September 07, 2003
Day of unrest

This is not a relaxing weekend for me. As I write this, I am putting off going back to the office and doing some writing that was left unfinished from last week (aarrrgh) and I have various other things troubling me. But I did take the time to go to the 10:30 mass at the Church of St. Mark, as promised.

For the first time that I can remember, I walked to church. It's almost a mile away, so I suppose in L.A. terms that's driving distance, but after the long commutes to Christian Assembly I took a certain pleasure in going on foot. I got there early, spent a while hunting down the restrooms (the main ones were being renovated, so I had to go off to the deacon's hall), and came into the sanctuary by a side door.

The church was bigger than I had expected from the website. It's probably the biggest hall I've been in so far, with a very high ceiling. The room was an odd mix of traditional and modern. It had plain, uncushioned wooden pews and stained-glass windows (though rectangular, abstract ones) and a statue of the crucified Jesus hanging over the altar. But the statue was hung on some amazingly ugly wood paneling that looked like it would go better with a pool table than an altar.

I noticed also that on either side of the altar were painted statues of Mary (on the left) and Joseph with the baby Jesus (on the right). I couldn't help noticing they look almost exactly like giant versions of these little figurines I had when I was a kid. It may sound odd that I had them, but I saw them in a drugstore somewhere and was seized by one of these kid fancies, and begged my mother to get them for me. I regarded them as toys though, and looking at them now it was hard not to see them as really big toys.

Anyway, the church was about half full. The priest remarked that there were fewer people there than usual, probably because of the triathlon this weekend. The most striking thing about the congregation, compared to other churches I've been, was how multicultural it was. There were people of all colors in the pews, the priest was a cheery, rotund Irishman, and one of the readers was also a foreigner, probably Filipino. There's apparently an all-Spanish service at noon, but a few of the songs were in Spanish even in this otherwise English liturgy.

Once the service started, I realized that in my sidelong entrance to the sanctuary I'd neglected to pick up a liturgy. I briefly considered going back and trying to find one, but decided to rely on that traditional Christian practice known as "winging it." It actually wasn't that hard, though of course I didn't participate as fully as usual. The choir leader, apparently a classically trained mezzo soprano, was very good at leading. Before every song she'd announce which hymn in the missal it was, mentioning the number twice, and give everybody time to find it. She also did helpfully big hand gestures to indicate what parts we were supposed to join in on.

The liturgy was in many ways similar to the Lutheran one last week, but the Lutheran one actually seemed more traditional. The Catholic songs all dated from the 1980s, and there wasn't the cool interweaving of music and speech that seems like a holdover from the past. The choir was small and casual, and I noticed this was the first church I remember going to that used a piano for its music, as opposed to an organ or (at CA) a rock band.

The sermon's theme was compassion. I was a bit amused that the priest referred our old friend Marcus Borg, but it was (to me) a fairly unexceptionable point about how compassion is a central theme in the Bible. The pre-sermon reading was the little story at the end of Mark 7, where Jesus heals a deaf man. The priest talked about the difficulty of being deaf, how frustrating it is not to be able to communicate with your fellows, and how compassionately Jesus dealt with the man he healed.

At the time, and even more so now, I though it was an ironic topic, because my ears were so unhappy for so much of the service. For one thing, there was some baby or another wailing nearly the whole time. I actually haven't had a problem with that before. At the last two churches I attended, with their small, oldish congregations, there were no babies. At CA babies interrupt sometimes, but it seems to be the local custom to take them outside almost immediately. Here it just seemed to go with the territory.

I should say, CA is much better set up for that problem. There's a TV monitor in the lobby, and also in a little area of the women's room for nursing mothers, so parents can still follow the service even outside the sanctuary. There really wasn't a good place to take the babies at St. Mark's, especially since in the heat all the windows were open, so you could hear everything outside anyway. But I suppose it's also just what you're used to. I remember the minister at St. Bede's, who was so interested in liturgical history, said that altar rails were first built in the late Middle Ages to protect the altars from the animals that roamed around church in those days. Think of the chaos that would be...

