A Primer for Presiders: Your Body in Worship
By Amy C. Schifrin
I. A Body’s Language
I once saw a man with his right hand raised, a woman's high-heeled shoe in it, and with his left hand was holding the woman by her throat. I was a passenger in a van full of college students from North Dakota State University and that day we were somewhere south of Waco, headed to sunny Mexico for a ten day mission trip. The man and the terrified woman were off the main highway on a dusty frontage road. I screamed to the driver to stop, that the woman needed help, but he didn't hear me over the music and the happy spring-break chatter, and no one else seemed to notice. The man was obviously shouting at this woman, although as we sped along I could not hear his words. I didn't need to in order to know his intent, because his posture, his gesture, his tense and contorted face told me everything I needed to know, everything that was important. When I finally got our driver's attention we were a dozen miles away, and in that era before cell phones, by the time we reached the next exit to call the police the deed would have long been done.
Even before a word is on our lips you know it altogether Lord.1 Even when no one can hear our words, our bodies convey the content of our hearts. Gestures convey meanings. When gestures are repetitive, when gestures are emotionally charged, when gestures are congruent with intent, when gestures are understood by a cultural (or multi-cultural) context, they give all who see them a window of full-disclosure.
Have you ever seen two people having an argument in a car? The windows may be rolled up so that you cannot decipher their particular words, but not only do their hands and facial expression tell you it's an argument, their tone of voice comes through even without your ability to hear the specific words. You might hear some long vowel sounds or you might not, but what you can hear is the rate of speech, the punctuation of their staccatos, the rise and fall of pitch that flows from intense and expressive verbal release. And then, more often than not, what you start to feel is their angry blood pulsing in your veins.
Our bodies communicate to others the meaning of our words. Our bodies tell what we feel (or don't feel) about what we're saying.
Our bodies (and that includes the tonal quality of our voices) communicate to others the meaning of our words. Our bodies tell what we feel (or don't feel) about what we're saying. Our bodies betray any and all incongruences, because unlike flat text on page, we are multidimensional beings who often communicate far more than we are aware of. As pastors and theologians we spend a great deal of time learning the importance of precision and accuracy in words for communicating truth, but our whole bodies were made to tell the truth of God.2 God made these human bodies in his image and likeness, and when used for his purposes they are among the greatest tools for conveying his incarnational love to all humankind. When spoken word, tone of voice, and body posture all work together there is a far greater chance that those who assemble to receive life from his Word will go out into the world ready to love.
While postures and gestures have widely accepted cultural meanings (a discussion to which we return in Part III), inside every outward expression we make we are breathing at a particular rate and depth, and blood is pumping through our bodies. Breath and pulse are present in every sound, in every movement, and even in every pregnant silence. Whether our hands are lifted high in ecstatic praise or our open palms are at our sides in the quiet of centering prayer, we could do nothing without breath and pulse. And God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.3 Ask any EMT, breath and pulse are the most basic signs of life, and just as there is no life without them, there is no movement without them either. Whether we are standing still in the mid-day sun or dreaming at 2 a.m. they are happening in us until these bodies come to an end. Even when we appear to be still this movement of heart and lungs continues, and it is from this that our bodies are energized to stretch and walk, to embrace and caress, to strike and spit. Kneeling in confession or hands held in a holy suspension at the epiclesis, our breath and movement is by the design of our Creator.
II. A Body’s Work
Breathe: To speak of the use of the body in worship, the place to start is with your breath. So lie down on the floor and put a heavy book across your abdomen, and breathe. Your shoulders do not need to move, but watch your belly rise and fall. The air fills your lungs, your diaphragm moves. Once you see the movement of your breath as the book rises and falls, take it off your belly and put your hands there so you can feel the change as you inhale (expand) and exhale (contract). Now stand up and breathe and see what happens. (If your start moving your shoulders up and down with every breath, lie down and try it again.) Without such diaphragmatic breathing, your tone of voice will be diminished; your ability to speak or sing a complete phrase will be interrupted. Without being able to have a measure of control of your breathing, your ability to read texts in the assembly will be interpretively diminished, for when you have to stop to take a breath before St. Paul finishes his thought, his intent as well as yours may not come to fruition for the hearer. Without a fullness of breath, your heart will also be beating faster, and your rate of speech easily conveying your body’s physical anxiety.
