For those who participate in the sacraments by means of parish liturgies, the scene will be familiar enough. A beautifully adorned and maintained church; complete with an area for parents and other carers to manage their little ones without disturbance to others. Many such arrangements provide not only a designated area but include sound-proofing. Some may bemoan the absence of similar arrangement for adults.
Entering the church in all its beauty, one is most frequently confronted by a cacophony of chatter. At varying decibels, conversations are heard of recent or imminent sporting events, domestic chores, bodily discomforts and holiday plans. For those churches blessed to have both an organ, and someone to play it with any proficiency, there will be attempts to drown out the conversation by means of suitable music. All too often such attempts are interpreted as an invitation to the loquacious to increase their own efforts.
The issue of church etiquette is a delicate and finely balanced one. As a society, we have undoubtedly travelled some distance away from the awe which accompanied our first approaches to the altar and Him who dwells there. Moreover, those who have - no matter how indirectly - sought to re-awaken this sense of awe within us, are pilloried; metaphorically indicted for contravening some distorted notion of inclusivity, ecclesial welcome or 'communion'. Worse still, heaven forfend those members of the laity who might - in their folly - suggest that social discourse be taken to the more remote precincts of the church. Any one foolhardy enough to make such a request, is assuredly to be castigated as "pious"; a term which has acquired a pejorative flavour akin to the pharisaic. As is ever the case, it is quite literally the voice of the chattering classes which prevails.
There can be no mistaking the fact that the result is a lack of reverence of the kind which would not be out of place in Trollope's Barchester Chronicles; with a ready list of candidates suited and well-able to discharge the roles of Proudy or Slope.
Ultimately, church-etiquette cannot be reduced to matters of personal preference or to a contest of individuals. However, its absence betokens a mindset which disregards the sacred, not the human. Whether this disregard is the product of ignorance or disinterest, the affect is the same.
For those not born into the Catholic tradition, the manner in which we conduct ourselves in Church is incapable of reconciliation with the faith we profess regarding the Real Presence. We should not be surprised by this. After all, on a human level, we will have experienced those occasions when, though present in the room with us, the friend or colleague's real focus is elsewhere. In such moments, declaration of commitment, support and concern - finding no correspondence in disposition -have the flavour of the inauthentic.
In his novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh presents a scene which provides much food for thought. Revisiting the stately home of a by now fragmented and disjointed, aristocratic catholic family, the narrator (an atheist) enters the building which once served as his home. It is war time and the entire building has been requisitioned for military use; all that is, save for the chapel and the servant's quarters. Ruminating on the preceding years, the narrator is drawn into the chapel. It is here that he observes:
"Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about, at the time; a small red flame -a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of the tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther in heart than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones."
The account is that of an unbeliever who is awakened to the sacred. The red-light of the sanctuary lamp is the beacon of both continuity and purpose. It is also a reminder that we are entering a different space, One in which, out of love for Him whose tragedy ended our own, is deserving of our full presence; body, mind, intellect and will. Our presence must be more than metaphor. We are called to enter into a relationship with Christ, our Saviour, Redeemer, and refuge. All relationships depend upon communication. The Church, with the grace of the real presence, requires that we too are present. Presenting ourselves to Him. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
"Elected silence, sing to me
and beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear."
At a time when the terms 'common priesthood of the faithful' and 'lay apostolate' are ubiquitous, we do well to remember that priesthood is a condition of being not a status. It brings with it duties and onerous responsibilities; not least, to respect and serve that which is Holy. It requires a disposition of the heart. Perhaps, if we seek to cultivate such a disposition we might at some point identify with the words of Wordsworth:
"It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not."
Until then, we are farther away than Acre and Jerusalem.
Some may opine that we are called to participate in a form of spiritual warfare. In that battle, Christ must be the cornerstone of all that we seek to construct. To draw upon the vocabulary of Evelyn Waugh, our builders and tragedians are those who - like Christ himself- have paid the ultimate price. It is through their sacrifice that we have the freedom to erect places of worship. It is by their toil that we have the liberty to manifest our faith. What better means to meet the suffering servant of Christ himself than in the silence of gratitude. As the soon to be canonised John Henry Newman might have added: only in the midst of such silence can heart speak to heart. Perhaps this is the only etiquette we need.
O sacred Heart of Jesus may we place all our trust in You.