Altar Building for Dummies

Altar Building for Dummies

3-D glasses may be cool, but you can get a beer at a ball game.

I believe there are two types of people in the United States. There are “Sports” people and there are “Movie” people.  Sure, you can watch and enjoy both the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards, but let’s get down to brass tacks: there is no way that anyone who can name the entire offensive line of the 1995 San Francisco 49ers can, at the same time, be upset that Roger Deacons was robbed of the best cinematography Oscar in 2007 because he split the Academy vote. At the end of the day you are one or the other. Now you may be saying to yourself, “But I am neither!” Well okay. I’m not going to call you a liar, but keep reading. There is a good chance this is for you as well.

I played a lawyer in a movie once. That’s a lie.

Exhibit A: Mass is an hour, give or take. Depending on the data source, no more than 20-30 percent of Catholics go to mass every week.

Exhibit B: It’s impossible to determine the number of movies an American watches on average per year, but we each average five trips to the cinema per year and NetFlix alone ships more than a million titles per day – not counting streaming movies. This does not even touch local video rental, home viewing of purchased titles, movies on cable TV, and what have you.

Exhibit C: It is equally impossible to measure the number of sporting events an American watches, for much the same reasons. Forget going to the game: just think of the impact the Olympics has on people’s time, with millions glued to the tube until unhealthy hours of the night watching someone beat the U.S. in an event that nobody previously knew existed.

Exhibit D: There ain’t no such thing as a one-hour movie or sporting event. Let’s call the average two hours.

So here is my brazen speculation: that a “good” Catholic sits in Mass for one hour a week, and in front of a movie or sporting event for two hours per week. And you know I am being generous. That number is much worse for 70-80 percent of us.

But what of movies about sports?

The common thing about going to see a movie or a game is that you eventually have to come home. Management at theaters and stadiums alike frown on people trying to live there. So after the noise, the crowd, the rudeness, the expense, and often times (in both cases) the disappointment, we have to go back to our mundane lives. All we have to take away is some cruddy piece of paper – a ticket stub perhaps, or a program: yet we have had an experience that takes us out of our everyday experience and speaks directly to our interests. So how to keep the feeling alive when we get home?

The kids will love playing with the box.

The other day, a college friend of mine shared on facebook that she has a 103” television set. How big is that? The Ford F-150 pickup truck, the best-selling passenger vehicle in America, has a wheel base of 125”. That’s a piece of farm equipment. Anyway, this in addition to the five other TVs in her house.

Nielsen estimates there are, today, 116 million households with at least one TV. I am going to make another brazen speculation: none of those TVs are under a bushel basket. In America, we put our TV on a lamp stand: often from IKEA. We put the TV literally (or at least psychologically) where the fireplace used to be. Where the dining room table used to be. Where the Christmas tree used to go. Where the window used to be. Where grandma used to sit. Where the door once was.

We, as a country, tend to buy the biggest television we can afford and put it in the most central location in the most public space in our house and then adorn it with DVD players, with video recording boxes, with stereo speakers, and (in the case of my mother-in-law) with lots and lots of plastic houseplants. And to re-capture the thrill of going to the show or going to the big game, we gather around it as a household and stare in silence. And we stare a LOT more than two hours a week.

But sometimes we stare not because we want to re-capture the feeling of an outside experience: sometimes we stare just because it’s comforting. Because it makes us feel, somehow, connected to something larger than us.

Jesus, Moses, and Elijah walk into a Best Buy…

How many households in America have a religious altar of any kind, of any size, anywhere on the premises? How many Catholic households? How big are those altars and where are they kept? I admit I am a cinema junkie so I don’t really have room to preach here. I’m just asking questions.

A middle-class family may think little of shelling out $1,000 on a home entertainment system so they can have the movie theatre/big game experience in their living room. What would the reaction be if Father Whomever instructed those same families to go out after Mass and drop a grand on a statue of the Virgin or a crucifix so they could have the “Catholic” experience in their own living room?

The truth is, of course, that it’s not really about sports and movies: or news, or reality shows, or soaps, or whatever. It’s about reverence. We all have the greatest reverence for that which we respect and value the most. What’s the ultimate form of reverence? Just ask Abraham. One only builds altars to the thing one reveres the very most. We all build our home altars. Thank God they come with hook-up instructions, right?

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