Sunday, April 24, 2022

Pew-Free Ponderings: Our participation in the Sacred Liturgy

It's a predictable routine, one that I've experienced over and over again: I slide into the church pew on Sunday, pull myself onto the padded kneeler, cross myself, and begin to pray. After a moment or two, I sit down, and think all done praying! Now, it's time to peruse the worship aid, glance around at the congregation, or perhaps muse on my plans for the day. The organ music soon begins, and I stand with the congregation, my attention and spirit lifting as we rise together. 

While I cringe to think of just how many times this situation has played out in my life--of "taking a break from prayer" to listlessly sit in the pew and dwell on worldly cares--this experience has helped me realize a way in which my bodily posture affects my prayer and attention. Tucked into the the pew, I can easily rest and let my mind drift. Whether I'm waiting for Mass to begin or I'm halfheartedly listening to a homily, I feel passive. I'm not "doing" anything; at least, that's what it seems like. 

Yet, we are called to do more than just sit by as passive observers at the liturgy. 

"Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism." (#14)
This "fully conscious and active participation" does not require that we all have particular roles of altar server, lector, usher, or choir member. Not everyone can (or should) serve in these positions at the Mas. Rather, our active participation is both internal and external, and involves our heartfelt prayer, offering, and full attention to the Holy Mysteries that are taking place. As Msgr. Romano Guardini notes in his book, Meditations Before Mass, "to participate means to share in the task of another. Here that other is the priest." Guardini continues to observe that "all are invited to share in his invocation, celebration, adoration, pleading, and thanksgiving" (p. 35).

We are all called to be fully active participants in the liturgy. While there are a variety of angles we can discuss regarding this topic, I've recently been thinking about church pews--and the role that they play in our prayer and liturgical participation. 

While church pews are normal and expected in most (if not all) Roman Catholic churches in America, church pews are not the norm everywhere. Some Eastern Catholic churches and some Orthodox churches--particularly ones in the Slavic tradition--do not have pews filling the nave. Instead of being restricted to rows of wooden pews, the faithful have the ability to move; they can light candles or venerate icons freely. While I have a very limited experience with the Eastern churches, I was able to have a taste of this pew-free experience several months ago. 

While visiting Arizona last summer, I was able to attend the Sunday liturgy at a Melkite Catholic church. The church did not have pews, though it did feature rows of chairs throughout the nave and around the perimeter. I noticed that, even with rows of moveable chairs present, people could move around very easily. Small children peacefully and quietly scampered across the rows, adults freely walked to venerate icons or light candles at the iconostasis, and the priest, deacons, and servers were able to process in the midst of the people. At the proclamation of the Gospel, every child (and parent holding a baby) gathered in front of the iconostasis to listen to God's Word. From the moment I walked into the church until the time I left (after enjoying coffee and homemade za'atar manaqish), I noticed that the active, prayerful participation of the laity was palpable. 

Spending a lovely Sunday at
St. John of the Desert Melkite Catholic Church

I tucked this experience into the back of my mind and heart, thinking that it's great for them, but pew-free churches are an "Eastern thing." I assumed that church pews are part of the West, that they are an essential aspect of Roman Catholic churches, and that there is NO WAY we can properly be Roman Catholic without pews...right? 

I continued to harbor this assumption until a fateful day, not too long ago, when I stumbled across an article about the history of pews in the West. I was shocked. While precise details and dates for the first pews are not clearly delineated, the general historical consensus seems to be that around the 12th or 13th century, some churches and cathedrals had benches around the perimeter of the nave for elderly people to use during the liturgy. Otherwise, people stood and kneeled in the open space of the nave. John Coke Fowler, an Anglican barrister in England, writes about this in his 1844 piece, Church Pews, Their Origin and Legal Incidents:
“The history of its introduction into English churches, and the circumstances attending it, are involved in some obscurity. There is no doubt, however, that before the Reformation parish-churches were not pewed, that is to say, the floor of the nave or body of the building was never covered, as at present, with close boxes. On the contrary, no exclusive seats, with very few exceptions, were allowed; and if there were any seats, they were generally such as were moveable, and the personal property of the incumbent.

As the Protestant Reformation developed, however, more and more importance was placed on the sermon, rather than on the Eucharistic sacrifice--and this shift affected the presence of pews. Fowler continues: 
Then the Reformation, with its lengthened services, and sermons, rendered accommodation for sitting of much more importance than before, and pews became rather more common than before: bye and bye the old open seats and chairs required reparation or renewal; and when a general new seating was determined upon, the privileges of the pew were imitated throughout, and the old fashion of moveable or open seats almost entirely discarded.”

