Reflecting on “Flow and the Christian Experience of Time”

Lexi Eikelboom’s interesting blog post on Flow and the Christian Experience of Time (Module 1, Class of The Rhythmic Theology Project) defines “flow” as

Flow is a perfect state of concentration without struggle. In flow, one is working on something with such absorption that one’s sense of time disappears.

She places this concept in conversation with the liturgy, in light of “O’Donnell’s conception of liturgy as disintegrating the barriers between past, present, and future so as to more tightly integrate them,” and then raises a number of questions to which I thought I’d try responding, although in a slightly different order. My responses focus on the Catholic celebration of the eucharist, “the source and summit of Christian life.”

2. what is the creative challenge in liturgy that we are attempting to creatively meet that might induce a state of flow?

Communion. The eucharist is a foretaste and promise of that heavenly banquet at which we will be in perfect communion with God and with each other. In this life, that’s quite a creative challenge! 😉

It’s why we begin with a penitential rite, confessing our failings and seeking reconciliation with God and with each other. The latter is best evidenced in the Confiteor, with its parallel “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters” and “Therefore I ask blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” It’s why, immediately before communion, we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him how to pray; and then share a sign of the Peace of Christ that is not the world’s peace.

Another way to spell communion is love.

1. I have had plenty of experiences of simply checking out during worship and having my muscle-memory take over. In fact, sometimes I have to work hard to not let this happen and I suspect I am not alone in this. So, if it is the case that occasionally the opposite happens and we find ourselves in a state of flow during liturgy or worship, I think it’s worth asking what it is specifically about that situation that enabled an experience that might otherwise be unusual.

Ah, this is why liturgists care so much! There really is a difference between “good liturgy” and bad liturgy and mediocre liturgy. The purpose of the liturgy is to properly dispose us towards the grace we will receive so that it may bear fruit in our lives. Good liturgy is effective at so disposing us.

But we have to cooperate with that grace, by means of our “full, active, and conscious participation” in the liturgy… hey, that sounds a lot like “creative striving”! Good liturgy can make it easier for us to fully, actively, and consciously participate (rather than checking out or merely going through the motions), but the liturgy can’t do it for us. I believe the example of the saints shows us that as we ourselves grow in holiness, and as we practice that full active and conscious participation in the life of God generally and the liturgy specifically, it becomes easier for us to attain that state.

3. does the idea of flow represent a kind of premature eschatology in which past, present, and future are fully-integrated and we are peacefully at one with the flow of time? Could it be irresponsible to exist in such a state when so much of the world around us is in shambles?

“Foretaste and promise” of eschatology, not “premature” eschatology: that’s what the liturgy is for! Like the Transfiguration when Jesus allowed his closest friends to see his glory to give them heart through the struggles that would follow, the liturgy is meant to nourish us, encourage us, and give us hope (the theological virtue, not the sentimental optimism) as we are sent forth to love and serve the Lord. It isn’t irresponsible to spend an hour or two recharging our spiritual batteries so that we can return, refreshed and renewed, to the daily struggle.

And I’m not sure about that “peacefully at one with the flow of time”, either: not if that “peacefully” implies “impassively”. The creative challenge is communion with God and with each other, and the God who spoke through the prophets, including Mary in her Magnificat, is moved by the suffering of God’s children.

4. what or who, exactly, is flowing. More to the point, Christians will often talk about the Holy Spirit flowing through them. Is this what O’Donnell means, or is this sort of flow something different than temporal flow? Either answer would raise a question: If the flow of the Holy Spirit is something other than temporal flow, how are these two things related in liturgical flow?

Fill the earth, bring it to birth,
and blow where you will
Blow, blow, blow till I be
but breath of the Spirit blowing in me

— Sr. Dr. Miriam Therese Winter, 1966

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3 Responses to Reflecting on “Flow and the Christian Experience of Time”

  1. Thanks for taking up these questions! If I may ask a slightly more personal question, have you ever experienced flow or hyperfocus (defined as by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) during liturgy? And if, so, what were the circumstances? What was the good liturgy that made this possible? I think this is the heart of my questions – trying to figure out what exactly a flow-state during liturgy is. Is it exactly the same kind of psychological state as experiences of flow in other arenas or is there something distinctive about it?

    I absolutely agree with you that liturgy is not a premature eschatology but a foretaste. However, since flow is not a state confined to liturgy, how often and in what circumstances can we be in flow before the foretaste becomes a premature eschatology?

