• Vested Interest

Learning to Walk

Mary Davenport Davis
October 17, 2015

When you learn to move in a liturgical procession, it’s almost like learning to walk all over again. Clad in a dress with a funny name (cassock? Alb?), clutching your hymnal or your torch, you have to learn to step lightly, slowly but not too slowly, to keep pace with your partner, to keep two pew rows behind the people in front of you. If you’re carrying a torch, you learn to keep your candle level with your partner’s without looking up; if you’re carrying a hymnal, you learn to read and sing while still walking in a straight line (and possibly even sight-read the harmony line—this is what always trips me up). You learn, gradually, to express the serious joy, the gravitas, that accompanies much Episcopal worship—and you learn how distinct this is from gloom.


It’s not easy to do any of these things; and it’s not easy to make it look effortless. So why do we do it? Why can’t singers, acolytes, ministers, and congregation simply start worship as though it’s a concert—with all of us in our places?


Simply put, procession is pilgrimage. We begin on the threshold of sacred space and time, looking toward some interior transformation, but still inhabiting our everyday lives. We might be thinking about other things; we might want to find our way toward communion with God but not quite know how. We might have family delighting or distracting us. We might be preoccupied with the needs of our body: hunger, exhaustion, thirst, pain. But starting wherever we start, we journey together into the presence of God. With music, motion, candles, cross, the leaders of our liturgy bear us along with them in the transition from ordinary to holy space and time.


It doesn’t always feel like this is happening. When you’re tired, or bored, or confused, church doesn’t necessarily feel holy. As a teenaged acolyte I used to worry about this. How could I represent the congregation when I could not feel the presence of God—when I was unsure whether I believed in God in the first place? Over time, though, this tension has become one of the things I love most about liturgy, as I gradually realized: I don’t have to make God show up. I don’t have to force myself into a properly “holy” mindset in order to make my way into the presence of the holy. Indeed, the elements of the liturgy themselves—the physical motion, the music, the candles, the cross, all the disparate pieces that we watch and listen to and partake of—bring us along with them. Sunday after Sunday, we journey toward God—and our feet gradually carry our hearts along with them.


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!