For several weeks now, I’ve been bringing my notebook with me to Sunday mass. I’d been thinking about taking my notebook along for the last few months, as I’ve made an extra effort to listen—really listen—to the readings and homily.
I’m not sure if I’m allowed to bring a notebook—to my knowledge, I’ve never seen another person break out their Moleskine during mass—but since I’ve been taking notes, I’ve found myself engaged during mass in a way I haven’t been in some time.
I went to parochial school through the 8th grade. My parents are devout Catholics, as are all my family members throughout space and time. Although my husband and I send our boys to public school, they also go to PREP—what we used to call CCD—classes every Tuesday. And like their vaccinations, the boys are up to date on all their sacraments.
Although I check off the “Roman Catholic” box on any demographic questionnaire, my own relationship with the church has been distant, if not at times estranged. When I was growing up, going to weekly mass—plus first Fridays and Monday night novenas—were exercises in patience and struggles in concentration. As much as I tried to focus, I too often found my mind drifting elsewhere. Unfortunately, it didn’t get any easier as an adult, especially with what feels like an unending list of things-to-do and things-to-worry-about. Whatever relationship I had with God too often got pushed further and further down that to-do list.
That said, I’ve been drawn back to the church over the last year or so. Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with having children. But I think a lot of it also has to do with Pope Francis, especially after his visit to Philadelphia last year. With the Pope’s focus on inclusivity, of helping the poor, practicing humility, and forgiving versus judging, I started to reconsider my own relationship to the church. I started asking myself questions about my faith: where it came from, why I missed it. No matter how far I may have ever strayed, I’ve never doubted God’s existence. Whenever people tell me that they believe in people, not God, I don’t argue. I believe in people, too. But I also believe that there’s something at work bigger than us. Maybe it’s all those years of Catholic school education, but I never doubted God. Whatever my issues were, they were always with the church, the institution. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself.
Like many people I know, I’m struggling these days. Every time I read or listen to the news, I find myself wondering what’s happened to basic decency and empathy. When I see people giving into fear, families being torn apart, hate crimes on the rise, and bullying and intimidation everywhere, I find myself losing faith . . . in people, institutions, human progress. I try to remind myself of Martin Luther King, Jr’s insistence that the “moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” But honestly, it seems harder and harder to remember that, to believe that—to have faith in that.
So I’ve been taking notes during mass. And a funny thing happened… as I started to listen, really listen, I found myself leaving mass feeling a little bit better. And not because I had suddenly “found” God or rediscovered my faith, but because I just started to listen, really listen.
On the Sunday after the Muslim travel ban, after reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Father Leva reminded us of the necessity of seeing God in others, especially in the faces of those most vulnerable. Yes, I thought. And during the homily, our pastor then spoke of the need to value the lives of ALL who need our help, especially those who need us the most—and not only the unborn, but also the refugee, the elderly person at the end of his days, those on the margins of society for any reason . . . “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
The following Sunday, Deacon John reminded us of Mother Teresa’s advice to “do simple things with great love.” He asked us to think about how we can succeed in our faith goals, pointing out that success is built on discipline and courage—why should our faith goals be any different? “The opposite of courage today isn’t cowardice,” the deacon explained, “It’s conformity.” Or perhaps put another way, it’s complacency.
I don’t want to be complacent anymore. But if I’m being honest, I’m also not sure where I stand: What exactly does it mean to have faith? Is faith a belief in God? If I believe in God, do I have faith? Am I faithful person? If I recite the Prayer of the Faithful every Sunday, and I believe in its claims, does that constitute having faith?
“Faith is the antidote to anxiety,” our pastor shared on another Sunday morning. When we have faith in God, we can approach life’s problems not alone, but with His help. If isolation and loneliness are at the root of anxiety, our burdens—and there are often many—can be made lighter when we accept help from others. Shouldn’t that be the case with God, too? By sharing our burdens with God, through prayer, we open ourselves up to His help, to His compassion.
Couldn’t we all use a little more compassion? And couldn’t we all show a little more compassion, too?
I don’t know where all this is going. Am I just seeking out comfort in these trying times? Am I just being as fair-weathered as some fans are with their football teams? I’ve never really thought of being religious as a big part of my identity, and up until now, I’d been okay with that. I’d seen, after all, too many times how religion could be subverted and manipulated to harm others, to put others down. And I know that no single religious denomination, no church, has a monopoly on the things that really matter—kindness, decency, respect, tolerance, compassion. These are human values. I believe that love is love, and that we have an obligation, as human beings, to take care of each other.
During his homily today, Deacon JT stood and played his guitar. “Please help me find my way back home,” he sang. It was a prayer of seeking, of longing. His song, like all prayers, sought to connect with something, someone, bigger than ourselves. And maybe that’s what I’ve also been looking for.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.