On avoiding physical contact will well-intentioned strangers

I’m not sure what percentage of people who read this blog also attend church on a regular basis. If I had to guess…4%? It doesn’t really matter. As I’ve maintained from the beginning -- this blog is about two things and two things only: stupid sports cards, and religion.

Anyhoo, so I have to discuss with you an aspect of Arizona -- one that is actually among the few things about living here that makes me very uncomfortable.

For starters, it’s almost impossible to find a Catholic Church around here. Back home in New Jersey, traditional Catholic Churches are like Seven Elevens -- you can’t walk three blocks without seeing one. Here? My wife and I have to drive about 35 minutes to get to church every week, which means that our travel time is longer than the actual Mass. The next closest Catholic Church is in Texas.

Stranger still, on our way to church we pass about seventeen other churches. They’re just not Catholic churches. Arizona -- at least where we live -- is a very Christian community. There are many, many Christian churches. Now, I am not here to discuss the inherent differences between Catholicism and Christianity, and why we consider ourselves Catholic (not because I couldn’t, but because it’s not warranted here). But I will say this: I am Irish with a father who is a Catholic deacon, and my wife is an Italian from Brooklyn. Christian church is not an option.

(When I originally moved here I was asking a coworker where the nearest church was, and she began telling me about a non-Catholic church where the pastor wears a Hawaiian shirt and occasionally drives his motorcycle onto the pulpit, and that there was also a Starbucks inside the church. We considered playing a prank on my mother-in-law by telling her that this was the church we decided to start attending, but we were honestly and legitimately concerned that she would have a heart attack, so we decided against it.)

But regardless of the commute, we like our church. It’s not grandiose in its style, with high, vaulted ceilings and dozens of stained-glassed adornments and the smell of incense filling the vast atmosphere -- the kind of church we’re used to and that, quite frankly, we miss. No, our church is flat and mostly bare, very “post modern,” I suppose. In fact, it’s celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, which makes it one of the oldest churches around. But hey -- it does the job.

But let me back it up a little bit. Several years before we moved here, a trend began in church: everybody started holding up their palms during the “Our Father.” I’m not sure exactly when this started, but apparently I missed the announcement. Thusly, I had always steadfastly refused to take part in this, mainly because a) nobody told me about it, and b) I was not just going to blindly follow the crowd. “God knows how I roll,” was my justification.

Fast forward to a year ago, when my wife and I first attended Mass at our present church. Being that we were attending a Catholic Mass, I knew that things wouldn’t be much different, however, there are certain subtleties that any Catholic who has been to a few churches in his or her day can attest to. Are they going to ring the bell after the blessing? How many verses do they sing? Of course, I was secretly thinking, “Man, I wonder if they raise their palms during the ‘Our Father.’”

Well, they don’t.

They hold hands.

You can imagine my confusion when it was time for the “Our Father,” and I am innocently looking around to see what everyone is doing with their hands, only to have my own hand grabbed by a complete stranger, and raised into the air as if we were on one of those Sunday morning Gospel television shows. (I wasn’t sure if I should tightly close my eyes, yell “Halleluiah!” and start dancing.) I looked over at my wife who had this particular look of fear in her eyes that I have only seen on the occasions when one of her favorite reality shows is interrupted by an election update. So as not to look completely out of place, I was forced to grab her hand as well.

As if this wasn’t shock enough, at our church they opt to sing the “Our Father,” as a means of prolonging the uncomfortableness. Also, towards the end of the prayer, there is a part where everyone raises their held hands even higher. If you don’t know about this part, you can easily separate your shoulder. As this is all going on, I’m looking around the church and the whole congregation is holding hands. I felt like a Who in Whoville on Christmas morning after the Grinch stole all of the presents. Except I wasn’t happy. Because my present was not having to hold hands and I wanted it back. Immediately.

I tried to be optimistic at first, thinking “Okay, maybe they only do this on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, or whatever today is.” But my optimism was swiftly dashed during the subsequent weeks. We did not like this one bit.

