Liturgy and Language/Language of Liturgy (Essay)

Liturgy and Language/Language of Liturgy
Elliott batTzedek

We are experienced at making words of analysis and words of persuasion, but we are novices at shaping words filled with religious power. There are no recipes, no formulas, no blueprints for such words. They cannot be manufactured. They can only be grown, and the soil in which they are grown is communal prayer.
Rachel Adler Engendering Judaism

The question of what makes ordinary language feel like liturgy is complicated. It is, in fact, several different questions:

  • why does some language feel liturgical?
  • how does liturgy work, and how does language work within liturgy?
  • at what point does language become liturgy?
  • what kind of liturgy?
  • just what exactly is liturgy?

Quite a large knot to begin to unravel, this question, and loaded with the inherency of a sense of the sacred, the divine, that “liturgy” presents and represents. Liturgy is, by its nature, not ordinary language; the words we use in daily life are transformed in complicated ways once they enter the realm of liturgy, and these transformations, as feminist theologian Rachel Adler suggests, are not easy to predict.

To answer the last question first, Webster’s explains that liturgy is: an established formula for public worship, or the entire ritual for public worship in a church which uses prescribed forms; a formulary for public prayer or devotion. What I mean is closer to the latter, more the script we use for public rituals with spiritual dimensions, public spiritual rituals including prayer services, and private prayer. Liturgy is the language we choose to express communal and personal hopes, fears, and values; it takes on heightened meaning precisely because it is connected to something bigger than the individual or community.

Liturgy, as words, breathes and speaks in a realm that precedes and enwraps the words themselves. Liturgist Lawrence Hoffman has conceptualized this realm as the liturgical field. Liturgy usually happens within the context of some kind of explicitly religious or spiritual setting, and this setting has many interactive elements: what one sees, hears, smells; how one moves, walks, dances, or represents prayer physically; music, whether heard or sung; and a vast reservoir of memory and personal associations of each person participating in the event. All of these elements make up ritual, and ritual moves people powerfully, often unconsciously, and sometimes completely independent of the surface meaning of the words of liturgy. Important to the function of this liturgical field is its conscious reference to the participants’ sense of inherited meaning; in most contexts, people expect language used in liturgy to help them connect to a sense of tradition and a feeling of stepping outside of current time and into a dimension that simultaneously looks to history and to the future.

Second, to borrow another term from philosopher of language J.L. Austen, liturgy is a performative utterance. Daily, or constantive language makes statements and conveys information, while performative language proclaims rather than describes, positing a world with the proclaimed conditions or aspects or impelling one to take some action, such as granting a blessing. In Rachel Adler’s words:

the performative character of liturgical language explains why “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts” is effective as liturgy while “Through prayer we struggle to experience the Presence of God,” however morally edifying, is liturgically inert. In the performative “Holy, holy, holy,” the congregation has the power to make God’s holiness present by naming it in a threefold incantation. “Through prayer we struggle to experience the Presence of God” rationally describes the goal of prayer, but offers no process for achieving it.”

And third—to get to the heart of the connection between liturgy and poetry—liturgy relies on metaphor. Prayer is neither a rational nor an analytical process, but one built on patterns of form and symbols. Metaphor allows for use of concrete language which nonetheless is open to personal interpretation and to changing meanings across time. Liturgy based in metaphor can grow and change even while the words stay the same. Metaphor, which can carry both its original interpretations and meanings it has accumulated across time or diverse communities, is one important way that daily speech acquires the feeling of being sacred or holy.

Liturgy is embedded in a broader context, it is designed to perform, to make something happen but not to explain or rationalize, and it works primarily through metaphor. Keeping these in mind, I want to explore a few examples of poems that function as different kinds of liturgy, looking for patterns, repetitions, commonalities. This journey will be neither exhaustive nor definitive, but the start of something, a move towards answering my own question as designer of poetry-based liturgy, “Will this one work?”

I want to start answering questions about language and liturgy by briefly exploring a few poems written or adopted as public liturgy: June Jordan’s “To Free Nelson Mandela,” Judy Grahn’s “Plainsong from a younger woman to an older woman,” and Pat Parker’s “Movement in Black.” These are a special category, for they are explicitly performed, usually as part of a political or public event or ritual, usually read by one speaker although sometimes done as group chants or call-and-response pieces. What these poems have in common with all liturgy is that they are meant to express and to invoke emotion, that they use concrete details to make a connection between the specific and a broader general truth, and that they use language which is generally easily accessible. This last is not always true, although uses of older, or more intentionally poetic language tend to be intentional in order to meet some of the three characteristics of liturgy. For example, when Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” was used as liturgy at the 2002 public 9/11 memorial in New York City, the power of the opening line “Fourscore and seven years ago” came not from the listeners’ understanding of “fourscore” but from its value in that day’s liturgical field—it offered familiarity, comfort, a deep sense of solemnity and historical continuity.

