Saturday, May 10, 2014

it's not about us

"Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them; 
his face shone like the sun 
and his clothes became white as light."
-- Mt 17:1-2

Have you ever experienced a spiritual "high"? Perhaps at a retreat, or maybe at Mass, or after spending time in Eucharistic Adoration?

Throughout the years, and particularly in the context of youth retreats - I've heard these "spiritual highs" referred to as "mountaintop experiences" - akin to the experience Peter, James, and John had when Christ was transfigured before their eyes. Peter's words to Jesus later in the above passage ( "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents... ") - indicating his desire to remain on the mountain, to continue to live that experience of Christ's revealed glory.

And really, who wouldn't want to continue to live that experience? Who wouldn't want to stay on some glorious spiritual high?

Who would want to come down from the mountain? Not many of us - and if we're really honest - probably none of us. The problem is that "coming down from the mountain" is often more akin to "falling off a cliff."

Spiritual highs - mountaintop experiences - intensely emotional experiences of God's presence, of God's love - are amazing, to be sure, and mere words cannot do them justice. However, although they may initially foster our faith, or strengthen our love of God, or help us to feel connected to him, they are not meant to last. None of the saints lived in perpetual ecstasy.

Yet many of us base our faith on these spiritual highs, and often grow frustrated or fall away when they fade (I strongly suspect most of us can relate here, I know I have failed at this more times than I can count...), instead of learning to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves or God, or teaching ourselves to grow in discipline through our difficulties. 

In other words, faith isn't just about how we feel.

Faith based on emotional experiences inevitably fades away, because emotions fade away - they are not a true foundation. True faith is like true love - though both may be colored by emotion, they are ultimately acts of the will. We "moderns" have, by and large, forgotten this truth about both faith and love being acts of the will and not simply emotional responses - and so we are often more than willing to throw away anything that does not make us feel good.

This leads me to another consideration: that there is an objective difference between worshipping God, and “connecting” with him. Worship is giving God the praise due to him - whether we feel like it or not - because he is God, and we are not. “Connecting” with God signifies an emotional response - "feeling" a connection to God. 

Although we do sometimes feel an emotional connection to God when we are at worship, or experience a spiritual high, feeling like we are hanging out on the mountaintop with the Lord - these emotional connections are not necessary for worship, because, simply put, WORSHIP IS NOT ABOUT US. Period. Our worship of God is about worshiping God - not necessarily about our experience. It’s for God, not for us. 

We don’t - or at least we shouldn’t - go to church for ourselves - our going to church should be motivated by a love of God and a desire to worship Him in a sacred space - a place that is set apart for that purpose. 

Many of the great saints of Christian history experienced extended periods of complete desolation, during which they felt no connection to God - yet continued to worship him. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila both wrote extensively of this - St. John of the Cross termed it “the dark night of the soul” (if you are unfamiliar, his writings of it are collected in a book of the same name - not an easy read, but well worth it). Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived in spiritual darkness for years, without knowing the consolation of God’s love, and feeling very "disconnected" from him. Even we who are average followers of the Lord may have known this in some degree; for Catholics, perhaps we have received our Lord with faith and love at Mass, in the Eucharist, and yet had no experience of his consolation. 

Perhaps the observation that so many holy people understood faith as an act of the will, regardless of emotional attachment, can teach us something else about God. The saints recognized that when God removes their emotional attachments to him, he was leading them to a deeper relationship - something beyond emotion. In a sense, it might be like being blinded by the light - God approaches us more closely, and his light is so bright we cannot see him anymore. 

None of this is to say that emotion is unimportant - but only that in the grand scheme of our relationship with God, its role should be smaller than we think. It's also not to say we should all run around stoically, without emotion. We humans are emotional beings, and that is good. And although it is an incredibly tall order, we need to learn to order our emotions properly, both in our relationship with God, and our relationships with one another. Our emotions may indeed color our acts of faith and love - but unlike faith and love, emotion is not a virtue.

"We walk by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor. 5:7)

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