Most of what little I know about the Christian religion – about what Christianity means – I did not learn in books. Oh, I’ve read some books, but not so many, really. And most of the books I have read about religion have appealed to me in the first place because it seemed that they might explain something to me that I had already encountered in the liturgy. It is liturgy that has taught me the most.
I always carry a pen into church, attached to my surplice, because I know for a virtual certainty that at some point in every service some word or phrase will leap out at me from a hymn or prayer or verse of scripture that I have rehearsed a thousand times without noticing, and absolutely knock me down with some new insight or question, some reproof or solace. Then I shall want to scribble a hasty note about it in the margin of the day’s bulletin to be sure I don’t forget it. This often catches me quite by surprise. It’s like walking down the familiar halls of a house where I have always lived, when without warning one of the floorboards will leap up and smack me. It is not unusual for the impact to bring tears to my eyes (for this reason, I always carry three or four paper towels into church, folded up at the back of my hymnal, just one page ahead of the motet). At such moments, the floorboards reveal themselves as hatches, opening onto fathomless abyssal depths, immense, warm and bright. They hit me as they open.
The effect is intensified when I am reciting prayers or psalms. This intensity is doubled when I am singing or chanting. It is strongest of all when I am reading scripture aloud. It is a good thing I am not a priest, because I could then never make it through a single service without stopping to choke up a little bit at some point. That would be embarrassing for everyone, and tiresome after a while, too.
The liturgy keeps pushing me further and further. I have concluded that its power to teach is limitless. It never lets me rest in such comprehension as I have so far achieved, or rather, allowed. It keeps asking me to give up more and more of what I had thought I knew, in order to open up room for more than I thought I could know.
All the stones of the house of God are scandalous. If I have not yet tripped over some of them, and so completed my comeuppance, that is only because I have not yet come near enough to them. If I keep at it, keep exploring the Temple, why sooner or later every single one of them will reach out at least once and thwack me, and knock me down. What good teachers they are, to be sure!