A Sacred Ebb and Flow
Foot down, hand forward, shift your weight.” These are just a few of the cues my tai chi instructor provides the class. Millions of people around the world practice tai chi as a form of gentle exercise to reduce stress, ease joint pain, enhance mindfulness, and improve balance.
Since practitioners of this ancient martial art move through a series of postures that flow from one into the other, tai chi is often called meditation in movement. As a group practices, the ease of the transitions between postures makes it seem as though the exercise is one continuous movement. The unity of the group transforms ordinary movements, gestures, and postures into ones that are powerful and profound. The tradition behind tai chi, the meaning connected to each posture, and the benefits of the exercise help form and transform practitioners.
The liturgy, too, is a sequence of distinct postures, gestures, and movements. Worshippers stand, sit, and kneel. They speak, sing, listen, and remain still in a collective silence. Every moment of the liturgy transitions or flows into the next. The Entrance Song and the procession into the church flow into the Collect or opening prayer, which flows into either the Penitential Act or the Sprinkling Rite, and so forth. As participants in the liturgy practice the same ritual patterns, they become more and more in sync with one another.
The scientific word for such synchronicity is entrainment, a concept discovered in 1665 by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens while working on the design of the pendulum clock. When Huygens placed two clocks with pendulums swinging at opposite rates near each other, he found that eventually the pendulums began swinging at the same rate. Entrainment, which has been applied to a range of areas from astronomy to music, has helped the scientific world prove that opposite oscillating bodies can influence each other to vibrate in harmony.
Liturgical ritual patterns transform ordinary movements, gestures, and postures into ones that are powerful and profound. The rituals in our liturgy synchronize us so that together we can be more attuned to creation, to each other, and to God, whose very breath began to swing the first pendulum of life.