When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Matthew 26:40-41
I’ve had a version of the following conversation countless times, including twice in the last week: I don’t get anything out of Mass. I’ve heard it from parishioners and strangers: I’m not learning anything. I’m just going through the motions. I’ve heard it from family and friends: I don’t any feel joy or peace. I don’t feel fulfilled.
These conversations resonate with me because I’ve heard their echo over the years in the hollow around my own heart: I want to love the Mass, but I’m not like those people. I can’t pray like that.
It is a strange sort of pride that insists that our problems are not like anyone else’s—in this case, that we alone struggle with distraction, temptation, and doubt. We often cling to our weaknesses like a badge of honor, insisting, “For me, it’s different…you don’t understand.” I have come to believe that this is from the Enemy—his subtle deception to help us justify ourselves as the exception to the rule and lead us, degree by degree, away from God. The Devil is cunning and loves distraction as much as we do, so when our minds wander, he seizes the opportunity to tell us we’re not worthy of our call or that we need something more.
Couple the Devil’s taste for stray minds (a fitting appetizer for an entrée of lost souls) with our own misperceptions of what the Mass is, and we are ripe for falling away from our “Sunday obligation.” If we see Mass simply as an obligation, it becomes dry and stale, just another item on the weekend’s long list of To-Dos. If we see Mass as all about us—as weekly affirmation, intellectual nourishment, a spiritual workout, or wholesome entertainment—we will eventually be left cold when it doesn’t leave us fat, flush, and smiling.
But the Mass is not these things—at least not primarily. The Mass is where we come, once a week at least, to give God his due: our love and praise for literally everything we have in this world. We are asked by His Church to do this each Sunday and a handful of special feast days throughout the year. We are asked to spend about an hour a week to thank God for life, family, friends, the beauty of the created world around us, good food and drink, a warm house on a cold night, the breaking dawn, our next breath…
So we come to His house; we sit, kneel, stand, and struggle to stay in the moment, to pray and praise and give thanks. We fight distraction, and occasionally we win. And then, at about the 45 minute mark, instead of simply receiving our praise as His due, God gives us His very substance, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist—as if He hadn’t given us enough already!
This is how it occurs to me now: I struggle to spend an hour a week focused on giving thanks and praise to God for everything I have and will have in this world, and before I’m even finished, He pours His whole self out—again—for me.
If I leave this exchange feeling cheated, my heart is not yet in the right place.
The truth is that our hearts aren’t in the right place. They are fallen, fleshy things, slightly off-kilter and left of center, fluttering over temporary pleasure and not yet conformed to Christ. But that’s okay, because the sacraments, particularly, of Confession and Communion, give us the grace we need to continue to reshape ourselves as we were created, in the image of God. All we need is to persist.
I have said before that if people really understood Who was present on the altar and in the Confessional, in the monstrance or the tabernacle, nothing would keep them from coming to the church. I believe this, and yet I struggle to see Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, or in our holy priests, or in my neighbor. I may look like one of those devout souls who are in communion with the heavenly host, praising God during the liturgy each Sunday, but my thoughts turn to my kids and yours, the whispering teens, the appearance of others, Sunday brunch, the budget, the time.
And then I realize that Father has already said, “This is my body,” and my eyes open upon the elevated host. I hear the words of Jesus when He finds his disciples asleep in Gethsemane: “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” And I feel unworthy of being His disciple—an uncomfortable feeling in the moments before Holy Communion. I gaze at the Eucharist in Father’s hands and pray, “Lord, I believe—help my unbelief.”
Alone in ourselves at the Mass, in the midst of so much quiet and so many distractions, it can be difficult to seek and to find God, even when He is so near at hand. As a friend and fellow parishioner puts it: “If you only knew the drama playing out, not only on the altar, but in your very heart and soul! This is the moment you need God the most, in this insidious serenity of Mass, with your defenses lowered.”
And in this moment, He is closest at hand. St. John of the Cross writes, “If a person is seeking God, so much more is her Beloved seeking her.” Consider that for a moment. When we turn our gaze toward God, He is there, gazing upon us. When we seek Him, He finds us. And when we return our attention to Christ during the Mass, His response is not anger or jealousy, but the response of a bridegroom to His bride: “At last!”
What more could we ask for from the Mass?
And yet we still sometimes feel unfulfilled. One reason may be that we attend Mass, then think: Is that all there is? Of course it’s not. If we feast on the richest foods, then sit idly week after week, we grow comfortable, complacent, and ultimately, fat and unhealthy. The same is true spiritually: we cannot gorge ourselves on the love of God and then sit idly. We are not Christian only on the day of rest. The other six days we are called to work, to be fruitful. The Mass strengthens us to do God’s work in the world—to “go and make disciples of all nations,” as Jesus commissioned us.
But even when we do this work, we may still feel dissatisfied. St. Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We are made for God, and we long to be with Him. He gives us so much, but He promises so much more. May we persevere in faith and be made worthy of that promise!