Countercultural Courtesy and Clothing

As we listen to the readings from Revelation through the Easter season, I find myself focused on that heavenly liturgy they describe. I also look around and see how little we focus on the mystical union we on earth have with that liturgy, and how little we act like we are, somehow, already there.

I speak of the influence that the surrounding culture has had on general behavior – etiquette in the broadest sense of the word – at Sunday Mass. I see this manifested in the lack of respect shown by tardy arrivals, inattentiveness to dress, and general rudeness to others at the Mass.

Whoever is calling on the cell phone is more important than the people I am gathered with: not a good value for liturgy. Both at restaurant dinners (even though it’s harder and harder to find a place to dine without TVs in the room) and at my house last Thanksgiving, I made people at the table put away or silence their cell phones when we sat down to dinner. (Exceptions made for those who might be called to perform surgery, or had left an infant with a sitter). Most everyone looked like I had just suggested they choose a hand to lop off before eating. I have witnessed the folks at Mass who need to check iMail during the homily, and a father and son who were either surfing the web or playing a video game during the Eucharistic Prayer, oblivious to the saints gathered around them.

There are numerous reports about clothing stores, especially those that sell suits and ties for business men, going under as the society continues its idolizing of “casual” in everything. And the “family” metaphor applied to Sunday eucharist can’t be used in this area, since fewer and fewer households gather at table regularly, and certainly don’t dress up to do so, even on “special” days.

At the movies people are still trundling in after the movie has begun, in spite of it beginning 20 min. or so after the advertised start time due to commercials, previews, and the accommodation of societal tardiness. In Chicago, both the Joffrey Ballet and Chicago Shakespeare Theater have started delaying their start times for the same accommodation. However, folks ARE at Wrigley Field 4 or more hours ahead of the Cubs opener.

There are plenty others: music, instrumental music in particular, is now a cue to begin talking, since it is just “background”; the idol-ization of solo singers (vs. the white-robed choir singing around the throne); the ascendancy of individual taste over the group; the 549 trillion served at the worst nutritional place on earth; the exaltation of often-ephemeral youth culture over against the gifts and wisdom of age … the list could go on.

I offer all of this as a lower-case “l” liturgist, not as a curmudgeon.

We’ve spent most of the past generation taking the values of the surrounding culture, embracing or aggrandizing them, the behaviors, and vocabularies (verbal and non-verbal) that come with them. We can’t be surprised as the process we started begins to happen even more aggressively on its own, and we’re no longer the gate-keepers. The world around us has done more to transform liturgy than the other way around in the past few decades. There’s a bit of culpability lying at our own feet, it seems to me.

The Sunday liturgical community is, I guess, a “family” gathered for a celebration; it is also a body, the Body of Christ, there to surrender itself in sacrifice once again. So we might want to really look at proposing the liturgy as a counter-cultural place, not apart from, but distinct within [God is in the prepositions] the world around it.

Our communal actions tell others – and God, loudly and clearly – what is important to us.

Alan Hommerding
Senior Editor, World Library Publications

6 comments

  1. Alan…

    Until liturgy once again takes itself seriously, I have no good reason to expect that those attending it will. I know that many are just SO tired of hearing this for the Nth time… kind of like those “the way we do it up North” stories that those of us working in the Sunshine State have to listen to ad nauseam. But…. I attend Mass every week at the EF Parish here in Sarasota. Everybody well dressed. Children at Mass are well-behaved and quiet. No chance of a cell phone going off during Mass. All eyes are either fixed on the altar or are closed or lowered in prayer. No “off the cuff” comments, jokes or banter from the Priest.

    There are actually people who DON’T go to communion because they mean it when they say “Domine, non sum dignus”… I wonder how many people at a “normal” parish refrain from going to communion because they were unable to make it to confession within the past day or two….

    And of course, there is no imported popular music.

  2. (Cont’d)

    But I don’t mean this to be an “EF Mass is Good/ OF Mass is Bad” rant. The point here is that when the liturgy and those celebrating it (I mean the Priest / Servers/ Musicians in this instance) have enough respect for the seriousness of the liturgy that they are willing to resist that temptation to bring the popular culture into it and allow it to be that expression of the Heavenly Liturgy in a real and meaningful way, then the faithful will regain their respect for it. It is actually possible to do this in any parish…it just has to be a priority and there are “sacrifices” that will have to be made.

    What would you say are the main elements of the popular culture that have been brought into the liturgy that have caused this downward spiral? Taking seriously the answers to that question could be the beginning of turning around the very trend that you are describing here.

  3. I love the idea of importing poular culture:
    “Do you reject Satan?”
    “Uh, could I poll the audience or phone a friend?”

  4. While I agree with most of your points about the lack of “respect” for the liturgy and the scant attention paid to the Sacred Mysteries, I have to point out that there is a very specific reason why I wear good jeans to Mass.

    I grew up Mormon / LDS, and “reverence” was the watchword during Sacrament Meeting. Wear your suit, tie, white shirt and black slacks (khakis, if you were a youthful deacon). Everything was precisely focused on the outside. Did you look reverent? Did you look nice and respectable?

    Upon leaving, I made a conscious choice that, when I could, I would show reverence with my heart, not with my clothes. On occasion I will “dress up” (especially if I am serving at the altar), but reverence is a matter of the heart. Not to completely reject externals, of course.

    Thought a different perspective might be of interest. Otherwise, I agree with most everything; Mass is a sacred, transcendent time- not just what you groggily get up for on Sunday morning.

  5. I would show reverence with my heart, not with my clothes

    Why not both? If the nice clothing kept you from being reverent, then by all means get rid of it, but I don’t see why it has to be an either/ or situation. This is similar to the “authentic worship must be simple and unadorned” argument. That just doesn’t hold up. I’ve heard way too many criticisms of high liturgy that try to maintain the idea that advocating beauty and detail of ritual requires that one no longer pay attention to worshipping God, as though one has to choose beauty or sincerity. That’s nonsense.

  6. Jeffery,

    I think Joseph was saying exactly that – the clothing _does_ get in the way of his being reverent, because he associates it with his youthful experience, which [to him, at least] was more focused on external appearance than the state of mind/heart. Perhaps in time he’ll feel differently about the matter, but for now he needs to avoid that association and distraction. I note that he is careful to explain that it’s his perspective, and not something that he necessarily advocates for everyone.

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