Sunday, September 16, 2018

Faith And The Familiar: A Sunday Rumination

     Regular attendance at Mass confers a number of benefits on the communicant. Yes, the Church says it’s obligatory to be there on Sunday (or Saturday night, in many parishes), but even were that not the case, I’d still be in “my pew” at 7:30 AM on Sunday morning, at least as long as I’m physically able to get there. I wouldn’t want to go without what it does for both the mind and the spirit.

     Part of what it does is to put me in the same general locale as a lot of familiar faces. In an era when so many developments are prying Americans away from traditional society – “traditional,” in this case, meaning “in the flesh” — that’s a benison that ought not to be dismissed.

     I probably feel this more strongly than most Christians, both because I prefer my own company, and because the work I do has a tendency to isolate me. But I could be wrong about that. There’s evidence to that effect in the church parking lot.

     I seldom get into my car to head home without being buttonholed by another parishioner for a quick conversation. Mass attendees at my parish don’t just run to their cars and race to get home; they mill about exchanging greetings and how-are-yous with one another. The parking lot dribbles empty far more slowly than a non-communicant might guess. This morning it’s given me to reflect on the particular value of the company of others who share one’s convictions.

     Churches aren’t the only manifestation of this effect, of course. Political societies, special-interest clubs, sewing circles, and many other reasons for persons to associate share it, with varying degrees of power. And on balance it appears, at least from my perspective, to be a good thing, especially given the socially atomizing effects of so many other modern trends.

     In his early, wildly popular book Games People Play, Dr. Eric Berne notes the importance to the human animal of “strokes:” broadly, acknowledgement of and acceptance by others as one tends his own affairs. His explanation of this need is particularly striking:

     On that biological side, it is probable that emotional and sensory deprivation tends to bring about or encourage organic changes. If the reticular activating system of the brain stem is not sufficiently stimulated, degenerative changes in the nerve cells may follow, at least indirectly. This may be a secondary effect due to poor nutrition, but the poor nutrition itself may be a product of apathy, as in infants suffering from marasmus. Hence a biological chain may be postulated leading from emotional and sensory deprivation through apathy to degenerative changes and death....What has been said so far may be summarized by the "colloquialism:" "If you are not stroked, your spinal cord will shrivel up." Hence, after the period of close intimacy with the mother is over, the individual for the rest of his life is confronted with a dilemma upon whose horns his destiny and survival are continually being tossed. One born is the social, psychological and biological forces which stand in the way of continued physical intimacy in the infant style; the other is his perpetual striving for its attainment. Under most conditions he will compromise. He learns to do with more subtle, even symbolic, forms of handling, until the merest nod of recognition may serve the purpose to some extent, although his original craving for physical contact may remain unabated.

     This seems unimpeachable. And participation in a faith-based gathering helps to satisfy the need. But of course, there’s more than that going on.

     Most Americans are aware that the traditional nuclear family has fallen on hard times. Few families still function in the fashion that characterized family life before World War II. In truth, the family was already under stress owing to the Great Depression, but the effects of the War and the sort of economy to which it gave birth have caused the pressure to mount to a near-irresistible level.

     I’ve written about this before. While certain countervailing forces have recently reared their heads, the net tendency is still toward routine separation: of spouses from one another, of siblings from one another, and of parents from their children. The separations are overtly physical – two wage earners per family; the collegiate diaspora, and the separation from the childhood home at the arrival of adulthood – but they have a large amount of emotional baggage as well.

     If we genuinely need human connections, as Eric Berne has posited, the forces acting to shatter families are our enemies, and to be feared. Inversely, those things that help to keep families together, if only in an emotional fashion, are our friends. One of those latter things is shared religious convictions.

     However, children no longer routinely follow their parents’ faith. That cement for the family has largely dissolved. But as long as the churchgoer remains a regular participant in his church, he can still get and give “strokes.” That, I think, explains a great deal of what happens in my parish’s parking lot after a Sunday morning Mass. I’d venture to guess that much the same thing happens at many others.

     And of course there’s more going on than that, as well.

     For me, to look out over a sea of familiar Catholic faces is among the greatest comforts of life. It reassures me that if my faith is crazy, at least I’m not alone in my madness. It also tells me that the value that I find in the Mass is not something imaginary – that immersion in the ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper confers a real psychological and spiritual benefit.

     So much of life is spent alone, at least functionally, that togetherness for just about any reason short of a mass murder is itself a blessing to be cherished. And there’s more than one sort of togetherness being practiced at a Catholic Mass. Yes, we’re all in the same building, however briefly. Yes, we all hoof it out to the same parking lot where we renew acquaintances and exchange little bits of news. (And jockey with one another to get out the one and only exit.) But we’re also reaffirming the supra-temporal connection among us: our unity in the Mystical Body of Christ, which is prior and superior to all Earthly rituals and practices.

     “Wherever two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am also.” (Matthew 18:20) The Holy Spirit, the Advocate Christ promised would be with us after He had left this world, is present whenever we who believe are together...and if we renew acquaintances with Him as well as with our fellow communicants, we are stroked twice. We are, however briefly, renewed in what I deem to be the most important of the cardinal virtues: fortitude, that which supports our efforts to persevere in this world and our hope for God’s acceptance in the next.

     It’s excellent refreshment for the spinal cord.


Linda Fox said...

My husband noticed something yesterday. There were many Protestant churches closing, but none that were Catholic in the area affected by Florence's passage through the Carolinas. For Catholics, church is not simply a 'nice' option.- it is required.

The early mass is, in some ways, the best - those parishioners who attend regularly bond in ways that might not be present in later masses. Our numbers are so small, we will be missed if we are not there.


My children now say the Shma* automatically when they go to bed. My kids are also developing the habit of saying it as they leave the house, touching our Mezuzah as they go.

They say "motzi" - the blessings over the food - most of the time (sometimes requiring a prompt).

Tonight I'm going to a Synagogue-related event, and have told them they need to be in the community, not just "cultural Jews".

Religious institutions used to be centers of not just faith, but the community. That needs to get revived. How to do this is a bigger issue, but at least people are aware of it now.


* Shma. "Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One."

Reaffirms our belief that we have a G-d, ONE G-d.