How to stay awake in church

By Leo Campos

The treasure which is our liturgical service is often squandered when we go through it by rote. There is so much that goes on in a typical Rite II service that, in theory, people should be riveted. But the truth is that we suffer from too much familiarity with the service. Many of us can probably recite the whole service by heart.

I, personally, do not enjoy changing up the service just for the sake of novelty. I think that this betrays a very dangerous attempt at entertainment. I think that the onus of paying attention is not on the liturgist but rather on the disciples participating in the service. The service is simply a mirror upon which we can see reflected the Face of Christ. To put it more bluntly, if you find the service boring whose reflection are you seeing in the mirror?

Having said this there are a few places in the service where special attention will reward even the most bored disciple.

Be very attentive to the sermon. Take notes. Follow with your Bibles (do Episcopalians ever bring their Bibles to church? Why not?) Engage the priest. I am aware that not all are blessed with fantastic oratorical skills, and that the quality of sermons vary substantially from person to person and from week to week. Nevertheless I have never known a priest not to spend time on a sermon, wrestle prayerfully to find some appropriate imagery and a good story to pin the readings to, and try to impart some message, some Good News, to their flock. These efforts deserve a charitable, large-hearted hearing from us disciples. As Benedict puts it, “Listen with the ears of your heart”.

In talking about listening one great trick for staying awake is to really pay attention to the congregational recitation and responses. For example during the reading of the psalms: is the recitation today low or high energy? Do you hear new voices? Try to listen to the congregation reciting the Creed together. Feel the unity of expression. Try never to speak over anyone, instead modulate your voice so that it disappears in the congregation. This does not mean whispering, it means listening harder.

Be very attentive to the recitation of the Nicene Creed. Take your time studying it at home. Be aware of the filioque clause and what it means. Struggle with the various concepts proclaimed. Be aware of the historical background to the Creed. In the words of St. Reinhold “Learn it. Know it. Live it.” Listen further all the way back in history and all across the globe in hundreds of languages: the same Creed. In your own church for decades, centuries even, the same Creed has been recited. Allow yourself to be gathered up in the great cloud of witnesses.

Be very attentive to the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Make effort to mean every word of it. Get lost in the idea of the Kingdom coming. Make a profound bow when you ask for forgiveness of sins. Ideally bring up at least one person you need to forgive right there and then, and then bow. At different times in my life different lines of the prayer have seemed of particular import and would stay with me throughout the day.

Our Eastern Orthodox friends have a great way of reciting the Lord’s Prayer with multiple genuflections and what-not. These bodily movements not only force us to pay attention to what is being said, but it also encodes the very words into our flesh and bone – the prayer then moves from being “informative” to being “formative”.

As a final “trick” to stay awake in church: during the Eucharist itself make a deep bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned. You will be surprised (or not) at how often you find your mind wandering.

I believe that if we make the effort to engage the liturgy our own spiritual lives will deepen considerably. What “tricks” do you use to stay awake in church?

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the “tech guy” for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

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