In Which I Feel Like a Heel

This Easter season, I made it to two days of the Triduum: Maundy Thursday and Easter Vigil. (Since I couldn’t make it to Friday evening services, I went to Tenebrae with my boyfriend instead). The Easter Vigil was lovely, even if my boyfriend was so tired as a result of exams that his mom and I had to keep a close eye on him whenever he was holding a lit candle.

Maundy Thursday was a little less pleasant. I had gone last year and had an awkward moment since I hadn’t checked ahead of time whether the foot-washing was restricted or whether all attendees were expected to participate. The priest had said from the pulpit that everyone was encouraged to participate, but I couldn’t guess whether his ‘everyone’ was premised on the assumption that people attending a Maundy Thursday mass were highly likely to all be Catholics. Just as when I was invited to take part in an open Communion at a Lutheran church, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t accidentally breaking the rules.

Later, I found out that I would have been welcome, so, when I went back this year, I had to make a decision about what to do at the Thursday service. It was clear that there the Church offered a strong endorsement of participation; the Triduum program asked in the description of the ritual, “What would it mean not to let your foot be washed?”

Well, in my case, it wasn’t a hard question: I don’t like to be beholden to anyone.

I don’t like accepting a favor from someone I have no way of repaying or being indebted to someone I don’t know and may not like. I frustrated my boyfriend for more than half a year by never taking food from the post-Mass receptions the campus church hosted. In my mind, the food was for people who had bought in, and it would be inappropriate to benefit from the Church’s largesse when I had no intention of supporting it. Not to mention, raised on a diet of mythology and fantasy/scifi novels, I have a slight distrust of accepting food in strange places.

Eve Tushnet advised me once that, if I wanted to give Christianity a fair shot, I should explore whichever aspects of the church that I found either profoundly attractive or profoundly repulsive.

Holding myself apart was at least partly a matter of pride, which is why I eventually caved to my boyfriend’s requests. My reluctance to participate in the foot-washing seemed like a similar objection, so, last Thursday night, I steeled myself, changed into a fresh pair of socks, and went off to Church.

I can recognize I was uncomfortable out of all proportion to the situation, but I was pretty uncomfortable anyway. On top of my unwillingness to accept favors from the Catholic Church, I was mortified when I was standing up in the quasi-line that had developed in front of the basin. Students were washing feet in the aisle, so I standing there trying to figure out when it was my turn while staring very hard at my hymnal.

There are a lot of times at Mass when I profoundly wish I could be invisible: recitations of the Lord’s prayer, any time people make the sign of the cross, and, most of all, the moment everyone files out to take Communion. I feel like I’m pulling focus and detracting from people’s ritual by being the strange silent girl next to you and making people wonder whether I am offering some kind of protest or rebuke.

I assume my concern is probably overblown – after all, no one else at the Thursday mass probably noticed anything strange, even if I felt terribly out of place. If only I could live up my hyperrational, dispassionate brand of strangeness and quash my feelings.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17247158157116661448 Sarah

    I identify with so much of what you wrote! I often feel awkward in daily Mass, especially; I feel like I'm presuming somehow.But then I look around at the other people there and ask myself which of them I would send away if I could. I'm always struck by how glad I am each and every one of them is there, and then try to imagine they're thinking the same about me.Take heart! You are and always will be welcome in Mass. The Church is called to minister to people, whether they're Catholic or not, whether they believe in God or not, whether they always know what to do or not. By extension, your local parish is called, in part, to minister to you. You are always welcome.Even if you're Spock. :P

  • Michael Haycock

    The irony about Spock is that he was, at one point, resurrected – by means of the Genesis Device, no less! Though not the Zachary Quinto version.Anyway, I have to say I've felt the same way you have when I've attended Catholic masses or Episcopalian services: on one hand, I've been unsure of what a non-member of their church can do, and what would be appropriate for a Latter-day Saint to do. In our church, with our analogue to communion (which we merely call the sacrament), the dynamic is a little less on the spot: the bread and water are passed amongst the congregants in their seats. Moreover, anyone can take the sacrament; for members, however, it is a reminder and a renewal of the covenants and promises they made at the time of their baptism. For non-members, I suppose it could serve another spiritual purpose.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    I would be uncomfortable with a foot-washing ceremony, too. I've never seen it happen before and I get a bit uncomfortable when I don't know the script. (Which is, incidentally, why I prefer liturgical to non-liturgical churches; the script is standardized and explicit in the former and the opposite in the latter.) But then, I'd feel uncomfortable at a Catholic service anyway. Recognizing that I would, as a Protestant, be excluded from Mass even though I'm Christian would make me feel conspicuous as well, especially as no one would know why I'm not taking Mass.And yes, feelings are awkward and often unhelpful things, but quashing them is even more awkward and unhelpful in the long term. Even Spock learned that. (At least, in the movie he seems to have learned it. I never was much of a Trekkie so I can't say he did in the show.) (And I'll make a very firm distinction between "quashing" and "managing." I'm all for managing.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12103905129399107125 Mark P. Shea

    I would never let a priest wash my feet. It's not a moral scruple. It's that my feet are exquisitely ticklish and couldn't bear it. I'd probably kick him in the face accidently.