Over time, the gradual shift to pews in Protestant churches travelled over to some Roman Catholic churches. Some of these churches, like some Protestant churches, even took up the practice of "pew rentals" to raise funds for church maintenance and the clergy. Pews became common in Roman Catholic churches in America, and today, they are abundant. 

Despite the prevalence of pews in America, I am beginning to wonder if they are as essential as I'd always assumed. According to my brief foray into the history of pews, it would seem that they are a rather recent inclusion in Roman Catholic churches. Interestingly, Fowler himself--in seemingly grudging admiration of the "corrupt" Roman Catholic church--notes that the "services of that [Roman Catholic] Church indeed make accommodation for sitting of much less consequence to her members than to ourselves." 

Pews became popular when people began flocking to churches to sit and listen to endless preaching by Protestant pastors. Sitting in a pew, for an extended period of time, naturally lends itself to an exterior and interior posture of passivity--even if you fully intend to listen attentively.

I recall my unfortunate habits of sitting passively and unattentively in the pew, and I wonder if, perhaps, there is something to the idea of having a pew-free church. After all, we are not disembodied beings; our bodies are affected--and directly affect--everything about us. How I move my body affects my attention and prayer (or lack of it). My mind can certainly drift when I kneel or stand, but it is much easier to hold myself in a prayerful attitude of "fully active participation" when I am not comfortably cozied up in a pew. 

In 2013, I got to visit the parish church that St. Therese of Lisieux's family attended.
The absence of permanent pews didn't even occur to me at the time! 
(my husband has also reminded me that when we attended a daily Mass
at St. Peter's Basilica around that time, we did not encounter pews there, either)

My small toddler's recent behavior at Mass has caused me to reflect on this topic even more. She, being a normal 1 1/2-year-old, is going through a phase where it's challenging for her to stay in the pew for the entire liturgy. So, I often find myself taking her to the back of church at some point. At daily Masses, where there are fewer people, I put her down once we're behind the occupied pews, so she can walk around the back section of the nave as we participate in Mass. As I slowly follow her, I notice how she turns to point at the priest before resuming her journey. She stops when she approaches the confessional. "Ssssuhhh sssss," she murmurs, as she reaches out to touch the statue of St. Therese of Lisieux. I kneel for the Consecration as she slowly toddles by. She blesses herself with holy water. She hears the priest begin to intone the Doxology, and she lifts her head and belts out her own variation at the top of her lungs: Ah! Alooa! Aluah! Alooa! AMEN! AMEN!

Together, we are fully active participants in the Sacred Liturgy, no pew necessary. 

Walking down the aisle of my church one morning, my gaze sweeps across the expanse of the nave, and I try to imagine it without an abundance of pews. 
I try to imagine what it would be like for men, women, and children to stand and kneel in alert, receptive, active posture as they offer their prayers and selves to God. 
I try to imagine small children having the freedom to slowly move towards the stained glass windows and statues that they are drawn to while in prayer. 
I try to imagine adults walking up to light candles during the liturgy as they offer their intentions to God. 
I try to imagine participating in the Station of the Cross each Lent, and instead of being restricted to a pew--since the aisles are too small for the whole congregation to gather in procession--being able to walk with the priest and servers. 

What would it look like if, aside from some scattered benches or chairs for elderly individuals, we moved out of the pews? Could it impact our attitudes and prayer? Could it even aid our active participation in the liturgy? 

I may never know the answers to these questions, but the topic is worth pondering. Even if church pews are here to stay, it's good to reflect on how we can prayerfully take part in Mass. How can we grow in our fully active participation in the liturgy--even when we're in a "passive" position of sitting in the pew?

In Meditations Before Mass, Msgr. Romano Guardini reflects:

“Is there anything more embarrassing than the manner in which some people, upon entering a church after an anemic genuflection immediately flop into their seats? Isn’t this precisely how they take their places on a park bench or at the movies? Apparently they have no idea where they are; for were they to call on someone important after church, they would behave quite differently. As for sitting itself, in church it signifies more than mere comfort; it is the position of attentive listening. Similarly, kneeling here is quite different from the position a hunter might assume while taking aim it is the offering of our erect position to God. And again, standing in church is a profounder act than that of a mere half while walking, or the attitude of expectant waiting: it is the bearing of reverence before the heavenly Lord. We can do these things convincingly only when we are fully conscious of what is taking place around us, and that awareness is ours only when we are self-collected and composed.” (p. 29)

Whether we love pews or loathe them, use them or not, let us all strive towards greater unity and participation in the Sacred Liturgy as we offer worship, sacrifice, and praise to God.

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