Archive for May 12th, 2005

Padded Pews

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church is right around the corner from our house.
We see its spires from the window at the top of the stairs, and we hear its
Angelus bells ring three times a day. It is the church in which we were married,
the church where our children were baptized, and the church we attended before
falling in love with Byzantine worship three years ago, when I began painting
icons, and before settling down and joining a Rusin-Slovak parish two years

It is a large Gothic structure, rising from a hilltop and dominating the
skyline of the small industrial city in which we live. Inside it is quite
beautiful. While it was renovated in the 1960s, it was not destroyed. Its
graceful marble statues were left intact, and the tabernacle remains on the high
altar. The windows were redone in the 70s, and some traditionalists object: they
are semi-abstract and rendered in thick chunks of deeply-colored glass. When the
sunlight shines through them it is transformed into brilliant facets of pure
color. I have seen photos of the old windows–dull 19th century things,  hardly
of the best quality–and these are a great improvement. The effect, in spite of
the modernity of the style, is medieval.

We rarely attend St Mary’s anymore, but the other morning, Mother’s Day,
the two older boys and I did. My youngest son, Joey, who is five, had been sick
to his stomach all night long and my wife Michelle stayed home with him and two
year old Maria. We decided to go to Mass around the corner to lessen our
separation from Michelle on  Mother’s Day (our parish, St Nicholas, is a half
hour drive, the Liturgy is around an hour and a half, and there is always coffee
and donuts afterwards).

So Luke, Patric and I entered the church, remembering to cross ourselves in
the Western fashion- left to right- instead of the right to left Eastern way to
which we have become accustomed. Instead of bowing, we genuflected, and we knelt
rather than stood as we prepared for the liturgy, before taking our seats.

Now I am not a very observant person, or rather I am selectively observant.
I am always alert to beauty in all its forms, but everyday reality tends to be
something of a blur.

Once, not long ago, my homeschooling bride, deciding she needed a
blackboard, painted one wall of the kitchen black above the wainscotting with
blackboard paint. I came home from work, went to the kitchen, got a drink of
cold water, sat at the table and went through the day’s mail. I believe I had to
be prompted ("do you notice anything different about the kitchen?") before I
realized that one wall of the room was now black.

So I sat for some time before I slowly realized that something was
different. Finally, it hit me: the pews had been padded since I had last been
there. They were soft and comfy, and covered with red upholstery.

Now I should come clean before I go any further: I am anti-pew. Pews are
Protestant. In traditional churches, Eastern or Western, there were no pews.
Pews are an innovation that arose because of the extraordinarily long sermons of
Reformed worship, which was in effect an elongated Liturgy of the Word. They
slowly crept into Western Catholic churches, and eventually into Eastern
churches as well. Most Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches today have

In traditional Eastern worship, however, there are only some benches along
the outside walls for the aged and infirm, while the nave is an open space.
People are free to worship expressively, to wander around during the Liturgy,
lighting candles, venerating the icons, and making bows and prostrations, if the
Spirit moves them. In this, as in many other things, Eastern Christian worship
recalls Jewish temple worship. (In Eastern parlance to this day, the church
building is called "the temple.")

I have attended pewless worship a few times, in a Russian Orthodox
cathedral and in a Melkite Catholic parish. I was particularly struck by how
natural this kind of worship is for children. Instead of being confined to the
structure of the pew, that little wooden prison, they are free to roam, to
explore and discover things that interest them: icons, candles, stained glass,
the nooks and crannies of the temple. This seems appropriate to me. I have often
remarked that Latin worship, both before and after Vatican II–focused,
restrained, concise–is worship designed by grown-ups, while Byzantine worship,
with its exuberance, repetition and elaboration, was designed by children. For
example: "We have the censer to delight the sense of smell. What else can we do?
I know, lets put bells on it!" And so they did, and the Byzantine censer has
jingle bells on it to this day.

