I’m not Catholic, but I went to a Catholic mass during Advent to get that full “Christmas” effect.
I had never been to this church before — but each time I go to a new Catholic church these days, I have to prepare myself mentally for some odd and possibly annoying congregational behavior.
I was not disappointed this time — or rather, I was.
See, while Catholic services are generally the same everywhere, each particular church and geographic location has its quirks. For example, I’ve been to Catholic churches where everyone holds hands during the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) — a controversial trend that has a tendency to annoy traditionalists and people concerned about germ transmission.
In this particular Catholic church, at least I wasn’t put into the uncomfortable position of holding hands with the strange man seated next to me during the Our Father.
What I did see, however, was a shocking exodus towards the exit prior to the final procession (technically, the “recessional”), as people “snuck” out before the cross-bearer went down the aisle.
Then, immediately trailing the recessional, almost as if they were part of the parade, a full-on mass exodus began, prior to the final hymn being finished. The hymn being one of my Christmas favorites, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I found this to be particularly disappointing. By the time it was done, the church was half-empty.
These are probably the same people rolling up their mats and leaving yoga class before savasana is over. Annoying.
But, thanks to their overly packed schedules, people feel entitled to disrupt group events in order to escape early.
Here’s the thing — this Advent mass was not a particularly long church service. There was really no reason why so many people needed to rush out so quickly, other than being inconvenienced by a slow parking lot exit.
In fact, as church services go, this was one of the speediest you’ll ever find. At 45 minutes, the service was remarkably efficient. A packed house of hundreds of people was whisked through Communion like lightning. The readings were kept short. The Homily (sermon) was also mercifully brief.
Compare that 45 minutes to a typical evangelical “non-denominational” service, where the sermon lasts for an hour after another hour of rock band Christian tunes. Two hours later, and you still can’t extricate yourself, because everyone wants to shake your hand and invite you to the “fellowship” going on post church service.
You could easily spend three to four hours at a non-denominational church on a Sunday if you partake in the groups and classes prior to the service. Don’t get me wrong — some of those non-denominational evangelicals also bug out early, usually right after the sermon and before the offering plate collection — so they are worse in that they are trying to skip out on the donation request.
But please, Catholics, don’t cry me a river when you have a tidy 45-minute service to sit through.
Why Leaving Early Can Be Inconsiderate
Now, a large rock band church service is more casual by nature. It doesn’t quite ruin the mood in the same way as when people exit early in a Catholic mass, though I still wouldn’t recommend it as a habit.
However, to me, leaving a Catholic church service before it is officially over — if your main goal is to beat the traffic and you don’t have a bathroom emergency — is a bit rude. It ruins the solemnity of the service. Leaving early does not respect the ritual of the service, which includes the very important recessional that “closes” the sacred space.
For the same reason, leaving during the final resting period of yoga class, savasana, is also a bit rude and disrespectful. Savasana is the critical integration period after the work. It allows the body and mind to process what happened during the class. It allows the nervous system to reset, and the spirit to calm down (usually — though, some people do have issues with relaxing during savasana, the answer is not to avoid it but to try to work through the blocks).
When you leave yoga class early, you are making noise that is bothering everyone else trying to relax in their final resting pose. No matter how quiet you are, no matter how much you tiptoe around the other mats to exit, you are disrupting other people’s peace and quiet.
Yes, sometimes you do need to leave yoga class early. And, as a yoga teacher, I always appreciated when a student would inform me (and prepare the rest of the class) that they needed to leave early during our class introductions.
However, so many students just don’t appreciate that final resting time. Gym yoga classes are the worst — though, granted, getting that sense of “sacred space” is much more challenging when the spinning class is next door with loud music pumping. Still, savanasa has important benefits and should be part of every yoga practice, workout or no.
Likewise, in a traditional church service, singing the final hymn as the recessional proceeds down the aisle also has intangible benefits. In part, it marks the triumph of the cross, which leads the procession. You are kind of dissing Jesus when you act like this symbolism doesn’t mean anything.
The Importance of Ritual and Sacred Space
Now, leaving events early may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but this trend is evidence of a bigger problem with our culture and general mindset. We live in a multi-tasking culture where we can’t seem to just be present and in the moment anymore.
For example, thanks to this culture of busy-ness and short attention spans, we now have massive flat screen televisions in almost every restaurant. I started to wonder as I was driving home from mass — why not just go all out and put TVs in churches too? That way people can catch up on the news and their favorite sports team while waiting in line for their Communion wafer.
Let’s put TVs up in yoga classrooms as well — why not? I mean, if it is important enough to have CNN on during our dinner time, then of course we should have it on during yoga. What if someone misses some important news? (I’m being sarcastic here.)
