The Sign of Peace
July 12, 2007
"Et tu?" has a wonderful post The sign of peace for the socially awkward in which she offers suggestions for instructions a priest could give to a congregation:
In a moment we are going to participate in a ritual in which we offer one another the sign of peace. The introverted and the socially awkward may want to take a moment to prepare yourselves, as this involves speaking to and even touching the people around you.
Offering the sign of peace involves shaking the hand of another person and saying the words "peace be with you," and preferably includes a smile and at least one full second of eye contact.
Offer to shake the hand of anyone over the age of two. You do not need to shake the hands of very young children and babies, though you are required to acknowledge them and comment on their cuteness.
It is not acceptable to pretend to forget about the people seated directly to the rear of you. This is sometimes called the "Jennifer F. Dodge" and is frowned upon by the Church.
If there is nobody in your pew, the pew in front of you or the pew behind you, you are not required to offer the sign of peace to people more than one pew away, though the wave and lip-synch method (see above) is recommended if there is anyone two pews in front of or behind you.
You may safely ignore anyone seated more than two pews in front of or behind you, provided that you do not make eye contact with them. You must at least smile at anyone with whom you make eye contact during this time. It is not acceptable to pretend that you need to tie your shoe or brush something off your shirt in order to avoid eye contact with others; this is another form of the "Jennifer F. Dodge" and is strongly discouraged.
It is customary to wait a full thirty seconds before wiping your hands with antibacterial towelettes.
Her post is very familiar to me. I joined the Catholic Church a few weeks before I graduated from college, and I was still extremely shy. I would worry about the sign of peace through all of Mass (Would I do it right? Would I do it wrong? Would I offend someone?), and I would breathe a huge sigh of relief when it was over.
I've gotten used to it over the years (and gotten less shy), but I can still be thrown by variations. I'm used to a straightforward, handshake, sign of peace with those seated immediately around me - which is the norm in most places.
Even the norm gets more difficult when at daily Mass - particularly a daily Mass with about 20 people spread out in a sanctuary that seats hundreds. Do you travel to other pews? If so, which? Do you wave instead? You want to do what's correct, but you don't want to be disruptive.
Other variations also throw me, especially the times when the sign of peace is used to make a statement.
For instance, consider the much-put-upon, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass exclusivist. He has to suffer through a mass in the vernacular, hymns he's expected to actually sing, and the altar facing the wrong way. At a really intolerable Mass, people might even hold hands during the Our Father (Lord's Prayer) However, during the new and innovative (as of the 1960's) sign of peace, he can resolutely cross his arms and glare at any one who dares reach a hand out, evidencing his disapproval for all to see. [I suppose I need to mention here that I'm not talking about having a preference for the Latin Mass - I'm talking about taking out one's disapproval of the Novus Ordo on those around one.]*
On the other extreme, there's the friendly sign of peace - where you give the sign of peace to all your friends whom you haven't seen since the beginning of Mass. You're my friend, and you're my friend, and you're my friend... Kind of the puppy part of Mass. Sister R thought it was overdone and disliked having everyone wander all over the sanctuary for five minutes or more (Sister R used to be a Catholic school principal, so order was important). The corollary to the friendly peace is the catching up sign of peace - you turn to a friend and catch up on what you've been doing during the week.
I don't mean to be too negative here; Puppy Peace and Catching Up can help to enhance and deepen community. However, the downside is that they do so only for people who are already connected in the parish. Those who don't have friends to wander to or chat with can stand there, hand outstretched, feeling like total idiots. You don't want to put your hand down because then someone might think you're angry that it's not a Latin Mass. But you can tell that everyone is too busy to turn to you. The alternative - running around the sanctuary to shake the hands of those others who are also standing there, alone, hand outstretched, is too weird: "Hi, I don't know you, but we're companions in our outsiderness." My strategy has been to stand there, hand partly out, shiftily glancing out of the corners of my eyes to see if anyone happens to turn my way, and trying to come up with something to pray besides "Done?! Done?!" "Done?!" while looking at the sea of backs.
Then there is intentional non-community such as the parishoner who looks you up and down, measuring your dress and carriage, before deciding to gingerly shake your hand.** Or, in the liturgical version of the Regency, "cut direct,"*** there are the parishoners who look through you like you don't exist before moving on to people who do.
There are so many ways in which the Sign of Peace can be unpeaceful.
* I've only once had the chance to attend a Latin Mass, and I'm glad the Pope has made it easier for those who like the Latin Mass to be able to attend one.
** Dear husband encountered this one at a church in a favorite vacation place of ours. Dear husband, not having brought a suit along on vacation, was, in this parishoner's view, not dressed properly. The church was beautiful, as was the music, and the homily was pretty good. Although we pass it numerous times a year, we've never returned. It's in a popular vacation area so you'd think they would be used to visitors.
*** From A Regency Lexicon:
To cut someone is to refuse to recognize that person socially. The cut direct was the most blatant way -- one would look the other person directly in the face but pretend not to know him. The cut indirect involved simply looking another way, the cut sublime involved looking up at the sky until the person passed, and the cut infernal involved looking at the ground or stooping to adjust one's shoes.