A beautiful candle-lit Vespers service had just concluded. The pouring rain outside echoed in the sanctuary, adding to the sense of reverence. Most of the congregation had left, but a few, like my friend, Tony, had remained to pen the names of loved ones in the book of remembrance or pray. I set my belongings on a front pew as I waited for him to finish.
Just then, I noticed a mild commotion by the entrance of the church closest to me. At the door stood a man in green ragged shorts, a well-worn t-shirt, ruffled hair, and visibly tarred hands that looked as if they hadn’t been washed after working for days in the field (I’ll call him Jim). He was trying to speak to another middle-aged man who clearly did not want to be part of the conversation. This man was dressed in a pressed long-sleeved shirt, long black pants, with perfectly styled hair and trimmed nails. I would not have remembered his ordinary corporate uniform had both these men not stood in such stark contrast to each other. He was a parishioner (I’ll call him Paul.)
I stood up and asked him a few questions in American Sign Language (ASL), hoping to facilitate communication between the two men—What’s your name? What do you need? Where do you live? How did you get here?
Jim wanted some money to buy food. He would only get money on Friday. He was homeless, but lived near the hospital. He had applied for housing and was hoping his application would be approved. He had to wait 14 days. He walked a few miles in the rain to get to church. He was going to walk back.
Tony, who was now looking on chimed in, “I have a poncho in the car he could use!”
I turned to Jim and asked if he would like a poncho. He nodded enthusiastically and clasped his hands close to his chest making the sign, REQUEST.
“He’s just going to sell it, you know?” said Paul. I smiled politely in response. Tony darted out the doors to get the poncho from his car. Jim followed and I went after him.
We stopped short of the exit to the parking lot. I told Jim to wait in the foyer where it was dry.
Paul had followed us out and was now in the foyer with us. “You don’t have to sign with him you know, he understands you.”
Jim, oblivious to the Paul’s comment, stretched his neck backwards, pointed to it and said, “I have three Adam’s apples! Look! One, two, three.” I smiled at him and nodded.
“He’s just going to sell the poncho,” reminded Paul.
To whom, and how much would he get for it? I wondered, taken back by his insistence. Maybe there’s been some miscommunication. Maybe I can allay his fears.
“He’s homeless. He said he walked from the hospital where he now lives,” I explained.
“No, we know him. I’m Father’s Dad” he said, referring to the parish priest. “We’ve been trying to get him never to come back.”
Never to come back.
I couldn’t believe what I heard.
Did he just say that he and his son, the parish priest, have been trying to get this man never to come back to church?
I scrambled for the right words to say.
“You do? Where does he live?” I asked.
“Right around the corner.”
“That’s Jesus! I know!” interrupted Jim, pointing to a large icon of the Divine Mercy hanging at the base of a nearby staircase.
Just then, the poncho arrived. Jim cast the oversized garment over his head, clumsily turning its large fabric around until his head popped out of the neck hole.
“Like this?” he said with a satisfied grin and outstretched arms, like a model showing of the features of his garment.
Then Jim asked for money again.
“Please, he wants to kick me out,” he remarked, looking at Paul and kicking with one foot as he said it, demonstrating that he understood.
I didn’t have cash on me, so Tony gave him five dollars. Clutching the bill in his hand, Jim said thank you, darted out the doors and disappeared into the dark parking lot.
“He’s going to sell the poncho,” said Paul, sounding his alarm for the third time.
“It’s fine,” I muttered and walked out to my car, trying to make sense of what just happened.
Don’t get me wrong. I am no saint. I’ve had encounters with many people struggling with poverty and homelessness in church before. There were times when I had offered aid but also many more times when I had not. In fact, I probably would not have interfered in this case had I not noticed that Jim was signing. Nevertheless, this encounter struck me in a different way.
This one was juxtaposed against a Vespers service of psalms and readings accompanied by candles, incense, renaissance polyphony, chant, and vibrant congregational song. A service carefully planned to aesthetically and ritually communicate the mercy of God and evoke eschatological hope available to all, realized and otherwise. How could Paul seem so merciless mere minutes after attending such a beautiful liturgy? Aware that there may have been other factors at play, but also conscious of the power of ritual, I had to ask myself, was the ritual broken?
