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How the Liturgy Saved Me: A Psychologist Discovers the Solution to a Problem He Didn’t Know He Had

Liturgy is one of those things that can divide Christians. Some think of liturgy as rote prayers for people who are religious but don’t really know the Lord. I had one person leave the Anglican church I was pastoring because she could no longer pray liturgical prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, unless she knew she could consciously mean every word. By this, I understood that she thought her mind had to be fully engaged as she said every word or else it would be hypocritical. Now, if a person routinely prayed liturgical prayers without much conscious thought, this would be less than ideal, though it could be a starting point, as it was for me before I came to faith in Jesus. However, if it means that your mind is never allowed to wander, then I think we are all in trouble, whether the prayer was written by someone else or is just a habitual prayer in one’s own words. It seems pretty easy to get into a rut—or perhaps it is better to think of it as a groove—after one has developed some habit (in a good sense) of prayer.

It’s not so common these days, but, when I was an Anglican curate in the late 1980s, there were people in our church who thought any deviation from the liturgy was highly suspect. This was a holdover from the time after the Reformation in England, when any such deviation from the official text of the liturgy could threaten the stability of the realm and the monarchy. Since the monarch was the “Defender of the Faith,” there was only one official version of Christianity, and there was no concept of religious freedom as we know it today. Since this era has long since passed, it is odd that this kind of extreme view persisted for so long. But this kind of religious rigidity, of course, lent credence to the view that liturgy of necessity is the enemy of the freedom we are to have in Christ.

As a child, I had a little exposure to church, specifically the Anglicanism of the 1950s in inner-city Toronto, and found the liturgical service and church, in general, to be largely dry. I eventually decided that I had tried Christianity and found it to be wanting, though I now see that my exposure was quite truncated. I began searching for Truth anywhere other than in Christianity.[1] I kept investigating various religions and philosophies, including Buddhism, Marxism, and Objectivism (Ayn Rand’s philosophy). All came up wanting. I would always reach a point sooner or later at which a given system of thinking and analysis of “how things work” didn’t add up. Each one failed to fulfill its promise of a coherent way of looking at life or reality or experience. I wanted to know what lens actually worked so that I could make sense of—well—everything.

After high school, I took social and philosophical studies at the University of Toronto—affectionately known as Soc (with a hard c) and Phil. I ended up majoring in psychology and went on to graduate studies in clinical psychology at York University, where I completed my master’s degree and, many years, later my Ph.D. Psychology became the lens through which I saw life—my de facto religion—but it never fulfilled what I was looking for. Psychology never really satisfied my desire for a coherent system that made sense within itself and through which everything else made sense. Though I was still seeking Truth, I put it on the back burner as I turned my attention from academic studies to earning a living in the field of clinical psychology and pursuing middle-class upward mobility. In order to further this pursuit, my wife and I immigrated to the United States, where I had secured a position as a child therapist in what is referred to locally as Chicagoland.

After a year and a half, we moved to Houston, Texas. We were on our way up the class ladder. Soon after this move, I began to experience symptoms in my eyes. I went off to see an ophthalmologist who said I had a “thin spot” on my left retina but it was nothing to worry about. As these symptoms became more noticeable, anxiety about losing my eyesight through retinal detachment made it hard to get to sleep. I began to say rote prayers/liturgy, such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. I grew up praying the Lord’s Prayer in public school, whereas I had learned the Apostles’ Creed when I was about eight—at the time when my mother reaffirmed her faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Saviour by being confirmed (along with my paternal aunt) in the Anglican Church. Saying these prayers/affirmations by rote would enable me to fall asleep peacefully. On later reflection, I think something planted in my spirit was by-passing my hyper-rational mind. You could say it somehow broke through my defences, to use the psychological explanation.

After several months of worry and anxiety, out of the blue something happened that was so uncanny and unexpected that in an instant (where time seems to stand still just for a moment), I crossed a threshold from unbelief to belief. On the way home from work, my wife and I stopped at the supermarket to pick up a few groceries. I noticed a magazine called “Changing Times” with the feature cover story on “the Booming Southwest.” I had never heard of this magazine, and I rarely buy anything on impulse, but I threw the magazine into the cart. It was especially odd that I would buy a magazine featuring “the Booming Southwest,” since we had been living in “the Booming Southwest” for the last several months. What more did I need to know? My wife even challenged the purchase as unnecessary, and that didn’t dissuade me as it normally would. We had both grown up in meager circumstances, so frugality was our middle name. When we got home from the supermarket, I threw the magazine down on the coffee table, where it could have stayed indefinitely. My wife casually picked it up and immediately turned to an article on retinal detachment. “Are you still obsessing about this?” she inquired with a degree of irritation. I was perplexed. I had no idea there was any such article in this magazine. I scoured the cover to see if I had “subliminally perceived” a reference to the article. My training in psychology and hyper-rational mind demanded a non-supernatural explanation. I soon discovered there was no mention of this article or anything of a medical nature on the cover. Medical articles were not even the main focus of the magazine, and I knew I had not bought it with my eye issue in mind. I looked into my wife’s eyes and said quietly that I was not aware of the article. Wordlessly, in an instant and without speaking, we both came to the realization that something supernatural had happened. Somehow, I knew she had drawn the same conclusion I had: “Someone” had intervened on my behalf. We left it at that.

