Friday, November 18, 2005

What carries you over unbelief?

Is it beauty? Is it truth? Is it the people? The art? The music?

What carries you past the time when you are kneeling in church, and suddenly everything looks futile, worn, a little tacky. "This can't be really TRUE, can it? Is Jesus around now? Can He hear me? Why do people bother? Does it make any difference if I'm here, or if I believe?"

I'm not talking about those little niggles of doubt, when someone in the Church gets a little too far over the line into Mariolatry, or yaws the other way and insists that the miracle of the loaves and fishes is that "Jesus convinced everyone to share their lunches." Those just send a momentary little frisson of discomfort and embarassment up my spine, and are gone, since I have gathered enough information to understand their human error, sympathize and continue with my faith undamaged, if a little amused.

I mean those times when you're praying your heart out. You're listening to the Gospel with every ounce of your attention, and there opens in front of you a future of similar effort and straining, for what?

Last night I went to a special prayer service at my church. It was a first of its kind for us, involving some decoration, music and prayer styles that are new for my parish (it's the first time I've seen hands raised and modest bashful suburban swaying in prayer in the pews in which I spend a lot of time). It was actually quite beautiful, in a homely sort of way. The music had some rough edges, the hems on the draping around the special altar setting were a little unraveled and didn't meet the floor evenly. Somebody in charge believed that if candles are nice, a LOT of candles are even better. The reader went too fast and shrugged her shoulders whenever she lost her place. The congregation didn't quite know what to do when, although all were willing to give it a good honest try.

I kept noticing the deficiencies, not in a critical way, but more in a clinical one. Resolving to keep my mind focused on the worthy reason for the service, I was still overtaken by the human reality of the middle-grade results. Part of my mind got busy solving all the problems, and I had graceful and economical solutions for every one, which didn't help me get un-distracted. Old helpful me....

But, thank the Lord, after the Blessed Sacrament was placed upon the altar, one of the priests began to pray, in spontaneous prayer, not rehearsed, but in his normal conversational cadence. It was heartfelt, aching with emotion, torn with truth. It was love, naked love, for Love. It was how any man would talk to one he greatly and tenderly loved. Oh. Oh.

Lord, thank you for the gift of Your Beauty. I can't stop seeing the rust and dents and dings of the world, (hell, my doors are dinged up pretty good, too), but Your Beauty comes right through them, permeates them, bursts forth from them. When I first slouched back to You, I was carried away and along by the Beauty of the logic of faith, the way everything fits and hangs together. Last night, and at a lot of cold dark morning Masses, it's Your Beauty now that pulls me forward, by the small gold and flame of the altar, the dignity of careful love by the priests, lecters and servers, the quiet of deep emotion and reverence in your people. Nowhere else in the world is that Beauty found, nothing else in the world can contain it.

What carries you guys over when you hit that flat part of faith, that featureless part of the road of worship and belief?


alicia said...

sometimes, it is strictly an intellectual assent to faith. It can become an act of the will, and then eventually God will grant those moments of grace.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the moments of grace I receive give me the strength to carry on through the doubt and desert periods.

Belief and Love are both verbs. They are action words. They both contain an aspect of "I commit" myself to them.

Those of us who are married know that the love of marriage is not always gushy and emotional. There are desert periods in it. I may say "I may not love what you are doing, how you are behaving, that little thing you are doing that drives me bonkers BUT I Love you. I re-commit my love to you." It is my daily decision, my choice to love my wife. I love her, Imperfections and all. Sometimes the very things I see as imperfections are simply how I chose to view them at that instant (or for years!).

For my periods of unbelief, I must get past my individual pride and self-centeredness, to the simple statement of "I believe". Lord, I do not understand but nevertheless I believe. Remember the prayer "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" At some points in my life I would have said, "that is too simple, too goofy, there has to be more!"

I have seen so many other places in my life where the simple things do matter. They matter greatly!

God chose to believe in is. He gave us life. We should return the favor and believe in him.

John Huntley

Therese Z said...

Strength and decision. These are wonderful. I wonder, though, what earthly lifelines you hold as you assent and believe?

Anonymous said...


For me there were and are times when all I can do is "tie a knot in the end of the rope and hang on".

My wife and I were talking of this earlier as we headed to teach confirmation students. The best earthly lifeline has been our marriage commitment. There have been times over 30 years when on any given day we may be the only "gospel" the other sees.

Believe me when I say that each of us can be on either side of that gospel. To say it bluntly each of has had times where we have had to be "long suffering" for each other. At times we call each other to responsibility. We understand that neither of us is flawless. We also know that marriage is our primary sacrament.

Our society places too little value on the concept of duty. The duty to attend Mass on Sundays and Holydays can be of greater value than most are willing to credit it with. We are present to hear the healing and nourishing word of God. We are there to receive the graces present in the Eucharist. We have made a statement in simply meeting the obilgation. "Here I am Lord". We may not recognize the graces that we are given. They are there!

If we have children we are setting a proper and deeply abiding example for them when we attend mass (we have always taken them with us). Our example shows them that it is important to keep our obligations. It shows them what we truly value.

Grace at meals is also something we have held onto.

Our understanding changes over time. Our commitments and our obligations have changed over time.

Music has been a lifeline. We were active in our parish choir when we were first married. I was brought back to singing by the choice of our second son to join the men & boy's choir. I've been active for nearly twenty years since then. (three parishes in three states over that time!)

I have to say that I do NOT break out in hives at the names Hagen, Hass or Hurd. I do miss the Gregorian Chant of my youth. But, the contemporary music can be sung in a reverent manner. I cannot finish "Shepherd me O God". I refer to it as my "Earthquake song". (The Northridge Quake)

For me at least, music is prayer. If you ever notice that a small group choir (say for example 4-5 men) is not looking at each other as they are singing, it may be that they are on the verge of tears and if one sees another's tears, the song will end abruptly.

Once again, duty is not a bad word. Think of Mother Theresa's quote: "I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness."

John Huntley

Therese Z said...

Beautiful. Especially about the small choir.

TS said...

I try to remind myself of a couple things. One is the (bad) example of the Israelites out in the desert with Moses, whining and complaining. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" [Exodus 14:11-12]

And also I try to recall things like how the scoffers said to Christ, "if you are the Christ, come down off that cross". Sort of serves as an example not to ask for a power display from God but instead to seek his will.

~pen~ said...

therese, this is wonderful and when i have more than one minute, i would like to respond...

Tom McMahon said...

One of my best friends whom I had lost track of -- that's another story -- had died, unbeknownst to me. A couple days later, just as I was drifting off to sleep, there's a Bright Flash, I'm lifted up into a sitting position, and I blurt out my friend's name. I hadn't been in contact with this friend for about ten years.

There's not a day that goes by that I don't reflect upon this, and try to pass along this kind of Love.



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