Unsurprisingly, many pieces created or adapted as public liturgy are litanies or elegies, for honoring loss and praising the great, or the dead, are among the few places poetry is understood to be relevant in public, civic events(1). But of course loss and praise cry out to be shared and honored by a larger community, and how better than poetry? To fill this public role successfully and memorably, I believe a poem needs to have certain kinds of structures and purposes related to the broader requirements of liturgy:

  • a refrain or phrase the listeners can join in repeating, and that they can carry away with them as a kind of touchstone of the experience(2)
  • an invocation of history
  • concrete details expanded out to broader categories
  • a metaphor or theme that feels simultaneously solid and yet open to myriad interpretations
  • performative voice, a direct address or commandment, an expectation that saying the words aloud will have some cause or effect

All of these poems contain these elements in ways that suit their different tones. Jordan’s “To Free Nelson Mandela” has a repeated refrain that paces the poem and moves the listener from the litany of small details to a calming, whole-world view: “Every night, Winnie Mandela/Every night the waters of the world/turn to the softly burning/light of the moon.” Pat Parker’s poem also has a refrain, but with a driving rhythm and assertion of cultural power necessary to her message: “Movement in Black/Movement in Black/Can’t keep us back/Movement in Black.” Grahn, in a plainsong of mourning, weaves a pattern of theme and variation around the image of a circle of women: “for the bond between women is a circle/we are together within it…the love between women is a circle/and is not yet finished…the bond between women is returning/we are endlessly within it.” These refrains are all tied to the poems’ invocations of history: Jordan’s history of the oppression of South African Apartheid, Parker’s history of Black history in the U.S., and Grahn’s personal history of her lover who has died, social history of a sense of eternal connections between women and natural history of cycles of creation, life, and death.

All of these poems also balance concrete detail and broader categories of information. Jordan’s poem begins by invoking the personal story of Winnie Mandela, waiting for the decades of her husband’s imprisonment, and the individual murder of Victoria Mxenge. It then expands to the details of other unnamed victims of Apartheid violence and to a litany of types of people now rising in resistance: the banned, the tortured, the detained, the diggers of the ditch. The refrain also pulls the poem out of that particular historical moment and into the broader time of the earth, ocean, and moon. Grahn’s plainsong has many images of the physicality of her lover’s body — breast of my breast, mind of my mind, and many images of hands—in a context linking these to all women across time and to the entire natural world. Parker’s poem has litanies of specific resistors called by name or by social category: Bessie Smith, Shirley Chisholm, A-re-tha, teacher, social worker, carhop, junkie, dyke. These litanies occur within history, from slavery until the “now” of the poem, and within a rhetorical structure that uses “I am” to create an everywoman listeners are invited to see as themselves. For all of these poems, movement from the specific to the broad and back again gives listeners, congregants, really, the model for how these words apply to their own life; they are given a connection to the concrete, and then offered a broad statement into which they can fit their own life experiences.

The metaphors within these poems also make space for listeners to tell their own stories and to have their understanding of the poem change over time. Jordan gives us the solitude and endless waiting, both of the prisoner’s wife and of the people in the image of waters turning under the moon, which is itself both soft and burning in a kind of troubled grace. Parker uses a rhetorical strategy throughout the poem of a first person identity which is all-encompassing, establishing a strong sense of purpose, connection, and direct descent from cultural heroes to ourselves. Grahn’s metaphor is the circling, the cycling, a constant motion and change in which there is also a constant connection; the effect of this is to be nearly dizzying and simultaneously calm and centered, which conveys an emotional truth about the effects of grief that is the ground underneath the words themselves.

