Burlap and Incense

My name is Caroline, and I am a liturgical snob.

There’s no support group for it, just as there’s no group for people who overuse semicolons, and probably for the same reason; we’re insufferable. I readily admit this. And yet, try as I might, I can barely contain a shudder when the priest extemporaneously changes He to God, or when the Peace becomes an impromptu family reunion, or when people’s cell phones go off during the service. I’m that guy. When I visit a church, nothing brings me joy like noting the presence of bells at the consecration. If there’s a traditional version, I’d rather have it, whether it’s organ music vs. guitars or a central aisle vs. “in the round.” In general, it seems right for Mass to emphasize the vertical over the horizontal.

That said, I’m completely sympathetic for those who need the horizontal emphasis, even those who whitewashed icons and built suburban concrete monstrosities in the 70s. It doesn’t mean they’re irreverent or godless, but it probably says a lot about where they came from.

My background was as vertical as the staunchest rad-trad could want. Our favorite hymn was Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne, which declared that “He can create and He destroy.” God was “immortal, invisible… in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

The children’s Westminster Catechism that I memorized said that God made me and all things “for His own glory,” that “God can do all His holy will.” The answer for everything was “for His own glory:” why did God command Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites? Why did God create Satan if He knew what Satan would do? Why does God only chose some and not others to be His elect, even though some non-elect die as infants without doing anything wrong? Who are you, O Man, to question God?

Not only was God all-powerful, all-glorious, holy and sovereign, not to be questioned, but we the people were dead in our sins. Our moral compass never pointed North because of the fall. We would never chose God on our own, because we couldn’t. We had no free will, no inner goodness. I was taught that nothing I did was actually good, that even my good works were probably done out of pride, or fear of punishment. No action done by man could be described as pure.

As a teenager, I watched R.C. Sproul’s Fear and Trembling video series, in which he called the faithful to reflect upon their wretchedness. The video discussed when God struck down a man for touching the Ark of the Covenant, for trying to catch it before it fell in the mud. Sproul taught that God’s action was only logical: dirt does what dirt is supposed to do. When it gets wet, it becomes mud. It obeys the natural laws, unlike man, who disobeys. Our hands are much worse than dirt, than worms, than the foulest thing you can imagine. The only reason we could stand before God is because of Christ’s righteousness, the snow covering our dung heaps.

If anyone was brought up to have a vertical-oriented faith, it was me. The experience was like pre-Vatican II Catholic guilt, but without the release of Catholic confession. They hammered home to us that faith is not about feelings, not about what’s in it for us. We were never overburdened with self-esteem. We were fed on complex theology from childhood, without sugar-coating. Except for the whole Protestant part, it was a Michael Voris dream come true.

That’s why I’m sympathetic to the tackiness, the feel-goodisms, the watered down theology. I don’t think it’s true, and I think it’s harmful in a different way, but I understand why so many would find it appealing. I can see why hearing Latin triggers painful memories for many who grew up pre-Vatican II, just as hearing an “altar call” triggers pain for me.

Last Sunday, the reading was from Isaiah 6, in which the prophet enters the Holy of Holies, with smoke going up before the throne of God and six-winged cherubim calling to each other “Holy Holy Holy!” And the prophet cries out before God that he has unclean lips, woe is me. His sin is purged with a burning coal.

It’s a beautiful, stunning passage, and I hate what it does to me. I hate that hearing the lector read it made me tremble with terror. I hate that I was suddenly a teenager watching “In Fear and Trembling,” when Sproul talked about that exact passage. I hate that the priest talked about God’s glory, not because he said anything wrong, but because I hear it through the filter of my past. When he says God’s glory, he may see beauty, but I see atrocities committed in God’s name, that are “for His own glory.” The word glory is a cover-up, a word to whitewash all the horrors done by Joshua to Canaan, the genocide, the rape, the executions and stonings that God Himself supposedly sanctioned “for His own glory.” Be ye holy.

Thing is, Beauty kept calling my name, in spite of all. I got lucky, because my particular faith tradition had done its own whitewashing. My ancestors snuffed out candles and tore down altars and destroyed icons and burned monasteries, for the glory of awful Jehovah. We worshiped in a plain building with a central wooden pulpit, our version of the altar, without pictures except for a stained glass cross. I don’t connect incense and candles and chant with my past; I connect it with moving away from my past, with choosing for myself where to worship, for daring to let God love me.

But if we’d been the ones with incense and Latin? I’d be making burlap banners and holding hands in the Our Father.

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2 thoughts on “Burlap and Incense

  1. Oh dear. You would run screaming from my church. We’ve changed a few “He”‘s to “God” and our Peace is EPIC. (-ly long and the despair of many) That said, even though we only get the sanctus bells out at Easter and Christmas and nary a snort of incense is to be had, I’d hardly say we’re light on theology. It’s about us being at the table with God and we wanna make sure everyone’s along for the ride. So we’ll hold hands for the Lord’s Prayer (and go out of our way to find you, and also, accept “hand to elbow” if you’ve a cold); as we stand in a row for communion, you’ll feel a hand or two on your back as you take a sip of His Blood. Because it’s also about “you are not alone”, a physical reminder of the always present but not always felt God. But I do miss incense and enjoy chanting as much as I enjoy clapping on the off-beat (as tricky as it is sometimes). Hence, my occasional visits to a monastery!

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    1. I didn’t mean to make a direct parallel between “liturgy I don’t like” and light theology. I have noticed in some churches that seem to lack ANY liturgical identity that there is a general lack of substance. From things you’ve said about your church previously, y’all have put a lot of thought into how to “do church,” which I really admire. Your church sounds great for a lot of people, but probably not introverts like me 🙂

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