Dear Starving but Wanting to Stay,
There is a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien written to his son, to which I refer frequently because of Tolkien’s eminent reverence for the Eucharist; but Tolkien also gives his son a piece of advice that I think about often and find appropriate to share here:
“I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
Here I also recall Chapter 16 of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:
“In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires… In the second place, the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil. What he wants of the layman in church is an attitude which… is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise – does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going.”
I write coming out of a similar, but different, situation. I moved to a new city and found terrible music and sparse attendance at my new parish. I sat in the pew amid running children and students on their phones. I add that my old church in college had an incredible level of orthodoxy and provided extraordinary intellectual formation that fit in perfectly with the super Traddy congregation.
I thought to myself “I should never attend Mass here again. From now on I will travel to the Cathedral parish instead.”
It was at that exact moment that I was reprimanded by Our Lord.
‘Am I not still present here?’ (Answer: Yes)
‘Does any of this perceived irreverence take away from the fact that my passion, death, and resurrection are being recreated right here?’ (Answer: no)
‘If you were at a more “reverent” church, would these things change?’ (Answer: no. I would still have the same interior struggles).
The thing is, if my faith life is dependent on these things, something is wrong. I recalled the words of Tolkien to his son and I made a commitment to myself to become a regular parishioner.
Moving to this new city, with lapses in intellectual formation that I found scandalous, I actually realized that I left college with no concept of mysticism. Sure, I still groan a little when a response in Latin is mispronounced, and I definitely still cringe when ‘God Bless America’ is sung at the end of Mass; but I’ve also been routinely touched by the presence of the homeless at daily Mass, and the humility of parishioners acknowledging that they don’t know all the answers. Your situation could be very different than mine, but I think everyone reading this can relate to the truth that a shift in perspective can reveal amazing phenomena that were once overshadowed by preconceived ideas of how things ought to be.
The following are a few concrete resolutions that I made along the way:
An answer (to any question, really) that I have never liked hearing –but hear constantly– is to give thanks; be thankful for this opportunity to die to yourself in parish situations you find less-than-ideal. Giving thanks to Our Lord for the moments that confirm our humanity is one of the most mystical things we can experience.
To your question of how still to remain fed: how is your apostolate? Whom do you love in your parish community so desperately that you would be willing to take the next step in introducing Christ to your conversational life? Although you may not be in the position to ‘fix things,’ with degrees in theology and religious education, as well as the universal call to holiness conferred at your baptism, you have everything you could possibly need!
Luckily, there still remain slews upon slews of resources for spiritual growth that don’t involve your local parish: blogs like FemCatholic, of course, as well as Blessed Is She, among many others; meditations/podcasts broadcasted by the St. Josemaria Institute and Fr. Mike Schmitz, to name a few; and digital book clubs that keep people remotely accountable in their spiritual reading.
Lastly, situations like these are a great time to ask for intercession from the early Christians; recall St. Paul, and the Apostles evangelizing the entire world. Where did St. Paul receive his spiritual food? He had interactions with some apostles and early Christians, sure, but was not the bulk of his spiritually transmitted through only the Holy Spirit? Sticking to a reliable daily regimen of the Holy Rosary, Holy Mass, and Scriptural meditation will be instrumental in remaining satiated, especially when you understand that you must cling to these as if you had nothing else in the entire world.
Jacque is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. She spends most of her time in the chemistry laboratory, but is also enjoys hiking and biking. She often reminisces about growing up in a rural town while drinking her coffee black and quoting Tolkien always.
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