Where we sit in church says a lot about us

The view from over here on the Right Side is better.
Both sides of the aisle at church. (This isn't the writer's church, but you get the idea.)
Both sides of the aisle at church. (This isn't the writer's church, but you get the idea.) [ Shutterstock ]
Published Sep. 15, 2022

If you are reading this in the paper, it’s probably Sunday, which means you have gone to church, or are about to go to church, or don’t care about church.

You are reading this in a divided country, where we have names for the divides. We have red states and blue states, Democrats and Republicans, ever-Trumpers and never-Trumpers, the right wing and the left wing.

We are not paying enough attention to one division that is more persistent than all of these. When we enter a church that has a center aisle, some of us sit on the left and some of us sit on the right, and some of us could never imagine switching sides.

It is proper that I reveal my bias: I am a lifelong and perpetual Right Sider. I have tried now and then to sit with friends on the Left Side, but the experience left me with profound discomfort, as if I was required to write my next column in ink with my left hand.

Our current parish is St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. It’s a beautiful church associated with a parochial school. It has a pastor we love, the Rev. Robert Gibbons, who must minister to both the Left Siders and the Right Siders. (From his perspective, it just occurred to me, it’s the other way around, like a theater stage.) He attends to our needs with equal love. But he is an intelligent enough pastor to understand that we are radically different.

I must clarify now that the differences I am describing are not defined by ideology. Everyone knows there are Conservative Catholics and Liberal Catholics. Some of us believe that women should be able to serve as priests. Others cling to the orthodox prohibitions. It will take another century or so to sort that out, probably by schism. But, in the meantime, both kinds of Catholics are scattered across both sides of the aisle.

Before I describe reasons for my Right Sided preference, I should confess to another. Like the bad boy who prefers to sit in the last row of the classroom so as not to be noticed, I am decidedly a Back Bencher. I have a favorite pew, about five rows from the back, and I like to sit on the aisle. I can defend this by reference to the teachings of Jesus, who urged the faithful not to show off their piety in the front. He preferred those who prayed humbly in the back.

But the real reasons I like the back is so I can arrive late, leave early, and have quick access to the restroom if I need it. Which, as you enter church, is on the right!

What is it about the Right Side that draws me like a magnet? The altar is in the middle, of course. But the musicians of the folk Mass are on the right. The pulpit is also on the right, so we can hear the scriptural readings, the sermon and the prayers of the faithful.

The young altar servers hang out on the Left, so that is a loss.

Our family grew up in a different parish. Our daughters did not go to this school. Our sense of this community is developed only by the families we know from attending Sunday Mass. We know a few of them by name, but most by general identity. There is the family with the Tall Mom. Her kids are servers. There is Tony and his bride of 55 years, both Italian. There is the blond family over there, and the curly-haired family over here.

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And there are the children. I know I should be paying attention to what is happening on the altar, but I am often blessedly distracted by the little girl who spends her hour with an art project. Or the baby who cries every time he drops his binkie. Or the kid who cheers and claps at the end of every hymn.

The children of Left Siders are every bit as interesting as those on the Right, but I can’t help but notice that they are more likely to escape their pews and sprint down the center aisle in search of something better.

We humans are animals after all. We are creatures of instinct and habit. We protect our territory. Where I sit in church seems more primal than rational. That said, I could make a case that we Right Siders are more interesting and better looking as a group than our siblings of the Left. We may not dress as well, or put as much money in the collection basket, but we have — if laughter is evidence — a better sense of humor.

I know I am committing the sin of Pride, and that Pride cometh before the Fall. But the Fall is right around the corner, so excuse me for thinking that, once again, I am Right.

OK, readers, come clean. Which side do you prefer?