Today is Debbie Reynolds’s birthday. She is the most energetic woman I’ve ever seen on screen. What strikes me whenever I’ve watched her dance is this: her mastery of technique is what makes her energy so intense and infectious. Her poise and carriage are never tense nor slack; she is an icon of the (apparently) effortless channeling of the potential into the kinetic.
This relationship of form and energy holds in virtually any craft. I remember discovering King Crimson’s album “Discipline” in the late 80’s, a few years after it came out. I was intrigued by their frank embrace of a word that many see as the opposite of creativity. Knowing their guitarist Robert Fripp, it was an intentially provocative title, echoed many years later in the ex-Navy Seal Jocko Willink’s mantra “Discipline Equals Freedom.” God creates in Genesis 1 by disciplining the chaotic waters, separating confused ideas into clear ones. God’s Logos (which can mean “word” as well as “reason”) bursts forth with creative energy. In mythology, Orpheus uses music to tame chaos and bring life-giving order.
Applying this to the monastic life, we see that our forms in the cloister as well as in the liturgy are not meant to stifle or restrain, but to focus and release the energy of the spiritual life. The original liturgical movement, which was almost entirely the produect of nineteenth-century Benedictine monasticism, understood this idea well and aimed to share the great fruits of the liturgy with the rest of the clergy and the laity. Unfortunately, the liturgical movement in the twentieth century morphed into something else, a suspicion of liturgical form. This led to ill-advised and ill-exectued reforms following Vatican II. I’m not suggesting that a return to the Missal of 1962 would be a cure-all; what is needed is a new appreciation for what form is and can do when we allow ourselves to be disciplined by it.