Walk: Sometimes we joke about the difficulties we all have in walking and talking at the same time, but walking is the next thing to practice. Put the book on your head now and walk. If your shoulders are dipping forward the book will fall, and if your shoulders are stooped or hunched you will also not be able to breathe fully and your capacity for speech and song will be diminished. Keep your eyes ahead and your shoulders away from you ears. (If you cannot get the book to stay on your head, find some direction for strengthening your core muscles. Your whole body will benefit from such an endeavor.) Try this fully upright walk at a variety of tempos, pay attention to how your body will shift or tense with an increase in pace. Then try this walk with a hymnal or presider’s manual in front of you. How will you place your shoulders and your eyes to stay in balance and to keep your lungs open?
The tempo of your processional walk, your gait, your hesitation or your humble confidence will invite or halt the assembly’s entrance into the liturgy. As we walk in dignity there is a breath empowering us that is greater than our own, for while sound is auditory breath, movement is kinesthetic breath, and both are equally holy.
Gesture: I’m not asking you to soar like an eagle, but wing span is your next discovery. Stretch your arms from side to side, and then from top to bottom. When you are standing in one place those are your outer-limits for gesturing, but I suggest that you rarely go that far. Within that envisioned space in front of you imagine a smaller box. If you were conducting an orchestra fortissimo would be at the limits of the box and pianissimo would be as close as you can get to your upper torso. As a presider you are also a conductor, for through your repetitive and regulated gestures you both express the liturgy before you and you cue the assembly’s response. Many of your hand/arm gestures will be symmetrical, opening your folded hands in a circular movement to a place of momentary rest about shoulder width apart, and then you return the circle inward, bring the assembly’s attention with you. Pay attention to the pace and fluidity of your movements. (Pay attention to the details, the subsidiary movements, until you are as unaware of them as you are of your breath when we’re sleeping.) As you practice, let them match a peaceful breath rather than an agitated one. As you are chanting or speaking while you gesture, such thoughtfulness of your movements will help set an appropriate tempo for your words until you have practiced and presided enough times that this knowledge becomes tacit., i.e., you know it in your bones. (And this thoughtfulness includes the reminder that the extension of an arm does not begin with your elbow or shoulder, but with the engagement of your core and the placement of your feet.)
The design of our movements is to be as thoughtful and devout as the design of our naves and chancels.
From the wide expanse of the Apostolic Greeting to the extension heavenward at the Great Doxology there is an architecture of movement in your presider’s box. With subtlety and reverence your body can tell the assembly where to focus, and who it is that dwells at the center of the Eucharistic gathering, for the breadth of the presider’s embrace at the Apostolic Greeting is bodily, gesturally, the beginning of the elevation that culminates the Eucharistic Prayer. One gesture sets the stage for the next until the assembly cannot turn its eyes from the One who is present — his body, his blood. The design of our movements is to be as thoughtful and devout as the design of our naves and chancels, for just as the space within which we move is the frame for our actions, so our actions work in concert with our entire liturgical environment.4
Position: To stand or to kneel, that is the question. Such positions are usually rubrically proscribed, but since getting from one position to another should not be the primary focus, movement to and from our knees or to our seat needs to be kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, our bodies are also capable of distracting the assembly from its calling. Just as extraneous words (i.e., a liturgist who acts as an MC and makes side-bar comments or extraneous directions while presiding), so one who moves about constantly arranging and rearranging their positions takes all the assembly’s focus into themselves.
