The Great Litany of the Anglican Church (p. 148 in the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer) was created by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer sometime in the 1540′s. The BCP recommends its use particularly in Lent or on Rogation days. (Rogation days are special days which used to be set aside for prayers dedicated to fruitful harvests. My only acquaintance with them was as the days when I, as a postulant for holy orders, was required to send a letter to my diocesan bishop giving him an update on my “process.” That experience hasn’t left me with a fondness for Rogation days, I confess.)
Bottom line: litanies are lists–like laundry lists–of things that we want to remember or things that we want to communicate.
Lately I’ve been noticing all the ways in which we constantly create litanies ourselves.
The Great Litany of the church is officially explained as “a long intercessory rite involving extensive use of versicles and responses.” (A New Dictionary for Episcopalians by Rev. John N. Wall, Jr.)
The “versicles and responses” part of that description makes me think of my nephew Andy, a young man who is hyperlexic (on the autism spectrum) and who loves to call his cousin–my son Eric–for a weekly or semi-weekly chat. Andy’s format for the call is his recitation of a litany of names: people, cleaning products, stores, and different towns or states. After Andy names each one, Eric is expected to cantor it back to him. This mostly goes smoothly, but once in a while Andy tosses in some store name that we are unfamiliar with in New England–Andy lives in the Midwest–and then things get more interesting. Sometimes my sister Nancy needs to step in with a clarifying word before Andy gets too frustrated, but generally the whole ritual is pleasantly predictable.
Not quite so pleasant are the litanies of scarcity. I am guilty of recitation of those. The favorite pattern is simply to list all the things you have to do with an emphasis on how little time you have to get it all done. Presumably the one reeling off the lists thinks that the listener will feel sorry for her impossible schedule–but these days everyone is so crazy busy that it’s just as likely the person listening will respond with a list of her own. “Oh, I know. When I leave here I’ve got the dentist, the school fair planning meeting, then pick up the kids, then get the dog from the groomer and get home in time to get dinner on because tonight there’s that meeting at church. Unbelievable.” This is competitive litanizing, and with our current schedules and lack of time to really listen to each other, we often get right up there to Olympic Gold standard. (It takes a comment by somebody like Willie Wonka to turn this whole mess on its head. Remember the famous line? “So much time, and so little to do.” Perfect.)
There are many litanies of scarcity, and lots of popular ways to create them. Balancing the budget is always a winner. The litany here goes something like: Okay, $50 for Janey’s new jeans, $75 for Johnny’s new sweater, $250 to the plumber, $150 to the car mechanic, $2000 for the house payment, $750 for the insurance, $5000 for gasoline” (yep, I mean that) “$400 for groceries, $100 for the cell phone, $150 for electric–adds up to, omg…and then subtract that from the paycheck….And we have a total of $49.72 left to spend for the next week. Well, we can do that if we just cut out the trip to the county fair and if I don’t buy any junk food at the store–that means I need to leave the kids home when I go although that means hiring a babysitter which I can’t afford–and if we don’t eat out anywhere and if I don’t…..” and you’re off and running on yet another litany.
For the most part litanies–and I include the Great Litany of the church here–don’t make us feel any better at all. Which is odd, because generally it seems as though they’re meant to make us feel better. But really, why would lists of complaints about other people, of things we can’t afford to buy or that we bought anyway, of things that we should have done but didn’t, of how we have way more to do than time to do it in–why would those make us feel any better? (NB: Is that previous sentence a litany? Maybe so, because I don’t feel any better having written it. )
Anyhow, there is one litany I use that I discovered years ago. And it does, unfailingly, make you feel better. It’s an alphabetical litany. When you’re on your walk or in the shower or driving to work or waiting for the kids to come out of school or wherever you may be with a few minutes to spare–you go through the alphabet and for each letter you come up with a word (or words) that’s a feel-good word; a healthy word, a blessing word, a love word. And by the time you’re done, you feel better. Guaranteed. It must change the way your brain is working and the chemicals it’s producing, or something. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Intriguingly, when you’re in a negative mood, the first words that pop into your head will be negative. Fascinating. But if you persevere you can shift things.
So. Examples. A: Andy, Amanda, adventure B: babies, beautiful C: Chris, Christ, creation D: Danny, divine, delight E: Eric, evolve, effervescent, energy F: fun, flower G: God, good, glad H: happiness, health I: illuminate, illustrious, iridescent J: Jim, Jesus, joy K: kite, kindness L: laughter, love, liberate
You get the idea–try it and see what you think. Drug free. Sugar free. Fat free. Absolutely FREE and freeing in every way.