This issue of Let’s Talk is a retrospective on the life and work of Joseph Sittler, “our Chicago theologian,” as one of our board members called him. I offer to the mix of articles this reflection on my own relationship with Joe and how he contributed to my vocational decision to become a liturgist long before he knew me.
I got to know Joe personally during my one term as assistant professor of liturgics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (1978-81). Joe was distinguished theologian-in-residence at LSTC, having retired from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His wife Jeanne was LSTC artist-in-residence. I worked with her on several musical projects as she set hymns and psalms for use in the LSTC chapel. As she became more infirm I stopped by the Sittler residence to pick up her manuscripts for duplication. Since Joe and I headed in the same direction down 57th Street on our way home, I often walked with him—helping him cross 55th Street, stopping at the 57th Street Market to pick up fruit (he knew where all the fruit bins were located and would point with his cane for me to pick some ripe ones), and parting company at his home.
He would have kept the Service Book and Hymnal (1958) a while longer while we employed people with an ear for the English language to edit the prayers. He had John Updike in mind for the job.
We didn’t discuss deep theology as we walked down 57th Street, but we talked about things that were of common interest: J. S. Bach, English poets, nature and ecology. I had lived with Bach almost every day for twelve years as a piano student. I had studied the metaphysical poets at Oxford University in 1968. I had a great love of nature and Joe and I were concerned about the pollution of our waterways. Joe also loved the language of liturgy, especially Thomas Cranmer’s incomparable English prose in The Book of Common Prayer. I am in proud possession of Sittler’s autographed copies of the
As it happened, in 1980 the LSTC faculty narrowly voted to recommend to the Board of Trustees that my contract not be renewed. It seems that I had the support of the emeritus faculty and those who were on sabbatical, but they didn’t have a vote. Sittler said to me sadly after the faculty vote, “They just don’t understand what you do.” When I met with a board committee in their effort to get to know me before they voted to accept the faculty recommendation, one of the questions I was asked was, “How did you become interested in liturgy?” The inflection in the man’s voice had the sense of, “How could anyone ever become interested in studying that?” As I now come to the point in my career in which I contemplate moving into retirement from parish ministry, I think about that question and realize that Joseph Sittler played a role in my vocational decision. What follows is that story.
So what on earth would prompt me to pursue a vocation in liturgy? Lots of kids attend liturgies and are bored by them. Why was I interested? It’s not enough to say that I had good experiences of liturgy as a youth. What made the experiences good for me, I believe now, was my experience of the markers that make for good liturgy. The marks of good liturgy include a positive experience of community (for me it was the urban neighborhood in which I grew up), historical rootedness (I loved the reenactments at Old Fort Niagara), compelling ritual (I loved all those flag and Indian ceremonies at Boy Scout summer camp), quality music (my daily Bach), elevated speech (I memorized long poems already in eighth grade), the use of bodily gestures and the all the senses (in participating publicly in Indian ceremonies at summer camp I developed a sense of my own bodily presence), and the use of natural materials (I was awestruck by gothic buildings). If one has a positive experience of these markers, and finds them in liturgy, one might be drawn to love liturgy. I could write about each marker, but here I focus only on my immersion in the natural world and its relationship to liturgy.
I was raised in a blue collar family in an urban industrial city, so Scouting gave me a chance to get out of Buffalo on troop campouts. Our troop had acquired the use of a wilderness area along the South Branch Cattaraugus Creek in Zoar Valley near Gowanda, an hour’s drive south of Buffalo. Also, through friendship with another Scouting family, our family was able to take summer vacations in the Fulton Chain Lakes area of the Adirondacks, staying in a trailer on their property or, for their son Tom and me, sleeping in a lean-to by the lake.
A memorable experience from my fifteenth year was spending a summer week in Zoar Valley with three other Scouts, one of whom was my best friend Gary. Our parents were willing to let us spend the week together in the cabin our troop had constructed, with various fathers driving down during the week to make sure we were OK. This was well before the era of cell phones, and the nearest farm house with a telephone was at least two miles away. The days were spent hiking up and down the deep gorge carved by the rapidly flowing stream.
