Liturgical images and movements that speak to experience



As a member of a small faith community which often worships on Sundays without
the sacramental ministry of a priest, I belong to a growing number of Christians who do not have access to the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.  Our appreciation being heightened by our deprivation, we have come to realize the importance of physical rituals and tangible symbols in trying to make our communal prayer more eucharistic, i.e., more evocative of our participation in the life, death
and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Without the Eucharist any Christian community’s Sunday worship risks becoming all verbal, limiting its members’ engagement and detaching their spirituality from their embodied lives.  This is one reason why those rituals involving water, oil, incense,
et al., touch such a deep cord within us.  We need perceptible signs of our faith––calling us to greater participation in our community and its worship, drawing us
into communion with God and with others, and inspiring our common mission in
the world. 

As the Act of Thanksgiving above recounts, the Jewish and Christian traditions are rooted in the lived experience of God’s grace as it has been and continues to be mediated through created things.  This sacramentality isn’t solely a Roman Catholic preoccupation; many Protestant churches are reclaiming this hallmark of Christianity wherein the rubber of our incarnational spirituality meets the road of our lives.  Indeed, the Word itself becomes flesh through our actions––through the stories we tell, the love we share, and the justice we serve.  As the prologue of the first letter of John celebrates:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life––for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us–­–what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

This is the “liturgical theology” behind the communal prayer rituals which appear in this book.  Each uses a material object or symbolic action to help focus hearts and draw them into the fellowship of which John writes.


I begin with “The Liturgy of the Stones” because it so powerfully addresses the unique challenges that may face a given community.  Its use of stones illustrates how multivalent a symbol can be, as it unearths a rich vein of association and meaning.  Not only reminding us of countless instances of its use in our sacred texts, the right image can enable us to mine the bedrock of human experience that initially inspired its ritual use in the tradition.  (While effective symbols need no explanation, ties to our biblical heritage deepen their meaning.  If your community is unfamiliar with the stories that ground and enrich a ritual, addressing these themes in homilies, bible studies, bulletin announcements, and suggested reading lists can only deepen the experience.)

This liturgy also shows that words are integral to the rituals we perform.  The worship tradition of the Church exemplifies a powerful dimension of the people’s participation in public prayer:  their verbal participation and assent.  Our priests, deacons or lay presiders do not offer prayers on behalf of those in attendance.  They lead the people in their prayer––indeed, it is the prayer of the whole community of faith, in all places, past, present and to come, which we join with the prayer of Christ to the Source of all Being through the power of the Holy Spirit.  So, the assembly plays an integral part in the liturgy through its sung and spoken responses, adding their “yes” to what they see and hear and take within themselves. 

It is, therefore, important for those who take up the ministry of designing worship services to include parts for the people to play.  By articulating our hopes and fears, our dreams and frustrations, our joys and our woes, and joining that common voice to a common action, our communion with those who share this experience is both nurtured and realized. 


The other rituals and services in this volume utilize materials, movements and actions in an effort to promote on-going faith formation.  Because we often forget why we do what we do, many of our most familiar symbols have lost their meaning.  Putting a novel twist on images which have been used unreflectively for millennia can revitalize rituals which seem to no longer speak to us.  

My undergrad degree was in Synaesthetic Education, a multi-sensory approach to creative art education.  This philosophy encourages a collaboration between the art teacher and the other teachers in a school, believing that the key to effective learning is to present new information across a wide spectrum of experience.  So, too, with prayer––get the senses involved! 

This truly is the practice of the Roman Church, and why she discourages a minimalism in the celebration of the sacraments.  When we baptize, we immerse our brother or sister in enough water that it really speaks of dying and rising with Christ.  When we pray for the sick, we slather them with enough oil to soothe and invigorate, so that they can actually feel they’ve received a blessing.  When we eat the Body of Christ, it’s in a form that can really be chewed and swallowed so that he can truly be
a part of us.


Initially I thought about producing these rituals in a service booklet format that could simply be photocopied for use by presider and assembly.  Such a convenient format, however, might tempt planners to accept my words and use of imagery without putting in the extra prayer, reflection and effort that it takes to tailor these communal experiences to the pastoral needs of the community they serve. 

Using this collection as a primer for the pump of imagination greatly expands the adaptability of these liturgies.  While the “Liturgy of the Stones” articulates the faith and eternal hope of a particular community’s experience of marginalization, its imagery resonates with all those who suffer sacramental deprivation due to the dwindling number of priests in active ministry.  Those who are struggling with unrecognized calls to the ordained ministry can adapt its words to voice their own pain and affirm their resolve to use their gifts as a eucharistic offering for the Church and the world.

Regarding the collection of penance services, the fact that they faithfully follow the sacramental guidelines of the Roman Catholic Church should not preclude their use in an ecumenical or non-Roman setting.  “Sacramental reconciliation” is a theological concept and a pastoral reality for Roman Catholics.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation is presided over by an ordained priest or bishop, while the person of the Risen Christ actually forgives the penitent’s sins.  By changing terms that are theologically specific, these services can be adapted for use by anyone who takes personally Jesus’ commandment to love as he loved and his charge not to hold another bound.  Musical selections should voice our need for liberation.  The songs should draw on images depicting our journey out of darkness into God’s light, out of insensitivity into moral consciousness, out of slavery into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  Alternative Scripture texts should focus on these same themes as well.