Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi
Swimming the Tiber, Part 1
I love the movie Steel Magnolias for many reasons, including the fact that it feels like I’m at a family gathering listening to my aunts whenever the women gather at Truvy’s salon to gossip and argue. But there’s a line — an unimportant, throwaway joke of a like — spoken by Truvy in that film that I sometimes wish were true:
“Oh Annelle, God don’t care which church you go to, just so long as you show up.”
It’s endearing and I completely get the spirit of her comment, and I’m also not pretending like this film is meant to be a theological treatise. But here’s the reality of life, which has been true since the foundations of the world were created: God indeed cares how we worship.
I’m not implying God cannot move beyond our mere human ideas and human-made constructs of things, such as denominations or buildings or even doctrines. God clearly speaks to people in all sorts of ways, well beyond churches and preachers. God uses things like nature, poetry and music and films, and even heretical or anti-or non-religious teachings to bring people to truth. All truth is God’s truth, wherever it’s found.
But God — because He is good — cares about how we worship. And the reason is not that God demands to be worshiped in a certain way, like a hubristic mythological god threatening certain actions and sacrifices lest he smites or curses the humans out of pride and vanity. God desires us to worship in a “right and just” way least of all because it’s good for us.
“Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi” is an old Latin saying that directly means, “The law of prayer leads to the law of belief leads to the law of living,” but the spirit of the phrase means, “How we worship directly affects what we believe, which then affects how we live.” Its watered-down modern second cousin, which I say all too frequently with my kids and students (more about habit formation than theology but still applies here) is, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”
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God has divinely created us with a need for our bodies and minds to connect with our hearts. We are body-soul composites, not one or the other. Whether we like it or not, whether we recognize it or not, what we do with our bodies affects what happens in our minds and in our souls. (This is why it’s not good for weak mortals like myself to wait until I feel like working out in order to work out, because it’ll absolutely positively never happen otherwise.)
We actually live out this reality all day long. Exercise is an obvious example, but we also go to work even when we don’t feel like it, we cook dinner and fold laundry because it needs to be done and not because it sounds like the most pleasant way to spend a late afternoon, and we pay our taxes not because the IRS is a well-oiled machine who always has our best interests at heart, but because we don’t want to go to jail. We stop at red lights even when we’re in a hurry. We adults take actions that are not led by feels-good desire all day, every day.
We All Worship Something
If our actions matter in the ordinary quotidian things like the above, then they matter tenfold in how we worship. Worship is not merely a matter of right-thinking that stays in our heads. Our worship affects how we view the purpose of life, how we interact with other people in the world, how we spend our money, what sort of art we value, what gives us peace and solace, and countless other things, including how we view God and the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. This is because ‘worship’ is not just bowing down to a deity, mind checked in at the front, or who we pray to, or what style of music we sing in praise to the divine.
Side note: In this ongoing series, definitions will matter in substantial ways. During my discernment period when I was in the Tiber swimming between one shore and the other, I kept bumping up against this idea of clear definitions — when we use a word, sometimes we assume something is meant when it actually isn’t. It may feel clunky, but my storytelling will include a number of brief side trails (not full-on rabbit trails) where terms are defined.
The definition of ‘worship’ is “the acknowledgment of another's worth, dignity, or superior position.”1 It is recognizing the reality of another’s true nature. (This is why in old-school marriage rites, spouses would say, “With my body I thee worship” — they weren’t pledging to bow down to each other as though they were deities, they were admitting a recognition of each other’s divinely-appointed dignity.) We moderns associate worship exclusively with the broad idea of religion, but worship is a humane act that engages our mind, soul, and body toward the right recognition of a thing. This is why it’s actually a form of justice, because ‘justice’ is "the constant and permanent determination to give everyone his or her rightful due.”2 To worship is to give right acknowledgment.
