Post 119
To those three new priests who have figured out most posts (not that we've met)

Tuesday: Tabernacle Talk

Here’s another post I had started. It was 99% complete and then I guess I got distracted with something else, so I never posted it. That’s kind of funny, because as I read it again just now, I notice a theme of being distracted running through the post. It begins, “This morning” but that was 3 months ago — January 24, 2016 to be exact.

(It is not unusual to be very distracted during any devotional practice, including visiting the tabernacle — am I supposed to capitalize ‘tabernacle’?)

My tentative title, back then, was:

“Um, What’s a Tabernacle? Reflections on Stopping in at a Catholic Church” by Mena J.

This morning I was day-dreaming about a pamphlet that I would like to put near the entrance of the tabernacle area of parishes for those who haven’t ever visited it, or who don’t regularly go to visit it. And then I was imagining what I would say to a friend if I were standing there as a host, waiting to greet them.

Mind you, if I were going to meet a friend, I’d meet them at the front entrance of the church, because they’d say to me, “Tabernacle? What’s that? Where’s that?”

I’d meet them at the front entrance and when they arrived, I’d walk with them to find the tabernacle area. It’s the area with the box, about the size of a safe, with a candle glowing near it.

The box is locked and is called by a special name, “Tabernacle.”

When I say it, I pronounce it “TAB-er-nack-kul” with the ending two syllables rhyming with the word ‘tackle.’

There are often chairs or kneelers placed nearby. Sometimes it’s in the center of the church, behind the altar (probably the most proper place for it), but sometimes it’s to the side of the altar or in a separate area of the church, like way off to the side or even in the ‘back.’ (WiseOne likes the idea of having two: one centred behind the altar and another somewhere for private devotion. Why not?)

(JustOne pointed out to me that the words ‘back’ and ‘front’ of the church are actually unusually used in a church. We sometimes call the altar area the ‘front’ of the church, but then when we’re outside the church, we’ll talk about the ‘front doors’ of a church. This means that once you’re inside the church, the ‘front doors’ are at the back, behind the ‘back pews.’)

I’ll meet you at the front doors.

But as I wrote, my ‘pamphlet’ became not quite so much like a pamphlet.

I pictured people standing there reading it and saying to themselves, “What on earth is this? Who wrote this? What on earth is she going on about? I don’t have time for this!”

So as I wrote, I realized that my ‘pamphlet’ was becoming too long to be suitable for that. Who had time to read such a thing? It was becoming so long I thought that perhaps the local priest might just set it aside when he saw that it seemed rather, well, ‘on the long side.’

Then I remembered you.

Ah! Another blog post!

(I’ve started a post about artificial fingernails . . . guess what I think of those things . . . but I keep interrupting myself writing about other things and to other people about other things and of course I had to take a photo of the triceratops too.)

So today’s post is about the tabernacle, and if you didn’t know I was Catholic, well, then I guess it’s really, really obvious by now.

Here it is.

Greetings! Welcome to the tabernacle area of St. Thomas More Parish!

This pamphlet contains some information about being here with Jesus.

[Correction: This booklet contains a lot of ideas about a lot of things, including some thoughts about being here with Jesus.]

So let’s get started.

In the first place, please get comfortable. I hope you find the seating here to be decently comfortable. I wouldn’t want to invite you to my home and then offer you a terrible chair. I would like you to stay a while, to feel at home, and Jesus wants that too. This is his ‘Living Room’ you could say. Or you could call it a ‘Family Room’ too, because that is the part of the house that often feels the most safe and welcoming. If there were enough space, I think it might be good to add a few couches and some recliners even in here. I’d like to have paper and maybe some crayons for the children too.

I’m sorry there isn’t a place for you to hang up your coat, but I suppose you could drape it over the back of your chair.

And while I’m at it, I apologize for the lack of privacy. It would have been better if this weren’t a glass room. When the tabernacle is set off to one side like this, it should be quite a private place. As a matter of fact, I think that was how they justified having it off to the side in the first place (“Private devotion time, you know.”) They said it was going to be a private place to be alone, all intimate and everything, but now you feel on display. I’m sorry about that. The truth is, you shouldn’t feel like everyone can see you from almost every angle in the church. It probably makes you feel self-conscious and I’m sorry about that. Maybe one day they’ll frost the glass and keep them closed or do something to make it feel more cozy in here.

