One of the many things I am thankful for in being an Orthodox priest is that the most important thing I do is scripted. As a musician, I was never inclined to jazz (or any kind of improvisation); I found my greatest joy when playing difficult pieces with a group that worked well together. Expression was not stifled, it was directed and communal (I can see how this is true for jazz players … but that is way past my ability; I can only imagine it). Success was measured by how well the piece was performed rather than how strongly anyone’s muse had been evoked – or even how much the audience had enjoyed it.
Through preparation, musicians can achieve success even when they are not “on” or “feeling it”. To paraphrase Bill Belichick (hey, I spent 8 years serving in New England!), all it takes is that everyone “do their job”.
As much as I found that to be true as a musician, I find it even more true as a priest and liturgist. I know the Divine Liturgy. The people I serve with (i.e. the choir, the chanters, and the people) know the Divine Liturgy. A successful liturgy does not require feeling; it requires performance (meaning that it simply needs doing; I am not speaking of performance in the sense of acting). For the trained homilist, even the sermon – the most personal and variable thing that occurs in the Liturgy – works within this framework (although its success is partly measured based on reception).
Yes, some days the choir will really be “on” and on some days things will seem to flow better than on others. But the Divine Liturgy is what it is. It exists outside of us. We join it and it becomes incarnate in our midst, but it does not require any special “magic” from us. The “magic” is built in. The Holy Spirit is reliably present. Christ Himself is reliably present. They are always there, always working; ready to work with us, ready to work through us. We start on page 1 and end on page 50 (yes, I know I am exaggerating; all our life outside liturgy is spent preparing for it).
I have a good friend (Fr. Souin Shnork) who had someone claim to him that they were “spiritual but not religious”. He chuckled and quipped something like, “Oh, I’m not! I’m just the opposite. I don’t come to Church because I’m spiritual. If it were up to my feelings of spirituality, I would still be in bed. It’s only religion that gets me here each Sunday and its only through that religion that God saves me.” Fr. Souin and I have lot in common (different accent, though; he’s from Canada).
Do we try to serve well. Do we try to serve better each time? Yes. Do we try to serve kenotically so that the power of God can work through us without us getting in the way? Yes.
But what a blessing that the Liturgy itself is not dependent on our meager gifts, our own unreliable feelings, or our own improvisations. Today (on a Sunday afternoon), I celebrate that blessing.