But I was not used to it, and the wailing raked my nerves. Worse, with my ears prickling I kept noticing everything else wrong with the sounds: that the amplification was too loud, the piano out of tune, the music only so-so, and everything made worse by the echoey vastness of the hall. It seems like a dully physical thing to detract from a spiritual event, but God help me, I'm an embodied creature, and the assaults on my ears were beleaguering my soul. When we stopped to pray I closed my eyes and tried to offer it up, but I couldn't concentrate because some kid still wouldn't shut up.

I left feeling more frazzled than I came in, and didn't hang around to talk to anyone afterwards. Since it was a biggish church, I slipped out unnoticed. On the way back I stopped at an Albertson's to pick up a couple things, and it says something ominous that the sounds of the grocery store were actually soothing.

So generally, I would not want to go back there without a stiff drink first. After I got home though, I noticed Amy Welborn's post that included this suggestion:

If parish liturgy really drives you nuts, go to a local monastery or shrine, as Fr. Wilson mentioned. There is nothing wrong with this. People have done this for ages - it's why monasteries have been such an influence on the church...not because they've been enclosed, but because they draw in outsiders, teach them, serve them, etc, outsiders who then take what they've seen and spread the word.

A monastery ... now that could be interesting. I bet there wouldn't be a lot of little kids either...

Posted by Camassia at September 07, 2003 02:22 PM | TrackBack

Darn those noisy little kids! What business do they have getting in the way of our spiritual experiences!

So I've been known to say to myself. Followed by: oops.

That God is a trickster, he/she is.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on September 7, 2003 07:01 PM

Well, it did occur to me that if I were a more spiritually advanced being I'd be able to appreciate the babies for the little miracles that they are, but ... darn it, I guess I'm a soulless single yuppie after all.;-)

Seriously, I knew I was overreacting, but it all worked on me in some sub-rational way. I've always been really sensitive to sound, and it can get to me emotionally. I guess the good side of that is that the music and liturgies that work for me really work for me. But it's true that avoiding children is probably not a good long-term policy, unless I want to join a convent.

Posted by: Camassia on September 7, 2003 10:00 PM

I was delighted by how noisy our parish was when we first joined, at a time when we had a two-year-old and a baby about to be born. It's still pretty noisy, but now we sit in the middle instead of the back. What you're used to, I guess. The church we'd attended previously was full of people giving us dirty looks when our kid made a squeak.

One difference between Catholics and some Protestants might be captured by saying that Protestants have "pre-sermon readings" and Catholics have "post-Gospel homilies." Preaching is much less important to the Mass than it is to a lot of the Protestant worship services, as is shown for example by the fact that a sermon or homily isn't required at a daily (i.e., non-Sunday, non-feastday) Mass.

Posted by: Tom on September 8, 2003 05:53 AM


Ah, yes, the sublime aspect of worship experience known as "irritating behavior of other worshippers." This weekend at church a man a few rows down from me received not one, but TWO phone calls on his cell phone DURING CHURCH. He finally turned it off, but then another person on the other side of church started getting calls. Arrrghghgh.

Not sure there's a solution for this, except to practice patience and hopefully attend a church where worship is engaging enough you can screen it out.


Posted by: Captain Inertia on September 8, 2003 06:27 AM

And Methodists (my wife is one, so I go after Mass) would be well described as having pre-sermon hymnody; fairly often the scripture read is one verse, if it's the Pastor. Which made it very surprising when the Assistant told me that the Methodist Church supposedly uses our Lectionary. I would never have guessed it.

Posted by: Ed on September 9, 2003 09:53 AM


Actually most Main Line Protestant churches use the Revised Common Lectionary, which sometimes overlaps with the Roman Lectionary, but not always.

Posted by: Melanie on September 11, 2003 09:46 AM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?