The Place of Humans in Worship Life: Chapters 7-8 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Stacey Gleddiesmith

To be honest (and the ninth commandment states that I should be), these two chapters are my least favourite thus far. Chapter 7 does, however, bring up some interesting discussion points, so I will spend the majority of my time there.

In chapter 7, Chittister addresses the place of worship in human life. Well, actually, she addresses the place of humans in worship life (thus my very clever flipping of her chapter title). She states that humanity struggles between two emotional magnets: abjection and arrogance (p. 44). Leaving aside the fact that neither arrogance nor abjection can be properly described as emotions (sorry, I found it hard to leave off my editor hat while reading these two chapters), this is, I think, an apt description of the human “problem.” Chittister phrases it this way: “Are we, in our humanity, something glorious or are we, at base, actually nothing much at all? Of the two alternatives, neither is really adequate; both are dangerous” (p. 44).

What Chittister is driving at here, is the human condition of being made in the image of God, but marred by sin; although, interestingly, she never quite describes it like this. Instead, Chittister chooses to describe the human condition without any real reference to scripture, leaving the impression that it is more a matter of arbitrarily assigning either good or evil to the human race. She doesn’t delve beneath the problem to its source: that humanity is good by God’s decision (being made in His image) and evil by human decision (having decided to reject that image and create a new image for ourselves).

What I like about this chapter is Chittister’s answer for this condition. She states: “Only awareness of a universe whose Creator is outside and above the boundaries of humanity can save us from either the curse of futility or the devastating consequences of self-satisfaction unfulfilled” (p. 46). Placing ourselves, rightly, under God’s reign, Chittister asserts, gives us both the assurance of being of value, and the humility of knowing that our value is not unbounded. Her position would be stronger here, however, if she had first gone to the root of the problem: God’s image tainted by sin. What is actually at work in acknowledging the lordship of Christ is that we place our value in Christ’s hands and recognize our need for his redemption. This addition would not, I think, contradict her position – but it would add needed depth.

Chittister then asserts that “it is this awareness of the place of God in life on which the liturgical year turns,” suggesting that the liturgical year not only allows us to walk the line between abjection and arrogance, but also to assist the world to do so (p. 46). Echoing Ian’s earlier comment in response to my post on chapters 1-2 (“is this ‘retracing’ of Christ’s own earthly life really the best/only way to make me a better disciple?” see full comment under  Have an Uncomfortable New Year), I wonder whether the liturgical year is the only way to do this. While I do agree that the liturgical year can be a valuable tool as we seek to understand our position before God, I think there are other valuable “helps” for this task, not least of which are the Spirit of God, and the word of God.

My final query regarding chapter 7 regards Chittister’s apparent definition of worship toward the end of the chapter: “Worship is the natural overflow of those who, with humble and grateful heart, understand their place in the universe and live in awe of the God who made it so” (p.48). While there is nothing “incorrect” in this definition, I am disappointed that Chittister doesn’t go further. By this point in the book, I feel that a more thorough working definition of worship (and how worship connects to the liturgical year) would be helpful. Worship is a wonderfully complex concept (as I say in my post What’s in a Word, I could study for fifty years and still only be able to say that I had begun to approach a definition for worship), but quick pat statements like the one above (actually, it’s more a statement about what drives worship than it is a definition) often encourage us to view worship as simplistic and static. This is, of course, one of my hobbyhorses – but I think it’s also a valid critique.

Finally, I would like to briefly address chapter 8, in which Chittister addresses the question of why different Christian traditions celebrate Christmas on different calendar dates. With my editor’s hat on, I would like to suggest that a full chapter on this subject was not required, nor is it helpful. Chittister basically argues that the exact historical date is not important, as we focus on the meaning of the event rather than its exact moment in history. This content could have been easily and quickly dispensed with either in the introductory material, or in the chapter on Christmas. Unfortunately, the expansion of this material into a full chapter adds confusion, as Chittister comes very close to implying that the historicity of Christ’s birth is unimportant, and that the incarnation itself is of lesser import than the death and resurrection of Christ. My hope is that the confusion this chapter creates will be resolved as we enter chapters dealing with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ – as I don’t think Chittister would agree with the conclusions that chapter 8 might lead one to draw.

I’ll conclude this post with a few questions to my respondents (which could be anyone who is reading this – but definitely includes Ian and Andrea, my partners in this discussion).