  • Patrick

    You're putting too much thought into it. Churches, including Catholic ones, are typically filled with adults and teens who are only there because their families expect it of them. Giving Communion to atheists is normal. You're not supposed to say out loud that its happening, but its normal.You think the priests and parents at your typical church don't realize that half the kids who go through confirmation are faking it? They know. They'd flip if you called them out on it, but they know.Its all part of how the social phenomenon of religion works. You've got your believers, your sort of believers, your cultural adherents, and your people who go along because its what everyone else is doing. And everyone knows it, and everyone's ok with it as long as its not in their face.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16504369930166262851 Jan

    Couldn't you file up at Communion and get a blessing, or would that go against your principles?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    @Mark: that was funny!I relate, Leah. I still accompany my wife on occasion to Mass and have participated less and less. I haven't thought of it as a "protest," just more of a consistency/honesty thing. I used to keep saying the prayers because I just didn't want to stand out. But at the end of the day, I just don't believe the prayers, so the more I thought about it, the more it seemed worse to actually say them and "fake it."I haven't gotten that far with praise and worship music around people who know me well but don't know about my non-belief. I have kept singing along — I just don't raise my hands or "pray in the spirit" or anything.The group impact is huge.For someone who was a Catholic, it's even harder being a younger-ish male. Among my group who all knew we were Catholic, if someone (male) didn't receive communion, it was hard not to think they had fallen in "self love" and not been able to receive communion. I don't know if that's a common thought/assumption elsewhere, but I still certainly feel uncomfortable when I have to stay back in the pews.@Jan: I think I feel the same way about blessings as I do about saying prayers. I think of it more as a consistency thing — if I don't currently believe in god, why file through the line mostly to not stand out and receive something I don't think does anything from someone I don't think has any special powers/grace-channeling-abilities?To put it another way, if you were the only one at the Church-of-magic-crystals, and believers drank from a chalice of crystal dust suspended in water (only 0.01% crystal dust), but they offered blessings for those who didn't believe, would you do it?It's probably different asking a Christian, as they'd think something like that was occultish or potentially demonic. The point is that you wouldn't depart from your current belief set to do this, even if it was open to the public. I think it's the same for non-believers where something like a "blessing" is open to the public. Maybe non-Catholic Christians feel more comfortable doing this?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16504369930166262851 Jan

    @Hendy. I guess you have got a problem losing your belief. With me, it is going in the opposite direction, as I want to take communion some day, so I will go up for the blessing. I think the 'god spot' in me has been awakened, as for 5 nights running I felt an external presence on my throat as I was stirring from sleep and had to pray.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    @Jan: could you clarify "…got a problem losing your belief?" I'm thinking you are granting my point that if someone does not believe, then receiving a blessing does not make sense.That's what I was getting at.

  • Anonymous

    1) I consider the catholic church to be akin to a criminal organization because of the anti-condom stance in Africa and therefore I would not have such a guilty conscience about taking food from the post-Mass receptions. When I go to other churches where the collection goes towards the church I usually leave the equivalent amount of money that I would consume in food afterwards.2) Here is an interesting post concerning feeling awkward in a church service (you might already know it):http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=4944

  • Elizabeth K.

    Hey anonymous, you may want to check out some of the more recent research done about condom distribution, AIDS, and Africa–by secular doctors, not Catholics. Many are now (reluctantly) agreeing with the Pope's stance.Leah, you touched on something really funny, that I hadn't thought about–I too, though Catholic, really hate to take favors from anyone. And that's precisely what my church asks me to do–in fact, to accept pretty much the biggest favor anyone has ever done for anyone, and to accept it every week. Thanks for the insight!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    @Elizabeth K: Do you have any sources? I ran across statements like this a bit back similar to THIS.My main point of curiosity is what the actually rate of correct usage is in areas where AIDS continues to rise. The metrics compared are always the rate of infection and condom sales.Note that the article (citing the study) states that when employed by those running sex businesses (prostitution services) where 100% use can be enforced, they have worked very well.Yes — if every human was only sexually active with exactly one other human, surely rates would plummet. Apparently, humans have a hard time with this, and thus even with this established it can be asked whether, for the remaining folks, if the situation would be better or worse for them if proper condom use were employed 100% of the time.

