IT IS A LOGICAL TRUISM that good habits are good. But good habits — well and fine as they are — can also produce ancillary habits that, while not ‘bad’, might perhaps also be worth denying the dignified title of ‘good’; they are ammoral rather than immoral. Hearing mass on Sunday is a good habit — indeed it is an obligatory good habit binding upon all the Faithful. Some people express their habit of Sunday mass at varying locations — an attitude which I find surprising, which itself is surprising given until very recently I varied my Sunday mass locale myself.
In New York, it was easy: there was only one real place to hear Mass and that was the Church of St Agnes on 43rd Street. Of course, some dangerous rapscallions dissented from this point de vue and attend the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue. I remember one Sunday on Lexington Avenue seeing the group of lads who serve the 11 o’clock mass at St Agnes come down the avenue while the like gang who did the same at the Church of Our Saviour were coming up it on the same side and it was like seeing the Sharks and the Jets meet in “West Side Story”.
In London, I used to go here and there; mostly dividing my Sundays between the Oratory and the Cathedral but every now and then sneaking in Holy Redeemer in Chelsea. But for a year or so, I have been an Oratory regular, and now look strangely upon those who, when the insouciant inquiry at a dinner party or over drinks or such is made “Where do you go to Mass?”, reply “Oh, you know, sometimes here, sometimes there, sometimes I even go to the local parish.” (I never believe the last assertation; I, for one, have only been to my local parish twice: once this past St Patrick’s Day to pray, in vain, for an Irish victory at Twickenham, and lastly on one of those lesser-remembered Holy Days of Obligation.)
But the ancillary (ammoral) habit to the (moral) habit of hearing mass on a Sunday is the custom of sitting in the same place. If one is new to a particular church, one can sit here and there for quite some time, but eventually you find a bit of the church and you realise one Sunday “Ah! This is just right!” and from that day forth you have “your” seat. The chaps who do the collection obviously must have their proper places. The one-legged lady in the wheelchair who shouts at people has her usual spot. A certain sturdy Knight of Malta enjoys sitting in more or less the same location every Sunday, and one friend of mine inexplicably likes sitting in the middle of the row towards the middle of the first section of seats beneath the dome. Inexplicable to me because I cannot abide having to climb over people to get to and fro at mass.
Anyhow, needless to say, I have my preferred seat at the Oratory on a Sunday. It is not even a neighbourhood of seats, or a small vicinity, it is a specific seat and I am loathe not to have it. This is because it is at the confluence of the various important factors. It is not so close to the front that you are mistaken for the religious fanatic, the overly pious, or Princess Michael of Kent. Yet it is not so far to the back that you have to walk a mile to receive Our Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar come communion time. (And have you ever sat towards the back at the Oratory? Barely anyone says the responses! The Fathers should set up a specific mission towards the last twenty-odd pews at the 11:00 on a Sunday — I suspect they are unbaptised the lot of them).
Furthermore, there is a duality to the mode of seating at the Oratory: the first two sections, comprising about the first third of the church, are actual seats, whereas the last section is composed of hard, uncomfortable wooden pews. (Perhaps they don’t say the responses because they’re embittered by discomfort?). Also, I dislike being in between the pulpit and the sanctuary, thus necessitating that you have your back turned to the priest when time comes for him to preach. And I prefer to nip up to communion rather swiftly, so I can return and get all my prayers in and not spend half the time standing in a queue awkwardly awaiting the reception of the Eucharist. This, therefore, necessitates that I be directly on the aisle.
“My” seat — I will not reveal its specific location within the Oratory Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Brompton, for the obvious reason of inviting competitors — “My” seat is thus located in precisely the perfect location. Needless to say, I’m used to the others who have found that “their” seat is adjacent or nearby (though I’m glad that one chap who objects to dogs being at mass has given up and gone elsewhere). I feel we all implictly know and understand each other without actually intercommunicating, in that way that researchers who frequent the same stacks in university libraries feel a certain affinity.
About a month ago, we received a new regular to our midst: a white-haired lady in what might be described as late middle age, hebdomidally clothed in a red overcoat. She began to take the seat next to mine. Very well. Pas de problème, etc. Then one Sunday, a slow-moving Italian family attending the previous mass were lingering in “our” row and both she and I assumed positions ready to take possession of our regular seats. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Lady in Red, in full knowledge of my presence, took my seat! Friends were in from the country that week and said they watched the entire scene in detached amusement from the other side of the church. Needless to say, I was reduced to taking the next seat over, usually the Lady in Red’s seat.
What did this fresh assault upon my dignity betoken? I knew not. But I was determined that, in the immortal words of an American president, this aggression would not stand. The next Sunday I made sure to arrive extra early and secure my seat succesfully but untriumphantly. (Triumphalism is a tiresome bore in others and a poor reflection upon one’s self). The Sunday following that she appeared in pole position to usurp my place yet again, but then she didn’t: she let me have it. This, of course, was really a back-handed triumphalism. Haha! See! I shall be the better Christian and let you have the seat to which you have been accustomed since time immemorial! Look ye mighty upon my works and despair!
“Very well!,” I thought, “two can play at this game!” I was determined the Sunday following to arrive early and to deferentially allow her to have the place to which I had grown to know and love so well. But, friends, the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley. This past Sunday I arrived a mere minute or two before mass was to start, and thus I was forced to sit in the north transept instead. What’s worse, the Lady in Red wasn’t even sitting in my seat: she had ceded it to a mantilla’d Filipino lady.
This raises a fresh quandary. If this past Sunday was “my” week to defer to her, but I failed, and she deferred to someone else, does that then mean that I must defer next week, and the rotation begins anew? Or do we stick to the previous rotation of her week / my week? I know not, but I must be off now, as my French flatmates are wailing, and I suspect there may be a mouse for me to kill. Abientot!