(Bread and Concrete: Where Liturgy and Ministry Meet, Part 7 in Liturgy and Ministry Magazine, September 2015)
Pull up a seat
“The world you made firm, not to be moved; your throne has stood firm of old.” Ps 93
Several years ago I was sitting at my brother’s dining room table sharing a meal with his family. My brother’s youngest granddaughter focused our attention as she learned how to sit in a highchair. The heirloom chair was also the focus of our conversation and reminiscence.
The old wooden highchair belonged to my mother as a child. The chair dates from at least 1921. We do not know if it had been passed down before my mother’s birth. The chair now bears the marks of family history. The metal tray carries deep and various dent marks from years of use and pounding by restless and hungry children. The chair remains strong and sturdy for the next generation. The chair has stood the test of time outlasting the newer lightweight highchairs from other families.
As we pulled the chair holding the newest family member up to the table, I immediately connected the event to the chair in our sanctuary. The squirming child was in fact presiding for the first time at the table. She was evoking conversation by her attempts to eat new food in a chair that was way too big for her. She captured the attention of several generations as she sat at the head of the table in the chair that had been passed down among us for generations. She was learning to eat as other generations had learned in the very same chair. The ritual had been passed down to my mother’s great-granddaughter.
Perhaps the chair in our sanctuary functions in a similar manner as the highchair. The presider’s chair is not about authority as much as it is about being childlike at the Table of the Lord. The chair does not belong to the priest. No one person can own the chair. The priest’s chair has been passed down from our ancestors in faith so that we can all learn how to eat at the Eucharistic table. The large chair is about a humble recognition of how we need God to feed us. We never fully control or own or possess what happens in the sanctuary as simple bread and wine becomes the Real Presence of Christ Jesus.
My brother’s granddaughter reminded me that change is real. Her presence in the chair tells a story that life continues. The rhythm of hunger and being fed tells us that life begins and ends. The child tells our family that life will continue beyond our generation.
I am still learning how to be a priest sitting in the cushioned chair in our sanctuary. I hold on to a childlike wonder there because people in poverty continue to reveal to me my own hunger for God. I cannot fix or control or fully feed the needs of our community. My presence in the sanctuary tells the community that we all approach the Eucharistic Table with childlike awe, with an openness to be feed in our deepest hungers of neglect, abuse and uncertainty. The sanctuary chair has meaning only when I reflect on other chairs, seats and postures of people in poverty or pain.
People in our community need a safe place to sit. So often their feet are a main source of transportation. People come to our chapel or hospitality center exhausted from standing in lines, roaming the streets to occupy time, or searching for the basics of life. Finding a place to rest comfortably is no easy task for anyone on any given day.
I remember a large wooden bench that we had in the lobby when I first arrived at the parish. It looked much like an oversized presider’s chair. I was never sure why it was there. It seemed in the way of so many people trying to enter our building. During my first few months there, a woman came to our lobby every day looking for help. She always sat on the wooden bench. She had a fissure on her bladder. Urine constantly oozed from her body. After she sat daily on the old bench, the wood would be soaked with urine. The varnish was destroyed from the constant stream of urine. The entire bench was soon destroyed.
I remember at the time connecting that bench to my prayer at Mass. I sat in the dry chair in the sanctuary very mindful of her condition. I prayed that I might never take for granted my authority as demonstrated by the chair that faced the people of God. I need people around me who long for healing, who beg for relief from their suffering. Her poverty was real, her body in need of medical attention that she could not afford. Her presiding in the lobby formed my ache in the sanctuary for a sign that life could be different for so many people. All I had to offer was my seat that witnesses to everyone that I offer to God every person’s pain, need and fear.
I also remember a young man who had recently been sober and clean from alcohol and drugs that used to sit in the last pew of the chapel. He was not Catholic at the time. He wore a half -dozen plastic rosaries around his neck. He told me that he wanted to be a priest. He wanted to sit in the sanctuary chair and pray for people. The more I spoke with him, the more I realized that he thought being a priest would keep him sober. The sober young man thought the miracle of the chair would change his life. He wanted desperately to get out of the seat that he was in, not just in the chapel but also in life. He asked me on many days if he could exchange seats with me.
I need to sit in the last pew on occasion if I am going to sit in the seat that is singled out in the chapel. I need to feel the exhaustion people feel from living a life that is filled with stress, heartache and fear. I know on so many days that my chair is too comfortable, too removed from the real fears that so many people face every day. I cannot get too comfortable in the chair at the Eucharistic table because my prayer needs to be on behalf of these people in poverty who struggle to sit in a life that offers sobriety, healthy relationships and occasional comfort from their real concerns.
I never realized until working among people who struggle to find a seat to rest that our pews and chairs become a place of invitation for faith and love. So many people in our cities and rural communities need more than a physical place to rest; they need us to invite them into God’s loving arms. They are searching for our fidelity in prayer so that we may model the fact that God gives us the rest we need, that we all belong to God, that being open minded and open hearted can only happen if our bodies find a chair to rest or a comfortable place in life to finally hear God. Our efforts to evangelize the tired must first begin to give people a true place to rest their bodies.
I connect the presider’s chair to the streetcar as an elderly woman with two canes painfully climbs aboard and a young twenty-something hipster picks up his skateboard and offers her a place to rest. I see my prayer in the sanctuary seat as I watch a new father place his child in a car seat in the parking lot of the grocery store. The small chair has made a father out of a single man. I remember my place in the sanctuary as I ponder the seats of the crew shell as a group of young men row on the river in downtown. Each seat is designed for the rhythm of rowing, each seat has real and exact meaning and every person belongs.
I watch the row of rocking chairs at the nursing home and connect my presider’s chair to the people who are struggling to remember their pasts. Perhaps their minds and bodies remember the days when they were in highchairs themselves for the first time at their family dinner table. In this circle of life from my presider’s chair, I pray that the Chair of Saint Peter may give me the strength as well in my weakness and vulnerability to pray from this holy and simple seat.