And I have to say, I’m sorry about the tile too. They were trying to make it fancy in here, so they had good intentions, but it probably makes it feel a lot more formal for you than you’re used to. Perhaps one day they’ll add some carpet. Ideally there would be a spot for you to hang your coat and a place to take off outdoor footwear if you wanted to. When we go to a friend’s home, we do that – we take off our coat and outside shoes. If people felt like they could do that here, they’d feel a lot more like staying. So I’m sorry about that.

And while I’m at it, I apologize for the art work as well. I don’t think there’s supposed to be art work in here. That painting is supposed to be of Jesus on the cross and his Blessed Mother Mary, but it looks dreadful, and so I’m sorry about it. Nowadays people forget that they have to always paint Our Blessed Mother as a beautiful woman. She always looked lovely. Even when she was sad, she looked beautiful. And seeing Jesus on the cross is supposed to inspire feelings of pity in you, not horrify you or make you want to look away. I’m not sure who painted that, or who agreed to hang it up. Maybe someone knew the artist and didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Just don’t look at it. It’s not going to help.

The focus in here is supposed to be the tabernacle, and so there really is no need for the art. They should have taken the money for the stained glass and the tile and put it towards comfortable chairs, I’m sure you’d agree!

But of course, there’s nothing wrong with those kneelers, if you want to use them. Personally, after about five minutes on them, I’m thinking more about sitting down than anything else. But go ahead if you really want.

My point is just that this is a place to relax in the presence of Jesus, not a place to demonstrate to others (or yourself!) that you are being devout. It’s not really anybody else’s business that you are here. This is between you and Jesus.

But while I’m chatting about the decor in here, I will say that the tabernacle itself (the box at the front) should look very special. After all, Jesus is in there. The tabernacle should look dignified and I don’t think there should be anything else on the table which holds the tabernacle, such as little statues or extra candles or even flowers. And certainly, you wouldn’t do something weird, like put the tabernacle in an Indian tee-pee. I’ve seen that done, and I’ll go so far as to say that’s disgraceful.

As for flowers, I think sometimes people get proud of the flowers that they put near the tabernacle and then spend the entire time in here thinking about how great the flowers look.

And, as pretty as flowers are, they can be a source of distraction, especially for women who garden and for women who wish they had more time for gardening and women who like to read books about gardening and before you know it, they’re off to go and do some more gardening. They can also be distracting to women who love flowers and love to receive them and who recently got some, and the women who lately haven’t gotten any and who wish they had and who have now decided that they should perhaps go to the store and pick some up because after all, why not buy yourself flowers anyway? Lilies can give people headaches, so if there are any, they should be in an open and well-ventilated space. “Lilies of the field” was the biblical phrase, maybe with good reason.

Now where was I?

You see the problem.

It’s so easy to get distracted. I suppose it’s human nature. But things in the modern world have become so much worse, and being at the tabernacle should be a very peaceful experience. Comfort and a minimum of decoration do have the effect of settling the mind.

But when I say ‘minimum of decoration’ I hope that people don’t think that a clinical IKEA look would be nice. I’m thinking more like a sweet sitting room which feels welcoming but not showy, which feels comfortable but not overly poofy (I guess I’ve changed my mind about the recliner). I’m thinking of a room where you walk in and say, “Ah! Boy, am I ever glad to come in here and relax and be with you Lord.” I’m thinking of a cozy place where you want to stay, and where you feel like you can talk honestly with Someone about what’s on your mind. (I capitalize Someone because I’m referring to Jesus, and he deserves a capital letter. On the other hand, sometimes I see that satan isn’t even capitalized, and perhaps that’s a good idea – he doesn’t deserve any respect.)

But because people are so easily distracted, it’s unfortunate that the tabernacle area is cluttered with art and patterns of all kinds. Patterns can be distracting, especially for children. Don’t you remember, as a child, how you used to find ‘pictures’ in the patterns and texture of the world around you? Well, that’s not just a child thing, it’s a human thing, and adults do it too. We just don’t admit to doing it, as adults.

So there should be a minimum of patterns in this room. I noticed how the walls in here are made of big blocks, and I was speaking to a child who pointed out that the way they’re arranged, you can never use the blocks to make a cross shape. That’s the kind of subtle thing that children (and adults) notice. Children always understand the language of symbols better than adults do, because adults would rather not think about such things.