One day we hiked farther upstream than before and came to an area where the whole torrent of the creek rushed through a water-smoothed rock chasm about five feet in width and emptied into a deep pool. Such a pool invited a swim on a warm summer day. Since there seemed to be no one else around, we shed our clothes and jumped in. It was the summer of 1958 and we were four fifteen-year old boys skinny dipping in the cold waters of a wilderness creek on some hot summer days and then laying alongside the creek to dry off on sun-warmed rock worn smooth by countless spring torrents just as nature’s God had created us. There was a water snake in our little Eden, but we didn’t converse with it and it went its way.
As I write about this memory, I wonder why the aspect of nakedness seemed so important. I think because it afforded a way to immerse myself sensuously in the natural world. With my skin I could feel the coolness of the water, the warmth of the sun, the smoothness of the rock, and perhaps even a sense of relationship with that snake who also encountered the world in his skin. This reflection comes to me after reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous.1 David Abram is an ecological philosopher whose writing is informed by his work with indigenous peoples in Asia and North America, as well as by the American nature-writing tradition that stems from Henry David Thoreau. His philosophical work is informed by the European tradition of phenomenology — in particular, by the work of the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who taught us that we don’t have a body, we are a body. The mind is part of the body and the body has its own memory.
There is a connection between the body and the landscape or space it inhabits…Ritual, including Christian worship, requires a sense of connectedness of persons to places, of bodies to spaces.
I remember this event vividly not only for the camaraderie, but also because of the impression the place made on me. There is a connection between the body and the landscape or space it inhabits. A sacredness accrued to this place not only because of its striking natural features but also because of our group experience of it. Ritual, including Christian worship, requires a sense of connectedness of persons to places, of bodies to spaces.
Another place that was sacred to me was the Adirondacks: six million acres of state park in northeastern New York State. Two-and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Unbroken miles of dense spruce, balsam fir, beech and hemlock. Forty-six granite peaks more than 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level. Thousands of streams, lakes, and ponds. In my teen years on our family vacations I climbed several peaks and canoed the lakes.
My love for nature probably contributed to choosing to attend Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY, located on the side of Oyaron Hill overlooking over the town. From the campus one could see twenty-seven miles up the Susquehanna Valley to Mt. Utsayantha in the Catskills. Hartwick has one of the most gorgeous views of any college campus in the United States. My roommate John Binder was from the Adirondacks. So was Gene Lane, a biology major, who became a buddy during my sophomore year.
When I think about the Adirondacks now, however, it is not just the landscape I remember, but also those with whom I enjoyed it—connecting places with persons. I had several end-of-the-spring term canoe trips before heading off to my summer jobs. I went there with Gene in 1963. He was a year older than me, a real outdoorsman, and, I assumed, more experienced with the opposite sex than me. I remember probing him about his experiences over the campfire at night. We paddled across Seventh Lake and set up camp in a lean-to on state land. Gene fished for trout and at night cooked the catch over a camp fire. I’m not a fisherman, so I paddled the canoe while Gene fished. I was pleased that Gene complimented me on my ability to handle the canoe because I didn’t often get compliments on my physical abilities. The weather that year was ideal, which wasn’t always the case. But in the late spring of 1963 Gene and I were two twenty-year olds alone on an Adirondack lake with a generous late spring sun beaming down on our shirtless torsos. At night we told our personal stories around the camp fire.
A popular writer on college campuses in the early 1960s was Loren Eiseley (1907-1977). He was an American anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer, whose book on evolution, The Immense Journey (1957), was being read by everyone on campuses. I particularly enjoyed The Firmament of Time (1960)2, which I think was the all-college book in 1962. This book consists of a series of lectures Eiseley gave in 1959 to honor the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The chapters explore our human relationship to historical time and the natural world, or rather our growing disconnectedness from both as we live in an increasingly artificial world alienated from nature and from one another.
Eiseley the fossil hunter was something of a mystic. He could float down the Platte River or ride a horse up a Colorado mountain immersed both in the time that had passed historically and the nature that was present. This way of reconnecting with historical time and the natural world is not accessible to everyone. But I was learning in those days another approach to reconnecting with time and nature that is accessible to everyone: the liturgy of the Church.
