Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am writing this from an airplane – seat 31C.
The bad news, of course, is that row 31 is in the back of the plane, where they make up for their spacious “economy plus” front section by squishing a row in every 18 inches or so. And thus, my laptop is wedged against my ribcage as I type.
The good news, however, is that seat 31 is an aisle seat. Like every air travel in the history of air travel, I love aisle seats. I don’t feel trapped in a tiny middle seat between two people invading my space. I don’t have to climb over anyone if I have to use the restroom. I have easy access to the aisle. Even if I don’t need it, I like knowing I have it. As does everyone else on the plane. The only empty seats are middle seats. All of the aisles are taken.
Here’s the thing – we must have a lot of frequent flyers in the Catholic Church. Because I have been noticing something week after week, at Masses and Catholic conferences and every other Catholic event I attend: When I walk down the aisle, the church looks full. Every seat on the aisle is taken.
But then when I crawl over someone and take a seat in the middle (generally toward the back), I find that, between my seat and the altar, there’s nothing but open space and empty pews.
It’s a rather ridiculous sight from the back – people lined up at the edge of each pew like sentries guarding their personal expanse of empty seating space.
And then, what happens when you try to sit in one of those pews? Here’s what often happens to me. I genuflect, paying homage to Christ on the altar while simultaneously signaling that I would like to sit in that pew. If I’m lucky, the person at the end notices and scoots his or her knees awkwardly to one side (frequently accompanied by an eye-roll or a frustrated sigh), inviting me to climb over him or her and the rest of the family to claim my seat in the vast unoccupied middle territory. More than once I have been waved away with a whispered “my husband is coming back” when there was clearly enough space in the pew to seat all of the Von Trapp Family Singers and perhaps a Nazi soldier or two.
It makes sense on an airplane. Everybody knows airline seating is first come, first serve. We aren’t engaging in a communal activity. We’re just sharing a ride from Pittsburgh to Denver, and we all agree that the aisle seats go to the travelers who made the earliest reservations.
But a parish is different. We’re a community, coming together to worship God. We’re supposed to be aware of each other, to welcome each other, to pay special reverence to the image and likeness of God in each other. It’s not supposed to be every man for himself.
Imagine being a newcomer to your local parish. Imagine walking in for the first time and trying to decide where to sit. Image seeing all of those empty mid-pews with no easy access to any of them. Imagine standing at the edge of a pew until someone notices you, and then watching them tilt their knees in an invitation to crawl over them. How welcome would you feel?
I confess to having brought my frequent-flyer-aisle-seat attitude into the Mass with me on more than one occasion. But I’m trying to get better about it. At first I would sit on the end but scoot in if someone else came after I did. Now I’m taking it to the next level and actually starting out in the center of the pew.
I get that sometimes families with small children prefer to sit on the aisle, so they don’t have to repeatedly climb over their pew-mates for the various bathroom trips and crying children trips that happen over the course of a typical Mass. But we singles, for the most part, don’t have the same challenges. We don’t need the aisle. We may like the aisle, but we don’t need it.
Maybe we can start a new movement “Singles in the Center.”
I like it!