Catholicism: Day 1 – My First Mass and Spiritual Exercise

Today, I attended my first Mass.

Well, that’s not actually true. I’ve been to Mass before with a friend, but this is the first time I went alone.

One of the reasons I want to attend Mass every day is because it’s full of rituals that are hard to make sense of.

As I expected, many of the rituals don’t make any sense to me. I didn’t know when to repeat things or say things out loud, which hymns to sing, or when I was supposed to join hands with others in (which resulted in some awkward eye contact).

Dahlgren Chapel
Dahlgren Chapel over at Georgetown University

I spent most of the Mass just trying to blend in and not it make it obvious that I didn’t know what I was doing.

So much for my Stoic training about not caring what others think of me…

However, I was able to focus on the liturgical reading for the day and the priest’s homily, which was focused on a sermon Jesus gave to his disciples’ about following the 10 Commandments. Not only were they still required to follow them, they were supposed to be even stricter with themselves than the original commandments intended!



Here are Jesus’ words on adultery:

“You have heard that it was said,
You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you,
everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin,
tear it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna

Yes, you need to gauge your eye out if it’s causing you to lust after women that aren’t your wife. That is pretty hardcore, though I suspect we should not take it literally.

What I was even more impressed with was the priest’s homily, or interpretation of the reading. The fundamental lesson of the reading is that we shouldn’t follow rules just to follow rules, but that we should choose to follow rules in order to flourish as human beings.

It’s not just a matter of avoiding adultery because that would hurt your wife and get you in trouble, but because making a choice not to lust after other women will make you better.  You will be honoring your commitment to your wife and grow to love her even more.

The priest told the story of the Air Florida Flight 90 plane crash that happened in 1981 here in DC. The flight crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, and a bystander, who saw a passenger struggling in the freezing Potomac River, jumped in to save him. It was a heroic and selfless act.

The priest was a child at the time, but he remembered wondering what would compel someone to act so courageously.

As he grew older and reflected it on it over the course of his studies, he realized that it probably wasn’t some momentary burst of courage that caused him to risk his own life for another, it was the culmination of many years of being a good and caring and courageous person that compelled him to risk jump into the freezing river.

By making good choices and practicing good actions, you become good, honorable, and virtuous. Actions and choices dictate character, not the other way around.

The priest ended with the simple message of “choose well,” because your character grows from the choices you make and the actions you take.

This is a powerful message, and it is one that has been confirmed by modern research.

Power Poses

Amy Cuddy, a Harvard social psychologist, gave a TED talk about how practicing “power poses” can make you feel powerful. By forcing yourself to act powerfully, you become powerful. Scientists confirmed this by measuring the study’s participants’ testosterone and cortisol levels in their saliva before and after performing power poses. Testosterone levels rose and cortisol levels went down for those doing power poses.

Pretty cool stuff.

Kneeling: The Catholic Power Pose
Kneeling: The Catholic Power Pose

People love these lessons in the context of career enhancement romantic engagements. After I watched that TED Talk I started doing extra power poses in my office.

But, I haven’t put the effort into being a good person that I do into trivial career enhancing exercises.

On the way back from the gym today, a homeless man stopped me to tell me his story about how he lost his job of twenty years and asked if I could help him in some way.

I didn’t have any money on me because I don’t normally bring any with me to the gym, so I was unable to help him.

What I feel guilty about is not only that I didn’t have any money to give him, but that I was relieved that I didn’t have any money to give him! I was relieved I didn’t have to go through the mental burden of deciding whether or not to help the guy. I was relieved that immediate circumstances abdicated me of the responsibility to help him.

That’s pretty messed up. Instead of worrying about power poses, why don’t I figure out a consistent system for helping those less fortunate than myself?

The incident with the homeless man wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I hadn’t just come back from a Mass that talked about making good, everyday choices to build character.

If this had happened last week I just would have said, “sorry I don’t have any money,” and walked away. The lingering guilt is a new sensation.