In a world where self-esteem has become the byword for self-aggrandizement, kneeling is a lost art. If your core muscles are not in shape, kneeling may more painful for your back than it is for our knees, yet its practice is vital for a fuller range of expression for our life of faith because kneeling creates a subordinated worshipper far more than most any other liturgical practice. Kneeling is a cross-cultural gesture of submission by which you can teach the children of God that he is, indeed, Ruler over all. Our lives in faith will continually be formed and re-formed through such postures of our prayers.
Try this experiment: Stand tall, arms in orans, and in full voice sing the Doxology. Now get down on your knees, hands in a position of supplication, and quietly sing it again. Are you experiencing a new layer of meaning in the thickness of the text? Can you give praise to God when you are not in control, when everything isn’t going well? What a congregation learns on its knees will shape their relationship with God in the days of their suffering, in the nights of their penitence, in all the times when his power is made perfect in weakness.
Facial Expression: Have you ever seen a young wife waiting at a crowded airport for her husband to return home from war? She scans the crowd, and she scans it again. She paces back and forth. She looks here and there, and then…and then suddenly you see her transformed by a joy which she cannot contain, for there he comes surrounded by his surviving comrades. Their smiles are bigger than both of them, for they are as wide as the heavens. You, who don’t know either of them, find tears of glory and redemption in your own eyes.
When you preside at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb does your whole face and especially your eyes reflect such joy?
When you preside at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb does your whole face and especially your eyes reflect such joy? If your face, and voice, and hands go about serving this Holy Meal with a depressive flat-affect, as if nothing important were happening, that’s just what you will communicate. But if you are so swept into Christ’s life that you understand that there is nothing more important in the world happening than what is happening in that moment, you will become utterly transparent, and people will not be looking at you, but at the One who sent you.
Vocal Inflection: I’ve never heard a woman say, “You know, I fell in love with him because he sounded angry all the time.” Nor have I heard any man express a similar sentiment. Raw-edged and gritty, tinged with sarcasm or distain, words clipped as with a hatchet, even the most wonderful words in the world (I love you) can be spoken in a way intended to slice another’s heart open. Communications studies tell us that 55% of oral communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7%, like icing on a cake, are the words themselves.5 If you have poor acoustics or a bad sound system, your congregation might hear the love of God as an angry tirade because when you’re shouting the liturgy you cannot modulate the timbre of our voice. When you lose the ability to express the words congruently with your body, it’s just as detrimental to the liturgy as when you move in a wooden robotic manner. It’s also damaging to speak with the inflection of a kindergarten teacher, turning life and death passages into a sing-song story. Such saccharine sweetness in delivery will destroy the theological intent of any liturgical or biblical text. Think of Elijah under the broom tree:6 Did the angel sound like the mother of a sleepy seven year old when he didn’t want to go to school, “Get up and eat, dear, or you’ll miss the bus,” or did the angel, that warrior against all that is evil sound more like a Marine Drill Sargent trying to save the life of a recalcitrant recruit, “GET UP NOW before I…”
The pace of speech, the use of commas, the pauses of silence, the question mark all bring richness to the words that come from our lips.
A monotone will destroy a homily. In the same way, it will stop an assembly from leaning in to the breath of the Spirit as you en-voice the collect. The pace of speech, the use of commas, the pauses of silence, the question mark all bring richness to the words that come from our lips. When we make music through singing, we can tell that some pitches are higher or lower than others. Human speech also contains modulations of frequency, but its distinctions are shaded by smaller gradations in pitch. Yet, it is through these subtleties that the oral word communicates what written text alone cannot, for those inflections indicate life.7 Those inflections become part of the means by which the power written into the textual word is released in the assembly’s hearing.
