A story about being inappropriately bored in church, and also about not liking to think about forgiveness:
As I write this, it is Sunday afternoon. My family and I just returned from Mass. I am still feeling all “churchy” and contemplative and hyper sensitive to God’s infinite presence. Fortunately for you, my reader, I am also feeling a need to over-share in that self-deprecating way that aims to add levity and humor, per my usual.
So it’s all gonna be good.
No preaching here, so no worries.
I promise you’ll soon be getting a chuckle at my expense, which really is the reason I write, so, just read and enjoy.
Okay, I want to talk a little bit about inner conflict and being human and the truth behind what’s really going on in the mind of that nice young woman sitting with her family — second-to-last pew on the right.
That “nice young woman” is me, by the way, and I don’t know that I come out looking real good at the end of this. But I’m feeling sort of confessional right now, so let’s just go there, shall we?
It all started off fine and well enough. My husband, sons, and I had actually managed to be up and dressed and in the car with plenty of time to spare. This morning, there was no heated debate over the merits of going my way out the neighborhood — slower back roads and few lights — versus my husband’s way — quicker main roads, many lights. No awkward maneuvering around an already advancing processional of altar boys, deacons and priest. No piling in to the undesirable pew — the one behind a poorly placed, view-blocking steel buttress — only to realize there isn’t enough room even there, unless each boy (now nearly ten and eight) takes a lap.
No, this morning, we arrived on time. Early enough, in fact, that I was able to pull out a kneeler and spend a few minutes getting real pious, complete with folded hands and a subtle mouthing of every third word to the Hail Mary. You know the drill — the I’m-so’lost-in-prayer-I-occassionally-forget-myself-and-mouth-a-few-words, as if to say:
Look, fellow congregants — I am so incredibly Catholic!
By the time the Mass began, I was feeling particularly devout.
Things continued going smoothly throughout the first few readings. I was able to maintain a laser focus on every word spoken, my mind conjuring appropriate images of early Christian men in beards and dusty sandals. I clearly constructed St. John’s lonely island of exile. When “lampstands” were mentioned, I refused the picture of dancing candles, a la Fantasia, that my mind kept offering up. I knew better. I traded the silly cartoon depiction for a much more sensible notion of what I can only describe as”elusive light,” which matched nicely with the metaphorical language of the passage.
As I hope you all can see, I had worked hard to invest every one of my senses in the process of absorbing the Word. Please, by all means, acknowledge how participatory I was being.
How very, very participatory.
And then, the priest approached the lecturn to address the congregation. In other words, “speech time.” This is usually my favorite part of Mass. I love to see how the readings will tie in to lessons for our modern world. I anticipate the little nuggets of wisdom that somehow seem to speak just to me, giving me something to chew on all week.
I settled my back against the pew. I folded my hands and rested them on my crossed legs at the knee — my best “listening” pose. I shot a sideways glance at the husband, jut to be sure he was making appropriate eye contact (he usually isn’t).
Alright, I thought. Here we go….and — action! (This typically really does run through my head right before the priest begins to speak. I don’t know why).
It was at this point that suddenly, and without warning, things took a nosedive.
I knew I was in trouble when the priest used the opening lines of his homily to foreshadow what would be its overarching message: forgiveness.
At that very moment, all my earnest efforts at being virtuous during the service fell undeniably limp.
I released my back to allow a slouch. My hands left my knees, and drew themselves up as I crossed my arms over my chest. My eyes moved from our pastor to the window across the way.
Oh this is just great, I thought. Now I’ll have to wait another whole week, and sing through a whole other Gloria plus respond in song to a whole other Psalm (my least favorite part of Mass) before we get to the next speech.
Me and my spirit — we were both kinda pissed.
Forgiveness homilies never pack the theological punch that I crave. They typically hover above the fray of the nitty-gritty –where good stories are made — staying safely in “generalities” land.
Basically, forgiveness homilies seem, well, lazy.
I feel they are often akin to “movie” days in elementary school, when the teacher likely lacked proper plans to fill all six hours of instruction, so out would come the inane two-hour film about a boy who loses his red balloon!
See, everyone already knows about the whole forgiveness thing. We get it. This is the stuff more fitting for a child’s Sunday school project — perhaps a coloring page of the Prodigal Son and his father, or a re-creation of “the good thief’s” crucifixion using popsicle sticks and foam stickers.
