In the past year, many Christian believers have been discouraged or warned away from attending Mass or their church services. In many places, the substitute of a “livestream” has been instituted. Instead of attending to the great event, you attend to pixels transmitting the event. I’ve wondered this year whether children now have the religious formation of watching their father’s incriminating email notifications occasionally interrupt the most sacred moment of their week. Although I suppose we are better off here in Yankeeland than in Ireland. There COVID has brought back the reign of Cromwell, as it is presently a criminal act to celebrate Mass publicly.
In any case, in this year of interruption and isolation from the normal routines of churchgoing, it is hard not to feel like a backslider. And in an age of secularism, it was already hard to merely “believe.” Not just in the sense philosopher Charles Taylor described in his mammoth book on the subject. There Taylor posited that we’ve been robbed of “naïve belief.” We are all — believer and skeptic alike — weighed down with the knowledge that others believe differently, and that we too could believe differently.
But it’s also hard to merely “believe” in another sense. Precisely because the religious and nonreligious divide is becoming so stark, it is harder to believe in any public way without also being burdened by a reputation for devoutness, spirituality, or piety.
If the culture is happy — perhaps happier — to furnish a man with a reputation for high morals and ideals, even if he spends Sunday mornings at brunch or bowling, it somehow becomes a double offense and a double fraud to go to church and fail to attend to the great mysteries of life while you’re there. And yet, week by week, in the pew or holding my unruly child in the vestibule, my thoughts fill up with the usual dissatisfactions of life, or the yard work undone, or envy of the cars other people drive to Mass, or envy of the number of children they have.
The failure to become truly devout is almost a recurring joke. Each summer, by surprise, the Gospel of the miraculous catch comes around in the readings. After Christ tells Peter to put his nets out into the deep, and they pull up a ton of fish, Peter comes on shore and falls on his knees, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And, my heart swells with shame and gratitude. And then, noticing that, my mind rebukes me with the memory that this maudlin sentimentalism is criticized by St. Francis de Sales in his work Introduction to the Devout Life:
Devotion does not consist in conscious sweetness and tender consolations, which move one to sighs and tears, and bring about a kind of agreeable, acceptable sense of self-satisfaction. No, my child, this is not one and the same as devotion, for you will find many persons who do experience these consolations, yet who, nevertheless, are evilminded, and consequently are devoid of all true Love of God, still more of all true devotion. When Saul was in pursuit of David, who fled from him into the wilderness of Engedi, he entered into a cave alone, wherein David and his followers were hidden; and David could easily have killed him, but he not only spared Saul’s life, he would not even frighten him; but, letting him depart quietly, hastened after the King, to affirm his innocence, and tell him how he had been at the mercy of his injured servant. Thereupon Saul testified to the softening of his heart by tender words, calling David his son, and exalting his generosity; lifting up his voice, he wept, and, foretelling David’s future greatness, besought him to deal kindly with Saul’s “seed after him.” What more could Saul have done? Yet for all this he had not changed his real mind, and continued to persecute David as bitterly as before. Just so there are many people who, while contemplating the Goodness of God, or the Passion of His Dear Son, feel an emotion which leads to sighs, tears, and very lively prayers and thanksgivings, so that it might fairly be supposed that their hearts were kindled by a true devotion; — but when put to the test, all this proves but as the passing showers of a hot summer, which splash down in large drops, but do not penetrate the soil, or make it to bring forth anything better than mushrooms. In like manner these tears and emotions do not really touch an evil heart, but are altogether fruitless; — inasmuch as in spite of them all those poor people would not renounce one farthing of ill-gotten gain, or one unholy affection; they would not suffer the slightest worldly inconvenience for the Sake of the Saviour over Whom they wept. So that their pious emotions may fairly be likened to spiritual fungi, — as not merely falling short of real devotion, but often being so many snares of the Enemy, who beguiles souls with these trivial consolations, so as to make them stop short, and rest satisfied therewith, instead of seeking after true solid devotion, which consists in a firm, resolute, ready, active will, prepared to do whatsoever is acceptable to God.
And yet, though I have not made myself truly devout, I cannot stop believing. I probably would have stopped, if I could. And the Holy Week liturgies become the great consolation and renewal of my year. For in them all the disappointments and miseries of a mediocre or even a failed Christian life are enfolded into the Passion itself.
On the night of Christ’s agony in the garden, His disciples, who were told to watch and pray, fall asleep. Peter, who had just vowed to die for Christ and had very nearly killed for Him, falls into paralyzing fear and denies his Master three times and weeps. In the liturgy my own parish priest or deacons will sing the words denying Christ and condemning him to death. The congregated parish, together with the choir, is assigned the part of the religious mob, calling for His death, and asking for the release of the murderous Barabbas who offers the political salvation we would prefer as a substitute to the real thing.
It is all the unexpected people who come through. Simeon of Cyrene would have been the innocent brunch-goer, and the Romans dragoon him into Christ’s Passion, giving him an honor every human on earth should have desired. It is the Roman soldier, a hired killer and oppressor, not the chief priest, who recognizes the Son of God. It is everyone who, in normal times, would marvel, or envy, or be simply confounded by the devotion of God’s people — His regular churchgoers — who prove themselves worthy. And it is the nominally devout who betray and deny and run away. Although we go to church to become holy, it is the liturgy itself which reveals us for what we really are in God’s sight.
And that, I must take as my consolation. It is the Christian belief that the liturgy is not just the actions of believers in a Church, but God’s action on us. And, that, whatever the condition of my mind and heart, this great action rescues me from that modern slipstream of the self-consciousness, even my own mediocre, suburban dad life. Because, if left only in my mind, I would lose myself entirely, a subject knowing himself only subjectively. But in the liturgy of the Church, if it is God’s action, He is objective reality, and I become known and recognized there. My toddler squirms and yawns in my arms, and my mind drifts from one triviality to another. I do not have “a firm, resolute, ready, active will, prepared to do whatsoever,” only the knowledge that I need Mercy for not having it, and His help to one day desire it, even if presently I fear such ready will would burn away everything I’ve spent my life building. But the bell rings, my knee bends, and my lips, despite everything, confess that the crucified man is My Lord and My God.