Speaking of Temperament

I follow Adam McHugh’s blog The Introverted Church, and while I am generally sympathetic, I often find myself thinking things like: you can’t even deal with shaking someone’s hand? Really? What kind of shrinking violet are you? However do you deal with living in the world? I felt somewhat that way about the last guest post there: The Top Five Things Introverts Dread about Church. For instance:

“Welcome! Shake a hand, give a hug, share a name!”

In every church I have attended, this has been a precursor to the beginning of the service. What I want to know is why. There is no way that anyone is going to remember anyone else’s name in the 2.7 uncomfortable seconds it takes to say, “Good morning! My name is so-and-so. God’s peace.”

And has anyone considered what that is like for people who have never stepped foot in that church, or any church at all? I’ve been in church my entire life, and this entire process ties knots in my stomach. I understand the rationale behind it (we want to be a friendly, welcoming community), but isn’t this accomplished in a less forced manner before and after the service, over donuts and coffee?

Intuition suggested that there’s a difference in kind between the irritations of Orthodox churches, and the irritations of protestant churches. After some consideration, I have concluded that pretty much all the irritations of Orthodox churches involve some circumstance out there in the church, which one can deal with however one knows how, or leave, or whatever. Most of the protestant irritations McHugh follows on his blog are about people trying to impose themselves on each other, usually in a misguided attempt to produce a certain kind of good cheer highly valued in American culture.

For instance, Ms Doring’s annoyances are all about someone trying to get her to do, be, feel, or say something which she’s not comfortable with. Extemporaneous prayer, giving her opinion in front of the group, more obviously appearing happy, excited, friendly, or whatever; small group confession, and pretending to greet someone she’ll probably never talk to again. Mine are all about participation in something that sometimes seems too difficult or inaccessible: crowds, touching, lack of order, constant movement, long services, candles in people scarves, foreign languages, chants I don’t feel a connection to, traditions I don’t learn about in time or fail to understand the meaning of, history I fail to sufficiently appreciate, and so on. All of which exists as a fact independent of me: it’s not like the people moving around me are thinking about how stimulating it must be to be in the middle of a mass of people; they’re not thinking of me at all — they’re thinking of the friend they’re trying to get to, the candle they’re trying to light, the icon they want to kiss, or so on. It’s not like the churches are intentionally crowded: there simply aren’t enough churches of the correct size to accommodate all the people who want to go there for important services. The length is based on Byzantine liturgics, and they figure that anyone who doesn’t want to stay can leave. They’re certainly not offended if most everyone leaves in the course of a five hour service. One might reasonably argue that most of these annoyances are caused by a failure to think about the circumstances of the people who will be attending this service, and that those circumstances are, in fact, worth considering.

“You could have made a less attractive basilica style church that could comfortably hold all these people for the same amount of effort you put into this tiny but beautiful (I don’t know the architectural term for Georgia’s preferred church style) church. But you chose not to, because you’re Georgian, and love churches as places that one can go to to light a candle, to look at the frescoes, to take a guest; you probably care that they should age well, and even that they should crumble well — you’re probably not only thinking of this as a place to conduct services, but also as a town landmark which may continue as such for many generations. So it’s not that this state affairs isn’t inconvenient, but simply that Americans value convenience over beauty, and you don’t.” The crowding in a church is like the crowding in a metro during rush hour: annoying, but incidentally, because of insufficient space, money, planning, or some such. So the solution in the one case is to build some more churches, and in the other perhaps to run more frequent trains.

Nobody (I imagine) is going to start a blog about how annoying it is that there aren’t more spacious churches in Georgia. They might start a fund to build new or bigger churches, but that’s a practical matter. The pet peeves of protestant introverts, on the other hand, are not caused by focusing on architectural or liturgical fullness and beauty over practicality and the needs of the community, but rather upon misunderstanding the needs of much of the community. If you’re always calling on people to share in front of the group, for instance, you have obviously thought about the people comprising that group, but you may not have understood it very well. You may have mistaken the inability to talk and listen at the same time, and a preference for the latter (which is a positive trait in Christianity), with disengagement or “lack of openness.” If you’re always pressuring people into making up prayers on the spot, in front of people, you may have  thought about those people, and judged it good that they should spend more of their group time before God, and not only one another, but failed to understand that most of us cannot even do that before only God, and are distracted by all the other people listening, so you may well be encouraging hypocrisy. This is what prayer books are for. If somebody devises an ice breaker and imposes it on their congregation, they obviously have the people in mind — God doesn’t need ice breakers — but may have failed to consider whether playing a super awkward winking game is really appropriate in this context, and whether it should be socially mandatory, even if it’s meaningless and irritating for several of the participants, and disrespectful for many more.

This is not, in general, a flaw characteristic of Orthodox communities — I’ve only encountered one that was even a little like that, and it was a highly structured children’s camp.

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