Please Take a Seat

Image by Jonas Jacobsson @

Last week I went to a study day on Ignatian Spirituality at Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex. This was my first visit but certainly won’t be my last.

Just stepping across the threshold of this beautiful 17th century Jacobean manor house was so calming. There was a wonderful sense of peace and, despite the misty, damp weather, it was a joy to walk around the grounds, write and pray in one of the small cabins in the orchard, walk the labyrinth and visit the 14th century church during the regular breaks we had throughout the day.

Our study sessions were held in the chapel room with the chairs arranged in a semi-circle. When I went in at the start of the first session, I simply took the nearest free chair.

As we left the room for our first break, we were told that we could leave things we didn’t need to take with us in the room. This meant that when I returned, I went and sat on the same chair as for the previous session, because I’d left a bag next to it. I did the same thing automatically after our second break.

As we reconvened after lunch, someone pointed out that everyone had gone back to the chairs they’d be sitting in during the morning sessions. We all had a wry smile, as we realised that this was true.

When we came back for our final session, some people went to sit in a different position quite deliberately. This caused some initial confusion when others came in and found that they’d have to make a decision on where to sit rather than taking the easy, and by now familiar, option of going back to the chair they’d sat on before.

I still went to sit on the same chair. Partly because it saved me having to root around under it and move my bag to somewhere else and partly because I’m naturally rather lazy!

It just seemed easier not to have to make a decision about where to move to, especially as there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with where I’d been sitting. Plus, if I’d moved, I would only have been fulfilling other peoples’ expectations that at least some of the group would find another seat.

That was a small group situation and only involved selecting one seat from a choice of nine. How much more difficult that decision can be when faced with a larger selection. Have you ever noticed how in a room filled with rows of chairs, the front row is almost always left empty? Why don’t we like sitting in that row?

It’s a good space to be in if you have any degree of hearing loss and need to be near the speaker in order to hear what they’re saying. And, if you ask a question, you’re not facing, and therefore being stared at, by the rest of the audience, which you are if you’re in the middle and the people in front of you turn round to look at you when you’re speaking.

It’s probably because we feel that we might be more likely to be called upon to comment on or answer something when we’re at the front. After all, the speaker can see the faces of people in the front row more clearly than those of people further back in the group or audience.

That can be a scary prospect: Will we have heard the question correctly? Will we have understood the question? What will people think of our answer? We’d often prefer to sit towards the back where we feel we’ll be less likely to be noticed or have attention drawn towards us.

However, when chairs are arranged in a semi-circle or circle, any chair can place the person sitting on it ‘front and centre’ of the group, depending on where the speaker is. We can feel very exposed.

I felt very safe sitting in the circle last week. The atmosphere was very calm and Spirit filled. It was a wonderful illustration of the fact that, in God’s seating plan, everyone is valued, wherever they choose to sit and whoever they choose to sit next to or between. God is just happy that we’ve chosen to sit with him and we’re always very welcome.

Sitting at the front of a block of seats sometimes isn’t something to be frightened of but nor does it confer any special status. Sitting closer to the back demands just as much from us: we can’t and shouldn’t try to hide.

We need to be welcoming to other people coming to take a seat: not just taking our usual place but perhaps moving to an unfamiliar position in order to come alongside someone less sure of their place.

The amazing thing is that wherever we sit and whoever we sit next to and however prominent or overlooked we may feel, we’ll be exactly in the place God wants us to be in at that time.

His ‘Please take a seat’ is really a ‘Please take the seat I’ve prepared for you. Don’t worry if you feel a bit uncomfortable there: I’m right here beside you’.

What a comforting thought. He’s there whether we’re sitting in rows or in a circle, on a blue chair, a green chair or a red one; even if we’re on the one with the rather fragile leg!

Well, so we’re all sitting comfortably …… now let’s hear what He wants to say to us.

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