I was recently playing a service in our chapel at St. Anne's. This beautiful room is where the church tabernacle is, high ceiling, stone walls, iron grating and gates, stained glass. It pretty much invites awe, calls one to a hushed spirit, to the kind of quiet that can be the meeting-place with the divine—at least, a certain aspect of it. On this day, and it has happened before, of course, but I happened to know this family and was mildly surprised, the grandchildren were running around unchecked, parents talking in the aisles, little ones grabbing and knocking into whatever wasn't nailed down. It was as though no one had ever explained to them what a chapel is, or the difference between a place like this and a gathering area. There were only twenty-five or thirty people there, so sight lines or contact weren't the issue. The kids were acting like kids, but in a way (which I perceived to be) inappropriate to their surroundings, and the parents either didn't notice or didn't care. No instructions to the contrary were given. And this is in a family in its third generation of graduates from a well-known Catholic University in the midwest.
When we Catholics started to understand the value of hospitality and became more aware, through the grace of scripture and the Eucharist, of the presence of Christ in our assembly and in the presence of the other, things changed in our churches. We saw the value of some pre-Mass welcomes, conversations, connecting, right in our Church buildings. Those of us old enough to remember the Previous Dispensation in the Church, what you might call the "Happy Days" era in the ecclesial nostalgia, can remember a time when any breach of a strict silence in the Church might bring anything upon one from the stern, disciplinary eye of a parent which promised a later retaliation to a more immediate whap! from one of God's winged messengers, like Sister Pius Jambe du Trebuchet, who only looked too small to reach forward three pews to deliver a right hook to the occipital lobe.
Happily things are different now. But I can't help but feel we could use a little nudge back in the other direction, a mild corrective that would help us be aware both of the immanent presence of Christ in the neighbor but of the transcendent presence that suffuses creation and is intentionally and communally present, present-on-behalf-of-all, in the church building. What this means, to me, is that we need to make clear that God's presence is communicated to us in varied ways, yes, in our welcome, in our gathering, in our ministers, in our liturgy, but also in the shared silence and intentional awareness within the house of the Church.
A solemnity and respect for a place's shared meaning points toward a sense that there is more to a thing that the sum of us, its parts. In other words, it's wonderful that we are a Church, but we didn't make ourselves a church. It was God who "called us out of darkness into marvelous light," Christ who loved us when we were still sinners. There is a "head" to the mystical body, and a Holy Spirit which is its life. These realizations and realities are not immediate; we have to have time to let them sink in, to be reminded of them by shared silence and colored light, music, movement, and prayer. We have to have a place and time in which to connect with the person of Jesus Christ. This is not something we can conjure by incantations and our own volition. We can only wait, prepare an open heart. One of the ways we can do this is to have a consecrated place and time, a spot "where heaven meets earth," where we gather, wait, sing, listen, shout, give thanks, break bread, eat, drink, and are sent and have space to appreciate in some small way what is happening to us.
Militating against all this is the kind of permissiveness that feels that "letting kids be kids" means letting them do what they want wherever and whenever they want to do it. There's also a sense of entitlement, that my envelope or my pledge buys me a seat in this house, and I can do whatever the hell I want in here. Probably there's some vestigial fear and loathing of the Happy Days church, the repressed Mass of our younger days, and the throbbing ears, butts, and mild concussions of humanly mediated divine retribution.
And, in a great example of what Fr. Richard Fragomeni calls "anti-ritual ritual," we have the scriptural stories in which Jesus lets the presumably noisy and irksome children to "come to me, and do not hinder them." I don't hear that as saying that their parents should let them disrupt temple services, but some do. And they might be right, what do I know?
Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky. It doesn't seem too much to ask that people use common courtesy and restrain their children from horseplay in church, and for reasons that are both the same and different that they restrain them in courtrooms, theaters, restaurants, and other public forums. It's good for the children, too, in the long run, to understand that they are part of something larger than themselves, that the world may be their playground but it doesn't belong to each of them but to all of them together, and that that requires some ground rules. It's a good discipline to know that there are places where we are asked to surrender some of our personal freedom for the good of all, rather than claiming it and demanding it all the time.
Writing this made me think of this old Peter, Paul, and Mary song that makes me cry, ma. It's called "Hymn." Here's an iTunes link.
Hymn - Peter, Paul & Mary