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ballet and liturgy

Anna Pavlova as The Dying Swan
Anna Pavlova as The Dying Swan

I was reminded this weekend by a bishop of a quote. Anna Pavlova following a wonderful performance was asked the meaning of the dance. She replied, “If I could say it, do you think I should have danced it?” How often we attempt to do this to sacraments, symbols, and liturgy. Even leaders of worship tell people what a symbol means. If it needs an explanation, is it really a symbol? And by giving the explanation are you not destroying the multivalent nature of the symbol? Reducing its multi-dimensional nature to one or few dimensions?

Some other quotes from Pavlova that I connect with worship, and leading worship:

“No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius.”

“Master technique and then forget about it and be natural.”
(How I wish leaders of liturgy would understand that lesson!)

And just for fun, a video I’ve embedded previously:

And a kiwi version is here

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10 thoughts on “ballet and liturgy”

  1. Fascinating parallel you draw here between the artistic symbolism and sacramental symbolism. Yet, I cannot agree with the suggestion that liturgical actions or elements should be left unexplained. It seems to me that there is great danger in any action not properly defined and reasoned, for it opens the door to all kinds of heresy. For example, if a liturgy asks for silence following the consecration, without further explanation by rubric or catechesis to specify the purpose of that silence, it could be misinterpreted as a place for the Romish practice of adoration. Likewise when it comes to kneeling at communion – without a rubric explaining the purpose – it can be misunderstood as attesting to the doctrine of real presence.

    Most modern revisions have often carelessly removed much of the important rubric and explanation used within the early versions our prayer book, and this I think in no small way has contributed to the doctrinal vagueness that plagues our churches so terribly today. So, I think explanation rather than somehow detracting from the liturgy actually adds significantly to the role of the liturgy in teaching orthodoxy and rebuking heresies.

    1. Vincent, in the NZ Prayer Book there are many points at which it has the rubric “silence may be kept”. We have nothing called a “consecration” (except in the ordinal for a deacon, priest, or bishop). I would certainly find it incredibly irritating if at each moment of silence in a service there was a statement by the worship leader what was and what was not appropriate behaviour during the silence. The Prayer Book has, “standing or kneeling is an appropriate posture when receiving communion in church” – I don’t see why one posture or the other intrinsically attests to a particular doctrine or interpretation, unless one has been informed that this posture means, equals this – which is my very point. I am not averse to catechesis, quite the opposite, nor to expressing multi-valent images and interpretations poetically in accompanying prayer. But I do object to incessant chatter from worship leaders telling me what I should be thinking, feeling, believing, or experiencing and not allowing God to work through word and symbol.

  2. David |dah•veed|

    My liturgy professor, Marjorie Proctor-Smith, said many times that if a symbol needed to be explained, then it did not work as a symbol. Symbols are usually explicitly self-explanatory.

    I am reminded of a story of a United Methodist pastor, newly assigned to a perish in mining country of Appalachia. For Ash Wednesday she sought to make the imposition of ashes more meaningful in the lives of her parishioners. She roamed the alleyways and backyards of the small town and gathered small pieces of coal, whose dust penetrated the lives of everyone living there. She ground these pieces and made the ash for the Ash Wednesday service. The coal’s unique odor was apparent to all immediately. The symbolism would have been ruined if she had felt the need to stop and explain what was happening instead of just proceeding with the imposition.

    Vincent, being from a via media bias, I find your comments in your first post insulting. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is not merely a Romish practice. There is a form in Eastern Christianity as well. And it is practiced in many parishes in provinces of the whole Anglican Communion, as is a belief in the Real Presence.

    1. Thanks David for your helpful points. I tend to distinguish between a “symbol” as something that doesn’t require explanation, and a “sign” as something which does.

      Belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is embodied in my church’s formularies. The opposite, real absence, can become a farcical position: Christ is present everywhere except in the bread and wine of communion.

  3. David; your interpretation of the self-explanatory value of symbols is very meaningful. I’m particularly in agreement with you on that, that explaining that which is self-explanatory detracts from the symbolic value. Yet, it is surely important that where self-explanation could reasonably lead some into error, it is better to add explanation or modify the symbol as appropriate.

    As a side-note (only if you will permit it, Bosco) I do regret you feel insulted by my references. Given our common agreement with the XXXIX Articles, the BCP and the Homilies I am certain that we would discover broad agreement in reference to the nature of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (whether sacramental, real, corporal, local etc.) even if not in terminology were we to pursue the matter further. Please accept my apology and my plea that you understand what I said in reference to our common foundational formularies.

  4. David, I think you make a good point. I would be driven to distraction if every time I gave someone a hug, or even a kiss, I had to give a paragraph of verbal explanation of what this symbol means. Yet there are occasions when a hug or kiss can be misinterpreted and a verbal explanation may be in order.

    The status of the XXXIX Articles, the BCP and the Homilies varies from province to province. I have a strong conviction that we share spiritual disciplines, agreed common prayer, and so I am quite taken aback when Anglican clergy take it upon themselves to abandon having a Eucharistic Prayer and instead read an account of the Last Supper, or where the bread and wine are not treated as agreed in our formularies. Within that broad tent of agreed practice I am open to individuals interpreting the Eucharist using different metaphors, and realising that there are a variety of approaches to this multi-faceted jewel. If Elizabeth didn’t say it when questioned on her beliefs on the Eucharist in Mary’s reign, I think it still would express the Anglican platypus well:
    Christ was the word that spake it.
    He took the bread and break it;
    And what his words did make it
    That I believe and take it.

    Again, I so appreciate the civil way we dialogue in this place. Even agreement to disagree can be done in a positive way without losing communion and community. Too often that is not what we model in the Christian community. Thank you.

  5. David |dah•veed|

    Vincent, here in the Western Hemisphere, at least in the provinces with a TEC heritage, the Articles of Religion are historic documents found toward the rear of our (TEC’s*) BCP, and the Articles and the Homilies are not playing a big part in our current thinking, except among our schismatic siblings.

    *The Anglican Church of Mexico and the Anglican Church of the Central American Region, as well as the Anglican Church of Cuba, use the Spanish translation of the TEC BCP.

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