The Habit of Liturgy
~ by Emily Brigham ~
Before teaching for Scholé, I previously taught at another school, and one of my favorite traditions was the “morning circle.” My first grade class and I began our days circled around, going through a repertoire of poems, verses, and songs. This very enthusiastic choir sang out to “Shenandoah,” “Keep On the Sunny Side,” and almost the entire “Sound of Music” soundtrack while I played my guitar. We went from song to poetry—Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and many others. The last item in our circle was our morning verse.
Even now, I treasure those memories of my first grade morning circle. However, from the very beginning, I yearned to bring a depth to the circle that I could not. I wanted that morning circle to be not just a “nice” time, not merely a “helpful routine,” but a way to start the day by offering up our whole beings to God, asking for His mercy and His goodness to be upon us. I wanted to sing “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and to recite creeds and prayers. I wanted more than a routine; I wanted a liturgy—a spiritual and sacred habit—upon which to rest our minds for the day before us.
That has been one of the great joys I have found at Scholé. Though I can’t gather my students in a physical circle, I begin each of my classes with a liturgy that fills my own soul each and every day. But why liturgy in the classroom? The case has been made for liturgy in the sanctuary as a place of worship, but why a place of learning? Why a place of mathematics and grammar and writing and literature?
In his book You are What You Love, James K.A. Smith writes, “It is crucial for us to recognize that our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are learned.” And again he says, “Because if you are what you love and if love is a virtue, then love is a habit.” Those things that make us who we are—the things we love, long for, desire—don’t happen by chance or by accident. They happen by practice.
Perhaps the greatest mistake we make with children is the thought that “the good will rub off on them.” Put them in the right school, the right activities, the right youth groups and all the good influences will become part of them.
I don’t think it works like that.
Everywhere around us—adults and children alike—are what Smith calls “rival liturgies.” Some liturgies are spiritually void, such as the ones I experienced at the other school. Others are actively against the true worship our souls crave. Yet all rival liturgies are easy to adopt, and they exist—flourish—even in the “right” places. So rather than focus on finding just the right influences, perhaps we should focus on creating a way of life wherein the right longings and the right desires are nurtured. And the only to do that is by creating habits.
When we participate in a liturgy, we are creating these habits. We are creating for ourselves modes of operation, pathways of thought, and postures of the heart by which we carry out our days. What we must realize is that liturgies are happening whether or not we sanction them; they are becoming ingrained in us whether or not we intended that. And so we must take an active approach. We must actively form liturgies for ourselves and for our children and for our students where we learn the best of loves and longings and desires.
We must remember, though, what exactly is the goal of liturgy; for it is not just to make “better people” or “better students.” Dietrich von Hildebrand expresses it this way:
Thus the deepest and most organic transformation of man in the spirit of Christ is found precisely at that point where we purely respond to values, in the giving up of ourselves to God’s glory, in the glorifying of God performed as divine service, in the abiding Coram ipso (in standing before Him), in the rejoicing of God’s existence, in the Gloria Domini (the glory of the Lord), and in the magnalia Dei (the great deeds of the Lord). As we pray and sacrifice liturgically — and this means through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ—glorifying God, we “put on Christ (induere Christum).”
Our goal in every liturgy is “to put on Christ”— to thank Him for who He is, to confess who we are not, and to beseech Him for more of Himself. We participate in this life of Christ to which He has called us, and by so doing, conform who we are—and what we love—to who He is.
But what does this look like in a classroom, and specifically, in a virtual classroom? In my “classroom,” as students enter, I display a piece of artwork along with guiding questions, poems, or quotes that harmonize with our focus of the week. As they are contemplating this, I have classical or sacred music playing (some of my favorites have been Rutter’s “Open Thou My Eyes”, Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” Tallis’ “If Ye Love Me,” and Morricone’s “Gabriel’s Oboe”). This prelude lasts for about three minutes, and then we open with prayer and Scripture reading, each corresponding to the season of the church year. Finally, I sing the Trisagion before we begin class.
Sometimes I wonder if this takes too much of my class time. Other times I wonder if I should be doing more. Often I wonder if this makes any difference in the lives of these middle schoolers.
But then I think how “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy, immortal One, have mercy on us” will be stuck in their heads as they’re playing outside and they’ll thank God for His mercy; I’ll imagine how “preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties” will enter their minds when doubt comes their way, and it will direct their thoughts; I’ll think of how they’ll remember the stillness that comes with the first notes of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli Kyrie, and they’ll be quieted.
These habits, these stuck-in-your-head moments, far from being trivial, ultimately make up what we practice, and what we practice makes up what we love, and what we love makes us who we are. Liturgical learning should be more than a pedagogical strategy; it should be a habit which nurtures students into putting on Christ and abiding before Him.
Emily Brigham holds a BA in Primary Education from the University of North Florida. She was homeschooled through high school in the classical tradition, and previously taught the elementary grades in a Waldorf-inspired public charter school. Her classical upbringing instilled in her what Plato called an “affinity for the good” in academics, art, and virtue, while her Waldorf training inspired an appreciation of the unique nature of the child. She now seeks to cultivate those whole-child pedagogical approaches in the classical, liturgical tradition, to awaken in her own students that “”affinity for the good.””
Emily lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Her avocations include bringing classical, sacred, and old-time music to churches, front porches, and street corners, and coaxing as many flowers as possible into her garden. These, and a trip to the mountains, are where she loves to find the glimpses of God’s goodness in these sacred ordinary days. [email protected]