  1. Do you agree that the inclusion of the concepts of “the image of God” and “sin” would have made chapter 7 stronger?
  2. What do you think of Chittister’s evaluation of the human condition, and how do you think the liturgical year addresses our condition?
  3. What is your own working definition of “worship”?
  4. And did you find something of value in chapter 8 that I missed?

One Comment

  1. Ah chapter 7. Yes. Where I usually have underlines and marks galore, chapter 7 is remarkably unmarked. I think I’m with you in your critique of this chapter being generally a “yes, but isn’t there more?”

    And then I have one statement to quibble with… on page 47, Chittister writes, “a worshipping humanity is a healthy humanity.” And I find myself thinking, “Really?”

    I want to think about the idea that we all worship something. We all allow something or someone to influence our thoughts and ideas and actions. We all focus on something as the meaning by which we’ll direct our lives. But these things aren’t always what they ought to be. So a worshipping humanity is so often a very unhealthy humanity. Whether the false gods be consumerism or destructive habits or even religious addictions, I’m pretty sure that worship unto itself is not the marker of health and wholeness.

    Perhaps I’m deliberately reading her out of her own context, but I keep bumping into that line and getting stuck.

    As for your question #2. I think that it’s important to look for the ways that the calendar can expand our view from the limited bit of our condition. I love how the liturgical year requires one to step outside of their own experience in order to tell the story. I also love how the story we get to tell intersects with out own stories in ways that become deeply meaningful, memorable and transforming. I wait in Advent. I wait for the coming of the baby, and I shake my fist at least a little and ask God what on earth He’s waiting for now. I lament – I tell the truth about me and my brokenness and the world in which I live and its brokenness. I read the prophets a lot. I celebrate the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. I marvel at this gift to the whole world at Epiphany and then move on to wonder about what it must have been like to grow up as the Son of God and the Son of Mary. I kneel during Lent. (Even if much of my own source for penitence during Lent, is how miserable I am at participating in the season itself.) I walk with Jesus into Jerusalem and through the events of Holy Week. I sit with the disciples on Maundy Thursday and try to wrap my head around the acts of footwashing and Communion. I mourn on Good Friday. I wait on Holy Saturday – in the dark, without hope, without a guarantee of Easter Sunday, not because I don’t know what is going to happen, but because I’m sitting with the disciples, who didn’t know and must have thought that all was lost. (I think this is the one day that we might need to focus more attention on…seeing as there are people who live for years at a time in a Holy Saturday kind of space.) And then I am drawn into the hope of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Light and life and healing and wholeness as God begins in Jesus to right every wrong and to (as Sally Lloyd Jones writes in the Jesus Storybook) “make all the sad things come untrue and to make death untrue.” And then I continue on, following this risen Lord, through Ascension, right into the celebration of Pentecost. The Birthday of the Church. A reminder that we’ve not been left as orphans. That the slain and risen Lamb is seated at the right hand of the Father and has not left us nor forgotten us.

    In the meantime, I cook and clean a little. I live with people I love and learn about myself because of them – often because of my shortcomings. I hear of joys and sorrows from people I love far and near. I struggle with this and that. I get the best/worst news of my life. I receive gifts and sometimes manage to give some too. And the story, bigger than me, draws me out of myself and into the life of Jesus, both the historical life AND the life He now lives through His Body, the Church.

    As for questions 3 and 4, I think that definitions aren’t all that helpful with something so life-requiring as worship. Not that I haven’t benefited from other people’s working definitions. But if pressed, I’d say that worship is all about “telling the story”… which is also what I think the calendar is about and what chapter 8 is about, though she does seem to wander around as she tries to tell us. And then, your last blog post (after this one) seems to make the same connections she does… that all the parts of the story (or, seasons of the liturgical calendar) are connected…

    I’ll finish with a scene that occurred earlier tonight at the Tisher house. Bedtime with Emily. We’ve been reading through the Jesus Storybook (mentioned earlier) and tonight was the crucifixion. This is our second time through and it’s amazing to see the difference in Emily’s perception in just the 3 or 4 months since we read it the last time. Figuring that it’s not probably a good idea to send a 2 1/2 year old to bed with Jesus still in the tomb, I broke my own “one story” rule and kept going to the resurrection. Mary is running to tell the disciples and Emily points to the illustration… to an apple tree. The commentary was all about the sad things coming untrue and Emily says, “Hey. That’s the tree where Adam and Eve live!” The story. It’s all about the story.


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