In the lengthy run-up to the last presidential election my facebook homepage—once a location of happy reunions and delightful updates—seemed to morph into a very bad neighborhood. Unbidden rancor and ugly memes, spilling out of the political contest, crowded out baby pictures and niece-and-nephew-news and the amazing adulting adventures of my long-lost childhood classmates. I must have been unwittingly caught in the trawling nets of Cambridge Analytica & friends; you’ve heard the news stories. Unsocial social exchanges made me feel ill.
At length I went to my wonderful primary care doctor, who assured me that she understood, for many others had been coming in also feeling queasy for the same reasons. Drink lots of water, she prescribed, and go for at least three-mile walks, longer if possible, every day. As often as I follow them, her wise simple remedies help me regain equilibrium as I pivot to new ways to engage with family and friends and community.
With the relief of my good doctor’s prescriptions, I remembered another precious way to regain moral equilibrium: our ceremonies of courtesy. By which I mean: the liturgies that we share, week-by-week. Like a cup of cool clear water, they refresh us; like a brisk walk with a companion in the woods, they restore in us the solid sense of feet on the good earth. Deepening the body/mind ways of being grounded, liturgy heals the sin-sick world-weary spirit: Holy Eucharist is a ritual of healed and healing community without which we are hard-put to feel whole.
The view from the pew in those achy days was the ensemble of people—younger/older, female/male/, diversely gendered, wealthy or just-getting-by, in various occupations, from different backgrounds—all treating each other with deep respect. Each fresh Sunday morning when I went to my accustomed place, I just breathed in and out, and took it all in— a marvelous ceremony of holy courtesies.
Imagine the liturgy as a multi-faceted jewel; from whichever facet you view it, people are enacting right relationship. Every part— altar guild to acolytes, greeters to choristers, elders to the babies, encompassing all of us pew sitters—is an essential facet of the whole.
Consider: altar guild members in advance prepare the things necessary, discreetly leaving bright greens and colorful flowers to refresh the eyes. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. The ushers at the doors welcome everyone, giving each arrival the materials they need to fully participate in the whole thing. No strangers or outsiders here, all are welcome to join in worship, ministry, and fellowship.
The organist lays out the prelude like a red-carpet that softens any awkwardness of our entry, readying us to sing—no matter our choral chops—songs of thankfulness and praise. The procession of all the upfront ministers assembles at the back, recapitulating everybody’s gathering-in. The leaders process in harmonious good order, the principal leaders at the back. The first shall be last and the last shall be first… From the opening prayers, together we follow the Book of Common Prayer, the overarching scaffolding, so to speak, that houses our individual prayers and aspirations. In worship we are all equal.
Readers come forward from the congregation to proclaim the Word; the preacher proclaims the Gospel from the midst of the community, and then climbs the pulpit so that all can hear her reflections. In blithe ragtag procession, the children hurry in, their bright eyes searching row after row for their own adults, each sweet face an open parable of seeking. We all greet each other to recognize the image of God behind the glad or shy eyes of the other.
With genial dignity, ushers pass the plates, allowing us to enact generous gratitude. A little later, in the same spirit they summon us pew by pew to come forward to be fed, so no one needs to fret about when to move or where to go. When we go there, if we are able, we kneel, a personal enactment of humility and creaturely neediness. The words the eucharistic ministers say as they offer the chalice teach them the profound meanings of the cup poured out. The priest, offering holy bread to each one, is taught over and over to regard each communicant as they really are: The Body of Christ.
Ceremonies of courtesy can heal us deeply, teach us, call out the good will deep in our hearts. Enactments of ritual etiquette cultivate ethical wisdom in us and among us. Loving kindness grows deeper roots. The attitudes toward one another that we practice in liturgy can grow stronger in our hearts and then in our common lives. That is how, when we face the big choices that life will throw at us, we know by heart what to do, and when, and how to do it. As wholesome and as necessary as clear water and fresh air, courtesy is an essential antidote to the rancor that infects our public spaces.
Let us go forth into the world… and carry holy courtesy home, and to school, and to work; and yes, to our presence online; even to the public square. The world needs us to bring loving kindness, rejoicing in the power of the spirit.
Rev. Dr. Maureen