Catholicism: Day 30 and Month 2 Wrap-Up

Hail Mary full of grace, my Catholic month is over!

To be truthful, I’m actually a little bummed it’s over. I benefited quite a bit from going to Mass and participating in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

Here’s my assessment of my Catholic month.

Love/Compassion

For my Catholic month, my goal was to become a more loving and compassionate person. Christianity is all about love so I thought it would be a reasonable goal.

It worked, just not in the way I thought it would.

During my first weeks of Catholic month, I ignored a homeless guy and felt incredibly guilty about it.

Those feelings went away, but during one of my prayers for the Ignatian Exercises, an overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me when I thought of the homeless guy and how lonely and helpless he must feel.

This feeling moved me so much that I felt compelled to volunteer for a local organization that is dedicated to ending homelessness.

I attended their orientation session and will be helping serve breakfast this coming Friday.

I have been thinking of volunteering somewhere for a long time now, but I never got around to it.

It only took 1 week of going Catholic to actually spur action.

God…I’m impressed.

I also picked up the habit of carrying dollar bills with me to give to the homeless when the opportunity arises. Simply being able to help in some small way has done wonders for alleviating the guilt I normally feel when I see the poor and homeless.

Catholic month certainly didn’t turn me into Mother Theresa, but it did inspire me to behave more compassionately to the homeless.

Clarity

My other goal for Catholic month was to attain some clarity in my life. The last few years of my life have been confusing. Not bad, just confusing. I hoped the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises could help me sort out what direction I’m supposed to be going in.

Here’s what the exercises revealed to me:

The need to do meaningful work

This revelation is not unique to me, of course. Everyone wants meaningful work. However, the exercises helped me understand that meaningful doesn’t necessarily mean prestigious.

I haven’t started yet, but I suspect volunteering with Miriam’s Kitchen will be meaningful. I won’t be doing anything particularly glamorous. I will be doing “mundane” work like prepping food, cleaning, etc.

But, the fact that it’s done in service to others will (hopefully) make the work seem more significant.

Instead of trying to force my day job to become more meaningful, the exercises helped me realize I need to seek meaning elsewhere.

The importance of The Ancient Wisdom Project

During my Stoicism month, I met with a Jesuit priest to discuss The Ancient Wisdom Project.

After I describe my project to him, he said,  “I wonder what God has planned for you.”

His comment blew me away.

This project felt like it came entirely from me. I came up with the idea and I have been doing all the work. It didn’t feel like God played any role in it.

Perhaps it was shocking because as an agnostic, I’m not used to thinking of God in such a concrete and real way.

Over the duration of my Catholic month, however, I have come to enjoy thinking of this project as part of  “God’s plan.”  I’m still not sure about the existence of God, but the project seems more significant if God is somehow involved.

As I became more immersed in Catholic month, I began interpreting what secular people would normally deem coincidences or serendipitous events as “help from God.”

For example, last week I was stressed because I didn’t have the logistics set up for my upcoming ancient wisdom month.

But, I was able to set up a meeting with a Judaism expert and within the span of a 45-minute conversation, he provided me with a list of rituals I could perform and guidance on how I could go about doing them. He also gave me a fat stack of books to read.

I did the work to set up the meeting, and the expert is one of my girlfriend’s co-workers, which made the connection less random, but I like the idea that God is providing resources and encouragement for my project.

Catholic month made the project more significant for me. It’s clear that this is a good idea and I should stick with it.

Clarity, in this case, came in the form of strengthening my commitment to an existing project.

Career

This part of my life is a confusing mess. For that reason, I didn’t expect 30 days of Catholicism to help in any significant way, but I was open to it.

The results were mixed.

I realized that I need a healthier attitude towards my day job. I constantly battle thoughts about how silly my job is and how it doesn’t contribute anything to the world.

I also realized how critical I am of my co-workers. Though they are all very pleasant people, I often mentally criticize the way they conduct their work, how they approach problems, etc.

This isn’t shocking news, but the exercises confirmed these are things I need to improve. In addition, the exercises also spurred me to start exploring other career fields.

This is not completely out of the ordinary; I suspect most people who are dissatisfied with their job explore other career options.

The one new criterion I am forced to consider, however, is how to best serve God.

This is a hard concept to grasp as an agnostic, but I loosely interpret that as “serving the greater good.”

This is important because in previous career explorations, I’d only think about what I wanted. Does the job pay enough? Will I like my co-workers? Will the work be boring?

