This traveling Catholic is accustomed to rolling with the punches of unfamiliarity that can cause brief panic while fending for oneself in a foreign parish. What’s the Communion traffic pattern? Does everyone bow during the Nicene Creed or am I gonna have to be careful not to accidentally ram someone in the back again (don’t ask)? Will I find at least one veiling buddy, or am I going to have the most popular back of the head at Mass today?
Such information sorted itself out during a visit to a temporary home in Los Angeles except for the business of the traffic pattern. This joint didn’t have a traffic pattern; it was a free-for-all– much like most of the vehicular traffic I ran into there, so perhaps that was by design- and I accidentally held up the other woman in my pew while waiting for some row, somewhere near us to get a move on. Sorry, lady.
The Eucharistic surprises didn’t end there. Instead of rushing to the parking lot after the last excruciating hymn dies away from the guitars and drum set like at so many parishes, the good people at Immaculate Conception stayed. By which I mean, they didn’t linger in the aisles catching up on Carol’s surgery. I mean… they stayed, to offer prayers of thanksgiving and reflection after receiving the Sacrament.
This isn’t an unusual occurrence at the more orthodox parishes I’ve bounced through, but get this– these people got up from their pews, and then went to another pew, in a side Eucharistic chapel.
That was new.
The side chapel was as side chapels should be; it was beautifully painted with the mysteries of the Rosary, and the tabernacle was properly front and center. It was utterly silent. By the time I’d figured out where everyone had gone and joined them, many were leaving, and get this– they were doing so backwards.
That was new.
The first person I saw departing in this fashion didn’t strike me as unusual; it was a father holding a sleeping baby, and I’ve held enough sleeping babies to know that yes, even a 180-degree slow and graceful turn can and will upset the REM cycle. You don’t chance it, especially not in an utterly silent Eucharistic chapel.
But then I began to notice that everyone did this. Another father had to drag his stroller in front of him as he made his way down the aisle, which annoyed no one. They just waited until the bumping over the little flagstones stopped, and then they followed him out the door. Also backwards.
I don’t know how widespread this practice was in pre-Vatican II days, but I understood that we were retreating in this manner because, in feudal tradition, you don’t turn your back on the King, and here we were in particularly close proximity to a particularly everlasting King. There wasn’t an exposed host in a monstrance, but it was close enough here in downtown LA.
When I first started attending Eucharistic adoration back home, I saw people lower themselves to two knees before an exposed host, and figured this was an extra-extra holy way to conduct oneself, so I followed suit. It was an unavoidable physical moment to remind me of where I was and who was in front of me.
Now I had to decide if I was going to follow this local custom or pull out the Clueless Traveller From Ohio Card.
Really, it was the fathers with the babies and all their accessories that decided it for me. Who was I to excuse myself with these poor guys blindly navigating a baby jogger through the aisles?
So, backwards it was. And I felt not a little awkwad. This was entirely new worship territory for me, and I had no idea where the chapel ended and the church proper began, and you try to maintain a dignified backwards stride while frantically silencing messages from the Lyft driver waiting outside.
But that was precisely the point. It was a brief but firm lesson in humility. Taking on a bit of disorientation and discomfort won’t kill us. It’s good for us, actually– when we are too comfortable, too accustomed to the same carefully curated view at all times, we atrophy. A bit of backwards walking, after all, reminds us who’s really in charge here.
But there was much more significance presnet than showing politeness to a soverign. As I found my way down the aisle, you can imagine where I was looking-- not at my phone, and not at the outfit of the woman in the front pew. To keep my balance and maintain a sense of where I was, I needed to keep my head up and focus on what was directly in front of me-- the tabernacle.
I’m at a point in my life right now when I feel as if I’m backsliding on my spiritual journey, and if that visit to the tiny chapel didn’t slap me directly into some recognition of what was going on, I’ll turn in my analyst bio.
Where was my focus lately? Not on God.
What did that get me? Lost.
Guess what I need to do to fix all that?
Sometimes walking backwards is the best way to move onward.