Wednesday, February 26, 2014

seven in seven, day three: do you know your part?

Some of my readers who know me, have already heard some version of this story before. I recently shared it with the Confirmation students at my parish. I think it's worthy of a "7 in 7" post - and a week away from Ash Wednesday, it somehow seems particularly appropriate.

It was a chilly autumn evening - November 1st - All Saints' Day. I was away from home, on a business trip for the week. After what had been a rough couple of years, spiritually, personally, and professionally, I was exhausted - totally drained - so tired of trying to keep everything together. I’d reached the point at which, though I knew intellectually what I professed to believe, I was questioning its truth.

On that day, I was a lifelong Catholic who faithfully attended Mass and knew the mechanics of the Faith inside and out. In earlier years, I had definitely loved God (though not in any kind of mature way), and had a deep passion for his Church. But in those couple of years, my faith had been challenged. This wasn't something I was proud of, but it was the truth. I was tired of struggling to regain my spiritual footing - it felt like trying to hike uphill on a gravel trail, with the rocks slipping out from underneath my feet. 

And so, in a strange city, and with no human eyes watching to make sure I fulfilled my Catholic obligation, I nearly hadn't sought out a church where I could attend Mass that evening, and even then, went half-heartedly - more or less, to "check the box,” to say I’d gone, to make sure I didn’t have to go to Confession (if you're not Catholic, or otherwise unaware, Catholics consider missing Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation to be a mortal sin, which is a big deal) - or worse, die in a state of mortal sin if somehow my plane crashed on the flight home! 

I never missed Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation. 

That evening, I found myself sitting in a beautiful, Gothic-styled church, part of a small crowd that had gathered for Mass. The parishioners’ devotion for the mechanics of the Catholic faith was apparent in their behavior - their gestures, their actions - even before Mass began. Observing those around me, I realized something didn't feel right. As the Mass began, what bothered me became clear. Although the parishioners had all the polished outward signs of devotion, they were like robots - all part of a well-rehearsed routine, one in which they knew their part.

I don't claim to know the depths of the human heart. I have no idea what was in the hearts of the people I was at Mass with that night. But as I sat there, I couldn't shake the uneasiness settling in my soul, in part because I could see myself there, among the "robots" - because I, too, had always known my part. I knew it with my head, and in some sense, it was a well-rehearsed routine. It didn't require emotion, or heart... it required no love. Upset by this recognition, I almost left at the offertory. But something - a sense of obligation? or something greater? - held me in place, and I stayed in the pew. Glancing around the church again, I sensed a "moment of truth." So in my thoughts, I prayed, something like this:

"OK, Lord, look - I don't really know what I believe anymore, but I do know that if this robotic routine - is what you really want out of your followers - then I'm done. I can't do that. I can't do that anymore. And, if you are really there, if you really exist, I need you to show me. I just need to know, because I'm not sure anymore."

The rest of the Mass seemed to go almost unbearably slowly. I left as quickly as I could after the final blessing, and gave little extra thought to the prayer I'd made, not really expecting an answer. By the time I returned home at the end of the week, I'd all but forgotten it.

I had been through what seemed like some pretty rough times, and ultimately, I had forgotten that I loved God - and I’d substituted robotic participation at Mass in place of that love. My faith was on spiritual life support, and it was slipping away. Although I had been going to Mass every week and even going to Confession on regular basis, my prayer life sucked, and I was not part of a parish community that I could rely on for support in hard times. 

Do you know your part? Do you know it with your heart, or do you only know it with your head? Do you only know it with your emotions, or is it part of your being? Is it simply external, or is it part of your soul? 

Any of us who love God, whether that love is new, or a bit aged, must understand that the growth of that love will not come without suffering, but that suffering should not lead us to despair. And oh, how much easier that is said, than done. 

While it's true that God knows all, sometimes we still have to be bold before him - to paraphrase St. Augustine - we need to let God call, to shout, to break through our deafness. After I made that prayer at that Mass on All Saints Day, God truly did reveal himself to me in new ways - He got me off of spiritual life support, and helped me get out of survival mode. 

Sometimes life with Christ is a rocky road, but it's also an incredible journey.

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