I spent the next several weeks anxiously wondering what to do. I assumed that my only recourse would be to go back to the ophthalmologist whom I had seen previously. Based on my previous experience with him, I assumed he would be visibly frustrated with me and would dismiss my concerns out of hand. Plus, I had already had a second opinion when my wife and I went back to Ontario for a visit with our parents. I had seen my mother’s eye doctor, and he had said he could see something in the periphery of my left eye but assured me that it did not need treatment. At least he was nice about it.

One day at work, I was passing my colleague’s office. He was the other staff psychologist who had mentored me when I began my position at Harris County Juvenile Probation. He called me in and handed me a sheaf of papers. He said something to this effect: “My son had to see a retinal specialist, and here is the information we received from him. It’s against my better judgment to give you this because I don’t think there is anything wrong with your eyes, but here it is.” I went back to my office and read the information but hesitated to call the doctor’s office. I assumed I needed a referral from my uncooperative ophthalmologist, which I did not think would be forthcoming. Back to the drawing board. The weekend came, and an anxiety-filled weekend it was. Back at work and partway through the next week, I thought, “I have to give this a try.” I picked up the phone and dialed the number. A woman answered, and I explained my concerns, emphasizing that I did not have a referral. After my usual over-explaining, I said I would like to come in. I was expecting to hear, “You need a referral.” Instead, she said, “I was waiting for you to say that.” Inwardly, I thought, “What is happening?” but I just listened, and she then proceeded to give me an appointment for the following Monday. After I got off the phone, I started to think about how torturous the last weekend had been. I thought to myself, “At the risk of sounding like a complete nut, I’ll call back to see if there is any chance I could be seen later that same week.” The same woman answered, and I made my request and she said with no hesitation, “Yes, you can come in on Friday afternoon” and gave me an appointment time. I got off the phone thinking, “What just happened?”

On Friday I made my way to the doctor’s office, where I received the usual drops to dilate my pupils and then waited anxiously to see the doctor. There was one other patient in the waiting room who must have thought I looked anxious. She gently initiated a conversation with me. This was highly unusual, as I was brought up in Toronto in the 1950s, where one did not talk to people one did not know in doctor’s offices and only spoke in brief hushed tones to someone who was actually with you. It turned out that this kind woman was a Christian who had Type 1 diabetes and was in danger of losing her vision. Here she was reassuring me!

Then I was called in to see the doctor, one of only two retinal specialists in Houston, which is a major medical hub for the whole region. He proceeded to press gently but firmly around the periphery of each retina with a small plastic spoon-like instrument, stopping frequently to make little marks on a piece of paper. I later learned that this is a very delicate procedure that can cause retinal detachment and can only be done by someone like this doctor. As he was making marks on his paper, I surmised that all these markings were representative of the retinal tears that I had read about. After finishing, he showed me the paper, which had concentric circles with sections. Around the entire edge of the circles for each eye were very many crosshatchings. They were especially dense at the lower-left corner of the right eye—the so-called thin spot seen by my ophthalmologist. Then the doctor said, “We will schedule you for cryosurgery on the left eye for Monday. If you have any increase of symptoms over the weekend, call me. Here is the phone number where you can reach me on the weekend.” I think he gave me his direct number, as it was not the office number. I never had to call.

On Monday we had a typical heavy gulf-coast rainstorm, which meant street flooding was likely. My wife and I arrived at the hospital in the early afternoon and were told that I would be the last patient to have surgery that day since the hospital was about to be closed so that staff and outpatients would be able to get out of the flood-prone area around the Texas Medical Center before street flooding prevented travel. They rushed me through the preparation for the surgery, trying to dilate my pupil as quickly as possible. They wheeled me in, and the doctor appeared just as calm and reassuring as before. He injected local anesthetic around my eye and numbed the eye further with drops as needed. He traced a super-cooled liquid nitrogen-filled probe slowly around the eye. This welds the peripheral retina to the underlying tissue, called the schlera, thus creating a strong bond wherever there are retinal tears. Of course, that eliminates sight in that part of the retina, but since it is the far periphery, there is no noticeable loss of peripheral vision. Two weeks later I had surgery on the other eye under less time-pressured circumstances. My eyesight was saved, yet I didn’t think about God for several more months.

A few months after the eye surgery, we moved to a lovely house in a beautiful suburb, surpassing my childhood dreams of a middle-class life. I thought living with my wife in a nice home in a nice area and good incomes would fulfill my dreams, but instead, I became acutely aware of an inner emptiness that persisted and increased over the next few weeks. Something was missing. One evening, my wife and I went to the movie Chariots of Fire. I was very moved by the Christian life and sacrificial witness of the protagonist and afterward felt troubled and stirred within myself. Back at home, I wrestled with a feeling that wouldn’t go away. Finally, I gave in to the feeling and asked my wife if she wanted to pray. This was beyond unexpected. Yet she followed me to our bedroom, where we knelt beside the bed and I called out to God in a brief prayer, the first real prayer from my heart and mind that I had ever made. We got into bed without further conversation and fell peacefully asleep.

