Does where we sit at mass say something about our faith?

Have you ever gone to mass and wanted to be somewhere else? Have you ever gone and loved every second of it? I have. And on both occasions I sat in two entirely different locations.

When I was an undergraduate, I rarely attended mass. I was spiritually adrift and couldn’t bear the thought of listening to some guy pontificate about a mustard seed for a half hour. On the rare occasion that I did go to church, I wound up sitting somewhere near the back.

But now that I attend mass on a weekly basis, I make sure to find a spot on the left hand side about halfway up the nave. I like to sit directly in front of the celebrant when he is giving his homily from the pulpit and want to be close enough to the altar so that I am not easily distracted by the other churchgoers.

Yet whenever I attend mass with a friend or a sibling who hasn’t been there in a while, we always end up sitting in the back. After this happened to me on several occasions, I wondered if their reluctance to sit in the front had anything to do with their relationship with God. In short, I think it did. Allow me to explain.

When I was in high school, I took the bus to school. Everyone who has ever taken the bus to school knows that the back of the bus is where the cool kids sit. The back is also where you have a better chance at getting away with something you probably shouldn’t be doing. Sitting in the front, on the other hand, means that you are much closer to the bus driver and that if you do something wrong there is a better chance that you are going to get caught.

I think this is similar to what my friends were going through. They thought that if they sat too close to the front they would feel awkward and uncomfortable. But if they sat in the back, they could just blend in with the rest of the congregation. I can’t say that I blame them for feeling that way, a similar situation happened to me while in college, and I did the exact same thing they did.

When I was a freshman, the last thing I wanted to do was to take a morning class. But for some reason I scheduled an 8am humanities course that met three days a week. I was never really interested in the Venus of Willendorf or the Mesolithic era, but the professor was on cloud nine. So when I strolled into class fashionably late with a coffee in hand, I did my best to find a seat in the back of the room. I figured I could blend in with the other students and if need be nod off for a quick nap undetected.

As destiny would have it, I am now a part-time professor. And one of the things I have come to realize is that students really can’t hide from you, nor can they take a nap unnoticed. So when I engage my students in a discussion, I’ll call on those who sit in the back row first. If they don’t cooperate or are oblivious to what’s going on, I’ll let those students in the front row whose hands went up the very second I finished asking my question take over.

Given this anecdotal evidence, I began to wonder if there is any relationship between where people sat on the school bus as adolescents, where they sat in class during college as young adults, and where they sit at mass as adults.

I think there is and I think it has to do with how we relate to authority.

I’ll let you decide if where we sit at mass is a direct result of our relationship with God (the highest authority) but next time you attend mass, make an effort to think about where you are sitting and try to understand why you are sitting there. Is it out of habit? Is it because you like sitting under a certain stained-glass window? Is it because you want to be next to a friend? Or is it because you haven’t been to mass in over a month and feel bad for skipping out the past couple weeks? Is it because you haven’t been to confession in a while and don’t feel comfortable sitting in the front? Think about these questions and see what you come up with. I don’t think there’s a wrong answer, but if you’re like most Catholics and sit in the back of church, scooch up a couple rows next time. Moving closer to God is always a good thing.

Stephen Kokx is an adjunct professor of political science and featured columnist at RenewAmerica.com. Follow him on twitter @StephenKokx

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9 thoughts on “Does where we sit at mass say something about our faith?

  1. MartyQ says:

    I think what you’re saying is true in general, but if you keep moving further back…

    I’m almost always waaaay in the back. Behind the last pew. Above the vestibule in the choir/organ loft (if the church still has one of those). Fully participating and at full attention every second of Mass. Even though I spend more than half the Mass facing backward and watching in a mirror, Kareem Abudul-Jabbar couldn’t block my view. My distractions are unique, like having to anticipate what’s next and finding the right page in the organ book, or trying to decide whether there’s time for one more verse, or cut short and fill with a little improv.

    One nice thing, I always know someone else isn’t going to be sitting in my seat!

  2. Greg says:

    I have a tendency to sit in the back of church, but I don’t think it has anything to do with my relationship to God. I say this because I sit in the back all the time. I sat in the back of my old church (back when I was Mormon), and I sit in the back of my current one. I did and do so both when I’m going every day and feeling close to God, and also when my faith is waning. I do so in all my classes in college. This includes classes both early and late, ones I love and ones I hate, ones I participate in and ones I keep my mouth shut in. I do so on bus rides, at movies, at special events, ect. In other words, I do so all the time.