During my junior year (1963-64) I heard the then-young Yale Professor Jaroslav Pelikan speak at a pastors’ conference that I crashed in Albany on “Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle in Luther’s Reformation” (some of which was included in his book Obedient Rebel3). One of the points that interested me was Pelikan’s discussion of the cosmological setting of worship in Luther’s commentaries on Genesis and the Psalms. Even though as an Old Testament scholar Luther knew the dangers of too close a link between nature and biblical religion (e.g. fertility cults in the “high places”), he had an appreciation of the created world. In fact, sacramental liturgy requires the use of earthly elements.
Certainly liturgy embodies historical memory in its use of Scripture, old texts, and a calendar of festivals and commemorations. But Pelikan the historian also suggested that liturgy relates to the world of nature through its use of sacramental elements, architectural design, arts and crafts and cycles of days and nights and seasons. Perhaps this was an idea he had picked up from his former colleague at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Joseph Sittler, who had given attention to such connections.4
The next school year I received a copy of Sittler’s “Called to Unity” address to the 1961 New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches (portions of which I committed to memory) from Pastor Clyde McCormick at Northwestern University, whom I had met at Lutheran Student Association meetings. I was bowled over by the Christology of nature proposed by Sittler in this address. He noted that the scope of grace had retreated in the face of the scientific advances in the modern world. As a result, Sittler said, “Our vocabulary of praise has become personal, pastoral, too purely spiritual, static. We have not affirmed as inherent in Christ—God’s proper man for man’s proper selfhood and society—the world political, the world economical, the world aesthetic, and all other commanded orderings of actuality that flow from the ancient summons to tend this garden of the Lord. When atoms are disposable to the ultimate hurt the very atoms must be reclaimed for God and his will.”5 Wow!
Sittler went on to suggest that a depleted cosmology also depletes our vocabulary of praise.
Sittler went on to suggest that a depleted cosmology also depletes our vocabulary of praise. This is the vocabulary that orthodoxy (orthodoxia means “the right praise” of God) depends on. Since the Age of Enlightenment the Churches had given in to the scientific world view, while claiming to glorify God as the Creator of the world. A little bit of faith retreated with each scientific discovery, like the tide Matthew Arnold saw receding from Dover Beach, so that by the twentieth century the Church was left only with the personal dimension of faith. Piety focused on my personal relationship with Jesus rather than on Christ as Lord of all. The only way to expand our vocabulary of praise is to expand our cosmology. Drawing upon the cosmic Christology of the Letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, and pointing to the example of Eastern Orthodox liturgy, Sittler also turned to poets, artists, composers, and architects because insights into human participation in the natural world were coming from them, not from theologians. Only through poets, artists, composers, and architects was Western theology catching up with Eastern Christianity’s celebration of the material creation as a sacrament of the divine presence.
Through Sittler’s address I was coming to see liturgy as the church’s proper vehicle for mediating between faith and culture, grace and nature.6 That address helped to bring me to the realization that I wanted to study liturgy more deeply and become, in the academic sense, a liturgist. It helped that I had had interesting experiences of actual liturgies (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Russian Orthodox), but Joseph Sittler was an unseen mentor who helped me discern my vocation long before I knew him personally. He was also a wise older friend who provided comfort when it seemed that my calling as an academic liturgist was crashing on take-off. When I was preparing to leave academic life, Joe consoled me with the thought that the theological seminary may be too confining a space for liturgy. Thirty years later I believe he was right. Liturgy enacts a world view, and needs nothing less than the world for its performance.7
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David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1996).
Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time (New York: Atheneum, 1960).
Jaroslav Pelikan, Obedient Rebel: Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle in Luther’s Reformation (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1964).
Joseph Sittler, The Care of the Earth and Other University Sermons (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964) appeared at the same time as Pelikan’s Obedient Rebel.
Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity,” Ecumenical Review 14 (1962), 175-87.
As a later example see my essay “‘The Care of the Earth’ as a Paradigm for the Treatment of the Eucharistic Elements” in Frank C. Senn, A Stewardship of the Mysteries (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), 175-90.
See Frank C. Senn, New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000). I mention my debt to Joseph Sittler on page 2.