Going Through the Motions
Photo Credits to Katie Moretta
“Hmm, I really should have gone to bed earlier last night, I’m exhausted! I wonder what kind of donuts they’ll have after Mass. I hope it’s chocolate dip. Wow… that kid is really cute.”
These are some of my thoughts from last Sunday’s homily at my parish. You may think they seem random, but they have one thing in common: none of them have anything to do with the liturgy.
This is a common experience. You show up to Mass. Maybe you took the time to put on your ‘Sunday best’ or maybe you just barely dragged yourself out of bed. Maybe you look forward to coming to church each week, or maybe in the midst of a busy life it feels like just another item on a never-ending to-do list. Sometimes our Catholic faith is hugely fulfilling! We can feel Christ present with us in prayer and the Mass, and He brings comfort and joy into our hearts. But what about the times when faith feels more like a habit? What do we do when we’re just going through the motions? Am I a Bad Catholic?
The first time I experienced a spiritual “dry spell,” I thought I was doing something wrong. No matter how long I prayed, or what I was praying about, I couldn’t feel God. It was like my words were bouncing off the ceiling and straight back at me. Sometimes, I felt like I had nothing to say at all. After a period of feeling consoled and joyful when I put myself in God’s presence, I was extremely upset. I thought I wasn’t a good Catholic. But the truth is, almost all of us will experience a period like this at some point in our spiritual lives. Mother Teresa famously went forty years without “feeling” God. Even the apostles had to ask Jesus how to pray! Not only does spiritual dryness not mean we’re bad Catholics, it can even be an opportunity for us to become more holy, more trusting, more loving. When there’s nothing enticing or exciting about prayer, and we still show up for Jesus… that’s when our faith goes from something we want to get from God to something we want to give to Him.
Love is an Action Word. It’s temping to think that if we just go through the motions of faith, we don’t really love God. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said the words of the Rosary without really meditating on them, or the Masses I’ve sat through struggling to keep my eyes open as I knelt, stood, sat, and knelt again. Does this mean my love for God is fake?
Just the opposite, actually! In modern culture, love is usually represented as “good feelings” we have towards another person. If those feelings go away and we keep acting like we have a relationship with that person, they may feel betrayed because we don’t “really love them.” With God, it’s different. Love isn’t something we feel, it’s something we do.
In French, the phrase “je t’aime” means “I love you.” But a more accurate translation would be “I do love to you.” The word “te” is only used when we are doing an action to somebody else. So in our relationship with God, it’s not our feelings that matter, it’s our actions. A Mass you sit through struggling to pay attention as you wrestle with your outside distractions, or a prayer you pray even though you question whether He’s even listening, is the one of the greatest acts of love you can give to Him.
Walking with Jesus we are all called to be saints. This doesn’t mean we’ll always feel close to Jesus, or we’ll always understand what He’s doing in our lives. In fact, more often than not it means blindly trusting Him even when He feels far away and we have no idea what He wants! But as people who love Him, we choose to walk with Him even if our hearts and minds may be filled with doubts. When we know who Jesus is, it’s a lot easier to do this. Think of the truths about Him we learn from Scripture: He is the way, the truth, and the life; He is the Good Shepherd; He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And think of the number of times He has shown up for His people even if they felt far away from Him.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that even Jesus felt far from God the Father. Before His crucifixion, He asked God to let this cup pass from Him. But even in those moments of fear and loneliness, Jesus prayed that God’s will, and not His own, would be done. He understands the desolation we sometimes face in our spiritual lives. If you ask, He will help you pray the same prayer He prayed in Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours be done.”