Examining the role of chairs

Why do you laugh, and why do you cry? I think that I laugh at what is funny and cry at what is really funny, but when I notice the puzzled look of others, I suspect there are many different views of what tickles them and what doesn’t. So, what is funny and what is sad? St. Augustine observed that we seem to know what it is until we ask about it.

One time I noticed a nurse sitting in a chair outside the main elevator, her head resting against the wall in a soothing state of tranquility.

“Why are you holding up the wall with your head?” I asked.

She weakly laughed and said, “I’m just tired.”

“Here, take my Power Chair!” I said.

In retrospect, I couldn’t believe I had uttered that unexamined invitation. How would I cope being power chair-less?

More on chairs. A wise philosophy professor named Pauline Ermako gave a one question final exam after a semester dealing with a broad array of topics. The class was already seated and ready to go when the professor picked up a chair, plopped it on top of hers and wrote on the board: “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.”

Fingers flew, erasers erased, notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour, attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class, however, was up and finished in less than a minute. A week later, when the grades were posted, the rest of the group wondered how he could have gotten an “A” when he had barely written anything at all. His answer consisted of two words: “What chair?”

I don’t think Jesus liked chairs. Remember an incident in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 21:12)? Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches (chairs?) of those selling doves.

There are two important Catholic terms involving the word “chair.”

The bishop’s chair is called a cathedra from the Latin word for chair, and it is the presence of the bishop’s cathedra in a church that makes it a cathedral. The bishop’s chair, then, is a symbol of the bishop’s teaching office and pastoral power in his diocese. It is also a sign of the unity of believers in the faith that the bishop proclaims as shepherd of the Lord’s flock.

The term ex cathedra, means “from the chair” and is used to designate official pronouncements of the pope intended for a world audience. The cathedra symbolizes the bishop’s apostolic authority to teach. In the case of the pope, the expression “ex cathedra” has special canonical meaning within the context of the Roman Catholic Church, which attributes infallible teaching authority over the whole church rather than his local Church of Rome. According to Catholic dogma, the pope’s statements ex cathedra are infallible in matters of faith and morals.

The Pope’s Chair is another term. Do you remember when a little boy sat in the Pope’s Chair? Pope Francis was delivering a homily, but a little boy stole the show.

Francis was speaking in St. Peter’s Square about the important role grandparents play, when a little boy walked up behind him and confidently climbed up and sat down on the pontiff’s white chair. The Vatican says Francis was surrounded by elderly faithful and their grandchildren at a rally to encourage family life when the boy came up, wearing a striped shirt, jeans and sneakers.

Acting like an indulgent grandpa, Francis let the boy explore the area undisturbed before tens of thousands of people. The Pope smiled while reading his speech, as the boy sat in the empty chair, gazed up at him and even at one point clung to the Pontiff’s legs.

There you have it. Chairs are used for sacred or profane things and even trivial, boorish and inane things. A cartoon shows a bored businessman sitting in his office chair, using his head to hold up a wall. He yawns as he mutters, “Sometimes the best part of my job is that my chair swivels!”

Father Dennis Meinen serves as chaplain at Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Sioux City, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the diocese and Calix and Faithful Friar of the Garrigan 4th Degree Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Sioux City.


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