Lavabo?

I could not believe my eyes at Mass this morning. There in the sanctuary, just behind and to the right (stage left) of the altar, was a bottle of hand sanitizer. It was not tucked discreetly behind a vase of flowers. There were no flowers. Just an economy-sized dispenser of Purell.

The Church has distributed the Eucharist for 2,000 years without benefit of ethyl alcohol. But now my parish has it, right up there in a sacred space. The ancient ritual of the priestly Lavabo (“I will wash my hands among the innocent, and will walk around Thy altar, O God.”) was diminished in the name of liturgical renewal years ago. Reference to the Lord as Sanctifier (“Come, Thou Sanctifier, almighty and eternal God . . .”) was abolished at the same time. But now, in our enlightened, health-conscious modernity, we have a replacement: the Sanitizer.

Sin is declassé nowadays. It is rarely, if ever, mentioned from the pulpit.
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Consequently, few of us feel the need for confession any more. The confessor’s stole went out with Mary Quant and go-go boots.  We are free, now, to cleanse ourselves of what really matters: common germs. Our ordained shepherds—brave hearts—marshal themselves to stamp out bacteria rampant among the congregants. Eucharistic ministers bow their heads while they rub their Purelled hands together until dry. Who can say that the Church is not hip to the cultural moment?

It is a moment obsessed with mortality, the terror of it. One manifestation of that anxiety (it would take too long to count them all) is the fad for organic food. Organic Cocoa Puffs go together with that bottle of Poland Spring water in every backpack, pocket and handbag. Why shouldn’t my local parish have a sanitizer placed visibly on the altar? It shows we are a prophetic congregation. We grasp the important things. Purell is ecologically sound, mind you, the only hand purifier on the market that meets EcoLogo standards. It goes with the  gluten-free Volvos and electric cars in the parking lot. The ones that keep the radio tuned to NPR.

But I ramble. All this was meant as prelude to an email sent by a reader still on an Arty Bollocks high. He insists I should be aware of a laboratory study that links organic food to pretentious behavior.

The research shows that although the rats fed the organic diet were not actually healthier than the non-organic fed rats, they were much more annoying and more difficult to be around.

According to the data, the organic fed rats began to gravitate towards fanny packs, Starbucks coffee, hybrid vehicles and Pelosi for President propaganda. In addition, the rats were constantly looking busier than they actually were, often cut in front of other rats to get water first, and strutted around the cage with a sense of entitlement.

It is that last point that reminds me of artists. (Self-declared as an elevated and unique species.) And, sadly, of churchy do-gooders whose sense of mission fails to extend beyond the banalities of mainstream culture.
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© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey

7 Comments


  1. There is a deep contradiction in the desire to ‘get back to the earth’ with organic foods and natural products when it is coupled with a market-driven fear of the earth itself by way of sterilization and specialized packaging. This contradiction is most obvious in all the exotically crafted soaps we see now, many with twigs and leaves molded right into the bar. I am old school when it comes to soap and washing myself, aiming for a net result of less dirt. For example, I instinctively rinse off a bar of soap if I drop it in the dirt when camping.

    That said, I am one hundred percent behind organic food and hope it is not just a trend. I hope one day people will be horrified by the idea of eating something they didn’t know how it was made, what was in it, and where it came from. And equally appalled that the corporations making the food spent millions of dollars with lobbyists and lawyers to keep people from knowing what they were eating.


  2. Sam’s 2nd graf (how it was made, what was in it, etc.) applies nicely to soy products. But that is beside the point. The point of this post, I think, is the godawful aesthetics of hand sanitizer on the altar. You don’t have to be a Mass-goer, or a Catholic, to wince at the sight. How tacky! Like a gum dispenser in the Sistine Chapel.


  3. Interesting look at organic food myths: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4019

    And a search on “organic” on the Skeptoid site will also bring up a number of other articles covering the scam of “organic” food.


  4. This reminds me of a scolding given to me by a doctor who had had years of experience in the South and in tropical climates. She knew first hand how “natural” crops could be devastated by insects—resulting in malnutrition, if not starvation.

    As to the other part of this post, I’ve never attended a Mass. But even I can see
    how totally inappropriate hand sanitizer (used, I’m sure, by the organic-only devotees) is on an altar.


  5. First an apology: sorry for the length.

    The Purell was in this post a “prelude” to a swipe at organic food advocates. I agree, having a bottle of hand sanitizer on display while feeding the hoi polloi their savior does err on tacky, but the RCC is still more reverential in delivering sacraments than the churches I attend that pass the body and blood like a bag of chips. That said, I see no logical or empirical connection between people who use hand sanitizer and people who eat organically.

    In terms of all this fretting about elitists wanting organic food, these people are only fighting for food as it was made throughout human history up until a few decades ago. They want to eat the kind of eggs your grandmother ate. The “skeptoid” link above shows how frighteningly little people know about their food and its history. The most basic and bizarre claim being that organic foods are somehow new while the genetically engineered foods of global industrial agriculture are something we should accept as conventional. (In what direction does history run in this man’s mind?) This could be a premise for a dystopian satire where people forgot how real food is made (actually it is: see Idiocracy).

    Mr. Skeptoid also defends agro-business practices as saving the planet from starvation, perhaps quoting Monsanto’s advertising copy directly. Brainwashing like his is not accidental; it’s expensive and tactical. A friend of mine is a DC lobbyist for one such trans-national provider of GMOs and pesticides and explained to me in depth how pubic opinion and government regulations are financially engineered by his own company. [For example, if the EPA is about to shut down a particularly toxic practice, the implanted media story can be shifted into accusing the liberal EPA of threatening local jobs of hardworking Americans, while releasing new “university study” that was funded by the corporation itself through a selected third party.]

    If there is a conspiracy or scam in food and agriculture, it is certainly the one my friend says he manufactures for a living, not anything by people trying to make food like it was always made prior to the last century.

    I will sign off my “annoying” rant with this link to a Wendell Berry article (notice no mention of organic foods). If anyone can find in it anything other than common sense, I’d appreciate it being pointed out.

    http://www.ecoliteracy.org/essays/pleasures-eating


  6. If you follow the post’s link to the original article on organic food/pretetentious behavior, you read that organic foodies have “no sense of humor.” Sam has just illustrated that. The post–if I read it rightly–is taking a swipe at contemporary culture’s illusion that it can subvert mortality. Making a fetish of organic food, like putting hand sanitizer on the altar, is simply one example of the illusion. Ease up, Sam.


  7. Thanks, John. I will work on my humor. By chance, have you ever seen a chicken so stuffed with growth hormones it was too fat to lift itself out its own excrement?

    Of course Ms. Mullarkey’s point was a critique of the American ignorance and fear of death, but lumping in organic food as symptomatic of this fear was inapt. My taking issue here doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the gist of her sentiment and somewhat agree with it.

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