Something that’s come to mind recently has been a question of why the back pew of any Church, Cathedral, or neighborhood parish is more frequently occupied by a lone straggler while the front pew remains vacant. Every Thursday here, with the Mercedarian Sisters, we attend our holy hour at 3pm at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a parish within the Westside happenings of Cleveland, OH. Every Thursday, people wander into the church, some recognizable, others, with faces unknown. As anticipated, almost every one of these individuals come in from the streets and sit in… the back pew.
What is so becoming of that back pew?
During Sunday or daily Masses, I have noticed upon entering or exiting a Church that the body of some stranger mysteriously occupies the wooden pew far, far away in the rear of the church, bent over with their head in their hands. Meanwhile, the pews closest to the altar are occupied by invisible air, kneelers tucked in tight.
Maybe in that back pew, we feel safer because the doors to the world are nearby, a quick exit into the noise is accessible if the silence grows to be too unbearable.
Maybe in our brokenness, we feel we belong there, in safe distance from the purity of all-knowing God who in His might could not possibly forgive our wrongs once more.
Maybe the shame or suffering we endure is so heavy we can’t lift our limbs forward anymore and we collapse into the lonely pew with an ounce of hope.
Maybe it’s simply the want for privacy, away from wandering glances or uninvited stares, from judgmental thoughts or unkind looks.
Maybe the pews in the front are falsely believed to be reserved for holy people, not me.
Maybe the person who comes in is aware that the stench emitting from their unwashed body may be an inconvenience to others around them.
Maybe the hiddenness, away from the light of the altar is what we are drawn towards when we want to crumple up, weary, tired, and sad.
Maybe we don’t want others to see us vulnerable in prayer, gazing at Him with all our beings, all our attention, as if He is All there is in that moment.
Maybe we don’t believe He truly loves us and that His beating heart pumps all the more as we approach Him, as we choose this moment to be with Him. The God Who made us, Who saved us, Who saves us every day and supplies us with His own flesh and blood to keep us going here on the earth.
I do wonder if our church community as a whole would be transformed if we each decided to sit in those intimidating front pews, near the altar. Perhaps the distractions will diminish, leaving our senses more capable of perceiving the visible and invisible enormity of what takes place for our sake.
Imagine walking into a Church on Sunday or even at a random time during a weekday and seeing fellow brothers and sisters closely gathered as if they were eager students sitting in the front of the classroom at their favorite class or dedicated fans at a concert or show. I would think when Jesus was here on earth looking like a man that the crowds pressed up as close as possible to Him to hear Him speak, to observe His mannerisms. Think Zaccheus.
“He (Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich.3 Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way.
When we meet up with friends, we don’t think of sitting more than an arms breadth from them. In the Church, we don’t exactly have the accessibility to sit very close to the tabernacle all the time. What we do have is the power to choose. No matter where you are, Christ is beside you but, what if you moved towards Him?
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