When quarantine began
seventeen years nine months ago, time suddenly became abstract. The passage of days, weeks, and months got muddy. I never knew what day of the week it was, and it never seemed to matter because we weren’t going anywhere or doing anything anyway. A few days ago, I was ordering prints of pictures from the past few months, and I was shocked by how small my kids were at the beginning of quarantine. We have pictures from the first weeks of quarantine, and there is frost on the ground. There is frost on the ground again as I write this. We are bundled up now and were bundled up then on our quarantine walks. I have cut and grown out COVID bangs twice already. We have gone through three whole seasons in isolation.
It simultaneously feels like life has been this way for at least a couple decades, and like it probably began last week. Time has a strange, dream-fog quality in which it seems to be flying by and frozen.
In this long season of upheaval and uncertainty, I have found myself longing for liturgy.
I grew up staunchly Baptist, in a church that was not at all liturgical. We celebrated Christmas and Easter. We waved palm branches on Palm Sunday. Once, a Sunday School teacher made my fellow 5th graders and I Advent wreaths out of old lumber that smelled strongly of manure and gasoline. When I brought it home and placed it gingerly on the dining room table, my mom promptly moved it to the garage to “air out,” and that was the extent of our Advent celebration. I didn’t know that other Christians did things differently.
Worship was high on emotion, and that which was rote or routine was generally frowned upon as being inauthentic and mechanical. I’ll be honest, I still often prefer this kind of worship. I get bored easily, and sometimes the old hymns feel . . . lifeless. But sometimes boredom is a beckoning, not banality. Boredom calls us to notice things in the quiet, in the routine, that may have otherwise gone unseen.
These days, my emotions are not a reliable source. They are up and down and back and forth and all over the place, telling me stories and lies and leading me down all sorts of rabbit holes. I don’t need emotional authenticity—I need something solid. I need a touchstone to ground me. I don’t need high-energy, emotional worship; I need liturgy.
About a month into quarantine, I bought Padraig O’Tuama’s Daily Prayer. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. A scant little thing, not quite a hundred pages, it is poetry and prayer, simple and repetitive. I flew through it, devouring in minutes prayers intended to last a month. Then I read it again. And again.
Next I bought Common Prayer (this one), and attempted (not entirely successfully) to introduce a measure of routine into my life. At first, due to those pesky Baptist roots, I was surprised and a little frustrated at just how repetitive the daily readings were; then I realized that this was the whole point. As Lauren Winner more eloquently put it:
“ . . . liturgy is dull, and habitual, and rote, and you memorize it, and don’t think about what you are saying, and it is, regardless, the most important thing on the planet. It is the place you start, and the place you come back to . . . the understanding that you were saying more or less the same liturgy as Anglicans around the world, that you would say the same prayers every morning, every evening, over and over and over, till you knew them by heart, and long after that, till they were rote and boring, comfortable as your best friend’s kitchen and familiar as flapjacks.”
That which is familiar can be boring, but it is also home. And, like a teenager longing for freedom who turns 20 or 30 or 40 and suddenly wants nothing more than to crawl back to familiar haunts from childhood, I have found myself—the girl who once scoffed at hymnals and mocked Catholics for their excessive recitations—craving this kind of routine.
Most recently, I bought the old school Book of Common Prayer, and she is a bear. I will be honest, I have absolutely no idea how to read this thing. I do not speak this language. I don’t know the codes and references, and can barely figure out what page I am supposed to be on.
And yet: I find comfort in the pages, rest in the texts that I know have been read and recited by generations before me who have endured worse times than this. I remember, in this season of Advent, that Jesus was born into a time of political turmoil. He was no stranger to a violent world. His world was one of disease and inequity. He witnessed great injustice and was angered by it. He saw hypocrisy in holy places. He flipped tables and broke bread with the poor; rebuked the self righteous and demonstrated extravagant, exorbitant grace.
I find this reminder of Jesus in texts I once found tedious, between the worn lines of prayers that have been recited for centuries.
Liturgy is breath: repetitive, compulsory, life sustaining. If I don’t pay attention, sure, my mind wanders, but breath still gives life even when the breather is thinking of other things. Liturgy is, in this way, like mindful meditation—a refocusing on the essential; a grounding; a centering. Liturgy is homemade dinner on a cold winter night; it is fueling up before the fight. Liturgy is practicing foul shots for hours in the driveway, no game in sight; it is long, slow conditioning before track season begins; it is muscle memory.
This year, I have an advent wreath that does not smell like a barn or pose a fire hazard. In a world that feels increasingly dark, I light the candles and smell the smoke and watch the wax melt and drip down the side. I pray for hope and love and joy and peace, whose absence in 2020 feels tangible. In a season that is typically filled with activity and events meant to feel festive, but which inevitably drain and depress me, I am leaning into my Norwegian roots and making batch after batch of pepper cookies and lefse to nibble on cold nights.
I am slowing down and paying attention.
I am slogging my way through the Book of Common Prayer, confident that, if I persist for the next decade or so, I will eventually figure out how to read the thing. I repeat, again and again, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Amen.”