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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Daniel

Liturgy and Immigration, Part I

When Christians consider the nature of human existence it is important to remember the ancient expression, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, the Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief. In other words, how you pray not only conditions what you believe but it is what you believe. Prayer, here, reaches well beyond what we might normally think of as prayer, e.g., saying the Lord’s Prayer, praying at meals, praying for those who suffer, etc. Lex Orandi encompasses the full range of Opus Dei—the work of God. Opus Dei first and foremost means the liturgical action of the people of God, especially as it is used in monastic circles. Yet it is a clearly liturgical action that sends the faithful into the fields and workplaces as liturgists, so to gather the world—the harvest, other people, animals, etc.—into the liturgical action of God in Christ. Lex Orandi, then, the rule of prayer as it is lived out in our daily life and labors—ever attentive to the faith of Christ in the Eucharistic economy, makes manifest, for better or worse, what we really believe about the agency of God in the world. Good theology, then, as Alexander Schmemann once said, is first and foremost an “expression of liturgy.”

This is to suggest that every human movement is a movement in concert with, or antagonistic toward, the active agency of God in the world. For if everything is an act of worship, to one degree or another, then how we move about our days manifests what we believe about the relationship between human and divine natures, bodies and souls, humans and other humans, humans and the world, and so on. Lex Orandi and Lex Credendi, therefore, are inseparable. That is, I might confess one thing with words, but my movements tell another story, the truth of what I believe lies in what I do, not what I say. For my actions are my primary form of speech.

The student of scripture may object to the above, quoting the apostle Paul who says in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7.15, 18b-19, emphasis mine). Yet the key to this passage is verse 18b, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” In other words, I can give myself to the agency of Christ, or I can presume my own agency, i.e., sin. If I will what is right—the agency of Christ, then God completes God’s work in me, through the agency of Christ (Romans 8.1-9). “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8.5). It is not the mind that precedes the actions of the body, says Paul—to live according to the flesh is to set one’s mind on the flesh; rather, the actions of the body give rise to thoughts and make manifest beliefs about what a person understands to be the love of God or what it means to inhabit the world—to live according to the Spirit is to set one’s mind on the Spirit.

Let’s put this in simple terms: if we eat pancakes for breakfast, smothered in powdered sugar and sweet, maple syrup, with a little savory bacon on the side, we should be little surprised when lunch and dinner role around, or the snack times between, that we crave something sweet and salty. Why? Because we began our day conditioning our palates to crave the sweet and savory. What’s on our body-mind for lunch is not the salad we’re trying to convince ourselves that we should have; rather, we want the same flavorful stuff that our breakfast prepared us to desire. Thought follows embodied desire. We can will to eat that salad, as it were, but if we haven’t begun our days with something more nutritious and lower on the glycemic index, then we won’t be able to eat it, unless one has a good spouse watching over them, putting it on our plates, i.e., Christ performing the work of God in us.

Liturgical preparation is not unlike our breakfast. And just like our breakfast, eating healthy one morning is not going to undo a lifetime of ruinous foods. To think as we pray—to live according to the Spirit and thereby have one’s mind set on the things of the Spirit—means examining our thoughts to better understand what our liturgical habits, or lack thereof, are doing to us today, as well as the background we have accumulated by them over a history of inculturation. Again, by liturgical habit I mean Opus Dei, i.e., everything as standing in a primary relationship to the worship of God. Our bodily postures in and outside of worship incline us to perceive the world according to the desires inscribed on us by our habits and practices. To the degree that the postures of humility and silence condition the working out of our salvation (Philippians 2) is the degree to which we will live humbly before others, listening for the Spirit who speaks in the between of creaturely relationships. Additionally, in proportion to these postures not being ordinary for us is likewise the proportion to which humble listening will be absent from us. In other words, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi is another way of saying that how we move is what we believe, for how we move conditions what we thereby perceive.

But what has any of this to do with immigration, or a person’s relationship to immigrants? In a word, everything. Our political posture toward immigrants and laws regarding immigration are born out of particular habits, practices, environments, and experiences. A person who has grown up in a region or home where difference is shunned and the other is feared will have a propensity to distrust immigrants or disapprove of immigration, especially by those who are of a different ethnicity. Persons who have had a negative experience with Mexicans or persons of color, for instance, are liable to project onto all Hispanic persons or persons of color the disdain or fear they have for the one person or the small group of people who influenced their perception beforehand. Similarly, those who have had positive experiences with persons of different ethnicities and backgrounds have an overwhelming tendency to relate positively toward immigrants and favor more generous immigration policies.

The connection I am making here, relative to liturgical practice, is that how we perceive immigrants, and everyone else for that matter, is conditioned by particular habits, practices, environments, and experiences that tend either to open us to or close us off from those with whom there is no immediate or even visible relation. Yet participating regularly in the worship of the church is not enough to dispose us toward openness with others. Openness and a depth of empathy toward others requires daily activities that condition us toward greater receptivity, especially if our background is one of antagonism toward the stranger, or if our experiences have inclined us to be hesitant or reluctant to trust. Perhaps the greatest remedy for this is to move in closer with those who are not like us—those who differ in appearance, ethnicity, language, etc., which will alleviate our tendency to move further away, stewing in our own realm of speculation.

Immigration policies are shaped by particular liturgical habits and practices that condition lawmakers to conceive and perceive what it means to be a citizen and nation. I use “liturgical,” here, both as it relates to particular Christian formation and more broadly in the manner that James K. A. Smith uses the term as practices of worship that instill desires and shape our loves (see Desiring the Kingdom, Brazos Press, 2009). My primary concern has less to do with any particular politician or group of politicians and their liturgical habituation; rather, it regards opening faithful worshippers of Christ to recognize and own that each of our ways of perceiving others and the world are relative to our daily habits and practices. Spiritual humility, therefore, calls us to examine what we think and believe and to discern what habits and practices have inscribed these beliefs upon us, for better and for worse. When we do so we will be able to better understand what we actually believe and contemplate how our embodied beliefs cohere with or betray the hospitality of Christ.

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