Last Sunday on the way out of church I noticed a lady sitting at the end of the pew on the far side of the church, turned slightly away from the departing crowd. Clearly, she didn’t want to be noticed. She was weeping. I sat down on the other end of the pew, nearest the departing parishioners in order to shield her from view as much as possible and give her a bit of privacy.
I suspect that our church is much like most Catholic churches in the country. As soon as the recessional hymn is half-way over and the priest is no longer in view, people start leaving, and as they make their way to the vestibule, they talk, visit, laugh. Children, having behaved well during Mass—at least for most of the time—are happy for the release and run toward the door. I’m sure that in some churches, there is a great deal more reverence and decorum, and people either stay a while in prayers of thanksgiving or leave a good deal more quietly, but not in our church.
I had seen the lady in the communion line and she wasn’t weeping then. As I sat there, turned a bit away, with my back to her, I could steal a glance at her face once or twice; there was no anguish, grief, or even sorrow—just embarrassment by her apparently uncontrollable weeping. Eventually, when nearly everyone was gone, she stopped crying, stood to leave, and whispered “Thank you” as she left. I smiled at her in return.
She was experiencing the gift of tears. It’s not uncommon, or at least, it didn’t used to be. Tears are the ordinary human response to the grace of the Holy Spirit when one actually experiences Holy Communion. That’s not the only occasion for the “gift of tears,” but it happens often on that occasion. Or it used to.
We are so self-conscious now. The irony should be obvious: Even as we wear jeans and tee-shirts to Mass, even as we chatter in the sanctuary before and after Mass, even as we wear our informality and casual attitude like some kind of costume we’re proud of, we are so very self-conscious. We are suspicious of anything that looks “religious” and terrified of anything that might be “holy.” The woman was embarrassed with good reason.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is not criticism. I love these people. More—I can feel God loving them. The children running in the aisles, all sit-still behavior abandoned—I feel Christ smiling at them. But consider something else. Consider the awe, the wonder, the mystery, that has just happened on the altar. Consider the breath-taking splendor of that moment of divine intimacy that has just made us share in eternal life.
The incongruity is too mind-boggling. We must de-holify it. We must dress down for it. We must engage in idle social chatter in its presence, get it down to miniature size so we can handle it. Our minds are small, our emotions more comfortable with a little teddy-bear Jesus. We smile and wave at each other, sometimes hugging when we make the sign of peace. We are not comfortable with anything else—anything more, or other. It would be too frightening. It would be weird.
I’ll see that lady in church again. I feel a bond with her now, yet I know neither of us will ever mention it; we’ll probably even avoid each other. I wonder if she knows that what happened to her was a gift.