Liturgies for Young and Old

By Olmstead, Gracy | The American Conservative, September-October 2016 | Go to article overview

Liturgies for Young and Old


Olmstead, Gracy, The American Conservative


You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K.A. Smith, Brazos Press, 224 pages

I still remember learning Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 3 in E major. My violin teacher was a stickler for technique, especially when it came to playing Bach. She called this particular piece a "marathon": it required careful pacing and a good deal of commitment. There are a lot of fast passages that, if learned too hastily, sound rushed and fitful. The key, she affirmed week after week, was to practice the piece slowly with a metronome, paying excruciating detail to rhythm and fingering. She assured me that once I grew intimately acquainted with the notes and bowings, the speed would come by itself. Like second nature.

She was right. And to my surprise, the more time I spent practicing that piece, the more I came to love it. Whereas at the beginning of my study I was only mildly interested in Bach, the more I played this and other pieces by him, the more I came to love his music, with all its delicacy and finesse.

Perhaps it's this remembrance that helped me identify so deeply with James K.A. Smith's new book You Are What You Love. Smith begins his book with a classic quotation from St. Augustine's Confessions, in which Augustine declares that "You [God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." There is a teleological bent to human nature: we are dynamic beings in search of a specific end. And while philosophy since the Enlightenment has conditioned us to believe "we are what we think" (thanks in large part to Rene Descartes), Augustine's statement positions the seat of human character and creaturehood in the heart, not the head, suggesting that our proper end is devotion, not cognition. "What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers?" Smith asks. Then, the question becomes not "whether you will love something as ultimate," but rather, "what you will love as ultimate."

We are in fact creatures most often shaped by our gut instincts and desires--governed by eros, not thought. Smith doesn't use this term in a merely sexual sense: eros, for him, refers to the entire spectrum of human desires and loves that pervade our lives. But if our loves and motivations are governed by the heart or the gut, not the head, how do we know what we really love or want? Can't we all too easily deceive ourselves?

Smith says yes--but adds a word of assurance. Our hearts are not unnavigable and unknowable: they bend to the tunes and rhythms we set for them. The key is to know that love is a habit, not merely a choice. In order to foster proper loves, we must consciously choose to immerse ourselves in the correct "liturgies": defined here as daily rhythms, stories, and habits that shape us.

This is where that Bach Partita comes in: to foster virtuous love is "more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory," writes Smith. "The goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play 'naturally' as it were. Learning here isn't just information acquisition; it's more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being." Learning to love God is like learning to play Bach: it requires daily immersion in habits and practices that train the "muscles" of my heart to desire, and thus do, what it ought.

Smith points to the ancient liturgies of the Christian church as guiding voices that can sculpt our loves and pull us toward God. He pays careful attention here to the work that ancient musical worship, prayers, baptism, sacraments, and the liturgical calendar all do in shaping our loves. To take our faith beyond the realm of head knowledge requires "the recalibration of our heart-habits and the recapturing of our imagination"--something that happens when we regularly engage in "embodied, tangible, and visceral" practices. …

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