Pews are a form of public privacy, intimate space widely shared.
One morning it occurred to me that we “needed” a bench in our spare bedroom. This insight led me posthaste to one of my favorite haunts - a large used furniture store. As I wandered up and down the rows of old dining room sets, chests of drawers, breakfronts, and vanities, I imagined all the people and all the living that each piece had silently witnessed. I rounded a corner…and there it was…a five-foot wooden pew. It was a little wobbly from age, but some wood glue would take care of that, and the price was right, so before the day was over it was rescued and residing in our home.
There is something about a wooden pew that just gets to me. You sit long enough in a wooden pew and the wood warms up beneath you. You feel cocooned, safe. I remember sitting in the pew of my childhood church. I was short enough that if I sat back my head could rest on it.
When our kids were little, my husband and I filed them into a pew on Sunday morning in such a way that they were bookended by their parents. What I remember most about those Sunday mornings was not the mass itself so much as the realization that for one hour each week we were all quiet, all together, and all doing the same thing.
A few years later, when I worked at the parish, I happened upon a woman sitting alone, crying softly in a pew in front of the statue of Mary. She was Muslim and her son had just married a Catholic girl. She reminded me that Muslims also have a devotion to Mary, so she was sitting in front of Mary’s statue trying to make sense of it all. We sat together in that pew for a while, holding hands and talking about her misgivings about this mixed marriage. When she got up to leave, she dug into her purse and handed me a handful of candy-covered almonds wrapped in white netting and tied with a tiny white satin ribbon…a favor from her son’s wedding.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” he suggests that to be a world-class expert in anything requires ten thousand hours of practice. Given these parameters, and my current age, I might be considered a world-class pew-sitter. What has happened to me year after year, pew after pew has slowly transformed me.
That said, not all my pew sitting has been rainbows and roses. The faith we inherit often stops working for us. I am a believer. And I am a doubter. Sometimes I flip back and forth five times in one day, and sometimes I‘m both at exactly the same time. Frederick Buechner said, “doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Maybe that’s why I like pews so much and believe that whatever happens in a pew is always some form of prayer. Pews are quiet places to be alone, as well as places that hold strangers, families, and friends. In a pew you can rage at God, dole out Cheerios to squirmy children, pour out your sorrows, or simply space out. Pews are places to just be whoever you are at the moment. Like the Muslim woman above, you don’t even have to be a believer to slip into a pew and find some peace.
Next time you have the opportunity to sit in a pew, even if it’s in a used furniture store, I invite you to think of all the people who have sat in it before you and how it has been a silent witness to so much living.