The Atlantic Seaboard got a fair amount of snow yesterday: about eight inches in my part of Long Island. In the usual case, that large a snowfall will pretty much stop the Island for at least a day. When it happens on a Saturday afternoon, it’s a good bet that Sunday Masses in the region will be lightly attended.
I dislike driving on snowy or icy roads. However, I dislike missing Mass even more, especially on the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi presented the newborn Christ with gold, frankincense, and myrrh as tokens of vassalage. So at the appointed hour – 7:10 AM, to be precise – I peered out at the road that runs past my house, noted that it was black rather than white, and decided to take a chance.
Normally, by the time I get to the church, which is usually about ten minutes before the start of the ritual, it’s about half full. This morning, I was the second person to arrive. That disturbed me. It implied that the rest of the parish is even more averse than I to driving after a serious snowstorm. I hadn’t expected that.
As I expected that there would be few other attendees, I eschewed my usual place, which is toward the back of the nave and off to the right, and went to sit front-and-center. I hadn’t done that before. It got me a lot of suspicious “Who on Earth is he and what is he doing there?” type looks.
A word or two of explanation is appropriate here. When I attend a public event, Mass included, I try to stay along the edge. It’s a habit I developed long ago, out of a desire not to inflict myself on others. That might sound strange to you, Gentle Reader, but it’s natural, even automatic for me to keep myself to myself. However, when Mass in a church built to seat a thousand congregants is likely to be attended by no more than fifty, which did prove to be the case, it seemed disrespectful to the celebrant and the Eucharistic ministers not to cluster front-and-center. So I suppressed my habit.
Those looks, though...
At the conclusion of the rite I genuflected, made the Sign of the Cross, and departed as swiftly and silently as possible. And ever since I’ve been thinking about the experience and why it was so disturbing, both to me and to those around me.
“Know your place.” “Stay in your own corner.” “Don’t go where you’re not wanted.” Such advice has been given innumerable times, under innumerable circumstances. It’s not inherently bad. Indeed there are contexts in which it’s critical.
But in church? At Mass? Among other Catholics who I’m supposed to treat as brethren in Christ, and who may be expected to regard me in the same fashion? Why would anyone want to make a fellow parishioner, known or unknown, feel out of place – unwelcome?
Even thinking about it makes me uneasy. I don’t expect to be invited to breakfast. I don’t expect to be asked how it’s going. Indeed, I don’t expect other parishioners to know my name. That’s despite having been a member of this parish, a regular attendee at Mass, and a contributor to its Outreach pantry for nearly fourteen years. In New York Metro, proximity-based encounters between strangers are generally coolly formal when they occur at all.
Mind you, I don’t feel offended. I’m just puzzled. Is “Know your place” as imperative at Sunday Mass as it is at a formal banquet? I didn’t leap onto the altar dais and offer to conduct the ceremony. I was just in a pew other than my usual. But a goodly number of the other attendees appeared disturbed by it.
Are any Catholics in less densely populated regions reading this? Have you had an experience like it, or know someone who has?
Americans were once known as the friendliest, most outgoing of all Western peoples. Time was, the stories about Americans traveling abroad were almost uniformly about two things:
- Our lack of linguistic facility;
- Our unusual friendliness toward strangers.
It’s been more than twenty years since I was last out of the country, so I can’t comment on such things in today’s context. But I can tell you about the apprehension with which today’s American approaches an unknown other. I don’t think it’s fear of being waylaid by an insurance salesman.
When brothers in Christ, having gathered on holy ground to participate in a sacred ceremony, regard one another uneasily, with obvious suspicion, something has gone seriously wrong.
As usual when I write a piece such as this, I’m mostly talking to myself. All the same, I’d be interested in hearing from other Christians who’ve had similar experiences. This feeling of having somehow offended against an unwritten rule of conduct is proving hard to shake.
Happy Epiphany. May God bless and keep you all.