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Quieting Internal Liturgy for the Sake of the Body

Image: Cotton Brol Studio

While attending a class recently, one of the facilitators explained that the sessions would open and close with a prayer applicable to the subject at hand. The purpose of this was explained as a way to minimize one’s “interior liturgy:” our thoughts, experiences, and feelings that are specific to us. Also, since this community’s spiritual tradition relied mainly on extemporaneous prayers, this change needed some explanation.

Extemporaneous prayer is fulfilling and sacred, but it can also unintentionally cycle back to the same experiences of the person leading the prayer time. Ideally, prayer within a community will be addressing the actual needs of the community, not only one’s self.  

I had never heard of this term before and it piqued my curiosity. I have participated in both liturgical and spontaneous communities of the faithful and find value in each. Whatever our individual preferences, I strongly believe we can learn from other traditions and styles. 

And this new experience led to questions about interior liturgy, like how does it develop? I do not believe it is something we are born with like blue eyes or brown hair. It is more likely an experiential development over time based on spiritual practice, life experiences and the church to which we affiliate.  If we look close at our worship in various forms we may find liturgy is present in many of our practices – formally or informally.

Liturgy is simply a way to organize a particular worship service so that all people may participate as one. It is centered on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Christian congregations.  The Archdiocese of Saint Paul/Minneapolis provides a definition that includes both sides of liturgy: “Liturgy is centered on the Holy Trinity. At every liturgy the action of worship is directed to the Father, from whom all blessings come, through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We praise the Father who first called us to be his people by sending us his Son as our Redeemer and giving us the Holy Spirit so that we can continue to gather, to remember what God has done for us, and to share in the blessings of salvation.” This is the basic format of a liturgical type of worship. Everyone has the opportunity to praise God and everyone is included in the blessings emanating from that praise.

But where does our interior liturgy fit within this system, then?

Interior liturgy is still praising God and experiencing blessings but in a less formalized way, and likely not including the entire community. We enter worship with an agenda dictated by our feelings and experiences. If we feel unloved or lonely then our prayer will often reflect those feelings. If we’re in a season of joy and fulfillment, as a result our prayers will reflect thankfulness and praise. So when we are in a position to lead a prayer extemporaneously, our thoughts can unconsciously affect how we pray.  A written prayer, however, includes all the divine aspects of worship as well as the communal aspects. 

Even in most “non-liturgical” churches there is some form of liturgy and an interior liturgy incorporated to some extent. As an example, the church we attend starts with a worship song, followed by announcements and a greeting or passing of the peace. Then there is some more worship music and an extemporaneous prayer by one of the worship team members followed by additional music. Our pastor then leads another prayer extemporaneously and delivers the sermon. This is followed by another song, the doxology, and a closing with an extemporaneous benediction. We have incorporated a definite liturgy. In the more liturgical church there is usually a theme set forth by the church calendar or the Book of Common Prayer which over the course of the year acknowledges specific topics or calendar moments. 

We want to be careful to identify when our interior liturgy can creep in and not profit the entire community. For example, how often do you hear someone say that the music does not appeal to me? Perhaps it is because it appeals more to the person choosing it. Or someone says that the prayer was too long and repetitive. Could be that the prayer was more in tune with the person praying than with the community. We will never get it perfect but if we are more aware of our preferences, we can try to incorporate them into a more communal offering to the Divine.  

I love both types of worship and see the strengths and weaknesses of both. However, as we offer our praise to the Divine Presence, may we also offer love and consideration to those who are in a different spiritual place and remember we are all one body.

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