Take a Pew…..as best you can!

Despite many scientific advances in the design of comfortable, physiologically correct seating, the basic style of a church pew has not changed in hundreds of years and remains a relic of the past. In my own humble experience of attending mass (on and off) for more than fifty years, the lack of evolution of the basic church pew to something even remotely comfortable, means that the time I spend on pews remains an act of self inflicted torture which constantly detracts my attention from the true purpose of visiting the church for prayer, contemplation, attention to the lessons and sermons, and devotion to the sacraments.

At the outset, let me explain that I have been blessed with a rather large (6’3” and 120kg) body with a number of bumps and lumps in all the wrong places. This all requires size 12 feet at the end of a pair of long legs to keep me from toppling over and landing flat on my face. I realized from a young age that many things such as fashionable clothing, sports cars, flying economy class and comfortable seating in general, were not necessarily for me! So, having lived with this reality my whole life, this is certainly not just a personal gripe. But let me take you through my experience of the average church pew, then think about it, compare it to your own and then try to persuade me that the average congregant is comfortable, happy and relaxed enough to give his full attention to the purpose at hand without distraction from the hard, antiquated, bare, wooden seating provided.

In many churches pews are dead-end streets and can only be accessed and exited from the central aisle. Most people choose the aisle seating first (perhaps for a quick getaway?). If you do not arrive early, you inevitably have to negotiate your way past someone to secure a seat further down the pew. No true “aisle sitter” would ever dream of simply moving along to the furthest end and so making space for you. Neither will they stand out of the pew making the entrance more accessible. For some obscure reason they seem to prefer to merely turn slightly sideways providing you with a narrow passage to squeeze through and, behind a polite smile, are probably secretly cursing you for inconveniencing them. The only way through is to “walk the plank”,  balancing precariously on the kneeler while edging your way past, hopefully not stomping on anyone’s toes, knocking their missal flying or getting entangled in the odd rosary! Once you have found your spot, it is customary to kneel and pray silently in preparation of the ceremony to come. This is fine if the person directly in front of you is doing the same, but if not, you have to kneel straight up without the advantage of leaning on the backrest of the next bench in front of you for support. With good balance and strong knees you can maintain this position for a while before sitting back on the hard wooden surface of the pew. Even then, you need to proceed with caution because the chap behind you may be kneeling, leaning forward on the backrest of your pew and you are likely smack him on the nose! Alternatively you may be jabbed in the back by his double-fisted hands crossed in the customary manner for solemn prayer.

Once I have sorted out my differences with my neighbors, both fore and aft, I can attempt to get myself into a reasonably comfortable sitting position. I can’t complain too much about the width of the average pew seat, but with little or no shape or slope you end up sitting bolt upright with the edge of the seat pressing into the back of your thighs cutting off all circulation to your lower limbs. All our family members tend to be blessed with well developed muscles scientifically known as the gluteus maximus and less politely in our family tradition, as “the Black bum”. (no racial prejudice inferred!)  I am no exception to this family trait but still find that, despite this built-in protection, I do not have sufficient cushioning to endure the hardness of the seating surface of the average church pew for any significant length of time. My sympathy goes out to fellow parishioners less well endowed in this area and who, heaven forbid, should be suffering from painful haemorrhoids!

An essential element of a comfortable seat is the backrest. The backrest of a good office chair is often contoured and is adjustable in height and angle to provide just the right amount of support to endure many hours of concentrated work seated at a desk. Understandably, one could not expect such luxury from your average church pew, but surely we could have something a bit better than a mere straight plank set at an almost perfect right-angle without any support of the lower back? In many pews the backrest is not solid but consists of two broad strips of wood with a gaping big gap in between. The lower strip is usually of such height and angle as to serve merely as an irritating catch for the belt of my trousers while the top one always seems to be at an annoying level just below my shoulder blades. I have often noticed, with much amusement, that the gaping big hole between the two is just the correct width for a toddler to crawl or fall through while exploring its surroundings in the midst of a boring sermon! The reverse side of the backrest is meant to serve as support for the kneeling, praying parishioner behind you. Well, the tops of these backrests are usually only about 30-40mm wide so cannot serve as a resting place for your missal or hymnal and bite cruelly into your forearms when you lean on them in prayer. They are never at the right height and tall folk like me have to bend over at an awkward angle just to rest our elbows on them. Toddlers knock their noses on them and well endowed members of the fairer sex are at a dilemma whether to position themselves above or below them! Some backrests provide neat enclosures for safe storage of your missal in an upright position but if a simple straight shelf is supplied, it is usually too narrow to be of much use at all!