But with the additional mandate of serving God, I’m forced to think in a new and less selfish way. Does this job help others? Will I develop skills that can help me make meaningful contributions to the world?

My self-interested desires haven’t gone away, but my Catholic month gave me something to think about as I consider my career options.

Other Observations

The Value of Mass

I didn’t make it to Mass every day, but I did attend about 20 services.

At first, it was incredibly strange. I clumsily mimicked everyone else at Mass who looked like they knew what they were doing.

By the end, I still didn’t know what I was doing, but I was catching on to the rhythm of the ritual.

What I loved most about Mass was the Bible reading and the homily, which served as moral reminders and thought exercises.

The priest may remind you that you should do your best to avoid the pursuit of wealth at the expense of your spiritual growth. He may also ask you to think about how flawed we are as human beings, why that’s ok, and how to live good lives despite our flaws.

These are important issues that aren’t discussed or studied in the day-to-day routine of ordinary life. Work distracts us with e-mails and unimportant but urgent demands. When we come home, the TV inundates us with messages to buy more junk.

Mass is refreshing because it gives you meaningful ideas to think about, ideas that will make your life richer.

Does the secular/modern world have a comparable ritual or institution? I doubt it.  You could argue TED talks sort of fills that role, but TED talks, while fascinating, do not offer a comprehensive philosophy to live by.

Talking with God

I am agnostic. Part of me wants to believe everything is random, that God doesn’t exist, that we’re just a bunch of primordial goo that evolved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

The other part of me wants to believe in God, to believe that there is something more important than the world we live in.

Going to Mass and doing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercise pushed me closer to “believing in God.”

One of the more interesting takeaways from Catholic month was the idea that God wants to be in a relationship with you. It is a strange concept to think about.

However, after a few weeks of doing the spiritual exercises, I found myself talking to God.

I’m not a crazy person (I don’t think so anyway). What I mean by this is I would pretend I was having a conversation with God. It was like I was asking a good friend for advice.

I didn’t hear any voices and I didn’t see any bushes catch on fire, but I found by pretending to speak to God, I developed a richer inner monologue.

Everyone has an inner monologue. You probably know it as “thinking.”

In a normal context, your inner monologue is just you, with all your flaws or weaknesses.

When you’re pretending to talk to God, that inner monologue starts to bounce ideas off your conception of God.

For example, you may ask God “What should I do with my life?” And then your inner monologue will start running through a list of “God approved” career fields and the arguments to justify those career fields.

“If I pursued this career, would I be in a better position to serve others?”

“Am I just attracted to this career for the money? Shouldn’t I be more detached?”

The closet secular equivalent to this exercise would be to contemplate what the person you most admire would do.

If you’re an aspiring non-fiction writer, perhaps you’d think, “Hmm, what would Malcolm Gladwell do in my situation?”

Or if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, “Would Steve Jobs continue to work at his day job and put up with his annoying boss?”

The problem with the secular exercises is that you are forced to contemplate what people would do. People are flawed, so it’s possible you may accidentally adopt their flaws, confusing them for virtues.

God, however, is perfect. Or at least, we should imagine him as perfect.

When incorporating God into your inner monologue, you start using a much higher standard for making decisions.

For example, if slapped by his enemy, God would turn the other cheek.

If Steve Jobs were slapped by his enemy, I’m not sure what he would do. Maybe he’d create a beautifully designed robot to punch his enemy in the face. Maybe he’d convince his enemy to start a company with him and then screw him out of stock options. The point, his reactions would be human, and likely to be imperfect.

It’s a bit difficult to explain, but the next time you need to make a decision, pretend you’re asking God what he would do, and imagine what he would say.

Replicating my Catholic Month

If you are looking to become more compassionate and to attain some clarity in your life, I don’t think you can go wrong with attending Mass and participating in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

  1. I suggest going to Mass almost every day if you can, and really pay attention to the readings and the homily. It might not make sense, but hopefully the priest will give a good homily that explains how you can apply the lessons to your own life.
  2. Do the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I used the book The Ignatian Adventure as my “instruction manual” for going through the exercises. It’ll give you guidelines for conducting your prayers. I did mine in my closet.
  3. Read The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. This is an easy to read book about the Jesuit perspective on….well…everything. He makes a lot of difficult Catholic and Jesuit concepts more digestible.

I can’t promise any specific results, but I think you’ll find that you start thinking about your life in a different way. You’ll start thinking about how you can model your life in a way that mimics the way Jesus lived. Even if you cringe a little a bit when you hear the word “Jesus,” hopefully you’ll be inspired by the story and adapt some of its lessons to fit your own life.

