Teresa Berger: liturgy and the “dangerous” presence of God

By Ray Waddle

Public controversies over liturgy often boil down to the “worship wars” … Contemporary style or traditional? Guitars or organ?

BergerTeresa Berger, professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, sees larger theological stakes always at issue. Fundamental urgencies of liturgy remain constant across the centuries. We forget them at our peril, she suggests.

“The basic drama always is: how on earth do people gather before the Divine Presence?” she says.
“If it is going to be an encounter with the living God, then liturgy should break something open within us and take us to a challenging place, even an uncomfortable place,” she says.

“Liturgy is there to bring us back to the ‘dangerous’ presence of God.”

For example, she says, one of the largest liturgical challenges of our time is how to worship and pray with integrity and accountability in an era of climate change.

“I think we need to face hard questions about the sustainability of the earth, and that struggle should be reflected in our liturgies, in our prayers before God,” she says.

“Is it enough to make an intercession during worship that asks God to increase our will to change our ecological habits? Obviously, prayer is not nothing – unless we expect God to fix the mess while we just sit back and do nothing.”

In this case, Berger proposes something more ambitiously green, stretching the spirit of liturgy to include not only the actual worship period but the mindful, theological act of how we come to our worship space.

“I don’t see how we can worship, or go to worship, and increase our carbon footprint. I think we have to go beyond using sustainable cups for the coffee hour following worship. Instead, what if all Christians – that’s two billion-plus people – committed to a carbon fast on Sunday morning? That could mean not driving to church but walking, cycling, boating, skating, and, minimally, sustained carpooling.

“I think we have to be challenged and called to tasks that are indeed too large for us. Yet we must try. Liturgy reminds us to put our lives into the context of the larger journey in God’s own eternal life.”

Born in Germany, Teresa Berger is an active Roman Catholic who holds doctorates both in liturgical studies and in constructive theology. Her interest in liturgical life extends to the ways in which gender history and various cultural practices have shaped Christian liturgy for 2,000 years and continue to do so.

“We live, for example, in a world where every fourth child dies from choice,” she says. “And a recent New York Times article pointed out that it is precisely women – 160 million of them around the globe – who are chosen out of existence. In our own churches, such choices become more visible around issues of disability. In many churches, the gathered community is basically able-bodied only, not least because many children with disabilities are never carried to term. This absence affects liturgy. Who is not there matters.”

Among her books, the latest is Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History (Ashgate, 2011). She has also produced a video documentary, Worship in Women’s Hands (2007) and a CD-ROM, Ocean Psalms: Meditations, Stories, Prayers, Songs and Blessings from the Sea (MysticWaters Media, 2008).

She regularly contributes a blog at Pray Tell – Worship, Wit & Wisdom (www.praytellblog.com), where she writes about saints, feast days, and other themes that enrich the rhythms of liturgy. In a recent posting, she advocates setting aside time after Mass for a period of “mystagogy,” a time of guided reflection on one’s personal experience of the just-concluded liturgical encounter with God.

“Why not intentionally gather the community around the central questions in every liturgy: how did I encounter God here? What barriers in me did I have to struggle with? How did the Holy Spirit move among us? How did we hear God speak to our lives? Which symbols came alive at this Mass, suddenly transparent to holiness beyond all telling?”

Berger’s engagement with liturgical history saunters across centuries. A recent conversation with Notes from the Quad moved easily from the influence of 2nd-century Roman bathing practices on baptism rituals, to current debates over whether gluten-free bread is allowable during Eucharist.

On the subject of gender-attentive liturgical language, the pace of contemporary knowledge continues to challenge churches to re-examine their own terminology, she suggests. The gains against sexist language since the 1970s, for example, have not adequately taken into account the reality of intersex persons.

"How do you craft language to include (or show sensitivity to) people who are intersex and neither clearly XX or XY?” she says. “There hasn’t been much progress on this. The Unitarian Universalists have produced some thoughtful guidelines, though they might seem like small steps. The issue is real, however. In Germany, I taught with a woman who had been born intersex. As an infant, her body was forced into being a girl through multiple surgical procedures; she ended up suffering profoundly because of this choice. I’ve tried to be mindful of these difficult experiences of others.”

Lately Berger has been pondering innovations of online religious practice. She mentioned seeing a webcast of a reserved sacrament in a Roman Catholic chapel. The camera fixed its gaze on the consecrated host for hours, inviting online viewers to pray and contemplate in real time on this new form of veneration of the Real Presence.

“The internet is probing new ways of being ‘present,’ ” Berger says. “This opens up new possibilities and constrains others. This of course is always the case with technological change. It brings potential in some directions, possible diminishment in others. Yet the Gospel is not so constrained. The Spirit will move with the same ease through cyberspace as it does through a scroll, or through ink on the page, or through the human heart.”

Posted: 10/03/2011