body, book, liturgy

Frank Answers About the Use of Embodied Liturgy

Tell us about liturgical gestures. 
I grew up in the ALC, where all liturgical gestures were seen as “Catholic.”  Maybe the pastor did them, but the laity certainly did not!
They seem very bodily, incarnational.  And their intentionality requires us to be present and engaged.
What are the “basic” liturgical gestures?  Where do we observe them in the Communion liturgy and in Daily Prayer?

Life is full of gestures and movement. It’s how we communicate and explore the world in which we live. Gestures and movement are necessarily body language. They are physical motions and indications that the body is alive. They are socially determined because gestures signify group identity, Identifying gestures are seen in every group from street gangs to liturgical assemblies. Every liturgical tradition makes use of gestures. That includes not only Catholics but Protestants, and Orthodox and Pentecostals, and Jews and Muslims, and Hindus and Buddhists. Some gestures may be perceived as Catholic, notably the sign of the cross. But Luther’s Catechism instructs its users to also make the sign of the cross. Protestants also have gestures. New members are welcomed, for example, with “the right hand of fellowship.”

Your questions ask for information that is easily found in chapter 12 of my book Embodied Liturgy. That chapter provides a basis for liturgical actions and gestures in performance theory, shows the kind of embodiment associated with  different liturgical traditions with different styles, addresses the need especially of worship leaders to have healthy and fit bodies (I practice and recommend yoga), discusses incarnational spirituality, and gives a detailed description of the use of the body in the Service of Holy Communion (also called the Mass, Divine Liturgy, Eucharist).  I recommend getting the book and using it for adult education forums where issues that might be new or controversial to some can be discussed rather than imposed.

My book marks a “return to the body” in thinking about Christian liturgy and sacramental practice. Rooted in phenomenology and incarnational theology, the book gives primary focus to the body as it considers the prayer offices and the liturgical calendar, sacrifices and sacraments, initiation and vestments, ritual theory and play, word and meal, fasting and feasting, penance and celebration, rites of passage, cultural perspectives, and the role of art, music, dance, and drama in worship. I invite readers to return to the experience of their own body through guided yogic exercises.

As a text for students and liturgical practitioners, this book gives a fresh look at the experiences and practices of worship as bodily acts. We have nothing else with which to worship God than our bodies. The more our bodies are engaged in liturgy through movement, postures, and the senses, the more our minds will also be engaged in worship.

Contemporary worship service

1. Bodies and Liturgy
2. Earthly Bodies, Earthly Means
3. Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies
4. Ritual and Play
5. Sacrifices and Meals
6. Penitential Bodies, Celebrating Bodies
7. Young Bodies, Healthy Bodies
8. Sexual Bodies, Dead Bodies
9. Cultural Bodies, Artistic Bodies
10. Breathing Bodies, Singing Bodies
11. Bodies in Motion
12. Performing Bodies
Index of Names
Index of Topics

Orthodox worshiper prostrates before the crucifix during Great Lent

Uses of Embodied Liturgy in Academic Courses and Parish Setting

I provided suggestions for the use of the book in academic liturgy courses and in parish adult education that were posted on Fortress Press’ web page for the book. But those suggestions are buried away there. So I provide them here where they might be more accessible, at least to my readers.

For use in academic courses

This book originated as a course taught at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia. The students were church music majors in the faculty of performing arts. Some were already involved in church music programs in congregations. Pastors were also invited to attend the course. The ratio of students to pastors was about even throughout the two weeks of this intensive course. It is unlikely that this unique context could be replicated elsewhere. But I see the book having several potential uses in seminary and undergraduate situations.

It could be used as supplemental reading in a general course on Christian worship to remind students that liturgy is an embodied activity. It could be used as the main textbook in a course that focuses on the body in worship with supplemental reading drawn from the Bibliography.

The book incorporates yoga material. It would be possible to ignore this material other than as a side interest. However, it would be far more interesting to bring a yoga teacher into the classroom to lead students (and the teacher) through some or all of the sequences and suggested meditations. This would have the advantage of engaging students with their bodies as they think about the uses of their bodies in worship. This was the purpose of these exercises in the course I taught.

