Why I Love the Great Litany

On the first Sunday of Lent, we traditionally process solemnly around the church while a cantor (in the past, I've been the cantor a couple of times) chants The Great Litany and we chant our own responses.  (Padre Mickey has the Great Litany written out on his blog Padre Mickey's Dance Party, here).

Not everyone likes the Great Litany.  People may find excuses to stay away from church on the First Sunday of Lent because of it.  (Oh, God, it's the Great Litany again.  Time to go to the beach or skiing on Spring Break.  Or time to forget to set my clock so I'll accidentally on purpose miss church!)  I know folks who dislike the idea of calling ourselves sinners in such dramatic and pointed fashion.  They say it makes the world sound bad and there's too much stuff about demons and all.

In the Great Litany, the cantor calls upon the triune God to remember not our sins and offenses and to save us from all of the things that beset us, from fire and pestilence to pride and envy to violence and sudden death.  Our responses to those petitions are "Have mercy upon us" and "Good Lord, deliver us."  The cantor goes on to beseech God to end wars and bring peace, to bless women in childbirth, to inspire us to work for the common good, to not only forgive but turn the hearts of our enemies.  (And we respond, "We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.")

Despite all the "good Lords" that can easily be heard as an ejaculation of shock or surprise ("Good Lord, man, what have you done?!"), the Great Litany reminds us all that God is good, that God wants for there to be peace, for people to be safe, for the earth to be cared for and for people to forgive one another.  These are all positives.

But more than that, and the reason why I love the Great Litany, in this lengthy prayer we bring everything and every kind of thing before God - natural disasters, spiritual forces, community issues, relational issues, justice, caring, kindness, forgiveness, family, babies, people who are lonely - all of the things that are (and are often broken) before God and say, this is all in your hands, God.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot save ourselves from flood or famine or from our own hardheartedness, from our own physical frailty, from our own imprisonment by all sorts of captors.  We acknowledge that today on this first Sunday of Lent, that we cannot save ourselves.

This is not a popular idea, especially in American culture in which we extoll those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, where we believe that if one just works harder and tries harder, one can overcome just about anything.  (And frequently without any help.)  The Lone Ranger, the self-sufficient pioneer, the romantic man in his cabin in the woods - these are our heroes.  But the Great Litany says, we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we acknowledge our dependence upon God's grace and bounty (which is plenteous, for this is the Good Lord who delivers us).

I need to hear this every year.  I need to walk around the church saying this out loud in front of God and everybody.  I need to hear that it's not all up to me, that I am not God, that I don't have to do it all myself.  And so, this is why I love the Great Litany.


From my friend Jenna Strizak, which she posted on my Facebook page, about being part of the Great Litany procession:

"As we prayed and processed around the church i thought about three things. 1) how medieval it felt, in the best possible way. i felt more tangibly connected to past iterations of church practice and past ways of connecting to God. 2) how much easier i found it to get into the rhythm of prayer while walking. why don't i try that more often? then again i grew up in a tradition where praying without movement was rare... so it makes sense to me. 3) watching our gospel bearer in procession LOOKING around at everyone as we moved through the nave... i thought about the literal change in perspective the litany gives us, the novelty of walking a different path than the one we usually do on a Sunday morning."

Thanks, Jenna!
Bill Bynum said…
Your love of the Great Litany is quite clear, because I have heard you chant it and it was especially meaningful. Thanks for summarizing the Great Litany so clearly. I was raised to depend on my own bootstraps. Most of the time that worked pretty well, but fortunately, God finally put me in a situation where my own bootstraps simply weren't enough.
Thanks, Bill. I found it to be a relief when I discovered that my own bootstraps weren't enough. It was a gift, really.