And, because these poems are liturgy, they are all also performative language. In “Movement in Black,” the refrain asserts and the details then prove, “can’t keep us back,” while the opening of Section IV, “Roll call, shout em out” invites response and participation. Grahn titled her piece “plainsong” and labeled it as “for ritual use,” clearly signaling that it is be performed in a variety of contexts, that is supposed to speak for many different individuals. The piece is also great directive language, the voice of the psalms, speaking almost as to God and invoking a community of witness to the pain and hope and loss being spoken. Jordan’s title “To Free Nelson Mandela” shows her clear intention that the words of this poem have a specific effect, to call into being a new world order, in which “as last the diggers of the ditch/begin the living funeral/for death.”

Having heard many poems used as public liturgy, some more successfully than others, and having run a monthly, poetry-based havurah for two years, I think it is this performative language which might be the most vital piece of what makes a poem able to also function as liturgy.(3) I want to examine this question, along with issues of metaphor and liturgical field, in a few of the poems my havurah uses most frequently, and that members report as resonating with them most deeply. (the poems themselves are attached)

My community has always struggled with the question of the blessing of redemption that comes after the Sh’ma and before the Amidah in the Shabbat morning prayer service. In study together, we came down to four questions about this: what does it mean to be redeemed?; from what are we redeemed?; by whom are we redeemed?; and for what are we redeemed? Consequently, having rejected the existing liturgy as irrelevant and even abhorrent to us, we search each month for words to express the struggle of the world, which does make one feel the need for redemption, and that honor the values we live within. Four poems that we’ve used several times are “The Choice” by Ruth Brin, created intentionally as religious, liturgical poetry, “The Healing Time” by Pesha Gertler, “Beginners” by Denise Levertov, “So it remains” by Susan Griffin, and “Crossing a Creek” by Martha Courtot. A fifth piece, “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” by Lucille Clifton has been set to music by havurah co-founder Karen Escovitz, so is regularly sung. While these are very different kinds of poems, in analyzing them in terms of how they function as liturgy I’ve discovered some clear patterns of similarities across all three elements of liturgy: the liturgical field, the performative nature of their language, and in their use of metaphor to open doors rather than provide single answers.

The liturgical field of this particular community includes choosing readings that address our lives here and now, which for us often means words that speak to questions of personal and social struggles. This is particularly true of the section of the service that speaks to questions of redemption; our communal norm wants not a promise of some perfect future, but a shared understanding of how hard the work of redemption is. All of these poems open directly into a place of change or place of struggle:

  • Are we free as the birds? (Choice)
  • Finally on my way to yes (Healing)
  • But we have only begun/ to love the earth (Beginners)
  • So it remains to reassemble (Remains)
  • crossing a creek/requires 3 things (Crossing)

All of the poems except “The Healing Time” are written in first person plural, with “Crossing a Creek” also speaking from an “I” voice and “The Choice” ending in the optative(4) “Let us make each choice…/Let us choose.” Use of the plural voice in pieces read aloud serves to connect each individual to the broader group, a function of the theme of this part of the service. Each of the poems takes up some aspect of the question of being redeemed, from the explicit reference to Deuteronomy in “The Choice,” to a statement of personal healing in “The Healing Time.” Courtot’s “Crossing a Creek” takes up the question of keeping belief through struggle, and is also a direct liturgical reference to the how this part of the service traditionally ends in a celebration of having crossed the Red Sea. Levertov’s “Beginners,” builds an intense sense of struggle and moves toward an insistence in the possibility of redemption: “So much is unfolding that must/complete its gesture./So much is in bud.”

An important part of the liturgical value of language is recognizing that the words will be read aloud, and that this is a physical, embodied act. In the words of Edward Hirsch in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry:

The words are waiting to be vocalized. The greatest poets have always recognized the oral dimensions of their medium. … When I recite a poem, I inhabit it, I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body. I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience, as experience embedded in the sensuality of sounds. […] The secular can be made sacred through the body of the poem. I understand the relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader not as a static entity but as a dynamic unfolding. An emerging sacramental event.