This really, truly makes both of us very uncomfortable. My wife -- who works with kids and is always on the lookout for coughs and booger-picking -- will wash her hands for twenty minutes after church because of the “Sign of Peace.” Now she was holding hands with a stranger for two minutes straight. As for me, I mean -- do you know what it’s like to hold hands with another man for a few minutes? It’s the opposite of comfortable. I can’t even focus on the prayer. For one thing, I’m not used to singing it, so I’m always losing my place. More importantly, I’m wondering if my hand is too sweaty and if my handholding partner is going to take that incidental thumb movement the wrong way.

It has gotten to the point where my wife and I have to alternate who sits on the inside of the pew each week. An enjoyable Mass is one that does not necessarily feature an inspirational or thought-provoking homily, but one in which no one else sits in our pew. And even that is no guarantee, because apparently my wife and I are the only two people who find this routine awkward. Yes, several parishioners -- in an attempt to create a handholding chain that will reach around the world -- will cross the aisle to grab your hand! I mean, !!! Sometimes, if you are in the pew aisle seat, the person in front of you, in their aisle seat, will give you a backwards, no-look hand offer! Believe me -- I have seen it happen.

True story: About a month or so ago, my wife was busy with paperwork and we couldn’t make it on Sunday, so I went to Saturday evening Mass by myself. I purposely sat in the back, back corner. I was on the aisle, and nobody was in my pew, or even within range. I was safe. When the “Our Father” began, I suddenly felt somebody on my right side. It was the usher, with his hand held out for me to grab. He had a crazed look in his eye, as if to say, “Now you didn’t think I’d let you sing the ‘Our Father’ all by yourself, did you young man?” I was legitimately scared.

My wife and I have tried to resist. When no one is near us to grab our hands, we do not hold each others hand. This brings us looks of confusion and often disdain -- people wonder if we are fighting, or if we are in church against our own free will. When people are next to us, and the “Our Father” in on the horizon, we try to avoid eye contact, but you would not believe how aggressive other people can be when it comes time to hold hands in church. It’s like they’ve been waiting for this moment all week, and they will not be denied.

Listen -- I understand the meaning and significance behind holding hands, especially in God’s presence. But I just can’t help the fact that it makes me feel very, for lack of a better word…icky. It’s not that I’m so grossed out by other people; I mostly find it, quite honestly, cheesy. And forced. I just don’t like it. At all.

Apparently -- and I only found this out by exploring the possibility of attending a different Catholic Church even farther away -- this is not specific to our present church. It exists throughout the Diocese, possibly the state. There is no escaping this.

I’m sure that somehow it’s my own insecurities and hang-ups that make me feel so uncomfortable to hold hands with a stranger. Unfortunately for strangers, I am not willing to work on this. So if you are reading this, and you happen to find yourself in church this week next to a tall, lanky white dude with a cleft lip -- please look away. It’s not you. It’s me. I have sweaty hands.

And my wife thinks you’re disgusting.

Awww, geez Cindy -- you JUST had your hand in your nose!


Lisa Ramos said…
Gus said…
I, too, have been subject to this in several churches over the years. Northerners tend to keep to themselves while offering a firm handshake during the passing of the peace. I don't know why some people are so pushy with their weirdness!
andrewnamy said…
it is the same in florida! i tried sitting in the back on the aisle also... it is sooooo bizarre. do your people close thier eyes too??? eek.
Anna said…
this article is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud. Thankfully no one is home to hear me.

I do agree with you. Especially when someone has a bad cough & is sneezing all over the place. It is a very uncomfortable feeling. I hope people get the message.
Anonymous said…
I moved to AZ from IL and found church more... "charismatic" here (much of which has made mass more enriching for me). though I sometimes find the hand-holding awkward, I think - if we're supposed to be God's family, we can at least hold hands. plus during mass, the community should act together, so if most of the congregation kneels/sits/stands/holds hands - then it's usually best if all follow. i did read recently that hand-holding during the Our Father is not part of the official form of mass, so i would be fine if it were to cease. -SF
Anonymous said…
OMG!! This is me! I am in PA. I too thought I had missed the memo about the singing of the "Our Father"...not what I was used to. Then the Apostles Creed had the wording changed too.....I don't get it and don't like it :)