Consider the Lilies (with apologies to Matthew!)

One day last week I was in the staff lunchroom rearranging a vase of lilies I had been given after presenting a workshop. A colleague approached wielding a pair of scissors. The conversation that followed went something like this:

Elizabeth: What are you doing?
Jan: I’m going to cut the centres out of the flowers for you.
Elizabeth: Why?
Jan: Because you always do that with lilies.
Elizabeth: Why?
Jan: To stop the smell.
Elizabeth: Can you smell them?
Jan: No, they don’t have any perfume, do they?
Elizabeth: So we don’t need to remove the centres after all.
Jan: I think it’s also so that the pollen doesn’t stain your clothes when you brush past them.
Elizabeth: Up there on the shelf at eye level?
Jan:  Oh, I see what you mean!
Elizabeth: Do the pollen anthers spoil the look of the lilies?
Jan: No, actually they look rather attractive against the white petals.
Elizabeth: So, let’s not cut them off!

Move the scene to a meeting of a parish liturgy committee, or a church just before Mass begins, and the question changes to something like:

Why do we sing a hymn after the first reading and not do the psalm in the lectionary? OR
Why do we always say the “Hail Mary” at the end of the Prayer of the Faithful? OR
Why is it only men who ever take up the collection? OR
Why is communion from the chalice seldom if ever offered to the people at Mass? OR
Why do we wait until after the music ministers have received Communion before starting the communion hymn?

The answer however is invariably the same as with the lilies – because we have always done it that way!

Maybe the reason we have “always done it that way” needs revisiting. Perhaps the lilies do not in fact have a strong perfume and present no threat to anyone’s clothing!
In his book “Song of the Bird” Anthony de Mello tells the story of the guru’s cat. When the guru sat down to worship the cat always got in the way, so he ordered the cat to be tied up. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during worship, and when that cat died, another was found and duly tied at prayer time. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the essential role of a tethered cat in all properly conducted worship.

In liturgy we sometimes continue a practice long after the reason for introducing it (if there ever was one!) has disappeared, and sometimes even come up with a theological explanation.  It may take an outsider asking questions to make us stop and think about its purpose.

Consider the lilies – and the guru’s cat!

Elizabeth Harrington