Sunday, January 8, 2017

Our Regular Places: A Sunday Rumination

     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:

  1. Our lack of linguistic facility;
  2. 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.

12 comments:

  1. Hey Fran! At our church, not Catholic, but Methodist, our front two sets of pews are usually, informally ( there isn't some written rule ), reserved for special guests, honorees of one sort or another, and the infirm and disabled. Maybe that's why you received the stink-eye.

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  2. Nope. Not at my church. Anyway, I was in the third row!

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  3. Hey Fran...Don't know that it is necessarily a new thing. The wife and I had moved to Phoenix 25 years ago and were visiting churches in our part of town. We walked into a smallish Christian church (100-120) and it was "Children of the Corn" time. Whispered comments, corner of the eye looks, not so subtle shift to the other end of the pew...had me checking my fly and looking for breakfast dribbles. Capper was deacon? coming to us, shaking hands and intoning "Why are you here?" Obviously didn't go back.

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  4. Perchance it might have something to do with other events in churches lately, both here in the US as well as in Europe. Or did those giving you those looks know you personally but do so anyway?

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  5. Hi Fran, I have lived my entire life in Texas, and attended many different Catholic churches. I have never experienced anything like you did. I have also occasionally attended churches of other denominations - Methodist, Baptist, etc., and never felt in any way unwelcomed or out-of-place. And I habitually try to get a seat in a pew at or near the front. Maybe the stereotypes of friendly Texans is more true than not?

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  6. If it was an early mass, they tend to be older, and have their favorite spots. You may have accidentally sat where someone had long established their beachhead. I used to sit in different seats in college one semester, in a Psych class.

    Freaked them OUT! People are NOT used to someone not following established seating protocols. Yes, it appears to be some sort of 'rule'.

    I would say that 95-97% of people sit in the same place each week. Don't know why.

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  7. I would suspect a large amount of selection bias.

    I was also the sort that would show up in a torrential rain, during Super Bowl Sunday, etc, when 2/3 of the church was out. The 'fair weather' gabby types -- who usually keep up the social scene -- are mostly all gone, and a slice of the mousey introverts are all that's left.

    They/we are not very good at social things, and don't usually take up the slack well. I'm certainly no good about it at all. And who knows? Maybe they felt duty-bound as well to sit up front, despite also having a habit of hanging around the fringes, and were even more uncomfortable up there than you were...

    (That is not to say, though, that nothing has 'gone wrong'. But maybe it's not quite that bad...)

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  8. I don't know why, but I thought you lived on Staten Island. Anyway, I grew up in Valley Stream. Small world is an understatement.
    The church I've been going to would be considered odd to most. It's non-denominational. No snake handling or anything like that. I play in the church group, and it's a lot closer to the rock music I played for 20 plus years than any of the church music I'd ever heard. It's a small congregation-about 500 best guess, but I felt welcomed from the first day. And I sat up front before getting involved musically, without any odd looks.

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  9. My involvement with KofC has me in different parishes on a frequent basis, as do my travels. I've yet to draw more than a normal curious look unless I have selected someone's long established "reserved pew". I would guess that it was your change of long held habit that threw people off as much as anything else.

    John Parker

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  10. What you're describing is one of those city-vs-country phenomena, one the several reasons my wife (our 52 Anniv today, 9th)and I moved out here in North Central Kansas ...I could as well say "back home again" since this is where we came from in '70 when we went to the City to make our fortune. We only can attend church when our anatomy "tells" us it's okay to sit for hour and a half, but it doesn't matter where we sit, when we take someone else's place, they just move right next to us, and tell us how glad they are we came to sing praises with them. It was different back in KC... exactly as you described.
    I didn't know you were a physics type person... I'm happy to know that.

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  11. I sit front and center always. I don't like being distracted at Mass, threrefore, front and center.
    I usually arrive between a half hour to 45 minutes ahead of Mass.

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