The Old Becomes New: Experiencing repetition without getting bored
"Aw, Mr. Berryman, we heard that story already."
"I know, but did, you know I have heard it hundreds of times and always find something new in it?"
"It's boring. We heard it before."
"Why is it boring to hear again?"
"We heard it already."
"Okay. Have you ever celebrated Christmas?"
"Then you don't ever need to celebrate it again?"
"That's different." "Did you ever have a birthday?"
"Then you don't ever need to do that again, either."
"No. It's not like that." "What is it like then?"
"I don't know."
"Did you know that in this Bible story there is always more? You can never know everything that is there."
"Getting ready is what makes the difference."
"Getting ready for what?"
"Getting ready so you can go into the story."
"That is not possible. You can go into a room but not a lesson."
"I never said it was easy. Entering the stories of the Bible is a lot harder than math. In math things are always the same. Two plus two is always four. With parables, Bible stories, and liturgical acts, there is always something new."
"You are always changing."
"Does God change?"
"God is always there, but there is always more of God than we can know. We change together. God helps us."
I was working on a research project at the Institute of Religion in the Texas Medical Center when this dialogue took place. The classroom where the children and I were gathered was filled with models that represented Bible stories and symbols of Christian worship. And the complaint "was one that I'd heard before—"Boring." These young children, who just months before had probably snuggled next to a parent and asked to hear a story over and over again, had now concluded that repetition—at least when it comes to Bible stories—is pointless. I knew I needed to confront them about that conclusion.
I've repeated this dialogue many times over the years in books, articles, and workshops. Others have found it helpful, and some have even repeated the dialogue to me almost word-for-word after hearing it from someone else who heard it from me. It keeps coming back like a delightful echo.
These children helped me think about one of the most important principles of the Christian communication that takes place when God and the people of God speak to each other in worship. This powerful language we have inherited invites us to return again and again, all our lives, to meet the Holy One in our midst, for with God there is "always more." As Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c. 395) wrote in The Life of Moses, God's only limit is that God has no limit.
That doesn't mean that repetition is good in and of itself. When ritual is repeated only for repetition's sake, it becomes a negative experience. The ritual no longer serves the participant; instead the participant serves the ritual.
On the other hand, negative ways of participating in worship can't be cured by doing away with repetition. Never repeating a liturgical act twice not only takes more creativity than most can muster, but the resulting pattern is itself a ritual that repeats non-repetition.
Look at the early Quakers, for example. These men and women had a great mistrust of traditional Christian ritual. In fact, since people in that time and place usually observed the ritual of taking their hats off in church, the Quakers wore their hats all during the service-just to show they did not make a "ritual" of their worship. They also did not stand in their "meetings." They used no fixed liturgical forms or readings. And they broke silence only by the prompting of the Spirit. Their very lack of ritual became a ritual in itself.
The regular pattern of ritual can help us remember that others have come this way before and have found God's presence in such activity. The possibility of God's presence is there even when our thoughts and feelings may be elsewhere. Ritual helps us focus our thoughts and feelings, but it cannot force God to meet us. It gives us a way to relax in the accustomed frame, like an old porch swing, and daydream of eternal things. It is a way to leave the door open to welcome the Holy One.
Ritual and the Open Gate
What I told the children about entering the story applies to adult worship as well. When we truly enter one of the Bible's stories, the Holy Spirit may begin to move us into a creative process. We discover something new in the same old thing. The process moves from opening, to scanning, to insight, to articulation, and to closure.
The stimulation of the creative process prompts one to scan for new meaning. The scanning might go on for minutes, hours, days, months, or even years. Then a piece of an image, a fragment of a dream, a bit of a tune, or some other insight will shift one's energy from scanning to working out into language what the insight means. The process must finally come to an end, for it could go on and on without an act of the will to stop it. When we bring closure to the creative process, we make the new idea part of the way we understand the world. This new understanding will last until it too is broken by tragedy or dissolved by wonder, and the process begins again.
Ritual provides a safe place in which one's creative process can work. It protects us so we can wake up from the trance of everyday repetition. It is a counter-ritual to the daily grind.
Now, let me put this in a different way. Let me tell you a story:
There was once a huge crow with shining black feathers. One day he flew up from the green river valley to a hill-town with red tile roofs. As he circled a tower in the town, he saw a yellow bird in a golden cage, and he heard the bird's beautiful song. Suddenly the crow wanted to be seen and appreciated like that bird.
That evening the crow flew to where the wise, old owl sat on a limb. "How can I find a cage, so I can be known and appreciated?"
"The question is always 'Who?' Go see Francis."
In the morning the crow flew to where Francis was picking apples. Each time he took an apple from the tree, Francis thanked God for such wonder. The crow was strangely unafraid of the man and sat on his shoulder. They talked mostly through their feelings.
After a while, Francis went into a little hut and brought out a black iron cage. The crow hopped in and felt wonderful. Everything was so ordered and clear. Now people could know and appreciate him. He even saw himself more clearly. The crow was happy for a time.
One day something startled the birds who had gathered around the cage to visit with the crow. They suddenly flew up into the sky. The crow forgot where he was and tried to take flight too. His head hit the top of the cage, and his black, broken feathers littered its floor.
None of the other birds noticed except for a little brown sparrow. She flew to Francis. "May I go inside the cage to take the crow's place? Then he can be free."
Francis said, "The gate is always open."
The sparrow looked again, and she could see that it was true. The gate behind the crow was open! She hopped in and the crow hopped out. When the sparrow was inside the cage, she forgot about the open door and the crow forgot about the sparrow.
The crow flew up into the sky and rode the wind currents. As he soared, his feelings spread out over the whole horizon. He was as free as his feelings.
That night, as the crow sat on a limb in the dark and tried to sleep he remembered the sparrow. "That's how I got out," he said to himself.
In the morning the crow went back to the cage. He told the sparrow that she could always fly with him. They would look for food and shelter and fun together. The sparrow hopped out. The door was always open.
When they were gone, Francis put the cage back into the little hut until the next time it was needed.
Repetition and ritual are not ends in themselves. They are tools to be used to help us notice what is important.
Apples or Onions?
Today we are experiencing a shift in values that bears powerfully on our need for ritual. We are becoming a culture where everyone seems to be somewhere else! There are so many options and "answers" that our sense of self can wash away like sand castles in tine incoming tide. Kenneth J. Gergen called attention to this phenomenon in his 1991 book The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life.
Gergen said that saturated selves are like the many translucent rings of an onion—layers of roles and performances without a center. A person with an integrated identity has a core of values like an apple. This core contains seeds that can be planted to grow into trees that bear more fruit. Bearing fruit is what Christian people aspire to, and ritual helps us know our core.
We need the continuity of ritual to help us know who we are in this age of the saturated self. But we also need to be open to the new rather than always clinging to familiar patterns. There is always more to be discovered in biblical texts and acts of worship when we know how to participate in their repetition in an open and active way. This is something that we adults can teach children and children can teach us adults.
Our rituals help us begin while at the same time giving us places to rest and find nourishment for our spirits. They help us find the way when we are lost, showing us the way home again to where we began.
We need to repeat and even memorize rituals—not just the ritual of regularly attending worship services, but also the rituals that take us through the motions of worship: Preparing ourselves to enter into the same old stories, singing the hymns, praying the prayers, and responding together in patterned ways to God's gifts to us in Word and sacrament. These rituals help us savor not only the repetition of their words and actions but also the deep flowing movement of life they point to that flows from the Creator, a stream of Spirit that is Holy.