Absolution for Agnostics and Church Seating Arrangements.

Tuesday 29th December 2015, it’s just gone 3pm and I’m sitting in a Church.

Sitting isn’t the correct term, I am kind of irreverently sprawled out on one of those very uncomfortable wooden chairs that they always seem to have in churches. Why can’t they have decent comfy chairs in churches?

By comfy I don’t mean, deep, luxurious leather recliners with matching footstools, but just something that doesn’t break your back when you sit for more than two minutes in any one position? In the stand-up, sit down ritual of a religious service though; you are never really seated for more than about five minutes at a time anyway. It actually comes as some relief to stand up at mass, especially after the sermon or the homily.

« Anglicans have a sermon and Catholics have a homily » said The Rev Harris, our Religious Education teacher at school, one day, as he was explaining the difference between an Anglican service and a Catholic mass. The words Anglican service were pronounced with as much reverence as the Reverend himself, could master, the catholic mass however rasped and spat its way irreverently out the Reverend’s mouth like he were referring to some kind of Satanic ritual. (The Rev Harris is an old style blood, thunder and retribution kind of guy with protestant views that appear still to be rooted in the English Civil War. He doesn’t like Catholics, but he doesn’t like anyone much)

Having been to both service and mass in my time, I just know that the sermon or the homily is, the point in the proceedings where you sit down for at least ten minutes an a hard wooden surface in a cold Church and listen to the vicar or the priest drone on.

I say wooden surface in reference to pews; however, I have few recollections of having been in a Catholic Church in France with pews. Seating arrangement in many catholic churches are of the individual variety – each worshipper with their own chair, redolent of a what might be described as a « farmhouse wooden kitchen chair » – high backs, and a woven, straw seating part that is most uncomfortable – but your not in Church to get comfy

Continuing my religious digression, I have taken the trouble to consult that Wikipedian fountain of human knowledge to learn that; « the word homily is derived from the Greek word homilia (from homilein), which means to have communion or hold intercourse with a person. » Conclude what you will, though here I am, just after 3pm on Tuesday 29th of December attempting some meaningful intercourse or discourse with the Good Lord.

I can’t really say that I am praying, I am simply indulging in one of my occasional chats with the Almighty. They always follow the same pattern – I plop a few coins in the collection box near the altar, grab the largest candle there is (obviously having paid the correct price, because I can’t quite bring myself to short change God), next I light the candle, place on the candle rack by the altar and then sit for a while for a chat. I am one of those of « little faith » and like others of my ilk, I always buy the largest candle hoping that the size will make up for lack of faith.

Slumped in my chair, legs outstretched and hands in my pockets, like I’m in a doctor’s waiting room, I chat. A few words with those deceased, a few thoughts for the living and perhaps a few questions for God like « what’s the point? » and then I ask the good Lord to watch over us or perhaps send us a miracle as if I were asking for a massive lottery win.

Is this praying? Is there a correct way to pray?

Let’s go back a few years…

« Now children, I am going to show you how to pray » enthuses the plump bubbly blue rinsed “bible lady”, who takes my daughter’s catechism class. It is Tuesday again (it always happens on a Tuesday) – Along with other parents; I am attending my daughter’s catechism class in preparation for her confirmation. We are in a cold and cavernous church hall. The kids are at the front learning stuff, and us parents are at the back. Some parents are taking notes on « how to pray » because next week, the kids will get some kind of test or questions on praying – Catechism is just like school. A couple of weeks ago the kids learned how to make the sign of the cross and the session after, my daughter was asked to « show the class how we make the sign of the cross. » Well I hadn’t spent all weekend revising like other parents and my kid could not cross herself – a slightly mocking verbal slap on the wrist from the bible lady, something along the lines of « I don’t think God will like that. »

Anyway – how to pray, as taught to a class of ten year-old kids

  • Kneel down of your prayer cushion.
  • Clasp both hands together and hold them up to your heart.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Think what you want to say to God
  • Now tell God what you want to say. Don’t speak but think it very hard.

So the kids thump down on their prayer cushions like they are falling on their knees in penance. They clasp their hands together so tight as if they have been intertwined and then glued together with an industrial adhesive. They screw their eyes shut like they are albinos in the sunshine. They think so hard they grunt and then they think so hard that they mouth their words like deaf spastics. Hey guys, this is some serious praying.

Oh dear the look of physical pain and screwed anguish on the children’s’ faces as they think their message heavenwards – it’s like they are all constipated and pushing as hard as possible in the hope that something will plop out. Poo and prayer. The bible lady won’t let the kids sit down again until she thinks that they have prayed properly like mums who won’t let you get off the toilet until they have seen the result of your faecal endeavours.

Lighting candles and talking to God – the occasional religious/faith ritual of the faithless agnostic or what I might call the twice a year believer – trips to Church for weddings, funerals and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I’ve been baptised – Presbyterian, Church of Scotland, so I guess I’m not even Anglican but some kind of Celtic derivative – on the fringe as one might say.

Not sure of this praying, chatting, lighting candle ritual does any good, but on this, one of the last days of the year, this mediaeval downtown Church in the historic medieval heart of my small town downtown, is quite busy with occasional candle lighters like myself, all involved in the same end of year ritual. They nervously shuffle up to the altar, try and cross themselves, take the largest candle from the box, having first popped the correct money in the collection box, they light the candle from another candle already burning and then they sit for a while, thinking, praying, chatting, hoping that their thoughts will drift heavenwards on that celestial flame that they have just kindled.

Looking for absolution, esponging annual guilt , an end of year reconciliation with your maker (oh dear talking to a dead mother) I ’m never sure if this has any real value, it just makes you feel good and failing that, with all the demons you might possess, it makes you good with the Almighty.

And a final word on farmhouse chairs …

Ever noticed seating arrangements in those really “up front” bohemian agnostic humanist households – it’s all church pews or prayer chairs. French catholic prayer chairs are very desirable items and every year, thousands of then get stolen fron churches to get sold on antique markets. I suppose as the well off middle classes commune for their vintage wine and organic bread, it is very fitting to be seated on church chairs.