Tuesday, June 26, 2007
The Sign of Peace
What a divisive topic.
I was just over reading Et-Tu, Jen, who happens to have a post on the Sign of Peace.
When I first went to church a couple of years ago, I was completely caught off guard by this practice. I was sitting there, minding my own business, when the priest said:
Let us offer each other the sign of peace.
And suddenly people started interacting with one another. "What?!" I thought, "This is chaos! Offer who the sign of peace? The people in front of me? The people behind me? Ack! I just made eye contact with that guy a couple rows up! Do I have to now shake his hand as well?" And though these days I'm not quite as shocked as the first time I experienced it, to a socially awkward person like myself this whole process just seems like anarchy, rife with opportunities for me to do something inappropriate and/or offensive.
Go and read the rest. It's hilarious!
Even among the hilarity, though, she has a point. Some people turn this part of the Mass into a complete free-for-all, running around the aisles, greeting everyone they know, etc. Actually, though my parish tends to be pretty low key, thus it is easy to spot visitors from other churches that enjoy the free-fer-all social hour during Mass. While everyone else has completed the Sign of Peace among those around them, the visitors are still socializing, and may have poured themselves a drink by that point and gotten out the cards for a friendly hand at poker before they realize that their chatting is out of place.
When I was a little girl, I loved this part of the Mass; mostly because I could be sociable while saying something proscribed, that being, "Peace be with you." I was a very shy child, but I could do this because it was brief and simple and without fuss.
Admittedly, though, my perspective has changed since I have come back to the Church, especially considering that I am single and I don't live near my family, thus I am usually at Mass alone. Back when I hadn't found my way "home" yet, I went into a church near my house that had the practice of "greeting one's neighbor" before Mass. That always annoyed me - it was superficial.
"Good morning, my name is ________, what's yours?"
I always felt like maybe this was supposed to be a lesson in rudimentary language skills, and was always tempted to say, "Buenas Dias! Me llamo es ________. Como se llama? Mucho Gusto!"
(No, this was not a Spanish-speaking parish. Insert your own language lessons here).
I never "met" anyone that way. I never felt more included, for, if anything, I felt more excluded from lack of any meaningful contact with someone else. And it was clear most of the people engaging in this forced social act were uncomfortable with it as well. The rest of the Mass was fine, and even the Sign of Peace itself was reverent and simple, which is why I did still attend that parish whenever I bothered to go to Mass. Somehow I knew that no place was perfect, and I'd seen the dissident barely-Catholic "Mass" in other places, so I was willing to put up with some discomfort.
Fast forward to current times. I love my church, I'm involved, and I've come to know many people there. It is definitely home to me. But I still go to Mass alone, which really, I don't mind.
Then enter the dreaded Sign of Peace. I don't really have a problem with the placement in the Mass, because there is scripture to back it up. I'm paraphrasing, but Jesus ordered, "If you remember you have something against your brother, leave your offering, make peace with your brother and return to offer your sacrifice."
When we approach Communion, we are offering ourselves as a sacrifice, and we cannot do this while holding on to some kind of a grudge.
I can't tell you how many times I have been irritated by someone near me, for whatever reason, but when I have to extend my hand to them and offer Peace, that irritation melts away, so I won't complain about the placement. Many people will disagree with me; that's all well and good, and it is a practice that does not have to be included in the Mass.
But let me tell you why I dislike it, and my reasons are purely personal.
I've heard/seen some people suggest that we shouldn't complain about this small act of offering someone Peace during Mass because we as Catholics often come across as unfriendly, from the perspective of people who don't understand why we approach worship with quiet reverence, wheras their experience is one of entertainment and social interaction. I say that during Mass is not the time to worry about social interaction; we are there to worship God, not the children, clothing, smile, vocal abilities, what-have-you of the people around us. There is no meaningful interaction there; just clearing spiritual air is what it's supposed to be.
I never felt more "welcome" in an unfamiliar parish because of an overly-enthusiastic "Peace be with you!" or even a "Have a nice day!" during Mass. Especially considering that typically that person who shook my hand so happily never even looked at me again. Mass isn't the time to be social.
The argument, then, that we should not do away with the social interaction of the Sign of Peace falls short of any actual effect, as far as I'm concerned and I don't find it to be a valid argument from someone seeking to improve our image.
In my parish, the Sign is here to stay, and I'm fine with it; as I said, it's really done simply and realistically, but I do still have a complaint, arising from my status as a single.
As Jennifer F. pointed out in her post, If, however, any of the people within this radius are part of a group, it is customary to offer the sign of peace to everyone within the group, up to a maximum of ten people.
Well said! And very good observation.
I would suggest that if any customs be changed, this should be the first.
Attending Mass alone is not a problem, for as we know, we are not really alone; we are in the company of the angels and the saints, as well as our brothers and sisters in Christ. But I dread the Sign of Peace, especially if I am not near any other Singles.
All too often, I am surrounded by large families (God bless them!), or groups of people related in some way, who like to converse and congratulate each other on being related and having cute kids or what-have-you. So there I stand, feeling like an idiot, looking around as the groups around me all have their backs to me, and finally, maybe someone notices that I'm there and reaches out to offer me Peace, too.
If there is another Single person nearby, we've normally noticed each other prior, in that solidarity Singles tend to have in these moments, and so we might have an oasis of social "Peace" in the midst of being ignored by the rest of the self-congratulatory crowd.
Oddly, though, we're the ones who feel stupid as we stand there, even though we can't even make EYE CONTACT with anyone and initiate reaching out to extend the offer of Peace.
I ask you...why are WE the ones to feel stupid and uncomfortable when by all rights, it should be the other way around?
What this has taught me, though, is an important lesson; when I go to Mass and I am with a group and in reach of another Single, I try to remember to reach out to them first, because I know what it's like to be outside of a group. It's not always possible and it makes sense to grasp the nearest hands. But really, we should do a better job of realizing who is around us and making an effort to extend our hands to them before we do so to those with whom we are attending the Mass.
I don't necessarily think the practice needs to go; but I do think all of us could do a great deal to improve our "image" by simply realizing this isn't time for a party and that those who may be alone at Mass could use a friendly hand and a friendly smile, too.