Breaking the Routine

“Let the holy ones of the divine beings declare great the King of glory who declares holy in His holiness all His holy ones!” (4Q403 1 i 30–47)

This reconstructed phrase from the seventh song of the fragmentary composition, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a liturgical text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, calls on the highest angels to praise God in the high heavens, to declare Him (the heavenly King) great as He declares holy (in His abundant holiness) all His angels (the holy ones). While some of the verbs are corrections of misspelled words (the Hebrew necessitates these emendations to give the line sense), the meaning of the text which we arrive at is a very good approximation of the actual line.

This composition, the Songs, is a Sabbath liturgy for the first thirteen Sabbaths of the solar calendar (or for the thirteen Sabbaths of each quarter of the solar year) celebrated by the community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains many calls-to-praise over the course of these Sabbaths by a human worshipping community who entreats the angelic hosts to praise God. Many scholars have found parallel worship in early Jewish and Christian prayers. An obvious referent (that many scholars have attempted to draw close connections to) is the Qedushah prayer in Isa 6:3, where the seraphim praise God, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the earth is filled with His glory” (cf. Ps 72:19). The unique fact about the prayer in the Songs, though, is that it is not the actual words of the angels, but rather is the calls by the human community to the angels, enticing them to prayer. The human role in the prayer, then, is to engage the angelic host and to encourage them to praise—to sing psalms, to exalt and exult, to proclaim great and declare holy!—so that the humans, then, might join this divine worship.

As I delved into this fantastic liturgy, I could not help seeing my own Catholic liturgy in new light. Not only do we celebrate a liturgy that bridges the gap between the human the divine, but we do so with the aid and benefit of the hosts of heaven as well. At every Mass, there is that beautiful moment where the congregation claims to “join the heavenly host in their unending hymn of praise” of God, singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth is full of your glory; Hosanna in the Highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the Highest!” For me, as I am sure is the case for many of my brothers and sisters, this prayer, the Sanctus (or, the Holy), can become simply a routine. It is “just what we say every week.” All of this changed, though, after I began my study of the Songs. Not only is this angelic prayer we proclaim at Mass plausibly directly connected to the angelic prayer of the seventh song of the Songs liturgy, but it definitely shares in the same theme and is derived of a similar milieu. Our human prayer is aided, strengthened, and empowered by the angels. We are the blessed ones who are allowed to “join the heavenly host”—that is, to sing with the highest angels of heaven in one voice. How truly divine is that!

The weekly, even daily, prayer of the Sanctus at Mass can become such a routinized, familiar act that we lose sight of the true brilliance, of the blessed awesomeness of the act! It can become as familiar as brushing one’s teeth or getting one’s mail. But can these compare to divine worship? In other words, how can something that literally bridges the great divide between the holy and the profane, between this world and the supernatural, be as mundane as getting on the bus or holding a door open for a stranger?

The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984) crafted the concept of defamiliarization in the 20th century. He described the goal of the process as revitalizing a given artistic object. Any form of art, he explained, is liable to become habitual or over-familiar, but by defamiliarizing (ostranenie, “making strange”) the art form, it can regain its potential to stimulate and provoke. As Shklovsky, in his 1925 essay, “Art as Technique,” put it: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” This concept of defamiliarization extends beyond the literary and visual arts. Its socio-anthropological ramifications run deep. Our “social cognition,” Judith Howard explains in her article of the same name, is our automatic classification of things we perceive—our habitual act of placing everything we encounter into its appropriate, preexisting category. And it is an all too routinized process that lets our very lives become formalized realities.

Unfortunately, even our ritual acts—whether the Mass, or any of the other sacraments, or even simply any of our prayers—become over-familiar habitus, just a part of who we are and what we do. But the ritual in our lives exists to give meaning to who we are and what we do, to enlighten and delight us, to bless and save us! The most holy sacrifice of the Mass was instituted by Christ himself at his Last Supper and it allows us to partake of His sacrifice on the Cross. It is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI puts it, “Cavalry unbloodied.” How can such an amazing thing become routinized and familiar if every time we partake of the Mass we are singing with the angels and witnessing again (simul, at the same time) the offering of Christ’s life?

Defamiliarization may be the key to breaking the routine. But it is one thing to diagnose and a whole other to prescribe. Personally, my work with the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a liturgy utilized more than 2000 years ago by sectarian Jews in the Dead Sea region of Israel, has enabled me to regain some the potential for the Mass to stimulate my spiritual self. That these sectarians truly believed they were in the presence of the divine hosts, calling on them to praise the King of the Universe, is what helped me be reminded of the truly divine worship we engage in with the Mass, whether at the singing of the Sanctus or at any other moment. This realization is certainly not a panacea, though. Again the Mass will fall into routine, just as so many prayers and rituals do in our lives. But through defamiliarization, through a kind of conversion (perhaps conversion necessitates a sense of defamiliarization?), we can find anew the awesome power of our faith in action in the sacraments, the prayers, and all the charities of the Church.

“Blessed is the Lord, King of all, who is above every blessing and all praises!” (4Q403 1 i 28b; cf. Neh 9:5; Ps 22:3)

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