It seems that most birthday parties I attended as a child had either a clown or a magician. I disliked both. Not because I had an aversion to illusionists or found greasepaint creepy, it was because there was a slight chance they might call me up to the stage. As an introvert with Social Anxiety Disorder, that was terrifying.
An orchestra once visited my elementary school to perform in the cafeteria. The teachers thought it would be fun to have a student play conductor. Because of my good grades, I was given the privilege. Needless to say that when I left the stage after standing before the entire student body for what seemed like an eternity, I asked to be excused to the bathroom where I promptly lost my lunch.
My social phobia persisted throughout most of my childhood. I liked being alone, preferred quiet environments, and enjoyed tranquil activities such as reading, drawing, and journaling. It gives me great pleasure, for example, to write these words. Reciting them publicly would have turned my stomach.
To this day my friends and family know that if we go out to a restaurant to celebrate my birthday, under no circumstances are they to ask the waitstaff to bring out a cake and sing. The thought of being the center of attention is nerve-racking.
My social phobia even manifested itself at Mass.
Keeping the Peace
The prescribed periods of silence and moments of contemplation at Mass, for the most part, catered to my phobia. For me, the Holy Sacrifice was a well spring whose waters were refreshing and vivifying…with one exception—The Rite of Peace.
How ironic that the Rite of Peace was the only part of Mass that, for many with a social anxiety, brings with it unrest.
“Is everyone looking at me? Is anyone behind me? How far should I extended peace? One row? Two rows? Three? Are my palms sweaty? Am I sweaty? Do I make eye contact? Should I say something?”
As a kid, all these thoughts and more raced through my mind on a weekly basis. It was so crippling that several times I would just hug my mom and brother then sit down leaving all those around me “peace less.” I can only imagine what they thought.
As I grew older, life circumstances forced me to nurture a more gregarious attitude. Helping lead a young adult group, facilitating a weekly Bible study, leading mission trips and more recently, giving presentations on the Mass, pushed me out of my comfort zone. The forced socialization dispelled the anxiety so that the Rite of Peace finally lives up to its name.
God the Father
Several years ago I attended a retreat with a teenage girl whose mother forced her to participate. She said she was no longer Catholic—or Christian for that matter—and hadn’t attended Mass in years. During the retreat she was very abrasive and did not take part in the activities.
Her hard shell finally crumbled and in tears confided to our small group that her father had done unspeakable things. For her, calling God “Father” didn’t conjure images of a loving, protective, paternal figure, but rather reminded her of the nights her own father would come home drunk. She couldn’t even make the Sign of the Cross without being taken back to that nightmare. She said that’s why she stopped going to Mass.
Every Knee Shall Bend
A friend injured his knee while playing football. He tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and meniscus which required surgery. He used crutches for several weeks and went through physical therapy. Eventually he was able to lose his crutches and just use a knee brace which was unnoticeable when he wore pants.
We all come to the Mass with our own life experiences, predispositions, phobias, concerns, disabilities, injuries, pains, struggles and scars that color the way we perceive it and impact our worship.
The man who refuses to kneel at the consecration may have had knee surgery. The young girl who didn’t make the Sign of the Cross may be battling demons, the lady who bolted after Communion may be rushing back to the hospital to be at her daughter’s bedside and the young man who didn’t extend his hand at the Sign of Peace may be struggling with a social disorder.
It may be easy for us to dismiss each as being disrespectful—to raise our hands and say “kids these days!” Believe me, I am chief among those who would petition for an increase in reverence during the liturgy and I know I am not alone. In fact, Adoremus Bulletin surveyed its readers about their top concerns at Mass and of the 1,086 responses, 801 cited a lack of reverence as their prime concern.
Our desire for there to be reverence at Mass, however, must always be tempered with charity and understanding. So the next time we see someone who, in our eyes, is being “irreverent,” remember, “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”