Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Soul Journal: The Language of Worship

After we completed our orientation time in San Salvador, we loaded up a van and headed for a town called Berlin. Why a town in El Salvador would have the same name as its more famous counterpart in Germany is a mystery to me, but that's the name. The nice part about Berlin is that we can, and encourage one another to, walk around the town in groups of 3 or more. One of our favorite walks is to the ice cream shop, where we realize pretty quickly that we are the minority here. While my own ability to communicate in Spanish gets a teeny bit better each time I go, the fact that I have to work so hard at it reminds me that I am the visitor here; the guest, the invader, the border crosser, the person for whom a simple transaction like buying an ice cream cone is complicated because I don't know the words that 3 year old child knows. So, while I thought I was getting a nice buttery ice cream with walnuts, I actually got something with raisins. That's the second time I've screwed up trying to order food on my own. The first was when I thought I was ordering pizza with cheese; instead I was ordering one 'piece' (of chicken) with a little square of cheese on the side. In a country where too many people are undernourished, I simply eat my mistakes. The chicken tasted fine, but I don't eat meat, so it made me queasy the next day. The raisin ice cream didn't make me sick, I just despise raisins.

Our first day in Berlin was Sunday. We went to mass at the Parroquia de San Jose (Parish of Saint Joseph) and it was a great Sunday for us to be there, because the community of Alejandria is participating in worship. That means that our friend Balmore (a 'Delegate of the Word' in Alejandria and a part of the Pastoral Team that hosts us) was one of the liturgists. He's good at it. Other people from Alejandria were leading music. The regular guitarist was gone for the day, so his son was playing and you could tell that he's a little less accomplished at this than his father. Nobody had hymnals or other music books, except for the small choir at the front- which consisted of about 5 people from Alejandria along with 4 of us. There is no bulletin, so every song begins with a few strumming chords of the guitar, a couple of the lead singers start in on the song, the rest of the choir join in right away, and then whoever knows the song in the congregation joins in eventually. One song seemed unfamiliar to most everyone except the choir. The Priest would occasionally start singing and he had a nice enough voice, but he also had a loud microphone, which meant that when he sang he took over. And it seemed that on this day he needed to take over a few times to help the guitarist slow down or speed up a bit.

Other parts of the liturgy were interactive on occasion- the Nicean Creed, the responsive words as the Sacraments were consecrated, and so forth. Again, nothing was printed; everything was said from memory whether said confidently or mumbled hesitantly. The sermon seemed long to me, but that has more to do with the fact that I didn't understand a word of it than time itself. Of course, nobody was taking notes or following an outline on the back of the bulletin. You just listen.

I suppose that the primary reason there was no bulletin or hymnal is because many of the folks in the congregation- especially the older ones- cannot read. While literacy is as high now in Berlin as it has ever been, a worship service is an accumulation of history. And the history at the Parroquia de San Jose has been that you learn the songs by singing them over the years and you learn the rhythm of the service by participating in it over the years and you develop a type of 'liturgical literacy' whether you can read or not. The absence of printed stuff and the dependence on repetition is how everyone can be included- over time.

In fact, text-less, repetitious worship is probably the kind of worship that has happened in more places over more times than the text-bound worship that many of us experience in the US- whether we go to churches that read out of bulletins, sing out of hymnals, or project words on a screen. It was certainly the case that the worship of ancient Israel was more dependent on memorized responses and simple sung refrains, leaving most of the textual stuff up to the priests and the choir leaders- the Psalms are evidence of that.

Here's the funny part: In the land of worship, those of us who only know how to worship with printed or projected texts are like the English speakers trying to purchase an ice cream cone in Berlin. We are the minority. When we go "church shopping" instead of bearing with the same group of people over many years, we are the minority. When we expect innovation and think the church has to reflect the same technological pizzazz as Disneyland, we are the minority. When we criticize liturgy as 'boring repetition,' we are the minority. That "boring repetition" has actually been a means of enabling people to participate in the message and life of the church for millenia. I wonder if our refusal to learn the native language of the land of worship means that we end up ordering ice cream with raisins instead of walnuts.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive