of your childhood — both unique and yet easy to relate to. I find I can picture your dad clearly!

    • Thank you so much, Damaris. You are very kind! BTW, I have always admired … okay, envied … your upbringing as the child of a diplomat and have loved reading the stories you tell about it.

  12. Beautiful.
    Thank you!

  13. Lisa, thank you so much for this. I didn’t read it until Saturday, and it made my participation in Sunday’s Mass that much sweeter.

  14. “The liturgy of our lives…”

    Lisa, you always word so eloquently the things in my heart that I’m, well, just too cornbread to express. Thanks so much for sharing this with us today.