Sleeping in church

A committed Christian surprised me the other day with a problem that bothers him.  It bothers me, too.  He is distracted, even angered, by the apparent casual attitude and lack of involvement by some people at Mass.  He’s talking about folks who fiddle around with something during the prayers, whisper during the homily, don’t participate in the songs or Mass parts – all are just variations of sleeping in church.  What surprised me is that this bothers him so much he has considered not attending Mass himself.

So here’s the question… how am I supposed to react when something that is utterly precious to me (namely, worshipping God) is treated with lack of respect or even contempt by people a few feet from me?

Be generous

To start with, I ought to make some allowances, for sure in cases where children are involved or maybe really old people.  If there are issues with physical or mental health that have an effect on attention span or comprehension, well I want to be generous and understanding with a thing like that.   Since I have no way of knowing the conditions in a stranger’s mind, then I ought to make allowances for what I don’t know.  That’s part of loving other people the way I want them to love me.

For that matter, being this way is prudent.  In Luke 6 Jesus says “the measure that you give is the measure you get back”.  In James 2, the idea is expressed that the judgment I will undergo will vary in its rigor according to how harsh or how kind I have been with others.  James says “judgment will be without mercy to the one who has not shown mercy”.  That’s a pretty sobering statement when I consider how much I will need mercy when I stand before Jesus!  So I’m going to do my best to cut some slack for the guy in the next pew who is bothering me.

For goodness sake, I ought to keep worshipping myself!

This isn’t easy.  It is definitely an act of self-discipline and of recollection before God that I don’t allow a distraction in Mass to interrupt my own worship.  In a weird way, I might even be able to turn that distraction into a little prayer and maybe even a conscious reinforcement of my decision to worship God.

Let’s say a couple of kids are squirming around in front of me as Father elevates the consecrated Host.  For that matter, let’s say a couple of teenagers three feet in front of me are nudging each other and whispering and ridiculing almost everything that happens at the Easter Vigil.  (This actually happened to me last week.)  Well, of course, that disappoints me.  I’m human, so it irritates me, too.  But my role is to re-focus my mind even more on the community and the sacrifice and our participation in Christ that is the Mass.

And I must avoid self-righteousness as I try to continue my worship.  By grace and nothing else, I have been allowed a mind and will that seeks to worship God.  I am not some superior human because I am this way – I am a blessed human because I have somehow been given the grace to be this way.  If I harbor thoughts of my superiority to the one who fails to understand the worship – if I grit my teeth and thank God that I am not like other people (read Luke 18:10ff) — then I am sinning more grievously than the person I disdain and I bring that sin literally in front of God’s altar.

This idea of re-focusing on the worship brings up something else I can do

When I was distracted by those teenagers in front of me at the Easter Vigil, chances are that other people were distracted, too.  So maybe I can be of some use to those other people by concentrating on the prayers and the homily, by remaining reverent in gesture and expression, by joining myself to Father’s words as we all pray at the altar.

Mass is a group affair.  It’s not about “me”, it’s about “us”.  If I can maintain myself despite distractions, maybe that will help my friend sitting next to me.

And along the same lines, maybe it will even help Father and our deacon if I do everything I can to put myself fully in the liturgy.  One time at lunch, I told our priest how disappointing it is that there are people in the congregation who seem to have little understanding of the stupendous things that happen at every Mass.  His response was “you should see what I see from the altar”.  He said it with sadness and with a sort of matter-of-fact resignation to what he could not change.

Thinking about what Father said, several things occur to me.  It occurs to me that the care of souls is a real weight to our pastor.  It occurs to me he has given his life to the Church – to her liturgy and to the parish in his care.  Most of all, he has given himself to Jesus.  And in that generous gift of himself to Jesus, Father participates in the pain and sadness of Jesus when people are not responsive to the divine call of love and mercy, when they treat the Mass like a second-rate entertainment.  Perhaps in some small way, if I enter in fully to the liturgy, then part of what Father sees from the altar will be me and others in agreement with the gift he has made of his life together with Jesus.  When he lifts up the holy sacrifice, perhaps somehow our wonder and gratitude and awe can mingle with his and encourage him.  I would be grateful if I could help God’s priest.

This hope that I can benefit both my neighbor in the pew and the priest at the altar is summed up in a verse from Hebrews 10: “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.”

If I am distracted or worse at Mass, it is within my power to recall my mind to where I am and why.

Participation at Mass in spirit and in truth centers me in the liturgy and has a positive effect on other people.

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