It seems to me that Jim’s presence had inadvertently offended the reigning liturgical aesthetic. The service was over, but the ritual was not. Jim had unexpectedly entered the ritual space and interrupted the silence with his signs and voice. His soiled clothing was adding unwanted shades of grey to the color palate that was otherwise dominated by the hues of golden candlesticks, red marble pillars, velvety green banners, and warm brown pews. Plus, he was getting the ritual completely wrong. Unlike others in the space, he did not direct his petition to God. Instead, he was begging from the people around him.
His offense was so striking that it inspired an antiphon, “He will sell the poncho!” The refrain was repeated between the verses: “You don’t need to sign, he understands you;” “No, he’s not homeless. He lives just around the corner;” “We know him. We’re trying to get him never to come back.”
Chanted in its entirety, the hymn deconsecrated Jim’s humanity and reduced him to a mere deceiver.
I get it. Paul meant well. He was convinced that Jim would squander away anything that was given to him and only wanted to protect Tony and I. He wanted justice. Maybe he was right. Maybe we were deceived. Whatever the case may be, this reflection is not meant to vilify Paul, for it seems that he, too, was a victim of the liturgical aesthetic.
Having been socialized into a liturgical aesthetic that didn’t include Deaf culture, Paul was not aware that sign language is often the first language of the Deaf. I wasn’t trying to accommodate Jim. I was merely trying to be respectful. Those who are familiar with masses in ASL or attend a parish with interpreted masses may not have told me I didn’t need to sign as Paul did. His words seemed to be dictated by his limited, and hearing-centered liturgical world, likely through no fault of his own. Had I not been a student of ASL, I may have said the same.
Likewise, perhaps Paul would likely not have wanted Jim to stay away from church had he been embedded in a liturgical aesthetic that had a place for Jim. I have little doubt that Paul is a pious, God-fearing man. After all, he raised a son who became a priest. But maybe he had been socialized in a milieu that has taught him that a scruffy looking beggar is most likely a lazy fraud, only out for himself, and therefore a nuisance at church to those who just want to pray. To him, the morally correct thing to do was to keep such people away from church, even now, when the church is desperately trying to attract more people to her. I could not help but wonder if things might have turned out very differently if this incident played itself out at the local Catholic Worker mass where people struggling with homelessness are simply part of the community and regular liturgical aesthetic.
Paul and Jim are more than two individuals who happened to cross my path on a rainy night; they are symbolic of all of us who participate in limited forms of liturgical aesthetics. In one community, it may be the homeless man who offends the liturgical aesthetic, in another; it may be the young woman wearing a mantilla, with four young children in tow. Aesthetic spaces and experiences can determine how we respond to each other in particular instances—with mercy, openness, and love, or fear, close-mindedness, and distrust.
Priests, liturgists, and music directors often take great pains to plan the aesthetics of the liturgy through the careful selection of readings, music, liturgical art and even the choreography of processions. These are aesthetic elements that are meant to inspire and enhance active participation, impart wisdom, and urge the faithful to exercise Christian duty. The congregation’s participation, however, is seldom considered aesthetic, but almost utilitarian — they are expected to stand, kneel, and say the Mass responses since these are part of the rite, but nothing more.
Yet it is apparent that the congregation has a much larger aesthetic role than that. As the ekklesia, having empathy for (rather than scoffing at) the embarrassed mother of a wailing baby, escorting a blind person to his or her seat, and engaging the needy one who intrudes with kindness are all part of the liturgical aesthetic. These are ritual performances within the liturgy that witness to the Body of Christ in worship. When performed in accordance with the Gospel, liturgical aesthetics becomes theological aesthetics and makes visible the source of its beauty—God himself.
To avoid a liturgical aesthetic that resembles an opera house for the privileged few, rather than a field hospital that is open to all, we need to become more aware of the limitations of our local church’s reigning liturgical aesthetics so we can mitigate them. We must also do more to raise stronger awareness of the congregation’s ethical role within the liturgy and its effect on the liturgical experience. Then, perhaps, with the congregation’s help, we can form ritual responses, a habitus, for engaging the stranger in and beyond formal liturgy.
This work is urgent. When the poor and disabled are denigrated in the political sphere as “losers,” it is imperative that their place of privilege in the Kingdom of God is made visible to the world in our liturgies. When fear is being exploited by the powerful, hope for safety and communion must visibly extend beyond the confines of the rite. Most importantly, we need a liturgical aesthetic that forms people who can instinctively point to the stranger and say as Jim did, “That’s Jesus! I know!”