Thursday, August 02, 2012

What to wear to church

PrayTell's discussion question of the week has to do with getting ready to go to Mass, or at least with getting dressed to go to Mass.

There is a lot of advice about getting dressed to go to Mass on the web (about 20 million hits depending on what search terms you use), and remarkably little about anything else you should do before you go.

Skimming the first few pages of hits on appropriate attire for Mass, I am disturbingly transfixed by the advice, and how much time people clearly spend thinking about what other people are wearing. The debates rage: about whether or not women should wear pants, are flip-flops1 suitable, must your shirt have sleeves, or a collar — and the million dollar question: does God care what you wear to His house? (Arguably it's all God's house, inside a church's walls as well as without, but attire within sacred space is what is under discussion.)

My take in the comments was that dressing with care for the Sunday liturgy seemed a link, for me at least, to the new garments I wore at baptism and baptism's cleansing waters, and so gently underscore the Sunday liturgy's Pascal character. And besides, I was concerned about the consequences if the fashion police were to join forces with the liturgical police.

The comments section, and a conversation with a fellow cantor who'd been to the NPM last week where a cantors' workshop had talked up the idea of using lectio divina with the psalm as preparation, got me wondering about how we get ready to go to Mass — by which I do not mean selecting suitable attire — but how do we suitably prepare interiorly to move into and out of these sacred rites.

Crash was reading this over my shoulder (we are on an airplane somewhere between Philadelphia and Phoenix en route to California) and suggested that if I wanted advice about what to wear, he could show me 40 or 50 parish bulletins among those he read over the last few weeks that contained advice about what to wear to Mass. I asked him how many he recalled that offered any other advice about preparing to go to Mass. A few, he conceded after a moment. And the advice? Reminders about fasting before receiving the Eucharist and requests to respect the silence so that other people could pray before Mass.

I wonder if we should stop arguing about whether or not it's OK to wear sandals (or go barefoot) because Jesus did, and scolding people (who have arguably made an effort to show up in a culture that doesn't prioritize Sunday worship) in the vestibule or bulletin or homily, and start a conversation instead about how we might help each other prepare well for the Eucharist which is the font and the summit of our life.

Herewith is my advice for some ways to prepare the ground for Sunday worship, so that what is sown there can take root and bear fruit. What would you add? I'd love to know what traditions outside the Roman Catholic communion do, so even if you aren't Catholic, please share your ideas and practices with us all.

  • Early in the week, read the readings, reflect on them, talk them over with God.
  • Read and reflect on the proper prayers for the day: the opening prayer, or the preface, or the prayer after communion.
  • Pray one of the Eucharistic prayers, slowly and reverently, aloud or silently.
  • Fast, sharpen your hunger for what you are about to receive. (For an interesting reflection and exercise, read Jim McDermott SJ's posts
here and here.

  • Wash your hearts, not your garments (with apologies to the prophet Joel). Reception of the Eucharist itself heals the dings in our souls, spend 15 minutes with God seeing where you missed the mark this week. What is it that cries out for God's healing touch during the penitential rite? What weight will be lifted when you say, "Amen" to that which you would become?


  • If we spent more time helping people celebrate the Eucharist fruitfully, perhaps we wouldn't have to worry about what they wear.

    Up next? What to do when you leave...beyond take a bulletin.






    1. One should note that our culture's flip-flops are Japan's traditional dress shoes.

    A good resource for preparing is at the St. Louis University Sunday liturgy site. And if you read Give Us This Day, may I recommend Mary Stommes stark and thought-provoking reflection on pulling up weeds among the wheat that appeared on July 31? (Full disclosure, I'm an occasional contributor to Give Us This Day.)

    4 comments:

    1. Thanks for this - I was probably more of a jerk in that thread than I ever meant or intended to be. I apologized in the end and have not been back... dare I look? *sigh*

      And I did start out with good intentions and noting that I loved your comment.

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    2. Julianne4:32 PM

      If my children are serving, I pray the Jesus Prayer before mass, silently in my pew. If they aren't, I try to get them to pray quietly with me- although sometimes all that ends up with is them shuffling quickly along the pew away from me and making faces!

      Also reading Pope Benedict's book "Jesus of Nazareth" and Alexander Schmemann's "For the Life of the World" has helped me deepen the way I enter into Mass.

      I once took flip flops on a silent retreat to wear inside as slippers (it was July). They are really, really noisy in a silent retreat house. It was embarrassing. I won't be doing it again!

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    3. I live in the middle of nowhere. We are a rural farming community with twelve people at Mass yesterday - a good turnout! If someone forgets to go to the church early enough to turn up the heat then we have to leave our jackets on in the winter or else get really chilly!

      I love going early enough and being the only one there - we all know where the key is and can go and open it up whenever we want to. Sometimes I've prayed bits of the rosary before Mass. I feel like I move around the sanctuary in a prayerful way as I do sacristan duties. I am always in prayer as I go up to do the readings.

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    4. One thing I try to do on Sundays is slow down. I try not to run around the house, cramming activities in. I try to walk deliberately ... like the Monks. Like time is eternal.

      This practice tends to carry over into my thoughts. I'm afraid that's how it works for me. Body has such an impact on mind.

      When I do this, I find my whole being is prepared ... for God. I don't seem to get irritated with the people who are there (clergy or laity) and instead I feel stirrings of compassion for those clearly out of sorts or finding it hard to settle in.

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