Leading a yoga sequence in the Embodied Liturgy course at Satya Wacana Christian University, Salatiga, Central Java, 2014

For Use in Parish Discussions Groups

The book in whole or in part could serve as the basis for discussion of parish liturgical practices and personal worship habits. Maximally there are 24 different topics in 12 chapters in the book. For a six-week parish course I would divide the chapters as follows:
First session. Chapter 1
Second Session. Chapters 2, 5
Third Session. Chapters 3, 4, 6
Fourth Session. Chapters 7, 8
Fifth Session. Chapters 9, 10, 11
Sixth Session. Chapter 12

I do not envision cramming these discussions into a 45-minute Sunday adult forum. The chapters are full of information and raise issues that will require longer times for discussion.

I have used material from this book in a day-long parish retreat in which I was a guest presenter. The retreat began with Morning Prayer, included a Noon Office, and ended with Vespers, led by the pastor. The material from the book used in the retreat included Chapters 1A (phenomenology of the body with its sensorimotor perception) and 2A (the experience of morning and evening and the daily prayer offices) in the morning (with a break) and Chapter 12 in the afternoon (with a break between parts A and B). I also did the yoga sequences with those retreatants who were willing and able to participate. Again, a yoga teacher could be brought in for the morning session. The response to the retreat was very positive.

Indigenous Javanese worship service using Javanese music

Discussion Questions for Each Part of Each Chapter

1A Discussion is built into Chapter 1A. Overall question: How do you experience worship in and with your body?
1B How do you experience the Trinity in the liturgy of your church?
2A How do you experience the times of day and seasons of the year in your body? How does this match with the liturgical orders of the church?
2B How do you experience the earthly signs of the sacraments (water, oil, bread, wine) in everyday life? How does that experience relate to the reception of these earthly signs in the sacramental celebrations?
3A How do you respond to the biblical and liturgical witness of nakedness before the Lord? Is nakedness a symbol that is worth recovering in our modern Western churches, for example, in Baptism?
3B In what ways do you experience the importance of getting dressed up in our society? Should this also apply to participation in public worship?
4A What rituals do you experience in everyday life or in special events? How does how the performance of these ordinary rituals shed light on how we do liturgy?
4B In what ways do you experience liturgy as a playful activity?
5A What special events do we celebrate with meals? Can we still see the meal as the form of the Lord’s Supper?
5B Can we see the meal—the Lord’s Supper—as the reason for the Sunday assembly, to which we add words in the form of readings and songs?
6A What practices of fasting and feasting do you observe in everyday life? Do you observe special times of fasting? What are the main feasts in your lives?
6B In what ways do we still inflict corporal punishment for offences in our society? How can we express repentance and amendment of life through activities that engage us bodily?
7A In what ways are our youth impacted bodily in the process of growing up in our societyfrom infancy through adolescence? How are youth engaged bodily in the life of the church?
7B Share your own stories of the impact of illness and healing on your own body. Have you experienced the ministry of healing in anointing and the laying on of hands?
8A What is the ritual process of getting married in our society? How are the bodies of the couple engaged in these rituals?8B How are the bodies of the deceased dealt with in our society? How do we honor the bodies of the deceased?
9A How does our culture impact the way we present our bodies and interact with others in society? How does that affect our behavior in church in worship and in interactions with others? 9B What kind of art do we display in our worship spaces? How should Christ be visually represented for liturgical purposes?
10A Can you connect the work of the Holy Spirit in your bodies with your breath? If so, how would you describe “Spirited” singing?
10B How wide should the spectrum of songs be in worship? What are the limitations in the selection of music for parish worship?
11A How could dance be used in worship in a way that involves the whole congregation? Why might dance be used and in what ways?
11B Is there a role for liturgical drama within our liturgies? How does the liturgy itself display dramatic elements?
12A In the light of the categories of liturgical performance and style in this chapter, how would you characterized the style of worship in your congregation? How are you engaged bodily in the worship you usually experience?
12B What impact do the physical limitations of the members have on worship and service in and through the church? What role do you think the church should play in promoting the bodily health and wellness of its members?

Note: physical fitness for the sake of Christian mission and ministry has been a notable aspect of Protestant spirituality in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the physical culture movement, the YMCA, muscular Christianity, and even the revitalization of the Hatha Yoga in India, and from there into the Western world. 

Bonus question: Has studying this book made a difference in how you will engage in worship?

I hope my book can be useful in the renewal of the liturgical life of the church.  I would be happy to learn of your experiences with it in the comments.

Pastor Frank Senn

Images used in this article are taken from the book.

Orthodox adult baptisms in Guatemala

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