We can’t escape worship because we humans are worshipping beings. It’s hard-wired in our longing to give a right recognition of things — this need to worship comes from the same place as our desire for legal justice when a crime has been committed, for an apologetic wave from a driver when we’ve been cut off in traffic, and when we’re frustrated when a co-worker gets the credit for the hard work we did. To worship is to render justice. Even folks who claim no formal religion walk around worshipping because it’s hard-wired in our very make-up. It’s just what the agnostic David Foster Wallace once said: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship,”3 and what the convert Bob Dylan once crooned, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”4
And connected with the idea of ‘worship,’ ‘religion’ is “the moral virtue by which a person is disposed to render to God the worship and service he deserves.” This, too, “is sometimes identified with the virtue of justice toward God, whose rights are rooted in his complete dominion over all creation.”5
In other words, religion is rendering justice to God. It’s giving God his rightful due. And to worship in the context of religion, therefore, is to render to God the worship he deserves.
What sort of worship does God deserve? What an odd thing to say at first blush.
It’s as though this is saying that what or who we worship matters, of course, but how we worship matters too. What sort of worship should we be enacting? Is there such a thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ worship? And how is it not hubris for mere mortals to say they hold the corner on the right way to worship?
It was these initial questions that ultimately led to my conversion to Catholicism, but the answers were years in the making, and one answered question led to a million more to unpack. But if you’ve subscribed to this column in The Commonplace, that means you’re at least a little curious as to how all that went down.
Please note that so far, in reference to the maxim of “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,” I haven’t really referred to Catholicism specifically. At this point, I’m not making any apologetical case for the particular means of worship offered by the Catholic Church. That’s all in good time when it makes sense with the story I’m telling here. Right now, I’m simply stating the fact that how we worship matters. Whether we’re Catholics or Baptists or Lutherans or good ol’ non-denominational folks, like I was for all of my upbringing, or even Muslims or Buddhists or skeptics or atheists or deconstructionists or whatever new definition comes to our shores tomorrow — how we worship matters. And it matters for us and for our humanity. Right worship in the context of religion — giving our Maker his rightful due — makes us more human. In fact, it’s the most humane thing we could possibly do.
How We Worship Matters
We all have a liturgy, both to our religious services and to our ordinary days, even when we don’t recognize them as such. For the high-church types among us, the liturgy is obvious: the collects, the creeds, and the consecration. But low churches have them too: the greeting at the start of a church service, the order and rhythm of the type of praise-and-worship songs sung, the cadence in how the preacher prays, and so forth. So, too, do our days: our morning and evening routines, where we eat our meals and what we do before we partake of them, what we listen to while we make dinner, and the seasonal traditions throughout the year we can’t imagine the holidays without are all part of our unique liturgies. The word ‘liturgy,’ after all, means “the work of the people;” it’s “a public service, duty, or work.”6 It’s how we work. It’s how we do our thing. It’s how we move about in the world.
If how we worship — how we give God his rightful due — is tied to our liturgies — our work of the people, then those liturgies should matter because how we worship matters. Would it be so bold and daring to venture out and whisper that, perhaps, there is a right and a wrong way to worship and enact our liturgies?
Perhaps. Perhaps especially if our liturgical worship forms are tied to truth, because by definition, truth is simply the “conformity of mind and reality,”7 it’s “what is.” It’d be an incongruent shame to our human nature if our liturgy didn’t reflect the truth — the what is-ness of the reality of the world.
This basic realization is part of the foundation that led me to ask certain questions which led me to answers I never saw coming. These initial, surface-skinned answers first pointed to Anglicanism, where I joyfully partook in the body of Christ for about five years before becoming Catholic. After all, its liturgical rites and view of religion felt so spot-on. It really did seem like the “right and just” way to worship God. But little did I know that those years were actually part of a longer on-ramp to a much bigger, much older tradition where so much was ultimately familiar to these Anglican rituals I loved. (Turned out, there was a historical reason for that familiarity. And it’s the same reason why so many Catholic converts these days swim the Tiber by way of a pitstop at the Anglican Church.)