III. A Body’s Worship
When I was a college student I learned the popular educational saying, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”8 I believe that a body is a terrible thing to waste as well. From Rome to Greece, to Western Europe, the culturally accepted patterns of movement that were associated with senatorial and then courtly reverence became the currency for gesture and expression in the church. Something happened between the ecstatic dance of Miriam at the Red Sea and David’s dance before the Lord, to the prescribed and restricted movements, and long periods of immobility in prayer during the Middle Ages. The restraint of gestures that once belonged to the elite became synonymous with the Western Church’s liturgical practices. In the dualistic separation of body and spirit in which the “fallen” body was a deadly place of sin, movement and gesticulation were suspect and in need of control. Novices in monastic communities learned common gestures which were integral to their communication with one another as well as to their life of prayer. This common culture of modest expressions has continued to shape the wider church, but more expansive expressions of the body, as far back as the 1212 Century (particularly from medicine and art), have helped bring the church beyond a rigid dualism.9
A commonality of gestural patterns helps the assembly to understand and experience God’s presence in liturgical action. Unfortunately, when little emphasis has been placed on any particular community, and seminarians are left to learn liturgical practices from random clergy — who themselves have had little training — what occurs is truly a mismanagement of the gift of a body. When presiders only focus on the right words and pays no attention to their physical actions, their haphazard presidential styles convey that the body is unimportant, and even meaningless. And certainly, it is not understood to be an instrument of worship. A body is a terrible thing to waste.
To learn a repertoire of consistent actions is essential for meaningful liturgical communication.
To learn a repertoire of consistent actions is essential for meaningful liturgical communication. It is also one more way we come to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,10 for as our actions are expressive of God’s mercy and kindness, those who simultaneously see and hear may come to know their own bodies as capable of expressing his gracious love. People are captivated by beauty and strength. We watch myriad athletes use their bodies in ways that some of us can only dream of. Then we see little children in the school yards and the gyms imitating these same moves. Whether we are die-hard sports fans or not, when we see such grace in action we cannot take our eyes off that athlete’s body. No matter what gifts a particular athlete is born with, without practice, they would never get to play, and without play, we would never be drawn into the heart of the sport, what the sport really is. In their play we see who we can become. By their play we are moved to practice the game until it becomes our own. We experience the beauty of our own bodies when the ball we’ve thrown reaches its targeted destination. We change from spectator to participant when, after much practice, we’re the ones moving on the field, and in that moment nothing else in the world matters. We know something about the sport through the repetitive actions of practice that we could not know from only watching others or from reading the rule book.
Presiding at the Eucharistic liturgy is this type of play at its best, for in play there is no end beyond the play itself.11 It is done for the sheer joy of it. You raise your hands in gracious love so that the people of God can’t keep their eyes from being drawn to his heart. You raise your heart (shoulders back, lungs filled with breath, eyes bright) so that the people of God can’t help but live their lives in Great Thanksgiving. For when the joy of that moment becomes the pattern for their lives, then their bodies together become the living sacrifice of praise, then truly, all earth will be singing his song.12
“In the [sacredness of liturgy/liturgical prayer], even bodiliness is summoned to praise…Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is considered in all its value in the liturgical act, where by the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Spirit and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation.” Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen (1995).
The scale of a presider’s gestures will differ if the nave seats one hundred or one thousand. It was Winston Churchill who once said, “We make our buildings and then our buildings make us.” Our ritualized actions need to find a congruent home in the space in which we dwell, and we need to be ready to adapt our conductor’s box accordingly. Compare it to playing basketball on a half-court or full court. Your body has to move in some different ways depending upon the size of your playing court.
Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1971), 43-44, in Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theatre (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 57.
A hunter can see a dead animal, but hearing the buffalo’s thunder tells him there is life. Sound carried this “dynamic.” As in Ezekiel 37, “I heard a rattling,” sound indicates life. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1982), 32, 101-102.
First attributed to Malcolm X, this saying became the slogan of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in 1972.
Elochukwu E. Uzukwu, Worship as Body Language: Introduction to Christian worship: An African Orientation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997), 6-10.
Romano Guardini, The Church and The Catholic and the Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane (New York: Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1935), 179.
“The performance of ritual, therefore, teaches one not only how to conduct the ritual itself, but how to conduct oneself outside the ritual space — in the world epitomized by or founded or renewed in and through the ritual itself.” Theodore W. Jennings, “On Ritual Knowledge,” Journal of Religion 62, no.2 (1982): 118-119.