Monday, December 18, 2006

Going through the motions

Note: Once again I'm recycling an article I wrote a few years ago for a Christian (mostly Protestant-oriented) magazine I used to put together for The Greatest Newspaper in the Northwest™. Since it deals with ordinary time, I probably should have waited until Christmas was over and posted it then, but a blogfriend seems to be going through a rough patch, and I thought this might be the right time to bring it up. (You know who you are, brother.)

I dread the time between Christmas and Lent. The holidays are over. The carols have been replaced by the whines of children. The snow that was charming two months ago now leaves me snarling at my shovel. And my spiritual life reminds me of the feeling you get driving at three in the morning with nothing on the radio and seventeen cups of gas station coffee dissolving the lining of your stomach. On the church calendar, it’s called “Ordinary Time.” I can see why. And as soon as I say this, I feel a little guilty. A Christian isn’t supposed to feel this way.

Remember the songs we used to sing in Sunday School?

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”

“I have the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart!”

“Jesus wants me for a sunbeam!”

It starts early, this conditioning to feel happy. And it continues into adulthood. As mature Christians, we know intellectually that there will be spiritual ups and downs. Still, how often are we exhorted to be “on fire for God?” Not to “go through the motions?” And the oft-quoted “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?”

Bah. Nobody moved. I’m still here, and He’s still here, and how I feel at any given time has nothing to do with it. I’ll “go through the motions” as long as it takes, thank you. Every Christian has times like that. The important thing is to have motions to go through.

For a Catholic, it’s easy. You go to Mass, sing the songs, read the responses, and receive the Eucharist. The routine is mostly the same. As the Mass goes along, I find myself adding my mental commentary:

Priest: “The Lord be with you.”
Congregation: “And also with you.” (I could do this in my sleep. In fact, I think I might be.)
Priest: “Lift up your hearts.”
Congregation: “We lift them up to the Lord.” (Does drop-kicking it in the general direction of the altar count?)
Priest: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
Congregation: “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.” (The guy in front of me seems to be hygienically challenged. Hey, buddy, praise with your arms down, willya?)

And so it goes. If you’re not Catholic (or some other liturgical denomination), then it gets a little trickier. It’s kind of expected that you will have a “worship experience” at church, and you have to find a balance that will allow you to worship without feeling like a hypocrite. People tend to notice if you show up, glower at your hymnal for an hour or so, and go home without saying a word to anybody. Not the best witness, perhaps, but what can you do?

Well, you can pray. A lot. And remember that God hears you even when you mutter. You don’t have to be exuberant or interesting, just pray. Again, this is where having a set routine helps. My wife is a Secular Carmelite, so she prays the Divine Office regularly. (Translation for Protestant readers: the Secular Carmelites are sort of like a religious order, but without vows of celibacy and poverty. The Divine Office is a traditional series of prayers, mostly from the Psalms, that takes about 15 or 20 minutes twice a day.) I don’t have the self-discipline for that, but I can set myself a series of prayers and stick to it like gum to a theater seat. One “Our Father”, one “Glory Be”, repeat as needed. It’s not fancy, but it gets me through.

And for now, getting through is the name of the game. In a month or so, it’ll be Ash Wednesday, and the zeal will return. (Who but a Catholic gets fired up over penitence and self-denial? Praise the Lord and pass the hair shirt!) Meanwhile, I keep remembering the words of Bob Dylan:
“And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn,
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on...”

...and on, and on and on. Our Father, Glory Be, Yadda yadda. World without end, amen. It’s a good thing the Lord knows how I feel even when I don’t feel it.

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