All of the poems use common, ordinary, daily language, which I’ve found to be vital to the question of which poem to use for shared readings; poems with playful, inventive, or complex language structures don’t work, because people can’t read them easily. Poems with strong meter or rhyme usually don’t work, either, because people have no experience reading these kinds of poems aloud. In Hirsch’s terms, we embody the poem when we speak it, and so the poems we speak must flow smoothly from our lips if we are to feel them as emotional truth.(5) How the poem feels in the mouth matters, especially if it is to be repeated as an ongoing part of communal prayer. Each of these poems have one or two phrases that simply feel good to say, such as Griffin’s “on this day like any other,” Courtot’s “a certain serenity of mind” and the title phrase, “crossing a creek,” Levertov’s “we have only begun/to imagine justice and mercy” or Gertler’s “and I say holy/holy.” My group often uses Mary Oliver’s “Every Morning the World is Created,” and her one-word line “lavishly” is said with tenderness and enthusiasm that is practically sexual and is definitely an emerging sacramental event. The cascading lines “such love is faith/such faith is grace/such grace is God” in Clifton’s “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” are usually sung, but havurah members report that either singing or saying them has become for a comforting litany they find themselves repeating throughout their days, for the lines are both meaningful and sheer pleasure to say.

All of the poems are lyric, relying for their meaning on the accumulation of meanings from streams of concrete or metaphoric images rather than narrative. All are open doors, intentionally invoking emotional responses through metaphor or suggestion, and all offer some act of faith or grace(6) without specific directions for actions or theological beliefs. Brin’s poem, written as an intentionally Feminist response to Jewish tradition, is the least metaphorical and most direct of the set. Its tone sometimes approaches sermon status, but is also open to be written on any individual life by the time it arrives at the phrases “pace the dark corridors of decision” and “Let us make each choice with wisdom.” Gertler’s description of scars, wounds, messages, wrong turns are both intimately familiar and wide open. As psalms use common images, nearly clichés of their time, to weave complicated emotional reality, so does Gertler’s poem take what could be trite and make it deep with a strong ending that creates another unfolding sacred space. I’ve heard this poem read by groups in many different settings, and each time at the end there is silence followed by deep breaths, a sure sign of ordinary language lifted to liturgy. Courtot’s poem is a single extended metaphor, one that is easy to grasp on one hearing, which is also important for liturgy, for readers or listeners don’t usually stop to read and re-read; words must make their meaning, ask their question, and get out of the way. This is not an easy balance, for metaphors that are too obvious, too easy or too clunky fall flat. This happens as too often in new liturgy, especially liturgy created by committees or by over-riding agendas. Courtot’s poem works because she pulls out of the metaphor to wider questions in the middle of the poem, and because she ends in those wider questions, and because there is a freshness in the idea that we are obligated to believe in the snake while we practice believing we will cross in spite of it. Griffin uses a concatenation(7) of pure images, with no comparisons or explanations, invoking building, speaking, eating, reading, studying, planting, eating again, and ending with an image both strong and ambivalent, “the spilled wine of/our living.” And Levertov interweaves images of natural processes and human struggle masterfully, rising to a climax that perfectly describes each with an image that is visually sharply focused and emotionally anything we need it to be.

Levertov also uses a structure of questions and answers in “Beginners,” as does Brin in “The Choice,” giving both a psalm-like feel. This structure is also one way to create performative language, for when we read these aloud we are always performing them, asking and answering the questions in real time. We are also setting an inherent “you” to whom we pose the question, a “you” that is left open in both, carrying suggestions of asking a community of people and/or a divinity/Thou of some variety. As Levertov’s questions rise to address mortality, the implied “Thou” seems to expand; the answers to the original questions come from a “we” of implied human community, but the final questions, and end of the poem, are answered by a direct plea to an unnamed other, turning the poem into an address to a divinity or universal presence. This direct speech is the nature of a performative utterance: “Not yet, not yet/there is too much broken/that must be mended.” Brin, too, closes with language intended to create the very conditions it references: “Let us make each choice with wisdom./Let us choose blessing and peace.” Gertler’s “The Healing Time” also closes with language that performs what it means: “and I lift them/one by one/close to my heart/and I say holy/holy.” This is a powerful moment in the reading of aloud of the poem, especially in the powerful feeling it invokes of creating holiness. “Crossing a Creek” ends similarly, with the commandment “and we must practice believing/we will come through.” (8)

This performative language is the strongest marker of what makes ordinary language sound holy or spiritual to listeners. It is a constitutive element of fiery sermons and great political speechifying, and clearly marks that a different kind of attention must be paid. The way metaphor is used is less obvious, but equally vital to whether a poem can be used as liturgy. And both of these are at play within the broader liturgical field, which is much more about how the poem or language is used than how it is created, and is site-specific and ever-changing. For poems created or adopted as public liturgy, the liturgical field also requires that the piece invoke history, explicitly combine concrete detail and broader generalizations, and have phrases or a refrain that are easily memorable.

