02 March 2011

The City as Liturgy?

I admit I've been away from my blog more recently than I would have liked. Again, I admit that I've had somewhat of the blues for a while now and haven't be able to shake them. ...That hasn't helped my blogging (or homework cause) any in the least! Please pray that I will be able to refocus on what I need to be tending to and that the joy of spring will come sooner rather than later.
While I haven't done a ton of work that I need to have been doing, I have put together a  little piece on the topic of City as Liturgy that I want to share with you. After reading the book Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs as well as attending Social Ethics lectures by Dr. Timothy Patitsas, I wrote a brief (sort of brief anyway) piece on 4 characteristics that I believe allow us to classify the life of cities as "liturgy." I will preface my posting of the piece by saying that I wrote it for other "theologians" in mind, but I think it will be understandable to everyone. Just be aware there might be a couple of words or words used in nuanced ways that might need further clarification for all of my non-"theologian" friends reading this. (I put "theologian" in quotes because I don't really like calling myself that but most people think when you have a degree in theology that it makes you a theologian. Not quite. :) As St. Evagrios said, the true theologian is the one who prays. ...and while I do pray, I surely don't pray enough to be anywhere near deserving the true title of theologian.) All that to say, if you need any clarification, just ask :)

So with that, without further ado...

The City as Liturgy: A Look at the Movement of Love

Having read Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities (which happens to be on of the most influential works ever written on the topic of City Planning) prior to my theological education, I never saw the elements of "the city" as anything liturgical. However, revisiting the ideas in light of a concern for Orthodox theology and social praxis, it has become far more apparent to me the inherent nature of cities being a microcosm for the entirety of the Christian liturgy.(That is liturgy understood as the cooperation of individual persons acting in organic patterns of love sacrificing of themselves  and in return receiving complete transformation. --Just as within the Divine Liturgy, we offer up bread and wine and through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit receive them back as the Body and Blood of Christ, transforming our very beings into theanthropic persons; hypostatic People in the fullest sense!)  I am increasingly convinced that vibrant, healthy cities are perhaps the “secular” illustration of the “Liturgy of Love” par excellence. To explore Jacobs’ description of cities and the possible ways in which they exemplify liturgical character, I began by looking at those elements that stand as hallmarks of defining character within the life of the Church. After sitting with the material for some time I came up with over two pages of hand written notes on parallels that can be drawn. In light of space constraints, I want to limit my discussion to four main components that help comprise and establish liturgical character: sanctification of time, use of space, diversity, and real participation. 

Considering the sanctification of time, just as the Church in her wisdom gives us a series of cycles in which our lives find grounding and stability (such as the yearly, monthly, weekly, and even daily cycles) so, too, does the city provide these for her inhabitants. These cycles provide necessary reference points in our personal and spiritual lives and are the entry point for our real participation in the life of the liturgy. Just as the Church provides the yearly festal cycle that culminates with the celebration of Pascha, the city provides regular yearly events and celebrations that mark the passage of time and reorient the lives of citizens. (e.g., the yearly fair or music festival; the annual remembrance day for lives lost in war, tragedy, or natural disaster; seasonal parades and contests, etc.) Further, we see liturgical character at the monthly, weekly, and daily levels as well. (e.g., the monthly cycle of such things as blood drives, immunization clinics, and even issuance of bills; the weekly cycle of trash service, Rotary Club meetings, and school & business calendars; and finally, the daily cycle is illustrated in the daily routines of individuals, the consistent yet varied presence of people and things at particular points throughout the day such as the bagel cart arriving each morning at 7am, UPS deliveries arriving at 2pm, and the neighbor’s routine garage door opening at 1am.) It is these series of events that give citizens a sense of grounding and stability within the context of the city.

Beyond providing this continuum of events in time that give needed reference points and an almost invisible structure and to our lives, both cities and churches offer and present a plethora of varied spaces in which the community at large lives and moves and has their being. Just as the life of the Church is centered around the worship space itself so, too, are the lives of great cities centered around the places (e.g., plazas and squares) where people engage with one another (either actively or passively) in acts of communion. These centers for both the Church and the city are the well-spring of life. However, it is important for the well-being of both that neither remain solely focused on these specific spaces. The health of both the city and Church is found in their ability to step into new territory and new spaces, respecting and bringing life to all of that which comprises their respective landscapes. For the city, this could mean hosting celebrations and memorials throughout various neighborhoods or lending a hand in revitalization efforts that have organically emerged from various parts of their jurisdiction. For the Church, this means having the ability and willingness to extend her sacramental character beyond her four walls. No space is off limits to either, There should be an awareness of events going on and a willingness to show-up (in some cases, to initiate), to support, and on an appropriate level, to transform and make better the lives of those involved. 

