This particular thought I'm going to write about is one that's been simmering inside my head for a few months, if not years. With a little basting from Father Larry Richards and some seasoning from reading here, there and everywhere, I now have a nice reduction that I hope is ready to be served up.
Meelyn, Aisling and I have been listening to a six-tape series by Father Larry called "How to Get More Out of..." The series progresses through "How to Get More Out of Prayer" and "How to Get More Out of Reading the Bible" and they're all very, very good. But my favorite, the one I've listened to several times, is "How to Get More Out of Mass."
In this cassette, Fr. Larry propounds an idea that struck me like a tenderizing mallet on a tough chicken breast (as you see, I am determined to carry this cooking metaphor through to the very end). Here's what he said, and this is a thought that completely contradicts the very essence of twenty-first century American Christianity. Savor it for a moment:
We do not go to church to be fed or ministered to or to get something. We go to church to give.
This struck me funny, seeing as how the message on that cassette is titled "How to Get More Out of Mass," but Fr. Larry is very good at 'splaining things, just as succinct and funny as Julia Child is in teaching people how to flip a potato pancake (and here I am with the cooking again.)
But it also struck me funny in the not-a-ha-ha-kind-of-way because this whole concept is one of the main reasons why I was so drawn to the Catholic Church: this constant and fervid need of American Christians to go to church and be entertained. It seems that we've lost our ability to just sit still and listen to Him. Now we have full-on rock bands up at the front of church to engage us in worship choruses, some of which are so self-congratulatory (the choruses, not the bands)that they just make me want to fall to the floor and chew the carpet. We have Power Point presentations to display the lyrics of those choruses set against a background of nature's glory or whatever. And special performing singers. Or maybe dancers who swirl ribbons around their heads for the glory of God.
And then we have churches -- I suppose they're churches, although they strongly test my credulity -- with coffee bars where you can sit on a high stool and drink a latte and have a pastry while watching the pastor on a big plasma screen mounted above the espresso machine. Or "living rooms," just like at home only right there at the church, where you can lounge on a sofa or in a recliner and let the kiddies play on the floor while Mom and Dad watch the pastor's televised sermon. You don't even have to get dressed -- come in your jammies.
See, all this, in my opinion, is what happens when people think that going to church on Sunday is all about the getting. And once we start getting some, all we want is more. If your church used to get by on piano music ten years ago, then that's old, dull stuff and it's now time to add some drums and electric guitars. If your church used to rely on old-fashioned hymnals so that people would know the words of the songs, well, that was okay for the olden times, but not for now when the balcony where the organ used to be is now devoted to techies seated behind computers and a huge sound board and video equipment.
And to get people to come to your church, you have to have all the newest stuff, stuff the other churches don't have. You have to fill up every single second with sound, because dead air is very boring. Church is an event, a happening, as lively and colorful as a three-ring circus and it just depresses me to no end. Because who is this all for, all this stuff? Us? Or Him?
Here's what Fr. Larry said, paraphrased: "It drives me crazy when people tell me they're leaving the Catholic church because they come to Mass and they don't 'get anything out of it.' 'I just don't feel fed, Father,' they tell me. And I always want to say, 'Look, you selfish little pagans [Yes, he really did say that - SM], you don't come to church to get. You come to church to give.
"You come to church to focus your attention on God, to give Him an hour or however long Mass is at your parish. God is focused on you every minute of every day. If it weren't for Him giving to you, you would die right now. You can give Him an hour."
In short, Father Larry says, we need to take charge of seeking spiritual food in the same way we seek food-food as adults: we go after it. We plan our menus and make our lists and go to the grocery. We don't expect it to just fall into our mouths; that's what happens with infants. We are not supposed to be infants, expecting a church or a pastor to provide us with every spiritual need. We need to be looking to God to do that -- and if we truly do have a personal relationship with Jesus, we'll find it.
In American Christianity, this is a revolutionary idea, as unusual as the chocolate covered bacon at the State Fair last year. First of all, we are supposed to come to church to give? To focus our attention on Him instead of on ourselves? And secondly, we have a duty as grown up Christians who live on meat instead of milk (ref. Hebrews 5:12) to feed ourselves?
Strangely enough, Fr. Larry says, in the mysterious ways of God, our very act of focusing on Him at Mass means that we will be fed through His Word and through His flesh -- kind of like Emmaus, you know? Where those two disciples were walking along with Jesus and failing to recognize Him? Then He taught them from the scriptures and the light began to dawn -- or maybe I should say that their sauce began to thicken -- but they didn't KNOW Him until the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist. They were focused totally on Him and they were fed.
They didn't say, "Excuse me, this is all very interesting, but wouldn't it be better if we sang a few songs that feature the word 'I' about eleven hundred times in the verses and the chorus?"
So we need to exercise ourselves spiritually and seek out ways to nourish our spirits. Because that's what adult Christians should do. That's why He sent His Spirit, right? To guide us and teach us? We shouldn't just lie around starving with hollow eyes and sucked-in cheeks when there's a banquet sitting right in front of us, yet we're withering away because we're too lazy to pull a chair up to the table. And for heaven's sake, we should be adult enough that we don't have to rely on a choreographed performance with a cast of thousands, complete with muffins.
In this present time, Catholics have been so enormously blessed with an abundance -- a smörgåsbord -- of ways to feed our spirits. Our problem should be that we don't have enough hours in the day to keep stuffing ourselves with books and tapes and prayer and Bible studies and television programs, not complaining that Mass just doesn't get the job done. And the thing is, the more attentive we are to feeding ourselves, the more Mass will mean and the more your personal relationship with Him will grow; the more you focus on Jesus, the more He'll be there to feed you. We cannot outgive Him.