Or so I believe having done this much studying and thinking. For the two years I’ve been choosing poems and trying them on as liturgy, this process has been mainly unconscious; now I’ll be choosing while considering these criteria, and judging whether they hold true, and whether they are enough. As a writer of liturgical poems and of pieces designed only as liturgy, I also need to try on these ideas, see if they can used successfully as guidelines for creation. Thinking about the liturgical field and performative language has helped me reconsider the one piece of my liturgy which has been used most often in my community and others:

Ahavah Rabah/Gatherings Gather your strengths and gather your failures. Gather your kin and gather your strangers. Gather what you love and what you fear. [Gather what you have lost and what you have yet to find.] Find the courage to proclaim: All we gather is sacred.

This is a poem, but was intentionally created as call-and-response liturgy. Each of the first three lines is chanted by the leader and repeated by the community (the fourth line, in brackets, hasn’t been added for public use yet because the new music hasn’t been created), then the leader chants “Find the courage to proclaim” and the community responds, “All we gather is sacred.” In my community, these words are uttered as the group stands in a circle, each member holding onto the tzitzit, or fringe, of others’ tallitot, ritually creating the community as standing within a single prayer shawl. The piece is, I think now, completely performative language, for each line signals what one is doing as each corner of the tallit is gathered together. If one important purpose of religious language is to call us to our higher or better selves, to teach and recall the communities’ most important values, then liturgy such as this needs to model and recite these values,(9) so that the line “Find the courage to proclaim” which would seem heavy-handed and directive in a poem is here the language the form seems to require. (10)

So it is, I think, that many poems can be successfully used as liturgy, even while liturgy and poetry as categories have some shared but some separate criteria. To return to my own opening questions, there is a point at which language becomes liturgy, and that point is the moment when it meets the liturgical needs of the community using it; a point that can only be grown, not manufactured, in Rachel Adler’s words. There are patterns and criteria that can describe and help predict which words will work, but they are only patterns. The usual presence of performative language, for example, doesn’t account for why my havurah loves this short snippet from Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

I dreamt last night oh marvelous error, that there were honeybees in my heart, making honey out of my old failures.

Yes, we love poems about struggle, but we also love to be surprised, and we seem to love poems about bees. And raspberries, of which there are many more than you might think. Liturgy is a living project, as predictable and as unpredictable as the people that use it. And who would want it any other way?


1. Wouldn’t you love to seem poems read at, say, the opening of football games? Although you know it would be Billy Collins over and over and over again.
2.The line, “Every 3 minutes a woman is raped/every 5 minutes a woman is beaten” Ntozake Shange’s “With No Immediate Cause” is the best example of this I know; people remember that line, and feel changed and charged by it, even if they remember nothing else about the poem.
3. While this is a much longer conversation, I believe that Maya Angelou’s Inaugural poem worked, while Elizabeth Alexander’s did not, precisely because of the presence or absence of performative utterances. Alexander’s poem declared of itself that it was a “Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day./ Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,/the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables” whereas Angelou’s poem performed praise, calling out directly, “ Lift up your hearts/Each new hour holds new chances/For new beginnings./ Do not be wedded forever/To fear, yoked eternally/To brutishness.”
4. a new word I’ve picked up from reading Robert Alter’s The Poetry of the Hebrew Bible
5. As a service leader, I have a cadre of more skilled, experienced readers to whom I assign poems I want to use that require care in phrasing or emphasis—ringers, as it were, so people can connect to the poem smoothly even if they can’t read it smoothly.
6. The use of “grace” is a source of discussion for us, since some members consider it, as a theological concept, too Christian to be of use.
7. another term I’ve acquired from Alter; I can’t believe I’ve been talking about poetry without it all these years
8. Griffin’s poem is the outlier, here, which speaks in a communal voice but doesn’t have performative language. It is also the poem with the most indirect close, which is why, I think, it has been harder to use, and not as memorable for the group.
9. From a conversation with Adina Abramowitz, a lay member of the Jewish Reconstructionist Association prayer book commission.
10. The piece is however, very literal, without a metaphorical language; while the concepts listed are abstract enough to leave space for personal interpretation, I still need to consider how metaphor might be used here, and in other pieces I develop. Maybe some pieces which are designed to be only liturgy don’t need metaphor?


1 thought on “Liturgy and Language/Language of Liturgy (Essay)

  1. Pingback: The Priest as Story-Teller | Bill LawtonKey Sensitivity

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