Theology of the Body Language

Theology of the Body Language

The psychology of body language has been around for several decades now. Most of us are aware of its existence, and some of us may even know some of its tell-tale signs. For example, if you ask a person about his possible participation in a crime or some wrongdoing, and he refuses to look you in the eye, there is a good chance that the person’s body language is indicating guilt. Or if a person is talking to you with his arms folded across his chest, such an action may indicate a defensive posture as opposed to an open one. Now whether you “buy” the whole concept of body language or not, I submit to the reader that some of our actions do, in fact, say something about our attitudes, particularly in church.

(Disclaimer: The following examples could apply to either gender, and I am fully aware that, with some individuals, there might be mitigating circumstances over which they have no control.)

For instance, let’s consider the individual who is always five to ten minutes late for Mass. What is his motivation? Perhaps he may think that arriving late reduces the total time of the Mass, and, therefore, reduces his length of “suffering.” Or he may like the idea of being noticed by the congregation as he strolls slowly up the aisle to take a seat. Or he simply decides that another cup of coffee before he leaves the house will get the old juices flowing. Whatever the reason, the “language” he is speaking is that the Mass is simply not that important. Meet an important client for lunch? Be there on time. Golf at the country club? Can’t miss tee-time. See the greatest miracle happen on the altar? I’ll get there when I get there.

Or take the individual who arrives at Mass on time but is dressed as if he were attending a backyard barbecue. He is the epitome of casualness, with his sweat shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. What is the purpose of such attire? Does it take too much time to dress more formally? Is it easier to pray when one is comfortable and not “burdened” with a tie? Or does it give him the common touch so that he might more easily mingle with the hoi polloi? Again, regardless of the motivation, the “language” is the same: This building is nothing special, and what goes on here is hardly worth the effort. Be invited to the wedding of the boss’s son? Wear a suit. Attend opening night at the opera? Wear a tuxedo. Come to a re-presentation of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection? Anyone seen my new shorts?

Finally, we find people who have an insatiable appetite for talking with others prior to the beginning of Mass. I’m not referring to a whispered “hello” but a running conversation that can go on for several minutes. Why is there a need for such chatter? Are family problems so pressing that seeking the advice of a friend is a necessity? Or is the outfit worn by the attractive woman in the third pew from the front worthy of some kind of critique? In these cases, the “language” is one of both rudeness and a total disregard for the sanctity of the church itself. It is rudeness because there is no concern for those who might be praying and are being distracted by the whispering. It is a disregard for sanctity because the church is being used as a social venue. Listen to their favorite singer croon their favorite ballad? Not a sound. Focus on their inner being during yoga? Deep silence. Meditate on the magnificent gift of the Eucharist? Have I got a joke for you!

There are, or course, other sad examples, some more egregious than others. I fear that they are a product of poor catechesis and a culture that has lost a sense of the sacred. A handful of churches, led by pious, courageous priests, have eliminated most of the abuses. But, as I said, they are only a handful.

Let me close with three questions: If you found out that someone had been secretly videoing you at Mass during the last few weeks, would you be pleased with what the camera showed? Would your body language show a person of prayer, piety, and contemplation? Or would it show a person of indifference, insincerity, and boredom? For what it’s worth, God already knows the answer.

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Written by
Thomas Addis