  • Anonymous

    @Elizabeth K.Thanks for the two sentence demonstration of why religion is such a bad thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07535825702078498433 Darksmiles

    @Leah,Sounds like you're taking it all a bit too seriously. Learn a lesson from Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07535825702078498433 Darksmiles

    Also, I <3 Anonymous.

  • http://blueberriesforme.wordpress.com Jackie

    This is funny cause I wrote a post last month about why foot washing for me was so awkward, and it's been something I've done all my life! I think that's kinda the point, sometimes we have to get over the awkwardness to really be able to love/serve each other.@anonymous Might be nice to know – the Church has approved condom use in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03565252842846201561 pollypinks

    I go to a Presbyterian Church, and they did the foot washing this year. Didn't bother me a bit, because I didn't participate. I was wearing tights! A friend of mine once told me that in her church, The Seventh Day Adventists, they wash feet weekly, and there is nothing more humbling than washing the feet of someone you've been irritated with. Our church is also considered liturgical. Everyone from anywhere is welcome at the communion table, just as Christ would have it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03565252842846201561 pollypinks

    Our Presbyterian church is definitely liturgical, and the Lord's table is available to all, just as Christ would have it. This year on Maundy Thurs., they had foot washing. I did not participate as I was wearing tights! A friend of mine once told me that nothing is more humbling than washing the feet of someone you've been irritated with. Makes sense.

  • http://delphi.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    I don’t like accepting a favor from someone I have no way of repaying or being indebted to someone I don’t know and may not like.

    I’m very much that way as well. It’s particularly awkward when it’s a favor one didn’t ask for, doesn’t want and doesn’t need, and yet can’t be simply politely accepted. And that concept of the unearned favor is at the core of Christianity, right? Somebody else dying for your sins/salvation, which is pretty much the hugest possible favor there is. Yet it’s a favor I didn’t ask for (I can’t imagine ever asking for such a thing lol!); I don’t believe that it’s proper for someone else to take the fall for my actions so I don’t want it; and because I don’t believe in Original Sin I don’t need it. So Christianity makes me very uncomfortable in a way that’s completely separate from the question of whether it’s true or not.

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  • Ted Seeber

    A year later I found this blog linked to Mark Shea’s blog.

    And I have to ask the question, because I have Asperger’s and don’t really have a good sense of social boundaries to begin with.

    Do you think possibly a part of your atheism stems from your reluctance towards the social aspects of being in a community- that is, the anonymous give-and-take that is a part of caring for others and being cared for in return?

    Most of my experience of God, I have to admit, has come through other people. To an Autistic, this has been a bit of a surprise, because in general I don’t like other people. I find neurotypical humans to be strange and mystifying, if not downright evil at times. So I can certainly understand reluctance towards being in a community- and as an extension of that, cutting yourself off emotionally from the main way believers experience God in their lives. Without that subjective data, the natural and rational conclusion would be God does not exist; when the objective conclusion would be God does not exist *for you because you won’t let your shields down*.

    • Maiki

      [x-posted from Mark's blog]

      This reminds me of a passage from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict) book, “Introduction to Christianity”. He described having faith in God sort of like being musically inclined. Some people have a good enough ear to play and perform it well, some have a good enough ear to recognize good music, and some have none of these things. And humans are the same with faith. That is why Christianity needs a Church and a community of believers, not just a “personal relationship with Christ”. Many people need those others that a “religious experience inclined” in order to experience God. And it is the duty for those to whom religious experience comes easily to *also* be part of the community to give faith to others.

      He said it much more eloquently than I, but as someone who is not musically inclined (or even good a picking good music), it makes sense to be a Church instead of just individual faith. If I had to rely on myself for all the music I listen to, my world would be silent or full of noise. Maybe that is why so many of my friends I pick are *really* into music.

      But I think, in our very individualistic culture, it is easier to have atheists, because those who are not “faith tone-deaf” have a much harder time getting religious experiences from the community.

    • leahlibresco

      That’s certainly struck me as a possibility. I mentioned in this stat-nerdery post that I think it’s plausible that Christianity could be true and that I would never wise up because of personal hangups and epistemological inertia. The solution isn’t obvious (it never is when you’ve got a calibration problem and a lot of uncertainty).

      My general approach right now is that, even leaving the question of Christianity aside, I’m probably too resistant to being in other peoples debt (the fact that I phrase it that way instead of “resistant to depending on others” is a clue). So I’m trying to move in that direction, and I’ll worry about overshooting or reevaluating my beliefs once I’ve actually managed to shift a bit.

      • Ted Seeber

        Despite my latest reply for you to consider an entirely different path, I think this is a reasonable approach.

  • Paul

    Don’t we all depend on others all the time?

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