This post is a response to this lovely post by L.L. Barkat.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory boxes, I hope a rather tattered old cassette tape still waits to be exhumed once again. I am afraid it may have fallen prey to a move or a careless removal of "junk" boxes from the garage we used to have. The tape was recorded circa 1979 in my home studios in Whittier, California, and featured special guests (my infant sister) and my own special brand of musical entertainment. I sang a variety of original tunes, some of which I can still vaguely remember. Among the lyrics:
... I love God and He loves me,
Just singing about the love of God, to me.
That's my song of Jesus.
I found the tape sometime in my twenties, I don't remember how or when, and it became an object of immediate fascination. For one thing, it was tangible evidence of my faith as a little child... and it was fascinating to the artist in me, as it was unfettered by the restraint that most of us learn as adults wherein our free expression is confined by rules, social, musical and otherwise. Even my tunes were my own in their simple, improvised, sing-song way.
There was something almost magical in the tape for me... as if I had been allowed to see past my jaded, intellectually-informed and socially adapted adult self to the heart of faith and pure devotion. I looked back and didn't recognize myself, because I had forgotten what it was like to just sing my love for Jesus in such a spontaneous, joyful way.
There is a humility and a beauty in the worship of a child. A trust so complete. A lack of self-awareness. An earnestness. A spontaneity. A joy. Perhaps that is some of what Christ meant when he said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." The same beauty is in extemporaneous prayer... the sort that bubbles out of us like lava from a volcano, the sort that lays before our God the contents of our hearts and minds, unvarnished and free.
As an adult, I learned a new kind of music. Music that reduced me to tears. Music that I had to work and work and work to understand. Music that while not my words, my notes and my composition, somehow expressed my heart in a way my mouth had never learned to do alone. It was music that I shared with hundreds of other voices and an orchestra. Music that could only result when the words and the notes of a master are laid out before us, and we conform to the will of another master, and we each observe the silence and the sounds spelled out on the page with strict obedience, and we make our voices blend with others until, though myriad, the sound is as but one voice. One body that breathes together. One voice that with all of the power and soul of dozens of people who have bent their wills and their talents to serve something much greater than themselves. As a singer, there is nothing in the world like subsuming myself, disciplining myself, and allowing myself to disappear into the fabric of something that could go on without me, but that would not be the same if I did not lend my voice, my talents, and my commitment to be a part.
That, to me, is like liturgical prayer.
In liturgical prayer, I must become more than myself. I must conform. I must let go of my desire to be in the spotlight -- to have things my way. I must work, follow, listen, learn. I must submit. I become part of something much bigger than myself, which humbles me as it exalts me. It also teaches me a new song... one that has stood the test of time. One more beautiful and refined than my own songs, and one that makes my songs, when I allow them to stream forth, somehow richer and finer, because the beauty and perfection of the masterpiece has become part of me. It makes my own way more perfect. It turns my eyes from myself and my own heart to the face of Christ.
Musicians use the harmony of Bach as the guide because from it could be distilled rules and guidelines that allow even the least experienced musicians to create from a single melody a harmony that works. So, too, the Church uses liturgies to teach us how to pray, to help us crowd out the disorder and clutter of our minds with order and beauty. It puts scripture on our lips, into our hearts. It teaches us that we are not at the center of worship -- God is.
Liturgy and form-prayers do not take the place of our own hearts' groanings. They do not drown out our own songs. They don't take the place of our everyday conversation with God. They do not confine the Spirit. Instead, they make it possible for us, like Paul and Silas in jail, to sing hymns -- most likely the songs of David -- with the Psalmist himself. They allow us to be more than ourselves, and to be transformed when we pray, into our perfectly functioning part of the body, working in harmony with each other part in service to Christ, our Head.
Liturgy doesn't take away from the beauty of a quiet moment alone in God's presence. It doesn't silence our hearts. It does makes an ordinary moment extraordinary by transcending time, place, language and individuality by bringing the church of eternity into the moment we inhabit now. I can't help but find that beautiful.