By Steve Rice
The pause at the asterisk gets them every time. Never mind the printed instruction in the daily office book or even the verbal warning before the office begins, invariably newcomers to Morning or Evening Prayer will feel the embarrassing warmth of the spotlight as theirs is the only voices still reading the psalm after the asterisk, when the rest of the congregation has paused. To be sure, there is no judgment among the veterans. We’ve all blown past the asterisk.
In his letter to Marcellinus, St. Athanasius wrote that the psalms “become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the motions of his soul, and thus affected, he might receive them.” In nearly 10 years of praying the Office in community, I have found that the psalter, in addition to being a mirror to the person, is also a microcosm of the parish. Athanasius was speaking of primarily of what was said in the psalms, I’m speaking primarily of how it’s said.
If Athanasius is right, and I absolutely think he is, that the breadth of the human condition is reflected in the psalms, then that same condition is also reflected in how the psalms are said. It’s not easy to pray the psalms in community. The officiant is charged with leading voices of all sorts and conditions to the Prayer of the Church, and that requires attentiveness both to the voices around oneself, but perhaps even more importantly, to one’s own voice. All the personalities of the parish are present at the Office.
There is the performer, the person who says the psalms louder than everyone else and in such a way as to distinguish their voice from the rest. They aren’t trying to sabotage prayer. They believe they are doing their part in leading the prayers, yet they forget that the prayers should be with one voice, none greater than another. Other voices will often raise their volume to match. They don’t realize their natural competitiveness moves them to match the loudest voice. Do we not see the same personality outside the liturgy? Dominating conversation and stifling other voices because all they can hear is their own. Do we not see this in parish conflict? One loud voice gaining others to become a chorus for no other reason than it was the loudest?
But there is also the person who says the psalms so quietly, they can’t even hear their own voice. Their lips move, but the voice box does not vibrate. They are terrified of being on the wrong page, pausing too long, or not pausing at all. They are afraid of mispronouncing Tarshish, Bashan, Zeeb, or Leviathan. The visitor who sits next to them finds little help. Now they, too, are unsure when to speak and when to breathe and now both are more focused on messing up than offering up their prayers and anxieties to the Lord who desires both. We see this soul, with so much potential, afraid to speak at vestry meetings or against the gossip their friends are so fond of spreading.
There is the battle between those who say the psalms quickly and those who say them slowly. Often those who say them quickly are the regulars. They wear Coverdale on their lips like it’s Covergirl. Over time a little bit of superiority has crept in. They’ve forgotten their early struggles with prayer and the prayer book. They have developed an intuition for the proper rhythm and grow impatient with those who haven’t, so they leave them behind. Those who are slow often have difficulty in hearing. They aren’t sure of the pace because they can’t follow it. To make matters worse, they often sit toward the back, compounding the problem. They grow just as irritated at those who are breezing through the psalms as the breezers are with them. I often wonder if they slow down on purpose in order to bring more balance to the rhythm. In the parish, this is the stalemate between those who shoulder the burden of most of the parish work and those who are unsure about the pace forward. One grows impatient at the lack of movement and the other is resentful that the speed is leaving them behind. Instead of waiting for one another, there is a stalemate that produces dissonance to both the ear and the heart.
The irony for the officiant is that the only way to promote harmony among the various voices at prayer is to focus on their own. The role of the officiant is to pray through the chaos so the chaos can eventually find order through the prayers. The officiant must be attentive to all who are praying, but not at the expense of their own prayers. If one voice is too loud, they must not match the volume. If anything, they should lower his volume and by doing so encourage the rest to speak softly, gently soothing the loudest and giving encouragement to the meekest voice. If there is discord and some are moving too fast while others too slow, they must focus on their own prayers and pace, trusting that if they are consistent, the others will gradually and naturally adapt. It requires tremendous fortitude to fight off frustration and irritation at even the most insignificant distraction. The sniffing of a runny nose, the loud flipping of pages by the one who is lost in the prayer book, the loud clopping of shoes of the habitually tardy, all of these are temptations to confuse performance with prayer and precision with people. They are there for all sorts of reasons, some more spiritual than others, but they are there. The job of the officiant is give thanks for their voice and to lead it deeper into Christ by focusing on their own prayer.
St Athanasius wrote, “For thus beautifully singing praises, he brings rhythm to his soul and leads it, so to speak, from disproportion to proportion, with the result that, due to its steadfast nature, it is not frightened by something, but rather imagines positive things, even possessing a full desire for the future goods.”
The greatest lessons I’ve learned concerning leadership have not come from a corporate office, but from the Office said corporately. The best strategy in leading a parish, or anything, is to remain diligent in one’s own prayers and to pay attention to the volume, pace, and focus of one’s own voice. The greatest tactic in growing the parish is to teach them how to pray.
The pause at the asterisk will get them every time. It will get them in the church. It will get them in the prayer book. It will get them closer to Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Steve Rice is the rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, NC.