Soon after this I became open to listening to testimonies about Jesus. This was a radical change for me. I began to watch a television program in which Christians were interviewed and spoke of how Jesus had brought miraculous changes in their lives in various ways. This made me realize that the healings I had heard about in Bible stories as a child were true miracles, not just the power of suggestion influencing gullible primitive people, as I had previously believed. The logical conclusion I drew was that the miracle of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, was also true. Suddenly, I wanted this Jesus.

I called a prayer line and was led in a prayer to receive Jesus but felt nothing. At the end of the prayer, the woman said, “The angels are rejoicing in heaven that you have come to Jesus.” Deep down and almost imperceptibly I felt the tiniest of clicks but otherwise felt nothing. I think I was looking for a more noticeable confirmation in my emotions. Nevertheless, that evening, during dinner while eating peas, I blandly and inexplicably said to my wife that I had been born again. I didn’t feel the least bit born again, nor did I feel much of anything. Without thinking or overthinking, which was so typical of me, I just said it. Nothing more.

A few weeks later, after a failed attempt to go to church, my wife and I arrived at our local suburban upper-middle-class Episcopal church on what turned out to be Pentecost Sunday 1982—not that I had a clue what Pentecost meant. The service began, and with the help of the leaflet, I was able to find my way through the prayer book. This was a change already from my childhood experience of church, when I had trouble following the service in the prayer book. But a bigger surprise was yet to happen. I understood the prayers and agreed with them. Apparently, I had experienced a spiritual birth although I didn’t consciously make that connection at the time.

The biggest surprise was yet to unfold. I joined in the congregational prayer of confession as we said together:

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[2]

As I prayed the words about the burden of sin being intolerable, I felt a heavy weight on my chest like a large boulder, and as the prayer continued with the plea for God to have mercy on us and forgive us, I felt the weight lift and disappear. When I now think of this, I can’t help but think of the large boulder sealing Jesus’ tomb being supernaturally rolled away and revealing He is not there. At that time, I had no recollection of the details of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I was the opposite of suggestible when it came to spiritual matters. I had grown up very out of touch with my emotions, hyper-rational, and with an over-emphasis on formal education, which reinforced a rarified and snobbish sort of intellectualism. I knew the impressions I had during this prayer were from God.

Then the service moved on to Communion. I wanted to receive communion but thought I wasn’t eligible since I had never been confirmed. This was the standard understanding in Anglicanism when I was growing up. Just then, I read in the leaflet that anyone who was baptized could receive. I thought, “I’ve been baptised, so I can go up.” Unwittingly, I had appropriated and owned my infant baptism. So, my wife and I went up to the rail and received the body and blood of Christ. Throughout the whole liturgical service, the emotions I was looking for when I prayed to receive Jesus into my heart surfaced. I had both the confirmation of the sense of a weight lifting and an emotional reaction of tears as the Lord touched both of our hearts with his love and saving grace.

Communion had been completely opaque to me as a child.  It was a ritual to which I was not invited, and I had received no instruction on its meaning. I remember going to church with my aunt and uncle when I was about twelve. At communion time, they would almost disappear up the very long aisle of the mostly empty church, leaving me alone in the very uncomfortable pew. Children did not even go up for a blessing in those days, at least not in that particular church. So much for Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me” when he took them in his arms and blessed them. No wonder I thought I had tried Christianity and found it to be wanting.

When I received the bread and then the wine, I knew I was receiving the body and blood of Christ. This was not a theological reflection or a conclusion. It was simply a knowing, a realization, a revelation.

Clearly, God alone saves people, but He does know what will reach a given individual. Because I had led a pretty straight life and because I had repressed so much emotionally, I had no idea that I was carrying a burden of guilt. Plus, I felt such a nebulous and pervasive sense of guilt growing up that, aided by my understanding of Freudian psychology, I had decided at some point in my twenties to turn off the voice of my “harsh superego.” The problem in turning off the neurotic guilt was that in doing so I turned off the inner voice of the Holy Spirit as well. God had to bypass my defences, my emotional numbness, and my middle-class, traditional, self-righteous morality. And that’s how He did it. “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15 NIV2011).

And that is how the liturgy saved me and I discovered that guilt is real because God is real. Psychology on its own can’t figure this out.

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Rev. Dr. Greg McVeigh is a priest in the Anglican Network of Canada (ANiC) which is a diocese of the Anglican Church in North America. In 1971, he married Jennifer who has been his faithful partner in life and ministry. He studied psychology at the University of Toronto (Honours B.SC.) and York University (Toronto) (M.A., Ph.D.). After working in the field of mental health in Canada and the United States, he sensed a call to ordained ministry and began studies in the M.Div. program at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (Ambridge, Pennsylvania) which he completed in 1989. He was then ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada and pastored parishes in Thunder Bay, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. Since 2009, he has served in ANiC parishes in Burlington and Oakville, Ontario. He is now focussing on writing as a way to pass on what he has learned and experienced as a disciple of Christ.

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