Pews also inhibit bodily worship, which is one of the things I treasure in
the Byzantine tradition. I am a weak and sensual man, and I need to be engaged
physically in worship, simply to hold my attention. When I attended Roman
worship I was one of the last Roman Catholics to maintain traditional physical
gestures: genuflecting whenever I passed in front of the tabernacle, striking my
breast at the Confiteor and the Agnus Dei, crossing myself at the Absolution, and
bowing deeply at the Credal profession of the Incarnation. This last gesture,
almost universally ignored, is in fact mandated by the rubrics. Curiously, it is
not that bodily gesture had disappeared from the Roman rite. Rather, gestures of
reverence toward God have been replaced by gestures of camaraderie between
humans: holding hands at the Our Father, the glad-handing and backslapping at
the Kiss of Peace, all of which leaves me cold.

In the Byzantine rite, on the other hand, the body is fully engaged and
directed Godward: kissing crosses, kissing icons, bowing numerous times,
crossing ourselves whenever we recite "the Father and the Son and the Holy
Spirit," which we do more times than I can count.

Pews do not inhibit any of this. However, during Lent, there are several
times when full prostrations are prescribed. In the Prayer of St Ephraim, used
in Lenten Vespers, six prostrations are called for (in Byzantine worship, if
something is worth doing, it is worth doing over and over). Some of us will move
out of the pews to do the full bodily prostrations in the aisles- face down on
the ground before God. This is a particularly moving act of worship, one that
children love. My son Joey likes to wander off and do prostrations during
Liturgy, even before statues in Roman churches, much to the bewilderment of the

But for most people in pewed churches the prostration is abbreviated to a
bow. Fr Benedict Groeschel once quipped that the devolution of reverence to the
Eucharist in the West had gone from "a prostration to a genuflection to a bow
to a nod to a wink," and I fear the same sort of thing is beginning in the

So, with my attitude toward pews thus made clear, let me return to the
Padded Pew.

I am not much of an ascetic, truth be told. I mean, I love to read
about self denial: the feats of the great ascetics, the desert fathers, the
early Franciscans, the wandering fools for Christ. But I have been known to pore
over such texts while eating a bowl of chocolate almond ice cream. With
chocolate syrup.

No, I am about as soft and spoiled as any modern American. But the idea
that we, perhaps the easiest living culture in history, need a soft cushion
under our bums for the hour or so a week we spend in church strikes me as beyond
absurd. Why not just take out the pews and install easy chairs? The Roman Church
has already mitigated its fasting requirements to practical non-existence.
What’s next? Refreshments during the liturgy? And how much money did the parish
spend to make sure its congregation did not experience the least bit of
discomfort while sitting? I certainly don’t object to churches spending money to
beautify the sanctuary, but can such expenditure be justified, merely to further
soften the already soft, when there are crying human needs, even in this Ohio

There are certain moral parallels to the Padded Pew. Every year, on the eve
of the anniversary of Roe V Wade there is a big prolife dinner, in Washington
DC, as if this was a big celebration. Shouldn’t we be fasting and keeping vigil?
Instead these prolifers listen to speeches, while stuffing their faces.

And I recently heard an advertisement on the local Catholic radio station (which is a blessing) for an "apologetics cruise." Does anyone think the great
missionaries prepared for their work by taking a vacation? By sitting by the
pool with a pina colada in hand?

And what, ultimately, is the message of the Padded Pew? That the Church
does not intend, in any way, to disturb our comfort? But if the Church is the
physician and we are the patients, shouldn’t its prescriptions be

Perhaps instead of padding our pews churches should remove the padding from
the kneelers, and hand out hair shirts at the door.

In an age such as this the Church must counter not only spiritual sloth,
the easy immorality of an increasingly godless society, but physical sloth, the
laziness and  love of ease of an increasingly spoiled society.

Indeed, perhaps it is the love of ease, and not the love of sin, which is
the greater danger to our souls. Or perhaps the two are the same.

Daniel Nichols

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