Catherine Madsen

Excerpted from In Medias Res by Catherine Madsen

Prometheus Stealing Torah for the People:

Notes toward New Liturgy  



Liturgy is a bastard form, halfway between real life and literature. It is not the making of choices and the wearing of soul against soul in the unrehearsed and unrepeatable conditions of living; it is not the solitary study of the human condition in the world. It is an effort to shape ourselves and our future in each other’s presence, to bind ourselves to doing what we ought to do, to hold each other to a moral vision that we honor. It is the lyricism of morality, not its action or its demonstration. It is an attempt to overcome the solitude of our choices — a solitude which descends on us again the moment we leave each other’s presence, and which, if we did not have it, we would desperately desire.  


Liturgical reform — which in our day tends to mean the translation of liturgies not only into the vernacular but out of the literary realm — is meant to make those liturgies accessible, but it merely makes them disappointing. Flat language insults both the intelligence and the ear; far from being a reprieve from a too-demanding literacy, it deprives both the literate and the illiterate of a viable oral tradition. Only if liturgy is capable of permeating the common language — as the Book of Common Prayer permeates English literature, as Hebrew permeates Yiddish — can it enter into people’s thoughts. And only what enters our thoughts can alter our actions.  


A liturgy without confidence suggests a God without confidence. Perhaps this is apt enough for the industrial age — which has surely given God one mortal blow after another — but the point of liturgy has never been to collapse under the weight of the status quo; it aims to change people. A liturgy that cannot change people conveys the message that the will and the spirit have no power, that we cannot do anything that really matters.  


If the old liturgies are not possible to translate convincingly — if, to the translators, they are no longer effectual — perhaps it’s because the conditions of life, the type and scope of the threats that face us, are new in human experience. We need liturgy to accomplish a new thing: not simply personal or collective communion with the holy, but the restoration — the re-creation — of the world.  


Ritual is not a preliminary to living a good life, but a last-ditch attempt at healing (which the community repeats over and over at frequent intervals, hoping the hypnotic effect will enable it to “take”). 


To have serious poetry or religion you must first be convinced of the irreparable. The person who is searching for solutions, ways around private tragedy, is still undefeated and will find only superficial answers. New ideologies, popular psychologies, new friendships and love affairs, conversions, may be profoundly healing and invigorating, but they do not solve the former pain, any more than they prevent pain in the future. Old pain is still there, whole, unmanageable, whenever something touches it.  


Tikkun —“repair” — arises only out of this recognition. Defeat is what teaches us the difference between the reparable and the irreparable. And defeat is what provides the impetus for repair: we find it unbearable that even more should be lost, and rush to prevent it.  


Tikkun is not optimism, the cheerful faith that things can be repaired; it is the refusal to accept any more defeat.  


Our business as spiritual beings is to outwit the inevitable.  


A difficulty in the writing of liturgy is the division in our outward life between what is understood and what is enacted. What we know from reading books, and from living our lives, tends to be so much more complex and intimate than what we do in religious services; even when we recognize a passage or a thought we love in a service, if we are with people whose thoughts we don’t know and to whom we can speak only with conventional kindliness and not with intensity, we may suspect we are reading something into the text. We get over expecting any direct relationship between participation and emotion.  


Yet we want enactment. People want what they know to be sayable.  


For some, religious services and spiritual paths may fail to touch religious feeling altogether. They do not encompass that complex of lights and sounds and smells that the world is to them between sleep and waking, or in our profoundest moments. For me there is a whole private realm — of moon and stars, intense cold, the smell of tanned skins and the howl of dogs, a certain silhouette of mountains, the shades of green from spruce to aspen — that is a lightning-rod from body to spirit; and whatever I do for religion, no matter how deeply it touches me, there is always something elsewhere that is stronger.