Rules are often seen as bad, and the enemy of freedom and of fun. But consider this: games are fun. And for the game to be fun for everyone, or for long, every game has to have rules, and those rules have to be followed, and even enforced by referees. The rules put the form to the activity, and are necessary for anyone to participate or even understand, and therefore have fun.
While “fun” is not the goal of the liturgy, joy is – and peace, and communion with God and our neighbor. The rules put the form to the liturgy, and are necessary for anyone to participate and understand. Participation is at the heart of the liturgical undertaking, and that requires some understanding. It does NOT mean that to participate, everyone must have a visible role, like lector or altar server. And while it does mean uniting oneself with the visible actions of the body of worshippers – kneeling, standing, responding, and singing -- it does not mean that one always need be visibly doing anything.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, before he was elected to the See of Peter, wrote: One of the principles of the (Second Vatican) Council’s reform was, with good reason, the participatio actuosa, the active participation of the whole “People of God” in the liturgy. Subsequently, however, this idea has been fatally narrowed down, giving the idea that active participation is only present where there is evidence of external activity – speaking, singing, preaching, liturgical action. … Yet (it) also speaks of silence as a mode of active participation. We must go on to say that listening, the receptive employment of the senses and the mind, spiritual participation, are surely just as much “activity” as speaking is. Are receptivity, perception, being moved, not “active” things, too? What we have here, surely, is a diminished view of man which reduces him to what is verbally intelligible, and this at a time when we are aware that what comes to the surface in rationality is only the tip of the iceberg compared with the totality of man.
This touches on why the liturgy is so different from almost anything else we do. We are engaging “the totality of man,” everything that we are in our very being. We are interacting with the Creator of our being, and the source of everything good in our lives and in all creation. So our words and gestures are out-of-the-ordinary, because our conversation is out-of-the-ordinary, as is the One with whom we are conversing: the All-Holy One, who calls us to be holy.
Our prayers and our gestures, and the whole act of worship itself, are different from anything going on around us here and today. However, this act unites us with our brothers and sisters around the world and across history who not only “worship in the same way” but actually participate in the same worship. It is timeless, like the One we worship who is timeless. And it is universal (that’s what “catholic” means, after all), because it is proper to everyone, everywhere.
Similarly, the music we offer to the glory of God is necessarily different from what we might listen to on the radio while driving, over speakers while shopping, or on our iPods while working out. Its goal is to draw us out of the ordinary and elevate our minds and hearts to God. Pope Benedict set the goals of our music very high: The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the Cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.
That’s the nature of this game, and much more rewarding than having fun: making the Cosmos glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved. It is what we are about in our worship here, which is far more than the sum of some rules.