I went to Mass Sunday with a life-long Catholic who hadn’t been to church in years. But grateful for some wonderful good luck, he decided to show up and give thanks. Plus, it was Easter.
But we weren’t out the door a minute before he said he felt nothing but disappointment. No sense of mystery or sacredness or spiritual uplift. Nothing. And this was a high quality Mass. Beautiful music. A good sermon from a young priest who joked about the church bursting at the seams, as churches do on Easter. Hundreds of new faces. The overflow crowd filled empty seats on the altar, in the choir loft, and lined both aisles from the rear of the church to the first pew. The priest said something like, “So glad to see you all today. You realize we do this exact same thing every Sunday – in case you’d like to come back.”
None of this impressed my lapsed Catholic friend. Out of gratitude, he’d given Mass another try. But no fireworks or earth shaking. He declared the experiment a failure, telling me, “I don’t know what you get out of this.”
I’ve heard this same refrain before from fed-up Catholic friends and family. Maybe you have, too. I hear it particularly at this time of year and more now that I’m writing for Crux, a Catholic website. The latter seems to bring out the need — among some, anyway — to detail everything they believe is wrong with the Catholic Church, as if that’s news to me, and even challenge my attendance.
Partly, I get it. The Church has faults galore. Many parishes (not mine, of course) offer cringe-worthy Masses with off-key singing and sermons so uninspired even Pope Francis felt compelled to tell priests to get with the program, homily-wise.
But I’m not sure where any Catholic gets the idea that one hour on Sunday could ever be enough to sustain a spiritual life; or that next to no effort could help build up faith. I don’t know why anyone thinks — when feeling that subtle attraction to, or yearning for, mystery — that ignoring all will somehow bring heavenly trumpets to their ears.
Islam tells Muslims to pray five times a day. Five times a day! Evangelicals focus on developing an intense, personal, and time-consuming relationship with Jesus Christ. And many are in church for hours and hours every week.
So are Catholics just gypped here on out-of-Mass advice?
“Seek and ye shall find” implies, at least to me, seeking with some perseverance. “Ask and you shall receive” does not say ask once, and give up. You may remember the Catholic Catechism warning, “Without prayer your faith will die.” St. Paul says to “pray without ceasing.” I know, that’s a bit tough. “Everyone needs half an hour of prayer each day,” says St. Francis de Sales, lowering the bar considerably. “Except,” he says, “ when we are busy. Then we need an hour.”
Okay, an hour, too, may seem like overload. Yet in my own inquiries into other people’s spiritual practices and prayer lives — mothers and fathers, lawyers, teachers, salesmen, and one semi-retired millionaire — I’ve learned of many who pray for an hour first thing every morning and say it’s the best hour of their day. Some do formal prayer (early daily Mass followed by a group Rosary). Some do informal prayer (read Scripture and then talk to God as they would to a spouse or a friend). Some do Christian Meditation or Centering Prayer. For seven months I’ve been in a group of about 40 people doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. We pray the exercises for 35 to 45 minutes a day. Some days nothing connects. Prayer is dry and filled with distractions. Other days it’s, well, just “wow.”
A retired grandfather told me he practices mindful prayer during his daily, 45-minute pre-dawn walk, “trying to lose the judgments.” A politician who’s a recovering alcoholic told me he silently repeats during the day a line from the “Our Father” and a variation on a line from his favorite, “The Serenity Prayer:” “Thy Will Be Done.” I read this week about a Boston Bruins hockey player who installed the Daily Bible Devotion app on his cell phone. It offers an AM thought, PM thought, Daily Trivia, and Bible Humor. The Gospels even offer a straight-to-the-point prayer for super-busy skeptics: “I believe,” writes St. Mark. “Help my disbelief.”
Far be it from me to lecture my dear disgruntled friend on Easter Sunday — or anybody else who tells me they’ve had it with Catholic politics or left the Church, as he did, because it leaves them cold. I’m a beginner myself on this path.
But if he or someone were to ask, sincerely, about coming back to the faith, I think I’d say: Spend some time, go a bit deeper, read the Gospels, read St. Paul, sit for a minute in silence. Then sit for two minutes. Then five, then more.
See what happens.
You’ll likely be surprised. I know I was.