I was thinking this over and I came up with a list of ways that we can feed ourselves so that our inner selves, our spirits, will be completely full, like the kitchen pantry right before Christmas. I'm sure there are a thousand more ways that I didn't think of, but here's what I've got:
1. First of all, is there an opportunity to go to weekday Mass? It lasts for all of twenty-five minutes. The parishes in my neck of the woods stagger their Mass times so that some parishes have Mass at seven in the morning, some have them at 11:30 a.m. and others have them at 12:15. Then for the after-work crowd, Masses happen at 4:30, 5:00, 5:30.... There may well be a church near you where you could slip in and give yourself to Him.
And while you're at it, go to Confession. The Church recommends once a month. If you are carrying around a mortal sin, get your rear end in there ASAP. But you can confess venial sins too, you know. The graces available to you in confession can help you overcome those smaller faults and follies that plague you, by giving you the spiritual strength you need.
2. Bible reading is a fabulous option. You could get the daily Mass readings on Twitter, or you could read them online at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' website. You could also read them in a missalette such as Magnificat (and you'd get the prayers of the Divine Office with that). If you read the Bible using the daily readings as a program, you'll go through Cycles A, B, and C in three years. If you'd like to go a little faster and read through the Bible in one year, you could use this chart.
3. While we're on the subject of Bible reading, how about trying a Bible study? Jeff Cavins has a great one, or you could go to Agape Bible Study for the free in-depth lessons there, which use the Catechism of the Catholic Church (available online) and papal documents (also available online)to study Sacred Scripture. Or you could buy a single-chapter or theme Bible study (such as knowing the women of the Bible, or lessons on St. John's gospel) at a Catholic bookstore either near your home or online.
4. Prayer is an important consideration and we should all be doing that every day anyway. You could pray the rosary online at this site or you could download the Virtual Rosary onto your desktop. It's easy-peasy and wonderful to use. Or you could just do it like your Nana did and use your beads to pray, meditating on the Mysteries of Jesus' life.
You could also pray the Divine Office (also known as the Liturgy of the Hours) at Universalis or you could buy an actual Christian Prayer book and pray that way -- each prayer book comes with the current year's guide and there's always a leaflet inside that tells you how to order a guide for the following year.
5. You could listen to homilies and presentations of parish missions by people like the aforementioned Fr. Larry Richards or EWTN's wonderful Father John Corapi -- just click on that link to go to his website and there in that left hand column, you'll find a link titled "Browse by Topic" and that will take you to a page where you can find an item of interest and purchase either single talks on CD for around $10 or entire sets of DVD series teachings, such as his famous one on the Catechism, for about $250.
Many of my friends really enjoy Johnnette Benkovic, also from EWTN, who does a number of talks about the Catholic faith.
And here's a fun one that I'd like to try: Lighthouse Catholic Media has a CD of the Month Club with talks given by such luminaries as Father Larry Richards, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Scott Hahn, Matthew Arnold and other well-known speakers. Just click on the tab at the top of their Home page titled "Store" and it will show you all the excellent material they have available.
6. You can read books. Oh, the books! We are so blessed to have so many gifted Catholic writers today and the really nifty thing is that we still have the writings of so many who went before us. You can still read St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thérèse, St. John Bosco, St. John Vianney, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Louis de Montfort, St. Catherine of Siena....so many. While you're at it, don't forget the Early Church Fathers, the men who were taught by the Apostles. Read the Didache!
And then when you're done with all that and your spirit is so stuffed full. you don't think you can hold one more morsel of God's goodness without exploding, start on Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid, Jeff Cavins, Mark Shea, Jimmy Akin...there are so many.
(Maybe you could start a library at your parish. There's a thought.)
7. And then there are the websites. Try Catholic Exchange or Catholic Culture or Catholic Answers. Make one of them your home page. Read the articles. Find your interest. There are lots more: Just make sure you're at a website that is authentically Roman Catholic, know what I mean? If you're going to feed your spirit, you need to make sure you're feeding it with healthy food and not garbage.
8. If you're a cable or satellite subscriber, you'll probably be able to tune in to EWTN, which stands for Eternal Word Television Network. There is an abundance of programming there. Use your DVR or TiVo to watch programs at your convenience. I absolutely adore the International Rosary and we keep all four sets of Mysteries on our DVR all the time. Plus I really like Raymond Arroyo.
These are just the things I thought of off the top of my head. If you have more to add, please leave a comment for all of us.
What it all boils down to (which in the world of cooking is actually called a reduction) is this: If you are a Catholic today complaining about not being fed because your parish doesn't have a band and you feel your overworked priest is kind of grumpy about hearing people whine that Mass just isn't meeting their needs and you feel that you want to leave behind the reality of Jesus present in the Eucharist to go to some other church with their band and their Power Point and their mocha frappuccinos, well, you're just being a poophead.
Feed yourself. Allow Him to show you what tastes best. Savor the sacraments. Sample the saints. Taste some teaching tapes. Well, not literally, of course. You don't have to go out to dinner anywhere else; you couldn't hope to ever plumb the breadth and depth of the Catholic Church in three lifetimes, let alone the one you've been given.
And in all the savoring, the sampling and the tasting, you'll find that Jesus is giving more of Himself to you than you could have ever imagined, In Jesus' own words, recorded in St. Luke's gospel, "Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap." (Luke 6:38, NAB)
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