Consider a few examples of what one hears: “I attend Mass each week because I’m supposed to.” “I go to Mass, but it is so boring, uninteresting, and uninspiring.” “Why do I waste my time? I would rather be out hunting, or playing golf, or just sleeping in?” “I go to Mass, and try to listen to the readings, but I cannot even hear what is being read.” “The priest says the same old things week after week” “Why does Father say the prayers at Mass like a freight train? Does he even believe what he is saying?” “Is Mass really prayer at all, or just a kind of external show?” “How come the priest doesn’t tell more jokes and stories?” “My kids don’t get a thing out of Mass. The priest says nothing to them. He is so out of touch.” “Why should I go to Mass anymore?”
The underlying problems and concerns are serious, and need more attention than I can offer in a few paragraphs. For the time being, rather than tackle the whole problem of practicing one’s faith in Church today, I focus on a single part of the problem: On paying attention to the readings (and by extension, to the prayers) at Mass.
On paying attention to readings at Mass
How does one pay attention to readings at Mass, especially when they sound so familiar? How do you keep the readings from becoming stale--so stale that you really stop listening? So familiar, so often heard, so stale? What is one to do? Reminds me of the old song, “the thrill is gone,” and Loretta Lynn’s twanging voice lamenting, “the tingle has become a chill.”
My whole approach to Christian spirituality is not to lay down rules or even to quote church laws to people, but to keep encouraging men and women to seek God, to listen to the Spirit, to be radically honest with themselves before God. If one truly wants to love and to know God more, then that will happen, because “God is good,” and all good desires come from God.
What needs to happen, then, before listening to the readings at Mass, before entering into all of the prayers, is some honest self-examination during the week: Do I truly seek God? Do I want to do God’s will, or do I insist on my own way? What would God have me do with me life? What may God be saying to me, here and now? Why should I attend Mass? What do I want to “get out of it?” What do I have to give of myself when we gather for the Eucharist? Yes, I can give some money or some service, but how in truth do I give my heart? How do I “present myself a living sacrifice to God, wholly and acceptable” (Romans 12). What do I need to do so God can act more freely and completely in my soul, and in my life?
In my understanding of our Christian faith, such questions need to be active in one’s heart all of the time. Anyone who thinks that he or she “has arrived,” has “been saved,” or is already doing God’s will fully and faithfully is deceiving himself or herself. “If you think you stand, take heed lest you fall,” St. Paul tells the self-inflated Christians in Corinth. The spiritual life that is self-satisfied is not a spiritual life at all, but a fake, a pretending to be what one is not. As a part-time Catholic told me years ago, “I am a good and righteous man.” I thought, “This fellow is deceiving himself. I pity the woman he is living with, and says he wants to marry.”
As one comes to Mass, it is healthy to be aware of one’s spiritual needs, aware of one’s lack of faithfulness to God, aware of one’s smallness before the LORD, and admitting one’s personal short-comings or sins. And one should also come thanking God for another day to live and to serve, another chance to “arise and go to my Father.” The life of faith is lived between God and evil, so one must keep resolving to turn towards the living God as God is, not as you want God to be. One must desire to commune in truth with God, not in pretense and show. Don’t try to look “religious,” just be the man or woman you are in light of the Almighty. One must come to Mass desiring to hear God’s Word, and not merely have one’s opinions or beliefs reinforced, and surely not to live on in sleep. The real God is alive and active, never dull or stale; those who truly want God must seek to be alive, active, aware, attentive, awake, alert.
More particularly, how should one listen to the readings at Mass? To the extent possible, it is good to spend some time in silence before Mass begins. One should ask himself, “Why am I here? What can I give?” or similar questions. Still before Mass begins, I highly recommend that each person reads over the readings appointed for this day--or at a minimum, the Gospel for the day. And as one reads, he or she should allow some questions to surface: “What strikes me in this passage? What disturbs me about it? What do I not understand here? What might the LORD be saying to me in and through these words? Why are we reading this Gospel or Old Testament reading at Mass today? What is significant about it? What is really important here?” And so on. Question. Think. Do not just passively run your eyes over the words. Passive reading or passive hearing is a waste of time, a waste of mind. Use what God gives you: your mind, reason, questioning, spiritual struggles. As an example, if the Scriptures mention a healing, you may wonder, “Am I being healed? If so, of what illness? How can I surrender my spiritual, mental, physical illnesses and problems to the LORD?” Read actively, as a human being, not as a mushroom on a log.
After hearing the readings, you would do well to ask yourself, “What spoke to me? What did I hear? What do I need to ponder as Mass continues, and in my heart in the coming days. If I heard nothing at all, why not? Am I alive, or just going through the motions? LORD, speak, for your servant is listening.