The lingering guilt is probably a sign that I need to make better choices regarding these types of situations. Sure, I can probably just follow rules (not a bad thing), but if my goal is to love others and become more compassionate, it’s clear I need to take action to get there. I can’t just sit there and think about becoming more passionate.

Ugh, this Catholic guilt thing is hard.

This guy would have helped the homeless man.
This guy would have helped the homeless man.

Ignatian Spiritual Exercises: Day 1

Week 1 of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises is designed to help us understand God’s generosity and goodness and how far we fall short of God’s perfection.

The prayer for Day 1 asked me to pray on Isaiah 43:1-7 and to consider the questions “Who is God for me” and “How does God see me.”


The Isaiah passage that the exercise acts you to reflect on is an account of God speaking to Jacob, and telling him that he has nothing to fear, that he will protect him.

But now, thus says the LORD,

who created you, Jacob, and formed you, Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name: you are mine.

I love the verse, “I have called you by name: you are mine.” It’s poetic and humbling.

If you didn’t grow up with religion and you’ve been steeped in American individualist culture, it often feels like you are you own.

Individualism is liberating. It means you can influence your destiny, that you can empower yourself to accomplish the goals you want.

However, it can also be incredibly lonely.  I’ve bounced around from place to place and from job to job over the past few years and I often wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life. Every path I choose seems to be the correct one at the time, but after going down that path for a little while, it stops making sense, and you’re back at square one.

To have someone else take responsibility for you, or at least, feel vested in your success, is a big relief.

Who is God to Me?

This is a tough one. On the surface, the question appears to assume that I believe that God exists (which I’m not sure of). But when I think about it, I recall times when I feel moved or times when I feel moments of transcendence. It just feels like something divine exists.

During this exercise, for some reason I thought about the film, The Blind Side.  It’s a true story of an affluent Christian family that adopts a 17-year old poor black child who grew up in terrible circumstance (mother was a drug addict, passed around to various foster homes, etc). The child, Michael Oher, eventually becomes a professional football player for the Baltimore Ravens.

It’s an incredible story, and I’m always touched by the generosity and goodness the family demonstrated when they took in a poor black kid to be a part of their family. That goodness feels like God.

I also thought about the moments when I was traveling and stopped to observe the natural beauty around me and just felt….at peace. I’ve felt this in many different places where there is natural beauty and it really does feel like something transcendent is working through you.

It turns out I’m not the only one to view God as something in nature.

On the Ignatian Spirituality website, there is a section called “Picturing God” where people submit a photo of something that represents God to them. There are many photos of nature included on the site.

It’s very difficult for me to imagine God as a being, as a “him,” as that bearded guy in the sky. But, I can relate to God as goodness, or that peaceful feelings that arises when you are observing natural beauty.

How does God see me?

This was a very tough question. It shut my brain down for a little while.  I eventually rebooted my brain and began to think of God conceptually. If he indeed was a being, he would know everyone’s true self.

Then I begin to think about how difficult it is to identify your true self and to let others see your true self.

Think about job interviews for example. When the interviewer asks you to “tell me about yourself,” you more than likely developed a case of diarrhea of the mouth. You don’t know where to begin.

If you prepare correctly, you will have a narrative that lines up neatly with the position you are applying to, but that is not the true self.

If anyone could truly know the entire you, your deepest thoughts and aspirations and fears, you’d feel incredibly vulnerable.

But if that person that knew your true self was benevolent and loved you, it would be incredibly comforting.

I’m not sure if there is a God that knows the “true Dale,” but the question does force you to think about what makes you, you.

Does this provide more clarity?

I hope the spiritual exercises will provide me with clarity. After Day 1, things seem hazier. I certainly feel like there is a higher goodness that could be God, and I like feeling that way. But, I’m not sure what my “true self” is.  I like the idea of a God that is invested in my success, but my head is not convinced.

It’s confusing, but I hope the process will give me some unique insights over the course of the next few weeks.