  • TheCatholicGiftShop

    Hello Dale, I really enjoyed reading this post, I came here from Cal Newton’s blog.

    I’d like to offer a few comments (if that is OK) and I apologize for the length!

    It is not your obligation to try and help every-single-person out there, including the homeless guy. Folks have to be open and receptive to your help as well. But a great inspiration, and got you thinking! The fact this event spurred some activity on your part is truly grace in action. That’s a good thing!

    “I wonder what God has planned for you” is an awesome and thought-provoking statement, isn’t it? I believe God does have something unique planned for all of us. It just doesn’t get delivered gift-wrapped with a bow upon your graduation from high school or college.

    About talking with God: God *is* all around us, we have to open our eyes and realize God sent his son to walk among us. He looked like us, talked like us, and we need to think Jesus could be living among our community today. His message to “love one another as you love yourself” still resonates today. God is all around us, often times, we just do not see Him.

    The value of Mass: as daily communicant (meaning, I attend mass each day), and also serving as a lector, a eucharistic minister and the Sacristan of my parish, I can tell you a LOT of folks hang onto the “old ways” of doing things at mass.

    Many of the “rituals” really do not matter. No one cares (there is no right way or wrong way) to genuflect before receiving the body of Christ, or to make the sign of the cross before, during, after communion, or even how to “properly” make the sign of peace. Or even a right or wrong way to make your reconciliation. Just the mere fact you are THERE is good enough. If folks just keep coming back, the message will sink in (I did not attend for many years).

    And you quickly understood and appreciated the true value of daily mass: the readings, the homily, along with gaining ideas that will make your life richer. And being in God’s presence. Good for you!

    A friend once said to me: “you know how good you feel walking out of mass on Sunday?” I thought for a moment and said, “sure!” He asked, “why do you only have to experience that feeling once a week? You don’t have to — there is mass every day.”

    I loved your explanation of how God wants a relationship with you. I believe that is accurate. I also believe God puts people deliberately in our lives: problem people, folks we can’t stand or have difficulty getting along with or understanding. This is a test, or an exercise in getting us to overlook our own shortcomings and learn to accept and love each other.

    Finally, I thought your explanation of raising your level of questions was absolutely beautiful. So very true. And I am not some 80 year-old geezer turned-holy-roller-you-better-get-your-butt-to-mass type. I own my own business, just turned 50, regular kind of guy looking for something more.

    It sounds to me you got quite a lot out of this exercise. It would be very worthwhile to share with others who claim they are Catholic, but yet rarely attend mass outside of Christmas and Easter. Sadly, there are a lot of folks (at one time, myself) who fall into that group.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comments.

      – In regards to not being obligated to help everyone, that’s something I understand intellectually. I credit Catholicism though, for getting me to think more about helping others at all. The balance, I imagine, is probably not being overwhelmed by guilt to the point of paralysis.

      – Re: God’s plan. Definitely a fascinating way of viewing the world. It forces a bit of humility when planning out your life course.

      – Re: Mass – Mass was definitely a wonderful experience. Even though the rituals didn’t appeal to me personally, there is probably still some value to them. But yes, the lessons and ideas proposed in Mass was the most fascinating and beneficial.

      – Re: God and relationships – My good Catholic friend was the one who exposed me to this idea. I think it’s a wonderful way to view life, as it forces you to pay attention and be open to experiences, both good and bad. Much healthier than simply viewing life experiences as just good or bath or neutral, it makes you think “what is my relationship to X event and how should I react according to the teachings of the Church.”

      – Re: I love to chat with people about their experiences with religion. It’s a complex relationship and I have a lot to learn about the process.

      Thank you again for the insightful comments and kind words.

      -Dale

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  • Josh

    Dale, I admire your honesty and sharing of this process. I am a 31 year old Catholic and love my faith; but I can appreciate the vulnerability it takes to share your inner experience of looking inside and seeking out an “other”…as an agnostic! props!

    I believe God is real and Jesus is God come to earth…and I pray he gives you the ability to see the truth of it and to experience the truth of it in deep prayer. If it’s not true; I hope we both find the truth; though I personally can’t realistically imagine something better that explains the darkness of the world along with the good.

    keep at it.

    p.s. A Lamp’s Supper by Dr. Scott Hahn has helped the Mass make more sense for me and lots of Catholics. 🙂