    I think I do so for the simple reason that I like to be able to see everybody else without being them being able to see me. There’s an inherent vulnerability to sitting up front that I simply do not like. I doubt I’m alone in that.

    Besides, I can totally justify it in my case, as it’s also kind of rude for me to sit in the front (I’m quite tall and very few people would be able to see over me).

  3. CT1 says:

    I actually think there is something to what you’re saying. I too sat in the back when I was first coming back to church and then moved to the front where it’s much easier to pay attention (for me). However, we now have a baby and sit in the very back row again so that I can get up without disturbing too many people. I always worry that people will assume I’m back there so I can zone out or make a quick escape at the end of mass (which is why I think a lot of people in my church sit in the back).

  4. Ray Marshall says:

    I’ve learned over the years that the best seats in the house are right up front, just behind the Pharisee Section (maybe the fourth or fifth row).

    Basically, you are unlikely to get distracted by people who think that they are in a movie theater and keep pawing each other and you are less likely to have the 6 foot five basketball star decide to sit right in front of you, blocking your view of the altar and the celebrant.

    if the sound system is bad, as is often the case, you are more likely to be able to understand the homily, too.

  5. bpeters1 says:

    The baby/child factor plays a big role in this for a lot of people. Colicky and/or nursing babies force many parents into the back for a quick exit strategy into the narthex, and I also know parents who sit in the very front so that their toddler, who when plunked in the middle of a sea of pews gets bored with looking at backs and misbehaves, can have a direct view of the “action” on the altar. Your question is also interesting to consider if you flip it: Are some (and, I emphasize, some) people who sit in the front motivated to do so (though they would never admit it) by the fact that such positioning makes them and their outward pious expressions (e.g. mantillas, personal missals / rosaries in hand throughout mass, dramatic bowing, etc.) more noticeable? Over the years I’ve witnessed some Mass-goers who might be appropriately described as “flamboyantly-pious” and they’re usually right in front for everyone to see. (Note: to be clear, not everyone who has a mantilla, personal missal, etc. falls into this category — but people can make such displays of these items that it seems an appropriate descriptor for some.)

  6. andrew says:

    I’m sure you’re right that some irregular mass-goers and others who are less immersed in the Church sit in the back because they feel that they can blend in or hide, but you might be painting with too broad a brush here. I was a “back-sitter” on the bus and in classes, much for the reasons you describe. I also prefer to sit near the back at Mass. Always have. I am a faithful and practicing catholic, but I feel more comfortable in the back. In part that IS because it is easier to blend in, but I think thats a good thing. I think a lot of the people who march right to the front pews seem a bit too pleased with themselved for being at Mass. We all know what the Bible has to say about one who is a bit too eager to put himself up front and pass judgement on the humble people behind him.

    1. Tyler says:

      Hi Andrew,
      I think I understand what you are getting at with the “good” in blending in. None of us wants to be that “showy” worshiper like the pharisee who sat next to the tax collector and thanked God that he wasn’t like him.

      If your position of anonymity in the congregation is founded in humility, then bravo.
      However, we must both admit with great regret that a large part – upwards of 80%+ – of the people attending Sunday mass are there for any number of the wrong reasons: they think it’s all they need to do to get to heaven, they are there to be entertained, to get a “feel good” homily, or as a public show of faith so they can sell more life insurance or real estate.
      Young women and mothers alike wear 10 inch skirts and halter tops while men and boys arrive in cargo shorts, flip flops and a graphic t-shirt with a foily dragon on it.
      For someone like me, this is all very distracting. It strikes my heart at its core with agony as the irreverence culminates up to the summit of the mass, the Eucharist. People approach our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, waving and shaking hands of friends as they approach the altar, say “Amen” and cross themselves if we are lucky, then do the “Judas shuffle” out the back door to get home in time for the NFL pregame.

      The mass is an ongoing celebration of God’s sacrifice to man, a participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord. We wish it to be sacred, reverent, and both solemn and celebratory. It is the mystery of our faith.

      I do not think that Mr. Kokx is making an exhaustive assertion that all those who aren’t in the first 3 rows are heretics, but the generalization is regrettably well founded.

      God Bless

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