Now, I wasn't raised to go to church like this. The only thing we did "together" (as in, saying the words together) was the singing. Even the praying was extemporaneous - although, as any good and faithful evangelical knows, this sort of prayer becomes quite stylized, and you can tell what flavor evangelical you're listening to if you listen to the praying. They just don't call it "liturgy" and they don't believe in anything "formal" -- in fact, you can even hear them say things like "it's not a religion, it's a relationship." So all in all, praying together, saying the same words at the same time, that's something I had to learn.
And I did learn it. I have learned it. And what I learned about this practice is that C.S. Lewis was right. Once you have learned it, you can use it to get to God. Instead of spending Sunday morning listening to others talk about God, or listening to others talk to God, or talking to God quietly inside one's self in words one searches for in the moment, the people who pray corporately can use the service in which the words remain the same. They can get to a place wherein the meaning of the words (and not their order, pronunciation or rhythm) is the focus. Instead of listening to a prayer or saying a prayer, the people can finally just pray!
This isn't all that foreign of a concept, after all. When you have a surprise party, and the guest of honor walks in, everyone yells the same word at the same time, and they all mean it, right? We don't have a surprise party and have every one hide, and then jump out and come up with their own words for "you didn't expect this, did you?" and say them all at the same time. And we don't generally sit around in plain sight, and then when the guest walks in, have one person stand up and explain (in his own words, saying whatever seems most true to him at the time) to the guest why we're all there waiting for him. We all jump out and say surprise together - and we all mean it.
Over time, I have figured out that corporate prayer is to religion as orchestrated instruments are to a symphony, and as cooperating voices are to choirs. I have played and sung music with others, and I can tell you. These things are the same. Once you learn the notes of the "music" off the page, you can really begin to be in the music, and be part of the music - you begin to really play the music. Together, the parts in concert with each other makes a thing not possible for any one person alone to make. The sounds all come at once of course, but when music is being made in its most full and living sense, it's not just the sounds. The individual energies and emotions and the relationships between all the players and all that each one brings to the corporate activity, and the lives and energies and attentions of the audience, all gather together for the "live music" experience. If you have ever been an audience to this or participant in it, you know that it is not like any other thing. It is its own thing. The corporate experience of music is its own thing.
I do not say that individuals cannot communicate with God - I say that the corporate act of doing so together - of coming as a Body to offer the One Body, and kneeling in confession, and thanking in unison, and accepting the Gift together - doing this worship as a corporate group teaches the Christian the deepest meaning of The Church. We are not each on our own - we are all part of each other. That is what is it to be in The Church. And knowing this and doing this are two vastly different apprehensions of it.
There is as much difference between feeling and attempting to think along with someone who is praying extemporaneously, following the conversation that person is having with God (or thinks himself to be having ... sometimes the listener does wonder if this is a conversation or a monologue), and praying the same thing together with other people, as there is between the practice room on Thursday and the orchestra pit at the Friday concert. And sometimes joining an orchestra, for a short time only, a Master makes the music as part of the group, and because of this the music is changed.
At our parish, we didn't know Father Brown for very long, but we loved him very well. On the Sundays he has been with us, he has walked in the procession of altar party and Sacred Ministers, leaning heavily on the arm of one of the younger men. He has been carefully deposited each week "in choir" - which is to say, he sat in the benches between the rood screen and the altar rail. He didn't serve at the altar. His service was of another kind in the time we had with him. His service was the kind that does not have words, or place, or obvious role in time. He struggled to his feet for the Gloria and sang in concert with the rest of us, and he bowed his head to receive the blessing of God from the hands of the priest at the altar. Father Brown was the priest at the end of his life and ministry, now witness to, example for, and in an odd way, the strength well-loved by the younger men who will bury him this next week.
They could talk to him about a life in service to God and God's people. He could talk to them about the many things he loved in his music and his books. They had the communion men in a vocation have, and together, they processed up the aisle and together they left again at the end of the Sunday's service, the older, bent, much more frail man leaning on the arm of the younger ones. At least, that is what we could see with our mortal eyes. I think, though, that if we had but a little of our immortal sight, we would be seeing things quite the other way round. And I know that now the music of our prayers has been changed. He prays better now - we will have to wait awhile to pray with him again.
May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace,
and may light perpetual shine upon them.
and may light perpetual shine upon them.