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