Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The view from the back

Deacon Greg Kandra today shared a couple of pieces by Father Roger Landry on the topic of where we sit at Mass.  From the first piece, titled The Spirituality of Pew Sitting:
These considerations are helpful to frame a discussion of where people choose to sit when they come to worship God at Mass. When people come to a Church that is anything but standing room only, where they opt to worship indicates something about their attitude toward involvement at Mass.

Sitting up front is normally a sign of eagerness and excitement. Sitting in the back likely suggests that the person is approaching more as a spectator than as a zealous participant.
If we consider the two places in which many commonly prefer the backseats — school buses and classrooms — we all know that the rationale is not so they will behave or learn better; it’s to get out of the easy sight of the driver and teacher.
What about sitting in the back row at Church? Few of us, if we saw a pair of 13 year-old boys sitting in the last pew, would think that they had chosen that location in order to pray the Mass better. But does that same pew suddenly become a better location to pray the Mass the older one gets?

Father Landry goes on to list several reasons why sitting up front at Mass is the better option, and why more Catholics really ought to do it.  Then, in the second piece, he expands on the idea that merely showing up at Mass is not enough and we ought to be trying to do more than the minimum (something I agree with, of course).

And it’s good that I agree with Father Landry’s point in his second article, because I disagree rather a lot with the first one.

I was an inveterate back-of-the-classroom person in my college days (before that, in Catholic schools, one had no choice; one sat where the teacher told one to sit, for the duration of the school year in each class).  Why, when I finally had the choice, did I gravitate naturally to the back of the room?

It’s hard to say, except that it had nothing to do with being out of sight of the teacher or being able to slack off.  (In fact, I used to find it amusing to be called on by teachers who made that assumption; they quickly learned that just because a student chose to sit in the back did not mean that the student in question wasn’t paying attention.)  For some reason, when I sat toward the back of the class, I felt like I could pay attention better than when I sat up front.  I could see the whole picture; I could see the whole chalkboard (yep, I’m that old); I could see the students who were being engaged (willingly or unwillingly) in the class discussions.

When Thad and I were going to Mass with three small children, we aimed for “near the back.”  Not the very back, where ushers or others might have reserved seats and where the children wouldn’t see anything, but not so close to the front that slipping out with a fractious toddler would involve a long walk of shame through a gauntlet of disapproving stares accompanied by the echoing of one’s own ridiculously loud footsteps.  Children have to leave Mass on occasion, especially during potty-training years (to say nothing of pregnant mommies or others who may not last the whole of Mass without a necessary visit to certain unnamed facilities).  Babies often have to be carried out of Mass.  Sometimes Daddy has already carried the shrieking baby to the vestibule and then Mommy hears the potty-training toddler announce a sudden and urgent need, and Mommy must take the toddler as well as the slightly-older (but not old enough to be left in the pew alone) child out to the back by herself, and if she’s sitting in or near the front row she may as well have a spotlight shining on their procession all the way to the back and out the door, because a spotlight wouldn’t make the whole thing any less embarrassing.

And that’s just family considerations.  There are many others, including workers who may have to slip away before the closing hymn to get to work on time, people recovering from some mild illness or indisposition who want to be prepared in case they need to leave, people with various attention-deficit disorders who find being up near All The Things too distracting, people who for very good and sound reasons would rather not be seated right up by the choir (especially near a certain redheaded soprano who gets a bit carried away on the high notes on occasion)...

...the choir?

Alas, so many parishes, ours included, had that silly idea that VII wanted the choir up front to lead the singing.  The choir should NOT be up front.  The acoustics are terrible, the sound doesn’t travel as well as it would if the choir were in the back, and as for leading the singing--it doesn’t matter where the choir is so much as whether the congregation wants to sing or not.  If they do, you could have the choir on the roof and they’d still sing; if they don’t, well, then, they don’t.

So what I’d really like, if it were up to me, is to be stationed in the back of the church at every Mass, preferably in a choir loft, but if one can’t have that I’d be fine with some little section in the back that would accommodate the instruments and not block the fire-safety-exit path.  Sadly, we can’t have that in our present temporary mission church building.  So we’re up front, and for me personally that doesn’t translate into a greater focus (partly because being to one side of the altar, not everybody in the choir can see all that well, and we have an elaborate system of hand signals to let each other know if we’ll need another verse or not at the Offertory or Communion).

To sum up: I am sure there are some people who like to “hide” in the back at Mass for less than terrific reasons.  But I would be greatly surprised if the vast majority of those who sit toward the back are doing so out of a lack of enthusiasm or a desire to hide from God, just as those who sit up front aren’t all motivated by a rock-concert level of excitement about the Mass.  It is possible to read too much into these things, and possible to reach the wrong conclusions about what may boil down to nothing more than prudence or simple human preferences.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I thought only older Protestant ladies worried about "getting my [preferred] seat in church.

scotch meg said...

I always thought of Catholics as taking to heart "the last shall be first" when they sit down at Mass. Catholic churches inevitably fill from the back forward - except at Christmas and Easter, when any available seat is a good seat. When I'm in charge of teens at our Youth Mass (a horrendous custom), I find that the teens have learned this lesson all too well, and I have to encourage them to move forward. Some days I wish they would sit up front like Protestants - but then I remember Jesus talking about the guest at the feast choosing the far away seat, and give them the benefit of the doubt!