(CAUTION! These are easily the most insulting series of Articles the Rev. Know-it-all has yet written.)
The Rev. Know-it-all’s guide to how to behave in Church Part 4
The Odor of Sanctity
You have entered the Church. You have shut up. Now what? The guiding principle is, in the words of St. John the Baptist, “He must increase I must decrease!” (John 3:30) There are people who bathe in the holy water fountain, and then weeping, prostrate themselves on the church floor. This is unnecessary. Remember that the word “hypocrite” in the Biblical text doesn’t mean a sneaky liar. It simply means a play actor.
When you perform an exaggerated gesture, are you doing it for God to see, or for your neighbor to see? “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:5)
I am reminded of a joke. One Good Friday the pastor of a rather well-to-do parish, a very spontaneous fellow who believed deeply that it was his job to impress the congregation with his sanctity, fell to his knees in the middle of the service, crying out to heaven, “Oh, God! I am unworthy!” The deacon, not to be outdone, also fell to his knees shouting, “Oh, God, I too, am unworthy!” It was great theater and Schultz the plumber in the back row was overcome by the performance. He fell to his knees in the main aisle, shouting, “I am unworthy too, Lord.” The deacon leaned over to the priest and whispered, “Look who’s in back claiming to be unworthy!”
Just cross yourself at the Holy Water fountain, go the pew as far in the front as possible, genuflect or ─ if it would take a crane to get you back on your feet, as is the case with the author of this embarrassing screed ─ a bow to the tabernacle will suffice. If some clever liturgist has managed to completely hide or remove the tabernacle, a simple bow to the altar, which is a symbol of the divine presence, will do. Remember, “He must increase I must decrease!” The trick is not to draw attention to yourself.
This also applies to the reception of Holy Communion. I personally think it is a mistake to have stopped kneeling for communion, but I am not a bishop. At the current time, standing is the normal posture for receiving our Lord in Holy Communion. However, a priest or minister may not deny communion to someone who chooses to kneel. There are many who prefer to kneel, and I believe that we should make allowance for them. They can kneel at the communion rail and the minister can bring them communion when there is an opportunity or at the end of the regular communion line. If there is no communion rail, a kneeler can be put at the side of the celebrant, for the convenience of those who insist on kneeling. Even as someone who wants to discuss the wisdom of the current arrangement, I still get irritated when someone flops to their knees in the Communion line, causing the people behind them to trip. (They aren’t paying any attention anyway, as the assembly line of grace meanders down the aisle). There is an important liturgical principle at stake here: DON=T MAKE A SCENE!
I have heard horror stories about some progressive communion minister or priest trying to drag a kneeling communicant to his feet while the communicant wrestles to stay down. That sure glorifies God ─ Not! You think you are giving glory to God, but you are more probably grinding an axe. I think it s a fine thing to kneel for communion, but obedience is much more pleasing to God than dramatic prostrations. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1Sam. 15:25)
Another issue comes to mind. Perfume. Your favorite scent, “Nuits de Oui,” ─ imported in industrial tankers from some seaport in southern France ─ may, as far as you’re concerned, smell like a garden on a warm spring evening. To those around you it may smell like a bad afternoon in Gary, Indiana. If you insist on wearing perfume, don’t bathe in the stuff. You don’t have to warn people from a block away that your arrival is imminent like some bus spewing diesel fumes. A little goes a long way, especially if your victims have asthma.
This goes triple for the celebrant and the ministers of communion. If you feel it is necessary to douse yourself with scent on like some red herring, perhaps you shouldn’t be a communion minister. When you are on to help with Holy Communion DO NOT WEAR ANY COLOGNE OR PERFUME AT ALL!!! There are few things more disturbing than receiving the body and blood of the Lord and tasting something like cleaning fluid, instead of “bread from heaven containing in itself all sweetness.”
THIS APPLIES TO YOU, TOO, FATHER. Lose the cologne. You shouldn’t smell that good anyway. Remember your promise of celibacy. (While I’m thinking of it, it is also a little nauseating to see a schmeer of “Red Sails in the Sunset Brand Industrial Strength Lipstick” on the chalice. I have no idea what to do about that. If anyone has a suggestion, I’m open to it.)
There is the flip side to the olfactory coin. I would encourage everyone to bathe at a reasonable interval of time before coming to church. You may be comfortable with a certain earthy naturalness, but the person two rows back who has just fainted is not as comfortable with earthiness as you are.
And another thing, Father ─ Incense. Incense is beautifully symbolic. It is a symbol of the prayers of the saints which rise to heaven. It is a symbol of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, unseen yet powerful. Scripture enjoins its use. It brings us back to the temple in old Jerusalem and forward to the throne of God in the New Jerusalem. It is an integral part of the Roman liturgy. However it should not set off the smoke alarms. I have seen priests and even altar servers ladle on enough incense to clear a swamp of its mosquitoes. God is in all places, friend. It doesn’t take a lot of incense to reach heaven’s throne. Liturgists seem to love the dramatic effect of incense, something like a smoke machine at a discotheque.
I will never forget a glorious liturgy back in my seminary days in which the entire student body of 300, one by one, was to throw a pinch of incense into a Weber kettle barbecue grill that had been set up in the sanctuary. (I kept looking around for the statue of a Roman Emperor.) Anyway, about half way through the liturgy, visibility was down to about two feet and people were beginning to crawl out of the chapel on all fours. Ah, the glory days of liturgical improvisation immediately following the council... Good times.
Seriously, lighten up on the smells. The liturgy should draw us into the mystery of God, not send us to the emergency room. The odor of sanctity should not gag a goat nor knock a buzzard off its perch.