    Thanks for carrying on the conversation.

    • have you ever experienced flow or hyperfocus (defined as by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) during liturgy? And if, so, what were the circumstances? What was the good liturgy that made this possible?

      I think so. For me, all occasions involved music accompanying movement.

      The first occasion also involved explicit catechesis. I was at an NPM workshop, back in the days when we were still permitted to a) extend the Lamb of God litany until the breaking of the bread was complete, and b) celebrate mass while sitting around a table. This was a large hotel space with many round tables each seating about 7. There were several hundred people participating. At each table, one person was designated to be the person who would come up, during the fraction rite, to accept & bring back a small ciborium for the table; I was that person for my table. We sang a Taize setting of the Lamb of God, and when it was announced, before anything started, we were invited to look around at the number of tables in the room, realize that this was going to take quite some time, and rather than impatiently waiting for it to be done, to instead embrace the fraction rite as a significant and meaningful part of the mass, praying and reflecting on its meaning. The ostinato Taize prayer would help us do this.

      That’s almost the only thing I remember from that liturgy: standing in the slowly moving line, swaying gently as I sang the refrain over and over, holding in prayer the concepts that are in tension: the one bread broken into many parts that we might become one, the meal we were celebrating in memory of Jesus and Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who gave himself for us, have mercy on us. Logically, it must have taken at least 10 or 15 minutes, but it all felt like one extended moment to me.

      After that, I sometimes had a similar tho less intense experience during the Lamb of God. (At least, until they changed the rules to limit the number of invocations to 3.)

      Another occasion was at Holy Thursday mass during the washing of the feet, as the choir (of which I was a part) sang a choral ostinato setting of “Ubi Caritas” that has the basses coming in low on the downbeat of the first measure with an extended “Oooo” even though the melody doesn’t begin until the 2nd beat. That’s a piece of craft that will keep the repetition going forever. Tho the choir sang the SATB parts, the entire assembly was singing too; it wasn’t a choral anthem. While I sang, I prayed the text, and prayerfully watched the priest kneeling down, washing feet, drying them, standing up to move to the next person and do it again; watching the reversal of authority, the servant-leadership, that Jesus commanded (“not like the Gentiles, you shall not lord it over each other”), contemplating how often the church fails at this and yet here it is, here we enact it liturgically at the beginning of our highest holy days every year, trying again, and where charity and love are, there God is, there God is, there God is. What I remember even more clearly is the moment of coming *out* of that flow: after the song ended, my skin was tingling and I was ever so slightly light headed. I had this experience several years. (And having had it the first time, certainly primed me for it the next time. Ritual works!)

      One thing these examples have in common is that we’re singing until the end of an action which is going to take as long as it takes, rather than singing a fixed piece of music, for instance. This perhaps requires a broader gaze, “pay attention to the action and not just to the music”, which I think contributes.

      Less intensely, I have sometimes had a similar experience during communion, singing the communion song, especially after communion, watching all the people flow down the aisles and back again, all partakers of the same bread, all members of the same body, as me.

      Oh! and sometimes during the Litany of Saints, and during the Sanctus (for some settings, and especially when I was songleading), because those are liturgical moments when — according to our texts and our intentions — heaven manifests on earth: the saints come to pray for us, for the elect, for the confirmands; we sing with the choirs of angels and saints as the altar becomes the point at which past and future, heaven and earth, come together.

      Is it exactly the same kind of psychological state as experiences of flow in other arenas or is there something distinctive about it?

      I think it’s more receptive, which is definitely not to say “passive”. Which also seems to answer the question “is it the Spirit flowing?” (Note that my grounding in mimetic theology certainly conditions my ideas about “receiving”.)

      However, since flow is not a state confined to liturgy, how often and in what circumstances can we be in flow before the foretaste becomes a premature eschatology?

      If we’re doing the work of the kingdom? I don’t think there’s a limit. Except that we probably do need to come out of it from time to time; but then, I think humans do; it’s not really a naturally sustainable state.

      Thanks for your comment & for the interesting questions!

      • Beautiful. I definitely understand better now what you mean by the particular liturgy makes a difference for making flow more or less likely. I also suspect that this might be related to why it has been difficult for me to associate flow with worship/liturgy, as I am coming from a free church Protestant background. The liturgies are usually insufficiently thick and spacious, and perhaps too fast to present the context and creative challenges that might make flow possible.

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