Ruth Burrows’s To Believe in Jesus is a book that will knock your socks off, written by a woman in her eighties who really knows what she’s talking about, a Carmelite, with long, long experience in the reality of prayer. I’ve been quoting from this in my homilies lately, and I highly, highly recommend it. It’s a short book, which I think is appealing, and simple, and direct, and yet at the same time, really, really powerful.
I want to quote from it again, a longer quote, in two parts.
The first part of the passage is a frank admission that prayer can be really hard–but in a good, even a necessary way:
There is nothing in the gospels to suggest that prayer is going to be delightful and satisfying. On the contrary, our Lord suggests the opposite. It is going to be hard to persevere and easy to grow faint.
We go before God as we are. This means we suffer ourselves. We accept feeling our total inadequacy, that we ‘can’t pray’, that our thoughts wander, that we are earthy and unspiritual, more interested in the breakfast to come than in God.
We thought we were doing well, we thought we were virtuous, we thought we were spiritual, and look at us now, after all these years. Our minds wander at prayer, we have no light, no comforting, reassuring feelings which tell us that everything is well with us and that God is pleased. On the contrary we feel the opposite. Instead of going forward—our own idea of going forward—we seem to be going backwards. We are humbled to the dust and in danger of packing up unless we know what trust in God means. And, of course, since this painful condition is the effect of God’s drawing near, faith and trust are infused. We are able to trust him.
In other words, our very struggles in prayer are the point—are the way to humility.
Not that prayer can’t be joyous and easeful and nourishing! Sometimes I think Burrows is too harsh, too strong, as if whenever I feel any satisfaction in my prayer life I must be wrong! No.
She’s just saying, don’t be discouraged when you’re also discouraged. That’s OK. It’s supposed to happen, too.
And then Burrows makes this really surprising move, at least for me—she takes this same logic and applies it to our experience of the Church and of the liturgy as it’s usually practiced. When I read this the first time I kind of gasped—I’d never thought of the Church like this before—I was taken aback–and I think of it this morning not to criticize or the embarrass the people who feel such dissatisfaction and even anguish when it comes to the the way the Church is, or to trivialize those feelings, or to say we have to stop having these feelings. I’m sharing it because it convicts me, points to me, helps me, challenges me, and I know it points to and challenges many, many of us.
It’s not that we have to accept a lot of crap. No. But there’s a call here, a deep call.
Anyway, here it is, with all praise and respect and appreciation for the faith and maturity and goodwill of the people in our parish:
If we really know what the mass is, we won’t be too disturbed when things are not to our liking. Tastes differ and it will be impossible to please everyone. After all, we are celebrating sacrifice and it would be rather odd if, in the name of offering sacrifice, we insisted on having things our way and showed annoyance and resentment when our wishes were not considered. It is of the essence of our surrender to God that we surrender to our neighbor too; it is largely, almost entirely in surrendering to our neighbor that we surrender to God. Therefore, at mass, consideration for our neighbor must have first place. It is essentially a communal act in which we must express our love and respect for our neighbor. The priest will have his idiosyncrasies, people will cough and blow their noses, children will fidget and cry, music, translations may be in poor taste. This is a human situation, this is the place to sacrifice.
The very annoyance of the communal celebration can become matter for self-sacrifice. To spend the time at mass with our feelings outraged and yet to go on willing to be patient and loving so as to please God, can mean that we are closely united to our Lord. We may feel must unsatisfactory, feel that we haven’t assisted well and been very distracted. All that is seeming. In God’s sight we have been there for him.
That phrase, “to spend the time at mass with our feelings outraged and yet to go on . . .,” applies to so many of you, and I admire that greatly. That’s what you’re doing. You’re sticking!
Am I even close to this level of detachment? Acceptance? Surrender? No. No.
I’m far, far away from it.
None of this is possible without grace, without Christ—the Christ who comes to us in the Eucharist, who is blessed, broken and given whatever the content of the homily or the style of worship, who humbled himself and entered into the messiness and tackiness of first century life and is present still, in ours, continually breaking through all our frustrations and anxieties and fears. Again and again. Nothing can change that, and nothing ever will.