So, when the show begins and the congregants scramble to an upright position in reverence to the entering priest, I am confronted by a whole new set of challenges. Firstly, I must beware of pulling/pushing on the pew in front of me for assistance in getting erect. Often the pews are not secured to the floor or are not heavy enough to withstand my pulling force and either tilt or shift with a screeching noise much to the consternation of all around me. Now, once I am upright, the question remains as to what to do with my size 12 feet. Do they go above, below, in front of or behind the kneeler? In many churches the kneelers are permanently down and securely so too, or, the hinges (not having been used in years) are rusted solid. Besides, more often than not, the kneelers run the full length of the pew and it would require a professional choreographer to co-ordinate the movements of the rest of the occupants of the pew in order to lift or lower the kneeler without taking the skin off someone’s shins. In some churches, the only way I can face the front is by having one foot behind the kneeler and another in front with both legs slightly bent at the knee and I must lean heavily on the top of the pew in front of me for support. The alternative, unless you have absolute matchstick legs, is to stand side-on and twist your torso from the waist up to face the altar. Now you try offering up the Creed in all sincerity when you are in the middle of such intricate gymnastics! 

Kneelers, well, I could write a whole book about them. As described above, I find you can never exercise individual choice as to whether they be up or down and it is difficult to choose to stand in front, behind or on top of them and still maintain some semblance of dignity in posture.  In the church which I visit when on business in Pretoria, there is absolutely no cushioning on the kneelers and this in a large, modern church set in the midst of the opulent eastern suburbs of our administrative capital. The people seem friendly and kind and the priest displays insightful knowledge of the scriptures, the message of which he conveys in inspirational and practical terms. Yet the only lasting lesson I seemed to have learned from attending mass there periodically, is the origin of the term, “as hard as a rock”, and this from being subjected to their bare, hard kneelers! Let me be blunt, how can my thoughts fly up to heaven when they are focused on the pain in my arthritic, nobly knees pressing down on a bare plank?

Now let us explore that space underneath the pew seat which is supposed to accommodate my size 12 feet behind me while I am kneeling. Having such long legs, my pair of oversized, broad feet land up in a space where the height of the seat above the floor is less than the length of my foot from heel to toe. This necessitates quite some maneuvering to prevent them from being wedged in there permanently. Frankly, I feel quite claustrophobic at the thought of how I would entangle myself should I have to evacuate the church in an emergency!  So, dear fellow parishioners, when I seem slow to rise from a kneeling to a standing position after the consecration, it is not because I am awakening from some deep slumber, but rather because I am having to twist and manipulate my lower limbs and large feet out of the clutches of that space below the seat behind me!

When at last we stand for the final blessing, it comes to me as a real relief to be able to stretch out and I can sing the final halleluiah with real gusto and sincerity! (“Free at last, Oh Lord, free at last!”) But do forgive me, Lord, if my final genuflection seems somewhat labored and shallow. Please do not judge me on that single, final act alone but consider too the whole set of agonizing, physical movements and mental acrobatics I had to put myself through, just to spend this little time visiting you in Holy Mass today!

PS. Lord, just between the two of us, did the stark accommodation in the temples of Israel have something to do with you delivering most of your sermons from the comfort of the open fields, in the gentle breeze atop of the mount and on the soft, sandy shores of the Lake of Gallilea?

Ek vra maar net !

Gary S Black (9 Aug, 2011) 


Forgive me for taking liberties with the main title, Gary. No aspersions on your upright character – just an attempt to be Google-friendly!     Viv