But in our for-the-adults message? Meh….no thanks.
I drew in a sharp breath and exhaled a bit too loudly.
My mind began to drift. I slowly panned the church for people I recognized. Hmmmm — I wonder who came today. I whipped up a quick game of Where’s Waldo? trading out the bespectacled guy in red and white stripes for neighbors who belonged to our congregation. I had pretty much planned to check out until communion time.
And then I heard the words that managed to break the barrier I had stubbornly erected.
The priest was bringing out the big guns, reminding us we are to forgive “seventy times seven.”
“Seventy times seven….” everyone knows, is metaphor for “infinitely.” We are to forgive an infinite number of times. There is to be no statue of limitations on forgiveness, apparently.
The words smacked against my chest and fell into my lap, forcing me to deal with where to put them. Another sharp breath, another loud exhale.
I quickly did the math in my head, and decided that no, it was quite possible that the equation was literal. I mean, 490 is a Hell of a lot of forgiveness. I momentarily considered grabbing the iphone from my purse to double check, using the calculator app. No, I was pretty sure I got it right: 490.
I saw a parade of faces dance before me — disembodied heads of those I know who make even 490 seem like too big a number.
Oooohhhh, this is gonna be hard, I thought as I prepared to flesh out a very creative definition of forgiveness. Glancing at the crucifix above the altar, I squirmed in my seat. I proceeded anyway:
Well, forgiveness technically relies upon the advent of remorse. There is really nothing to forgive if the act isn’t first initiated by the wrongdoer through remorse….
Helping the notion situate more soundly in my conscience, I added:
I mean, I go to God in prayer all the time seeking forgiveness. Yeah, that’s right, I first seek it, and so he then grants it.
There. That’s better. No way some of those disembodied heads would float over to make an act of contrition. In fact, their indignation was the crux of their problem anyway. So, good — I can safely avoid this whole forgiveness thing because there would likely never be an opportunity to extend it anyway.
I then imagined certain people coming to me, seeking my forgiveness. Would I really even want that? The hand wringing, the humbled shoulders, the quivering voice. The awkward, stilted dialogue.
Completely gross, I decided. No, that’s no good. I don’t want the drama.
It is probably appropriate to, at this point in my story, assure you sheepishly that yes, this is exactly what ran through my mind today. In church. Moving on….
to Plan B:
Well, who am I to grant forgiveness anyway? I’m far from perfect myself. No, no need for anyone to be groveling at my feet. I’m not worthy. Plus, I’m not one to hold a grudge. I may not have the whole forgiveness thing worked out, but I definitely execute a hearty forgetting. No problem there.
I felt pleased at myself for allowing this last caveat. It felt redemptive — I’m not a complete jerk, see? It’s not about proper remorse afterall. It’s simply about the unnecessary-ness of the act in the first place, at least among broken people toward other broken people.
I think at this point I was making the case for a lifetime full of half-baked relationships — cooked around the edges and raw in the middle. Stuff that’s easy to refuse because it will likely make you sick. Uh-oh:
Great, now I seem really weird. Even in front of myself. Which means God is likely not too pleased either.
I wondered if the flip-flopping in my stomach was self-induced or the beginnings of a Holy shake-down.
I’m so screwed.
I glanced over at my husband, who had been making a lot of self-satisfied “Mmmm-hmmmms” throughout the whole talk. He now wore a smug grin.
Oh that’s just perfect. His first Mass in what seems like forever, and this was the message? The forgiveness message? I will never hear the end of it. He will lift lines from this homily for months on end, throwing them like arrows aiming to pierce all my best quips.
I remembered back to when he read The Grapes of Wrath and took to claiming the “devil was rampagin'” every time we argued.
Oh, Lord help me.
I decided that for now, having to ride home with my husband would be reparation enough for all the thought sins I committed in church today. The rest could be worked out later, in time.
The ride home went about the way I expected, by the way. So indulgence granted, thank you very much.
I am not done exploring this whole forgiveness thing, though. It is still stuck in my crawl even now. I will churn this over time and again in the weeks to come. It will likely be revisited in future posts, too, because the whole idea of forgiveness is an important one. And my distaste for the whole thing seems to beg the question of whether I don’t like my allowing of said forgiveness, or I just don’t like witnessing other people’s remorse.
Now that would have been a great basis for the homily.
In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts. Anyone else have an an unusual aversion to this or another virtue? Any idea why?