Muscle memory and liturgy

When I was in the States, I found that I kept turning my head to the right when I wanted to cross a street, as I anticipated that the cars would drive on the left. Indeed, even if I said repetitively to myself, “turn your head to the left”, I kept turning my head to the right. My body actually acted against my will. (I was well afraid that I would be hit by a car.) Well, I guess that’s the product of muscle memory. I have been trained daily to turn my head to the right, and in the States I found that in fact I had done it subconsciously. Surprisingly, it is not easy to change the act. In that sense, our life acquires its liturgical character. We are an ever-evolving liturgical animal. For better or for worse, we form and, in turn, are formed by our habits. Of course, it takes years to internalize the habits. And, sometimes, it could take a long time to unlearn them. Some habits are constructive; others are not. After spending hundreds of hours to play Angry Birds during the academic year break, I realized that I had missed so much time to do other things — doing research, reading and writing. In fact, I just picked up my Barth reading again after four months of hibernation. But I guess that’s the point of learning how to become a human. You try to discern what the good habits are and throw away the bad ones. (I am not talking about the birds and the pigs, naturally.)

And in that sense church liturgy is a microcosm of our (liturgical) life. The patterns, rituals, repetitions embedded in the liturgy mark how our life is profoundly formed and reformed by patterns, rituals, repetitions as well. And, even much more than our individual life, our collective worship liturgy is a result of centuries of collective wisdoms (and fools, I suppose). Its elements are interlocked with meanings and we just can’t dismantle it without tearing the whole thing apart. It needs to be refined, of course, but a flattening and iconoclastic approach to church liturgy simply won’t do justice to the intricate matrices of meaning and truth deeply embedded, or, I shall say, embodied, in the liturgy.


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