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R. R. Reno, Editor
One of my brothers goes to mass every day of the week, but he does not attend on Sunday.
“I love the mass,” he says, “and I can’t stand missing it for a day. But I just can’t take those Sundays. I can’t.”
That is ultimately between God, my brother, and his pastor, but I sympathize, a little. He is a gregarious sort while I am an introvert, but we share a dislike for busy, noisy, overstimulated worship. Not an early-riser by nature, I will nevertheless often rouse myself of a Sunday to catch a 7 AM mass, because it is the only one offered without bellowing cantors and music being crammed into every spare second of the worship, disallowing any possibility that one might be surprised and shaped by a bit of sacred silence.
Stipulating that many will perceive a “get off my lawn” note to that—and I know this because I have been accused of not understanding that one aspect of the mass is to aid the church in “being community”—I don’t think my brother and I are particularly cranky people. We love the mass, and we are not looking for private, or impersonal worship; we get that mass is a communal endeavor. But an element of the extraordinary—of a hushed awakening to something great—has disappeared from our modern masses, and the hyperactivity that has replaced it can sometimes rub our nerves raw.
I think what my brother and I are missing is the sense of reverent anticipation that used to precede Sunday mass when, in the spare minutes before the processional, people used to kneel and collect themselves; they gathered their thoughts, remembered an intention, let go of what was frivolous and finally sighed a big, cleansing, quieting breath in preparation for the great prayer of the mass. If people spoke at all, they whispered; they were reverently aware of Christ present in the tabernacle and considerate of their neighbors at prayer.
Perhaps it is different where you worship, but in my parish—and I would count mine as one of the “quieter” and “more reverent” in our area—that sort of preparation is nearly impossible. The choir and musicians are noisily setting up, talking and laughing. The people in the pews—of all ages—are “being community” with such a boisterous disregard for time or place that a priest recently halted his robing to stride out from the sacristy and call, “excuse me! This is not a movie theater; it’s not Grand Central Station. Have a little consideration, please. There might actually be a couple of people here who are, you know . . . praying.”
Before beginning his homily, Father apologized for the intemperate tone, but his point was valid. We used to have a sense of “sacred spaces,” wherein one behaved differently than everywhere else. The lobby or narthex of a church was for chatting; once you entered the nave, you quieted down. You spritzed yourself with holy water, bowed to the altar and then shut the pie-hole to get ready for mass. The closer you sat to the sanctuary (and the tabernacle) the less you tried to speak at all, but if you did, it was in a hushed voice.
Is our lack of decorum connected to the words we use? It is true that we are more reverent before an altar, where something is sacrificed, than we are before a “table” where dinner is served, if we’re lucky enough to still eat as a family. We are inclined to whisper in a church, but not in a “gathering space,” but I don’t think this is a mere question of words and naming. I suspect our rambunctious behavior at church is of a piece with the coarsening, and self-centeredness of our society as a whole. There are no places, anymore, and no occasions, where we are invited—and expected—to behave differently than we do the rest of the time, and we’ve brought our “casual Friday” attitude into church, too.
Actually, there are places where one is expected to dial down the decibels, shut the mouth and take a few deep breaths. Out of curiosity, I recently visited a yoga class with a friend. It was held in a simple, unadorned room. Outside of it, there was a great deal of socializing and chatting, but once people entered the room, all talking ceased. People moved carefully, so as not to disturb others who, having placed their mats on the floor, were sitting or kneeling in postures that suggested recollection. This oasis of calm remained until the instructor arrived, and then—silent, still, but for the teacher’s voice—the class began to move through their forms: forty-five to fifty minutes of focus, silence, and shared striving.
At class’ end, the students bowed respectfully to each other, and made their exit, and in the lobby the chatter started up again—friendly, hospitable talk, some encouragement; someone complimented my friend on something she’d improved. Amid the “see you next time’s” it occurred to me that this little class was successfully “being community”—the goal of so many Catholic parishes—but without giving up its reverences.
I wonder if a corollary exists between Catholics surrendering silence and sacred sensibility, for the sake of socialization, and their exodus from her masses. Our noisy, cynical days have placed silence, consideration, and fixed-focus at a premium; they now seem like rare and remarkable, almost otherworldly respites. If people cannot find a little of that at mass—if they cannot identify something large and “less ordinary” within a celebration at which Christ himself is in attendance–they will seek out a facsimile where they can find it.
Happily for my brother, he finds it at any-mass-but-Sunday’s; for others, the mass seems only mediocre.
So much depends upon our gleaning a sense of the sacred, outside ourselves.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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