God help me, I shouldn’t give anyone any ideas.
Now, some people might say that leaving early has to be done because of other “things to do” — whether it is work, kids, or school. But why are these other things always more important than holding a sacred space?
In our modern world, we’ve lost sight of how formal ritual can help provide a sense of sacred in our lives. Liturgical church services, such as those found in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, have a certain structure (the “liturgy”) that provides a framework for worship. This framework has developed and evolved over thousands of years.
The idea of such a framework is to put you in a certain mindset to connect with God.
When you walk into a church, and experience a well-done liturgy, you should feel a sense of awe, that sort of sacred “hush” that you are connecting with the sublime.
When you walk into a great yoga class, one that incorporates the spiritual traditions of yoga such as mantra and meditation, you might also experience that feeling of quiet power and meaning.
It is precisely this feeling that gives us meaning and purpose in life.
The problem is, we aren’t taught as a culture to appreciate these types of rituals anymore.
Churches do a terrible job explaining the point of their ritual liturgies in Sunday School. I grew up in a very old school Episcopal Church, and was taught nothing about it in Sunday School. Come high school, I had gotten very bored with all the “rote” prayers and formality, because no-one had really explained to me that what we were doing was creating a sacred space.
I just thought the church “had a stick up its butt,” in the parlance of an 80s teenager.
It was only years later that I began to appreciate how a solemn church ceremony could help me feel more connected to God.
I’ve gone to rock band church services, and I enjoy them. Sometimes, I’ve even cried because the energy and music are so powerful. Maybe the Holy Spirit broke through to me those times.
But I’ve generally felt more of a sense of God in those quieter, more formal church services.
Appreciating Our Western Spiritual Traditions
Sometimes, here in the West, we need to connect with the East to appreciate sacred ritual. We’ve gotten so blasé and disrespectful of our own traditions. We don’t appreciate them — they’ve become too familiar.
I’ve taken yoga teacher trainings with Shiva Rea, and she really understands how powerful a sacred ritual can be. At one teacher training, she invited her students to join her in a “puja” (Hindu religious ritual) on the beach after class with a real Hindu priest. Only a small contingent from the workshop went. Those that didn’t missed out. The beach puja was really profound and beautiful — one of those memorable events that still sticks with me years later.
Because she understands the power of the sacred as well as community, going to a teacher training with Shiva Rea can be an almost magical experience.
I’ve also experienced other traditional Hindu practices through the Sivananda yoga tradition. It actually helped me enjoy church services more. Learning those authentic practices and rituals from the yoga tradition opened my mind to look at our Western spiritual traditions with new eyes and develop a greater appreciation for their depth and beauty.
Safeguarding Our Sacred Spaces
Unfortunately, so much of yoga has been commercialized and commodified that a lot of that sense of sacred is being purged from it.
The Catholic Church also has a problem with safeguarding its sacred spaces. For one, the church has a lot of problems and scandals that plague it, caused by evil priests who completely abused their positions and destroyed not just the sacred but the innocent as well — and on purpose. I’m torn about whether I want to even participate in any Catholic church service given some of the bad stuff that’s gone on.
However, evil people unfortunately abuse and infest every aspect of life these days, it seems. Public schools are not exempt, and neither is yoga.
On the positive, the Catholic Church has 2,000 years of beautiful pageantry and ritual, that, if we actually notice it and appreciate it, can serve as a doorway to heaven. When we are in that sacred space with other people who genuinely want to connect with God, we put aside all the politics and problems. We are connecting with devout saints and millions of others who have come before in a genuine desire to reach the divine.
It’s too bad that so many Catholics disrespect their own rich traditions — and leaving early is just one manifestation of that disrespect. The early leavers don’t really realize how this looks to someone who is just visiting a church for the first time — perhaps someone who finds the rock band church services a little thin on substance and who is hungry for more depth.
But part of what helps make a space sacred is the respect we have for it — not just for the space but for the ritual and the other people participating. So, if too many people show up with a mindset of disrespect or dull duty, the sacred space can be destroyed.
And, while we cannot blame everyday people leaving early from mass or sivasana for the evil acts of others, I will suggest that the lack of respect shown for the sacred, from the laypeople to the priests, probably makes it easier for evil to flourish.
In the least, when we skip out early, and miss savasana or the final hymn, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice. We are missing out on that important integration time that can very subtly but profoundly make our lives richer.
With this in mind, unless it is truly an emergency, if you go to a liturgical church service, take the time to sit through the final recessional and wait until the last verse of the last hymn is sung.
And, if you’re that concerned about sitting in traffic, why not sit in the church pew or seat for some quiet moments of reflection as everyone else is leaving? You might find this quiet time of integration to be the best part of your Sunday.