My first week of Catholicism was fascinating. I really enjoy the combination of going to Mass everyday and performing the Ignatian Spiritual exercises. The former offers a communal setting where I can have an expert (the priest) interpret key Christian moral lessons, and the latter offers opportunities for deep reflection.
Some thoughts when I look back at this week:
Prayer is weird, hard, and not what you think
The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are a series of guided prayers that ask you think about specific questions as they pertain to you and your relationship with God. Of course, if you don’t believe in God and don’t know what it means to have a relationship with him, the whole practice seems inaccessible.
When I did the prayers this week, I constantly wondered if I was doing it correctly. Would it work for me if I didn’t believe in God? Would a lightning bolt strike me dead if I didn’t do it right?
I was happy to learn that even aspiring Jesuits have this problem. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, writes that most people’s experience with prayer is the “petitionary prayer,” a type of prayer where you ask God for things you want. If you really want to win the lottery, you pray to God to shower you with good luck. If you want to ace a test, you ask God for knowledge.
When he moved past petitionary prayer, he found himself struggling with some of the same issues I did.
Even with all this time for contemplative prayer, for Mass and for the examen, and even with all the encouragement from the novitiate staff, I began to feel frustrated about my spiritual “progress.” Perhaps because of the focus on prayer, I was anxious about any possible “failures” in my spiritual life.
And despite my positive experiences during the eight-day retreat at Campion Center, I began to worry in the novitiate: How would I know if I was praying well? Or praying at all? How would I know if it wasn’t all in my head? How did I know if God “was communicating to me in prayer? What was the best way to pray? How did one go about praying?
All these confusing questions seemed to coalesce into one question about prayer: What is it?
This made me feel better about my own attempts at prayer.
While it is still difficult, I appreciate prayer as an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and to reflect on difficult questions. It has already lead to a few interesting insights about myself and my relationship with others, even though I struggle with the idea of God.
My first week of Catholicism has led to some very interesting insights, or “revelations” if I want to use more biblical terms.
- I realized how “defensive” Stoicism is. Stoicism’s primary goal is to help people maintain their tranquility; it teaches people how to guard against negative feelings or emotions using reasons. Christianity, focuses much less on being “defensive” but rather on being open and loving regardless of the circumstances. It asks you to emulate the ways of Jesus Christ and to rely on God for help in doing so. Instead of the head, it relies much more on the heart.
- I realized how insecure I am. I really do not want to share any of my struggles with other people, mostly because I don’t want to appear weak of feel vulnerable. This became very clear to me when I contemplated the idea of going to Confession. I felt incredibly nervous just thinking about revealing all my misdeeds to a priest. I also faced some serious mental blocks when thinking about the question “How does God see you.” I did not want to think about how God saw me. This is certainly not a problem unique to me, but it made me realize how closed off I am to others, which is a shame.
- I’m very attracted to the idea of someone, divine being or otherwise, that can know and accept the entirety of me. I saw “know” because like I mentioned in point two, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable enough to open myself up completely to anyone. If a divine being could just know me without me having to actively reveal myself to him, it would be a great comfort. It’s also incredibly comforting to think this person or divine being could accept everything about you without judgment. This makes the idea of God very attractive; I don’t know if any human being has the ability accept another person completely and without judgment.
Not bad for a week’s work. I wonder how long I would have to see a therapist to get these same results.
The Universality of Catholicism
If you aren’t Christian or have had very little exposure to Catholicism, it seems inaccessible. The rituals, the talk about Jesus, the belief that you’re eating the “body and blood of Christ,” all seem like gibberish and maybe even a bit cult-like.
But, if you go to Mass and listen to the priest’s homily, you’ll realize how universal the lessons of Christianity are. It gives you a framework for accepting and dealing with suffering, how to have good relationships with others, and how to conduct yourself in a way that you’ll feel good about.
If you attend Mass and read the Bible with an open mind and interpret them metaphorically, there are tons of excellent takeaways that you can apply to your own life.
Not only are the lessons universal, the mode of delivery is universal.
For example, it is very easy to “forget” to think about your efforts to become a better person. Everyday life can be very distracting and it’s likely that after a long day at work, you don’t have the physical or mental stamina to think deep thoughts about morality.
The Church solved this problem by creating a very structured ritual (Mass), to re-energize you and remind you to strive to do better.
I’ve been attending a weekday Mass at 10 PM and I’m always a bit reluctant to go just because I’m very tired. But when I do go, I feel re-energized by the service and can’t help but feel inspired by the stories of Jesus Christ.
The Church has done an excellent job of studying human nature and finding ways to effectively deliver its message.
I’m very excited to see what happens in week 2.