About a year ago I decided that I wanted to make a stronger push into church life, and am proud to say now have a year’s worth of weekly Mass attendance under my belt.
Today is Pentecost, which marks the end of the Easter season. Though there are special Sunday Masses in between, the next big church season is Advent, which leads us into Christmas. That the church has its own seasons celebrating different aspects of Christianity’s story is part of the benefit of attending weekly Mass. Just as the seasons of nature give us, each in its turn, a special kind of stimulating experience, with particular weather patterns, plant and animal activity, so too do the church’s seasons contain each in their turn special modes of worship, ritual, and contemplation. You can enjoy the particulars of the season you are in the typical cycle: first the particulars are newly arrived and refreshing, then they lose some of these charms and the experience takes a bit of effort to appreciate or even endure, and then a new season is upon you to anticipate. You feel the encouragement of progress and completion, not merely individually but also with your community. Seasons, natural and ecclesiastical, envelop the whole community.
This, however, is a seasoned reflection, and not something that kept me going in the beginning. A year ago I felt both suffocated and exhausted, a new job had left me worn out, a new town had me closed up and feeling foreign, among other factors that left me feeling spiritually starved. So I started going to church for spiritual renewal, even though I have always had mixed feelings coming out of church. There is a good feeling to it, a sort of duty fulfilled, got in my workout at the gym sort of feeling. But there is also a bad feeling, an unsettling concern over the inevitable thought that this activity doesn’t leave me with any certainty in God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Christian religion, or any religion. I remember distinctly thinking a year ago that alcohol–something strong–should be served at the start of the Mass to make the experience less vexing, not just for me but in order to get more people to come in. I sort of still see a place for this idea.
But over time something changed in my perspective of the church experience. As I continued going week after week, I began to develop a sense of deserving to be there. I was comfortable where I sat. I started to know who the regulars were, and the regulars started to recognize me. I let go of a troubling assumption that I hadn’t realized was even in my mind — that deserving to be in church comes from your convictions and belief and devotion in everything that happens in church. This assumption, I now think, causes a lot of dissonance. Because you don’t buy in with everything that’s going on, you feel either like you are an impostor, an intruder, or some sort of mixed up person that hasn’t figured out yet where they belong. None of that is necessarily true. Church is a place where you are exposed to a ton of thought-provoking stuff. The right approach, in my opinion, is not to force yourself to submit to indoctrination, but to allow your gut feelings about things to be provoked by this external doctrine. It has a long, storied history, ages and ages of persistence in our civilization. Realize first that the other regular attenders are also provoked by it, and then you may realize the generations of people who set this whole religion up must also have been provoked, and that you’re all in a sense there figuring it out, helping each other endure, not just for endurance’s sake, but because a certain growth is being stimulated there, growth that is especially safe because it is taking place in such an extremely stable, wisely structured, and carefully refined environment. And its special because there is no obvious reason why anyone would for purely selfish reasons want to do this, yet as you look around, you see people (not all of them) that are spiritually exerting themselves.
The growth I mean here is not primarily about knowledge, but about inner peace, a training of the heart for love that can withstand the provocations we might receive from those we need to share that love with. It involves an awareness of our culpability for the wrongs and pains we see that could be made better through our own personal exertions, if only we would think to make them. The world needs more people with this inner peace, with a love that doesn’t evaporate amid the basic, habitual workings of our minds. We also need as individuals an inner peace that we clearly aren’t sufficiently attaining in the ways our culture haphazardly suggests we “cope with stress.” A peace I think is available in the weekly church service comes from the very agitations that keep many away from those services, but approached the right way, just as relaxation and strength follows a workout done the right way. But the keys are proper form and regularity, among other things that you find work for you.