I am sitting in the pew, holding my breath because directly in front of me is a man whose clothing reeks of cigarettes.
As I desperately try to avoid being distracted, I remind myself that Jesus loves this man. I also remind myself that it is likely that this man endures all sorts of terrible sufferings that push him to smoke as much as he does.
Alas, this tactic fails miserably, so I end up inching as far away as possible from Mr. Smoke Stack without knocking the rest of the people out of the pew.
The next week, I try a different pew, but now there’s another distraction. This time, the woman in front of me mumbles under her breath throughout the entire Mass, while also shuffling her feet noisily.
Once again, I remind myself that Jesus loves this person, who obviously is suffering from some strange medical condition. Still, I find myself in a frenzy of annoyance, unable to block out the sounds of Mrs. Mumbler.
A few days later, I finally face facts: There seems to be a definite conspiracy to keep me away from Sunday Mass.
Sometimes it’s a well-meaning person who belts out the hymns with gusto while never quite hitting the notes. Other times it’s the moment when we say The Lord’s Prayer and the entire pew joins hands, forming a disturbing daisy chain that has some folks becoming contortionists to reach people in other pews.
Or it may be some egregious folksy hymn with words like “We are the light of the world,” which always prompts me to whisper to my husband, “Gee, I thought Jesus was.”
No matter what, however, I continue going to Mass, because I know exactly who is orchestrating these annoyances. As C.S. Lewis describes him in “The Screwtape Letters,” it is “Our Father Below,” also known as Satan.
In his book Lewis describes some devils who are trying to ensnare the soul of a particular churchgoer. One devil wisely notes that the man’s neighbors in the pews may prove a fine source of temptation, especially if they “sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes.”
The devils predict that the churchgoer “will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be…ridiculous.”
It seems that such devils also lure people to approach Mass like a performance, giving it high or low marks based on the choir, the sermon, and the other churchgoers. But I’ve discovered this is a huge mistake since Mass is not an opera, a concert or a play.
And even with music that has you fantasizing about earplugs, and sermons that are as thrilling as last week’s meatloaf, the truth can’t be changed: Mass is the most important part of the week for Catholics because there we meet Jesus in the Eucharist.
In “Interior Freedom,” Jacques Philippe says the devil is delighted when we notice the flaws in other people. And when this happens at Mass, it may be tempting to conclude we should just stay home.
But it is precisely when things around us are going wrong, Philippe says, that we should “hope in God and serve him joyfully.”
After all, there will always be annoyances wherever there are other human beings. At Mass, there will always be people with shoes that squeak and clothes that reek. There will be babies that pitch a royal fit just as you are having a quiet moment with the Lord. And (groan) someone who gets so excited by the sign of peace that he is still shaking hands when others are heading up for Communion.
When I find myself gnashing my teeth over some problem at Mass, it is humbling to think about churches in the Middle East where people are willing to put their lives in danger to get to Christ in the Eucharist. They certainly will not be daunted by annoying aromas or boisterous babies.
Instead, they apparently are doing what Catholics everywhere are encouraged to do at Mass: They are lifting up their hearts to the Lord because it is fitting and right. And they are also making the devil howl with disappointment.
Lorraine’s latest mystery is “Death of a Liturgist,” a wild romp through a traditional parish that is hijacked by a man who wants everyone to feel groovy at Sunday Mass. She also has written “Death in the Choir” and five other books.