Moreover, the city can be seen in the liturgical light of the Church as it, too, presents a depth of diversity and an invitation for real participation. Jane Jacobs stresses throughout her work the importance of diversity—diversity in ethnicity, buildings, residences, etc.—for the life of a city. It is this same hallmark that is both constitutive of Christian liturgy as well as a mark of its vibrancy and health. Within the body of the Church, this diversity is achieved through the call and message of the Gospel—that all are welcome to the banqueting table of Christ—and is further lived out through the unique gifts and offerings of each person as they fulfill their respective vocation and occupation. Just as there is no room for dull uniformity in the Church (as each person is a unique hypostasis that brings value to the Body even through their very presence), neither is their room for uniformity in cities either. As Jacobs has said, monotony is fatal to its very life. In the Church, the Divine Liturgy is new and alive at its every celebration. One might argue that it is a result of diversity that this is the case. Through the presences of unique individuals at each Liturgy there is always an uplifting of unique prayers, praises, situations, and concerns to which the Holy Spirit acts and engages as the community as a whole offers the liturgical sacrifice. For the city, this same characteristic can be seen. Within its boundaries, diverse and unique people gather and interact with the stable elements of city life including stores, education centers, places of worship, infrastructure, and neighbors. The interactions and offerings of these unique persons inevitably produce a greater diversity and newness of life within the community (e.g., greater development, innovation, new creative outlets, etc.)

Along the same lines, an important and necessary part of the “Liturgy of Love” as we experience it is the invitation it extends to us in the form of real participation. The liturgical character of the Church (and the Christian life as a whole) is not experienced or lived passively. Rather, there must be authentic and organic participation and involvement in this life for its existence to continue and to be able to label oneself “Christian.” For both the city and the Church, the sanctification of time that is offered through the continuum of cycles, the use of space, and the growth of diversity all lend their hand to this last element I want to focus on: participation. Just as one cannot call themselves Christian without some level of active presence, the same is true for citizens of a city. Dr. Timothy Patitsas noted in his lecture on The City as Liturgy, “To be a citizen is to have a liturgical participation. It is the liturgy of the whole economy. …the sacrifice that one can contribute into the society. To deny this to someone is to turn them into a non-being.” This is precisely the case with the Christian life as well. A Christian who does not pray, offer philanthropy, or attend the divine services is no Christian at all. The same is true for the citizen who does not participate socially, economically, or politically in the life of their city. The fact that the city offers residents the ability to engage, to give back, and, ultimately, to return home a transformed person is another characteristic of its liturgical character. 

In the end, it is this liturgical character that allows us as Orthodox Christians to respect and appreciate the life of cities on an entirely new level. Further, in presuming this liturgical character, a new approach to social action must be employed. Social and missionary efforts must be looked at from the lens of the last factor that was considered above: participation. As we discussed, one of the preeminent characteristics of city as liturgy is that of the invitation to participate. As individuals seek to reach out in social ministry efforts, there must be awareness that the very nature of participation within the city necessitates a certain field of boundaries. Participation invites people to enhance the existing systems without imposing monolithic outside elements. Viewing the city as liturgy shapes those with social concerns in a way that encourages them to see the natural and organic good that exists within a system (as small as it may be.) It is only once one has come to see and, even further, to appreciate this existing element of good that one can truly approach the social concern with love for those affected by it. It is only with the pattern of love that chaos (uncertainty, disbelief, suffering) can be transformed into life. Within the liturgical life of the city those who seek to engage in social and missionary efforts (and all are invited!) come self-sacrificially offering of themselves with the intention of enhancing that which exists; yet, in the end, they find that they themselves have been shaped and transformed into true “citizens” through the process. This is the true beauty of the city as liturgy!
I would love (and would be grateful) to hear your feedback should you have it! Please leave me a comment below!

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