I haven’t made any sort of case for Catholicism yet, and for good reason. First, I was drawn to the larger, simpler idea that how I worship matters. It’s not just a matter of personal preference; it’s a matter of my divinely-crafted nature. At the very beginning of my questioning of everything I knew, I had to ask myself: Is how I currently partake in the Body of Christ reflective of how I’m meant to truly worship? As much as I appreciated the Bible-soaked tradition of my evangelical childhood and adolescence, something about it felt… off. It felt like wearing a too-itchy, ill-fitting sweater. But that’s not quite the right analogy because it smacks a bit too much like personal preference. The whole cadence of the approach to worship felt way too new. Too American. Too unfamiliar with what I read in the Bible, later with what I experienced in visiting different cultures and their worship services around the world, and even later with what I read from the early Church Fathers and Mothers.
Much, much good has come out of modern approaches of worship, so I’m not saying God hasn’t used them. At all. But I did wonder if those approaches to “doing church” — the gatherings, the musical praise-and-worship followed by a long sermon, nary a sacrament to be found — was what Jesus originally meant by being the Church.
These questions first led me to look in Anglicanism for the answers, where I was happy to be for a while. But if I’m honest, hindsight tells me I parked there because it felt safer than being Catholic. There, no one would be concerned for my salvation or put me on a prayer list. Even with all the robes and the liturgical calendar, it was still Protestant and so it was okay.
Five years later, though, I had to wrestle (and whoo boy, wrestling I did) with the conviction that, yes, Annelle, God cares about us both showing up to church and about how we worship at said church. And I swam the Tiber not quite kicking and screaming, but more with a doleful yet resolute obedience, because I realized that my not submitting to the authority of the Catholic Church would ultimately be for me a sin (“a word, deed, or desire in opposition to eternal law” — again with the definitions).8 Once I knew what I knew, I couldn’t un-know.
There’s a Texas-sized sweet yellow onion-worth of layers here, and I plan to slowly peel them each away with this series. All in due time.
Funnily enough, this video from Brian Holdsworth just released this week. It’s pretty spot-on to what I’m referencing in this essay:
Edited to add: Holy cow — similar to how when you buy a new car, suddenly everyone else around you has that car, I feel like I’m suddenly seeing stuff all over the internet about this topic (hello, algorithm). The brilliant Joe Heschmeyer just released this episode — I know the title feels click-baity, but the content is really good (here it is in audio form, if you prefer):
Coming up: why apostolic succession and authority ultimately mattered first and foremost above any questions I had about the weird Catholic stuff, like Mary and purgatory; why beauty and goodness mattered just as much as truth in my conversion (and why that made it hard to leave Anglicanism); how I reconciled with the whole women-not-being-priests thing; why confess your sins to a priest; how on earth I could come to agree that the bread and wine really did become the body and blood of Jesus and the whole thing not being only a memorial we should occasionally do; and more. Because I really did wrestle with all those things and a thousand things besides.
Thank you for reading. More is on its way.
Ora et Labora,
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p.s. A few years before I converted, my friend and podcast co-host (and fellow convert)told me I should just read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to hear directly from the horse’s mouth what it is the Church teaches and not just assume the hearsay I’d been taught by drinking the Protestant waters in which I swam. That was really good advice, and thankfully, it’s pretty easy for anybody to do that now: I highly, highly recommend Fr. Mike Schmitz’s podcast The Catechism in a Year if you’d like a short, daily play-by-play rundown of Catholic theology in a nutshell.
p.p.s. Another really good, friendly, easy-to-read book is Brandon Vogt’s Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be, Too). Back in my discernment process, I got to chatting with him online, and he graciously sent my family several copies of this book. It was quite helpful — another resource I highly recommend, if you’re truly curious.
p.p.s. For more on the specifics mentioned in this essay about true worship, religion, and justice, It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion, by Scott Hahn and Brandon McKinley is a great read.