Sep 5, 2014

So Happily Situated: Natural Propriety and Liturgical Living

By Heather Judd

Elizabeth was delighted.
She had never seen a place for which nature had done more,
or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.
Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 43

Mrs. Gardiner:  How do you like the house, Lizzie?
Elizabeth Bennet:  Very well.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place so happily situated.
Pride & Prejudice BBC miniseries, Episode 4


Until I visited Mount Vernon, I had never really thought about Elizabeth Bennet’s comment that Pemberly, Mr. Darcy’s great house, is “so happily situated.” Standing on the porch of George Washington’s home, gazing across the lawn to the steep banks where the Potomac embraces the estate, I immediately comprehended what Lizzie felt.  The house and outbuildings and gardens and all the manmade elements were magnificent in themselves, but what made them utterly enthralling was how perfectly they fit with the land.  I don’t think I’d ever seen a place so happily situated.

Ever since, I have been alert to the ways in which buildings suit their places, or, more often, to the ways in which they do not.  It is ironic, in a country with as much land as the United States, that so many structures are erected with complete disregard for the grounds on which they stand.  In the past, necessity or poverty may have driven such decisions, but today it seems most people have simply lost the aesthetic sense of what we might term natural propriety.  That is, we have numbed our sense of what is proper according to nature. Constrained by neither poverty nor circumstance, we choose to build sizeable houses with all the amenities Martha Stewart would recommend on tiny plots sardined against their neighbors.  Few of us would give up these middle-class mansions for smaller homes carefully situated in concert with their natural surroundings. 

The loss of natural propriety is more than just an architectural phenomenon, though.  It runs deeply through our culture in other ways.  We go to the grocery store and expect to have access to every food we might possibly desire, regardless of the time of year or our geographical location (“Why shouldn’t I have strawberries in Wyoming during December?”). We regulate our days by clock hours, regardless of the daylight (“Why shouldn’t I set an alarm for 5:30am during the week and sleep till noon on Saturday?”). We arrange our activities by convenience, regardless of the conditions of environment or temperature (“Why shouldn’t I crank up the AC and bake ten dozen cookies when it’s 100 degrees out?”).

The result is an artificial sense of contentment, manufactured by transforming luxuries into necessities, or at least into expectations.  But the pleasures of these conveniences are illusory and their detriment real.  We are only now beginning to realize the ill effects attendant with ignoring natural rhythms, such as the increased health risks associated with artificial nighttime lighting.   

However, the physical repercussions are only a small part of the problem.  Greater is the spiritual degeneration.  The separation from nature, from natural propriety, does not so much fill the earth and subdue it, as drown out the rhythms of evening and morning, of times and seasons established by our Creator.  The song we belt out is entitled What I Want, and its lyrics urge us to “do what your heart tells you” and “indulge your passions” because “you deserve it.”  Such an anything-anytime-anywhere mentality bulldozes the limits of propriety.  Then, because there are no bounds to what is good and suitable, we end up craving more and more in an effort to satiate the boundless appetites of consumerism and covetousness.

This insatiable consumption thrives in symbiotic relationship with the rejection of religious ritual.  Religion (from Latin religare, to tie fast) binds the worshiper through ritual to the natural proprieties of life in this world.  Every religion from paganism to Christianity is steeped in ritual that reflects a natural order.  Religion delineates proper times, places, and behaviors.  A society that extols its own desires as the ultimate guide cannot tolerate this kind of binding.

When religion tries to coexist with a desire-driven society instead of decrying its lack of propriety, religion, too, ends up resigning its rituals.  The “experiential” worship favored in so many American churches exemplifies this fact.  Rather than following an established rhythm to which the worshiper must regulate himself, this type of worship tries to feed the worshiper’s desires and excite his emotion into a moment of ecstatic experience.  Repetition is considered the vehicle of boring, except when it drives emotion far and fast enough to leave reason in the dust.  Crooning “I could sing of your love forever” in chorus sixteen times almost necessarily moves the worshiper to miss the crucial point:  Why bother saying you could do it?  God has declared you will do it (Revelation 15)!  But that kind of unchanging rational certainty finds little place in experiential worship.  It is a worship focused on my desires rather than God’s delineations, on now rather than on eternity.

Contrast this with religion that maintains its liturgical rituals.  Liturgy echoes the natural propriety implanted into creation. Sunrise and sunset vary with the seasons, yet day follows night again and again. The seasons change, yet the pattern of autumn, winter, spring, and summer is measured out each year. So, too, the liturgy is perpetually changing, perpetually the same. The propers vary, constantly moving us through the Word, yet week after week we pray the same Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. The liturgical seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity— change one after the other, yet these seasons and no others return year after year. Fasting and feasting each has its place. Celebration and penance each has its season.  The days regulate the seasons, which regulate the years, which regulate the life. This liturgical rhythm shapes the worshiper’s emotions, embracing both the changeable now of this world and the unchanging forever of eternity.

For eternity does not demolish the boundaries of natural propriety. It sets them. From the perspective of the eternal presence of Christ, God speaks out into His temporal creation. To this world where nothing can be always and everywhere, He grants the heavenly bodies for days and for seasons and for years. He declares that there is a time for everything. He comes to specific places with forgiveness, first in the sacrificial slaughters at the tabernacle and the temple, then “when the time was fully come” in the flesh of His Son, and now in that same crucified flesh through bread and wine.

In eternity, all that is good is perpetually proper, but in time each good has its own proper place. This we confess:  “It is meet and right so to do.”  It is fitting for this time and place. It is proper, given the nature of who and where we are. We, creatures of time, submit ourselves to what is suitable now because it directs our minds outward to eternity.

In the tens of thousands of days we may live and the hundreds of thousands of miles we may travel, it is easy to lose that which is good. Thus God gives us the proper times and the proper places. He gives them not for our confinement but for our comfort. This is what we feel when we see a house “so happily situated,” and this, exponentially greater, is what we know when we come to the time and place of the Eucharistic feast and hear the words of ultimate propriety: “Take, eat.  This is My body, given for you.  Take, drink.  This is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”


***

Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming.  The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up,  and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call.  When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.  

Title Image: "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden" by John Constable, c. 1825

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