I have marveled lately at how often we sit next to people at Mass without ever learning much about them. It is clear that we are called to “love our neighbor,” but are we called to take the initiative to know our neighbor? Can we even remember those with whom we have sat at Mass over the last year? We may say “Good morning,” share a greeting or offer a “Peace be with you,” but few of us make a serious effort to know them.
Some of that reluctance comes from a healthy awareness that our presence in church should be prayerful and respectful. We keep a distance, allowing our neighbor time for prayer or quiet reflection. We allow families to tend to themselves. We allow ourselves time for prayer.
Before Mass begins, I pray for my children, my husband, my family, my friends. I pray for God’s grace and continued presence in my life. I pray for those who are suffering in the world. Yet I do not automatically pray for the neighbors sitting next to me. It never crosses my mind.
As we glance at those beside us, we may be failing to see them as God wants us to see them.
At times we may even draw conclusions and render judgment on these fellow worshippers. I have harshly judged the neighbor who tries to fit tardy family members into an already crowded pew, the neighbor who talks incessantly through the Mass, the neighbor whose children are out of control, the loud singer, the terrible singer, the neighbor who is a better singer than I am, the neighbor who might recognize me but never says hello, the neighbor who does not really know me or why my own children are out of control today. I have developed the bad habit of judging the neighbor I do not know.
Just before Mass is about to begin in our parish, the presider asks us to greet each other as friends. This we typically do by extending a smile, a handshake and “Good morning!” Most parishioners comply cheerfully, and their compliance creates a momentary buzz of fellowship that echoes throughout the church. Others appear to go through the motions to fulfill an obligation.
I look forward to this practice, which underscores the concept of coming together as a community to celebrate the Mass. It has even become a bit of a game for me to see how people react to the priest’s request.
Looking around, I think of the people I know who have limited tolerance for such social engagement. For a moment I worry about falling into that category myself but decide that both my fondness for chitchat and my search for real and lasting friendships keep me engaged and a willing participant. Sometimes I find it hard to quell a giggle when I think I have spotted an unwilling participant who, glancing at a wristwatch, already may be calculating the number of minutes this greeting adds to the total Mass time.
It is also a parish tradition for the congregation to hold hands as we pray the Our Father. Many people seem uncomfortable holding the hand of the person on either side of them. My guess is that this is because they do not know them.
Many people hesitate. I have witnessed moments of fear, squirming, panic, cringing, avoidance and even refusal. These are not only the reactions of children, but of adults as well. Some react visibly to their realization that the rite of “hand-holding with a stranger” is imminent, hand-holding with a fellow parishioner, a nonfamily member. Does this put us in danger? Why can some of us accept this practice while others are so uncomfortable with it?
One day during this moment of prayer, I learned a little more about the woman next to me. I learned about her faith and strength, her struggle and courage. I learned about her love, her prayer life and her journey with God. And I learned about her without any conversation between us. I learned through God’s grace, which I felt strongly at the moment.
After holding her hand in prayer, I knew something about her; I knew it with my heart. I learned about her through God’s presence during the Mass. With my eyes looking forward, with my voice focused on the words of the Our Father, with my ears filled with hundreds of voices gathered in prayer as a community, I saw her clearly.
It was not until after she released my hand that I turned and took a good look at her—a really good look. With my eyes I saw a middle-aged woman. Being even more curious, I looked to see who was beside her. Was it someone she knew? It was her husband, afflicted by a neurological condition, perhaps a stroke, or merely by age.
Until then, I had not looked farther down the pew and had failed to notice my neighbor’s neighbor. Earlier, I had failed to notice the woman right beside me—failed to notice the strength, determination and resounding faith of my humble neighbor. I had failed to notice her struggle, her hope and her commitment.
During the Our Father, I held the hand of love manifested in the faith of a woman, a wife, a parishioner, a neighbor. I can only describe the experience as God’s way of teaching me how to pray. I now know it is through the gift of prayer that we learn to love our neighbors and perhaps even to know them.
Are we called to know our neighbor? I believe we are. At the very least, I think we are called to be open to the possibility. I also think we are called to trust that God will guide us in everything we do, that God will reveal his plan for us and his wisdom about those around us. It is only through God that we will learn to greet and to know each other as friends.