By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published April 3, 2008
I am sitting in the pew, holding my breath. In front of me is a man whose clothing reeks of cigarettes.
Desperately, I am trying to avoid being distracted. I remind myself that Jesus loves this man, who perhaps endures all sorts of terrible sufferings that push him to smoke as much as he does.
This doesn’t work, however, so I end up trying to move as far away from him as possible without knocking the rest of the people out of the pew.
The next week, I change my location, but now there is another distraction. This time, the woman in front of me mumbles under her breath throughout the entire Mass, while also shuffling her feet noisily.
Once again, I remind myself that Jesus loves this person, who obviously is suffering from some strange medical condition. Still, I find myself in a frenzy of annoyance.
And later I have to face facts: There is a definite conspiracy to keep me away from Sunday Mass.
Sometimes it is a well-meaning person who belts out the hymns with gusto, while never quite hitting the notes.
Other times it is the moment when we say the Lord’s Prayer and the entire pew forms some kind of strange daisy chain with folks turning into contortionists to reach people in other pews.
No matter what, however, I continue going to Mass, because I know exactly who is orchestrating these annoyances.
As C.S. Lewis describes him in “The Screwtape Letters,” it is “Our Father Below,” also known as Satan.
Envisioning a series of letters between two devils, Lewis gives readers a shocking glimpse into the ways that demons work.
The devils are endeavoring to ensnare the soul of a particular man, who happens to be a churchgoer. One of them notes that his neighbors in the pews may prove a source of temptation: “Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, (he) will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”
Some people avoid church by fooling themselves. They decide they can fulfill their weekly obligation by staying home and saying their prayers on the porch.
This notion, however, doesn’t work for Catholics, because ignoring one’s Sunday obligation is a serious matter. Unless illness prevents one getting to Mass, it is a grave sin to miss it.
Some may protest that it would be better to attend Mass out of love, rather than obligation. But who ever said obligations and love cannot co-exist?
The woman who visits her mother in the nursing home is there because she knows it is the right thing to do. And she’s also there out of love.
Many people, lured by the devil, approach Mass like a performance, giving it high or low marks based on the choir, the sermon and the people in the pews.
Here is a bit of advice from someone who has done exactly that:
Mass is not an opera, a concert or a play. Even with music that makes you cringe, sermons that set your teeth on edge and people who drive you bonkers, the truth can’t be changed: Mass is the most important part of the week for Catholics because there we meet Jesus in the Eucharist.
In “Interior Freedom,” Jacques Philippe says the devil invites us to notice the flaws in others, including their lack of fervor and their mistakes.
It can be tempting to conclude that, since things aren’t perfect, we should just give up. But it is precisely when things around us are going wrong, he says, that we should “hope in God and serve him joyfully.”
There will always be annoyances wherever there are other human beings. There will always be people with shoes that squeak and clothes that reek.
When I find myself gnashing my teeth over some problem at Mass, it is humbling to think of Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who died in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz.
He refused to succumb spiritually to the horrendous circumstances around him, resolving instead to conquer evil with good. He and his companions went to their deaths while singing “The Magnificat.”
It is also humbling to realize that churches are being bombed in parts of the Middle East, with clergy and laypeople dying.
Still, Catholics there are willing to put their very lives in danger to get to Christ in the Eucharist.
These people will not settle for saying prayers in the comfort of their own porch. They will not be daunted by bothersome people in the pews.
They would hardly notice the annoyances of strong aromas, mumbling and off-key singing. Because they are joyfully doing what Catholics everywhere are encouraged to do each week: Lift up our hearts to the Lord.
And make the devil howl with disappointment.
Lorraine Murray’s new book is “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” (Ignatius Press). Artwork featured in the print edition is by Jef Murray, whose work may be seen at www.jefmurray.com. To contact the Murrays, e-mail email@example.com.