If you go to an “art” movie house you’ve probably had occasion to watch a film with two or three other people in an otherwise empty auditorium.
In one way, it doesn’t matter; you went to the theater to see the movie, not the strangers who could have occupied those other seats. In another way, the experience feels more complete if more people share it with you.
I recently read a post by Luke Hoyt, a Dominican friar, reflecting on this very thing, not only with respect to a movie theater but to a café, a restaurant, a concert hall.
“The funny thing is,’’ he wrote on the “Dominican Daily” website, “we often don’t even know the people who sit by us at these restaurants or concerts. But perhaps that’s part of the point. We may be strangers, but for the moment we are under the same roof, sharing coffee from the same pot, food from the same kitchen, music from the same stage. For this moment in time, we are joined as a company of journeymen, sharing a particular spot on the trail, as fellow creatures called to a degree of unity we will only fully understand in heaven.’’
This has a deep meaning in the church or chapel where we attend Mass.
The Mass is liturgy, and the Second Vatican Council reminded us that liturgy is meant to be celebrated by “the whole community . . . of the baptized.’’
The council also stressed that the community’s participation should be “full, conscious, and active.’’ In a sense, we fulfill that goal by joining in the prayers and hymns, sharing a sign of peace, and consuming the bread and wine of the sacrament.
But the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that in the Eucharistic liturgy the assembly “derives its unity from the ‘communion of the Holy Spirit’ who gathers the children of God into the one Body of Christ.’’
So attending Mass is not like going to a concert or eating in a restaurant where we are content to be alone in a crowd — enlivened by the presence of other people but safely insulated in our own space. The Church is telling us that our participation in the liturgy of the Eucharist has everything to do with those other people, and in an intimate way.
Many parishes have hospitality and fellowship ministries that seek to encourage this idea.
But there is an individual effort required, too, which I am keenly aware of inasmuch as I tend to be an introvert — actually relieved if no one at a gathering takes notice of me. Eye contact, warm handshakes, and comfortable first conversations do not come easily to me.
I have changed my seat in a theater on at least two occasions because the stranger next to me, who was simply trying to share the experience of being in that theater and seeing that play, insisted on engaging me in conversation. Never mind what insecurities might be at the root of that behavior; it doesn’t work at the Eucharist. In fact, it fights the Eucharist.
Luke Hoyt’s reflection made me more aware of the fact that we are called to be the Body of Christ, and that we should enthusiastically join the assembly of friends and strangers in a degree of unity that we will fully understand only in heaven, but we can enter into here on earth.