So you see, you don’t need to add more art and pattern. You need to have less, but whatever pattern you do add should be studied carefully. How are the tiles arranged? How are the blocks arranged? Consider that people will be looking for patterns, almost unconsciously.

But certainly, if you’re going to incorporate some subtle cross design, then don’t put it on the floor.

Floors shouldn’t have any religious symbolism on them at all – the last thing you want is people treading on the image of the cross, for instance. I’m not sure if people should walk on pictures of flowers for that matter. Not that I’m a flower-worshipper, but it is part of God’s creation. How about keeping floors plain? Some things are best without any pattern at all. But don’t quote me about the flower rug; I’m not decided on that one.

(In Europe I saw some churches that had all kinds of things on the floor, including areas where people had been buried. It was terrible, because half the time you were looking down at your feet, realizing you were walking right on someone’s grave.)

There shouldn’t be patterns on the floor, really. I initially was fascinated by the neatly arranged tiles that I saw in the overwhelmingly showy Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice, but now I realize that it’s not right. In that church, and some others, the artisans who worked with the tile were almost in competition to see who could make the most dazzling floor arrangement of tiles. (Were they thinking of Christ at all? Or were they thinking about their own reputation?) Many times I saw optical-illusion arrangements.

Those optical illusion floor tiles are sort of eerie in a way – you look at them one way and then another and it’s sort of nightmarish on some level. You can’t escape the nonsense of those almost maze-like designs. They’re no good and worse than some of other floor tile arrangements.

(Sometimes religious art can be really bizarre. What were these people thinking!? EquitableOne has seen and taken photos of the strangest things, such as an image of the planet Saturn in the stained glass. Saturn? Because? Isn’t anyone paying attention? Someone! Please stop that ‘artist’!)

The point is, our gaze in a cathedral shouldn’t be drawn down to our feet, but upwards – heavenward, if you will.

Anyway, where was I?

(Some people are more easily distracted than others.)

Ah yes, I’m near the tabernacle.

This is a delicate issue, but I think the tabernacle itself should remind us that there’s Someone very special inside. The one here at this church is decorated with the twelve apostles, and although the intention is rather good, that’s still not who we want to be thinking of right now. I didn’t come here for the apostles, as good as they are, and it’s not time for me to think about them.

I like it when the outside just has a simple symbol, on one side, the Greek letter standing for Alpha and on the other side, the Greek letter standing for Omega, the last letter in the Greek alphabet. In other words, the beginning and the end.

Jesus is everything. “I am the Alpha and the Omega” Jesus had said.

I find that very powerful.

It’s nice to know that he’s in charge.

It’s nice to bring your worries and problems to Someone who can solve them.

The tabernacle at the Basilica is tastefully decorated with dignified angels, and I do like it very much, but that’s extremely difficult to get right. Most artists would make the angels look comical, so until there are talented artists who can get it exactly right (and be properly paid), I think we should just go with the Alpha and the Omega. Besides, then you can put the Alpha symbol on one door and the Omega symbol on the other.

Symmetry and balance – a good thing.

The rest of the tabernacle should look dignified and strong, not covered with curly lines and swirls and so on. Keep it manly and heavy looking, not only because it contains Jesus, but because that type of appearance appeals to both men and women. The tabernacle area isn’t just for ladies.

So anyway, back to you. I’m sorry, I got rather distracted again.

Over here is the candle. It’s best when they’ve got it attached to the wall, but here at this parish it’s on a stand. I don’t like to see it on a stand on the floor because I can imagine it being tipped over, and then it also doesn’t look as permanent a fixture as it’s supposed to be. You see, there’s a lot of significance with this candle, but you’d probably not even realize it. You’re noticing that there are candles all over this room. You’re noticing that this has become almost like a Buy-a-Candle store, aren’t you?

I’m sorry about that too.

It’s a good thing, to light a candle when you have a very special prayer. It’s a symbol, the idea being that long after you walk away from here, or while you’re here, the candle burns as a way of ‘continuing’ the prayer. (It’s sort of a comfort for human beings that God, in his goodness, provides.) God of course doesn’t forget our prayers even when we do. He remembers them; we’re the forgetful ones, who need to keep praying because we keep forgetting about Him. And we need that physical act of doing something special.) So I’m in favour of the candles, and it’s touching to see racks of glowing candles, representing all those very special, earnest prayers.

