One Variety of Impiety

There are lots of ways of being disrespectful during church, especially if the church is Catholic. The rules are a lot easier at your average megachurch, where shorts, t-shirts, and Starbucks are as welcome as Bibles. Basically, there, whatever’s clean and decent outside is good also for glorifying the nondenominational, American Protestant God. But Catholic churches are different, and purposefully so. It takes years to learn all the zillions of unspoken rules, which, to make matters worse, vary from place to place. Occasionally, there’ll be a flyer for newbies about what to do, but most little, essential details are never in it. That’s the point. It’s so everybody who suffered through a childhood of Catholic school knows who didn’t. Besides, ritual wouldn’t be so fun or lovely if there were signs everywhere telling you how to do it. When you do see a sign in a Catholic church, therefore, it means business.

Costa Rica is not a country known for intense piety, at least among its majority Catholic population. But this is kinda overkill. In the main cathedral of the capital, San José, there are two signs on every pew, about 5 inches wide and 3 tall, mounted under glass or glass substitute, staring in the eye those kneeling at prayer:


No ponga los pies sobre el reclinatorio


Please! (The Ticos’ signature politeness-onto-death.) No feet on the kneeler. Thank you! (Really, pretty much to death.) And again. Twice. On every pew. All perfectly aligned so that, if you’re facing one directly, all the signs on all the pews in front form a path to the altar, a true architectural element of a church whose pallid Doric colonnade cries out to the eye for lines, details, and reference points. Apparently, in San José, footresting in church is that epidemic, in need of being stamped out like the most vicious heresy.

Before now, since I have been apparently so brainwashed by Catholic habits of propriety, it hardly even occured to me how well-suited kneelers are to being footrests. Now that I mention it, the top of the pew wouldn’t be so bad either, if you wanted to put your feet up, not just out. And, fortunately, at least in San José, there isn’t a sign against that.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.