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Book review: Hearing our Prayers: An exploration of liturgical listening by Juliette J. Day

14 June 2024

Victoria Johnson looks at an argument about reorientating worship

THIS is a beautiful and extraordinary book, which could and should change the way you think about worship. Juliette J. Day challenges us to consider liturgy — so often enacted and interpreted as an “output” activity, with a focus on the performative — as something that is just as much about reception and attention.

We hear liturgy as much as we speak it or sing it, and the sounding of our worship creates a world of possibilities that reverberate between earth and heaven. The inspiration for the book comes from the philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara, who said: “there can be no saying without hearing, no speaking which is not an integral part of listening, no speech which is not somehow received.” And so, with this concept ringing in her ears, Day explores the hearing, listening, and receiving of all that is spoken or sung within the liturgical life of the Church.

This idea frames the whole book, which ranges from liturgical theology, history, and philosophy to reflections on music, architectural acoustics, ritual sound, congregational formation, and prayer. Consideration is given to varying liturgical soundscapes, including the Byzantine liturgies of Hagia Sophia, the worship of Counter-Reformation Bavaria, and early American Pentecostalism. The way in which the faithful receive and interpret speech, music, silence, and noise within worship is considered alongside the spiritual and academic discipline of paying attention.

In this study, ritual listening becomes the other side of ritual language, rightfully balancing the performative with the receptive. Day further encourages us to reflect on the soundscape of worship, which embraces music, the spoken word, and other noises that encroach into the sonic environment of the church at prayer. There is no sound that should not be noted, or listened to, or contemplated. Recent vignettes in my own sound world affirm this: the incantations of peace protesters outside bleeding into a service of evensong as a choir sing “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem”, or the mobile phone leaping to life during worship, fracturing the silence with sonic and temporal disruption, or a bell being rung at the elevation during the eucharistic prayer.

It is made clear that the worshipper is exposed to an auditory environment where we receive much more than the liturgical and musical texts formally offered. Day affirms that silence is also a vital part of the listening experience within the liturgy and one that has been too easily overlooked; there is, she says, an “astonishing lack of scholarship about silence in worship from liturgists”; and so she sets about filling the lacuna with a sweeping overview of silence within worship throughout liturgical history.

How we create spaces for, and cultures of, attentiveness within our worship is a question that is asked of all those who lead and orchestrate worship in the Church. How can those who create and lead worship view these soundscapes as a mutual encounter within a community of faith between creatures and their Creator? How can we learn to become more attentive worshippers, and listen actively and expectantly to what God might be communicating to us through silence, noise, speech, and song? Day suggests that we have “our ears attuned to the continuing revelation of Christ in the world”, and this is primarily about listening intentionally and prayerfully. Day makes the very good point that prayerful listening is an act of aural participation, as observed in some of our most traditional liturgies, in which the worshipper engages through the imagination, their hearts being softened by what they hear, just as sweet and refreshing rains water the earth, causing seeds to spring up.

The final chapter concludes with reflections on liturgical listening that takes place within the boundaries of worship, is always corporate, and reveals spiritual and ecclesial identities. Liturgical listening then, becomes a ritual performance of “right hearing” of the word of God. This is important stuff for the contemporary Church and has implications for our preaching and our practices far beyond worship. What emerges very clearly in reading this book is that there is much to do in encouraging, enablingm and educating the Church to move away from being solely in transmission mode, and instead, reinhabit its vocation to listen, to attend, and hear what the Spirit is saying.

The Revd Dr Victoria Johnson is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Hearing our Prayers: An exploration of liturgical listening
Juliette J. Day
Liturgical Press £39.99
Church Times Bookshop £35.99

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