Yes, they overcharge for candles here. You noticed, did you? They charge $1.00 per mini candle here and at the Basilica they charge $0.25 each. Same candle, yes, I think so. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but I almost don’t really want to know. Mind you, at that retreat house, you can light a really jumbo candle for $4.00 – clearly there’s no profit on those.

As a matter of fact, I don’t think they really should charge for mini-candles (‘tea-light’ candles) if they’re made of paraffin wax. Those things are really not very expensive at all, I don’t think. How many of them can you buy at the dollar store at a time? Probably a whole bagful for a few dollars.

Beeswax candles, which are so much nicer, should have a small fee, to pay the good beekeeper. (I’m impressed that in Orthodox churches, the candles are always the real kind.)

Why try to make money on the tiny paraffin candles? Whose idea was that? Why not just have a big free stash of them and let the candle holders be ablaze with these candles, one lit for every prayer, as many as you want? Why discourage people? (We don’t charge people for the church bulletin or for those plastic pink or blue rosaries which are disgraceful in that they look like cheap children’s toys.)

Why charge for these simple small candles?

Nowadays sometimes the mother doesn’t want to dig through her purse for change when her children want to light one. She might not even want to bring her children to the tabernacle area because there’s going to be the inevitable plea for coins to pay for an opportunity to light a candle. Is she willing to stand there in front of all those devout worshippers while the children fuss about whose turn it is to light the candle?

“And watch out, Anna, you can’t hold the stick like that. You have to hold it upright like this. Jacob! What are you doing!? No, I didn’t bring enough change for more candles than that. Just pray for Grandma and Grandad on the same candle.”

I’m not sure that there should be any candles right near the tabernacle, and in particular, not ones that you have to pay for. Clink, clink. Clink, clink.

Not so sure about that.

Right near the tabernacle?


And then of course if you don’t bring enough change, then you’re wondering whether you could pay next time you come, and you wonder if you’ll remember.

Next time you arrive, you’re trying to remember if you actually went ahead and lit the candle hoping to pay later or whether you did put in enough change and lit it, and is it a sin if you can’t remember whether you’re up to date with the payments for those little candles, and whether it’s a worse sin if this kind of thing happens at church and before you know it, you’re daydreaming about going to confession, “and I am not sure if I’ve paid for all the candles I lit near the tabernacle here at your parish . . .”

A rack holding candles is a wonderful thing, but how about if the rack is placed just outside the tabernacle, especially if a parish intends to recoup its candle expenses?

Clink, clink.

Something is not quite right.

How about putting these racks outside the glass walls, at least? Then there’d be more room for comfortable chairs.

No, the only candle that should be in this room is that one, the solitary glowing one behind the red glass. It’s a very important candle.

The holder for that candle should be right near the tabernacle, bolted to the wall, so you know it’s supposed to be there, and so everyone knows it means something. It’s not just there as decoration.

It’s there as a sign, as a signal, like a lighthouse on a hill.

It is meant to signal, “Look, here is where the Rock is. Look, here is where there is land. You are on stormy seas, but here is a safe and steady place, a place where you won’t be swept away by the turbulent waves of everyday life.” It’s a signal and a sign, not more decor. I don’t want it to be on some on-the-floor candle holder, no matter how ornate. I want to see it looking permanent, not like some floor lamp.

If you see that it is lit, it means that the Tabernacle is not empty. It means that inside the Tabernacle, there is Someone.

Jesus is there.

And he’s really happy you’re here. Really, really happy.

He’s hoping that you’ll find the chairs comfortable and that you’ll stay with him awhile.

He wants to hear all your problems (both the big ones and all those little ones, especially the ones you call ‘silly’) and reassure you that he’ll take care of all of them, if you give him a chance.

He understands that you can’t stay for very long, and he doesn’t want you to feel guilty that all you have time for sometimes is to stop in and touch the tabernacle or kneel for a moment.

He understands.

And he’s looking forward to seeing you again soon.

[Note added April 27, 2016, 2:45 p.m. MST – I realized, late last night, that as a matter of fact, I never did say what was held in that ‘box.’ Oh my! I laughed to myself at this ‘little’ omission. The reason I keep saying “here’s Jesus” is because inside the tabernacle is the consecrated Host, a chalice containing the Body of Christ — yet looking like a chalice containing some unleavened bread.]